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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 27, No. 4 (January 1932), 289‑290.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p289  The Roman Horseshoe

In a recent note entitled Horseshoes in Antiquity (the Classical Journal XXVI [1931], 619f), Mr. Kaufman avers that "there is no evidence, either literary or archaeological, to indicate that horseshoes were nailed" on by the Greeks or Romans. He follows S. Reinach likewise (Daremberg et Saglio, s.v. "Mulomedicus") in maintaining that the episode in Suetonius (Vespasian xxiii.2), wherein Vespasian's muleteer wastes his master's time by stopping to shoe the mules on the road, proves the absence of nails.

The nailed shoe is, however, not unknown to the archaeologist. The museum at Pompeii possesses two horseshoes (or muleshoes; Nos. 625 and 626) that consist of a thin plate of iron that covered the entire sole of the animal's foot, while a narrow rim, punctured with nail-holes, encompassed the lower part of the hoof. They are not unlike the "sole-rubbers" worn by humans. The mountain horses of the modern Greeks wear very similar shoes which cover all the sole, but they are nailed on from below and lack the offset rim. Strangely enough, no horseshoes are to be found, at least on exhibition, in the Museo Nazionale of Naples.

I do not know the place of origin of the type of horseshoe with which we are familiar, but it was widely used by the Romano-Britons of Imperial times. Quite possibly the Romans adopted this style from the Celts of Gaul or Britain. Almost every museum in England contains specimens which were discovered in association with Roman remains dating from the first century of our era onwards. They are small and more rounded than the modern horseshoe. All examples that I recall are thin, and the metal is forged into a wider band than we find in use today. They differ essentially from our shoes in being destitute of calks to prevent the foot's slipping, but they resemble ours in having two or three nail-holes on either side. A lashing of any kind —  p290 even wire — is here out of the question, as it would have been worn away in short order by friction.

It thus becomes apparent that the Romans used at least two varieties of shoes that were attached by nails to the hoofs of horse or mule. It is idle, I think, to speculate on whether the shoes of Vespasian's mules were attached by nails or lashings. Kaufman assumes that the former process would call for "heating, shaping, and fastening," as it would in the shop of the modern farrier. But actually, the only essential would be the fastening, and that could be accomplished almost as rapidly by nails as by thongs. The basketlike "swamp-shoe," well known to museums, was of course bound to the foot of the animal in ancient just as in modern times. The ferreae soleae of the mule of Catullus (xvii.26) conformed to this type.

Why are there so few Roman horseshoes extant? As the calked shoe seems to have been unknown, it is likely that cast-off soleae were repeatedly reattached till worn out. Broken scraps of the shoes would be reforged. The yielding earth of Britain has claimed more specimens than the harder soil of southern Europe. But it is doubtful, in any case, if many Roman horses were ever shod. It has always been a great deal of a puzzle to understand how the hoofs of Roman mounts or draft animals escaped destruction on the paving-stones of the roads. Some have postulated the use of a top layer of gravel or sand. But we are still very much in the dark. Reinach's articles dealing with the matter in Daremberg et Saglio are far from exhaustive. Mooney, who ought to be an authority on the subject, fails to mention anything relative to it except the gold shoes of Poppaea's mules; cf. Travel Among the Ancient Romans: Boston, R. G. Badger (1920), 72. Butler, in his recent book Sport in Classic Times2: London, E. Benn (1931), 37, n. 3, makes the mistake of attributing the origin of iron shoes to the ninth century. The whole question of how the ancients shod their cattle ought, by all means, to be subjected to a careful reexamination.

A. D. Fraser

University of Virginia

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