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ORICHAL´CUM (ὀρείχαλκος). During the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, and probably as early as the second century B.C., this word appears to have been used to indicate brass-i.e. an artificial alloy of copper and zinc. The chief extant objects made of this metallic compound are the sestertii and dupondii (sometimes known by coin-collectors as “first” and “second” brass coins) of Augustus and the earlier emperors. Of coins of this class Dr. Percy (Metallurgy, 1.521-523) quotes the following analyses:--(i.) Sestertius of Nero (Rome): Copper, 81.07; zinc, 17.81. (ii.) Dupondius of Vespasian (Rome): Copper, 81.97; zinc, 18.68. (iii.) Titus, brass coin (Rome): Copper, 83.04; zinc, 15.84. (iv.) Trajan (Greek Imperial coin of Caria): Copper, 77.590; zinc, 20.700. (v.) Hadrian, brass coin: Copper, 85.67; zinc, 10.85. (vi.) Caracalla (Greek Imperial, large size): Copper, 74.24; zinc, 14.42. Most of the above coins also contain small quantities of tin, lead, and iron. (Cp. Mommsen, Monn. rom. 3.37, 47; Lenormant, La Monnaie dans l'Ant. i. p. 202; Plin. Nat. 34.2, 4.) The coins of the Roman Republic--other than those in gold and silver--are, on the other hand, not of brass, but mainly an alloy of copper and tin, i. e. bronze.

Orichalcum, though not a costly metal, had the appearance of gold (Cic. de Off. 3.2. 3, 92); hence the mistaken orthography aurichalcum and the derivation from aurum, which are sometimes found (cp. Fest. 9, 4; Isid. 16.20, 3). Orichalcum is the Greek ὀρείχαλκος, apparently “copper found in the mountains.” The word ὀρείχαλκος first occurs in [Hom.] Hymn. in Ven. 9, where earrings of it are mentioned. It is also found in Hesiod, Sc. Herc. 122 ( “greaves” ); Plat. Critias, p. 114 E, p. 116 B (described as a metal no longer existent);--Ps.-Aristot. Mir. ausc. 58, p. 834 B, 22; 49, p. 834 A, 1; 62, p. 835 A, 9;--Callim. Lavacr. Pall. 19 ( “mirror” ); Apollon. 971-978, and Schol.; Strabo xiii. p.610; Anon. Peripl. m. Eryth. 6 (Müller, Geog. Gr. Min. i. p. 262); Paus. 2.37, 3; Hesychius, Photius, Suidas, s. v. ὀρείχαλκος; C. I. G. vol. i. p. 286; Ἀθήϝαιον (periodical), vii. (1879), p. 87, No. 2, line 24 f. (στλεγγὶ ὀρειχαλκίνη). For a discussion of the meaning of ὀρείχαλκος in individual passages, the reader must be referred to the commentaries and to the pages of Rossignol and Blümner. Generally, it may be said that by ὀρείχαλκος the Greek writers intended a bright metal resembling gold in appearance, and one of which the exact nature was uncertain or unknown to them. Probably in some instances a mixture (whether artificial or natural cannot be determined) of copper and zinc (i. e. brass) was indicated by the word.

In the Latin writers, from Plautus onwards, the word orichalcum is frequently found; generally, it would seem, with the meaning of brass. The chief passages are as follows:--Plaut. Curc. 1.3, 46 (202); Mil. 3.1, 69 (660); Pseud. 2.3, 22 (688); Cic. de Off. 3.2. 3, 92 ( “Si quis aurum vendens, orichalcum se putet vendere” ); Verg. A. 12.87 ( “Auro squalentem alboque orichalco Circumdat humeris” ). Blümner supposes this “white orichalcum” to have been an alloy, like prince's metal, and compares the χαλκὸς λευκὸς of Theoph. Fr. 4, 71; Etym. M. p. 630, 51; Tzetz. ad Hes. Scut. 122; Hor. A. P. 202 ( “Tibia non ut nunc orichalco vincta” ); Plin. Nat. 37.126; Stat. Theb. 10.660 (arms of orichalcum); Suet. Vitell. 5 ( “Proque auro et argentum stannum et aurichalcum supposuisse” ), &c.

(For copious references to ancient and modern writers on the subject, see Rossignol, Les Métaux dans l'Antiquité, Paris, 1863; and Blümner, Technologie, iv. p. 91; p. 192, note 4; and p. 193 ff.)

[W--K W--H.]

hide References (9 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (9):
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.37
    • Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 4.971
    • Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 4.978
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 12.87
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 34.2
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 34.4
    • Cicero, De Officiis, 3.2
    • Statius, Thebias, 10
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