References to mortaria by Latin authors

Many of these works are available on the World Wide Web, in Latin, in translation, or both. Particularly useful sites (as of summer 2012) are The Perseus Project and LacusCurtius by Bill Thayer. Translations in this website are by John Palmer, unless otherwise indicated.

This page is very new and unfinished. JP 2012-08-28.

Apicius was a gourmet of somewhat uncertain date, after whom a compilation of recipes was named, which in its present form dates from c.400 AD, though no doubt it includes older material, some of it possibly derived from Apicius himself. Editions with parallel translation are by Grocock and Grainger and Flower and Rosenbaum. The work contains about 50 references to mortaria and many others to grinding (terere or fricare), implying the use of a mortar. Only a sample is given here. Numbering of sections follows Grocock and Grainger, with Flower and Rosenbaum's numbering in parentheses.

In some of the recipes the mortar is used for making a mincemeat, as here:
2.1.2 (II. i. 2) Squid cakes. Remove the long tentacles and beat it on a board as usual. Grind the flesh thoroughly in a mortar with liquamen [fish-sauce] and mould into rissoles.
However in making vegetable mashes or purées (holusmolle) the vegetables are usually prepared by chopping, rather than in the mortar, as here:
3.15.2 (III. xv. 3) Another vegetable purée. Boil celery in water with soda, squeeze, and chop (concides) finely. Grind in a mortar pepper, lovage, marjoram, onion, wine, liquamen [fish-sauce] and oil, heat this in a pan and stir the celery in.
The predominant use of the mortar is for crushing spices and herbs, as shown in the above example. Many other recipes contain such words as teres in mortario piper, ligusticum ..., "grind in a mortar pepper, lovage, etc.". The following recipe is an amusing example but it must be emphasised that the only unusual element is the rather exotic fowl; the way the mortar is used is absolutely typical of Apician recipes, though the main ingredient is more usually chicken, lamb, kid, pork, etc.
6.2.21 (VI. vi.) Flamingo. Pluck the bird, wash, truss, and put in a pan; add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar. When half-cooked add a bouquet of leek and coriander. When nearly done add defrutum [wine reduced by heating] to give colour. Put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander, asafoetida root, mint and rue, and grind together; add vinegar, dates, and some of the juices from cooking. Tip back into the pan, thicken with amulum [wheat-starch], pour the gravy over the bird and serve. You may do the same for parrot.

Cato (M. Porcius Cato, called `the elder' and `the Censor'), 238--149 BC, statesman and author of De agri cultura (On Farming). Text and translation by Hooper and Ash.

De ag. 22: setting up an olive-mill. Mortarium is the word used for the base vessel of the mill in which the olives are crushed by two rollers (orbes) mounted on either side of a central pillar, which is turned by an animal or person walking around the mill in a circle. The mortar and the rollers are of stone. Similar machines were used till recently in England and France for crushing cider-apples before pressing. An example seen by the author in Jersey had a mortar about 1.5m in external diameter.
De ag. 74: making bread. `This is how to make kneaded bread. Wash your hands and the mortar well. Put the flour in the mortar, add water little by little and knead it thoroughly. When it is well kneaded, shape it into a loaf and cook under an earthenware lid.'
(Note that grinding and crushing are not involved. No indication of the material of the mortar is given.)
De ag. 75: making libum, a sort of cheesecake. `Bruise well two pounds of cheese in a mortar. When well broken up, add a pound of wheat flour, or if you want it to be softer, half a pound of fine flour and mix well with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. From that make a loaf, place on leaves and bake gently on the hot hearth under an earthenware lid.'
(Implies a mortar of modest size, similar to the general run of stone and pottery mortars as indicated in our analysis of sizes, and no preference for stone or pottery.)
De ag. 76: making placenta, a sort of layer-cake with cheese and honey. This is described as placenta semodialis, a half-modius cake. A modius is a measure of volume approximate to nine litres, two gallons or one peck. The quantities given add up to about half a modius, on the assumption that the mean density of the ingredients is around 2.0 (twice the density of water). I have found that this is correct for blackcurrant jam and (shortly will do the same for cheddar cheese).
As the recipe is long, only the parts that refer to mortaria are given here. Two processes are mentioned as requiring a mortarium:
Firstly, the cake is built up using tracta, sheets of raw pastry (Grocock and Grainger p.361). I have followed these authors in translating alica as "semolina". "For the tracta take 4lb (1320g) flour and 2lb (660g) best semolina. Tip the semolina into water. When it is well softened, put in a clean mortar and drain well. Then knead it by hand. When it is well worked, add 4lb flour little by little ..."
Secondly, the preparation of the cheese: the Roman pound was about 330g (the British pound is 454g). "Put 14 pounds (4.5kg) of sheep's cheese, fresh and not sharp, into water. Let it soak, changing the water three times. Then take it out and dry well with the hands, and when dry put into a mortar. When you have dried all the cheese thoroughly, put in a clean mortar, knead by hand, and break it up as much as possible. Then take a clean flour-sieve and pass the cheese through it into the mortar. Then add 4.5 pounds (1.5kg) of good honey. Blend that well with the cheese."
This is a bit confused and repetitious and might seem to need more than one "mortar", but only hand-kneading is called for, no crushing or grinding with a pestle or like instrument.
In conclusion it may be said that the quantities specified are rather large compared to the general run of stone or pottery mortaria found in Britain, but on the other hand no serious crushing or grinding is called for. Whatever sort of vessel the writer was contemplating, it would seem to be rather different from any of the items in my inventory and quite likely made of different material, maybe even wood.
De ag. 86: `How to make wheat porridge: put 1/2 pound clean wheat into a clean mortar, wash well, remove the husk thoroughly and rinse well. Then put in a cooking-pot with clean water and boil. Wnen cooked, add milk little by little till it becomes a thick cream.'
(Not to my taste. Again a small mortar is all that's needed. Grinding or pounding implied to loosen the husk. No obvious preference for stone or pottery.)
De ag. 87: making amulum, wheat-starch, used as a thickener in cooking (cf. cornflour)
`Clean winter wheat well, put in a trough, and add water twice a day. On the tenth day drain off the water, press well, mix well in a clean trough to the consistency of wine-lees. Put it in a clean bag and squeeze the creamy substance into a new dish or a mortar. After doing this for the whole batch, grind it all over again. Put the pan in the sun to dry. When dry, put it in a new cooking-pot, and cook with milk.'
(May need a larger mortar, depending on how much is being made at once. No obvious preference for stone or pottery.) (Note also the requirement for a new cooking-pot: see Columella de re rustica 12.57, below.)
De ag. 95: a sticky way of keeping caterpillars off vines.
`To keep caterpillars from vines: keep the waste liquid from olive-pressing. Strain it well, put 2 congii (about 12 pints or 7 litres) in a bronze vessel. Cook it on a slow fire, stirring often, until it becomes as thick as honey. Take 1/3 pint bitumen and 1/4 pint sulphur, and grind them in a mortar separately. Add them in very small amounts to the hot liquid, stirring meanwhile with a stick, and boil again in the open air (for if you do so indoors it will flare up when the bitumen and sulphur is added). When it is as thick as bird-lime, let it cool. Smear this around the main stem and under the branches of vines, and caterpillars will not come.'
(The mortar need not exceed a pint in capacity. Does bitumen or sulphur indicate that stone mortars might be preferred?)

Celsus (A. Cornelius Celsus), encyclopaedist, c.25 BC--c.50 AD. The only part of his work preserved is the section De medicina. Text and translation by Spencer.

De med. 5.24.2: mortar used for mixing small amounts of wax, oil, turpentine resin, honey and flower scents, to make a preparation for pain relief called "euodes" (sweet-smelling). The quantities (as calculated by Spencer) are 84g wax, 84g oil, turpentine resin "the size of a walnut", 63ml honey, 125ml iris ointment, 125ml rose oil, total perhaps half a litre.

Columella (L. Iunius Moderatus Columella), born at Gades (Cádiz), 1st cent. AD, author of De Re Rustica (Country Living). Text and translation by Ash and Forster and Heffner.

De re rustica 12.57 "How to make mustard.
Carefully clean and sift mustard seed, then wash in cold water and when well washed soak in water for two hours; then take out, squeeze out by hand and put in a new or well-cleaned mortar and grind with pestles. When ground, drag all the ground material to the middle of the mortar and press with the flat of the hand; then after compressing, make furrows in the surface [lit. scratch it], lay on it a few live coals, and pour over it a solution of soda in water to extract all the bitterness and mustiness. Then immediately tip up the mortar, to run off all the liquid. After that add white sharp vinegar and mix well with a pestle and strain. This liquid is excellent for pickling turnips.
Alternatively, if you want to prepare it for use [at table] by diners, when you have purified the mustard [with the soda solution], add pine-nuts, as fresh as possible, and wheat-starch, and grind together carefully, adding vinegar. Otherwise do as I said above. Use this this mustard as a sauce, for which it is not just suitable but outstanding; for if carefully made it has a distinctive clarity."
Interesting features to note: (1) The mortar has to be new or well-cleaned. Implies that the surface of a mortar was not so resistant as not to pick up contamination from the substances prepared in it. This might be true of pottery and of stone mortars. Likewise in Apicius (5.2.2 (V.ii.2), 6.8.13 (6.ix.13)) the cook is sometimes advised to use a new cooking-pot (caccabus); understandable when the vessels available are of unglazed earthenware which would absorb material and flavours from the hot food. Likewise Cato de Ag. 87 (above). (2) Here at least the mortar is used for grinding with a pestle. (3) The final product is not the paste left in the mortar but the thin liquid poured off, which is free-flowing ('suitable for pickling'). This fits well with the small size of pouring runnels in stone mortars and many pottery ones, and indicates that in general these runnels were designed for separating a thin liquid from a more solid residue. (In some applications, of course, the liquid might be the waste and the solid the product, or they might both be products each with its own utility.) (4) The term 'pestle' (pistillum) is used at the end for an implement used merely for stirring, not for grinding or crushing. We have likewise noted at Cato de Ag. 74 (above) that a vessel might be called mortarium even though grinding, crushing or pounding are not involved.
De re rustica 12.59 How to make moretum, something akin to a salad dressing or allioli
"Put in a mortar savory, mint, rue, coriander, celery, chives or failing that spring onion, lettuce leaves, colewort leaves, green thyme, catnip, and in addition green pennyroyal and fresh salt cheese. Grind all those together and mix in a little peppered vinegar; after putting this mixture in a bowl, drizzle with oil.
Alternatively: When you have processed the herbs described above, grind in cleaned walnuts, adjusting the quantity to taste, add a little peppered vinegar and drizzle with oil.
Alternatively: With the herbs mentioned above grind in some lightly toasted sesame, add a little peppered vinegar, then drizzle oil over.
Alternatively: Take Gallic cheese, or what variety you prefer, chop it small and grind it, and pine nuts, if available, otherwise roasted hazelnuts, with the skin removed, or almonds and mix with the herbs above and add a little peppered vinegar and mix in, and drizzle the mixture with oil.
If you have no fresh herbs, crush dried pennyroyal or thyme or marjoram or dried savory with the cheese and add peppered vinegar and oil. Moreover any one of these dried herbs may be mixed with the cheese if you lack the others."
Note the mortar is used mainly for preparing herbs. The main non-vegetable ingredient processed in the mortar is cheese. This is consistent with the finding of Cramp that pottery mortars were used mainly for vegetable ingredients. This recipe gives no indication of quantities, so no idea of the size of the mortar.
De re rustica 12.59 Making a digestive
"Take three ounces of white pepper, if available, else black, two ounces of celery seed, one and a half ounces of laser root, called silphion in Greek, two ounces of cheese; crush and sieve, mix with honey and keep in a new cooking-pot; then, when needed, take a tiny portion, to taste, and dilute with vinegar and garum [fish sauce]."
Same comment as for moretum, except that here we have some indications of quantity, consistent with a pottery or stone mortar in the size range of archaeological finds.

Juvenal (D. Iunius Iuvenalis), author of Satires (Saturae), c.100 AD. Translation by Green, Latin edition by A. E. Housman.

Satura VII 170: et quae jam veteres sanant mortaria caecos, "and the mixtures that old men treat their eyes with". Mortarium here means the substance prepared in a mortar (but in this case not builders' cement). It is of course well-known that such eye-salves were widely used in the Roman world, and indeed my inventory of Purbeck stone objects includes some of the stamps used to label these products, for example RIB 2446.8.

Plautus (T. Maccius Plautus), comic playwright, c.200 BC. The last scene of Aulularia (The Pot of Gold) is missing but has been restored in a performable English version by Watling.

Aulularia 94-97: A mortar is evidently common domestic equipment, but the fact that neighbours might drop in to borrow it suggests that maybe it was quite valuable, and not everybody owned one as a matter of course. A householder (a stingy type) instructs his servant to refuse such requests:
"If anyone wants a knife, chopper, pestle, mortar, those vessels that neighbours are always asking for, tell them burglars have been in and taken them."

Pliny (C. Plinius Secundus, called `the elder'), 23--79 AD (died in the eruption of Vesuvius), author of a Natural History (Historia naturalis). Text and translation by Rackham, translation alone by Bostock and Riley.

Historia naturalis book 36 ch.43: discussion of the choice of stone for making mortars for various purposes
We learn from Pliny that the Romans were extremely particular about the selection of stone from which to make mortars.
"Various authors have discussed the rocks from which mortars are made, for pharmacy, for preparation of pigments, and other purposes ... The Etesian stone [perhaps a granite] is considered to be the very best; next comes the Theban, which we called pyrropoecilon [yellow-spotted], but others call psaranum; in the third rank is Chrysite ... but for medical purposes, Basanite is chosen because this stone contributes nothing to the product from its own substance. Those stones that yield a moisture are thought useful in preparing medicaments for the eyes, and so the Ethiopian stones are particularly favoured for this purpose."
By basanite Pliny means not the igneous rock that goes now by that name but a form of chalcedony, jasper, which was used as a touchstone in testing the purity of precious metals. Note that the desirable property is that the product should not be contaminated with material from the vessel in which it is ground; but Pliny then says that when making preparations for the eyes, it is actually desirable for a component of the vessel to be transferred into the mixture. What he means by moisture (sucus) is not quite clear, but something derived from the mortar is clearly meant.
Pliny continues:
"The stone of Taenarum, the Phoenician, and haematite, are said to be good for those medicines that are made from crocus (saffron). The other stone from Taenarum, which is black, and the Parian stone, are not so suitable for medicines; preferable are Egyptian alabaster or white ophite. This is the sort of ophite from which vessels and even casks are made."
Egyptian alabaster is in fact calcite, not gypsum; it is harder than gypsum though not very hard (scratchable with a knife but not quite with a fingernail), and may be another of those stones which are meant to contribute something to the final product.
(Egyptian alabaster has been worked extensively near Suez and Assiut. Many ancient quarries are found in the hills overlooking the plain of Tell el Amarna. (Wikipedia)). Ophite is a breccia of serpentine and calcite, also used as a decorative facing stone. Ophite = verd antique, verde antico (Wikipedia).)
The main thing to note is the careful selection of material for mortars according to its suitability for particular mixtures and products.

Varro (M. Terentius Varro Reatinus), 116--27 BC, author of another De agri cultura (see Cato, above). Text and translation by Hooper and Ash.

No references to mortars.

Vitruvius (M. Vitruvius Pollio), 1st cent. BC, author of De architectura (On Architecture). Translation by Morgan.

De arch. 5.12.2: mortarium somewhat ambiguously used to mean either substance or the vessel in which it is mixed: the subject is concrete for underwater work.
"Structures that are to stand in water are made using sand from the region between Cumae and Minerva's Point [the volcanic Bay of Naples], mixed in the mortar in the proportion of two to one [misceatur uti in mortario duo ad unum respondeant]."
(This is ambiguous: mortar (vessel) or mortar (sticky-stuff). Composition of cement for use in marine structures. 2:1 mix. Not quite clear whether the volcanic sand is the 2 or the 1; if the former maybe the 1 is lime (Thayer) but if the latter the 2 is probably some other aggregate.)
"Then in the chosen place coffers bound with strong timbers and chains must be lowered into the water and firmly secured; then inside them the lower part under the water must be levelled and cleared and filled with cement from the mortar [caementis ex mortario], mixed as described above, until the space between the coffers is filled."
Here `caementis ex mortario' means almost exactly `concrete'.
De arch. 7.1.5-6: mortarium as a substance: problems of laying pavements on top of wooden floors
deinde ruderi novo tertia pars testae tunsae admisceatur calcisque duae partes ad quinque mortarii mixtionibus praestent responsum;the proportions intended are not quite clear but "two parts of lime to five of mortar" suggests mortarium means a substance.
De arch. 7.3.6: mortarium as a substance: rendering walls in preparation for mural painting
Requirements of a plaster for rendering walls: it must be of such a consistency that when it is applied (subigatur) it does not stick to the float (rutrum) but "the iron comes cleanly away from the mortar (e mortario)".
De arch. 7.3.10: mortarium as a vessel: mixtures for very hard and resistant plasterwork
"Greek builders use not only these methods of making the work solid, but also they set up a mortar (vessel), tip lime and sand into it and bring in a gang of men who ram the material with wooden poles ..."
De arch. 7.10.3: mortarium as a vessel: making blacking in a mortarium
Atramentum is black pigment but I think for walls, not ink in the writing sense. The mortar in which it is made might be pretty big. The Well (Yorkshire) mortar (which was used for paint or similar) is on the large size (c.450mm over rim, measurement B) but still portable.
[after a description of the furnaces and apparatus used to make blacking] "If however this is not available, one must take measures so as not to hold up the progress of the works. Burn faggots or chips of pine, when they are carbonised, quench them and grind them in a mortar with glue [glutinum]. This will produce a quite adequate black for builders' purposes [atramentum tectoribus non invenustum].
(and the use of better qualities of wine allows one to imitate the colour not only of blacking but also of indigo:)
De arch. 7.13.3: mortarium as a vessel: extracting Tyrian purple from the shellfish.
"These shellfish .. are cut around with knives, and a purple fluid flows from the wound like tears, and is shaken out into mortars and prepared by grinding [terendo comparatur], and because it is taken from marine shellfish it is called ostrum.
(Not at all clear why it needs grinding [terendo] nor why ostrum means the blood of the sea-snail (L&S) (for ostrea are bivalves).)
De arch. 7.14.1: mortarium as a vessel: imitating the colour sil atticum, red ochre
De arch. 7.3.10: ambiguous again: mortarium as a substance or maybe a vessel:
"If however the ground is hard or the water lies too deep, then we must use concrete channels [signinis operibus] to collect supplies [of water] from roofs or from higher localities. Care must be taken in making the concrete [opus signinum], first to use the cleanest and sharpest sand, and then to break the flint rubble in pieces no more than a pound weight each, use the most vigorous lime, and mix the mortar [or: mix the most vigorous lime in the mortar] [calce quam vehementissima mortario mixta] in proportions of five parts of sand to two of lime. Ram this material into the trench up to the level required with iron-shod wooden poles."
Note that Vitruvius uses opus signinum here in exactly the sense which has been adopted by modern archaeologists. Mortarium however can be read as a vessel or a substance, with the general meaning virtually unchanged.

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