ASCSA Exhibition Highlights Horses in Ancient Athens

ATHENS – The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) is the oldest and largest U.S. overseas research center. Its website notes that it is “a consortium of nearly 200 affiliated North American colleges and universities.” Its wonderful grounds and halls also host events and exhibitions that are a vibrant part of cultural life in Athens, and at this time the spotlight is on an important but little known aspect of ancient Athenian society. Titled ‘Hippos – The Horse in Ancient Athens,’ the exhibition runs through April 30, 2022.

Among the ancient texts that greet visitors is one from Xenophon’s treatise On Horsemanship, written in the fourth century BC: “A horse is a thing of beauty….no one will tire of looking at him
As long as he displays himself to the spectator in all his splendor.”

Indeed, Dr. Jennifer Neils, the Director of ASCSA, told The National Herald of the exhibition, “we’ve combined science and art” with works from Greece and other countries….“you can see the phenomenal bronze horse head on loan from the Florence Archaeological Museum which once belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent. It has never been in Greece before… a beautiful, naturalistic horse.”

ASCSA Exhibition. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)

According to an ASCSA press release, “this exhibition foregrounds the important role of science for our understanding of the past. A well preserved ancient horse skeleton from the Phaleron cemetery is displayed for the first time.” A leader in archaeological scientific research, the ASCSA’s Malcolm H. Wiener Laboratory was granted permission to study the important Archaic cemetery at Phaleron, on the grounds of the SNF Cultural Center.

Questions raised by the findings include why some horses were buried there. Their skeletons  not show injuries from cavalry battles, etc. Dr. Neils suggests they may have been religious sacrifices. “Poseidon was the God of horses as well as of the sea, and here we are in Phaleron, probably where the ancient hippodrome was.”

Art history afficionados will enjoy items such as victory monuments of chariots racers – honoring the owners, not the drivers, as the informative note nearby indicates. There are also special labels for children so they can better appreciate and enjoy the objects – which include little toy horses on wheels.

ASCSA Exhibition. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)


“There are cavalry memorials, grave memorials with names of real Athenians on them – the exhibition is about real people and their relationships with horses, not just tales of Pegasus and other stories from mythology,” Dr. Neils said.

There are five parts to the exhibition. “For the archaeology part we’ve laid out the horses from the excavation, then something called ‘Hippotropheia that tells about the raising and training of horses,” Dr. Neils said, adding that, : there is a bronze bit from the Acropolis that has been identified as Persian, so it came as loot from the Battle of Marathon and was then dedicated to Athena – who is also a goddess of horses, Athena Hippia. She tamed horses – she invented the bridle. Poseidon is identified with wild horses.”
There is a section on horse racing and chariot races, and another on horses and war. “There is lots of information about cavalry, and this features our excavation in the Agora. In wells there has been found material from the archives, the Hipparchaeum, the office of the cavalry commanders with information about all the horses. The records are on lead. Each horse was identified with the owner’s name, the color of the horse, and its value – one listed at 700 drachmas, which is two years’ wages.”

Exhibition notes reveal that the Athenians did not use horses as draught animals, so they were the concern and joy of the rich alone. “Pericles raised the cavalry into a force of 1,000 – there are 250 horses depicted on the Parthenon. There are also items with religious themes, including a cast from the Parthenon Frieze.”

ASCSA Exhibition. (Photo by TNH/Constantine S. Sirigos)


The interview was also an opportunity to ask Dr. Neils about developments regarding the Parthenon Marbles. “I have argued, of course, that they should be reunited. I have written about the integrity of the monument. People say to me ‘more people would see it in England’ and I reply, ‘yes and even more people would see it in the Mall of America” but their proper home is Athens. “She said their return would not open the flood gates,” leading to the emptying of museums. The Marbles are unique. “A lot of things are being returned. Morality has changed. We feel differently now about cultural heritage.”


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