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p464 Ephippium

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p464 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.


[image ALT: A Roman lamp, on which is depicted a horse with a saddle blanket and a bridle, but no stirrups.]

EPHIPPIUM (ἀστράβη, ἐφίππιον, ἐφίππειον), a saddle. Although the Greeks occasionally rode without any saddle (ἐπὶ ψιλοῦ ἵππου, Xenoph. De Re Eques. VII.5), yet they commonly used one, and from them the name, together with the thing, was borrowed by the Romans (Varr. De Re Rust. II.7; Caes. B. G. IV.2; Hor. Epist. I.14.43; Gellius, V.5). It has indeed been asserted, that the use of saddles was unknown until the fourth century of our era. But Ginzrot, in his valuable work on the history of carriages (vol. II c26), has shown, both from the general practice of the Egyptians and other Oriental nations, from the pictures preserved on the walls of houses at Herculaneum, and from the expressions employed by J. Caesar and other authors, that the term "ephippium" denoted not a mere horse cloth, a skin, or a flexible covering of any kind, but a saddle-tree, or frame of wood, which, after being filled with a stuffing of wool or cloth, was covered with softer materials, and fastened by means of a girth (cingulum, zona) upon the back of the animal. The ancient saddles appear, indeed, to have been thus far different from ours, that the cover stretched upon the hard frame was probably of stuffed or padded cloth rather than leather, and that the saddle was, as it were, a cushion fitted to the horse's back. Pendent cloths (στρῶματα, strata) were always attached to it so as to cover the sides of the animal; but it was not provided with stirrups. As a substitute for the use of stirrups the horses, more particularly in Spain, were taught to kneel at the word of command, when their riders wished to mount them. See the preceding figure from an antique lamp found at Herculaneum, and compare Strabo, III.1 p436, ed. Sieb.; and Silius Italicus, X.465.

The saddle with the pendent cloths is also exhibited in the annexed coin of Q. Labienus.


[image ALT: A Roman coin. The obverse shows a head with the legend]
Q · LABIENVS · PARTHICVS · IMPa

The term "Ephippium" was in later times in part supplanted by the word "sella," and the more specific expression "sella equestris."


Thayer's Note:

a Q · LABIENVS · PARTHICVS · IMP: This is not just any coin; it's a very rare one indeed, and it is a witness to some very unusual historical circumstances. For the full story, as well as photos of these coins, see Q. Labienus (42‑39 B.C.) on the Parthian Empire site — the online reference for Parthia and its coins, by the way.

On that page, Edward Hopkins writes: "Controversy exists on both the meaning of the obverse inscription and the riderless horse on the reverse."

I believe that the "riderless" part does not matter so much as the horse, and, precisely, its saddle: the horse is shown riderless so we can see the details of the saddle, which would otherwise be obscured. Now Mr Yates' article above mentions that the stirrup was unknown to the Romans; invented somewhere in central Asia, stirrups gave added control to the horseman, since he could guide the horse with his feet, freeing his arms for archery. Is it just a coincidence that the Asian country of Parthia was famous for its horse-mounted archers, who could shoot their arrows behind them as they galloped forwards?

Thus Labienus's coins may well be showing us not "pendent cloths" but stirrups. The real question is why the Romans never seem to have adopted them, especially if, as early as the 1c B.C., they were aware of their technical superiority.


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Page updated: 4 Sep 13