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Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy Before the Roman Empire

Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy Before the Roman Empire

By Joost H. Crouwel. Pp. xxii + 234, figs. 8, b&w pls. 171. Oxbow, Oxford 2012. $80. ISBN 978-1-84217-467-8 (cloth).

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The last decade has witnessed increased interest in ancient traffic (e.g., C. van Tilburg, Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire [New York 2007]) and movement more generally (e.g., R. Laurence and D.J. Newsome, eds., Rome, Ostia, and Pompeii: Movement and Space [Oxford 2011]), as well as new digital tools to examine classical geography (e.g., the app for the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World) and travel across it (e.g., ORBIS []). Crouwel’s volume comes into this milieu as a narrow but exhaustive slice through one crucial aspect of ancient traffic: the physical means of conveyance. The book is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the works above and serves as a welcome reminder of the value of intense, critical scrutiny of evidence and the incomparable richness of thought that comes from a lifetime devoted to a topic. The volume is of course only the most recent in a long lineage of publications on the subject by Crouwel going back to 1972, many of which are the products of fruitful collaboration between Crouwel and Mary Littauer (more than 15 coauthored publications). This book is dedicated to Littauer and Ann Brown.

The title accurately reflects the contents of the book: within is the definitive statement on wheeled vehicles in Italy during the 10 centuries before the advent of the Roman empire. Almost half (62 pages) of the volume’s pages of text are devoted to chariots (ch. 2), but only 19 to carts (two-wheeled vehicles [ch. 3]), and 8 to wagons (four-wheelers [ch. 4]). Just as important, however, are the front matter and 171 plates that illustrate the text, the former containing an illustrated glossary invaluable for the reader’s comprehension. These definitions and illustrations are of exceptional quality and doubtless will serve as a reference far beyond their use in this volume. As is to be expected, the discussion skews in favor of chariots over carts or wagons because of depositional practices and preservation processes. That is, chariots from this period are almost exclusively found in burials as markers of status, and what remains of them is almost exclusively the corroded elements of bronze and iron. As they were arguably higher-status artifacts and therefore more elaborately ornamented, and in at least one example sheathed almost entirely in bronze, chariots have left us the most evidence for study. Doubtless for the same reasons, chariots are also illustrated far more frequently in ancient art.

Based mainly on the shape of the floor and the siding of the body, Crouwel finds five types of chariots in the examples from archaeology and art (objects of art are called “figured documents,” perhaps the book’s only quirk of language). Embedded within the detailed description of these types are important interpretive discussions: Type I is weaker than Egyptian designs for the way the draft pole attached to the axle; Type II is known only from artistic representations, many of which are imported, which forces one to question if these are actually “Italian” vehicles; Type V, a catchall category, will develop into Roman ceremonial chariots. After typologizing, Crouwel pursues the chariot’s materiality in yet more detail, closely examining examples of axles and wheels as well as the interdependent systems of traction (draft pole and pole binding), harnessing (yoke, yoke brace, and harness straps), and control (bits, cheekpieces, reins, whips and goads, and headstalls).

Crouwel takes the same approach to the examination of carts and wagons. Unlike chariots, the typology of carts relies on the shape of the draft pole, which can be either Y-shaped (Type I) or connected to the center of the cart (Type II). There is not sufficient evidence to make a comparative typology of wagons. Examination of even these few wagons, however, reveals fascinating pre-Imperial examples of pivoting front axles, vertically articulating draft poles, and “sweated on” iron hoop tires. The presumed lower status of these vehicles compared with chariots has meant a paucity of artistic representations, a fact that privileges the archaeological remains. Paradoxically, most remains still were found in elite burials. Nonetheless, Crouwel’s examination of these few early carts and wagons is of potentially greater value to our understanding of the literal mechanics of daily life in ancient Italy.

Like the introduction, which addresses issues of geography, roads, and the biology of ancient traction animals, the conclusion sets the work in broader interpretive contexts. In its simplest form, this means discussing the rarity of these vehicles compared with other forms of transportation, particularly pack animals and ridden horses. Deeper are the discussions of how these transportation technologies reached Italy and how they came to be adopted into its funerary culture and practice. Along with two appendices, the concluding chapter is the longest sustained interpretive discussion in the book. As has been mentioned, however, even the descriptive chapters are not merely that. In the grand tradition of Boardman’s World of Art handbooks on ancient Greek art, Crouwel has produced a volume of beguilingly simple prose, pregnant with argument—historical, cultural, and theoretical. Although this volume is but the latest in an extraordinary series of publications by Crouwel, it is of such exceptional quality and richness that I recommend any reader interested in wheeled vehicles begin her study with this book.

Eric Poehler
Department of Classics
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Book Review of Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy Before the Roman Empire, by Joost H. Crouwel

Reviewed by Eric Poehler

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

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