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Essedarius

Caesar called the chariots of the Celtic Britons that he confronted in 55 BC esseda, and those who fought from them, essedarii. Hurling javelins from a chariot while being driven over the field of battle, they then jumped down to fight on foot (Gallic War, IV.33). Essedarius also was the name of a class of gladiators who competed in the Colosseum and presumably fought in much the same way as their Celtic namesakes more than a century earlier, the nimble chariot being raced about the arena and then dismounted. Given Caesar's wonderment that the warrior was able to run along the chariot pole and stand on the yoke, and the commotion caused by chariots being driven between the lines at Mons Graupius remarked upon by Tacitus (Agricola, XXXV), the spectacle of the essedarius may have been his very entrance into the arena.

Although there are no depictions and few literary references, Juvenal does speak of an essedarius fighting to the accompaniment of a water-organ (Satyricon, XXXVI), and Seneca uses the example of a dismounted essedarius to comment on the inability to know a person in a different situation (Epistles, XXIX.7). The implication would seem to be that the nature of the essedarius was to fight from the chariot. One then wonders whether he fought on foot after deliberately dismounting or having been thrown.

Once, after a victory, when an essedarius was applauded for setting free the slave who was his driver, Caligula was so annoyed at the gesture that, leaving the amphitheater in a huff, he tripped on the fringe of his toga and fell headlong down the steps, fuming that "The people that rule the world give more honour to a gladiator for a trifling act than to their deified emperors or to the one still present with them" (Suetonius, Life, XXXV.3).

Claudius, on the other hand, was less petulant. When the four sons of an essedarius pleaded for their father's discharge, he granted him the rudius (the wooden sword signifying release from service) and circulated a note among the applauding crowd that they should desire such children themselves, "since they saw that they brought favour and protection even to a gladiator" (Suetonius, Life, XXI.5).

Of course, in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), the essedarius has been reimagined. Rather than the light chariots of the Britons, Scipio Africanus (so named for his victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC) is given Amazon warriors and the scythed chariots of the Persians. It may be as fanciful as the woman fighting as an essedarius in Petronius' Satyricon (XLV).


"Chariot," itself, derives from currus, which, in turn, comes from the Celtic word for a wagon or cart. The Latin provides the etymology for such words as "car," "carry," "cargo," "caricature" (from carricare "to load"), "career" and "curriculum" (referring to a pathway or course).


The detail above, so perfectly preserved that traces of paint still are visible, depicts Hephaestion, Alexander's dearest friend, fighting at the Battle of Issus (Quintus Curtius, The History of Alexander, III.12.16). The frieze is part of the Alexander Sarcophagus, which was discovered in 1887 and now is part of the Royal Necropolis of Sidon exhibit in the Archaeological Museum (Istanbul). Originally thought to belong to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made king of Sidon in 332 BC, the sarcophagus more likely was intended for Mazaeus, governor of Babylon, the first Persian to be so honored by Alexander. The silver weapons that would have adorned the reliefs were removed by tomb robbers long ago.

Essedarii are represented by this scene only because the ancient Britons once were thought to have driven scythed chariots that, in fact, originated with the Persians, who had used them against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela.


References: Suetonius: The Lives of the Caesars (1914) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (1982) translated by S. A. Handford (Penguin Classics); Seneca: Epistles (1917) translated by Richard M. Gummere (Loeb Classical Library).

See also The British War-Chariot and Scythed Chariots.

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