The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is the outcome of a somewhat unlikely union between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Sporting Library and Museum, “a modern temple to the equine.” This beautifully presented collection contains five chapters on various horse-related topics from antiquity, 55figures within these chapters, and an appendix with 75images of items from the exhibition. Although this is not the type of book to present a particular argument, its contributors engage meaningfully with current scholarship in their substantive discussions of visual and historical evidence. The essays mostly cover content for a general audience, but are consistently interesting (even though there is a fair bit of repetition by the end), and all photos of vases, coins, friezes, and other objects are of exceptional quality.
Schertz and Stribling note in the Preface that visitors to the National Sporting Library and Museum “may not normally think of themselves as ‘ancient art people,’” and the exhibition on which this book is based was the first time ancient art had been displayed in the museum. This fact clearly informed the book as a whole, but especially the first chapter, “Hippomania,” by N. Stribling, which functions as an introduction of sorts for the non-expert. The author discusses in broad terms the importance of ancient art, the appearance of ancient horses, myths that include horses, ancient vessels and their uses, athletic games, and chariots. Although general, the material makes helpful references to other chapters in the book and presents fascinating historical facts and a range of images, both familiar and unfamiliar.
In “Noble Steeds: The Origins of the Horse in Greek Art,” S. Hemingway similarly examines well-known and less-known images, as he follows the early artistic development of the horse. He looks at examples from the Mycenaean Bronze Age through the Iron Age into the Geometric and Archaic periods. He tracks representations of the horse and horse narratives in Greek visual art, including the first instances of the (surprisingly scarce) representations of the Trojan Horse.
Myth and narrative are the primary focus of “Mythological Horses in Ancient Greek Art,” where J. Oakley discusses many of the predictable examples (Pegasus, Diomedes’ man-eating horses, the Trojan Horse), but he also treats less common examples and even expands very briefly into hybrid creatures (the centaur, the satyr/silen, the hippalectryon, and the hippocamp). It becomes apparent as one reads this chapter that famous mythological horses are rarely regular horses, but are much more frequently supernatural in some way.
S. Pevnick’s and P. Schertz’s studies move between the mythological and the historical world. In “From Myth to History: The Chariot in Ancient Greek Art,” Schertz provides a valuable consideration of various technical aspects of the chariot, including a surprisingly interesting discussion of construction methods. He also uses ancient art to present the various uses and styles of chariots, from the military to racing, and even basic mule carts. Pevnick’s look at “Riders and Victors: Competing on Horseback in Archaic and Classical Greek Art” examines horseracing in a similar vein, with a thorough discussion of races, festivals, and prizes in relation to ancient art.
Much like the previous authors, Mattusch uses a number of interesting images for her discussion of “Ancient Greek Horsemanship,” but she focusses above all on literary evidence. She discusses a range of authors (Xenophanes, Aristophanes, Simon of Athens), but the bulk of the chapter presents a synopsis of Xenophon’s On Horsemanship. This non-canonical text is fascinating. It is remarkable how much of Xenophon’s discussion still holds true, and the descriptions of muzzles, bits, and snaffles (among other things) engage throughout.
The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is a wonderful reminder of the interdisciplinary nature of Classics. There has been plenty of scholarship on horses in antiquity, but most of it is written by classicists for classicists. This collection of essays and images represents the possibilities of a more popular approach to Classical intersections. Not only is it a beautiful and interesting study, but it also exposes readers who may not think of themselves as “Classics people” to the joys of classical art, history, and literature.