Did Roman cavalrymen smell a bit horsey?

The fact that the same Latin word was used for a Roman soldier’s cloak as for a saddle blanket – sagum – gave me pause recently to wonder whether this may have been more than just a coincidence of vocabulary. Did the same garment serve two different purposes? If so, they must have, well, you know, reeked a bit.

Cavalryman on cast of Trajan's Column

This chap has both cloak and saddle blanket – but can we trust Trajan’s Column?!

Anybody with kids who go riding and generally hang around horses (the two usually seem to go together) will be familiar with that horsey smell (just as those who do it evidently are not): not unpleasant, but definitely distinctive. Even if cavalrymen didn’t wear their horse blankets in off-duty moments, we have had to come to terms with the knowledge that they lived right next door to their horses in what are now termed stable barracks: three men on one side of a partition, their mounts on the other. It seems inevitable that, at the very least, the average auxiliary cavalryman will have been inured to that horsey pong.

A stable barrack in Wallsend fort

A stable barrack in Wallsend fort: horses (with soakaways) to the left, men to the right

That brings us sweetly, if not exactly fragrantly, to the dimension of ancient life that we so often overlook: smell (or, as we politely call it these days, odour). We frantically deodorise at every available opportunity with cans of this and plug-ins of that wafting chemical freshness at our vulnerable nostrils whenever they are in danger of smelling some of the real odours of life. At Housesteads, everybody marvels at the famous latrines in the south-east corner, flushed periodically by the water so carefully garnered from the run-off every time it rained.

The Housesteads latrine

The Housesteads latrine

Fewer pay any heed to the sewer outfall that gave out into the adjacent part of the civil settlement. Presumably they assume it was all carried away underground to some distant location. Not so; analysis of samples from the ditches of Roman forts often finds evidence of the presence of faecal matter, most famously so at Bearsden, where the remains of wholegrain bread that had passed through the human gut were identified, along with intestinal parasites. Yum.

The Housesteads sewer outfall

The Housesteads sewer outfall

In fact, the rank cacodour* that clung to the lower orders (and the army) may be one reason why perfume was so popular in the Roman world: not just to make you smell good, but to hide the pong of all around you.

With all of that, can we seriously propose that anybody would even notice if a cavalryman wandered around the civil settlement wearing his horse blanket? Hang on; has someone round here trodden in something … ?


* I admit, I made that word up, but cacodorous is a real word (OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/25849 (accessed February 28, 2015))

Ut Milites Dicuntur cover