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IGNIARIA (πυρεῖα), fire-sticks. This contrivance of two specially adapted pieces of wood was one method known to the Greeks and Romans, and probably the most primitive, for producing fire. How far such a method takes us back in the history of civilisation, or how widely it is even now distributed among savage tribes, need not be discussed here: reference may be made to Tylor's Early Hist. of Mankind, p. 237; E. Reclus, in Enoycl. Brit. s. v. Fire, &c. Nor need we consider whether the idea was started, as Lucret. 5.199 seems to suggest, by a forest catching fire from friction (cf. Thuc. 2.77). By Greek and Roman authors it is clearly regarded as having originated in a rude state of life, and so πυρεῖα are appropriately made part of the contents of Philoctetes' cave (Soph. Phil. 36; it is pressing poetical accuracy too far to contend, as Hermann does, that the πυρεῖα there must be flints, because flints are mentioned in line 296): the invention is ascribed to Hermes (Hymn. ad Merc. 111). Virgil, however (Georg. 1.135), supposes the striking of flints to be the original method, and Pliny (Plin. Nat. 16.208) conceives the igniaria to have been adopted by scouts on a campaign, or shepherds in the field when flints were not to be obtained. It was probably because of its antiquity that it was the method prescribed for relighting the vestal fire, if by any negligence it went out (Fest. s. v. Ignis; VESTALES). In Greece the sacred fires seem to have been relighted from the sun's rays by means of concave mirrors (Plut. Num. 9).

But, however ancient, the use of igniaria was by no means obsolete in civilised times. “Fire,” says Seneca (Nat. Qu. 2.22), “is produced by man in two ways, either struck from a flint or by friction of two pieces of wood” (he omits the burning-glass); and we have elaborate instructions in Greek from Theophrastus, and in Latin from Pliny, as to the selection of wood and the nature of the instruments. It is convenient here to explain how these igniaria were formed, and also to notice briefly the other methods used. The πυρεῖα, or igniaria, consisted of the ἐσχάρα, a block of soft wood with a hollow in it, and the τρύπανον of hard wood, which was twirled round, like an auger, in the hollow of the ἐσχάρα. In Latin there were no distinctive names for the two parts, beyond “quod teritur” and “quod terit” (Plin. l.c.). For the ἐσχάρα, ivy was considered the best wood; for the τρύπανον, laurel; but holm-oak and some other woods also could be used, the olive being specially excepted (Theophr. 5.9, 6; Plin. Nat. 16.207). The sparks produced by this friction, just as those produced by striking the flint, were caught in shavings of wood or dry leaves and grass (Theophr. l.c.; Plin. ib. 208; Blümner, Technologie, 2.353).

The flint (which was preferred for general use when it could be obtained) appears generally as lapis, the word silex being used for any hard stone or rock, and by no means appropriated to flint. Pliny (36.138) gives pyrites as the name for the best fire-stone; it was struck either by a piece of iron or by another stone (cf. Verg. G. 1.135; Aen. 1.174, 6.6; Soph. Phil. 296). Lastly, the material used as tinder might be ignited by a burning-glass from the sun's rays (Plut. l.c.); but it is clear from its omission by Seneca that this was not an ordinary method.

It remains to explain the use of ramenta sulpurata, i.e. chips of wood smeared with sulphur (Mart. 10.3). It must not be supposed that these were, like lucifer matches, a substitute for the three methods described above. They were merely an improvement upon the simpler kind of tinder, to catch more quickly the spark which still had to be produced by one or other of these methods. This is clear from Plin. Nat. 36.138, where, speaking of the spark from the flint, he says, “quae excepta sulpure vel fungis aridis vel foliis dicto celerius praebet ignem;” and so Seneca, Nat. Qu. 1.1, 8 “apud nos quoque ramenta sulpure adspersa ignem ex intervallo trahunt.” From the context it might be supposed that Seneca meant these sulphured chips to be ignited by the sun, but from his expressions in the passage cited above (Nat. Qu. 2.22) it is clear that burning-glasses were not in common use. The effect of sulphur to make a fire spread quickly is noticed by Juv. 13.145. The process was much the same as that which prevailed up to the present century: the sparks obtained from the flint or from the igniaria fell on the fom<*>s or tinder; as this smouldered the heat ignited the sulphur, and so the ramenta caught fire: the matches, in fact, saved time and blowing. These sulpurata ramenta were provided by vendors of sulphur, who drove a double trade, joining broken glass with sulphur, hence called gregale sulpur (Stat. Silv. 1.6, 73; cf. Plin. Nat. 36.199), and also selling the sulphur matches, or exchanging them for broken glass, which would be sold again when they had mended it with their sulphur. Martial's “sulpurata merx” (12.57) may include mended glass as well as matches, but the “pallentia sulpurata” (1.41) are certainly the vellow sulpurata ramenta of 10.3, and not, as Mr. Simcox (on Juv. 5.48) supposes, the glassware mended with and discoloured by sulphur. (See Friedländer, ad loc.; Blümner, Technologie, 4.407; VITRUM).


hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Sophocles, Philoctetes, 36
    • Thucydides, Histories, 2.77
    • Sophocles, Philoctetes, 296
    • Vergil, Georgics, 1.135
    • Plutarch, Numa, 9
    • Statius, Silvae, 1.6
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.3
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