Carro cura carere

Carro cura carere

Re-evaluating the Roman Carrus

By David Picker-Kille


I. Introduction

As an aspiring classical archaeologist with an interest in Roman land transport, the recent groundbreaking discovery of the four-wheeled “chariot” at the Villa Giuliana north of Pompeii[2] has highlighted for me the presence of an issue of translation between English and Italian that parallels a phenomenon of increasing influence and focus within my research of ancient Roman vehicle types and their corresponding Latin terminology. The very term “chariot,” generally defined in English as a two-wheeled vehicle used in racing, ancient warfare, and ceremonial processions,[3] is already at odds with the “four-wheeled” descriptor preceding it. In fact, the Italian reports describe the discovery as a “carro,” an Italian term that can indiscriminately refer to carts, wagons, carriages, and chariots[4]—vehicle types which English can distinguish between with more nuance. Ultimately, I would refer to the vehicle as a carriage, but the ambiguity regarding the most appropriate terminology is entirely understandable. One can imagine, therefore, the barriers in navigating similar nuances in an ancient language. In fact, the Italian “carro” comes from the Latin carrus, a term that has over time become riddled with similar misinterpretations and has yet to receive sufficient scrutiny. Some 19th and early 20th century Latin dictionaries—which attribute specific characteristics such as axle count function to vehicle terms like carrus and plaustrum with arguably insufficient evidence or citations—still underlie the application of Latin terminology in modern studies of Roman transport.[5] Additionally, the term carrus itself has frequently been mistaken or confused with the similarly spelled currus, a type of chariot, and decidedly not a form of common transport.[6] This is not intended to place blame with any particular scholar or translation, but rather to highlight the need for an updated interpretation of ancient terminology, using the much vaster historical, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence at our disposal than what had been available even fifty years prior. Thus, through a thorough comparative analysis of all known textual appearances of carrus through the mid-fourth century CE, we can develop a more accurate picture of the traits, characteristics, and functions associated with the term, in turn allowing us to more fully understand the purpose and uses of the carrus throughout the narratives, records, and legislation in which it appears. Furthermore, with this knowledge, we can then identify potential representations of carri within the artistic or archaeological records, and consequently begin to evaluate the role they may have played in the Roman world.


II. Putting the cart before the equites ex Gallia

It is worth noting now that the similarities between the Italian “carro” and its Latin ancestor carrus appear to exist in name only, beyond referring to some form of wheeled transport. A Roman living in the first century CE would have likely not identified the four-wheeled vehicle found near Pompeii as a carrus; the Latin use of the word through the fourth century appears to be linked with much more specific contexts and uses than its Italian descendant. What makes the word so conducive to analysis is that, through the above period, it is found across several mediums (literature, inscriptions, legislation, and writing tablets) and geographic contexts (Britain to Asia Minor), but its frequency is small enough to form a manageable list of their occurrences through 350 CE (see Appendix of Primary Sources). Its widespread appearance, therefore, makes several consistencies in its use that much more remarkable and significant.

Although its oldest known occurrences come from fragments preserved through Nonius Marcellus’ De Compendiosa Doctrina,[7] the earliest complete texts that mention carrus are Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Civili (58-49 BCE), the former more so than any other literary work through the fourth century. Throughout these texts, the carrus is frequently associated with the Gauls; eight of its twelve appearances throughout are explicitly attributed to Gaulish forces. Several of these instances emphasize the Gauls’ tendency to travel with many vehicles burdened with cargo, which were even incorporated into their defense strategies; far from being a sort of war chariot, their use is clearly akin to some form of baggage train. Such associations are found in other literary sources, including the two earlier excerpts preserved by Nonius Marcellus—one from L. Cornelius Sisenna’s Historiae[8] (78-67 BCE), and the other an unidentified fragment by M. Terentius Varro[9] (116-27 BCE)—confirming that this Gaulish stereotype was not merely a creation of Caesar’s narrative. Modern linguistic studies, too, have confirmed carrus to be a loanword from the Gaulish language.[10]

Of the four remaining passages in Caesar that contain carrus, two attribute the same customs to several Germanic tribes, and another notes the difficulty with which vehicles barely pass through a narrow route between the Jura Mountains and Rhone River,[11] thus implicitly still maintaining an association with Gaul. Only one occurrence of carrus decidedly concerns Caesar’s own forces, but with certain significant caveats. Firstly, only three paragraphs prior, Caesar mentions that “horsemen from Gaul with many carris” were on route to aid his forces, so that Caesar’s carri may instead be the same ones that arrived with the Gaulish cavalry. More important, however, is the context of their use, in which Caesar recounts preparations to overcome an enemy river blockade:[12]

When…all routes were being blocked by the soldiers and horsemen of Afranianus…Caesar orders to [his] soldiers to make boats, of which kind [his] experience from previous years in Britain had taught him. The hulls and the primary supports were made from a light wood; the remainder [of the] body of the ships, interwoven with twigs, was covered with hides. He carries down these completed [things], by joined carris, 22 miles from the camp during the night, and with these ships he transports the soldiers across the river, and occupies in an unforeseen [manner] the hill bordering the riverbank.

Crucial here is Caesar’s choice to elaborate on the building technique of the boats, learned from his experience in Britain. That this apparent digression is immediately followed by his decision to transport these boats by linking together all the carri, may be intended to suggest that he has also learned something from those Gaulish military customs that he has so often pointed out.

In the northern frontiers of the empire, the Roman fort of Vindolanda has revealed several hundred wooden writing tablets, preserving records of the daily lives of the soldiers and families stationed in Roman Britain from the late first to early second century.[13] Among these tablets, at least 10 use the term carrum, karrum,[14] and the diminutive form carrulum, to refer to types of transport, as well as the term ax(s)is carrarius to refer to axles. Only two other types of vehicles, raeda and covinnus, are explicitly mentioned throughout the entire corpus. Given the Gaulish and Germanic origin of the soldiers stationed at Vindolanda, the Tungri and Batavi[15] respectively, as well as the decidedly military context of the writing tablets, the dominance of carrum as the vehicle, or vehicle term, of choice, would appear to mesh well with the evidence from Caesar’s texts nearly a century and a half prior. At nearly the opposite end of the empire, however, near the site of Sagalassos in Turkey, an inscribed decree from the propraetor Sextus Sotidius Strabo Libuscidianus, from the early reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), suggests that the term evolved to have a somewhat broader connotation. Apparently resulting from widespread disregard of prior legislation, Sotidius’s inscription very explicitly reminds the local population of the specific terms under which they are obligated to provide vehicles and transport for officials passing through the city. Varying levels of reduced transport costs were to be given to: the emperor, the procurator, those in military service (militantibus) including those with a diploma (iis qui diplomum habebunt) or those coming from another province (iis qui ex alis provincis militantes commeabunt), senators, and knights on official business (equiti Romano cuius officio princeps optimus utitur).[16] Of the eleven instances of words pertaining to wheeled transport, the nine describing the services to be furnished to the above parties listed are all forms of carrus (the remaining two instances, both vehiculum, by contrast are used merely to indicate the concept of wheeled transport[17]). Although a significant portion of the circumstances described here do pertain to military functions, given the significant overlap, by modern standards, between Roman military and political service, it may be more apt to link carrus more broadly to the notion of transport used in the framework of governmental functions. More problematic, however, is the geographic context of the inscription. It is unlikely that this decree intended to connote some “Gaulish quality” of the wheeled transport being used on the other end of the Mediterranean. The Roman adoption of Gaulish terminology, however, is well-attested by modern and ancient scholarship alike; indeed a surprising number of Roman names for vehicles—raeda, carruca, and carpentum are but a few examples—are Celtic loanwords.[18] Thus, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that by the early first century, the term carrus, too, had become just as applicable to a range of forms and functions of Roman vehicles as it had to the Gauls.

Line Item Cost
31 De Vehiculis (Περὶ Ὀχήματων)
31a Best saragara, with one-piece tires without iron 6000
32 Saragara, with multi-piece tires without iron 3500
33 Raeda, with multi-piece tires without iron 3500
34 Sleeper [carriage], with one-piece tires without iron 7500
35 Sleeper [carriage], with multi-piece tires without iron 4000
36 Saragara with one-piece tires and the other vehicles mentioned above, when with iron tires and iron fittings, ought to be sold with the cost of the iron taken into account
37 Carruca with one-piece tires without iron 7000
38 De Carris (Περὶ Κάρρων)  
38a Four-wheeled carrum without iron, with yoke 1500
39 A carrum with iron ought to be sold according to the cost of the wood and of the weight of the iron
40 Two-wheeled carrum (ἅμαξα) without iron, with yoke 800
XV.31-40 of Diocletian’s Edict (Erim & Reynolds 1973; Mommsen & Blümner 1893). Translation from Latin by author. With one exception on line 40, the Greek vehicle terminology simply transliterates the Latin text: σαράγαρον, ῥαῖδα, δορμιτώριον, καροῦχον, κάρρον.


III. Not quite military-grade

In his analysis of the Sagalassos decree, Mitchell concludes that the meaning of carrus was loose and could refer indiscriminately to any type of vehicle,[19] noting that a Latin copy of the 301 CE price edict of Diocletian lists both a four-wheeled (quadrirotem) and two-wheeled (birotem) carrus.[20] In truth, this is the only known occurrence to suggest either a two or four-wheel interpretation; the remaining evidence suggests that carrus usually referred to some form of two-wheeled vehicle as compared to the raeda, which evidence suggests was four-wheeled. Two writing tablets from Vindolanda, for instance, inventory the receipt of various vehicle components, including hubs, spokes, frames, and axles, in which the latter are specifically called ax(s)es carrarii, for which a raeda is stated to need two; this furthermore accords with a piece of legislation nearly three centuries later, concerning the imperial courier system known as the cursus publicus recorded in the Codex Theodosianus, assigning a 600-pound capacity to the carrus in contrast to 1000 for the four-wheeled raeda.[21] Nonetheless, despite much of the textual evidence suggesting the carrus to be a smaller type of vehicle, the Edict of Diocletian’s explicit reference to both a two and four-wheeled variety makes it clear that, at least by the fourth century, axle-count may not have been as significantly defining of a characteristic. Contrary to Mitchell’s assessment, however, the term may have still connoted specific attributes, but qualitative rather than quantitative ones. The fact, for instance, that the Edict’s prices for De Carris (XV.38) are listed distinctly from De Vehiculis (XV.31), the latter containing a mélange of vehicle types with diverse functions—saragara,[22] raeda, and carruca, as well as some unspecified form of sleeping carriage, dormitorium—heavily implies a significant distinction of the carrus from the other forms of wheeled transport. This is further reinforced by the significantly lesser costs assigned to the carri, through which one cannot help but recall the inscription of Sotidius from nearly two centuries prior.

Admittedly, the inclusion of mandated “government rates” like those of Sotidius belie the Edict’s attempted (albeit unsuccessful) purpose—to alleviate the rampant currency devaluation and price inflation of ordinary goods and services that plagued much of the third century.[23] A more plausible explanation, therefore, is that at some point carrus came to refer to the type or quality of vehicle suitable for military or governmental functions: a generic cart that was economically built, easily replaced or repaired, and suited for movement of common supplies in moderate quantities, rather than tailored to a specific purpose such as the transport of persons (carruca, raeda, cisium) or excessively heavy or large quantities of materials (plaustrum,[24] saragara?). That, as we have already seen, individual components such as axes cararii were imported in bulk to Vindolanda for on-site manufacture, instead of pre-made or completed vehicles, argues in favor of a standardized and “easy to build or repair” transport technology, and to that end, the more frequent association of the carrus with two wheels rather than four might simply be a byproduct of the greater ease with which the former might have been constructed.

This interpretation would furthermore explain the nature of the remaining items listed under De Carris (XV.41-51), whose relevance to the subject of transport initially appears tenuous, and which prior scholarship has had difficulty trying to explain:[25] all pertaining to the harvest and processing of grains, the list includes a threshing sledge (41), a plow (42), an array of farming implements (43-47), and variously-sized measuring containers ranging between 0.5 and 5 modii (one modius equals roughly 8.62 L).[26] Ample stocks of food and animal fodder would have indeed accompanied large groups travelling long distances—the army being the most obvious example—and it was easier and more practical to transport their rations across several smaller, more manageable, and more easily repairable or replaceable vehicles. By contrast, the use of few larger and more cumbersome vehicles would require prior knowledge of the road sizes and conditions along the route of travel,[27] and would furthermore present a larger marginal loss if one of the vehicles became damaged or inoperable, requiring its cargo to either be relinquished or made that much more of a burden on the remaining vehicles. In fact, we likely see the former scenario play out in a record from Vindolanda: Tablet 649 (92-97 CE) provides instructions for the receipt of 381 modii of some form of grain (bracis), from the carri of the local Britons. Curiously, the letter-writer specifies that each vehicle will be transporting 53 or 63 of the total 381 modii, making a total of six or seven carri, and his specificity furthermore suggests that the quantity of grain being delivered may have needed verification, potentially requiring measuring containers like those priced out just below the costs for the carri in the Edict of Diocletian.[28]


IV. Lost in translation

Of all its known occurrences through the mid-fourth century, only three isolated instances of carrus appear to deviate from the connotations discussed above. The earliest is found in Vitruvius’s De Architectura (35-20 BCE), in which he praises the ingeniosam rationem of the architect Chersiphron (6th cent. BCE) in transporting to Ephesus the heavy shafts needed to construct the Temple of Diana in light of the fact that he was “…not trusting carri on account of the size of the burdens and the soft land on which the roads lay, lest [their] wheels be swallowed…”.[29] The previously discussed uses of the term carrus seem to oppose the notion of an especially large or sturdy type of vehicle, and although Chersiphron’s stone cargo would have likely exceeded the capabilities of any type of cart or wagon, it is striking, from a rhetorical perspective, that Vitruvius did not frame the dilemma as too difficult for even, say, a plaustrum, in order to emphasize the weight and size of the building materials. A possible answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the sources of the remaining two instances. Whereas the Vitruvian excerpt simply recounts an event that supposedly took place in the ancient Greek world, a medical textbook titled Quaestiones Medicinales falsely attributed to Soranus of Ephesus (fl. circa 100 CE), and a Res Gestae of Alexander the Great by Julius Valerius Alexander Polemius (270-330 CE), are believed to be based on Greek originals (although not necessarily exact translations).[30] The former, whose authorship is contested and for which the original Greek does not survive, appears simply to use the concept of “cattle, which drive a carrum” (…bubus, qui carrum ducunt…) as an analogy for co-causal symptoms (concausalis).[31] The latter text, however, in which Alexander crosses a frozen river with several carri,[32] is far more illuminating. Despite its military context, given the Gaulish association that Romans themselves so frequently attributed to the carrus, one would think it a rather anachronistic description of the vehicles of a Hellenistic Macedonian army. Indeed, in the corresponding passage of the original Greek text from which Polemius’ history is derived, the term used for Alexander’s vehicles is ἅμαξα (“hamaxa”),[33] which is in fact the same term used for the Greek translation of carrum birotem (ἅμαξα δίτροχος), under De Carris / Περὶ Κάρρων in the Edict of Diocletian (XV.40).[34]

This seeming incongruity, far from being the fault of an uninformed translator, ultimately represents an inevitable truth of any translation. Just as the Italian “carro” has no exact counterpart in English, or “chariot” in Italian, the precise meanings of the words comprising the Greek vehicular corpus likely rarely had one-to-one matches within the Roman language, and translators were thus forced to use the Latin term they believed most closely approximated the vehicle type named in the original Greek. This may explain why both Vitruvius and Polemius opted to use the term carrus: they believed that it represented, in Latin, a type of vehicle that most resembled what Chersiphron and Alexander, respectively, would have had at their disposal. Elsewhere, however, transliteration appears to have been preferred over attempted translation. The Latin inscription of the Sagalassos decree, for instance, was accompanied by a simplified Greek version, which uses exclusively the vehicle term κάρρον.[35] In the Edict of Diocletian, the titulary use of Περὶ Κάρρων, retained from the Latin De Carris, may have been intended to emphasize the functional distinction of such vehicles from those in De Vehiculis / Περὶ Ὀχήματων, whereas the use therein of ἅμαξα δίτροχος may reflect the actual physical characteristics of the vehicle in question. By contrast, that no attempt was made to find a Greek term for carrum quadrirotem—κάρρον τετράτροχον (XV.38)—may suggest the lack of native Greek term to explicitly describe a four-wheeled vehicle, and lends itself to recent claims that the four-wheeled wagon with a pivoting front axle was an innovation introduced into the Mediterranean world from Celtic Europe.[36]


V. The Carrus in archaeology & the Roman world

With the textual evidence having provided us a basic understanding of its possible forms and functions, and furthermore in the spirit of encouraging greater interdisciplinarity within Classical Studies, it is worth incorporating evidence from the areas of art and archaeology to consider as a final case study a possible visual representation of carri within the Roman world. Completed by 113 CE, the Column of Trajan in Rome pictorially narrates the emperor’s two Dacian conquests in 101-102 and 105-106 CE (roughly contemporaneous with many of the Vindolanda tablets), throughout which are frequently depicted the vehicles used by the Roman army (see cover photo, plus additional below).[37] Although, as with many of the literary sources, their appearance is second to the larger narrative (notice, for instance, their disproportion to the soldiers in Scene 62), these carts exhibit several characteristics—their military context, the nature of their cargo (equipment, baggage, and barrels), and possessing a single axle as well as a rather simplistic design (lacking even siding)—that parallel our textual reconstruction of the carrus. In addition, the consistency of the vehicles’ design across the entirety of the column, standing in stark contrast to the four-wheeled construction of the Dacian caravan (identifiable by the serpentine standard lying on the middle wagon, see photo below), suggests that this “minimalism” is not merely the product of artistic choice.[38] If carrus is indeed an accurate designation for these vehicles, it would open new perspectives into what authors such as Caesar expected their audiences to envisage when employing the term, and would moreover provide a critical foundation for revising our understanding of the use of transport across several facets of Roman society. It introduces, for instance, a basic visual template with which we may investigate the transport capacities of the Roman army and other government functions, such as the cursus publicus or the services protected under Sotidius’s decree, which can in turn speak to the efficiency and capabilities of these institutions more broadly.

To the author’s knowledge, only a handful of instances of vehicles even somewhat resembling those found on the Column of Trajan are known from other depictions, and there is currently insufficient graphical or archaeological evidence to speak to the definitive appearance or use of a similar vehicle outside of military or governmental contexts. If, therefore, the above evidence suggests that government institutions frequently relied on a basic and multi-purpose vehicle to accommodate a variety of functions, the depiction elsewhere (on mosaics, frescoes, funerary reliefs, etc.) of decidedly different types of vehicles engaged in decidedly other activities (i.e. commercial, agricultural, or persons transport),[39] may indicate a greater tendency for private industries and individuals to rely, and potentially invest the prettier penny, on more specialized forms of transport; a crude but sturdy plaustrum for agricultural needs and fieldwork[40] for instance, or a four-wheeled raeda for safely and comfortably transporting goods or passengers over longer distances. This is far from suggesting that the carrus was absent from such sectors of daily life; on the contrary, we have already discussed how its appearance in the Edict of Diocletian almost certainly reflects a more widespread usage. Rather, just as textual evidence is subject to the partialities, biases, and objectives of their authors, artwork depicting

Vehicles on the Column of Trajan.[41] Scene 49 (top right): 2 carri with various equipment, pulled by mules and oxen. Scene 106 (top left): shields loaded on a horse-drawn carrus. Scene 107 (upper left): carrus being loaded with baggage. Scene 129 (lower left): 2 carri with barrels in a Roman camp. Scene 40 (upper right) & Scene 65 (lower right): Roman artillery-mounted carts, known as carroballistae.[42] Scene 38 (bottom): 4-wheeled Dacian wagons. Notice the Dacian standard on the central wagon, and the slain Dacian soldier and equipment on the right most one.[43]

seemingly realistic scenes, too, may represent the artist’s idealized interpretations of those activities. In other words, although certain vehicle types may have been recognized to be tailored to specific functions, other vehicles surely would have been employed in the same industry, especially when availability and cost were deciding factors.[44] Nevertheless, that such imagery might reflect general patterns of vehicle usage—in this case the absence of anything that can definitively be identified as a carrus engaged in certain activities—provides a significant insight into the social, cultural, and economic spheres that influenced the selection of available transport technologies, and moreover how those selections in turn shaped and defined the efficiencies, expectations, and roles of transport within that socio-economic system.


VI. Conclusion

Despite its relatively minimal frequency and wide geographic and chronological distribution, the appearance of the term carrus throughout and beyond Classical Latin exhibits a remarkable and informative consistency in the nuances of its meaning and usage over the approximately 450 years since its first known occurrence. Ultimately, the textual evidence suggests that although the term may not have referred to a specific vehicle type or function, it is just as clear that it was not vague or indistinct either. While possibly initially embedded with associations to Gaulish practices, by the first century CE the carrus appears to have been adopted, if only in name, into the Roman military tradition, from Asia Minor to Britain. By the fourth century, if not well before, however, the very traits that made it suitable for military use appear to have also made it attractive as a more common form of transport. In other words, rather than the term being indiscriminately applied to a variety of different forms of vehicles, the use of a particular type, or types, of vehicle may in fact have become more widespread. The answer, therefore, to how the Italian “carro” by contrast came to be so vague in meaning is likely found much later in the lexicon of Medieval Latin or in the development of the early Italian dialects.

In light of the issues we have already seen in translating between Italian and English, and more importantly, between Latin and Ancient Greek, I hesitate to propose a definitive “catch-all” translation of carrus. Instead, depending on the nature or purpose of the translation, simply “cart,” or even more broadly “transport” may suffice (I would, however, avoid “wagon,” which in English typically implies four-wheels). The most important outcome of this discussion, however, is its demonstration of the substantial benefit that a better appreciation of the nuances in the forms and functions of ancient transport, as well as other technologies, may afford the many sub-disciplines of Classical Studies. As to those other types of vehicles, such as the raeda or plaustrum, whose presence in the Latin lexicon vastly outnumbers that of carrus, continued research that seeks to integrate the eclectic sources of evidence that underpin the field of Classics—textual, artistic, historical, linguistic, archaeological—will surely be able to produce cart-loads more information that will shed greater light on the role of transport in the daily life, culture, economy, and society of the Roman world.


David Picker-Kille is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Florida State University. He is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s post-baccalaureate program in Classical Studies.


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Appendix of Primary Sources

Below is a list of all classical literature and inscriptions used in this discussion. Those in which carrus or a derivative term appears are noted, as are their location(s) within the text, with the quantity of occurrences in brackets. Unless otherwise stated, all ancient sources were retrieved through the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) Latin Texts Database ( or the Library of Latin Texts (LLT). It may be worth noting that the completion of this research was fundamentally reliant on these online resources and projects, in addition to others such as the Epigraphik-Datenbank ( and the ongoing digitization of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (, and testifies to the increasing importance of such tools (especially amidst a pandemic) in the study of Classics, and to the humanities more broadly.

I would also like to sincerely thank Emma Dyson and Professor Julie-Nishimura Jensen for their feedback and assistance in the reading and translation of many of these passages. Any and all errors, however, are mine and mine alone.


Marcus Porcius Cato              De Agri Cultura (234-149 BCE)

Marcus Terentius Varro          De Lingua Latina (50-40 BCE)

Unknown Fragment (116-27 BCE), via De Compendiosa Doctrina
                                                carrus (Non. Mar. III.195 [1])

Lucius Cornelius Sisenna       Historiae (78-67 BCE), via De Compendiosa Doctrina
                                                carrus (Non. Mar. III.195 [1])

Gaius Julius Caesar                De Bellow Civili (approx. 45 BCE)
carrus (I.51-54 [2])

(Book VIII: Aulus Hirtius)            De Bello Gallico (52-43 BCE)
                                                carrus (I.3-51 [7], IV.14 [1], VII.18 [1], VIII.14 [1])

Pseudo Julius Caesar              De Bello Hispaniensi (post-44 BCE)
carrum (VI.2 [1])

Marcus Tullius Cicero                        Brutus (46 BCE)

Marcus Vitruvius Pollo          De Architectura (33-20 BCE)
carrus/carrum (X.2 [1])

Titus Livius                             Ab Urbe Condita (27 BCE – 17 CE)
                                                carrus/carrum (X.28 [1])

Sextus Sotidius                       Sagalassos Inscription (14-25 CE)[45]
Strabo Libuscidianus              carrum [9], κάρρον [6]

Legio III Cyrenaica                Papyrus Military Record (87-96 CE)[46]
carrarius (Fink 1971, pp. 210-211 [1])

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus    Institutio Oratoria (95-96 CE)

Inscription on a brick or tile fragment from northern France (100-200 CE)[47]
carrus/carrum (Raepsaet & Raepsaet-Charlier 2007, pp. 135-9 [1])

various                                    Vindolanda Writing Tablets (92-130 CE)[48]
                                                karrum (155? [1], 343 [2], 583 [1-2], 584? [1-2], 585? [1])
                                                carrum (160? [1], 488 [1], 642 [1], 649 [2])
carrulum (315 [1], 316 [2], 643, [1])
ax(s)is carrarius (185 [1], 309 [1])
                                                carrus (394? [1])
car(r)- (641? [1], 721 [1])

Gnaeus Domitius                    Ad Edictum (170-223 CE), via Digesta Justiniana
Anneus Ulpianus                    carrulum (Dig. Just. XVII.2.52.15 [1])

Gaius Aurelius                        Edictum de Pretiis Rerum Venalium (301 CE)
Valerius Diocletianus             XV.30 – carralis [1], καρραρικός [1]
XV.38-40 – carrum [4], κάρρος [3] ( + ἅμαξα [1])
XVII.3 – carrum [1], κάρρος [1]

Nonius Marcellus                   De Compendiosa Doctrina (300-350 CE)
                                                carrum (III.195 [1])

Julius Valerius                        Res Gestae Alexandri Macedonis[49] (337-361 CE)
Alexander Polemius               carrus/carrum (II.14 [1])

Theodosius II                          Codex Theodosianus
carrus/carrum (VIII.5.47 [1] – 386 CE)

(Pseudo) Soranus                    Questiones Medicinales (<400 CE)[50]
carrus/carrum (Fischer 2018, p. 363.8 [1])

Publius Flavius                       Epitoma Rei Militaris (383-450 CE)
Vegetius Renatus                    carroballista (II.25 [2], III.14 [1], III.24 [1])
carrus/carrum (III.10 [1])

Isidorus Hispalensis                Etymologiae[51] (560-636 CE)
carrum (XV.16 [1], XVIII.35 [1], XX.12 [3])


[1] Photo from The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) Arachne Monument Browser:

[2] (2021).

[3] “Chariot.” OED Online (2021).

[4] Catherine Love & M. Clari, “Cart” (English-Italian). Harper Collins Italian Concise Dictionary, p. 58 (2000);
Love & Clari, “Chariot” (English-Italian), p. 64 (2000); Love & Clari, “Carro” (Italiano-Inglese), p. 61 (2000).

[5] The Daremberg & Saglio entry for carrus (1873, pp. 928-929) states that the vehicle has “deux ou quatre roues” (two or four wheels), marked with footnote “5”: there are only four footnotes for that entry. The single fourth-century occurrence of the term clearly suggesting four wheels from a Latin copy of the Edict of Diocletian (discussed below), supports this claim, but was not discovered until several decades after the D&S publication.
Cornelius van Tilburg, Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire: pp. 73-74 (2007); Matthew Chandler, “Gallicization in Rome” pp. 52-53 (2017).

[6] Raymond Chevallier, Roman Roads, p. 178 (1973); Judith Weller, “Geography,” Roman Traction Systems (1999); McDevitte & Bohn (trans.), Caesar’s Gallic War, I.51.

[7] Non. Marc., III.95

[8] Cicero labels Sisenna as an eccentric who frequently used new or uncommon vocabulary in his writing (Cic. Brutus.259). Might his use here of carros, the earliest known occurrence of the word, be an example? That he also uses sarracum, a vehicle term apparently associated with Vulgar or colloquial Latin (cf. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria VIII.3.21), would strengthen this claim.

[9] By contrast, in De Lingua Latina (50-40 BCE, V.140), Varro’s discussion of vehicle terminology makes no mention of carrus, further suggesting that it may have been a relatively recent addition to Latin (see footnote #8).

[10] Ranko Matasovi, “Karro-.” Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic (2010); Michiel de Vaan, “Currō.” Etymological Dictionary of Latin (2010).

[11] Gall. I.51.2, IV. 14.4, I.24.4

[12] Civ. I.51.1, I.54 (translated by author).

[13] All published tablets available at the Roman Inscriptions of Britain website:

[14] carrus apparently was also frequently written as a neuter noun: carrum (cf. Non. Marc. III.195).

[15] Anthony Birley, Garrison Life at Vindolanda: pp. 41-48 (2011).

[16] Steven Mitchell, “Requisitioned Transport in the Roman Empire:” pp. 106-31 (1976).

[17] The first occurrence explains the purpose of the decree—ne quis gratuitis vehiculis utatur—and the second delineates the distance for which the listed services must be provided—Praestare autem debebunt vehicula usque Cormasa et Conamam. That vehiculum may be confidently translated using its etymological descendant “vehicle,” as an umbrella term for any form of wheeled transport, is substantiated in other Latin literary sources that define other vehicle types such as raeda, plaustrum, or cisium, as a genus vehiculi (cf. Non. Marc. II.86, Isid. Etym. XX.12).

[18] Stuart Piggott, The Earliest Wheeled Transport, pp. 229-235 (1983); Chandler, pp. 47-62 (2017).

[19] pp. 122-123 (1976).

[20] K. T. Erim and Joyce Reynolds, “The Aphrodisias Copy of Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices” (1973).

[21] VWT 185, 309, & 600; Cod. Theod. VIII.5.47; Pierre Sillières, “The Vehiculatio (or Cursus Publicus) and the Militares Viae” (2014); R.P. Duncan-Jones, “Roman Weights and Measures” (2013).
For an additional, but much later, single-axle appraisal of the carrus, cf. Isid. Etym. XX.12.

[22] The word saragara is known only from this portion of the Edict and is otherwise unattested anywhere else in Latin. Erim & Reynolds (1973, p. 108) suggest that it may be related to sarracum (see footnote #8).

[23] Simon Corcoran and Alfred Hirt, “Diocletian’s Edict on Prices” (2012).

[24] For the association of plaustrum with the transport of heavy materials, cf. Isid. Etym. XX.20, Varr. Ling. V.140

[25] Erim & Reynolds, p. 106 (1973).

[26] Duncan-Jones, “Roman Weights and Measures” (2013).

[27] van Tilburg, Traffic and Congestion in the Roman Empire: p. 72 (2007); Chevallier, Roman Roads: p. 179 (1973).

[28] VWT 649; Additionally, in VWT 343 (104-120 CE), after inquiring about a karrum that had apparently been discussed in previous correspondence, a certain Octavius informs a Candidus that he has completed threshing 119 modii of bracis, and requests more cash so that he may continue doing so. Of course, it is impossible to know if there was truly any relationship between Octavius’s transport inquiry and his update about the threshed grain, but the Edict’s listing of a threshing sledge just below the two-wheeled carrum encourages us to consider the possibility.

[29] Christoph Höcker, “Chersiphron” (2006);  X.2.11 (translated by author).

[30] Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, Sorani Quae Feruntur. Quaestiones Medicinales pp. 12-13 (2018); David Langslow, “Soranus, Physician” (2012); Richard Stoneman, “Alexander Romance (Pseudo-Callisthenes)” (2011).

[31] Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, Sorani Quae Feruntur. Quaestiones Medicinales p. 66.55 (2018).

[32] Polemius, Res Gestae Alex. II.14.

[33] Andrew Smith, “Alexander Romance (‘Pseudo-Callisthenes’)”, II.14 (2015).
Curiously, in the Greek counterpart, Alexander waits until after the river has thawed before he crosses.

[34] Erim & Reynolds, p. 102 (1973); Theodor Mommsen & Hugo Blümner, Edictum Diocletiani, p. 33 (1893).

[35] Mitchell, pp. 107-10 (1976).

[36] Georges Raepsaet, “Land Transport” (2006); Van Tilberg p. 73 (2007).

[37] Matthew M. Mccarty, “Trajan’s Column.” (2012).

[38] Ian A. Richmond, Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column. p.13 & n.40 (1982).

[39] For a nearly exhaustive catalogue of depictions of vehicles in the Roman world, see Tess Dooreward, “Karren en wagens: constructie en gebruik van voertuigen in Gallia en de Romeinse Rijn-Donauprovincies”, Volume II (2010).

[40] In addition to the transport of heavy burdens and raw materials, the plaustrum is frequently associated with agricultural activity (cf. Cato, De Re Agricultura). These two “distinct” uses of the plaustrum are probably more aptly viewed as simply two sides of the same coin: i.e., its durability is what also made it suitable for fieldwork.

[41] All photos from The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) Arachne Monument Browser:

[42] Ian A. Richmond, Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column. pp. 16-17 (1982).

[43] Ibid. p.13 & n.40

[44] A potential modern analogy to this phenomenon might be the iconic status of taxi cabs in cities like New York and London, despite the increasing popularity of other, often cheaper, services such as Uber and Lyft, which employ whatever type of vehicle the driver owns.

[45] Steven Mitchell, “Requisitioned Transport in the Roman Empire: A New Inscription from Pisidia” (1976).

[46] Robert O. Fink, Roman Military Records on Papyrus (1971).

[47] Raepsaet and Raepsaet-Charlier, “Les brique et tuile inscrites de Sains-du-Nord (Cité des Nerviens): Réflexions sur l’usage économique de l’écriture dans le monde gallo-romain” (2007).


[49] Julius Valerius Alexander Polemius. Res Gestae Alexandri Macedonis. Edited by Michela Rosellini (2012).

[50] Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, Sorani Quae Feruntur. Quaestiones Medicinales (2018).

[51] Although the text was written well into late antiquity and many of its etymological claims have been thoroughly disproven, Isidore’s discussion of several Latin vehicle names and their basic characteristics (XX.12) is an excellent starting point for looking at patterns of the use of various terms for wheeled transport throughout earlier texts.