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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 29, No. 9 (June 1934), 689‑691.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p689  Recent Light on the Roman Horseshoe

Apropos of the discussion concerning the Roman horseshoe that appeared recently in the pages of the Classical Journal [cf. "Horseshoes in Antiquity," XXVI (1931), 619f.; and "The Roman Horseshoe," XXVII (1932), 289f.], it is illuminating to read the exploitation of the same subject by Carl Blümlein in Bursian's Jahresbericht CCXL (1933), 115‑18, wherein he summarizes the conclusions of a number of European scholars who have treated of the ancient horseshoe in recent articles.

Since the time of the discovery, many years ago, of horseshoes among Romano-British remains in England, there has been a prevailing opinion that this commodity — and in a form closely resembling the modern — was employed by the ancient Romans. But there has been, and still is, a fair proportion of doubters. These maintain, whether rightly or wrongly, that in no instance does Roman plastic or pictorial art represent the horseshoe in equestrian scenes where even the most minute points of the steeds' trappings are depicted. Horseshoes have, without question, been found at many Roman sites; but these, declare the dissenters, undoubtedly belong to the Middle Ages. In post-Roman times there was much coming and going among the Roman ruins, and countless tons of cut stones were transported elsewhere for various purposes. Obviously, the mediaeval draught animal must, at times, have cast a shoe; and thus the presence of these articles amid the Roman strata is to be explained.

The contention of the majority of scholars that in mountainous districts the shoes would be an absolute essential is offset by the  p690 declaration of the skeptics that wild horses and asses in their natural state do very well among rocks and stones.

In the light of these and other considerations Fr. Winkelmann (as summarized in Bursian, loc. cit.) reaches the conclusion that the iron shoe which was nailed to the hoof was altogether unknown in Roman times and that the date of its invention is uncertain. D. Eidam goes even further and denies the existence of the iron shoe before the beginning of the tenth century of our era. O. Brose is willing to grant that the shoe came into use perhaps as early as the third or fourth century. P. Steiner, however, thinks that we have evidence to show that the Roman horseshoe was widely distributed, particularly in the northern provinces, but that its use was probably restricted to draught animals.

Those who deny the existence of the "nailed‑on" iron horseshoe in Roman times are extremely exacting in their demands. They refuse to be persuaded by ordinary cogent reasoning and demand absolute proof. Fortunately, this last is now available.

One may afford to pass over the occurrence of horseshoes in late Hallstatt sites, in the Villanovan culture of Northern Italy, and in the Spain of the fourth or third century B.C. Direct evidence is adduced by R. Forrer, who draws attention to the fact that the British Museum contains a "hipposandal," to the bottom of which is affixed an iron shoe. It was discovered in London in a stratum definitely Roman. The importance of this close association of sandal and shoe lies in the inherent proof that they are contemporary; the hipposandal is acknowledged by all to be a genuine Roman product.

Furthermore, H. Hofmeister speaks in a recent work of the discovery of nineteen horseshoes in the ruins of the ancient Mattium, a stronghold of the Chatti, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 15. The ruins had not been disturbed in the Middle Ages. These shoes vary in diameter from 0.098 m to 0.14 m and must have been worn by comparatively small animals. The modern riding horse has a shoe of about 0.13 m or 0.14 m in width; that of the draught horse is much wider.

Most convincing of all is the discovery of E. Nowotny at  p691 Virunum in Noricum, where he found horseshoes under the paving of the streets, which has never been meddled with by mediaeval folk. Stratigraphy, too, plays an important part in the find of M. Hell [Jahreshefte des österreichischen archäologischen Instituts in Wien XXVIII (1933), 124‑31; the article appeared too late to be included in Blümlein's account] at Biberg in Salzburg, where he unearthed a shoe that cannot well be later than the time of Trajan and may antedate the Christian Era.1

A. D. Fraser

University of Virginia

The Author's Note:

1 The cause of truth, in so far as it relates to the ancient horseshoe, received little support through the publication, a generation ago, of four small bronze plates in Philadelphia under the caption, "Etruscan Horseshoes from Corneto" (Am. Jour. Arch. VI [1902], 398‑403). The author, who was apparently entirely ignorant of horseman­ship, was persuaded that these curiously shaped, highly decorated, and extremely thin bronze plates (0.004 m in thickness, and they had never been worn; the much worn Salzburg iron shoes are twice as thick) had once served as the footgear of a horse! Had such contraptions been trodden upon by even a donkey, they would have cracked like eggshells.

Thayer's Note: The assessment is altogether too severe, and verges on the disingenuous. As can be read in that paper, those Etruscan horseshoes were found in a tomb, along with the jawbone of a horse, and must surely be ceremonial, funerary versions of the item actually worn by living horses; arguing that they are not horseshoes because they couldn't stand the wear that would be inflicted on them by a living horse is much like arguing that the Egyptian pharaohs didn't have servants since the ushabtiu found in pharaonic tombs are small and made of wood.

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