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Roman Militaria - Part II - Horse Harnesses

By: Shawn M Caza

Roman horse harness decorations are sometimes confused for belt decorations. They serve the same roles: buckles to secure straps, decorations for straps and belts, terminals at the end of straps and pendants hung from straps.

Roman horse harness equipment is directly descended from Celtic horse and chariot decorations used in Western Europe.  


During the Augustan to Hadrianic period (1st - early 2nd century AD) harness equipment was fairly directly derived from the earlier Celtic items. However, the equipment was usually decorated in a Roman style. Large round phalerae with loops on back (concealed-loop disc phalerae) served as strap junctions. During the Claudian to Neronian period (circa AD 41-68) these phalerae were decorated with silver foil and niello decor in the form of vine tendrils, leaves, and grape bunches. These designs highlighted Bacchus ' equine affiliation. Large leaf, or stylized bird, pendants were hung from the junction phalerae, and were often silvered as well.  

Image:  Silver plated phalera and luneate hanger set.  The phalera has incised vegetal decoration.  The massive items would have decorated the side straps of a cavalry horse in the Claudian - Neronian period.

Image:  Two large phalerae.  The left example has incised vegetal decoration and was silvered.  It dates to the mid-1st c AD.  The right example is plain and dates to the 1st - 2nd c AD.

Image:  Reverse of the above phalerae.  The left example show two rings at top, loops (broken) on each side and a hinge for a hanger at the bottom.  The right example has four broken pins from a simpler mechanism.

Image:  Close up of the phallera shown above (on left).  The incised vegetal decoration is visible as are traces of silvering near the centre.

Image:  Four smaller harness phalerae or plates.  The left dates to the 1st - 2nd c AD; the next (once silvered) to the mid-1st c AD; the next (possibly once enamelled) to the 2nd - 3rd c AD; and the pelta-form plate (silvered) at the right to the 2nd  to mid-3rd c AD.

Image:  Reverse of the four phalerae or plates.  The left two have loops at attach to straps.  The right two via wide-head pins.

In the late 1st century AD these phalerae began to be replaced by simple junction rings which had several strap ends attached.  

Image: A ring (with D-shaped cross-section) with two strap terminals, each fixed to the straps with two rivets.

Later, in the Antonine period, the phalerae had loops for the junction straps on their periphery instead of on the reverse.  They were often made with openwork decoration.  These, and openwork bridle pieces, were used in the 2nd - 3rd century AD.

Image:  Phalera with remains of fine vegetal design fretwork.  Loops on each side for straps.  Dates to mid-2nd to early 3rd c AD.

Nevertheless, it is likely that first century types of harness equipment remained in use into the third century as well.

As was the case for Roman belts, Celtic trumpet design appeared on horse harness equipment in the second half of the 2nd to the first decades of 3rd century AD (Antonine to Severan period).   Beginning in this same period large and small flat mounts (round, peltate, etc) with fungiform studs were sometimes fixed to the straps.  Smaller leaf and heart pendants, some with openwork design, were hung from the straps, especially in the 3rd century AD. 

Image:  A trefoil-shaped leaf pendant which hangs from a thin strip.  It is made of flat bronze and had three sheet silver medallions on it.  Most of one medallion remains.  The medallions shows the bust of a young man facing, head turned slightly to the right, draped with a round fibula visible on the left shoulder.  The hair style indicates it might be from the Several era (early 3rd c AD).  The medallion appears to be attached to the pendant by a blob of lead.

Image:  This very big leaf pendant is fairly crude and is made from thin sheet bronze.  Its size and shape indicate that it might be from the 1st c AD though it could be later as well.

Image:  A very heavy heart-shaped pendant.  Similar objects are reported in some sources as apron belt terminals though this example is too big.  The pendant is thick as is the plate with rivet that was attached to the leather.  It likely dates to the mid-2nd to early 3rd c AD.

Image:  The leaf-shaped pendants.  The left example is made from very thin sheet and hangs from a thin ring.  The middle is made of thicker plate and ends in a substantial knob.  Its loop is broken.  The right example is made of very thick sheet.  It is missing its bottom and some of the upper part.   It may have had another small pendant hung from the central hole or had a disc affixed, perhaps of silver.  The are hard to date precisely.  The left is probably latest, likely 3rd c AD; the middle earliest at mid-1st to 2nd c AD, the right 2nd to 3rd c AD.

Image:  Two small pendants.  The left is plain leaf shaped.  The right is peltaform.  Its hook ends in a wolf 's head.  Like the leaf pendants above these are hard to date precisely.  The left example is likely 2nd to 3rd c AD, the right mid-1st to mid-3rd c AD. 

Image:  A luneate pendant.  It is made out of thin sheet bronze.  It hung from something, possibly a phalera, via a hinge at top.  The two terminals ended in small knobs (one remains) from which smaller pendants might have hung.  It was likely silvered.  It dates to the mid-nd to early 3rd c AD.  

Image:  Pelta form plate from horse harness.  It is possible it is from a belt though it is likely too big.  Dated 2nd to 3rd c AD.

Image:  reverse of the above plate showing the two pins for mounting to leather.

Hexagonal mounts, some with a vulva design appeared in Gaul and Germania in the 3rd century AD.  Smaller X-shaped decorate rivets and rectangular strap slides were also used in the 3rd century AD.

Image:  This heavy hexagonal mount is too wide for a belt and must be for horse harness.  It is not clear when this dates to, though possible the 4th c AD.

Image:  Reverse of the hexagonal mount showing rivets and washers.

Image:  Harness junction loops.  The hexagonal loop attached three straps, the round loop four.  They date to 2nd - 3rd c AD.

Image:  Side view of the junction loops.  

Image:  Harness junction mounts.  Made of thick sheet bronze each item connected one strap to three.  Likely used where straps were not visible or on harness for pack mules or freight wagons.  

Image:  Fragment of an openwork cheek piece from a horse bit set.  Once silvered.  Dates to mid-2nd to early 3rd c AD.

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