Bronze Age bits

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

As we have seen in the myth of Pegasus and Bellerophon, in antiquity the application of the bit was considered a decisive moment for the horse’s submission to the will of the rider. It is believed that the first rudimentary mouthpieces were made of perishable materials, such as horsehair strings, or bone. The oldest metal bits date back to the Bronze Age and were conceived according to a principle similar to that of the modern snaffle, i.e. they consisted of a cannon (rigid or jointed) exerting direct pressure on the bars, to which the reins were secured by metal rings. Generally, this sort of snaffle had a width exceeding (12-20 cm) those of the ones that are used today (10-15 cm). Because of these dimensions they exercised more pressure on the sides of the mouth, with a more severe effect than the current snaffles. Both the Greek civilization and the pre-Roman world ignored the use of the curb bit (i.e. with long leverage–arm and curb chain), which is believed to have been introduced by the Celtic people, between the fourth and third century BC. Its use would be adopted later by the Romans through the influence of the Gauls, and would spread in the Hellenistic world after the Gauls invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC.

The people of the Mediterranean, however, also knew the use of halters (phorbeia) and cavessons, which were used to conduct the horses in hand and to tie them in the stables. It is also conceivable that they were used to drive chariot horses. The harnesses found with a chariot in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV, in fact suggest that the horses were driven with a sort of cavesson, which exerted pressure on the nostrils of the animals.

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form
of a human-headed animal with central figure attacked by a lion
Luristan – 9thC BC-8thC BC
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

Some of the oldest surviving bits comes from Luristan, a region in western Iran on the Zagros Mountains, and are dated between 1000 and 700 BC. They are made of bronze and they consist of a cannon of a single piece, straight or slightly curved, with at each end a cheek piece in the form of a winged animal. These figures of animals had a large hole in the body, in which passed the end of the mouthpiece, and two loops to tie the bridle and the rein. These remains were found mainly in tombs in which they were placed under the head of the buried body. Signs of wear on these bits, however, suggest that they were actually used – though probably only as parade accessories – and that they were not mere funeral offerings.

Bits with zoomorphic cheek pie­ces, were found also in Italy. The oldest belong to the so-called Villanovan culture, which flourished in central Italy (in the Tyrrhenian Etruria, Emilia Romagna and Marche, and also to the south, in Campania and Lucania) between the ninth and eighth century BC. They were part of the funeral offerings in the characteristic shaft tombs in which the deceased’s ashes were housed in an urn. In this case, however, they were jointed bites, decidedly less severe then the oriental models.

Bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces
Villanovan (8th-7th century BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

A bit with a rigid cannon, dating back to the late Bronze Age, found in the site of Tell el-Ajjul, near Gaza in Palestine, identifies another typology of bits, relatively widespread in ancient times. In this case, the cheek pieces are drilled bronze discs, through which passes the cannon, studded with spikes on their inner face. The cheek pieces were used to prevent sideways movements of the bit in the mouth, while the spikes strengthened the coercive action of the bit on the horse. The reins were secured to metal rings inserted in small holes at the ends of the cannon. This kind of bit was probably used for war-chariot horses. In his historical and geographical work titled Indika, the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia says that bits with circular cheek pieces and internal spikes were also used in India at the time of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC).

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Canaanite (Late Bronze Age)
Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Jointed bits with similar cheek pieces, but without internal spikes, were found in Greece and Asia Minor. Their operation was very similar to that of a modern snaffle.

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Greece or Asia Minor (I millennium BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

In Italy, Etruscan (or Villanovan) bits from the eighth century BC were found perfectly preserved. Of particular interest are the pairs of bits found in some burials in central Italy, especially the pair found in the tomb number 39 of the Benacci Caprara cemetery in Bologna.

Pair of Etruscan bronze bits
Benacci Caprara tomb 39 (750-720 BC)
Museo civico archeologico di Bologna

They are two bronze snaffles with elegant openwork cheek pieces. The jointed cannon, as in many other ancient bits, is “twisted”. According to some scholars, this kind of cannon evokes the memory of the time when horsehair strings, or other resistant fibers, were used as mouthpieces instead of metal. It seems to us more reasonable to think that instead the grooves serve to improve the effectiveness of the cannon on the horse’s bars and then to make the bit more severe. The hypothesis seems confirmed by the spread, in ages immediately following, of mouthpieces in which the action of the cannon on the bars was further strengthened by spikes. The two snaffles, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Bologna, were part of an Etruscan funerary outfit dating from the seventh century BC (the date of the tomb is estimated between 750 and 720 BC). Note that in the Italian burials of this period the bits were always in pairs, because they were intended for a pair of horses attached to light chariots. In the tomb were also found bronze pins and hub locks of the chariot’s wheels, that were probably burned on the funeral pyre with the body of the deceased. If in earlier times, in the area of Bologna, the bits were exclusively part of male funerary outfits, from the end of the seventh century BC they appear also in some particularly rich female burials.

In the same area we note another couple of bronze snaffles, found in excavations at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Pradella farm in Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena. They are a variation of the two bits from Bologna, with pelta, or waxing moon cheek pieces. It is a kind of bit relatively widespread in the area of Emilia, in both male and female tombs.

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces (8th BC)
Pradella farm – Castelfranco Emilia (MO)
Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna


ANDERSON, John Kinloch , Ancient Greek Horsemanship, Berkley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1961.

 AZZAROLI, Augusto, An Early History of Horsemanship, E.J. Brille, Leiden,1985.

DREWS, Robert, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe, New York-London, Routledge, 2004.

QUESADA SANZ, Fernando, El gobierno del caballo montado en la antigüedad clásica con especial referencia al caso de Iberia. Bocados, espuelas y la cuestión de la silla de montar, estribos y herraduras, Gladius XXV, 2005, pp. 97-150

For further information on the picture published in this page please follow these links:

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form of a human-headed animal 

Villanovan bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces

Greek bronze bit with circular cheek pieces

Etruscan bronze bits from Benacci Caprara tomb 39

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces – Pradella farm

The bit that tamed the flying horse: Pegasus and Bellerophon

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the thirteenth of his Olimpyan odes, Pindar tells that the prince of Corinth, Bellerophon, suffered for a long time in the attempt to ride the untamed winged horse, Pegasus. It is not hard to imagine why he wanted to mount him at all costs. He was a prodigious animal, born from the ground bathed in the blood of Medusa or, according to others, even sprung from his neck when Perseus cut it with a sickle, killing her. The horse immediately flew to the abode of immortals and from then on lived in the house of Zeus, bringing the lightning and the thunder to the Father of the Gods. One day, however, he stopped  near the Peiréne source, not far from the city of Corinth. The prince saw him and tried to approach him, but the horse defended himself wildly. And yet his violence and arrogance increased the desire of the young man to ride him.

Athena, Pegasus and Bellerophon
Pompei – Casa dei Dioscuri, (fresco)

Exhausted, Bellerophon turned to the diviner, Polido, who advised him to sleep in Athena’s temple. As soon as he fell asleep, the goddess appeared to him in a dream. Handing a bit made of gold rings, she whispered him to take it and to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon. Immediately the hero awoke and found the divine instrument at his side. He ran to Polido to tell him what happened and he told him to obey the dream and dedicate an altar to Athena Hippia.

The power of the gods, says Pindar, does easily what would be sworn impossible. So, thanks to the prodigious bit, Bellerophon immediately subdued the fiery flying horse. As soon as he put the bit in his mouth, he could jump on his back, wearing his bronze weapons, and they immediately performed a warrior dance. Then, on his back, the hero defeated the Amazons, killed the Chimera and routed the Solimi.

Jan Boeckhorst , Pegasus (around 1675-1680)
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes – Rio de Janeiro (oil on canvas)

The story of the taming of Pegasus presents several points of interest. Besides in Pindar, it occurs in Hesiod (Theogony) and in several other authors, while Homer, who speaks of Bellerophon (in the sixth canto of the Iliad), does not mention the winged horse. Poseidon is qualified with the name of damaios, which means “tamer”, to emphasize the intimate connection of this deity with the horses, which makes him the protector of riders and charioteers, as well as the tutelary deity of the equestrian games. Athena also appears there as the goddess of Equestrian Art, bestower of the instrument that, by the force of an enchantment, can “win the mind” of the wild animal. Above all, however, the taming of the horse is seen here as a unique moment in which, thanks to a divine instrument, the hero manages to subdue the animal, that from unruly and violent, becomes immediately docile. Especially striking is the role of the bit as an essential tool of communication between man and horse. This anticipates a trend that will have a particular development during the Renaissance, when the art of “bridling”, which is the ability to choose the correct bit for each horse, will be considered “the true touchstone of the horseman” (Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562, p. 80r).


PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

PAUSANIAS, Guide to Greece, II, 31, 9 e IX, 31, 3

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

WAGNER, Marc-André, Dictionnaire mythologique et historique du cheval, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2006.