Altars were in antiquity so indispensable a part of the worship of the gods,
that it seemed impossible to conceive of the worship of the gods without
altars. Thus we have the amusing syllogism in Lucian, εἰ γὰρ εἰσὶ βωμοί, εἰσὶ καὶ θεοί: ἀλλὰ μὴν εἰσὶ βωμοὶ,
εἰσὶν ἄρα καὶ θεοί
100.51). In reference to the terms, βωμός.
properly signifies any elevation, and hence we find in Homer ἱερὸς βωμὸς,
but it afterwards came to be
applied to an elevation used for the worship of the gods, and hence an
were used in the limited sense of an
altar for burnt-offerings. In Latin ara
are often used without any
distinction, but properly ara
was lower than
the latter was erected in honour of
the superior gods, the former in honour of the inferior, heroes and
demigods. Thus we read in Virgil (Ecl.
5.65) : “
En quattuor aras:
Ecce duas tibi, Daphni; duas altaria Phoebo.
On the other hand, sacrifices were offered to the infernal gods, not upon
altars, but in cavities (scrobes, scrobiculi,
) dug in the ground. (Hom. Od. 10.25
; Festus, s. v. Altaria.)
As among the ancients almost every religious act was accompanied by
sacrifice, it. was often necessary to provide altars on the spur of the
occasion, and they were then constructed of earth, turf, or stones,
collected on the spot. (Verg. A. 12.118
Hor. Carm. 1.19.13
, 3.8, 4; Ov. Met. 4.753
) When the occasion was not
sudden, they were built with regular courses of masonry or brickwork, as is
clearly shown in several examples on the Column of Trajan at Rome. See the
left-hand figure in the woodcut annexed. The first deviation from this
absolute simplicity of form consisted in the addition of a base, and of a
corresponding projection at the top, the latter being intended to hold the
fire and the objects offered in sacrifice.
Altar (Column of Trajan).
These two parts are so common as to be almost uniform types of the form of an
altar, and will be found in all the figures inserted underneath. The cut
above shows the outline of an Etruscan
altar, of a more elaborate style, in contrast with the unadorned
primitive altar. [p. 1.158]
Altars were either square or round. The latter form, which was the less
common of the two, is exemplified in the above figures.
In later times altars were ornamented with festoons and garlands of flowers;
and that represented in the next cut shows the manner in which these
festoons were suspended. They
Bronze Altar. (British Museum.)
were also adorned with sculpture; and some were covered with the
works of the most celebrated artists of antiquity. If an altar was erected
before a statue of a god, it was always to be lower than the statue before
which it was placed (Vitr. 4.9
). Of this we have
an example in a medallion on the Arch of Constantine at Rome, representing
an altar erected before a statue of Apollo.
Altar, before a statue of Apollo. (Arch of Constantine.)
It was necessary that an altar should be built in the open air, in order that
the steam of the sacrifice might be wafted up to heaven, and it might be
built in any place, as on the side of a mountain, on the shore of the sea,
or in a sacred grove. But as the worship of the gods was in later times
chiefly connected with temples, altars became an indispensable part of the
latter; and though there could be altars without temples, there could hardly
be temples without altars. The altars of burnt-offerings, at which animal
sacrifices were presented, were erected before the temples (βωμοὶ πρόναοι,
Aesch. Supp. 494
), as shown in the woodcut
in the article ANTAE; but there were also altars
on which incense was burnt and bloodless sacrifices offered, within the
temple, and principally before the statue of the divinity to whom they were
dedicated. They were also erected against the walls of a house, as shown
under AEDICULA; and within the house itself, for
the purpose of family sacrifices to the Lares and Penates, in which case
they were placed as near. as possible to the impluvium.
All altars were places of refuge. The supplicants were considered as placing
themselves under the protection of the deities to whom the altars were
consecrated; and violence to the unfortunate, even to slaves and criminals,
in such circumstances, was regarded as violence towards the deities
themselves. It was also the practice among the Greeks to take solemn oaths
at altars, either taking hold of the altar or of the statue of the god.
Cicero (pro Balb.
5.12) expressly mentions this as a Greek
practice, (Comp. K. F. Hermann, Gottesdienst. Alterth.
§ 17, and § 22, n. 9.)