BMCR 2013.12.19

Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy before the Roman Empire

, Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy before the Roman Empire. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books, 2012. xxii, 234. ISBN 9781842174678. $80.00.

With this beautiful and informative book the author fulfills the tacit promise that he made by including pictures and information on several chariots and carts of pre-Roman Italy as comparable items in his work on the Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Iron Age Greece.1 In fact, the new volume is dedicated to the collection and interpretation of any evidence for the production and use of wheeled vehicles in Italy before the Roman empire, thus including both actual finds and ancient representations, and matching them in order to reconstruct the relevant technological and historical framework.

Of course, being an acknowledged authority on the vehicles of the ancient Mediterranean, with special regard to the Aegean area, Crouwel makes the most of his experience with the subject in the Italian context, too. The limits he chooses for his research are both chronological and geographical, accurately avoiding the possible biases of referring to ancient boundaries and ethnic groups: according to the author “Italy” is contained within the modern boundaries of the Italian Republic and “before the Roman empire” means before the battle of Actium, which marked the beginning of the age of Augustus. Moreover, evidence for wheeled conveyances in southern Italy and Sicily is mostly figural and belongs to the context of Magna Graecia, showing types and features of the vehicles of mainland Greece; therefore, the author uses this evidence only “with caution and for comparative purposes” (ix), thus further shrinking the geographical limits of the research, to include only central and northern Italy (fig. 8).

The language used is not free from technicalities that at times make reading difficult; but the splendid glossary provided in the introductory pages (xiii-xv), and the plain form of communication chosen by the author make it easy to follow the thread of the text, even for somebody who has no familiarity with technical issues.

After a short overview on some important side-arguments, such as roads in pre-Roman Italy (1-3) and the evidence for draught animals (3-7), the main body of the book divides into three parts, dedicated to as many categories of wheeled vehicles of the relevant period: chariots, carts and wagons.

The lion’s share of the discussion is held by chariots, that is to say two-wheeled, usually horse-drawn fast vehicles, carrying a standing driver and standing passenger(s) (8-69). Different types of chariots (from type I to V) are identified on the grounds of structural features, pertaining mostly to the body and profile of the vehicle. Such a typology will be outstandingly useful for future research and classification of old and new finds, for it explains how a specific type of chariot can be detected from single (usually metal) parts of the body or harness. Therefore, Crouwel’s text will be henceforth a reference book for scholars, providing information for making likely reconstructions based on fragmentary evidence; the large number of drawings and photographs collected in the final plates (141-222) will be of practical use in the search for comparanda.

A similar technical typology is given for horse bits, too (44-47), which are conveniently distinguished for their structural features rather than for their shape and decoration. In this regard, important steps forward are made also in the interpretation of figural evidence, as in the case of the winged terracotta horses of Tarquinia, considered “our most detailed document … as regards the attachment of both neckstrap and girth” (41). But at the same time they show bits that “were clearly designed for horses ridden in warfare rather than draught teams” (48), and therefore are a figment of the imagination of the artist, rather than a reproduction of the actual team of a chariot. This should prompt us to be cautious in making use of the figural evidence.

As well, the ascertainment of the use of bullae for horses (41-42) should make us cautious in interpreting such items as personal status-markers of the deceased, when we find them in burials: occasionally they could rather be relating to horses or chariots as a pars pro toto.

Important, but probably not expanded enough, is the paragraph on the actual use of the chariots in Italy before the Roman empire (52-69); it gives an account of the principal achievements on the argument and of the different hypotheses on the symbolic values and actual role of these vehicles in war as well as in peace, for races and ceremonies. In conformity with the technical framework of the book, the discussion on the real use of the chariots found in tombs or represented in figural documents refers principally to the plausibility of their ancient function on the road and in hypothetical operational circumstances.

Whereas the pictorial representations of battles or military operations with chariots may refer to a mythological or idealized heroic context, the finds of actual remains of chariots in high-status tombs in central and northern Italy of the Orientalizing and Archaic period (at times with evidence of having been used) show that the chariot preserved a fundamental symbolic value for Italian aristocracies, along with other symbols of rank and authority (64, 102-104). In this regard more space could have been dedicated to the ceremonies and processions involving chariots represented on Etruscan terracottas and reliefs, as precedent and origin of the Roman triumph.2

On the other hand, Crouwel devotes some pages to chariot racing in Italy as well as at Rome, assuming that it “may have been introduced in central Italy from Greece” (68) and had an apparent religious or cultic origin. (Incidentally, it is by no means true that representations of chariots on vase paintings had “no funerary association” (66): in fact, it has been ascertained that vases were often produced, purchased or commissioned for burials). Some useful remarks are also made about driving techniques, possible accidents and drivers’ dress and equipment (65-69).

Much shorter are the chapters dedicated to carts (70-88) and wagons (89-96), to be distinguished from one another mainly for the number of wheels: two vs. four. The special value of decorated carts as symbols of rank in the Archaic period, for women as well as for men, made possible the preservation of a fair amount of remains in funerary contexts of central Italy. Crouwel is therefore able to present two different types of carts, to be distinguished on the grounds of the structure of the body and of the draught pole (73-78). It is worth mentioning the convincing interpretation of the function of the so-called ‘poggiaredini’: a complex metal pole ending, occurring in several Archaic tombs of central Italy, that characterize the Y-poled cart type I (73-75).

Special importance is also attached to the wheels (both of carts and wagons), which, unlike chariots, are not only of the spoked type, but can be also disk-shaped or tripartite (80-84).3

The ceremonial use of carts is apparent in figural documents, both in weddings and in funerary contexts (85-87); but Crouwel points out correctly that, in daily life, carts could easily be adapted for transporting passengers or goods (88). And of course wagons had a similar multiplicity of functions, although few representations have been found—diligently taken into consideration by the author, but insufficient for determining a typology (95-96, 105).

The volume closes with some final considerations on transportation and warfare in pre-Roman Italy on foot or animal back—thus with no vehicles (97-100)—, and with a recap of the conclusions about the spread of the use of wheeled conveyances thoughout the centuries from the third millennium BCE (date of the earliest evidence) to the beginning of the Roman empire (100-108).

If a criticism can be leveled at Crouwel’s remarkable work, it is his detachment from the ethnic and geographical diversity of pre-Roman Italy (although this has been praised before as a good point of the book for avoiding biases). He seems to consider Italy as a whole, not only from the point of view of the technological features of vehicles, but also as regards their use and symbolic values: it is worth highlighting here that the totality of wheeled conveyances taken into consideration in the book refers mostly to the Etruscan culture, followed by the Picene, Latin, Palaeovenetic and Celtic (Golasecca) cultures; as a consequence, a number of different peoples of pre-Roman Italy are excluded that presumably had vehicles but did not put them in burials or reproduce them in art.

From a practical point of view, Crouwel’s geography of Italy refers to modern regions instead of ancient peoples (fig. 1): it is therefore strange, for instance, to find that Cerveteri and San Giuliano are in Lazio (18, 74) as well as Satricum and Colle del Forno (18, 78), not distinguishing among Etruscan, Latin and Sabine contexts. Moreover, there are some errors in attributions, such as Tarquinia and Vulci in Tuscany (18, 4), or Veii mistaken for Vulci and put in Tuscany rather than in Lazio (55).

This deliberate choice is not just formal, however, for it affects the possibility of matching the technical, structural and decorative typologies of the vehicles with issues of ethnic identity and acculturation. Nonetheless, Crouwel’s detailed exposition provides precious hints in this direction, showing that the most wide-spread chariot, type I, is different from the mainland Greek corresponding type, though linked to it (16-17); that the indisputable links of Etruscan chariots with the Near East are often mediated by East Greece and Anatolia (17, 28, 51); that bits with jointed cannons linked to loops on the cheekpieces are typical of the Golasecca culture (46). Some further ethnic remarks are present in two appendices about representations in the Archaic Situla Art of northern Italy (109-111), and on Palaeovenetic stelae and Roman bronze coins referring to Celtic chariots (111-112).

The book would have benefited from some more editorial work, especially as regards Italian names of places and scholars: see e.g. “Ara della Regia” for “Regina” (6), “Barbarano Romana” for “Romano” (74), “Collo del Forno” for “Colle” (78), and “Via Tovana” or “Tofana” for “Tofane” (79, 81, 195); or “Bonami” for “Bonamici” (115), and “Cuccini” for “Cucini” (43). Finally, I suppose it will be of some use to provide here the reference of Schollmeyer 2001, cited at p. 38, note 203, but missing in the bibliography: Patrick Schollmeyer, Antike Gespanndenkmäler, Hamburg 2001.

But this does not prevent the reader from enjoying this well written and illuminating book, which will certainly foster future research on wheeled vehicles, alongside of further recent bibliography on the subject.4


1. J.H. Crouwel, Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Iron Age Greece, ( Allard Pierson Series 9), Amsterdam 1992.

2. For recent bibliography on the subject, see G. Colonna, L’Italia antica: Italia centrale, in A. Emiliozzi (ed.), Carri da guerra e principi etruschi, Roma 1997: 15-23; M. Beard, The Roman Triumph, Cambridge (MA) – London 2007; M. Torelli, Quel funerale così simile a un trionfo. Funus triumpho simillimum (Sen. Cons Marc. 3.1), in E. La Rocca, S. Tortorella (eds.), Trionfi romani, Milano 2008: 84-89; M. Menichetti, La guerra, il vino, l’immortalità. Alle origini della cerimonia del trionfo etrusco-romano, in P. Amann (ed.), Kulte – Rite – religiöse Vorstellungen bei den Etruskern und ihr Verhältnis zu Politik und Gesellschaft, Wien 2012: 393-406.

3. The acknowledgment of this last type confirms its identification on the obverse of the Etruscan silver coin of the 5th century BCE (pl. 103) mentioned at p. 81, note 77: to the bibliography should be added S. Bruni, Le monete a legenda θezi o θezle, in AnnPerugia 24, 1986/87: 83-103, and D.F. Maras, Numismatica ed epigrafia. Nuove osservazioni sulle serie a legenda θezi e leθez, in ScAnt 11, 2001/03: 403-416 (there I assumed the coin represents the inner side of a shield: Crouwel demonstrates that I got it wrong!).

4. A. Emiliozzi, The Etruscan Chariot of Monteleone di Spoleto, in MMAJ 46, 2011: 9-132; Eadem, Princely Chariots and Carts, in J. Turfa (ed.), The Etruscan World, Abingdon – New York 2013: 778-797.