The significance of the horse in ancient Greece

The horse (“hippos”) was first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan five thousand years ago and eight breeds were cultivated in Ancient Greece. Some areas of the Greek world were particularly famed for their horsemanship, for example Thessaly. Horses represented wealth and status as well as being integral to a thriving economy and an essential part of warfare.

Bronze figurine of Pegasus.

Bronze figurine of Pegasus.

The cost of purchasing and keeping a horse was, as now, extremely expensive, which restricted their use to the wealthy land-owning elite, who made up a relatively tiny percent of the population. In peacetime, these wealthy individuals practised hunting and racing and, during periods of war, engaged in cavalry service.The fourth century historian and philosopher Xenophon’s two treatises on the care and training of horses perfectly capture this culture’s deep fascination with the art of horsemanship. The horse’s association with the elite meant that the animal became a symbol of wealth and status.

replica Parthenon panel

North frieze slab XXXVIII of the Parthenon

The horse’s long affiliation with gods and heroes in Greek mythology no doubt also fostered a special respect and admiration for this remarkable creature in the minds of “ordinary” Greeks. The god Poseidon was credited with creating the first horse and Athena patron goddess of Athens with taming it by discovering the reins and bit, thus rendering it suitable for human service for the first time. Athena was also the inspiration behind the cunning Greeks’ infamous Trojan Horse which ultimately led to their victory at the Battle of Troy. In Homer’s Iliad, horses drive the chariots of the heroes and are praised for their swiftness and beautiful coats. They are often depicted as having special relationships with their owners, like Achilles and his immortal horses Balios and Xanthos.  In the Iliad, it is told how, when Patroclus was killed in battle, Xanthos and Balios stood motionless on the field of battle, and wept, yet when Achilles rebuked Xanthos for letting Patroklus get slain, Hera granted the horse human speech to deliver to Achilles a warning about his own fate.

Other horses connected with the divine and endowed with special powers include Cheiron, a centaur, son of Kronos who acted as Achilles’ tutor, and Pegasus the winged horse, offspring of Poseidon and Medusa. He was later transformed by Zeus into the constellation Pegasus.

Horses played a central role in the great civic festivals in the ancient world, such as the Panathenaic Games in Athens and the Olympic games at Olympos, where they took part in chariot races and single horse races. The fifth century Theban lyric poet Pindar immortalises the victories of the horses and riders at the Isthmian, Olympian, Pythian and Neman Greek games in his epinicean odes.

The grave stele of Dexileos, after the original in the Kerameikos museum in Athens.

The grave stele of Dexileos, after the original in the Kerameikos museum in Athens.

Athenian enthusiasm for the horse was also expressed in the many civic and religious buildings that were covered with paintings and sculptures of riders and battle scenes. Such art and architecture often portrayed the prowess of the Greek warrior in battle, not just during the archaic period but also in the classical and Hellenistic ages, for example, the grave stele of Dexileos (394/3 BC) which shows the young cavalryman in battle on a rearing horse with the enemy cowering beneath him.

The Artemision jockey, after the Atemision jockey in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Artemision jockey, after the Atemision jockey in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Similarly represented are depictions of Alexander the Great and his famous horse Bucephalos, like that of the pair riding into battle in the Alexander Mosaic at the House of the Faun, Pompeii.  Perhaps most famous in its depiction of horses is the Parthenon. The south and west friezes depict the common motif of the horse rearing over a fallen enemy, in preparation for battle and in procession, as well as the beautifully and expressively carved horse head of Selene on the East Pediment. The multifarious depictions of the horse on this magnificent monument demonstrate their significance in war and the centrality of this creature in the civic, religious and economic life of the city.

Author: Alexandra Hamburger

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