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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 26, No. 8 (May 1931), 619‑620

The text is in the public domain.

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p619 Horseshoes in Antiquity

It seems permissible to call attention to the almost lost art of horseshoeing, which is associated with a practice fast becoming obsolete, viz. the use of beasts of burden. In Greek and Roman literature we find an amazing paucity of references on the shoeing of horses or mules. We do know that to preserve the hoofs of animals in soft or rough ground they were shod with soleae or ὑποδήματα, made of metal, leather, or Spanish hemp.

As early as the fourth century before the Christian era Aristotle (Historia Animalium 499A) tells us that camels wore leather shoes or sandals (καρβάτιναι) when used in a campaign. At the opening of the same century Xenophon (Anabasis IV.5.36) informs us that bags were wrapped around the feet of horses and mules when passing through snow, to prevent them from sinking. From Catullus (XVII.26) we learn that iron shoes were in use in his day but were not fastened very securely and certainly not with nails or else the animals would not have lost them in the mire. Nero (Suetonius, xxx.3), given to ostentation and excesses, had his mules shod with silver, while his wife, Poppaea, (Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.140) had hers shod with gold.

There is no evidence, either literary or archaeological, to indicate that horseshoes were nailed. They were fastened less firmly and less permanently. Suetonius (Vespasian XXIII.2) mentions a muleteer stopping his team on the road and shoeing his mules, unassisted by a smith. This would have been impossible, and not permissible for the emperor's team, if the shoes required heating, shaping, and fastening with nails. The only alternative was to attach them with laces or straps. A singular and striking observation on these passages from Latin literature is that all refer to mules.

From the ancient veterinarians (Columella VI.12; and Vegetius, p620De Mulomedicina I.26) we learn that shoes of hemp were in use to preserve or heal fissured hoofs. Hempen shoes were also put over the feet of cattle which were given to the habit of excessive stamping. A practice analogous to that of our day was to value cast-off shoes as prophylactics (Palladius I.24.2).

We are led to believe, from the evidence presented, that shoes were not used permanently but fastened or removed as occasion demanded. This is substantiated by Xenophon (De Re Equestri IV.3F), who gives directions for the sort of pavement in the stable or stable-yard which would best harden the hoofs. It would be surprising if, in spite of all methods for hardening hoofs, they would not have worn down very quickly without protection on roads. Thucydides (VII.27.5) mentions the hard campaigns of the Athenian cavalry against Decelea and says that some horses were constantly going lame because of the rocky ground.

David B. Kaufman

Lafayette College

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Page updated: 7 Jul 13