Greece Horses in Ancient Greece

Horses were an integral part of life in ancient Greece; they played an active role in warfare, in transportation, and in the games which were such an important and regular feature of Greek society. Athenian enthusiasm for the horse is expressed in numerous ways in the Agora. Here the Athenian cavalry trained, not far from the hipparcheion, headquarters of its commanding officers. Here, too, some of the popular equestrian events of the Panathenaic games were held, and the Panathenaic procession, with its huge contingent of cavalry riders, passed through on its way up to the Acropolis. Many civic buildings and temples were adorned with paintings and sculptures of riders and battle scenes showing cavalry. Honorary statues of generals or statesmen on horseback and monuments commemorating victories in the equestrian events of the games were set up in the Agora, and vases and small objects decorated with pictures of horses were sold in the marketplace in all periods. As with many other aspects of Athenian life, the Agora is an excellent place to develop and illustrate a picture of horses and horsemanship in antiquity.

The horse is a relative latecomer to Greece, probably introduced at the start of the Middle Bronze Age, around 2000 s.c. The first impression made by mounted riders must have been a vivid one, perhaps giving rise to the legend of centaurs. These creatures-half man, half horse-figure prominently in both Greek mythology and art. Theseus, the national hero of Athens, participated in a major battle between Greeks and centaurs that became a favorite theme for Athenian artists in both vase painting and sculpture. Theseus was also successful in repelling the Amazons, fierce warrior women who usually fought from horseback. They are thought to have come from the steppes north of the Black Sea, where it is now believed the horse was first domesticated, in the years around 4000 BC. Like the centaurs, the Amazons were a recurring and popular subject in Greek art throughout the Archaic and Classical periods.

Other mythical beasts also had equine affinities. Most famous, of course, was the winged horse Pegasos, which came from Corinth but was popular among Athenian artists as well. Another flying equine was the hippalektryon, a cross between a horse and a rooster.

Two deities with a special interest in Athens, Athena and her uncle Poseidon, together served as protectors of horses and patrons of horsemanship and equestrian activities. As such, they shared a cult on Kolonos Hippios (Horse Hill), which lay outside the city walls, not far from the Academy. Here was to be found an altar of Poseidon Hippios and Athena Hippia. The patron god of horses and earthquakes, Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and god of the sea. He was worshiped in this latter guise at the southernmost tip of Attica, at Cape Sounion, where he had a handsome marble temple in the Doric order. In Athens itself, he shared a temple on the Acropolis with Athena, and he was depicted on the west pediment of the Parthenon. According to some traditions he was also the father of Theseus. His equine interests are the subject of a chorus in Aristophanes’ play The Knights: Dread Poseidon, the horseman’s king, you who love the brazen clash and neighing of warlike steeds. Pleased to watch where the purple-beaked trireme sweeps to the oars’ long swing … but especially where bright youths racing in their chariots flash by.

Athena, patron goddess of all Athens, was credited with the invention of the bridle and the use of chariots:

She also revealed racing chariots and war-horses and in this land first of all men the foster-child of the goddess [Erichthonios] yoked a fully equipped chariot with the aid of the goddess and revealed to all the complete art of horsemanship. (Aristeides, Panathenaikos 43)

Remains of actual horses have been found in a rich tholos tomb of the Late Bronze Age in Attica, at Marathon; here two animals were carefully buried facing each other in the entrance passageway (dromos) in the years around 1400 B.C.

The Homeric epics, which reflect this heroic age, especially the Iliad, are full of horses and horsemanship. Horses are used to draw the war chariots which deliver the heroes to the battlefield, and there are several descriptive passages of harnessing and yoking.

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