Dr. Judith A. Weller

One can not examine Roman Traction systems, without first studying the animal wearing the harness. Some 50 million years ago "Eohippus", the dawn horse of the Middle Eocene, was no bigger than a medium-sized dog. The first true horses to be domesticated by man were small and unsuited to pulling heavy loads; something that would later be made practicable through selective breeding. As draft animals, horses make their first appearance in the historical record harnessed to war chariots. How big were these horses, what was the harness like, and how big or heavy was the chariot? The best physical evidence we have here is from the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. In the tomb of Tutankhamun was found not only the chariot used by the young Pharaoh, but also the harness worn by the horses who drew it. No one person has spent more time studying, reconstructing, and analyzing this harness and chariot than Mary Littauer1. In the famous reconstruction and experiment with the chariot and harness, it was found that horses no larger than 12 hands 2 ½ inches (1.28m) could be used2. Even in the Roman Imperial era, archeological remains of horse indicate that the majority of horses were between 115cm (11 hands 1 ½ inches) and 135cm (13 hands 1 ¼ inches)3, although a few were as large as 155 cm (15 hands 1 inches)4.

The Romans had developed vast systems of stud farms to supply horses for the army, and for the circus. A study of original Latin sources reveals that about 50 separate breeds are defined and described5. No such large scale breeding program existed in the Middle Ages. Columella in his work On Agriculture describes the Roman program:

Horses are divided into three groups: the noble breed that provides animals for holiday races in the circus; the stock used for breeding mules, which fetches a price that puts it on a level with the noble variety; and the common breed, which produces ordinary mares and stallions.6

The mention of mules is of special importance, as the mule, prized for its hardiness, was much used in the Roman Army for pulling vehicles and as a pack animal7. However, from archeological excavations there is no way to distinguish between the bones of a horse or of a mule8. Frequently one sees mules depicted in harness on various funerary monuments and columns.

The mules and horses who drew wagons in both the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire were, on the average, of only moderate height (14hands9) whose conformation demonstrated some local variance10. Raepsaet drew special attention to the horse on the Trèves monument noting that its stocky, thick-set conformation closely resembled that of the modern draft horse11. Nevertheless, the horses used both in Roman and Medieval times were in no way comparable to the heavy draft breeds developed in 17th century and later, such as the Percheron, Clydesdale, who often themselves weighed 1 ton and stood between 16-17 hands. Whereas the Romans bred mules for hauling and draft work on a large scale, there is no similar evidence in the Medieval Period, that equids were bred for heavy hauling12."Any increase in the size of medieval horses as compared to their Roman counterparts was probably insignificant" 13.

  1. Littauer, Op. cit.
  2. Spruytte, p. 40.
  3. Van Neer, p. 35
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hyland, p. 11
  6. Columella On Agriculture 6.27-29, See also Varro, On Agriculture 2.7, Pliny, Natural History (8.167-170), see also Palladius, Pelagonius
  7. Greene, Archaeology of the Roman Economy, p. 39
  8. Van Neer, p. 32
  9. Langdon, Brancards et Transport, p.119
  10. Raepsaet, 1982, 232-33
  11. Raepsaet, 1982, pp. 232-233
  12. Langdon, Ibid., p. 119
  13. Ibid.