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p1125 Thensae

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on p1125 of

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

THENSAE or TENSAE (for the orthography and etymology of the word are alike doubtful, although the oldest MSS. generally omit the aspirate) were highly ornamented sacred vehicles, which, in the solemn pomp of the Circensian games, conveyed the statues of certain deities with all their decorations to the pulvinaria, and after the sports were over bore them back to their shrines Cic. in Verr. II.1, 59, and note of Pseudo-Ascon. III.27, V.72; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. I.21; Festus, s.v.; Diomedes, I. p372, ed. Putsch.; Dion Cass. XLVII.40; Tertull. de Spect. 7). We are ignorant of their precise form; for although we find several representations upon ancient medals and other works of art, of gods seated in cars, and especially of the sun-chariot of Elagabalus (Herodian. V.6; see Vaillant, Numismata Imp. vol. II p269; Ginzrot, Die Wägen und Fahrwerke, &c. tab. XLII fig. 6); yet we have no means of deciding which, if any, of these are tensae. We know that they were drawn by horses (Plutarch. Coriolan. 25, who calls them θήσσας), and escorted (deducere) by the chief senators in robes of state, who, along with pueri patrimi [Patrimi], laid hold of the bridles and traces, or perhaps assisted to drag the carriage (for ducere is used as well as deducere, Liv. V.41), by means of thongs attached for the purpose (and hence the proposed derivation from tendo). So sacred was this duty considered, that Augustus, when labouring under sickness, deemed it necessary to accompany the tensae in a litter. If one of the horses knocked up or the driver took the reins in his left hand, it was necessary to recommence the procession, and for one of the attendant boys to let go the thong or to stumble was profanation (Liv. V.41; Plutarch. l.c.; Ascon. l.c.; Arnob. adv. gent. IV.31; compared with the oration de Harusp. resp. 11; Tertull. de cor. mil. 13, and de Spectac. 7; Suet. Octav. 43).

The only gods distinctly named as carried in tensae are Jupiter and Minerva (Suet. Vespas. 5; Dion Cass. XLVII.40, L.8, LXVI.1), to which number Mars is usually added on the authority of Dion Cassius (LXXVIII.8), but, in the passage referred to, he merely states, that at the Circensian games celebrated A.D. 216, the statue of Mars, which was in the procession (πομπεῖον), fell down, and it is very remarkable that Dionysius (VII.72), in his minute description of the Pompa Circensis, takes no notice whatever of the Tensae, but represents the statues of the gods as carried on men's shoulders, i.e. on fercula. That a considerable number of deities however received this honour seems probable from the expression of Cicero, in his solemn appeal at the close of the last Verrine oration, "omnesque dii, qui vehiculis tensarum solemnes coetus ludorum initis;" though we cannot determine who these gods were. We frequently hear indeed of the chariot of Juno (Virg. Georg. III.531), of Cybele (Aen. VI.784), and many others, but as these are not mentioned in connexion with the Pompa Circensis, there is no evidence that they were tensae. Among the impious flatteries heaped on Caesar, it was decreed that his ivory statue should accompany the image of the gods to the circus in a complete chariot (ἅρμα ῾όλον, that is, a tensa, in opposition to a mere ferculum, and that this chariot should stand in the Capitol immediately opposite to that of Jupiter (Dion Cass. XLIII.15, 21, 45, XLIV.6).

Similar homage was paid upon high festivals to the images of their gods by other ancient nations. Thus, in the curious ceremonies performed at Papremis connected with the worship of the Egyptian deity, whom Herodotus (II.63) imagined to be identical with Ares, the statue, enshrined in a chapel made of gilded wood, was dragged in a four-wheeled car by a body of priests. So also, in the account given by Athenaeus (V c. 27, &c.), after Callixenes of Rhodes, of the gorgeous pageant at Alexandria, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, we read of a car of Bacchus of prodigious size, most costly materials, and most elaborate workmanship, which was dragged by 180 men, and to such customs we may find a parallel in modern times in the usages which prevail at the festival of S. Agatha at Catania, and S. Rosolia at Palermo.

(Scheffer de Re vehiculari, c. 24; Ginzrot, Die Wägen und Fahrwerke der Griechen und Römer, c. 55; but the latter author, both here and elsewhere, allows his imagination to carry him farther than his authorities warrant.)

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