Although by today’s standards Romans travelled very little, they still had journeys to make and a variety of transport options with which they might avail themselves. The poor simply walked or rode animals, but this set concerns itself with the better-off citizens who had the money to take their journey in more comfort.
Our top row shows a basterna - essentially a closed cockpit carried by two mules. Inside there are seats on either side and curtains at each opening to keep out dirt and provide privacy. By the standards of the time this was a comfortable way to travel, and so was almost exclusively reserved for women. As with any vehicle there was no single design for this, and in essence the model here follows the general appearance well enough. One question that does need to be answered however is how would someone enter and leave this? Most illustrations show the side of the cabin above the rail plus a large part of the roof being hinged so as to allow access, with the passenger descending into it from a platform or steps. This model shows no sign of this, but instead seems to have side doors, which of course could only be accessed once the rail was removed. Whether this was a reasonable design we cannot say, but on the face of it this arrangement seems awkward in that the cab would have to be lowered to the ground before the rail could be detached from the side and at least one of the animals. As a model this is the usual Strelets crude affair. There are just three pieces - the roof/floor/front/back, plus each side including the rail (see sprue image). The pieces fit together but there are plenty of gaps at the join so the result looks untidy.
Our second row shows the three passengers for the basterna - a man and two women. It’s a tight squeeze to get all three in, but then it must have been so for the real thing too. All are reasonably dressed, although one of the women shows much more cleavage then would have been considered decent in Roman society. The other woman has a parrot-like bird sitting on her shoulder - parrots were very fashionable as pets in Roman high society. Finally in this row comes the luggage; a chest being carried by two men, probably trusted slaves.
Provided the journey was not too long, the transport method of choice for the upper classes in Roman society was the litter (lectica). Popular from the late Republic onwards, it could be very ornate and was carried by four, or sometimes eight, lecticarii. We are told that the emperor Claudius is credited with having the first one with a canopy and curtains round the side, although it seems strange that such an obvious comfort feature would take so long to be adopted. The litter here however is anything but luxurious; it is a very simple bed with four handles and four legs. They don’t come any simpler than this, and this would hardly be a prestige device for anyone wanting to flaunt their wealth, so while it does the job it is very much the bare minimum - perhaps one available for hire, as they were for outsiders in many towns. As well as being very simple in design, the model has the usual Strelets characteristics of a lack of refinement plus basic quality problems - the four legs are far from the same height, so the whole thing wobbles a lot, which is an easy problem to fix but illustrates what little care was taken in producing the model.
Next to the litter is the individual resting on it, leaning on one arm and pointing something out. He is well dressed and works well as the passenger, and beside him there is a man carrying a parasol. Parasols were in common usage long before the rise of Rome, and pretty much were of the same construction and shape as they are today, but here Strelets provide us with a simple, completely flat disc that looks nothing like any parasol.
Staying with the litter, we next have the four lecticarii carrying it. All have large ring hands into which the litter fits quite easily, and all are dressed in a very casual way, with one shoulder of their tunics lowered as men did when engaged in hard work. This does not give a very smart appearance, but perhaps it was a common-enough practice on warm Mediterranean days. Litters were always carried on the shoulders, both because that was easier and to raise the passenger above the level of the traffic. Here the men are holding it at waist height, so they have lowered it to allow the passenger to get on or off perhaps, or to allow him to converse with someone in the street. Having it held in the normal travelling position would have been preferable in our view.
The last two figures in the penultimate row are simply standing individuals with no obvious role to perform. The first is dressed in a toga and so a citizen on business, and he carries a scroll. The second wears a very long tunica, has some cloth or garment draped over one arm and has a plate suspended round his neck. This may be the plate sometimes worn by slaves to identify their master. Finally we find an extra mule in the bottom row.
The Strelets sculpting style is fairly rough and ready, although most of these figures have little need for detail so don’t look so bad. We didn’t find any flash anywhere, and while the assembly of parts leaves plenty of gaps they do at least all fit together. The poses all seem reasonable, even though we would have preferred the lecticarii resting the litter on their shoulders, so none are particularly unnatural or out of place. The simplified basterna could usefully have had someone to lead the mules, and both it and the litter are not admirable models. We worried about the accessibility of the former, while the parasol is ridiculous, but otherwise there are no apparent accuracy issues. Despite its faults this set does deliver some common Roman forms of transport, at least for those with the means to pay, so any Roman street scene would certainly find a place for these.