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CISTA, CISTELLA (κίστη, κιστίς) was probably at first a wicker basket used for holding fruits and vegetables and for country purposes in general (Plin. Nat. 15.60; 16.209). These baskets were sometimes square (Col. 12.54), but more usually cylindrical. Afterwards cista came to mean a box or casket used for a variety of purposes, but mostly of a small size; thus distinguished from the area or chest, and rarely in the sense of capsa, a book-box (Juv. 3.206). A money-box might be so called (Cic. Ver. 3.85, § 197; Hor. 1 Ep. 17.54); in the former passage it is the private treasure of Verres himself, opposed to the fiscus of the province. In the Roman comitia the cista was the ballot-box into which the voters cast their tabellae (Plin. Nat. 33.31; Auctor ad Herenn. 1.12.21; Pseudo-Ascon. in Cic. Div. in Caecil. 7, p. 108, ed. Orelli). The form and material of the voters' cista, evidently of wicker or similar work, is represented in the annexed cut from a coin of the Cassia gens. In this sense the cista has often been confounded with the sitella, but the latter was the urn from

Cista, voting-basket. (From coin of Cassia Gens.)

which the names of the tribes or centuries were drawn out by lot. (Manutius, de Comitiis Romanis, 100.15, p. 527, ed. Graev.; E. Wunder, Dissertatio de discrimine verborum cistae et sitellae, in his Variae Lectiones, p. clviii.)

Another class of cistae, well known from [p. 1.440]vase-paintings and from a number of specimens in metal actually preserved, are the toilet-or jewel-cases of Italian ladies. These are mentioned especially in connexion with the children's trinkets, by which recognition is so often brought about in the ancient comedies (Plaut. Cistcll. 4.1, 3, and passim; Rud. 2.3, 60; Terent. Eun. 4.6, 15). In vase-paintings such cistae are often accompanied by other requisites for the toilet, mirrors, scent-bottles, &c., and thus leave no doubt as to the use for which they were intended. The material indicated is usually basket-work, as in the following specimen from Gerhard's Etruskische Spiegel (pl. 14.4).

These vases have been found mostly in Magna Graecia, more rarely in Greece Proper or in Etruria. The metal cistae, on the other hand, come almost exclusively from Praeneste, where they were produced on a large scale. The most beautiful of these and the fist to be

Cista, toilet-basket. (Gerhard.)

and the first to be discovered (about the year 1737) is the celebrated Ficoroni cista, now in the Museo

Scene from the Ficoroni Cista.

Kircheriano at Rome. Of late years the results of excavation have been unusually fruitful: in 1866 Schoene described 70 Praenestine cistae preserved entire, besides fragments; in 1882 M. Fernique reports the number as reaching 100 (ap. D. and S.). Most of these are in bronze; one of silver is in the Capitoline Museum or Palace of the Conservatori. They are mostly covered with ornamental designs engraved upon the surface of the metal (graffiti); but in the few that have been found elsewhere than at Praeneste (e. g. at Bologna and Vulci) repoussé work occurs. The Praenestine workmanship is somewhat rough: the bronze plate was first engraved, then hammered into an oval or cylindrical shape, and finally the feet and rings or handles were put on without much regard to the pattern underneath them. They were, it is clear, turned out cheaply as manufactured articles, not finished artistic products. The Ficoroni cista is of quite exceptional beauty, and a real work of art; it has been made the subject of several monographs, the most important of which is that of Otto Jahn (Die Ficoronische Cista, 4to, Leipzig, 1852). It is the only cista with an inscription, NOVIOS PLAUTIOS MED ROMAI FECID; which shows that, though found at Praeneste, it was not made there. Among its ornaments the chief place is occupied by a series of scenes from the Argonautic legend; one of these, the defeat of Amycus king of the Bebryces, is here given after Jahn; another, the building of the Argo, is figured in Daremberg and Saglio.

At one time these cistae were referred to the class called cista mystica (see below) : this name originated with Visconti, but is now universally rejected as unsuitable (Marquardt, p. 657). Many articles of the toilet have been discovered in them, such as mirrors, sponges, hair-pins [ACUS], and scent-bottles [ALABASTRUM], sufficiently indicating their use in common life. They have been found mostly in the burial-ground at Praeneste, enclosed in stone coffins or cinerary urns.


Cista Mystica. (From a painting on a vase.)

of cistae was also given to the small boxes which were carried in procession in the Greek festivals of Demeter and Dionysus. These boxes, which were always kept [p. 1.441]closed in the public processions, contained sacred things connected with the worship of these deities (Ovid, A. Am. 2.609; Catull. 64.259 ; Tib. 1.7, 48, “et levis occultis conscia cista sacris,” where, as in the class of cistae above described, wicker-work is sufficiently indicated as the material). The mysterious secret is half revealed by numerous pictures, and by the coins

Cista. (British Museum.)

called CISTOPHORUS; on these the cista is represented as half open, with a serpent creeping out of it. The shape was sometimes oblong, more frequently cylindrical. A statue of Silenus sitting upon a large drum-shaped cista, and holding a wine-jug in his hand, is figured by Daremberg and Saglio. (Compare Marquardt, Privatl., p. 657 if.; and for a fuller discussion of the mysteries in which the cista played its part, Fr. Lenormant in D. and S. i. pp. 1205-1208; DIONYSIA; MYSTERIA.)

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Cicero, Divinatio against Q. Caecilius, 7
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.3.197
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.31
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