Horses were first domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes during the 4th millennium B.C.E. and spread to and throughout the Near East and Mediterranean from there. In Greece, horses became important in life generally and especially in warfare, racing, traveling, and hunting. Horses were expensive to purchase and to maintain and, for these reasons, ownership was largely limited to the wealthier members of ancient communities. In fact, the second-highest property class in Athens was called the "hippeis," or "horse-owners" in the constitution of Solon. Horses therefore became symbols of high social status in ancient Greek society.
The importance of horses in Greek life is illustrated by the frequency of their depiction in art throughout all periods of Greek history. Horses are shown in ancient Greek vase-painting, as well as in large- and small-scale sculpture. They can be shown with or without riders and in a variety of situations, from pulling chariots to being tended in a stable (1). Horses often look small relative to humans in Greek art: while this can be the result of the artist attempting to fit horses and humans into the same composition, ancient Greek horses were, in fact, somewhat smaller than their modern counterparts. The Greeks believed that horses were created by Poseidon, god of the sea, and occasionally horses were sacrificed to the god by drowning (2).
Horses were used in battle as early as the Late Bronze Age in Greece (ca. 1,600 to 1,100 B.C.E.), first to pull chariots and later for cavalry. The uses of chariots in battle is attested by the epic poet Homer, who mentions that the best horses were fed wheat instead of the typical barley and even given wine to drink (3). Because few people were wealthy enough to own horses, the ancient Greek cavalry was usually small; in 431 B.C.E., for example, Athens had only 1,000 men in its cavalry and Sparta did not have a real cavalry at all until 424 B.C.E. Like their human counterparts, horses engaged in battle in ancient Greece could be outfitted with bronze armor. Horses did not play a major role in Greek warfare until the time of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) (4).
Chariot races were popular athletic events in ancient Greece, originating as part of the ceremonies in early funeral games. The racing of four-horse chariots became an event at the Olympic Games beginning in 680 B.C.E. Horse racing with riders, not chariots, was introduced somewhat later. The races took place on courses called hippodromes (from the Greek words "hippos," meaning horse, and "dromos," meaning course), dangerous tracks with hairpin turns at either end. As is the case in horse racing today, the prizes and acclaim were given to the owners of the horse teams, not to the driver of the chariot or the horse's jockey. This loophole was the only means by which the Spartan princess Kyniska, as the owner of a team of horses, could be listed as a winner of an Olympic event, honors most typically accorded to men (5). In addition to chariot races, ancient Greek athletic competitions could include horseback acrobatics, which must have been thrilling to watch, and military sports, such as throwing javelins from horseback (6).
Traveling and hunting by horse were luxuries reserved for the rich. The use of horses in hunting, as well as in battle is well-illustrated on the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, a 4th century B.C.E. marble sarcophagus from Sidon (Lebanon). One side shows a battle, with some soldiers mounted on horses; the other shows men hunting lions from horseback.
Handbooks instructed horse owners on the correct treatment of their animals; the oldest one still surviving today is On the Art of Horsemanship by the Greek writer and philosopher Xenophon (c. 430-354 B.C.E.), which details the proper care and training of horses (7). No matter the amount of training, however, it must have been uncomfortable to ride a horse in ancient Greece for both animal and rider, as there were no saddles, stirrups, or horseshoes (8).
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- On horses in art, see Sidney David Markman, The Horse in Greek Art (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969).
- Harold B. Barclay, The Role of the Horse in Man's Culture (London: J.A. Allen, 1980): 57.
- Robert Way, "Horses of Ancient Greece," in ed. Michael Seth-Smith, The Horse in Art and History (New York: Mayflower Books, 1978): 22-3.
- On cavalry and warfare see Juliet Clutton-Brock, Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies (Harvard University Press, 1992): 106-12; Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003): 128-44; Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1999): 709.
- On horse and chariot racing see Clutton-Brock, Horse Power: 112-3; Hornblower and Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary: 727-8; Way, "Horses of Ancient Greece": 24-6.
- On equestrian spectator sports see Barclay, The Role of the Horse in Man's Culture: 54-5.
- Hornblower and Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary: 728-9.
- Way, "Horses of Ancient Greece," 23.