pessos and pinsus: a pedimental peculiarity

By: | Post date: 2009-05-28 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics, Modern Greek
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Sorry about that title. I promise not to do that too often.

Over the last several months, I’ve been contributing translations to the Suda On Line project. (See writeup of project.) The Suda is a 10th century encyclopaedia cum dictionary, and often preserves information about Ancient Greece not available elsewhere. It also provides a lot of information that is available in better nick elsewhere; it oftentimes gets confused or garbled; it quotes the Classics in readings that we have not accepted, usually with good reason; and its lexicon component is as interesting for how it misfires in the chain of transmission, back through Photius and Hesychius to Apollonius and Timaeus and Herodian, as it is for any actual definitions. It gives some stuff to cite, plenty of stuff to chuckle about, and the occasional jolting realisation of how tenuous our knowledge of antiquity is: more of our Ancient Greek dictionary definitions than we’d like to think are based on matter as tenuous as this.

The Managing Eds of Suda On Line, stuck with the task of picking up after my teetering command of Greek syntax, also know that I have a couple of dictionaries at my disposal. So I got a query a couple of days ago on what my dictionaries said about πινσός αnd πεσσός. This is a shaggy dog story in response to that, which will take a little bit to go through: the executive summary is, the dictionary etymologies say they are related as architectural terms, but πινσός must be as Latin as it looks.


Let’s start with the Suda entry. It reads:

Πισός. καὶ Πινσός: Πεσὸς δὲ παρὰ Προκοπίῳ.
pisós. And pinsós: but pesós in Procopius.

Eeyup. Well, start with Procopius. On Buildings (De Aedificiis) is his work on the building projects of Justinian, and De Aedif. 1.1.37 mentions πεσσός, with two sigmas. Suda routinely gets double consonants wrong, which tells you gemination was dying or dead in at least some variants of Greek by then; so that’s not a problem. Especially because the Vatican and Laurentian manuscripts of Procopius spell the word with one sigma anyway. And πε(σ)σός in Procopius is an architectural term for the piers at the base of the dome of Hagia Sophia:

κατὰ δὲ τὰ τοῦ νεὼ μέσα λόφοι χειροποίητοι ἐπανεστήκασι τέσσαρες, οὓς καλοῦσι πεσσούς, δύο μὲν πρὸς βορρᾶν, δύο δὲ πρὸς ἄνεμον νότον, ἀντίοι τε καὶ ἴσοι ἀλλήλοις, κίονας ἐν μέσῳ ἑκάτεροι κατὰ τέσσαρας μάλιστα ἔχοντες. πεποίηνται δὲ οἱ λόφοι λίθοις εὐμεγέθεσι σύνθετοι, λογάδην μὲν συνειλεγμένοις, ἐς ἀλλήλους δὲ πρὸς τῶν λιθολόγων ἐπισταμένως ἐναρμοσθεῖσιν, ἐς ὕψος μέγα. εἰκάσαις ἂν αὐτοὺς εἶναι σκοπέλους ὀρῶν ἀποτόμους. ἐπὶ τούτοις δὲ ἀψῖδες τέσσαρες ἐν τετραπλεύρῳ ἀνέχουσι· καὶ αὐτῶν τὰ μὲν ἄκρα ξύνδυο ξυνιόντα εἰς ἄλληλα ἐν τῇ ὑπερβολῇ ἠρήρεισται τῶν λόφων τούτων, τὰ δὲ δὴ ἄλλα ἐπηρμένα εἰς ἀπέραντον ὕψος ᾐώρηται.
And in the centre of the church stand four man-made eminences (λόφοι), which they call piers (πεσσοί), two on the north side and two on the south, opposite and equal to each other, each pair having between them just four columns. The piers (λόφοι) are composed of huge stones joined together, carefully selected and skilfully fitted to one another by the masons, and rising to a great height. One might suppose that they were sheer mountain-peaks. From these spring four arches (ἀψῖδες) [= pendentives] which rise over the four sides of a square, and their ends come together in pairs and are made fast to each other on top of these piers (λόφοι), while the other portions rise and soar to an infinite height. (Loeb 1940 translation)

This is sense III recorded for πεσσός in Liddell-Scott. It is also noted in the Oxyrhynchus papyri (on which more soon), and Strabo 16.1.5, describing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon:

διόπερ τῶν ἑπτὰ θεαμάτων λέγεται καὶ τοῦτο καὶ ὁ κρεμαστὸς κῆπος ἔχων ἐν τετραγώνῳ σχήματι ἑκάστην πλευρὰν τεττάρων πλέθρων· συνέχεται δὲ ψαλιδώμασι καμαρωτοῖς ἐπὶ πεττῶν ἱδρυμένοις κυβοειδῶν ἄλλοις ἐπ’ ἄλλοις· οἱ δὲ πεττοὶ κοῖλοι πλήρεις γῆς ὥστε δέξασθαι φυτὰ δένδρων τῶν μεγίστων, ἐξ ὀπτῆς πλίνθου καὶ ἀσφάλτου κατεσκευασμένοι καὶ αὐτοὶ καὶ αἱ ψαλίδες καὶ τὰ καμαρώματα.
and it is on this account that this and the hanging garden are called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The garden is quadrangular in shape, and each side is four plethra in length. It consists of arched vaults, which are situated, one after another, on checkered, cube-like foundations. The checkered foundations, which are hollowed out, are covered so deep with earth that they admit of the largest of trees, having been constructed of baked brick and asphalt — the foundations themselves and the vaults and the arches. (Loeb 1932 translation)

The pessoi look like doing the same job as in Hagia Sophia; they are big cubic squares of masonry supporting vaults. Strabo is early enough that we can assume this to be a Greek word, and not some sort of loanword. (Keep that in mind for later.)

This not the primary meaning of πεσσός, and the other meanings are not quite on the same plane:

  • I: oval-shaped stone for playing draughts or backgammon. By extension, the game played with the stones, or the board it is played on.
  • II: medicated plug of wool or lint to be introduced into the vagina, anus, etc., pessary; any oval body; ticket indicating attendance at an assembly; bolt of a door.
  • IV: dark edge of the pupil (in the eye).

So, I.1: Small round pebble as in checkers piece. I.2: Checkerboard. I.3: Checkers the game. II.1: Small round ball of wool as in buttplug for medical use. II.2. Small round anything. II.3. Small (round?) something used as ticket. II.4. Door bolt. IV: Small round ball around pupil of eye.

III: Whopping great big cubic slab of stone that vaults rise heavenwards on.

That looks wrong. It also looked wrong to the Loeb translator of Strabo, which is why he suspected the reference in III was to a checkerboard texture. Now I wasn’t in Babylon, and neither was he, but that looks like guesswork to me. The door bolt also looks out of place, although there may be a story there involving small round things. I was going to say that the definition LSJ actually gives for III, “cubic mass of building, terrace”, was bogus—until I looked up the 144 AD police report by Diemous daughter of Colluthus from the Oxyrhyncus (POxy.1272):

… ἀπέκλε̣[ισα τὴν θύ]ρ̣[αν τῆς …] οἰκίας μου καὶ τὴν τοῦ πεσσοῦ θύ[ραν, καὶ ἐ]π̣ανελθοῦσα εὗρον ὃ εἶχ[ο]ν ἐν τῷ [πεσσῷ π]ανάριον ἐξηλωμένον βαστα[χθέ]ν̣τ̣ων ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ κλαλίων χρυσῶν [δύο ὁ]λκῆς μναιαίων τεσσάρων καὶ Βήσι[ος χρ]υ̣σ̣οῦ καὶ κλαλίων ἀργυρῶν μ̣εγ̣ά̣[λω]ν δύο καὶ τὴν τοῦ πεσσοῦ θύραν ἐπηρ[μ]ένην.
I shut up the [door] of my house and the door of the terrace, [and] on my return I found that a box which I had in the [terrace] had been unfastened and that there had been abstracted from it [two] gold bracelets of the weight of four minae, a gold figure of Bes, and two large silver bracelets, and that the door of the terrace had been lifted.

With a fairly weighty note:

For the signification of πεσσός see P.Munich 11.20, 27, notes, and cf. 9.33, 12.16, 22, P.Brit.Mus. 210.19 (Journ. Phil. xxii, p. 272), 978.10 (iii, p. 233), 1023.19 (iii, p. 268), Flor. 5.9.

Alright, alright, you win: I’m not going to go following up on 120-year old journals my library won’t have anyway, I’ll take their word for it that a πεσσός is a terrace as well as a pier. The terrace would have also been a whopping great big cubic slab of stone anyway, even without the heavenward vaults.

(I hope the Modern Greek speakers among you picked up on ξηλωμένο in there. And “abstracted” sounds quite PC Plod, doesn’t it: “By ‘appenstance, I appre’ended one Erato, neighbour of Diemous, abstracting said gold figure of Bess from the premisses.” Though βασταχθέντων doesn’t deserve such an un’appy end. It’s a Koine meaning of βαστάζω, “carry (off), steal”, LSJ s.v. III, and it shows up in John 20:15 and John 12:6. “I appre’ended one Judas Iscariot as ‘e was in the process of ‘elping ‘imself to the contents of said money bag.”)

Still, for all that, sense III of πεσσός looks out of place compared to sense I, enough to make you cast around for alternative explanations of the word. Hesychius records πέσ[σ]ος as “mountain. Cypriots: place; Aeolians: field. Some people: flat ground.” That’s as bad as Suda’s entry (especially the τινες “some people” bit, which is classic Hesychius). Although Procopius’ synonym for πεσσός is λόφος, lit. “hill”, it’s hard to take this on board. Not impossible—anything’s possible; but hard, especially given how obscure Hesychius’ sources can be.

The similarity of πεσσός to “pedestal” might suggest something with feet, let’s see… πέδη “fetters”, πέδον “field”, πέζα “foot, instep, bottom of something”… well, maybe πέζα, and maybe πέδον. You could tell an equally tenuous story with:

  • πέζα “bottom of something” > πεσσός “bottom of vault”;
  • πέδον “field” > πέσσον “field” > πεσσός “flat base of vault”;
  • or πέσσον “field—or mountain” > πεσσός “pier in architecture, aka λόφος ‘hill’ “.

But i BC is a bit late for Proto-Greek *dj to be alternating between /ss/ and /zd/. Is it not, ye divinities of Greek etymology, Frisk and Chantraine?

Yes, pedē, pedon and pezda all come from *ped/pod-, as you’d expect: “foot (trap)”, “footing”, “foot thing” (*ped-ya). Anyway, pessos is not Hellenic, and Chantraine rejects the guesses Frisk cites—not that Frisk is any more enthused about them (Aramaic pīs(s)ā “stone, little board”, Indic pāśaḥ “cube”, pāśī ~ pāṣī “stone”, Armenian yesan “whetstone”).

But we’ll leave πεσσός aside for now, because incredibly, that’s not the major problem with Suda’s rattling off of πισός πινσός πεσός. The major problem is whether πινσός is the same word as πεσσός.

(Or how long Chantraine is going to remain available on BitTorrent… Online Frisk entry, if you can stand pre-Unicode font failage.)


Around the time of Procopius, a new word shows up for a column used to hold up a vault. LSJ glancingly notices it in the scholia to Pindar O.2.146: “= πεσσός ΙΙΙ, cubical block of masonry”.

κίονα δὲ οὐ στύλον λέγει· ἀλλ’ ἔστι παντὶ οἴκῳ τόπος στύλος λεγόμενος, ἐφ’ οὗ κεῖνται οἱ πινσοὶ καὶ λέγεται ὅλην ἔχειν τὴν οἰκίαν.
He [Pindar] says kiōn not stulos (for “column”); but in every house there is a place called the stulos, on which the pinsoi lie, and it is said to hold up the whole house.

The glancing mention is because of LSJ policy with scholia. LS (pre J) systematically wound back its coverage of Byzantine Greek through the 19th century; but it has to keep definitions of words used in the Byzantine commentaries on Classical works: without those words, we can’t make sense of the Classics. The words the Byzantine commentaries use to explain Ancient Greek are, of course, Byzantine Greek, so LSJ doesn’t do a great job in understanding them. An example we noticed while writing the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds (p. 264): Eustathius of Thessalonica uses στοίχημα, straightforwardly in its modern sense of “a bet”, to explain Iliad 4.769 περιδώμεθον “we wager”. But LSJ don’t know any Modern Greek, nor any Byzantine Greek (in which στοίχημα originally meant a pact, or an agreement). Eustathius’ is the only instance they notice, and they guesstimate from the context that στοίχημα means “deposit”.

Lampe’s dictionary (ii-viii AD) does not notice πινσός, but luckily the word is in the early pi’s, so we have both Trapp’s and Kriaras’ definition in print. Trapp (ix-xv AD) defines it as “(supporting) column”, and records it in Delehaye’s collection of the Stylite Saints (with the textual variant πεσσούς), Dobschütz’s collection of Images of Christ, John Moschus (vii AD), Theophanes the Confessor (ix AD), and on it goes. Trapp also notes the variant forms πίνσος in Constantine Porphyrogennitus, and πισσός in Julian of Ascalon (vi AD), the Barberini Euchologion (viii AD), and on that goes too. Constantine of Rhodes (x AD) also has πινσόπυργος, “a tower reinforced with supporting columns”. By this stage, we’re not on Diemous’ terrace any more: the pinsos is exclusively a column propping up other things, including the pendentives of Hagia Sophia, house columns, and towers. Constantine of Rhodes’ towers are in a description of the Church of the Holy Apostles, so they’re presumably piers as well.

The word also makes it to the Early Modern Vernacular, and Kriaras (xii-xvii AD) gives it the more expansive definition “(Architect.) a bulky square built column which usually supports arches and domes”. Unsurprisingly, most of the instances are in the Narrative on the Building of Hagia Sophia (very occasionally as πίνσος, πίσος, or πισσός), but it also turns up in Digenes, the Rod of the Archpriests, and the Account of the city by Theodore (?).

εποίησε και τους πινσούς το μήκος πενταπήχεις
αντί κιόνων έστησε τούτους εν τῳ τρικλίνῳ
έθηκε πλίνθους τέσσαρας εφ’ έκαστον πινσόν τε
And making piers, five cubits each in length,
he set them in the dining hall as columns,
and onto every pier he placed four slabs.(Digenes Z 3851)

Kriaras cite TLG for the first appearance of πινσός in iv AD. Mpf, Gregory of Nyssa (“a pinsos of her house”), but a spurious text, so it doesn’t prove iv AD. Then John Moschus (vii AD), fragments of the Spiritual Meadow in an x AD mansucript; then Theophanes the Confessor. The stylites from Trapp’s first reference were all the rage in v AD and vi AD; let’s say vi AD to be on the safe side. Which is Procopius’ time.

So, we have a word that means the same thing as πεσσός III, that turns up in the descriptions of the same blocks of masonry in the same Great Cathedral, that gets conflated with πεσσός III in at least one text, and that Suda includes in its word dump next to πε(σ)σός III. Surely it’s the same word, right? LSJ thinks so. And both Trapp and Kriaras have no problem with a straightforward “πινσός > πεσσός”. The first guess seems to have been Charles Du Cange, in his commentary on Paul the Silentary: “there is little to constitute the origin of the word, other than Greek πεσσός, which means the same as κύβος”. And who’d gainsay it?

Well, me. Not just because Du Cange’s semantics is off. (Dude, it’s not a “cube”, as in dice that you’d play on a pessoi board. It’s slightly ginormouser than that.) But also because /ns/ is not a Greek cluster. OK, let me qualify that: any /ns/ in Proto-Greek got mooshed to /ss/ or /ːs/ (hence Proto-Greek *pansa > Attic πᾶσα, Doric παῖσα; why else did you think the feminine of πᾶν, παντός has no /n/ in it?) Any /ns/ you see in the Classical language is at the boundary between a root and an affix, and isn’t part of a root: ἔν-στασις, μαλάκυν-σις. If you see an /ns/ in a Greek root, it’s come from the West. Like Modern πένσα “pliers”, which the dictionaries take back to French peince, presumably via a Venetian *pensa. Or in the case of Byzantine Greek, like ἀδμηνσίων ~ ἀδμισσίων, δεμονστρατίων, δεπονσάτωρ, δηφένσωρ, δισπενσάτωρ ~ δεπενσάτωρ ~ δισπεντζέρης. Which makes you look at πίνσος askance.

Now it’s possible for Byzantines, who had plenty of Latin words with /ns/ around them, to insert an /ns/ where it didn’t belong. When Catherine Roth of Suda On Line brought the issue up with my dictionaries, she mentioned κιστέρνα “cistern”, which Suda (and in fact, most Byzantine authors) hyperlatinised to κινστέρνα. From teh googles, it looks like Portuguese and Romanian had the same idea. But Latinise πεσσός? And switch the vowel to ι on top? I’m not seeing a good reason for it.

Now, if pinsus means something sensible in Latin, we’re in business. The most excellent news is, it shows up in Vitruvius On Architecture. The most not so excellent news is, pinsus is just Latin for “compacted”, and Vitruvius is talking about smashing up pavement, not raising columns heavenwards:

Deinde rudus inducatur et vectibus ligneis, decuriis inductis, crebriter pinsatione solidetur, et id non minus pinsum absolutum crassitudine sit dodrantis
Next, lay the mixture of broken stone, bring on your gangs, and beat it again and again with wooden beetles into a solid mass, and let it be not less than three quarters of a foot in thickness when the beating is finished (Vitruvius Pollio De Architectura 7.1.3, 1914 Loeb Translation)

Google Books hints that at least in Britain and/or Ireland, mediaeval Latin pinsus just meant “hard”. Which pavement pounded by gangs of ten (decurii) would be.

So what do I think is going on with “πισός. And πινσός: but πεσός”? Of the three, πισός could be a variant of πινσός, merging /ns/ to /ss/ (as done elsewhere, because /ns/ really wasn’t at home in Greek; e.g. ἀδμηνσίων ~ ἀδμισσίων, ἰνστιγάτωρ ~ ἰστιγάτωρ, κομπενσατίων ~ κομπεσσατίων). But Suda is sloppy enough with its hoovering up in alphabetic order, that this could just be a variant accentuation of πίσος, “pea”. I don’t know, and neither does anyone but Mr Suidas.

For all that πεσσός is as Greek as a non-Hellenic word can be, I’m having trouble accepting that it could switch to πινσός on its own. But when πινσός turned up in Greek, people thought they were interchangeable words, and there’s no good reason to think they ever meant anything different.

At least, not while πεσσός meant a pier or terrace or column or whatever else, from Strabo through Diemous to Procopius, and raised from the dead again in our days, like so much Standard Modern Greek vocabulary: as far as Kriaras’ sources are concerned, πεσσός is just backgammon and suppositories. And even those sources were probably reanimating the dead themselves.

My surmise is that πινσός came into Greek as pinsus, maybe even as a term of the trade for concrete; it sounded like πεσσός, and its meaning was close enough that it could slip into usage replacing πεσσός—which was too tied to backgammon and suppositories to make sense for architecture. So πεσσός was Latinised, but it was Latinised in the direction of an existing and relevant word, not just with a random n-insertion.

Well, OK, the meaning is not that close; the piers of Hagia Sophia are ashlar and brick (Sir Banister Fletcher’s a History of Architecture, Architectural Press, 1996, p. 310), not crushed stone. And house columns aren’t crushed stone either. But it’s the best I can come up with. If anyone out there knows any better…

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