Respecting the antiquity of stirrups several men of learning 1344  have long ago made researches; but as their observations are scattered through a great variety of books, some of which are now scarce, and are mingled with much falsehood, it will perhaps afford pleasure to many to find here collected and reduced into order the greater, or at least the most important, part of them. In executing this task I shall aim at more than the character of a diligent collector; for to bring together information of this kind, to arrange it, and to make it useful, requires no less readiness of thought than the labours of those who assume the character of original thinkers, and who imagine that they render others inferior to themselves when they bestow on them the appellation of compilers.

We have here a new proof how much people may be deceived, when they suppose that objects must be of great antiquity because they tend to common convenience and because they appear even so indispensably necessary and easy to have been invented, that one can scarcely conceive how they could at any time have been wanting. I cannot, however, deprive our ancestors of the merit of ingenuity and invention; for they must undoubtedly have possessed no small share of talents and ability, to perform, without the assistance of our arts, what perhaps would be difficult even for the present age to accomplish. And who knows but there are many things still to be invented, the discovery of which may give posterity equal reason to reproach us?

Stirrups are useful in two points of view; for they not only assist one in mounting, but also in riding, as they support the legs of the rider, which otherwise would be exposed to much inconvenience. No traces of any invention for this purpose are to be found in the old Greek and Latin writers; and though means to assist people to get on horseback were devised in the course of time, neither stirrups nor any permanent support to the legs were for a long period thought of. Nothing that could perform the same service as a stirrup is to be perceived on ancient coins which exhibit the representation of persons on horseback; on statues cast or formed with the chisel, or on any remains of ancient sculpture. In the excellent equestrian statues of Trajan and Antoninus, the legs of the rider hang down without any support whatever. Had stirrups been in use when these statues were formed, the artists certainly would not have omitted them; and the case would have been the same with those writers who speak so fully of riding, and of the necessary equipage and furniture. How is it possible, that Xenophon, in the two books which he wrote expressly on horsemanship and the art of riding, where he gives rules for mounting, and where he points out means for assisting old people and infirm persons, should not have mentioned stirrups had he been acquainted with them? And how could they have been passed over by Julius Pollux, in his Lexicon, where he gives every expression that concerns riding-furniture?

Hippocrates 1345  and Galen 1346  speak of a disease which in their time was occasioned by long and frequent riding, because the legs hung down without any support. Suetonius 1347  also relates that Germanicus, the father of Caligula, by riding often after dinner endeavoured to strengthen his ankles, which had become weak; and Magius explains this very properly by telling us, that as his legs hung down without stirrups, they would be continually moved backwards and forwards, and of course the circulation of the blood towards those parts would be increased.

Neither in the Greek nor Roman authors do we meet with any term that can be applied to stirrups, for staffa,stapiastaphiumstaphastapediumstapeda, and stapes  are words formed in modern times. The last, as Vossius and others say, was invented by Franc. Philelphus, who was born in 1398 and died in 1481 1348 , to express properly a thing unknown to the ancients, and for which they could have no name. The other words are older, as may be seen in Du Cange, and appear to be derived from the German stapf, which is still retained in Fuss-stapf, a foot-step.

The name of one of the ear-bones, which, on account of its likeness to a stirrup, has from anatomists received the same appellation, may occur here to some of my readers; and if that expression was known to the ancients, it might invalidate my assertion. That small bone, however, was first remarked at Naples in the year 1546 by John Philip Ingrassias, a Sicilian, who called it stapes. To the ancient anatomists it was not known 1349.

Montfaucon is of opinion that it is impossible there could be stirrups before saddles were invented, because the former, at present, are fastened to the latter. This conclusion, however, is not altogether just. Stirrups might have been suspended from leather straps girt round the horse. In mounting, it would only have been necessary that some one should hold fast the strap on the other side; and stirrups arranged in this manner would have supported the feet of the rider as well as ours. It is certain that mounting on horseback was formerly much easier than it has been since the invention of high saddles; and it is probable that stirrups were introduced soon after that period. The arguments which I have here adduced will receive additional force when one considers the inconvenient means which the ancients employed to assist them in getting on horseback; and which, undoubtedly, they would not have used had they been acquainted with stirrups.

The Roman manners required that young men and expert riders should be able to vault on horseback without any assistance. To accustom them to this agility there were wooden horses in the Campus Martius, on which practitioners were obliged to learn to mount and dismount, both on the right and the left side, at first unarmed, and afterwards with arms in their hands 1350. In many public places, particularly highways, stones were erected, to which a rider could lead his horse in order to mount with more facility. Such stones Gracchus caused to be set up 1351 ; and they were to be found at many cities, in the sixteenth century, especially near the council-houses, that they might be used by the members of the council, who at that time did not ride in coaches. A convenience of this kind was constructed at the Roman gate at Frankfort in 1502; and steps for the same purpose may be still seen in many parts of England, where they are employed principally by the ladies. If a certain ludicrous inscription be ancient, such a stone was called suppedaneum ; but this word occurs nowhere else 1352.

People of high rank and fortune kept riding-servants to assist them in mounting, who were called stratores 1353 . It was usual also to have portable stools, which were placed close to the horse when one wished to mount; and this gave rise to the barbarous practice of making conquered princes and generals stoop down that the victor might more easily get on horseback by stepping upon their backs as upon a stool. In this ignominious manner was the emperor Valerian treated by Sapor, king of Persia 1354. Some horses also were so instructed that they kneeled until the rider mounted 1355 ; and warriors had on their spears or lances a step or projection, on which they could rest the foot while they got on horseback 1356. Winkelmann has described a cut stone in the collection of Baron Stosch, on which a rider is represented in the act of mounting with one foot on the step of his spear; and it appears, by an ancient drawing, that a leather loop 1357 , into which the foot could be put, was fastened sometimes to the lance also.

Of those who believe that traces of stirrups are to be found among the ancients, no one has erred more than Galeotus Martius 1358 , who follows a wrong reading in Lucretius 1359 , and translates still worse the words which he adopts. Magius and others consider as authentic an inscription, in which stirrups are clearly mentioned; and because the letters D. M. (diis manibus ), usual in Pagan inscriptions, appear at the top, he places it in the first century of the Christian æra 1360 Menage 1361 , however, and others have already remarked that this inscription was forged in modern times, and in all probability by Franc. Columna, who lived in the middle of the sixteenth century, and who sometimes called himself Polyphilus 1362. Gruter, therefore, reckons it among those which ought to be rejected as spurious: and of as little authority is the silver coin on which the Emperor Constantine is represented on horseback with stirrups.

Magius quotes from the letters of Jerome, who died in the year 420, the following words, “Se cum quasdam accepit litteras jumentum conscensurum, jam pedem habuisse in bistapia.” These words have been again quoted by several writers; and we may readily believe that the author when he wrote them alluded to a stirrup. Magius however quotes from memory, and says, “Si memoria non labat.” But these words are not to be found in Jerome; and it is probable that Magius may have read them in the works of some other author.

The first certain account of stirrups, as far as I have been able to learn, is in a book by Mauritius 1363  respecting the art of war, where the author says that a horseman must have at his saddle two iron scalæ. This work, commonly ascribed to the emperor Mauritius, is supposed to have been written in the end of the sixth century; and it is not a sufficient proof to the contrary, that mention is made in it of the Turks, Franks, and Lombards. The first were then well known; for Justin II. some time before had concluded a peace with them: the Lombards made themselves known in the middle of that century: and the Franks had been known much longer. The same words are inserted by the emperor Leo VI., in his work on tactics, which he wrote in the end of the ninth century 1364. Still clearer is another passage of Mauritius 1365 , and of the emperor Leo 1366 , where it is expressly said, that the deputati, who were obliged to carry the wounded horsemen from the field, ought to have two stirrups on the left side of the horse, one at the fore-part and the other at the hind-part of the saddle-tree, that they might each take a disabled soldier on horseback behind them. That these scalæ were real stirrups there seems to be no reason to doubt; and in my opinion, that word, and other expressions of the like kind to be found in later writers, may be understood in this sense, especially as concomitant circumstances appear rather to strengthen than to oppose such a conjecture.

Isidore, in the seventh century, says “Scansuæ, ferrum per quod equus scanditur;” and also “Astraba, tabella, in qua pedes requiescunt 1367 :” both which expressions allude to stirrups. Leo the Grammarian, in the beginning of the tenth century 1368 , calls them, as Mauritius does, scalæ. Suidas, who wrote about the same period, says anaboleus  signifies not only a riding-servant, who assists one in mounting, but also what by the Romans was called scala. As the machine used for pulling off boots is named a Jack, because it performs the office of a boy, in the like manner that appellation, which at first belonged to the riding-servant, was afterwards given to stirrups, because they answered the same purpose. Suidas, as a proof of the latter meaning, quotes a passage from an anonymous writer, who says that Massias, even when an old man, could vault on horseback without the assistance of a stirrup (anaboleus ). Lipsius thinks that the passage is to be found in Appian 1369 , respecting Masanissa; and in that case the first meaning of the word may be adopted. Suidas, according to every appearance, would have been in a mistake, had he given Masanissa at so early a period the Roman scalæ, with which he could not be acquainted. But that the passage is from Appian, and that Masanissa ought to be read instead of Massias, is only mere conjecture; at any rate Suidas could commit no mistake in saying that the Romans in his time made use of scalæ. Lipsius, however, was not altogether wrong in considering this quotation alone as an insufficient proof of stirrups, because with the still older and more express testimony of Mauritius he was unacquainted. Eustathius, the commentator of Homer 1370 , speaks in a much clearer manner; but he gives us to understand that stirrups in his time, that is in the twelfth century, had not become very common. On a piece of tapestry of the eleventh century, which Montfaucon caused to be engraven 1371 , the saddles of all the horses appear to have stirrups. Aimonius calls them scandilia 1372 , and in the twelfth century the word staffa  occurs very often, and without doubt in that sense 1373. In the ages of superstition, the clergy carried their boundless pride to such a length, that they caused emperors and kings to hold their stirrups when they mounted on horseback 1374. It however long continued to be thought a mark of superior dexterity to ride without stirrups, at least Phile praises Cantacuzenus on this account 1375.


1344  The principal works in which information is to be found on this subject are the following: Hieron. Magii Miscellan. lib. ii. cap. 14.—Gruteri Lampas, ii. p. 1339.—Lipsii Poliorceticon sive de Militia Romana, Antv. 1605, lib. iii. dial. 7.—Pitisci Lexicon Antiquit. Rom. iii. p. 482.—Salmasius in Ælii Spart. Antonin. Carac. p. 163.—G. J. Vossius, De Vitiis Sermonis, Amst. 1695, fol. p. 11.—Polyd. Vergilius De Rerum Inventoribus, lib. iii. cap. 18.—Hugo De Militia Equestri, i. 4.—Licetus De Lucernis.—Menagiana, iv. p. 263.—Brown's Vulgar Errors.—Berenger's History and Art of Horsemanship, London, 1771, 4to.—Montfaucon, Antiquité Expliquée, iv. lib. 3, cap. 3, p. 77, and Supplement, iv. lib. ii. cap. 4.—Le Beau, in Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscriptions, xxxix. p. 537.

1345  De Aëre, Locis et Aquis, sect. 3. The author here speaks in particular of the Scythians, who were always on horseback; but he afterwards extends his observations to all those much addicted to riding.

1346  Galen. De Parvæ Pilæ Exercitio, cap. 5. De Sanitate Tuenda, lib. ii. cap. 11.

1347  Vita Caligulæ, cap. 3.

1348  Fabricii Biblioth. Med. et Inf. Ætatis, vol. v. p. 845.

1349  The history of this anatomical discovery, written by Ingrassias himself, may be found in J. Douglas, Bibliographiæ Anatomicæ Specimen; Lugd. Bat. 1734, 8vo, p. 186. This discovery was claimed by a person named Columbus; but that it belongs to Ingrassias has been fully proved by Fallopius in his Observat. Anatomicæ.

1350  Vegetius De Re Milit. i. 18.

1351  Plutarchus, Vita C. Gracchi.

1352  This inscription may be found in Thom. Porcacchi Funerali Antichi. Venet. 1574, fol. p. 14.

“Dis pedip. saxum
Cinciæ dorsiferæ et cluniferæ,
Ut insultare et desultare commodetur,
Pub. Crassus mulæ suæ Crassæ bene ferenti
Suppedaneum hoc cum risu pos.”

Here Dis pedip. seems to be an imitation of Dis Manibus saxum  of the usual word sacrum : and bene ferenti  of bene merenti.

1353  Lipsius De Milit. Romana, p. 410. Pitisci Lexic. Antiq. These servants were called also ἀναβολεῖς.

1354  Eutrop. lib. ix. cap. 6.—Victor. epit. 46.—Trebell. Pollio, Vita Valeriani.—Hofmanni Lexic. artic. Calcandi hostium corpora ritus, p. 642.

1355  Strabo, lib. iii. says that the Spaniards instructed their horses in this manner.

1356  Lipsius understands in this sense what Livy says, book iv. chap. 19, of Cornelius Cossus, “Quem cum ictum equo dejecisset, confestim et ipse hasta innisus se in pedes excepit.”

1357  Figures of both may be seen in Berenger, tab. 8.

1358  De Promiscua Doctrina, cap. 28.

1359  Lib. v. 1296, “Et prius est repertum in equi conscendere costas.” Martius reads clostris ; and thinks that clostra is the Greek name for a ladder, which however is κροσσά.

1360  In this inscription the following words occur, “Casu desiliens, pes hæsit stapiæ, tractus interii.”

1361  Menagiana. Paris, 1715, vol. iv. p. 83.

1362  Fabricii Biblioth. Med. et Inf. Ætatis, i. p. 1131.

1363  Mauricii Ars Militaris, edita a Joh. Scheffero. Upsaliæ 1664, 8vo p. 22.

1364  Leonis Tactica, edit. Meursii cap. vi. § 10. p. 57.

1365  Lib. ii. cap. 8. p. 64.

1366  Tactica, cap. xii. § 53, p. 150.

1367  Both passages are quoted by Du Cange from the Gloss. Isidori. The latter word signified also the saddle-bow; for Suidas says, ‘Ἀστράβη, τὸ ἐπὶ τῶν ἐφιππίων ξύλον ὃ κρατοῦσιν οἱ καθεζόμενοι'. Lignum quod est in ephippiis, quod sessores tenent. Allusion is made to this saddle-bow by the emperor Frederic II. De Arte Venandi, ii. 71, p. 152, where he describes how a falconer should mount his horse: “Ponat pedem unum in staffa sellæ, accipiens arcum sellæ anteriorem cum manu sua sinistra, supra quam jam non est falco, posteriorem autem cum dextra, super quam est falco.” Nicetas, however, in Manuel. Comnen. lib. ii. p. 63, gives that name to the whole saddle; for we are told that the Scythians, when about to cross a river, placed their arms on the saddle (ἀστράβην), and laying hold of the tails of their horses, swam after them.

1368  Leonis Grammatici Chronographia, printed in the Paris Collection of the Byzantine Historians, with Theophanis Chronograph. 1655, fol. p. 470.

1369  De Bellis Punicis, edit. Tollii, p. 107.

1370  Odyss. lib. i. 155.

1371  Monumens de la Monarchie Françoise, i. tab. 35.

1372  Aimonius De Miraculis Sancti Benedicti, ii. 20.

1373  Fredericus II. De Venat. lib. ii. cap. 71. According to Du Cange, stirrups as well as spurs occur seldom on seals in the eleventh century. In the thirteenth they are more frequent. See P. W. Gerkens Anmerkungen über die Siegel. Stendal, 1786, 8vo, part 2. Heineccius De Sigillis, p. 205. I shall here remark that Cœlius Rhodiginus, xxi. 31, is mistaken when he says that Avicenna calls stirrups subsellares. Licetus, De Lucernis, p. 786, has proved that this Arabian author speaks only of a covering to secure the feet from frost.

1374  Instances of this pride have been collected by Du Cange in his annotations on Cinnamus, p. 470, and more may be found in his Dictionary, vol. vi. p. 681. When steps were not erected on the highways, a metal or wooden knob was affixed to each side of the saddle, which the rider, when about to mount, laid hold of, and then caused his servant to assist him. The servants also were often obliged to throw themselves down that their master might step upon their back. See Constantin. De Ceremoniis Aulæ Byzant. p. 242. A, 6; and p. 405, B, 3; also Reiske in his Annotations, p. 135.

1375  In Cantacuz. edit Wernsdorfii. Lipsiæ, 1768, 8vo, p. 218, who calls stirrups κλίμακες, scalæ.