Thursday, 10 April 2014
Horses in Antiquity - An Interview with Dr. Thomas Donaghy.
Dr Donaghy is an expert on horses in antiquity. His new book, Horse Breeds and Breeding in the Greco-Persian World: 1st and 2nd Millennium BC came out this year. It has chapters on the origins of horse-riding, the development and use of chariots, and the evolution of horses and their many breeds. Dr Donaghy has kindly agreed to talk to Panoply about ancient horses, Greek vases, and riding without a saddle....
1. When did people in ancient Greece first begin domesticating horses?
After the last ice age, wild horses had been pushed almost into extinction throughout the world. With the exception of a few minor spots the last great habitat of the wild horse was the Eurasian steppe. It was here they were first domesticated around 3,000 – 4000 BC. Once they were domesticated, it wasn’t long before horses began to spread to the rest of the ancient world. Excavated remains indicate that horses had already reached Anatolia (roughly modern-day Turkey) by the 3rd Millennium BC and they were well established there early in the 2nd millennium BC. Horse burials dating to the 18th-19th century BC have been uncovered in Cappadocia in Turkey, while Hittite texts of the 18th century mention the use of chariots in war. Not long after this, the horse also reached Troy in western Asia Minor. Huge quantities of horse bones have been found in the later phases of Troy VI (1700 – 1250 BC).
Given the proximity of Greece it would seem probable that once the horse reached Troy it wouldn’t have been long before it arrived in mainland Greece. Pottery from the Greek mainland began to appear in Troy as early as circa 1600 BC and it’s been suggested that horses may have been one of the commodities imported into Greece in return. But it shouldn’t be assumed that this was the only route for the horse’s arrival into Greece. Around the same time horses also likely filtered into the peninsula from the north, via Macedon and Thrace, which opened onto the vast steppe lands north of the Danube. Indeed the myth of the centaur, which is so closely associated with Thessaly (in northern Greece) may well have been derived from garbled tales of the first sightings of horses and their riders.
2. Would many ancient Greeks have owned horses?
In general the Greek landscape is not ideal for breeding large numbers of horses. The terrain is largely mountainous, although the mountains are interspaced by small and fertile river valleys and plains. Horses could be successfully bred on a relatively large scale in only a small number of regions. These included Arcadia, Lakonia and Messenia, Elis, the Argolid, and Boeotia. The situation was different to the north (such as in Thessaly) where the land was more suited to cavalry use.
All this meant that the horse was a luxury item for most Greeks and one which was expensive to produce and maintain. As such, horse-breeding was mostly the preserve of rich aristocrats. Their wealth gave them the means to raise horses and the raising of horses gave them prestige and status. Even the wealthiest Greeks, however, wouldn’t have possessed vast numbers. Even a member of one of the rich aristocratic Athenian families, such as Cimon of the Philaid family, had to compete in three successive Olympic Games with the same team of four horses.
It would have been the sons of the richer families who formed the cavalry forces of the Greek city-states as it was only they who could afford the purchase and upkeep of a horse. Greek cavalrymen owned horses but usually no more than one. Indeed in the early 5th century BC, Athens introduced the state institution of katastasis (establishment money). This was a state loan received by a cavalry trooper upon his formal enrolment into service. The money was used to purchase a mount and it had to be repaid upon the trooper’s retirement.
3. Are horses common in ancient vase scenes? Yes they are very common. You find horses represented in all kinds of contexts throughout many different time periods. From as early as the 14th century BC they’re depicted pulling chariots on Mycenaean vases and from about 700BC scenes of the horse and rider become common. From the late 6th century BC the cavalry horse is shown in all its various roles of war – as scout and skirmisher, javelin and lance wielder, pursuing fleeing troops, and trampling fallen enemy infantry.
Alongside scenes of warfare we also see depictions of racehorses and chariot racehorses. Two-horse chariots had been raced since remote antiquity and appear on Mycenaean vases. The four-horse chariot race was introduced into the Olympic Games in 648BC and it was around that time that such scenes begin to appear on late Geometric vases.
Scenes of a mythological nature also heavily feature horses – the chariot horses of the Trojan War, the man-eating horses of King Diomedes of Thrace, and Pegasus, the famous winged mount of Theseus, to name but a few. Vases also depict scenes of the everyday regarding horses – grooms tending to their needs, horses grazing in the pastures, being fed in stables, scenes of breeding, and training, and young Greeks being taught how to ride by grizzled instructors.
4. You’re a specialist in horse breeds; is any attempt made on ancient vases to distinguish between different types of horse?
In general the majority of vases show only horses of the ‘Greek Horse’ breed, as most scenes as being depicted are focused on Greece and Greeks – heroes of Greek myth, Greek races, Greek warfare (even if the warfare is Greeks against non-Greeks the latter are rarely mounted) and everyday Greek life. On occasion you do see different breeds, which are made distinguishable by the painter, such as the slightly coarser and less elegantly proportioned Scythian horses.
There is a general consistency in the accuracy and realistic manner in which horses are depicted by Greek vase painters. From representations we can see that the typical Greek horse had fine, slender legs, a small and refined head, a shaggy mane, a small body, and a well set-on tail. It seems possible that this breed may have been the result of a cross between a ‘northern-type’ Scythian pony and a ‘finer’ breed perhaps deriving from Anatolia and the Near East.
5. How do vase images of horses help you in your research?
Imagery from vases is greatly important in researching the ancient horse for it provides an abundance of different and interesting information. The excellent rendering of a horse’s conformation and skilled depictions of hooves and muscles shows how great an understanding ancient Greeks had of the horse’s biology. Vase paintings can help us to trace the development of various uses of the horse and when such uses became more common. For example, the development and use of chariot horses and cavalry, the types of weapons and equipment used, tactics employed in battle, and so forth.
Scenes of training and grooming also provide information about the level of equestrian knowledge possessed by ancient Greeks. There is a lovely black-figure fragment (of unknown date) which shows a groom trying to prevent a horse drinking from a large wine bowl. Is this just a humorous scene or a nod that perhaps wine was occasionally fed to horses? Some racehorse trainers today like to feed stout to their horses as a post-race pick me up!
Even a fragment of an image can tell a tale or suggest something you may not have considered before.
6. Greek warfare is known for its heavy infantry – were horses important too?
Yes. Horses were a very important element in Greek warfare. It’s generally accepted that the chariot was an important aspect of warfare in the Near East during the 2nd millennium BC and more people are coming to accept that the situation was no different in Mycenaean Greece. While some scholars might still argue against this position due to the ruggedness of the Greek terrain, the evidence to the contrary speaks for itself. In classical times, large-scale battles generally took place in a limited number of locations due to their suitability for manoeuvres and I’ve no doubt that the situation was similar in earlier times. It’s plausible that certain locations were repeatedly utilized for chariot battle and that on occasion other areas were made suitable. The Mycenaeans also possessed extensive and impressive road networks which would have facilitated the movement of chariots to such sites. Numerous tablets uncovered at the Mycenaean palaces also indicate the presence of a vast bureaucracy involved in the production of chariots, the maintenance of a vast reserve of spare parts, and the production of arrows for the chariot archers. It appears that the palaces of Pylos and Knossos could each maintain hundreds of chariots. Such a vast undertaking wouldn’t make sense if these chariots weren’t seen to be a vital component in Mycenaean warfare.
Horses were also very important in later times as cavalry. Figurines of mounted warriors have been discovered dating from as early as the 14th century BC when they likely provided an important scouting role for Mycenaean armies. Riders on horseback become increasingly common on vase paintings from around 700 BC and by the late 6th century BC we see depictions of proper cavalry forces being used against infantry. Although no southern city-state ever developed an army orientated more towards cavalry than infantry this was more due to the unsuitability of Greece for breeding large numbers of horses than to any perceived doubt about the advantage of their use in war. The Greeks well knew how effective cavalry could be when used in surprise attacks against the rear and flanks of a hoplite force or in the pursuit and harassment of a routed army.
I should probably mention here the question of Greek saddles or the ‘lack of’ should I say? Some people seem determined to suggest that just because Greeks didn’t use saddles their cavalry forces couldn’t have been effective. I would guess the main reason this is brought up is that when people think of cavalry they generally revert to thinking of what we constantly see on film – the medieval knight, in heavy armour, fixed in a high backed saddle with a lance couched under his arm. This didn’t happen in Greek warfare. Greek cavalry were equipped with javelins and lances which were either thrown or used in a downward thrusting motion from overhead. With tactics of that sort, a saddle which constricted movement would have only lessened their effectiveness. The lack of a saddle would have actually benefitted a skilled rider as the extra close contact between the legs and the horse allows for a much more subtle control as any bareback rider today would happily attest.
7. What ancient literature would you recommend for people interested in horses?
I would say there are two essential texts which should be read by anyone interested in ancient horsemanship – The Kikkuli Text and Xenophon’s On Horsemanship.
The Kikkuli Text is the earliest proper horse training text to survive and it describes the training of horses for chariot warfare. It was discovered at Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire. It’s been attributed to a writer called Kikkuli who came from the Mittannian Empire in what is modern-day Iran. A number of copies survive, the most complete being a Hittite version dating to the middle of the 14th century BC. The text details an extensive training regime which extends over ¬¬a period of roughly six or seven months and contains detailed instructions for the stabling, feeding, watering, and exercising of the horses involved. Kikkuli seems to have been a highly skilled horse trainer with very perceptive insight. When the Kikkuli training regime was put into practice in the early 1990’s (for endurance horses, eventers, racehorses, and standardbreds) it was found to be highly effective and extremely scientific.
Xenophon was one of the Ten Thousand Greeks who followed the Persian prince Cyrus in his revolt against his brother Artaxerxes. When Cyrus was killed at Cunaxa in 401BC, Xenophon was one of the generals chosen to lead the stranded Greeks back home. During this time spent in Persia he learnt a lot about Persian horsemanship (he both fought alongside and against Persian cavalry) and this influence can be seen in a number of places throughout his writings. The majority of the information on training methods which Xenophon provides is contained in his treatise On Horsemanship. The text also offers advice on purchasing, stabling, grooming, and handling horses. He wrote this treatise in order to “explain to our younger friends what we believe to be the correct method of dealing with horses”.
8. Who’s your favourite ancient horse?
I would have to say I have a fondness for Achilles’s horse Pedasus. It may not be a name many are familiar with but he was plucky chap! Achilles is said to have had two immortal horses pulling his chariot. These were Xanthus and Balius who were born to the Harpy Podarge and the West Wind. These immortals were beautiful and fleet of foot and always performed wondrous feats for their master. Yet in the side traces, alongside these immortal beasts, was Pedasus – a mortal horse which Achilles had taken from the city of Eetion in the Troad. When speaking of Pedasus Homer simply says “and he, being but mortal, kept pace” (Iliad 16.154).
Our thanks to Dr Donaghy for a fascinating interview. You can see horses in the Panoply animation The Cheat: http://www.panoply.org.uk/the-cheat.html#