Horsemanship

Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.

Introduction

Excellence in horsemanship is credited to Lydian cavalry by Herodotus, in connection with the Lydians’ final battle with the Persians, in the plain north of Sardis, and it is implied in another passage of Herodotus and in verses of the poet Mimnermus, written ca. 600 BC.1 The broad plain of the Hermus River and highland valleys of Mount Tmolus (good for summer pasturage) made a perfect environment for raising horses. Horsemen are represented in the arts of Lydia and its empire, notable examples being a unique relief-ware vase of the seventh century BC from Sardis and relief sculpture on a marble panel from Bin Tepe (Figs. 1, 2, 3); also a pottery lebes or krater fragment decorated with the head of a bridled horse (Fig. 4). While many of those representations may be the generic kind of equestrian imagery that is common in all ancient cultures, or borrowings from Greek tradition, some may allude to Lydian cavalry, like the architectural terracotta decorative type that shows a rider in eastern trousers mounted on a rearing horse (Fig. 5). All known tiles of that type probably were recovered near Düver in Pisidia (as reportedly was the marbled kantharos, No. 105); but the architectural terracotta fragment with bearded head (No. 56) from Sardis might belong to that type.2

  • Fig. 1

    Horsemen on a fragmentary relief-ware vase of the 7th C. BC, three of many fragments from Sardis (now in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 26.199.21a, b, c) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Gift of The American Society for the Excavation of Sardis, 1926))

  • Fig. 2

    Tentative water-color reconstruction of one of the horsemen on the relief-ware vase from Sardis by Lindsley F. Hall (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Gift of The American Society for the Excavation of Sardis, 1926))

  • Fig. 3

    Horsemen in relief sculpture on a marble panel, perhaps belonging to funeral furniture or architecture; acquired in the tumulus cemetery at Bin Tepe north of Sardis (now London, British Museum, no. 1889,1021.1) (© Trustees of the British Museum)

  • Fig. 4

    Pottery lebes or krater fragment decorated with bridled horse head (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 5

    Terracotta sima/geison fragment, probably from Düver in Pisidia; now Istanbul, Archaeological Museums. The motif on the rump, present on many tiles of this type and either triskeles or tetraskeles, might be a brand. (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

Archaeological Evidence and Its Limitations

Direct evidence for Lydian horsemanship consists of iron bits and bronze bridle attachments from Sardis. Three of the latter have decoration inspired by Nomadic art (Nos. 48, 49, 50, Figs. 6, 7, 8); and since Cimmerian and Scythian nomads spent time at Sardis, might reflect their nomadic legacy in Lydian equestrian tradition (as has been postulated for Assyrian horsemanship).3

Archaeology corroborates this subject but scarcely illuminates it. The representational explicitness and chronologically precise sequences of Assyrian art that allow stages of equestrian skill to be identified in Assyrian sculpture do not exist in Lydian art. Thus, a few laconic literary references, stereotype imagery, and scraps of hardware are all that survives of a great Lydian enterprise that involved sustained effort and considerable cost over many generations: the breeding, raising, and training of horses, with patient, individual care and drill, performance displays (Fig. 5) that may have included “above the ground” exercises like those of later times, and all else that excellence in horsemanship implies. The recreation of Lydian horse racing in Yusuf Kurçenli’s film, Antika Talanı (Fig. 9), evokes those ephemeral but fundamental aspects that are lost in the archaeological record.4

  • Fig. 6

    Bridle ornament from Sardis, No. 48 (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 7

    Bridle ornament from Sardis, No. 49 (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 8

    Bridle ornament from Sardis, No. 50 (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 5

    Terracotta sima/geison fragment, probably from Düver in Pisidia; now Istanbul, Archaeological Museums. The motif on the rump, present on many tiles of this type and either triskeles or tetraskeles, might be a brand. (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

  • Fig. 9

    Lydian horse racing recreated: still from the film Antika Talanı, produced by Yusuf Kurçenli (1997) (Courtesy of Yusuf Kurçenli)

Notes

  • 1Herodotus 1.79, 27; Mimnermus fr. 14 (ed. Gerber); Nicolaus of Damascus, FGrHist 90 F 62; see also Homer, Iliad 4.144–145.
  • 2Pastures outside Sardis suburbs (proastion) are cited in Herodotus 1.78. For the seventh century Lydian relief vase from Sardis, excavation sector NEW, see Hanfmann 1945, 570–581 and Greenewalt 1979, 20–21; for the relief sculpture recovered at Bin Tepe, see Hanfmann and Ramage 1978, 156 no. 231 fig. 401; and for the pottery fragment with bridled horse head, see Greenewalt, Rautman, and Cahill 1987, 70–72. Architectural terracottas reportedly from Düver (below and Fig. 5) are widely dispersed in museums of Europe and North America; see Thomas 1965, 64–70; Åkerström 1966, 218–221; Mayo 1981, 35 (the last containing a substantial bibliography). They are the subject of a special study by Tarkan Kahya (University of Istanbul).
  • 3An iron bit and a circular bronze bridle attachment (Riemenkreuzung) were recovered from a Lydian house destroyed in the mid sixth century (presumably in the Persian attack); the latter is cited by Cahill in Greenewalt, Rautman, and Cahill 1987, 29. For the three bridle ornaments in this exhibit (Nos. 48, 49, 50), see Waldbaum 1983a, 40–42; Waldbaum 1983b; Ivantchik 2001, 79–87. For another bronze “Reimenkreuzung” in the form of a bird beak, see Waldbaum 1983a, 40–41 no. 86; Ivantchik 2001, 82 and fig. 34.5. For Cimmerians and Scythians at Sardis, see Herodotus 1.15–16, 73–74. Scythian contributions to Assyrian horsemanship skills have been proposed by J. K. Anderson (Anderson 1961, 68–72; and personal communication, in which Anderson noted the marriage between Scythian leader Partatua and Assyrian king Assurbanipal’s sister).
  • 4The terracotta geison/sima tiles, reportedly from Düver in Pisidia, may or may not show Lydian cavalry; but two similar mounted riders on rearing horses are engraved on a silver alabastron (No. 161) from eastern Lydia (near ancient Bagis and modern Güre; Basmacı tumulus tomb; see Özgen and Öztürk 1996, 238–239 no. 228). All those horses, like the winged ones on horizontal sima tiles at Sardis (Nos. 57, 59) are merely rearing, not performing the levade, in which the forelegs would be drawn up; for the rearing horse, see Xenophon, de Equitandi ratione 11.2–6. Horses with forelegs drawn up on tiles from Buruncuk/Larisa (Åkerström 1966, 55 and pls. 26, 27), however, conceivably might be performing the levade. There is no evidence for other “above the ground” exercises, notably the very difficult Capriole (“goat leap”), although it is a development of natural horse acrobatics; and, with its powerful backward kick, had an important practical purpose of defense against enemy attack from behind.
  • Fig. 5

    Terracotta sima/geison fragment, probably from Düver in Pisidia; now Istanbul, Archaeological Museums. The motif on the rump, present on many tiles of this type and either triskeles or tetraskeles, might be a brand. (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)