1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Games, Classical

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GAMES, CLASSICAL. 1. Public Games.—The public games of Greece (ἀγῶνες) and Rome (Ludi) consisted in athletic contests and spectacles of various kinds, generally connected with and forming part of a religious observance. Probably no institution exercised a greater influence in moulding the national character, and producing that unique type of physical and intellectual beauty which we see reflected in Greek art and literature, than the public contests of Greece (see Athlete; Athletic Sports). For them each youth was trained in the gymnasium, they were the central mart whither poet, artist and merchant each brought his wares, and the common ground of union for every member of the Hellenic race. It is to Greece, then, that we must look for the earliest form and the fullest development of ancient games. The shows of the Roman circus and amphitheatre were at best a shadow, and in the later days of the empire a travesty, of the Olympia and Pythia, and require only a cursory notice.

The earliest games of which we have any record are those at the funeral of Patroclus, which form the subject of the twenty-third Iliad. They are noteworthy as showing that Greek games were in their origin clearly connected with religion; either, as here,Greek. a part of the funeral rites, or else instituted in honour of a god, or as a thank-offering for a victory gained or a calamity averted, or in expiation of some crime. Each of the great contests was held near some shrine or sacred place and is associated with some deity or mythical hero. It was not before the 4th century that this honour was paid to a living man (see Plutarch, Lysander, 18). The games of the Iliad and those of the Odyssey at the court of Alcinous are also of interest as showing at what an early date the distinctive forms of Greek athletics—boxing, wrestling, putting the weight, the foot and the chariot race—were determined.

The Olympian games were the earliest, and to the last they remained the most celebrated of the four national festivals. Olympia was a naturally enclosed spot in the rich plain of Elis, bounded on the N. by the rocky heights of Cronion, and on the S. and W. by the Alpheus and its tributary the Cladeus. There was the grove of Altis, in which were ranged the statues of the victorious athletes, and the temple of Olympian Zeus with the chryselephantine statue of the god, the masterpiece of Pheidias. There Heracles (so ran the legend which Pindar has introduced in one of his finest odes), when he had conquered Elis and slain its king Augeas, consecrated a temenos and instituted games in honour of his victory. A later legend, which probably embodies historical fact, tells how, when Greece was torn by dissensions and ravaged by pestilence, Iphitus inquired of the oracle for help, and was bidden restore the games which had fallen into desuetude; and there was in the time of Pausanias, suspended in the temple of Hera at Olympia, a bronze disk whereon were inscribed, with the regulations of the games, the names of Iphitus and Lycurgus. From this we may safely infer that the games were a primitive observance of the Eleians and Pisans, and first acquired their celebrity from the powerful concurrence of Sparta. The sacred armistice, or cessation of all hostilities, during the month in which the games were held, is also credited to Iphitus.

In 776 B.C. the Eleians engraved the name of their countryman Coroebus as victor in the foot race, and thenceforward we have an almost unbroken list of the victors in each succeeding Olympiad or fourth recurrent year. For the next fifty years no names occur but those of Eleians or their next neighbours. After 720 B.C. we find Corinthians and Megareans, and later still Athenians and extra-Peloponnesians. Thus what at first was nothing more than a village feast became a bond of union for all the branches of the Doric race, and grew in time to be the high festival to which every Greek gathered, from the mountain fastnesses of Thessaly to the remotest colonies of Cyrene and Marseilles. It survived even the extinction of Greek liberty, and had nearly completed twelve centuries when it was abolished by the decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius, in the tenth year of his reign. The last Olympian victor was a Romanized Armenian named Varastad.

Let us attempt to call up the scene which Olympia in its palmy days must have presented as the great festival approached. Heralds had proclaimed throughout Greece the “truce of God.” So religiously was this observed that the Spartans chose to risk the liberties of Greece, when the Persians were at the gates of Pylae, rather than march during the holy days. Those white tents which stand out against the sombre grey of the olive groves belong to the Hellanodicae, or ten judges of the games, chosen one for each tribe of the Eleians. They have been here already ten months, receiving instruction in their duties. All, too, or most of the athletes must have arrived, for they have been undergoing the indispensable training in the gymnasium of the Altis. But along the “holy road” from the town of Elis there are crowding a motley throng. Conspicuous in the long train of pleasure-seekers are the θεωροί or sacred deputies, clad in their robes of office, and bearing with them in their carriages of state offerings to the shrine of the god. Nor is there any lack of distinguished visitors. It may be Alcibiades, who, they say, has entered no less than seven chariots; or Gorgias, who has written a famous ἐπίδειξις for the occasion; or the sophist Hippias, who boasts that all he bears about him, from the sandals on his feet to the dithyrambs he carries in his hand, are his own manufacture; or Aetion, who will exhibit his picture of the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana—the picture which gained him no less a prize than the daughter of the Hellanodices Praxonides; or, in an earlier age, the poet-laureate of the Olympians, Pindar himself. One feature of the medieval tournament and the modern racecourse is wanting. Women might indeed compete and win prizes as the owners of teams, but all except the priestesses of Demeter were forbidden, matrons on pain of death, to enter the enclosure.

At daybreak the athletes presented themselves in the Bouleuterium, where the presidents were sitting, and proved by witnesses that they were of pure Hellenic descent, and had no stain, religious or civil, on their character. Laying their hands on the bleeding victim, they swore that they had duly qualified themselves by ten months’ continuous training in the gymnasium, and that they would use no fraud or guile in the sacred contests. Thence they proceeded to the stadium, where they stripped to the skin and anointed themselves. A herald proclaimed, “Let the runners put their feet to the line,” and called on the spectators to challenge any disqualified by blood or character. If no objection was made, they were started by the note of the trumpet, running in heats of four, ranged in the places assigned them by lot. The presidents seated near the goal adjudged the victory. The foot-race was only one of twenty-four Olympian contests which Pausanias enumerates, though we must not suppose that these were all exhibited at any one festival. Till the 77th Olympiad all was concluded in one day, but afterwards the feast was extended to five.

The order of the games is for the most part a matter of conjecture, but, roughly speaking, the historical order of their institution was followed. We will now describe in this order the most important.

(1) The Foot-race.—For the first 13 Olympiads the δρόμος, or single lap of the stadium, which was 200 yds. long, was the only contest. The δίαυλος, in which the course was traversed twice, was added in the 14th Olympiad, and in the 15th the δόλιχος, or long race, of 7, 12 or, according to the highest computation, 24 laps, about 22/3 m. in length. We are told that the Spartan Ladas, after winning this race, dropped down dead at the goal. There was also, for a short time, a race in heavy armour, which Plato highly commends as a preparation for active service. (2) Wrestling was introduced in the 18th Olympiad. The importance attached to this exercise is shown by the very word palaestra, and Plutarch calls it the most artistic and cunning of athletic games. The practice differed little from that of modern times, save that the wrestler’s limbs were anointed with oil and sprinkled with sand. The third throw, which decided the victory, passed into a proverb, and struggling on the ground, such as we see in the famous statue at Florence, was not allowed, at least at the Olympia. (3) In the same year was introduced the πένταθλον (pentathlon), a combination of the five games enumerated in the well-known pentameter ascribed to Simonides:—

ἄλμα, ποδωκείην, δίσκον, ἄκοντα, πάλην.

Only the first of these calls for any comment. The only leap practised seems to have been the long jump. The leapers increased their momentum by means of ἁλτῆρες or dumb-bells, which they swung in the act of leaping and dropped as they “took off.” The take-off may have been slightly raised, and some commentators with very little warrant have stated that spring-boards were used. The record jump with which Phayllus of Croton is credited, 55 ft., is incredible with or without a spring-board. It is disputed whether a victory in all five contests, or in three at least, was required to win the πένταθλον. (4) The rules for boxing were not unlike those of the modern ring (see Pugilism), and the chief difference was in the use of the caestus. This in Greek times consisted of leather thongs bound round the boxer’s fists and wrists; and the weighting with lead or iron or metal studs, which made the caestus more like a “knuckle-duster” than a boxing-glove, was a later Roman development. The death of an antagonist, unless proved to be accidental, not only disqualified for a prize but was severely punished. The use of ear-guards and the comic allusions to broken ears, not noses, suggest that the Greek boxer did not hit out straight from the shoulder, but fought windmill fashion, like the modern rustic. In the pancratium, a combination of wrestling and boxing, the use of the caestus, and even of the clenched fist, was disallowed. (5) The chariot-race had its origin in the 23rd Olympiad. Of the hippodrome, or racecourse, no traces remain, but from the description of Pausanias we may infer that the dimensions were approximately 1600 ft. by 400. Down the centre there ran a bank of earth, and at each end of this bank was a turning-post round which the chariots had to pass. “To shun the goal with rapid wheels” required both nerve and skill, and the charioteer played a more important part in the race than even the modern jockey. Pausanias tells us that horses would shy as they passed the fatal spots. The places of the chariots were determined by lot, and there were elaborate arrangements for giving all a fair start. The number of chariots that might appear on the course at once is uncertain. Pindar (Pyth. v. 46) praises Arcesilaus of Cyrene for having brought off his chariot uninjured in a contest where no fewer than forty took part. The large outlay involved excluded all but rich competitors, and even kings and tyrants eagerly contested the palm. Thus in the list of victors we find the names of Cylon, the would-be tyrant of Athens, Pausanias the Spartan king, Archelaus of Macedon, Gelon and Hiero of Syracuse, and Theron of Agrigentum. Chariot-races with mules, with mares, with two horses in place of four, were successively introduced, but none of these present any special interest. Races on horseback date from the 33rd Olympiad. As the course was the same, success must have depended on skill as much as on swiftness. Lastly, there were athletic contests of the same description for boys, and a competition of heralds and trumpeters, introduced in the 93rd Olympiad.

The prizes were at first, as in the Homeric times, of some intrinsic value, but after the 6th Olympiad the only prize for each contest was a garland of wild olive, which was cut with a golden sickle from the kallistephanos, the sacred tree brought by Hercules “from the dark fountains of Ister in the land of the Hyperboreans, to be a shelter common to all men and a crown of noble deeds” (Pindar, Ol. iii. 18). Greek writers from Herodotus to Plutarch dwell with complacency on the magnanimity of a people who cared for nothing but honour and were content to struggle for a corruptible crown. But though the Greek games present in this respect a favourable contrast to the greed and gambling of the modern racecourse, yet to represent men like Milon and Damoxenus as actuated by pure love of glory is a pleasing fiction of the moralists. The successful athlete received in addition to the immediate honours very substantial rewards. A herald proclaimed his name, his parentage and his country; the Hellanodicae took from a table of ivory and gold the olive crown and placed it on his head, and in his hand a branch of palm; as he marched in the sacred revel to the temple of Zeus, his friends and admirers showered in his path flowers and costly gifts, singing the old song of Archilochus, τήνελλα καλλίνικε, and his name was canonized in the Greek calendar. Fresh honours and rewards awaited him on his return home. If he was an Athenian he received, according to the law of Solon, 500 drachmae, and free rations for life in the Prytaneum; if a Spartan, he had as his prerogative the post of honour in battle. Poets like Pindar, Simonides and Euripides sung his praises, and sculptors like Pheidias and Praxiteles were engaged by the state to carve his statue. We even read of a breach in the town walls being made to admit him, as if the common road were not good enough for such a hero; and there are well-attested instances of altars being built and sacrifices offered to a successful athlete. No wonder then that an Olympian prize was regarded as the crown of human happiness. Cicero, with a Roman’s contempt for Greek frivolity, observes with a sneer that an Olympian victor receives more honours than a triumphant general at Rome, and tells the story of the Rhodian Diagoras, who, having himself won the prize at Olympia, and seen his two sons crowned on the same day, was addressed by a Laconian in these words:—“Die, Diagoras, for thou hast nothing short of divinity to desire.” Alcibiades, when setting forth his services to the state, puts first his victory at Olympia, and the prestige he had won for Athens by his magnificent display. But perhaps the most remarkable evidence of the exaggerated value which the Greeks attached to athletic prowess is a casual expression which Thucydides employs when describing the enthusiastic reception of Brasidas at Scione. The state, he says, voted him a crown of gold, and the multitude flocked round him and decked him with garlands, as though he were an athlete.

The Pythian games originated in a local festival held at Delphi, anciently called Pytho, in honour of the Pythian Apollo, and were limited to musical competitions. The date at which they became a Panhellenic ἀγών (so Demosthenes calls them) cannot be determined, but the Pythiads as a chronological era date from 527 B.C., by which time music had been added to all the Panhellenic contests. Now, too, these were held at the end of every fourth year; previously there had been an interval of eight years. The Amphictyones presided and the prize was a chaplet of laurel.

The Nemean games were biennial and date from 516 B.C. They were by origin an Argive festival in honour of Nemean Zeus, but in historical times were open to all Greece and provided the established round of contests, except that no mention is made of a chariot-race. A wreath of wild celery was the prize.

The Isthmian games, held on the Isthmus of Corinth in the first and third year of each Olympiad, date, according to Eusebius, from 523 B.C. They are variously reported to have been founded by Poseidon or Sisyphus in honour of Melicertes, or by Theseus to celebrate his victory over the robbers Sinis and Sciron. Their early importance is attested by the law of Solon which bestowed a reward of 100 drachmae on every Athenian who gained a victory. The festival was managed by the Corinthians; and after the city was destroyed by Mummius (146 B.C.) the presidency passed to the Sicyonians until Julius Caesar rebuilt Corinth (46 B.C.). They probably continued to exist till Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. The Athenians were closely connected with the festival, and had the privilege of proedria, the foremost seat at the games, while the Eleans were absolutely excluded from participation. The games included gymnastic, equestrian and musical contests, differing little from those of the other great festivals, and the prize was a crown made at one time of parsley (more probably wild celery), at a later period of pine. The importance of the Isthmian games in later times is shown by the fact that Flamininus chose the occasion for proclaiming the liberation of Greece, 196 B.C. That at a later anniversary (A.D. 67) Nero repeated the proclamation of Flamininus, and coupled with it the announcement of his own infamous victory at Olympia, shows alike the hollowness of the first gift and the degradation which had befallen the Greek games, the last faint relic of Greek nationality.

The Ludi Publici of the Romans included feasts and theatrical exhibitions as well as the public games with which alone we are concerned. As in Greece, they were intimately connected with religion. At the Roman. beginning of each civil year it was the duty of the consuls to vow to the gods games for the safety of the commonwealth, and the expenses were defrayed by the treasury. Thus, at no cost to themselves, the Roman public were enabled to indulge at the same time their religious feelings and their love of amusement. Their taste for games naturally grew till it became a passion, and under the empire games were looked upon by the mob as one of the two necessaries of life. The aediles who succeeded to this duty of the consuls were expected to supplement the state allowance from their private purse. Political adventurers were not slow to discover so ready a road to popularity, and what at first had been exclusively a state charge devolved upon men of wealth and ambition. A victory over some barbarian horde or the death of a relation served as the pretext for a magnificent display. But the worst extravagance of private citizens was eclipsed by the reckless prodigality of the Caesars, who squandered the revenues of whole provinces in catering for the mob of idle sightseers on whose favour their throne depended. But though public games played as important a part in Roman as in Greek history, and must be studied by the Roman historian as an integral factor in social and political life, yet, regarded solely as exhibitions, they are comparatively devoid of interest, and we sympathize with Pliny, who asks his friend how any man of sense can go day after day to view the same dreary round of fights and races.

It is easy to explain the different feelings which the games of Greece and of Rome excite. The Greeks at their best were actors, the Romans from first to last were spectators. It is true that even in Greek games the professional element played a large and ever-increasing part. As early as the 6th century B.C. Xenophanes complains that the wrestler’s strength is preferred to the wisdom of the philosopher, and Euripides, in a well-known fragment, holds up to scorn the brawny swaggering athlete. But what in Greece was a perversion and acknowledged to be such, the Romans not only practised but held up as their ideal. No Greek, however high in birth, was ashamed to compete in person for the Olympic crown. The Roman, though little inferior in gymnastic exercises, kept strictly to the privacy of the palaestra; and for a patrician to appear in public as a charioteer is stigmatized by the satirist as a mark of shameless effrontery.

Roman games are generally classified as fixed, extraordinary and votive; but they may be more conveniently grouped according to the place where they were held, viz. the circus or the amphitheatre.

For the Roman world the circus was at once a political club, a fashionable lounge, a rendezvous of gallantry, a betting ring, and a playground for the million. Juvenal, speaking loosely, says that in his day it held the whole of Rome; but there is no reason to doubt the precise statement of P. Victor, that in the Circus Maximus there were seats for 350,000 spectators.

Of the various Ludi Circenses it may be enough here to give a short account of the most important, the Ludi Magni or Maximi.

Initiated according to legend by Tarquinius Priscus, the Ludi Magni were originally a votive feast to Capitoline Jupiter, promised by the general when he took the field, and performed on his return from the annual campaign. They thus presented the appearance of a military spectacle, or rather a review of the whole burgess force, which marched in solemn procession from the capitol to the forum and thence to the circus, which lay between the Palatine and Aventine. First came the sons of patricians mounted on horseback, next the rest of the burghers ranged according to their military classes, after them the athletes, naked save for the girdle round their loins, then the company of dancers with the harp and flute players, next the priestly colleges bearing censers and other sacred instruments, and lastly the simulacra of the gods, carried aloft on their shoulders or drawn in cars. The games themselves were fourfold:—(1) the chariot race; (2) the ludus Troiae; (3) the military review; and (4) gymnastic contests. Of these only the first two call for any comment. (1) The chariot employed in the circus was the two-wheeled war car, at first drawn by two, afterwards by four, and more rarely by three horses. Originally only two chariots started for the prize, but under Caligula we read of as many as twenty-four heats run in the day, each of four chariots. The distance traversed was fourteen times the length of the circus or nearly 5 m. The charioteers were apparently from the first professionals, though the stigma under which the gladiator lay never attached to their calling. Indeed a successful driver may compare in popularity and fortune with a modern jockey. The drivers were divided into companies distinguished by the colours of their tunics, whence arose the faction of the circus which assumed such importance under the later emperors. In republican times there were two factions, the white and the red; two more, the green and the blue, were added under the empire, and for a short time in Domitian’s reign there were also the gold and the purple. Even in Juvenal’s day party spirit ran so high that a defeat of the green was looked upon as a second Cannae. After the seat of empire had been transferred to Constantinople these factions of the circus were made the basis of political cabals, and frequently resulted in sanguinary tumults, such as the famous Nika revolt (A.D. 532), in which 30,000 citizens lost their lives. (2) The Ludus Troiae was a sham-fight on horseback in which the actors were patrician youths. A spirited description of it will be found in the 5th Aeneid. (See also Circus.)

The two exhibitions we shall next notice, though occasionally given in the circus, belong more properly to the amphitheatre. Venatio was the baiting of wild animals who were pitted either with one another or with men—captives, criminals or trained hunters called bestiarii. The first certain instance on record of this amusement is in 186 B.C., when M. Fulvius exhibited lions and tigers in the arena. The taste for these brutalizing spectacles grew apace, and the most distant provinces were ransacked by generals and proconsuls to supply the arena with rare animals—giraffes, tigers and crocodiles. Sulla provided for a single show 100 lions, and Pompey 600 lions, besides elephants, which were matched with Gaetulian hunters. Julius Caesar enjoys the doubtful honour of inventing the bull-fight. At the inauguration of the Colosseum 5000 wild and 4000 tame beasts were killed, and to commemorate Trajan’s Dacian victories there was a butchery of 11,000 beasts. The naumachia was a sea-fight, either in the arena, which was flooded for the occasion by a system of pipes and sluices, or on an artificial lake. The rival fleets were manned by prisoners of war or criminals, who often fought till one side was exterminated. In the sea-fight on Lake Fucinus, arranged by the emperor Claudius, 100 ships and 19,000 men were engaged.

But the special exhibition of the amphitheatre was the munus gladiatorium, which dates from the funeral games of Marcus and Decimus Brutus, given in honour of their father, 264 B.C. It was probably borrowed from Etruria, and a refinement on the common savage custom of slaughtering slaves or captives on the grave of a warrior or chieftain. Nothing so clearly brings before us the vein of coarseness and inhumanity which runs through the otherwise noble character of the Roman, as his passion for gladiatorial shows. We can fancy how Pericles, or even Alcibiades, would have loathed a spectacle that Augustus tolerated and Trajan patronized. Only after the conquest of Greece we hear of their introduction into Athens, and they were then admitted rather out of compliment to the conquerors than from any love of the sport. In spite of numerous prohibitions from Constantine downwards, they continued to flourish even as late as St Augustine. To a Christian martyr, if we may credit the story told by Theodoret and Cassiodorus, belongs the honour of their final abolition. In the year 404 Telemachus, a monk who had travelled from the East on this sacred mission, rushed into the arena and endeavoured to separate the combatants. He was instantly despatched by the praetor’s orders; but Honorius, on hearing the report, issued an edict abolishing the games, which were never afterwards revived. (See Gladiators.)

Of the other Roman games the briefest description must suffice. The Ludi Apollinares were established in 212 B.C., and were annual after 211 B.C.; mainly theatrical performances. The Megalenses were in honour of the great goddess, Cybele: instituted 204 B.C., and from 191 B.C. celebrated annually. A procession of Galli, or priests of Cybele, was a leading feature. Under the empire the festival assumed a more orgiastic character. Four of Terence’s plays were produced at these games. The Ludi Saeculares were celebrated at the beginning or end of each saeculum, a period variously interpreted by the Romans themselves as 100 or 110 years. The celebration by Augustus in 17 B.C. is famous by reason of the Ode composed by Horace for the occasion. They were solemnized by the emperor Philip A.D. 248 to commemorate the millennium of the city.

2. Private Games.—These may be classified as outdoor and indoor games. There is naturally all the world over a much closer resemblance between the pursuits and amusements of children than of adults. Homer’s children built castles in the sand, and Greek and Roman children alike had their dolls, their hoops, their skipping-ropes, their hobby-horses, their kites, their knuckle-bones and played at hopscotch, the tug-of-war, pitch and toss, blind-man’s buff, hide and seek, and kiss in the ring or at closely analogous games. Games of ball were popular in Greece from the days of Nausicaa, and at Rome there were five distinct kinds of ball and more ways of playing with them. For particulars the dictionary of antiquities must be consulted. It is strange that we can find in classical literature no analogy to cricket, tennis, golf or polo, and though the follis resembled our football, it was played with the hand and arm, not with the leg. Cock-fighting was popular both at Athens and Rome, and quails were kept and put to various tests to prove their pluck.

Under indoor games we may distinguish games of chance and games of skill, though in some of them the two elements are combined. Tesserae, shaped and marked with pips like modern dice, were evolved from the tali, knuckle-bones with only four flat sides. The old Roman threw a hazard and called a main, just as did Charles Fox, and the vice of gambling was lashed by Juvenal no less vigorously than by Pope. The Latin name for a dice-box has survived in the fritillary butterfly and flower.

The primitive game of guessing the number of fingers simultaneously held up by the player and his opponent is still popular in Italy where it is known as “morra.” The proverbial phrase for an honest man was quicum in tenebris mices, one you would trust to play at morra in the dark.

Athena found the suitors of Penelope seated on cowhides and playing at πεσσοί, some kind of draughts. The invention of the game was ascribed to Palamedes. In its earliest form it was played on a board with five lines and with five pieces. Later we find eleven lines, and a further development was the division of the board into squares, as in the game of πόλεις (cities). In the Roman latrunculi (soldiers), the men were distinguished as common soldiers and “rovers,” the equivalent of crowned pieces.

Duodecim scripta, as the name implies, was played on a board with twelve double lines and approximated very closely to our backgammon. There were fifteen pieces on each side, and the moves were determined by a throw of the dice; “blots” might be taken, and the object of the player was to clear off all his own men. Lastly must be mentioned the Cottabus (q.v.), a game peculiar to the Greeks, and with them the usual accompaniment of a wine party. In its simplest form each guest threw what was left in his cup into a metal basin, and the success of the throw, determined partly by the sound of the wine in falling, was reckoned a divination of love. For the various elaborations of the game (in Sicily we read of Cottabus houses), Athenaeus and Pollux must be consulted.

Bibliography.—Daremberg et Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, articles “Agon,” “Athleta,” “Circus,” “Ludi,” “Olympia,” “Spiele”; Curtius and Adler, Olympia (5 vols., 1890, &c.); Hachtmann, Olympia und seine Festspiele; Blümner, Home Life of the Ancient Greeks; J. P. Mahaffy, Old Greek Education; P. Gardner and F. B. Jevons, Manual of Greek Antiquities; E. N. Gardiner, Greek Athletic Sports (1910); Becker-Marquardt, Handbuch der römischen Altertümer (5 vols.).  (F. S.)