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SERRA dim. SE´RBULA (πρίων), a saw. It is not improbable, as Virgil says (Georg. 1.144, a line rejected by some critics), that it was an invention which superseded the primitive use of wedges, but it is at any rate very ancient, and its origin is lost in the mythical ages, being attributed either to Daedalus (Plin. Nat. 7.188; Sen. Epist. 90), or to his nephew Perdix (Hyg. Fab. 274; Ovid, Ov. Met. 8.246) [CIRCINUS], also called Talos, who, having found the jaw of a serpent and divided a piece of wood with it, was led to imitate the teeth in iron (Diod. 4.76; Apollodor. 3.15). Hyginus and Isidore (Orig. 19.19) make the backbone of a fish the original pattern. In a bas-relief published by Winckelmann (Mon. Ined. ii. fig. 94), Daedalus is represented holding a saw approaching very closely in form to the Egyptian saw delineated below. The iron blade of the saw was called τάρσος in Greek (Opp. Hal. 5.201), lamina in Latin (Verg. G. 1.143); the teeth, ὀδόντες and dentes. The form of the larger saw used for cutting timber is seen in the woodcut below, which is taken from a miniature in the celebrated Dioscorides written at the beginning of the sixth century (Montfaucon, Pal. Graec. p. 203). It is of the kind which we call the frame-saw, because it is fixed in a rectangular frame. It was held by a workman (serrarius, Sen. Epist. [p. 2.651]57) at each end. The line was used to mark the timber in order to guide the saw (Sen. Epist. 90); and its movement was facilitated by driving wedges with a hammer between the planks (tenues tabulae) or rafters (trabes). (Corippus, de Laud. just. 4.45-48.) A similar representation of the use of the frame-saw is given in a painting found at Herculaneum, the operators being winged genii, as in this woodcut (Ant. d'Ercol. i. tav. 34); but in a bas-relief published by Micali (Ital. av. il Dom. dei Rom. tav. 49) the two sawyers wear tunics girt round the waist like that of the ship-builder in the woodcut under ASCIA The woodcut here introduced also shows the blade of the saw detached from its frame, with a ring at each end for fixing it in the frame, and exhibited on a tomb-stone published by Gruter.


On each side of the last-mentioned figure is represented a hand-saw adapted to be used by a single person. That on the left is from the same monument as the blade of the frame-saw; that on the right is the figure of an ancient Egyptian saw preserved in the British Museum. These saws (serrulae manubriatae) were used to divide the smaller objects. Some of them, called lupi, had a particular shape, by which they were adapted for amputating the branches of trees (Pallad. de Re Rust. 1.43). It is not unlikely that these were saws with a wide “set” to the teeth. The primitive saws, no doubt, had teeth running in the same line as the blade: it must have been an improvement to have what is called a “set,” i. e. the alternate teeth bent sideways in opposite directions to prevent the saw from getting jammed in its passage, and the lupi for sawing trees would naturally be improved by having a wide “set.” This is what Pliny (H. H. 16.227) must mean by alterna inclinatio.

Pliny (Plin. Nat. 36.159) mentions the use of the saw in the ancient Belgium for cutting white building-stone: some of the oolitic and cretaceous rocks are still treated in the same manner both in that part of the Continent and in the south of England. In this case Pliny must be understood to speak of a proper or toothed saw. The saw without teeth was then used, just as it is now, by the workers in marble, and the place of teeth was supplied, according to the hardness of the stone, either by emery or by various kinds of sand of inferior hardness (Plin. Nat. 36.51). In this manner the ancient artificers were able to cut slabs of the hardest rocks, which consequently were adapted to receive the highest polish, such as granite porphyry, lapis-lazuli, and amethyst. [MOLA; PARIES.] The serrula in Cic. Clu. 64, 180, with which the bottom of a chest was cut out, has given rise to some discussion. In a recent number of the Classical Review (Oct. 1889) Mr. Owen suggests that it was “a round saw, shaped like a tea-cup inverted, which worked on the bottom of the chest by means of a handle moving on the principle of a brace and bit.” A drawing of such a tool is given in the article referred to. We are assured by a working carpenter that, though nothing of the kind is known in the modern trade, it would act efficiently and also more silently than a saw drawn backwards and forwards, assuming that it has a pivot to work on; and moreover that it would not be difficult to make such an implement with a thin “ribbon” saw. We think, therefore, that the suggestion is plausible: otherwise there is no difficulty in imagining a hole first bored in the natural way with a centrebit [see TEREBRUM] and the piece cut out with a small saw, like our “key-hole” saw, with a thin end, toothed on both sides and capable of being turned round. Cicero was, of course, not describing anything that he had seen: the only necessary condition is that it should not be of the patterns in most ordinary use. (On the general subject, see Beckmann, Hist. of Inventions, 1.361; Blümner, Technologie, 2.216-221.)

[J.Y] [G.E.M]

hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius, 180
    • Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius, 64
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.246
    • Vergil, Georgics, 1.143
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 36.51
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 4.76
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