Dr. Judith A. Weller


Many medievalists naively assumed that the tandem hitch was a Medieval invention1. However, as has so often proved to be the case in matters relating to equid harness and traction systems, they are wrong. Once again the cause of this error springs from Lefebvre des Noëttes2. His reasoning is based on the fact that only one "picture" exists of a tandem hitch, that of the chariot of Langres.

Fig. 10: Tandem Hitch3

The ancient world was quite familiar with harness systems using more than 2 animals. Various tandem style hitches were well known and documented throughout the ancient world. We have only to remember that the great Corbillard of Alexander the Great was pulled by a 64 mule team4, and that some of the great columns of Eleusis were moved with multiple pairs of Oxen5. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History frequently alludes to tandem hitches as a common sight and his words serve as confirmation of their existence6. Of course, if these hitches were so common, why did Lefebvre des Noëttes, the cause of so much mis-information, state that they were little known. First we must remember that the Commandant was not a Latin Scholar, and hence was unable to deal with the nuances of many Latin words. The Latin word for the tandem hitch is protelum – however, as Henri Polge points out7, this word is incorrectly translated in the Latin-French dictionary which has consequently led to attendant problems with translations. He also notes that the word is correctly explained in the Latin –Spanish Encyclopedia8. Also De Cursu Publico talks of 8 mules yoked to a carriage in the summer season and 10 yoked in the winter9. Even after reading this Lefebvre des Noëttes is still convinced that there was a logical explanation for this ordinance, but proceeds to say the numbers were absurd as Roman roads were too narrow to harness 10 Mules abreast10.

In De Cursu Publico of the Codex Theodosianus ( it stipulates the number of beasts that are to be yoked to various vehicles of the Cursus Publicus, the Roman Imperial Post. This legislation had put many scholars in a quandary. The attractions of this particular ordinance to Lefebvre des Noëttes and his followers have been firstly, what seems to be the extraordinarily large number of animals required to pull such light loads; and secondly, that because the Romans were unable to hitch their animals tandem style, then they must have used animals harnessed abreast to pull the various vehicles specified.

This second point, that the Romans had no knowledge of the tandem hitch, has been completely demolished as is shown in this article.

However, it is the first point that requires some further investigation. No single explanation seems to be immediately satisfactory, but the most important point to remember is that the Cursus Publicus was a state-run postal service, where speed of delivery was the prime goal. Indeed, the service was divided into two branches, the cursus velox(the express post), and the cursus clabularis(the wagon post).11

In the most extreme example, a carriage of the cursus velox carrying a load of 1,000 Roman pounds (321kg) was required to have 8 to 10 mules pulling it. We might therefore expect that a fast-moving vehicle would be allocated a pair of horses that could cover as much ground as quickly as possible. However, J. Spruytte's experiments with a heavier load (440kg.) than this might indicate that that 8 or 10 mules is still excessive. Yet Spruytte conducted his experiment with a single pair of horses, not mules, and neither did he try to cover any significant distance.

Along the Roman highways were numerous staging posts, the distance between which was variable, often depending upon local conditions; the mean distances between staging posts have been variously calculated, but we might takes Chevalier's average of 8,333 paces as a model.12 Chevalier goes into considerable detail explaining the problems in understanding the terminology used to describe the various kinds of staging-posts, their function and their significance.

Ultimately he concludes that the average daily speed for the cursus was 75km. per day. For administrative reasons, it was required that the animals and vehicles should be changed frequently and regularly at the staging posts, which of course would mean that the loads themselves had to be transferred from one vehicle to another at each statutory halt. Often relays were found at fords or at the bottom of steep hills where horse teams had to be doubled. The method used was a tandem hitch. The intervals were shorter in mountainous country than on flat ground.

It might also be possible that the 8 to 10 mules required by De Cursu Publico for the four-wheeled carriage of the cursus velox did not represent tandem hitches of 8 to 10 animals, but rather meant the total number of animals that were required to undertake a day's journey.

Lefebvre des Noëttes would believed only that which he wanted to believe and either misinterpreted or ignored sources when they disagreed with him. Thus the tandem hitch was no medieval invention as some have assumed by reading only Lefebvre des Noëttes' work.

So the real question is why the tandem hitch is so seldom pictured? As I mentioned previously only the monument at Langres shows this particular harness system. This monument shows the first pair of horses immediately in front of the wagon, harnessed with a yoke and draught pole, the pair ahead are joined to draught pole by a unique set of traces13.

Fig. 11: Overhead Schematic of Tandem Hitch14

When one considers the use to which the tandem hitch was put, it will be self-evident why it appears so seldom on the iconography of the Roman World. The basic use of this hitch was in heavy hauling usually in connection with construction. Yet much of the iconography we have is funerary in nature and hence is designed to promote the magnificence and high status of an individual, so rather than show menial occupation being done, only splendid equipages are demonstrated. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that vast numbers of mosaics and other works of art are lost to us by the wreckage of time. It would be incredible to assume that no mosaic or drawing did not exist of Alexander's the Great Corbillard with it 64 mule team hitch.

Despite the existence of a medal15 showing a chariot pulled by 20 horses abreast, even the good Commandant does accept that any true change resulted in such a setup. In fact it was more likely this was designed to fit the oval item than it was meant to be a true representation of a harness system. Does anyone reasonably think that 64 mules could be harnessed abreast of the Corbillard and pull it along a road? Nevertheless this line of reasoning has been used to deny the existence of tandem harness. Yet writers such as Diodorus and Pliny put this theory to rest. Henri Polge is also very contemptuous of such an idea and views it as an impossibility16.

  1. Gimpel, p. 34
  2. Lefebvre des Noëttes, 1924 pp. 55-56
  3. Raepsaet, 1982, 3: No. 36
  4. Diodorus of Sicily, XVIII, 27,5
  5. Raepsaet, 1984
  6. Pliny. XVIII, 47. Quum multifariam in Italia octoni boves ad singulos vomeres anbelent
  7. Polge, pp. 15-16.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Th. Code, 8.5.8
  10. Lefebvre des Noëttes, 1924, p. 69
  11. Jones, p. 133
  12. Chevalier p. 186
  13. Raepsaet, 1982, p. 245
  14. Ibid., 1982, p. 257
  15. Lefebvre des Noëttes, 1924, fig. 82
  16. Polge, passim. Polge discusses at great lenght the impossibility of harnessing large numbers of animals abreast. He points out that if too many are harnessed in such a fashion the outer animals bear little or no traction load. His analysis demonstrates the error in thinking of those who believe that instead of using a tandem hitch, the Romans harnessed all animals abreast in the manner of the quadriga.