BMCR 2021.12.09

The rhetoric of Roman transportation: vehicles in Latin literature

, The rhetoric of Roman transportation: vehicles in Latin literature. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xvi, 353. ISBN 9781108481762 $99.99.

The teenaged Jane Austen dreamt of vehicles. In the first of her notebooks, containing stories composed between the ages of eleven and seventeen, is “Memoirs of Mr Clifford: an Unfinished Tale,” a two-page fragment with a whimsical, outlandish catalogue of modes of transportation. Mr. Clifford was such a “rich young man”, Austen writes, that he owned “a Coach, a Chariot, a Chaise, a Landeau, a Landeaulet, a Phaeton, a Gig, a Whisky, an Italian Chair, a Buggy, a Curricle and a wheelbarrow.”[1] In a journey by coach from Bath to London, Mr Clifford begins “remarkably expeditiously,” but he makes it only so far as Overton in Hampshire, where as a result of the rigors of travelling, he is waylaid with fever and stays in bed for five months. Weakened, he makes it to Basingstoke, and then to Worting, and then—but there the story stops. Jane dedicated the story to her little brother Charles, and the entire fantasy has been interpreted as a reflection of Charles’ boyish fascination with anything on wheels. Yet Austen’s early writings are full of wild cross-country coach-rides and journeys. She imagined mobility not only for her brothers but for herself, or at least her female characters. For Austen, travel could mean inconvenience, danger, or freedom, and her adolescent list of a rich man’s toys already suggests the possibility of movement beyond the confines of domestic experience.

Jared Hudson’s excellent new book The Rhetoric of Roman Transportation: Vehicles in Latin Literature similarly asks what vehicles represented in the ancient literary imagination. This is not a book about the reality of different kinds of cart or wagon, although if you want to be able to tell your carruca from your cisium there is a helpful overview of eighteen forms of conveyance in the book’s lengthy introduction (pp. 1–64). It is instead about the representation of vehicles in Latin literature, bringing to light not only the particular associations of individual modes of transport, but also the ways in which an attention to transportation highlights aspects of literary language itself. References to the plaustrum in Roman texts, for example, signal an author’s attention to the material aspects of everyday life. The currus (chariot), however, is so frequently a metaphor for something else that it signifies a distance from the literal, a mark of power or celebrity, or a symbol of an author’s flight beyond the everyday. As Hudson explains early in his book, his modus operandi will be to pay scrupulous attention to details in literary texts that usually remain incidental. Wagons are rarely the central focus of a narrative. Yet Hudson’s thorough, wide-ranging, thoroughly entertaining analysis of vehicles in Latin literature shows us that modes of transportation do occupy an important place in the Roman imagination. The choice to ride in a currus, carpentum or lectica was connected to deeply felt distinctions regarding gender, morality, and social status. Paying close attention to how a character gets from a to b allows us to see a variety of familiar texts in an entirely new light.

Hudson begins with the humblest of Roman vehicles, the plaustrum (a “rumbling, lowly cart,” 58). Because of its earthy associations, a plaustrum in a literary text can be a symbol for agricultural virtue, peacetime leisure in the countryside, or the lower genres in the literary hierarchy. Hudson begins with Cato’s mention of a plaustrum among a list of objects on the estate that the manager should sell once they become old and overused. For Hudson, the list is hierarchically arranged, a “miniature cosmology of the farm’s primary constituents of value” (73). As Hudson shows in a series of readings from Livy, the plaustrum can also play a prominent role in crises from Republican history, and in these cases its appearance expresses a sense of extreme exigency and Roman resourcefulness. This is not a vehicle for “pleasure-cruising or luxurious comfort,” but a “utilitarian tool par excellence, here adapted to state delivery” (94). It was a plaustrum that helped the wife and children of L. Albinius make their escape during the Gallic sack; in a famous show of pietas, Albinius ordered them to dismount in order to allow the Vestal Virgins to ride instead (Livy 5.40.9–10). It was a plaustrum that hauled the city auletes (tibicines) back to Rome when they had seceded from the city in protest (Livy 9.30.5–10). Finally, Hudson argues that the traffic-blocking plaustra in satiric texts are not only typical of poets’ complaints but a symbol of their genre. “Sermones are plaustra,” he writes, “vehicles of urban disruption, which at the same time vie with them for a place in the city” (114).

The next two chapters treat different forms of the chariot, the currus and the essedum. Chariots of course have a long history in Greek literature and culture, but Hudson focuses on two uniquely Roman varieties of currus: the racing chariot and the triumphal chariot. Both vehicles have little to do with transportation, accessible only to “specially marked Romans,” and would have existed more as symbol than reality for the majority of the population (130). Synthesizing an especially large amount of evidence in this chapter, Hudson demonstrates that the currus’ two essential associations in Roman thought are speed and violence. Those qualities are to be expected in accounts of chariot races, in which the reader is constantly reminded of horses bursting forth from the carceres and riders falling dramatically from their vehicles, but in Ovid’s retelling of the Phaethon myth the very order of the cosmos is “revealed to depend entirely on the precarious stunts of a daring hotshot” (180). The triumphal chariot, meanwhile, exists at a deliberate remove from ordinary Roman life. For Cicero, the currus represents the “military prestige he never attained,” a tantalizing symbol of power that was available for rhetorical manipulation while never becoming a reality in his own career. Hudson’s third chapter, on the essedum, tells a story of cultural appropriation. First glimpsed as a war-chariot in Caesar’s British expedition, this vehicle later became a fashionable mode of conveyance on the streets of Martial’s Rome. Hudson sensitively traces a sense of wonder in Caesar’s ethnographic account of the lean, swift essedum. Its later popularity among the smart set, he suggests, depended upon its continued ability to confound cultural categories. In the literature of the Roman Empire, the essedum could epitomize mobility and stability, Roman and non-Roman, chaos and control (189).

Chapter four focuses on the carpentum, the “female vehicle par excellence” (208). Women who want to move about in Rome are caught in a familiar double bind, since their mobility is simultaneously licensed and censured. By ancient privilege, the carpentum is a woman’s vehicle, the form of conveyance that women are uniquely permitted to ride. Nausicaa rides into history on a carpentum in a fragment from Livius Andronicus’ translation of the Odyssey, the earliest use of the word in extant Latin (222). Descriptions of women’s role as both drivers and passengers in Roman texts, however, almost always associate the carpentum with reckless or shameful behavior. Hudson focuses on the tragic story of Tullia, wife of Tarquinius Superbus, who conspired in the murder of her father and then drove her carpentum over his bloodied corpse. Tullia’s role as a negative exemplum is “structured spatially by her own movements via carpentum” (218), and the wagon itself stands for the “potentially hazardous passage from the role of Roman daughter to that of Roman wife” (224). The last section of the chapter explores outraged evocations of men using the carpentum. Juvenal, for example, imagines the pathici amici of Naevolus flocking to Rome in their carpenta (Sat. 9.132). Similarly, the consul muleteer Lateranus violates not only class but gender propriety by driving around the streets of Rome in a speeding carpentum (Sat. 8.146-7). In these and other instances, Hudson shows expertly how a potentially inconspicuous textual detail—the choice of a particular mode of transport—would have resonated among Roman readers in highly meaningful ways.

Finally, Hudson turns to Rome’s “litter-ati” (259), the leisured elite who were carried through Rome while lying in the lectica (“litter”). Compared with the other modes of conveyance in the book, the lectica bears an especially heavy symbolic load. According to Hudson’s analysis, it variously represents “coincidences of (questionable) refinement and vicious cruelty” (264), the confusion of public and private spheres (266), and the “dangers of Empire” (266); it is a “device which blurs categories (of status, moral stature, slave/free)” (279), a “metaphor for political power” (296), and an index of virtue or vice in Suetonius’ biographies (301). Unifying all of these concerns is the issue of control. Although the use of a litter as a mode of transportation was a sign of wealth and status, being carried in public by other human beings could also be viewed as a potentially worrying renunciation of power. The anxiety surrounding the lectica can be seen in passages from Seneca that attempt to subvert its unwholesome connotations, which transform the litter-ride into a virtuous space for productivity, studia, and the exercise of self-control (284–86). As Hudson shows, the litter is also strongly associated with the ultimate loss of physical control: death. Roman invective is replete with instances of rich men so dissipated that they come close to being dead bodies, “carried off” in their litters. In the ancient mind, Hudson writes, “litters can rapidly transform into biers” (309).

From beginning to end, The Rhetoric of Roman Transportation is an eye-opening and enjoyable ride. The book is written with wit and an evident enthusiasm for the subject matter, and the prose is replete with cultural references ranging from Jean-Luc Godard to David Bowie to The Wind in the Willows. There are, however, signs of structural strain in the arrangement of such a large amount of material. A stand-alone section on scythed chariots functions as the introduction to the chapter on the essedum, though such vehicles are not in fact called esseda. A list of instances of the constellation called the Plaustrum awkwardly concludes the first chapter (this section is called a “postlude” in the main text but an “appendix” in the footnotes). The book is also vague in its direction of traffic. Instances of non-specific “see above” and “see below” abound, and on three occasions a reference to “p. 000” has slipped through the far-from-faultless copy-editing. I found the frequent references to cars in the text and chapter titles a little much after a while (“Road Rage,” “Power Steering,” “Jumpstart,” “Test Drive”), and in any case the modern mythology of automotive freedom risks obscuring the role of enslaved labor in ancient transportation (who was really driving?), a theme to which Hudson is otherwise very sensitive. Nonetheless, anyone who has read The Rhetoric of Roman Transportation will find it difficult to view a cart or chariot in a Roman text in quite the same way again. Hudson also shows impressive range as a critic, making genuinely insightful observations about authors as diverse as Plautus, Cato, Cicero, Caesar, Livy, Seneca and Juvenal, with many others glimpsed throughout the journey.

In his preface (or “Preamble”), Hudson announces that The Rhetoric of Roman Transportation “test-drives a new method of reading Latin” (p. xv). That is a surprising claim, since the techniques he brings to the study are firmly traditional: the tracking of vocabulary, a sensitivity to sound and word order, and a knowledge of Latin literary history from Plautus to Apuleius. Hudson does succeed, though, in his stated effort to read the canon with a “kind of systematic obliqueness” (xv), transforming peripheral mentions of transportation into essential vehicles for meaning. As I read the book, I began to notice Hudson describing modes of conveyance almost as though they were characters in his texts. He writes, for example, of “currus’ victorious rhetoric” (174), of “carpentum’s role in the story” (210), and that “lectica attracts everyone’s attention, but simultaneously snubs them” (271). In a way, this stylistic quirk reflects the book’s greatest strength. Hudson has successfully taken a set of terms, usually translated into English indistinctly as “chariot” and “wagon,” and brought to light their individual histories, mythologies and personalities. He may have taken the most instrumental objects as his subject matter, but he has convincingly made them the center of attention.


[1] J. Austen, Love and Freindship [sic] and Other Youthful Writings, ed. C. Alexander (London: Penguin, 2014), 45.