a Greek amphora

Greek amphora, 4th century B.C.

© iStockphoto.com / Nikolay Dimitrov

amphora [Latin]

(Latin plural, amphorae.) In the Classical world, a unit of capacity. The Roman amphora was about 26.2 liters, opens a new page containing a chart that shows relationships between this unit and other units in its system and the Greek was 1½ times the size of the Roman.

The amphora was both a unit and the name of a container for oil, wine and other liquids in the ancient Mediterranean.

The container itself was the classical world's equivalent of the 20ᵗʰ century's ubiquitous 55-gallon steel drum. Mediterranean underwater shipwrecks often contain row after row of amphorae. In Rome, a site called “Pot Mountain” consisted mostly of the shards of hundreds of thousands of amphorae.

display of Roman amphorae

© iStockphoto.com / Luca Manieri

Roman amphorae

An amphora had a narrow neck, two handles at the top like today's acid carboy, a plump middle, and usually a pointed bottom that could be pushed into soft earth or easily stacked in the hulls of ships. Some were made with bases so that they could stand upright on a flat surface. The prize at the Olympics was such an amphora, filled with olive oil and painted by a master, treasured then as they are now in the world's museums. Amphoras did not necessarily contain 1 amphora, the unit of capacity.

H. T. Wallinga.
Mnemosyne 1964, page 1-



In Roman times an amphora was equal to 36 sextarii, or 72 hemine, or 288 acetabuli, but in the middle ages (as in Greek times) it equalled 48 sextarii, or 96 hemine, or 384 acetabuli.

Mary Catherine Welborn.
Studies in Medieval Metrology.
Isis, vol. 24, no. 1 (December 1935).
Page 34.


The Ancient World On Line provides an index to scholarly sites dealing with the amphora as object.


W. Kendrick Pritchett and Anne Pippin.
The Attic stelai, Part II.
Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens v.25 no. 3, pages 195-196. 1956.

V. R. Grace.
Standard pottery containers of the ancient Greek world.
Commemorative Studies in Honor of Theodore Leslie Shear.
Hesperia Suppl. 8.
Princeton: 1949.
Page 175.

I. B. Brashinskiy.
Metody issledovaniya antichnoy torgovli (naprimere Severnogo Pricernomorya).
[Methods for the study of ancient trade (using the example of the northern Black Sea)]
Leningrad: 1984.
Pages 92-197.

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