Horsemen on Rearing Horses Part 1: Ancient World, Byzantium And Their Influence
Table Of Contents
Antique World↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Beginnings: Petroglyphs↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
At present, there is no concensus as to when the horsehack riding has started. According to the Ashmolean Museum research, horses have first mentioned in Eastern written sources in cr. 2100 BC. Initially, they were used to pull the wheeled vehicles, but later, in the 1st millennium BC, there was a shift towards cavalry. However, Wikipedia article on Domestication of the horse mentions the book written by David W. Anthony (Princeton) states that the horseback riding started as early as 4,000 BC in present-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan, based on the analysis of equine dental pathalogies.
Some archeologists claim that there are pre-historical petroglyphs. For example, in 'A Concise History of Iran: From the early period to the present time' by Shirazi Saeed, we read “In Doosheh cave, near the city of Khorramabad in Iran, considerable stone carvings dating back to 15,000 BCE show men riding horses and holding the animals’ reins.” Also, Luc Hermann's paper features a petroglyph that’s located in present-day Kazakhstan. The dating section reads: “Because of the technique and the stylistic comparison with the other designs of Kulzhabasy, these petroglyphs can be dated to the Early Bronze Age.” Presumably, this corresponds to 3300-2600BC.
However, these claims are disputed. As for the petroglyths located in present-day Iran, as Sirvan Mohammadi Ghasrian of Tehran University points out, their claims are based on stylistic similarities and other indirect evidence, and not supported by direct dating. In addition, the lack of continuity speaks against the 15,000 BC claim. Likewise, the possibly pre-historic petroglyphs showing horseback riding scenes located outside Iran also lack direct dating.
Neo-Hittite Reliefs, 1170 – 800 BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
There are several unsophisticated relief sculptures of barefoot soldiers on a horseback. The black one, housed in the British museum, cames from the base of the south wall of palace of an Aramean king Kapara in what is now Syria. This wall was lined with a series of 187 reliefs carved in black basalt alternating with red-ochre tinted limestone. While these reliefs are very similar stylistically, they are dated differently, possibly because they are housed in different museums.
According to Google Arts and Culture, “by 1000 BC, a number of Aramaean city states had emerged in Syria and upper Mesopotamia. Guzana was the capital of the Aramaean state of Bit Bahiani and grew rich by controlling important trade routes as well as through the agricultural wealth of the region. During this period horses were being bred which were sufficiently strong to support a rider and cavalry emerged as an important element of armies… By the ninth century BC, Guzana had been absorbed into the empire of Assyria. The tradition of wall reliefs was adopted by the Assyrians who decorated the interior of their mud-brick palaces with large alabaster relief panels.”
Assyria: Wall Panel Relieves And Balawat Gates, 9th – 7th centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Most Of Assyrian horsemen on the rearing horses that have survived to our days are the wall relieves in the palaces of kings Ashurnasirpal II, Tiglath-Pileser III and Ashurbanipal.
King Ashurbanipal‘s reliefs are perhaps the most famous and interesting of all these objects; the craftsmanship is astonishing. The lion hunt, the central theme of these reliefs, was double symbolic meaning. Firstly, it was to emphasize the bravery and the king’s supreme horsemanship and archery skill, the supreme virtues of a ruler by the standards of the time. The second meaning was to show that the king protects his people from the predator animals, that were also associated with the evil demons.
In addition, there is one of the bronze band on Balawat Gates, the one depicting king Shalmaneser III‘s campaign in Syria, showing the capture of cities in Hamath, part of 854 BC–846 BC Assyrian Conquest of Syria. Balawat is an archaeological in Iraq; it lies 25 kilometres (16 mi) southeast from the city of Mosul.
We will see that the equestrian lion hunt will fascinate many artists and patrons for the years to come: we will see it on the sword-sheath from Oxus Treasure, on Alexander the Great‘s sarcophagus, on the painting “The Lion Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens etc.
Elam and Achaemenid Persia, 10th – 4th centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Elamite And Persian Seals↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The earliest Persian region riders on rearing horses I could find are on numerous seals (mostly Cylinder seals) depicting a king (?) hunting a stag or a lion. We can see, that despite the time gap between Elam and Achaemenid Empire, the artistic tradition remained unaffected to the point that it is not always possible to determine if a particular seal is Neo-Elamite or Achaemenid.
Oxus Treasure↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
There are relatively few Achaemenid silversmith objects that survived, we will see a lot mode produced by Sasanian Empire in a few hundred years’ time.
Horsemen Of Mixed Greco-Persian Origin↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
For the few centuries before Alexander the Great subjugated both Greece and Persia, these two nations were arch-enemies. Persia was an empire, much bigger and wealthier, but Greece maintained clear cultural superiority. Many Persians appreciated it, but wanted to integrate their own culture into the art objects they were commissioning. This resulted in many objects of mixed Greco-Persian origin.
Funeral Monuments↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The clearest examples of interaction between Greek and Persian cultures are the funeral monuments erected in Persian provinces: they were of Persian types, much larger and more impressive than Greek funerary stelae, and the bas-reliefs that decorate them are made by Greek artists in typically Greek style.
There were three types of Persian tombs: pillar tombs, gothic-arched sarcophagi and temple tombs.
An example of a gothic-arched sarcophagus is a Lycian sarcophagus that was found in Sidon, modern Lebanon. It has the traditional Lycian shape (Lycia was a kingdom located in modern Turkey, part of Persian Achaemenid Empire when this sarcophagus was produced). However, the sculptural decoration was done in the style of Greek Peloponnese! Altıkulaç Sarcophagus, the other Greco-Persian sarcophagus, has unfortunately lost its upper part but retained the fragments of colour that once adorned it. It can probably be attributed to an Anatolian dynast of Hellespontine Phrygia, a Persian satrapy.
The Nereid Monument, build around 390-380 BC at Xantos, also in Lycia, is the first known example of a temple-tomb. Most of the subjects depicted on these reliefs are typically Greek, but the architrave frieze shows a bear hunt scene, with a mounted hunter, which is typically Persian.
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is the greatest example of a temple-tomb. It was built between 353 and 350 BC at Halicarnassus (present Bodrum, Turkey) for Mausolus, a satrap in the Persian Empire, and his sister-wife. Even though Persians were arch-enemies of Greeks, Mausolus spoke Greek and admired the Greek way of life and government, so he invited Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene to design his tomb. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by earthquakes, and we don’t know exactly what it looked like, but some authentic reliefs have survived.
Seals, A Coin and Tiles↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The next two objects were made Ionians, one of the Greek tribes, yet they depict Persian horsemen spearing Greek foot soldiers. This apparent paradox is easy to explain. Ionians lived in Asia Minor, on the coast of modern-day Turkey. They were under Persian rule, on and off, for the best part of time from the defeat of Lydian king Croesus by Cyrus the Great followed by the conquest of all the Ionian cities in 547-546 BC, and until 334 BC, when Alexander the Great defeated Persians in the Battle of the Granicus and subsequent battles. The reliefs of Apadana, the great audience hall of Persepolis, the most significant architecural monument of Persian Achaemenid Empire, were probably carved by Ionians.
The origin of the third object is unclear. However, given the similarity of subject, technique and production time, it is possible that these three objects belong together.
The fourth object is a coin, silver tetradrachm, with the depiction of a satrap on a rearing horse. It is another example of Greek workmanship that depicts Persian subject: it is made in Cyprus, an island originally populated by Greeks, and colonised by Persians, and depicts a ruler, a satrap, who was serving Persian empire.
Finally, there are two tiles, discovered in Asia Minor at the end of the 6th century BC when this territory was part of the Persian empire. The imagery and technique are very Greek.
Etruria: 6th-2nd Centuries BC: Pottery, Metalworks and Sarcophagi↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Horsemen on the rearing horses were making occasional appearances in the art of Etruria. It appears that it was where the horsewomen on rearing horses have made their debut appearance. It is interesting to note that, although the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum forward-facing riders figurines are very similar, the British museum consider them female (Amazons) whereas the Metropolitan museum considers them male.
Later on, cinerary urns were replaced with the sarcophagi depicting the scenes with the horsemen that indicate a strong influence of Greek culture.
Ancient Greece, 6th – 3rd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Pottery, 6th – 4th Centuries BC, Myth, Warfare And Sports↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The earliest Greek horsemen on rearing horses I could find are the depiction of anonymous sportsmen and warriors on Greek pottery. Predictably, the majority is warfare-related. We can see the battles of the gods of Ancient Greece such as Poseidon, the mythological heroes such as Odysseus, Troilus and Achilles. But most depict the fighting of anonymous Greek warriors against Thracians, Scythians and, especially, Amazons (but, interestingly, not Persians). One can observe that Amazons frequently wear Scythian trousers. This is because, based on a myth, Amazons and Scythians are closely linked. The reason why Thracians’ clothing is identical to Scythians’ (see situla with Odysseus below) is unclear.
One could also find a few vessels which decoration is related to Panathenaic Games.
Parthenon Frieze, 443-438 BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Parthenon Frieze, sculpted in cr. 443-438 BC, depicts many horsemen (43 out of 121 blocks); and most of them have rearing horses. This is expected, since the subject of the relief that decorates the frieze are two (separate) processions, one of them is a Panathenaic Games procession. The other procession is war-related. As such, Parthenon frieze combines both major themes of the horsemen on the rearing horses of Ancient Greece.
Rare Depictions Of Hunt, 6th-4th Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
One could also expect some depiction of Greek hunters on rearing horses, but these are virtually inexistent. I have only found three objects with such depictions. All of them have some Persian connections. The first object, kantharos, uses the iconography that was only used by Persians at the time. Also, it was made in Beotia, the region in Ancient Greece that assisted the invaders during the Persian invasion of 480 BC; one could assume that Beotia had prior contacts with Persia. The next of is a fragment of sarcophagus made in Klazomenai, Greek region conquered by Persians. The last two objects, lekythos, both feature the depictions of the hunting scenes. Hallie Malcolm Franks suggests that the image that shows Persians hunting deer, griffons and a boar among other game is no less than a fictionalized account of Persian conquest, in which the borders of the empire have reached the edges of the Earth. I could not find much about the fourth object, but the similarity of style and depicted subject, as well as the proximity of times of creation, allows us to think that these two lekythoi are related.
However, there are two Greek amphorae that feature an image of a hunt, with a hound underneath the horse, yet there is no obvious connection to Persia. One was made in the 6th century BC in Reggio di Calabria, one of the oldest Greek colonies in southern Italy and an important maritime and commercial city as well as a cultural centre. There were other amphoras with horsemen produced in the same location at about the same time, which imagery is clearly Greek. The other one was made in Attica and depicts Dioscuri brothers’ hunting. The depiction of the horsemen is strikingly similar to what we see on the sarcophagus from Klazomenai (just above).
One could imagine that Persian motives were due to cultural or commercial contacts, either direct or indirect, through Greek territories colonised by Persia.
Funerary Stelae, 4th Century BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The next type of objects is sculptured funerary stelae. Very few of them featured horsemen. One stela was created to commemorate Dexileos, a 20 years old Athenian horseman who died in a Battle of Nemea fought against Sparta in 394 BC. This depiction is the first horseman on a rearing horse who is a real person, with a known name, of non-royal origin. In addition, this stela seems to make Ancient Greece the only culture where the first depiction of a real person on a rearing horse is not of a royal but of a commoner!
Coins, 6th-3rd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Thessalian Coins↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Pelinna was an ancient Greek city that gained particular prominence in the 4th century BC through its alliance with Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Ancient Thessaly, the region Pelinna belonged to, was also famous for horse-rearing. This explains why the motif of the horseman was often used for its coinage.
From the iconographical perspective, the most interesting Thessalian coin is the humble bronze Pelinnian chalkous, the smallest, cheapest coin: it often features a horseman on a rearing horse striking fallen enemy hoplite.
Apuglian Coins↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Another Greek place that minted coins with horsemen on rearing horses was Taras (modern-day Taranto) in Apulia, southern Italy. In ancient times, around 500 BC, this Spartan colony was one of the largest city in the world, with population estimates up to 300,000 people. During the 4th century BC, it was a centre of a thriving decorated Greek pottery industry; we have seen some examples of it, with the depictions of the horsemen, above. Their coins tend to have Taras, the founder of the city, astride dolphin on the reverse; obverse very often features horsemen on rearing horses.
Miscellaneous Coins↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Many other Greek poleis would occasionally depict the horsemen on the rearing horses on their coins, although it would not be systematic and horse-driven chariots would be seen more frequently. Two very imaginative coins show a fish underneath the horse.
Alexander The Great And Hellenistic World↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Depictions Of Alexander The Great↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Time went by, and democracy was succeeded by tyranny. Alexander the Great was often represented on a rearing horse, with a spear. This iconography was developed during his lifetime and is used to these days. It is noteworthy that only three horses in this story have a name, and Alexander’s horse is one of them. His name is Bucephalus; he was reared in Ancient Thessaly.
Macedonian Coins With Horsemen Other Than Alexander The Great↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Even though Alexander the Great has made the horseman his signature image, it was used in the Kingdom of Macedonia before and after him.
Apulian Pottery And Funerary Vases, 4th-2nd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
However, in Apulia Red figure pottery was striving until circa 300 BC.
Apulian Funerary Vases, 4th-2nd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The first vase is a terracotta Attic gilded polychrome hydria with lead lid showing a battle of Greeks and Amazons (Amazonomachy). The vase had been used as a cinerary urn.
There are very few polychromatic Attic vases, but polychrome was popular in Apulia in the 3rd century BC. The second vase, made in Canosa, Apulia, is one of the earlier examples. The colours are water-based, this is why they look so worn compared to the Attic vase.
The third vase is a marble “Pergamon vase” that dates from the second century BC and was excavated in modern-day Turkey: it is decorated with a bas-relief that depicts 15 horsemen on rearing horses. This marble vase looks like an Attic funerary vase. However, when it was discovered, it contained not remains of a deceased person, but two alabaster urnes filled with gold!
Canosa figurines and funerary vases, 4th-2nd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Canosa vases are a type of pottery belonging to ancient Apulian vase painting. They were designed exclusively for funerary use. The distinguishing feature of Canosa vases is the water-soluble paints. Blue, red, yellow, light purple and brown paints were applied to a white ground. Popular shapes included volute kraters, kantharoi, oinochoai and askoi. Decoration included applied plastic winged heads, gorgons and similar motifs. Sometimes the motives were horsemen on rearing horses! This decoration makes them very similar to Etruscan bronze cinerary urns which lids were also decorated with horsemen.
In addition, there were decorative terracota figurines produced in Canosa.
Temple of Artemis Leucophryene, 3rd-2nd Century BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Coins With Horsemen Minted in Paeonia↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Some very interesting from iconographical perspective coins were minted in Paeonia, the kingdom that roughly corresponds to the present-day Republic of Macedonia. Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) research suggests that the foe attacked by the horseman is Persian, however, Nicholas Wright suggests that this foe is Macedonian. There are many variations of the depiction of the horseman on the coins struck under king Patraos, see this list of king Patraos coins for further examples. The iconography is very similar to a Greek seal presumably made for a Persian patron, depicting a Persian horseman spearing a Greek foe.
Hellenistic Coins Showing Dioscuri Brothers↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Later on, some Hellenistic coins were showing Dioscuri brothers on rearing horses. This motif appears in many times in various parts of the Hellenistic world.
Coins With Horsemen (And A Butterfly!) Minted in Phrygia↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Lastly, there are two coins minted in the city of Kibyra in Greater Phrygia (modern south-west Turkey). They both have a depiction of a horseman on a rearing horse on the reverse. One is particularly charming – it features a large butterfly sitting on a horseman’s spear! They both were minted between 166 and 84 BC, which was a turbulent period in the history of Phrygia and Kibyra. Phrygia was ruled by a Greek king from 188 BC until 133 BC, when it was bequested to Rome. In 84-83 BC Moagetes, was the last tyrant of Kibyra, was defeated by Roman general Lucius Licinius Murena as a part of the Second Mithridatic War and the city Kibyra was attached to Phrygia. This reflected the change the world was undergoing at that time: Greek civilisation was losing its dominant position and the building of the Roman empire was gathering momentum.
Scythians: Metalwork, 5th-4th Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Scythians were a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who were mentioned by the literate peoples surrounding them as inhabiting large areas in the central Eurasian steppes from about the 9th century BC until about the 1st century BC. They have left us little information about their history themselves. Ancient Greeks, their arch-enemies, notably Herodotus, were writing a lot about them, but their accounts are inevitably biased and not always plausible.
Quite a few surviving Scythian artefacts depict horsemen on rearing horses, all of them seem to be anonymous. Many of these artefacts are made of pure gold. Most are part of The State Hermitage Museum collection.
Thracians, 5th Century BC – 3rd Century AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting a large area in southeastern Europe. Thracians are one of the three primary ancestral groups of modern Bulgarians. Thracians were exposed to other cultures through their wars: they were fighting against (and with) Persia, against Ancient Greece and Scythia, and later against Ancient Rome. All these conflicts have influenced Thracian culture and enabled the development of the motif of Thracian Horseman.
Thracian Depictions Of Hunting And Warfare With Horsemen, 5th-4th Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
As suggested by Maya Vassileva, the early Thracian representations of the horsemen on the rearing horses are the Achaemenid (Persian) “borrowings” and were used to indicate the elite status of the rider.
Thracian Horsemen On Funerary Stelae Or Votive Tablets, 3rd Century BC – 3rd Century AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The hunter motif is the earliest one. It represents a hunter on horseback, riding from left to right. Between the horse’s hooves is depicted either a hunting dog or a boar. In some instances, the dog is replaced by a lion. It is reminiscent of earlier Thracian horsemen, and is likely to be inspired by Persian imagery.
The serpent-and-tree motif has appeared later on. The serpent-and-tree could represent the rod of Asclepius, although there are many other possible interpretations – see Antonios Sakellariou's dissertation thesis for more information. The serpent-and-tree motif often incorporates the hunting motifs, i.e. a hound and/or the game animals underneath the horse.
The rider-and-goddess motif also occasionally incorporates the hunting motif. According to Antonios Sakellariou's dissertation thesis, the goddess could be Hygieia, the daughter of Asclepius. The bas-relief that depicts two women is dedicated to Asclepius, so one could speculatively assume that one of these two women is Hygieia.
Parthian Empire (now Iran), 247 BC – 224 AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Parthian empire, that existed from 247BC to 224AD, was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran and Iraq. The Parthian rulers were claiming to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire, and, just as in the Achaemenid Empire, the horsemanship was one of the most valued skills.
Parthian horse archers were much feared by the Roman armies and totally destroyed a Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.
Parthian shot, meaning a military tactic where mounted archers, while retreating at a full gallop, would turn their bodies back to shoot arrows at the pursuing enemy, was widely used but not many Parthian objects that depict it survive.
It is useful to observe that, while other nomadic people, notably Scythians, were using the same manoeuvre, it was known by Parthians before the contacts with other people who were employing this tactic, as explained in this article.
Ancient Rome, 2nd century BC – 6th Century AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC): coins and Reliefs↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Roman Reliefs that show horsemen↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Most surviving art objects of Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC) that show horsemen on rearing horses are on coins. Perhaps many horsemen depicted in other art forms existed, but most were lost or destroyed. Below are a few that still exist. They seem to be very much inspired by Greek art.
The coins of Roman Republic↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Generally speaking, ancient Romans had strong value-system (see Mos maiorum); it was quite different in republican and imperial eras. We can see some of it even using as simple an analysis as the comparison of Roman coins of these two eras.
For example, Dioscuri brothers Castor and Pollux most frequently appear on coins of the Roman Republic, as horsemen galloping, with couched lances, and stars above their pilei, which was supposed to represent the remnants of the egg from which they hatched. In the imperial series, this type (which was meant to denote brotherly concord), is of rare occurrence.
The other distinction is that the choice of metals used to mint the coins. Before the time of Julius Caesar the aureus, the coin of higher denomination made of gold, was struck infrequently, probably because gold was seen as a mark of un-Roman luxury.
The reverse of the denarii minted in 56 BC shows a statue of a horseman on a rearing horse, which allows us to think that indeed there were more horsemen in the times of the Republic, but they were lost.
Coinage systems of both Roman republic and Roman empire were quite complex. In Roman republic, provinces and even private individuals (moneyers) could strike their own coins. Below we can see coins issued by a moneyer from Postumia family and a coin issued in the province of Samnium, now southern Italy.
Roman Empire (27 BC – 6th Century AD)↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
A horseman who heralded the transformation of Rome into an empire and other coins of Roman empire↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Battle of Actium marks the end of the Hellenistic period with its multipolar world structure. The reign of Augustus initiated an era of the dominance of the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana.
Tombstones Of Roman cavalryman, 50-100 AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The depiction of a horseman was encountered on the tombstones of the Roman cavalryman around 100 AD. Presumably, all these tombstones were all brightly painted when installed. The images of the horsemen represented on these tombstones vary in details but seem quite similar. The dating is not straightforward because, unlike nowadays, the standard inscriptions on the tombstones were including the age at the time of death but not the years of birth/death.
According to Wikipedia,
The most common funerary monument for Roman soldiers was that of the stelae – a humble, unadorned piece of stone, cut into the shape of a rectangle…In some unique cases, military tombstones were adorned with sculpture. These types of headstones typically belonged to members of the auxiliary units rather than legionary units. The chief difference between the two units was citizenship. Whereas legionary soldiers were citizens of Rome, auxiliary soldiers came from provinces in the Empire. Auxiliary soldiers had the opportunity to obtain Roman citizenship only after their discharge. Tombstones served to distinguish Romans from non-Romans, and to enforce the social hierarchy that existed within military legions… Reliefs on auxiliary tombstones often depict men on horseback, denoting the courage and heroism of the auxiliary’s cavalrymen. Though expensive, tombstones were likely within the means of the common soldier… These tombstones did not commemorate soldiers who died in combat, but rather soldiers who died during times of peace when generals and comrades were at ease to hold proper burials. Soldiers who died in battle were disrobed, cremated, and buried in mass graves near camp.
Tropaeum Traiani And Antonine Wall, Roman Provinces, 2nd Century AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Trajan’s Column, Rome, 113 AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The other, much more famous, waymark that features horsemen on rearing horses is Trajan's Column in Rome. It was completed in 113 AD to commemorate Roman emperor Trajan‘s victory in the Dacian Wars. It is located in Trajan's Forum, built near the Quirinal Hill. The freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, which artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacians (101–102 and 105–106). Its fame, influence on the architecture of the posterity and the number of the horseman on the rearing horses depicted on it makes it comparable with Parthenon in Athens.
Emperor Commodus As A Horseman, 161-192 AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The iconography of the horseman on a rearing horse will be adopted by many rulers, from antiquity to modernity. One of them was infamous Roman emperor Commodus (161-192 AD). Upon his death, the Senate declared him a public enemy (a de facto damnatio memoriae), so very few objects depicting Commodus have survived. Some are below.
Roman sarcophagi, 2nd-4th Centuries AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The next group of objects are the sarcophagi. According to Wikipedia,
In the burial practices of ancient Rome and Roman funerary art, marble and limestone sarcophagi elaborately carved in relief were characteristic of elite inhumation burials from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi have survived, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000. Sarcophagus relief has been called the “richest single source of Roman iconography”, and may also depict the deceased’s occupation or life course, military scenes, and other subject matter.
Obviously, quite a few Roman sarcophagi featured horsemen on rearing horses. We often encounter Amazonomachy, but there are also hunting scenes and even the depiction of victorious Roman cavalry.
Roman Mosaics, Roman Provinces, 3rd – 6th Centuries AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
A yet another group of objects are the mosaics. Those that are preserved were found in Roman provinces (except one found in 2015 in Tuscany) and mostly feature hunting scenes.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge, 312 AD: Arch of Constantine And Art In 15th-18th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
According to chroniclers such as Eusebius of Caesarea and Lactantius, the battle marked the beginning of Constantine's conversion to Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea recounts that Constantine and his soldiers had a vision sent by the Christian God. This was interpreted as a promise of victory if the sign of the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, was painted on the soldiers’ shields. The Arch of Constantine, the largest Roman triumphal arch, erected in 315 in celebration of the victory, certainly attributes Constantine’s success to divine intervention; however, the monument does not display any overtly Christian symbolism.
This battle marks the turning point in our story: the antique Roman world as we knew it is about to disappear, giving way to the Byzantine world.
Antique Horsemen that transcended centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Bellerophon, 7th Century BC – 17th Century AD and 20th-21st Centuries AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Bellerophon is a hero of Greek mythology. He was the greatest hero and slayer of monsters, alongside Cadmus and Perseus, before the days of Heracles, and his greatest feat was killing the Chimera. He is depicted on a rearing horse named Pegasus.
Bellerophon On Art Objects↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
This part of the exposé is, unlike the others, shows one specific character across different cultures: from the 7th century BC Greece to 21st century China, passing through Etruria, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Visigothic culture, Renaissance Siena, Baroque Venice, Prussia and the United Kingdom in World War II. As such, it serves to give the taste for the variety of cultures, styles and media we will encounter as this exposé unfolds.
Bellerophon On Greek And Roman Coins, 4th-3rd Centuries BC↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Bellerophon was also one of the first horsemen on rearing horses to feature on coins. According to Sam Heijnen, the myth had always been present on Corinthian coinage when Corinth, the supposed birthplace of Bellerophon, was independent, and would remain so at least until the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE). We can also see him on the coins of other Greek territories and, later on, on Roman coins minted outside Greece.
Meleager and Atalanta, 4th century BC, 17th and 19th centuries AD↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
In Greek mythology, Meleager is one of Argonauts, best known for killing the Calydonian boar. The hunting party included other Greek heroes and Atalanta, a female huntress loved by Meleager. During the hunt, two men tried to rape her, but Meleager killed them. Then Atalanta had drawn the first drop of blood of the boar, and Meleager killed. Meleager awarded Atalanta the trophy because she had drawn the first drop of boar’s blood. This angered two male hunters, and two other hunters have insulted Atalanta. Meleager has killed all four of them, but also died himself as the result… Perhaps we could view Meleager as one of the first champions of equal rights and gender equality?
According to The Walters Art Museum, during Renaissance “Hunting wild boar was a privilege reserved to the nobility and was validated and glorified in the eyes of contemporaries by representations of heroic hunts from the mythic past such as this one.” In addition, depicting antique hunters was an opportunity to depict fit semi-naked bodies, another advantage for the patrons.
There were quite a few depictions of Meleager and Atalanta’s hunt in Flemish art in the 17th century. One of the possible reasons is that this subject was giving a rare opportunity to combine depiction of women and of the hunt, two very popular but usually incompatible subjects, in one painting.
In addition, there were two depictions of Meleager on a rearing horse in French art.
Byzantine World↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Sasanian Empire (now Iran)↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Sasanian Empire was the nemesis of the Byzantine empire while it existed.
The Battle of Nineveh (627) (pictured) was part of Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628. By the end of the conflict, both sides had exhausted their human and material resources and achieved very little. Consequently, they were vulnerable to the sudden emergence of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate, whose forces invaded both empires only a few years after the war. The Muslim forces swiftly conquered the entire Sasanian Empire and deprived the Byzantine Empire of its territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt, and North Africa. Over the following centuries, much of what remained of the Byzantine Empire, and the entire Sasanian Empire, would come under Muslim rule.
This is how Sasanian Empire ended. But let us see what horsemen on rearing horses it has produced in the times of glory.
Equestrian Reliefs of Bahram II in Naqsh-e Rostam Necropolis, 3rd Century↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Well below the Achaemenid tombs, near ground level, are rock reliefs with large figures of the kings, some meeting gods, others in combat, related to no less than six Sasanian kings. The placing of these reliefs clearly suggests the Sasanid intention to link themselves with the glories of the earlier Achaemenid Empire.
Two equestrian reliefs of Sasanian king Bahram II, executed in cr. 276–293, depict horsemen on rearing horses.
The first equestrian relief depicts the king battling a mounted Roman enemy. The second equestrian relief, located immediately below the tomb of Darius I, is divided into two registers, an upper and a lower one. In the upper register, the king appears to be forcing a Roman enemy, probably Roman emperor Carus from his horse. In the lower register, the king is again battling a mounted enemy wearing a headgear shaped as an animal’s head, thought to be the vanquished Indo-Sassanian ruler Hormizd I Kushanshah. Both reliefs depict a dead enemy under the hooves of the king’s horse.
Sasanian Silver Plates With Horsemen, 4th-7th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Sasanian art objects include many silver plates decorated with the images of the hunt of Sasanian kings; of course, many of them are depicted on rearing horses. The description of the earliest of these plates, done by The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, offers a great insight into the story of these plates:
“I, Shapur, king of kings, partner with the Stars, brother of the Sun and Moon, to my brother Constantius Caesar offer most ample greeting.…”
Like Shapur’s flowery letter to the Roman emperor Constantine, this masterpiece of silverwork presents Shapur II as a ruler of the universe, the king of kings.
It was produced during the fourth century CE for Shapur II, the Sasanian king who is identified by his distinctive crown. He was one of the most powerful rulers of the Sasanian dynasty, which controlled Iran and much of the Ancient Near East from 224 to 651 CE. During Shapur’s reign, scenes depicting the king hunting gazelle, boars, bulls, and ibex were important metaphors for royal power. The plate, like several other similar examples, was presented as a gift to dignitaries or was displayed prominently in the Sasanian palace to assert Shapur’s sovereignty.”
Hephthalite, Alchon Hunnic And Himyarite Horsemen, 3rd-5th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The following horsemen on rearing horses were created by three different people that co-existed and interacted with Sananian and Byzantine Empires. Their cultures were less developed and their states were not quite as powerful, wealthy and long-lived as Sananian and Byzantine Empires, thus much smaller artistic output. I have found only one object per each of these cultures.
Hephthalites were described by the 6th-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea.
The third object is a relief that depicts a warrior riding a rearing horse and a foot soldier. It was created in Yemen in the 3rd-5th centuries. Yemen had interactions with both Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. It was united in 275 by Himyarite king Shammar Yahri'sh. In 354, Roman Emperor Constantius II sent an embassy to convert the Himyarites to Christianity, but the mission was resisted by local Jews. However, they were considered amongst Arab allies of Byzantine Empire against Sasanian Persia.
Byzantine Empire↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The new name of the city was honouring Constantine the Great, the emperor who has masterminded this transformation. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to claim conversion to Christianity. During his reign, the tolerance for Christianity was decreed in the empire.
Secular Horsemen↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Further evidence of the cultural complexity of Byzantine Empire comes to light when we examine other Byzantine depictions of the horsemen on the rearing horses. Some will be alluding to the glories and splendours of the united Roman Empire, e.g. gladiators and its cultural connections to Ancient Greece (Alexander the Great and pagan gods).
Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
There exists many Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. According to the British Library, the majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. We also find some historical chronicles, e.g. Madrid Skylitzes, Byzantine military manuals, etc. We can find some horsemen on rearing horses throughout these illuminated manuscripts.
Introducing Saint George↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Before proceeding any further, let me introduce Saint George, a Christian Saint, a Syrian born in cr. 280 AD who served in the army of a Roman emperor and was tortured and executed for his refusal to recant his Christian faith in 303 AD. The story of his life was not well documented and thus should be seen as a myth rather than the actual facts. The most famous episode of the life of this Saint is the story of him defeating a dragon and rescuing a princess as told in the Golden Legend.
Traditionally, Saint George is depicted on a rearing horse. Just as a prince charming, he appears on a white horse, slays the dragon and saves the princess. His images are most probably the first art objects that show a horseman on a rearing horse in the post-antique world. He has other canonical representations, too. The subject of representation in art is well researched, a few online sources (among others) are “The Legend of St. George Saving a Youth from Captivity and its Depiction in Art” by Piotr Grotowski, “In Search Of Saint George” by H.F.Rance and “The Miracle of St.George and the Dragon\Black George” by Yury Bobrov.
Iconographical Geneology Of Saint George↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Other depictions will be more representative of the Byzantine Empire with its complex multifaceted pattern, while still referencing the Ancient Roman art. In fact, as shown in the research done by Sasson Ancient Art, the representation of the Holy Rider seems to be ideal to get the drip of the cultural patterns of the Byzantine Empire. We have already seen the representation of the Emperor Constantius II with a halo around his head, which clearly indicates divinity, while the composition reminds us of his royal status through the similarity with the coins. Later in Eastern Mediterranean region, there will appear the amulets King Solomon on a rearing horse, spearing the demon Lilith, a killer of the little children: this story is part of Jewish tradition, the rider is both royal and divine. In Byzantine iconography of the 5th century, the horseman became St. Sisinios or Sisinnios or Sisinius or Sisoe, destroying the she-demon Gello, also a killer of the little children. (Another demon responsible for miscarriages is Abyzou of the Near East and Europe; both king Solomon and St. Sisinius can act as her adversaries). Later on, the rider was identified as Saint Demetrius, Saint George, Saint Mercurius and Saint Theodore of Amasea, the four saints who are considered both great martyrs and military saints.
Byzantine Influence↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Egypt, 4th – 8th Centuries, Textiles↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Each culture seems to be able to make the motif of the rearing horseman their own, adapting it to fit the local tradition.
Egypt became a Roman province in 30BC, and became part of Byzantine Empire upon separation of the Roman empire. According to Louvre researchers, Egyptian deities were never portrayed on horseback. However, the influence of Roman and, later, Byzantine colonisers has resulted in the adoption of Greco-Roman models and of the Christian symbolism of Good conquering Evil.
Many Egyptian textile designs that feature horsemen use the Greco-Roman mythology, but their representation reflects Egyptian traditions.
Orthodox Warrior Saints↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Two Saints Facing One Another↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The earliest surviving sculptural depictions of Orthodox warrior Saints were reliefs on the walls of churches and monasters. They are very similar in style and ought to have the same iconographical origin. They depict two military Saints on horseback facing one another, and at least one of them is on a rearing horse. Usually they are Saint George And Saint Theodore. Later, we will see similar iconography on Greek icons, except that Saint Theodore will be replaced by Saint Demetrius.
Saint George in Georgia, 10th-21st Century, Metalworks↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
According to In Search Of Saint George, Georgia has converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, at about the same time as the rest of the Roman Empire. It is unclear when Saint George has been designated as its national Patron Saint, but his cult was widespread by the 10th century.
While Georgia was remaining Christian religiously, and thus influenced by the Byzantine Empire, its powerful neighbour, it was also under the cultural influences of its many invaders: Mongols, Persians and Turks.
The iconography of Saint George that was frequently used in Georgia, showing an equestrian St. George with the horse standing or rearing over the prostrate figure of Diocletian, rather than the figure of the Dragon, was a provincial Byzantine theme, which was foreign to metropolitan Byzantine art. One of the representations of Diocletian, where his armour is made of scales, could suggest how the figure of Diocletian has transformed into a Dragon.
The choice of the iconography that features a horseman on a rearing horse, as well as the choice of metalworks repoussé as the most frequently used technique, suggests the influence of Sasanian empire where both the subject and the technique were much used and loved.
Saint Theodore And Other Horsemen In Venice (And Palermo), The 13th Century – Present↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Saint Theodore became the first patron of Venice. Initially, the chapel of the Doge was dedicated to him. He was a very popular Byzantine Saint. When, in the 9th century, Venice wished to free itself from the influence of the Byzantine Empire, it decided to change that. So, Saint Theodore was succeeded by Saint Mark when, according to tradition, the relics of Saint Mark were brought to the city in 828. He was not popular in northern Europe beyond Italy.
There are two mosaics, both located in Italy, that depict horsemen on rearing horses and are made in Byzantine style. One shows a nameless horseman dragging the body of Isidore of Chios on the mosaic of Saint Isidore’s Chapel in St Mark's Basilica, Venice. The Basilica’s link to Byzantine culture is not limited to stylistic similarities; some of the materials used to build it were imported from Constantinople. The other one the depiction of the story of Absalom on the exterior wall of Cappella Palatina in Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, Sicily. This is a 19th-century restoration, which style is matching the 1140-70 Byzantine-style mosaics in the interior of the Chapel.
Milirary Saints In Russia, 14th – 19th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
It has, in all likelihood, arrived in Russia via religious/cultural exchanges with Byzantine empire (and, probably, Georgia), because Russia has officially adopted the religion of Byzantine empire, Orthodox Christianity. The choice of the saints and the iconography clearly draws inspiration from Byzantine art.
Unlike in Europe, the style of the images of Saints was unaffected by the secular art – perhaps can call it orthodox?
Saint Demetrios In Eastern Europe, 15th – 19th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Saint George (And Saint Sisinios) In Ethiopian Empire, 15th Century – Present↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Ethiopian artists have developed a very strict and idiosyncratic canon for the representation of Saint George. It certainly reflects the taste for bright colours and flatness of the image common in African art. The person in the tree directly in front of Saint George and above the horse’s head is the princess that the saint is about to save. In Ethiopian tradition, the princess’s name is Biruwit, and she is said to personify Ethiopia.
Further evidence of Byzantine influence can be seen in the image of emperor of Ethiopia Susenyos I (1572 – 1632), who is represented as Saint Sisinios spearing seductively lolling she-demon Lilith. The image next to it is a possible representation of one of Ethiopian kings as Saint George spearing the dragon.
Saint Mercurius, Egypt, cr. 18th Century↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Later on, there appeared a very idiosyncratic representation of Saint Mercurius, a saint that seemed to be much more popular with Egyptian Copts than with other Christian denominations. The Coptic icons of Saint Mercurius I have found are of uneven artistic quality and only one is dated, but the imagery is so striking that they seem to be worth appearing in this presentation: the ability to hold two swords while piercing emperor Julian the Apostate (331 or 332 – 363) who was prosecuting Christians with his spear is truly superhuman.
Biblical Subjects Throughout Centuries, Europe↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
After we have seen horsemen of Eastern Christian churches, let’s take a close loot at horsemen popular with Western Christian churches in the 10th – 19th centuries.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 10th-18th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible.
The four riders are often seen as symbols. The 1st horseman, on a white horse, is a symbol of Conquest or Pestilence (and less frequently, the Christ or the Antichrist); the 2nd horseman, on a red horse: War; the 3rd horseman, on a black horse: Famine; on a horse). And the 4th horseman, on a pale horse, symbolizes Death.
The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the Four Horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 10th-17th centuries, Europe↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
The images of four horsemen start to appear as the illuminated manuscript illustrations. The very first ones were in Valcavado Beatus. This manuscript, created by a monk called Oveco in 970 in Palencia, Spain, was a copy of Commentary on the Apocalypse written by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana (730–785). More illustrations and independent works of art have followed.
Death on the Pale Horse In England, End Of The 18th – Beginning Of The 19th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Some illustrations appear in anticipation of great changes. For example, the end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th centuries period was marked by the beginning of industrialisation in England. William Blake and many of his contemporaries saw it in a very negative light. In his poem And did those feet in ancient time (today it is best known as the hymn “Jerusalem”, with music written by Hubert Parry in 1916), William Blake has mentioned the “dark satanic mills”, which probably meant “new industrial enterprises”, e.g. Albion Mills (completed in 1786, gutted by fire in 1791), cotton mills, and, more generally, anything other than the “green and pleasant land”.
Absalom, 13th-19th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
When some uncertainty seems to have arisen as to the succession, Absalom organized a revolt. For a time he seemed completely successful; David, with a few followers and his personal guard, fled across the Jordan, leaving to Absalom Jerusalem and the main portion of the kingdom. The usurper pursued the fugitives with his forces but was completely defeated in the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim and killed by Joab, a nephew of King David, who found him caught by the hair in an oak tree.
On the brink of death, David told Solomon to have Joab killed citing Joab’s past betrayals and the blood that he was guilty of, and King Solomon ordered his death.
Most depictions of the last moments of Absolom feature either him or Joab on a rearing horse. As we have seen earlier, King Solomon was also depicted on a rearing horse, as a Holy Rider stubbing she-devil Lilith.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, 16th-19th Centuries↑ Back To Table Of Contents ↑
Religious (as opposed to historical) source of the story of the Expulsion of Heliodorus is on Deuterocanonical books. These books and passages considered to be canonical books of the Old Testament by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East, but which are considered non-canonical by Protestant denominations.
According to Deuterocanonical books, around 178 BC Seleucus IV Philopator, ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, sent Heliodorus to Jerusalem to collect money to pay the Romans. Heliodorus entered the Temple in Jerusalem in order to take its treasure but was turned back by three spiritual beings who manifested themselves as human beings, and Heliodorus received “orders from God” to “proclaim to all men the majesty of God’s power”.
Raphael was the first artist to make an influential depiction of this subject, a fresco The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple in the Vatican. With it, he has started a tradition to depict one of spiritual beings on a white rearing horse.
During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the episode of The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple was taken in Roman Catholic apologetics as a symbol of the inviolability of Church property. For some time, it became a popular subject.
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