We visited the Elgin Marbles last week with students and were reminded how powerfully they can affect a young person seeing them for the first time, especially the Panathenaic frieze. It was also a reminder of how much is known about the Panathenaic ceremony, and how much is not. As always, some of the questions our pupils asked cannot be answered, and theories contradict.

One topic that came up on this occasion was that of the horses: were they really as small as that? To us, these were technically ponies.

There is the theory that the sculptors deliberately made them small in order to emphasise the human figures. But perhaps more likely is the answer that yes, their horses were small, and if Athenians of 435BC had been presented with the sight, commonplace to us, of a racehorse before a race with jockey on a saddle level with the trainer’s eyes, they might have stared in disbelief. Horses bred to this physique were not known in the ancient world.

Which is not to deny that there were numberless variations in the size and appearance of horses, bred from the multiplicity of wild ones in different places, climes and terrains; and the taming and breeding of them over Europe, North Africa and places beyond, was even then a fine skill. The history of horse breeding, then and since, has been immensely complex.

In Greece, Thessaly was most notable for this, as for its landscape:

Among other points of interest:

  • The belief that Poseidon (ἵππιος ποντομέδων ἄναξ)* was the creator of horses
  • The treatise on horsemanship (Περὶ Ἵππικῆς) attributed to Xenophon
  • Erichthonius, son of Dardanus, renowned for his wealth and horse breeding
  • Virgil’s injunctions on horses in Georgic III 72 sqq.
  • Extensive material in Varro and Columella.

*Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes, line 130