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 p394  Desultor

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp394‑395 of

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

DESULTOR (ἀποβάτης, μεταβάτης), literally "one who leaps off," was applied to a person who rode several horses or chariots, leaping from one to the other. As early as the Homeric times, we find the description of a man, who keeps four horses abreast at full gallop, and leaps from one to another, amidst a crowd of admiring spectators (Il. XV.679‑684). In the games of the Roman circus this sport was also very popular. The Roman desultor generally rode only two horses at the same time, sitting on them without a saddle, and vaulting upon either of them at his pleasure (Isid. Orig. XVIII.39). He wore a hat or cap made of felt. The taste for these exercises was carried to so great an extent, that young men of the highest rank not only drove bigae and quadrigae in the circus, but exhibited these feats of horseman­ship (Suet. Jul. 39). Among other nations this species of equestrian dexterity was  p395 applied to the purposes of war. Livy mentions a troop of horse in the Numidian army, in which each soldier was supplied with a couple of horses, and in the heat of battle, and when clad in armour, would leap with the greatest ease and celerity from that which was wearied or disabled upon the back of the horse which was still sound and fresh (XXIII.29). The Scythians, Armenians, and some of the Indians, were skilled in the same art.

[image ALT: An engraving of an oil lamp and two coins. Each item includes a representation of a 'desultor', a type of Roman equestrian acrobat.]

The annexed woodcut shows three figures of desultores, one from a bronze lamp, published by Bartoli (Antiche Lucerne Sepolcrali, I.24), the others from coins. In all these the rider wears a pileus, or cap of felt, and his horse is without a saddle; but these examples prove that he had the use both of the whip and the rein. On the coins we also observe the wreath and palm-branch as ensign of victory.

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Page updated: 23 Jan 03