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p923 Plaustrum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p923 of

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

PLAUSTRUM or PLOSTRUM (ἅμαξα, dim. ἅμαξις), a cart or waggon. This vehicle had commonly two wheels, but sometimes four, and it was then called the plaustrum majus. The invention of four-wheeled waggons is attributed to the Phrygians (Plin. H. N. VII.56).

Besides the wheels and axle the plaustrum consisted of a strong pole (temo), to the hinder part of which was fastened a table of wooden planks. The blocks of stone, or other things to be carried, were either laid upon this table without any other support, or an additional security was obtained by the use either of boards at the sides (ὑπερτερία, Hom. Od. VI.70; Plato, Theaet. p467, Heindorf.) or of a large wicker basket tied upon the cart (πείρινος, Hom. Il. XXIV.267, Od. XV.131). The annexed woodcut, taken from a bas-relief at Rome, exhibits a cart, the body of which is supplied by a basket. Similar vehicles are still used in many parts of Europe, being employed more especially to carry charcoal.


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In many cases, though not universally, the wheels were fastened to the axle, which moved, as in our children's carts, within wooden rings adapted for its reception and fastened to the body. These rings were called in Greek ἁμαξόποδες, in Latin arbusculae. The parts of the axis, which revolved within them, were sometimes cased with iron (Vitruv. X.2 §14).º The commonest kind of cart-wheel was that called tympanum, "the drum," from its resemblance to the musical instrument of the same name (Varro, de Re Rust. III.5; Virg. Georg. II.444). It was nearly a foot in thickness, and was made either by sawing the trunk of a tree across in an horizontal direction, or by nailing together boards of the requisite shape and size. It is exemplified in the preceding woodcut, and in the sculptures on the arch of Septimius Severus at Rome. Although these wheels were excellent for keeping the roads in repair and did not cut up the fields, yet they rendered it necessary to take a long circuit in turning. They advanced slowly (Virg. Georg. I.163). They also made a loud creaking, which was heard to a great distance (stridentia plaustra, Virg. Georg. III.536; gementia, Aen. XI.138). Their rude construction made them liable to be overturned with their load of stone, timber, manure, or skins of wine (Juv. III.241‑243), whence the Emperor Hadrian prohibited heavily loaded waggons from entering the city of Rome (Spartian. Hadr. 22). The waggoner was sometimes required to aid the team with his shoulder. Accidents of this kind gave origin to the proverb "Plaustrum perculi," meaning "I have had a misfortune" (Plaut. Epid. IV.2.22). Carts of this description, having solid wheels without spokes, are still used in Greece (Dodwell's Tour, vol. II pp102, 103) and in some parts of Asia (Sir R. K. Porter's Travels, vol. II p533).


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A detail of the 4c Roman mosaic vaulting of the church of S. Costanza in Rome.


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Page updated: 28 Aug 12