The Corinthian bit

Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar)
Attributed to the Eucharides Painter (ca. 490 B.C.)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Unlike what we have said about various civilizations of the Bronze Age, in Greece the practice of burying horse bits in graves was rare. Because of this, not many specimens have been preserved. For instance, those relating to the period between the eighth and seventh centuries BC, are almost entirely missing and historians have tried to reconstruct the variety of instruments used in ancient times in Greece, mainly from vase paintings. These, however, are too stylized to allow reliable analysis. However, we know that before the invasion of the Celts from Central Europe in the third century BC, in Greece only snaffle bits were used.

In the Bronze Age and in the early Iron Age, the use of chariots in Greece prevailed above horseback riding. During this time, it is believed that horses were controlled with a type of cavesson, or with snaffle bits (rigid or jointed) with sidebars. These bits acted partly through the mouthpieces and partly through the pressure of the sidebars on the sides of the animal’s mouth. In the following classical period, roughly between the fifth and fourth centuries BC, when riding began to prevail over the driving of chariots, the use of different bits with very severe mouthpieces, spread. On the cannons of the bits spikes were added that, while not changing the operating principle of the snaffle bit, made their action on the bars much more effective.

Greek Bronze bit
4th–3rd century B.C.
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

There is no doubt that these types of mouthpieces frequently hurt the horses mouth. In this regard, the historian and rhetorician Dio Chrysostom, who lived between I and II sec. AD, in his Discourses (LXIII, 5), tells an anecdote about the famous Greek painter Apelles (IV sec. BC) who, not succeeding in his attempts to portray realistically the mouth of a horse covered with foam and blood, threw a sponge against the painting thus finally achieving the desired result. It is precisely because of the extreme severity of the mouthpieces in use in his time, that Xenophon in his treatise on the Art of Riding, argues that «smooth bits are better than the rough ones, but if you put the horse a rough bit, you have to make it similar to a smooth one through the lightness of the hand »(Perì Hippikès, IX, 9). Xenophon also argues that «we need to have at least two bits. Of these, one should be smooth, having discs of a fair size, the other should have the disks heavy and thick and the spikes sharp, so that when the horse takes hold of it he may be repulsed by its roughness into letting it go, and when instead of it he has the smooth one in his mouth, he may be pleased by its smoothness and perform in it all those exercises that were taught by the rough one» (Perì Hippikès, X, 6). The author does not provide a detailed description of these bits, taking for granted the knowledge on the part of the reader. However, he dwells on the mouthpieces, specifying that if the horse has a tendency to lean on the bit, it is appropriate to use one with large internal disks, requiring the animal to keep his mouth open. Similarly he prefers jointed bits with respect to the stiff ones, because it is more difficult for the horse to lean on them and resist to their action.

The Alxander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompei
First century BC
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Napoli

Among the different kinds of bits that have been identified in classical Greece, one is particularly typical. It may be seen in the famous Mosaic of Alexander, found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii, depicting the Battle of Issus, which opposed the Macedonian leader to Darius III of Persia (in 333 BC). It is distinguished by showy cheekpieces in the form of S. The ends of which are bent, one horizontally inwards, the other outwards. The inward turning end probably went under the chin of the horse. The mouthpiece was particularly severe and consisted of two jointed cannons on which pivoted two rollers bristling with spikes (echinoi), designed to act on the bars of the mouth, and two disks (trochoi), acting on the tongue and on the palate, to prevent the horse from closing his mouth and resisting the action of the bit. From the juction rings (sumbolai) of the cannons, hung a short length of fine chain that stimulated the tongue of the animal. It was used to encourage the mobility of the jaw and salivation.The straps of the bridle were attached to the four rings on the cheekpieces, while the reins were attached to characteristic hooks, rotating freely around the ends of the cannons.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing a horse with a Corinthian bit
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Some bits with S-shaped cheekpieces are already represented in Assyrian bas-reliefs of the mid-seventh century BC. Cheekpieces of similar shape, but made of wood and with ends carved in the form of animal heads (dated between the fifth and the fourth centuries BC.), were also found in the burial mounds of Pazyryk, in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. On the basis of the painting found on vessels, it is believed that this kind of bit was introduced by the Corinthians and then quickly spread throughout Greece. On the other hand, the legend of the divine bit that Bellerophon use to tame Pegasus, is particularly attached to Corinth and the same Pindar supports the tradition that places the invention of the first bit in this city.


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

BUGH, Glenn Richard, The Horsemen of Athens, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988.

GAEBEL, Robert E., Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

SENOFONTE, L’arte della cavalleria. Il manuale del comandante della cavalleria, a cura di G. Cascarino, Rimini, Il Cerchio, 2007.

SESTILI, Antonio, L’equitazione nella Grecia antica. I trattati equestri di Senofonte e i frammenti di Simone, Firenze, Atheneum, 2006.

SPENCE, Iain G., The cavalry of Classical Greece. A social and military history, Oxford,Oxford University Press, 1993 .

WORLEY, Leslie J., Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece, Boulder and Oxford, Westview Press, 1994.

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


Bellerophon kills the Chimera
Cesare Fiaschi, Traité de la maniere de bien emboucher, manier et ferrer les chevaux, Paris, chez Adrien Perrier, 1564 (frontispiece)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Son of Glaucus and grandson of Sisyphus, the king and founder of the city of Corinth, the hero was actually called Ipponoo and assumed the name of Bellerophon after he inadvertently killed Bellero. On this point, however, the classical sources are not definitive. According to some, Bellero was the despot of Corinth, according to others, he was the ruler of Syracuse, and according to still more, Bellerophon would not have killed him, but rather his brother, Deliade. However, all sources agree that, as a result of a crime committed involuntarily, Bellerophon had to leave his hometown and came to the city of Tiryns, where he was a guest of the king, Proitos. The king’s wife, Stheneboia, fell in love with him, but when the hero rejected her advances, she accused him, to her husband, of trying to seduce her. Proitos, to which the laws of hospitality forbade killing Bellerophon, sent him to his father in law, Iobates king of Lycia, under the pretext of delivering a message. In fact, in the letter, Proitos asked to his father in law to kill the young man. However, even Iobates felt bound by the laws of hospitality. So, instead of killing him directly, he decided to send him against the Chimera, a monster spitting fire who was terrorizing his kingdom, whose body was composed of the parts of three animals..

Chimera of Arezzo (V sec. a. C)
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Florence (bronze)

According to the majority of the sources, excluding Homer, Bellerophon faced the combat  riding Pegasus. Thanks to the speed of his horse, he was then able to avoid the attacks of the monster and then to kill her with a trick. On the tip of his lance, the hero put a piece of lead, which was melted by the flames that sprang from the jaws of the Chimera. Bellerophon then poured the molten metal into the creature’s throat, suffocating her. Iobates then asked him to face the barbarous tribe of the Solymoi, followed by the Amazons. In both of these challenges, Pegasus contributed significantly to the victory of the hero. At this point, however, Iobates recognized the virtue and courage of Bellerophon. He revealed the request from Proitos and, as a sign of his esteem and friendship, he gave Bellerophon his daughter in marriage, sharing with him the kingdom.

The last part of the life of Bellerophon, however, was unhappy. Homer says that when the gods conceived a strong aversion toward him, he began to wander the plain of Alea, avoiding meeting other men. According to other sources, Bellerophon would be filled with pride for his achievements and aspired to challenge the gods. For this reason, Zeus sent a gadfly to harass the winged horse who, annoyed by his bite, finally unseated his rider.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Bellerophon kills the Chimera (detail) – 1723 – Palazzo Sandi-Porto (Cipollato) -Venice

The figures of Bellerophon and Pegasus are linked to the god Poseidon. In his Theogony, Hesiod claims that the winged horse originated from the neck of Medusa at the time when she was decapitated by Perseus with a scythe. Actually, Medusa had previously mated with the god Poseidon who took the form of a horse. Immediately after her death, the winged horse was raised to the heavenly abode of the gods, where he took on the task of bringing the lightning to Zeus. Also according to Hesiod, as well as Hyginus, the same Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon. The struggle that opposed them against the Chimera proposes the theme of the fight between a heavenly  knight and a hellish monster, which already occurred in the religions of Asia Minor and was then transposed in the Christian legend of St. George slaying the dragon. Having been able to reduce to obedience Pegasus, the terrible winged horse born from the blood of Medusa, Bellerophon especially fascinated the Renaissance authors of treatises about horsemanship.


HOMER, Iliad, VI

PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

HYGINUS, Fabula, 157

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

TACCONE, Angelo, Bellerofonte, in AA. VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1930.

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


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.


by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

We know very little about this mysterious character, whose name, however, is remembered for being the author of the oldest text dedicated to the care and training of the horse reached down to us. He lived in the thirteenth century BC.

Horses groomed and watered.
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal (northern Iraq), 883-859 BC .
© Trustees of the British Museum

«Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni», so begins his manual for training war horses. Despite being at the service of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, Kikkuli was in fact a “stranger.” Mitanni or Mitani was the name of an empire on the left bank of the Euphrates, south of the Taurus, which included northern Mesopotamia and in the period of its greatest expansion (fifteenth century BC), the western part of Assyria. Mitanni was probably the capital of the kingdom, although the sources are also called the capital city Washshuggani. The population of this kingdom was of Hurrian origins. The Hurrians spoke their own language, such as that spoken by the Mitanni was nothing more than a dialect. They lived in Armenia, in the eastern provinces of the empire of the Hittites in Asia Minor, in northern Mesopotamia, and mixed with other populations, in Assyria, Babylon, Syria, and Palestine.

Fragment from the north-west palace.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Early in its history, the main rival of Mitanni was Egypt. The rise of the Hittites, however, pushed the Mitanni rulers to form an alliance with their old enemies, sealed by several marriages between Egyptian pharaohs and Mitanni’s princesses. Probably as a result of a conspiracy, which led the disorder in the empire of Mitanni, the Assyrians invaded the south-eastern Mesopotamia. The situation prompted the Hittite king Suppiluliuma to intervene on behalf of Mattiwaza, one of the princes of Mitanni, who was fighting for the succession. He gave him an Hittite princess as wife and put him on the throne as a vassal of his reign. Shortly after, however, Adad-nirari I of Assyria (1310-1281) won the country’s major cities and the kingdom of Mitanni passed to Assyria.

The Kikkuli text has a particular importance for philologists. According to Kammenhuber, who has studied all the fragments of the text, the four tablets were recorded by four different scribes, probably of Hurrian origin. Each one shows a different level of expertise of the Hittite language by the writer. It can be deduced from the text that Mitanni horse trainers, as Kikkuli, and their Hittites counterparts used common words, Hurrian and Hittite, but also technical terms derived from different languages spoken in Asia Minor, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite,Luvian, Hurrian and Indo-Aryan.

The lion hunt (detail)
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
© Trustees of the British Museum


FURLANI, Giuseppe, Mitanni, in AA.VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1934.

RAULWING, Peter, The Kikkuli Text. Hittite Training Instructions for Chariot Horses in the Second Half of the 2nd Millennium B.C. and Their Interdisciplinary Context 2009.

SESTILI, Antonio, Cavalli e cavalieri nel mondo antico, Roma, Società Editrice Dante Alighieri, 2012.

Further informatiom about the pictures pubblished in this page may be found folowwing this links:  Horses groomed and watered / Fragment from the North-west Palace / The lion hunt