[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]
For several entries covering specific types of Roman chariots, see the index.

 p378  Currus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp378‑380 of

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

CURRUS (ἅρμα), a chariot, a car. These terms appear to have denoted those two-wheeled vehicles for the carriage of persons, which were open overhead, thus differing from the carpentum, and closed in front, in which they differed from the cisium. The most essential articles in the construction of the currus were:

  1. The antyx (ἄντυξ), or rim; and it is accordingly seen in all the chariots which are represented either in this article or at pp101, 238. [Antyx]

  2. The axle, made of oak (φήγινος ἄξων, Hom. Il. V.838, imitated by Virgil, faginus axis, Georg. III.172), and sometimes also of ilex, ash, or elm (Plin. H. N. XVI.84). The axle was firmly fixed under the body of the chariot, which, in reference to this circumstance, was called ὑπερτερία, and which was often made of wicker-work, inclosed by the ἄντυξ (Hom. Il. XXIII.335, 436; 6 Scut. 306).

  3. The wheels (κύκλα, τροχοί, rotae) revolved upon the axle as in modern carriages; and they were prevented from coming off by the insertion of pins (περόναι, ἔμβολοι) into the extremities of the axle (ἀκραξονία). The parts of the wheel were as follows:

    (a) The nave, called πλήμνη (Hom. Il. V.726, XXIII.339; Hes. Scut. 309), χοινικίς, modiolus (Plin. H. N. IX.3). The last two terms are founded on the resemblance of the nave to a modius or bushel.

    (b) The spokes, κνῆμαι (literally, the legs), radii. The number of spokes of course differed in different wheels. On one occasion we read of eight (ὀκτάκνημια, Il. V.723).

    (c) The felly, ἴτυς (Hom. Il. V.724). This was commonly made of some flexible and elastic wood, such as poplar (Il. IV.482‑486), or the wild fig, which was also used for the rim of the chariot; heat was applied to assist in producing the requisite curvature (Il. XXI.37, 38, compared with Theocrit. XXV.247‑251).º The felly was, however, composed of separate pieces, called arcs (ἁψῖδες, Hes. Op. et Dies, 426). Hesiod (l.c.) evidently intended to recommend that a wheel should consist of four pieces.

    (d) The tire, ἐπίσωτρον, canthus. Homer (Il. V.725) describes the chariot of Hera as having a tire of bronze upon a golden felly, thus placing the harder metal in a position to resist friction, and to protect the softer.

  4. The pole (ῥυμός, temo). It was firmly fixed at its lower extremity to the axle; and at the other end (ἀκροῤῥύμιον) the pole was attached to the yoke either by a pin (ἔμβολος), as shown in the chariot engraved below, or by the use of ropes and bands [Jugum].

[image ALT: missingALT]
All the parts now enumerated are seen in an ancient chariot preserved in the Vatican, a representation of which is given in the annexed woodcut.

Carriages with two or even three poles were used by the Lydians (Aeschyl. Pers. 47). The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, appear never to have used more than one pole and one yoke, and the currus thus constructed was commonly drawn by two horses, which were attached to it by their necks, and therefore called δίζυγες ἵπποι (Hom. Il. V.195, X.473), συνωρίς (Xen. Hell. I.2. § 1), "gemini jugales" (Virg. Aen. VII.280), "equi bijuges" (Georg. III.91). If a third horse was added, as was not unfrequently the case, it was fastened by traces. It may have been intended to take the place of either of the yoke horses (ζύγιοι ἵπποι), which might happen to be disabled. The horse so attached was called παρήορος. Ginzrot (Wägen und Fahrwerke, vol. I p342) has published  p379 two drawings of chariots with three horses, from Etruscan vases in the collection at Vienna. The ἵππος παρήορος is placed on the right of the two yoke horses (see woodcut). We also observe traces passing between the two ἄντυγες, and proceeding from the front of the chariot on each side of the middle horse. These probably assisted in attaching the third, or extra, horse.

[image ALT: missingALT]

The Latin name for a chariot and pair was bigae. When a third horse was added, it was called triga; and by the same analogy a chariot and four was called quadrigae; in Greek τετραορία or τέθριππος.

The horses were commonly harnessed in a quadriga after the manner already represented, the two strongest horses being placed under the yoke, and the two others fastened on each side by means of ropes. This is implied in the use of the epithets σειραῖος or σειραφόρος, and funalis or funarius, for a horse so attached (Isid. Orig. XVIII.35). The two exterior horses were further distinguished from one another as the right and the left trace-horse. In the splendid triumph of Augustus after the battle of Actium, the trace-horses of his car were ridden by two of his young relations. Tiberius rode, as Suetonius relates (Tib. 6) sinisteriore funali equo, and Marcellus dexteriore funali equo. As the works of ancient art, especially fictile vases, abound in representations of quadrigae, numerous instances may be observed, in which the two middle horses (ὁ μέσος δεξιὸς καὶ ὁ μέσος ἀριστερὸς, Schol. in Aristoph. Nub. 122) are yoked together as in the bigae; and, as the two lateral ones have collars (λέπαδνα) equally with the yoke-horses, we may presume that from the top of these proceeded the ropes which were tied to the rim of the car, and by which the trace-horses assisted to draw it.

[image ALT: missingALT]

The first figure in the annexed woodcut is the chariot of Aurora, as painted on a vase found at Canosa (Gerhard, über Lichtgottheiten, pl. III fig. 1). The reins of the two middle horses pass through rings at the extremities of the yoke. All the particulars which have been mentioned are still more distinctly seen in the second figure, taken from a terra-cotta at Vienna (Ginzrot, vol. II pp107, 108). It represents a chariot overthrown in passing the goal at the circus. The charioteer having fallen backwards, the pole and yoke are thrown upwards into the air; the two trace-horses have fallen on their knees, and the two yoke-horses are prancing on their hind legs.

If we may rely on the evidence of numerous works of art, the currus was sometimes drawn by four horses without either yoke or pole; for we see two of them diverging to the right and two to the left, as in the cameo in the royal collection of Berlin, which exhibits Apollo surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. If the ancients really drove the quadrigae thus harnessed, we can only suppose the charioteer to have checked its speed by pulling up the horses, and leaning with his whole body backwards, so as to make the bottom of the car at its hindermost border scrape the ground, an act and an attitude which seem not unfrequently to be intended in antique representations.

The currus, like the cisium, was adapted to carry two persons, and on this account was called in Greek δίφρος. One of the two was of course the driver. He was called ἡνίοχος, because he held the reins, and his companion παραιβάτης, from going by his side or near him. Though in all respects superior, the παραιβάτης was often obliged to place himself behind the ἡνίοχος. He is so represented in the bigae at p101, and in the Iliad (XIX.397). Achilles himself stands behind his charioteer, Automedon. On the other hand, a personage of the highest rank may drive his own carriage, and then an inferior may be his παραιβάτης, as when Nestor conveys Machaon (πάρ’ δὲ Μαχάων βαίνε, Il. XI.512, 517), and Hera, holding the reins and whip, conveys Athena, who is in full armour (V.720‑775). In such cases a kindness, or even a compliment, was conferred by the driver upon him whom he conveyed, as when Dionysius, tyrant of Sicily, "himself holding the reins made Plato his παραιβάτης" (Aelian, V. H. IV.18).

Chariots were frequently employed on the field of battle not only by the Asiatic nations, but also by the Greeks in the heroic age. The ἀριστῆες, i.e. the nobility, or men of rank, who wore complete  p380 suits of armour, all took their chariots with them, and in an engagement placed themselves in front. In the Homeric battles we find that the horseman, who for the purpose of using his weapons, and in consequence of the weight of his armour, is under the necessity of taking the place of παραιβάτης (see above. the woodcut of the triga), often assails or challenges a distant foe from the chariot; but that, when he encounters his adversary in close combat, they both dismount, "springing from their chariots to the ground," and leaving them to the care of the ἡνίοχοι (Il. III.29, XVI.426, 427, XVII.480‑483; Hes. Scut. Herc. 370‑372). As soon as the hero had finished the trial of his strength with his opponent, he returned to his chariot, one of the chief uses of which was to rescue him from danger. These chariots, as represented on bas-reliefs and fictile vases, were exceedingly light, the body often consisting of little besides a rim fastened to the bottom and to the axle. Thus we find Diomed, in his nocturnal visit to the enemy's camp, deliberating whether to draw away the splendid chariot of Rhesus by the pole, or to carry it off on his shoulder (Il. X.503‑505).

In later times the chariots were chiefly employed in the public games. Their form was the same, except that they were more elegantly decorated. Chariots were not much used by the Romans. The most splendid kind were the quadrigae, in which the Roman generals and emperors rode when they triumphed. The body of the triumphal car was cylindrical, as we often see it represented on medals. It was enriched with gold (aureo curru, Flor. I.5; Hor. Epod. IX.22) and ivory (Ov. Trist. IV.2.63, Pont. III.4.35). The utmost skill of the painter and the sculptor was employed to enhance its beauty and splendour. More particularly the extremities of the axle, of the pole, and of the yoke, were highly wrought in the form of animals' heads. Wreaths of laurel were sometimes hung round it (currum laurigerum, Claudian, De Laud. Stil. III.20, Tert. Cons. Honor. 130), and were also fixed to the heads of the four snow-white horses (Mart. VII.7). The car was elevated so that he who triumphed might be the most conspicuous person in the procession, and for the same reason he was obliged to stand erect (in curru stantis eburno, Ovid. l.c.). The triumphal car had in general no pole, the horses being led by men who were stationed at their heads.

[image ALT: missingALT]

Chariots executed in terra cotta (quadrigae fictiles, Plin. H. N. XXVIII.4), in bronze, or in marble, an example of which last is shown in the preceding woodcut from an ancient chariot in the Vatican, were among the most beautiful ornaments of temples and other public edifices. No pains were spared in their decoration; and Pliny informs us (H. N. XXXIV.19) that some of the most eminent artists were employed upon them. In numerous they were designed to perpetuate the fame of those who had conquered in the chariot-race (Paus. VI.10). As the emblem of victory, the quadriga was sometimes adopted by the Romans to grace the triumphal arch by being placed on its summit; and even in the private houses of great families, chariots were displayed as the indications of rank, or the memorials of conquest and of triumph (Juv. VIII.3).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 4 Dec 17