BMCR 2024.05.11

Hippos: the horse in ancient Athens

, , Hippos: the horse in ancient Athens. Athens: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2022. Pp. 288. ISBN 9789609994569.

This bilingual volume of over 40 short essays in English and Greek was prepared in conjunction with the exhibition “HIPPOS. The horse in ancient Athens” at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens from January 20th– April 30th, 2022. The occasion for the exhibition was the discovery of horse burials in the Phaleron cemetery, excavated by Stella Chryssoulaki from 2012–2020 and the zooarchaeological examination of the horse skeletons by Flint Dibble at the Malcom H. Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science at the American School, which is the first part of the book.

In addition to representing the excavation results, the overall aim of this volume is to demonstrate the different aspects of horses affecting daily life within the ancient city of Athens. A variety of artifacts in the exhibit, ranging from large bronze heads and reliefs to pottery and coins, displayed horses in different meanings and contexts. For the exhibition, as well for the publication, the role of the horse on these artifacts has been presented and categorized into four topics: horse-training by young aristocrats, sporting events, cavalry, and religion.

Each section of this book is introduced with an opening picture of vitrines from the exhibition, but this is not an exhibition catalogue. No catalogue or checklist of objects is provided, and there are no exhibit numbers, which makes it difficult for researchers to make references to this book. In fact, it is hard to tell from the opening pictures whether all the objects from the exhibits were presented in this volume. The information about the objects appears only in the captions to the large high-quality illustrations, with different close ups in the English and Greek versions of the essays.

Most essay headings are phrased as questions, which replicates the experience of reading an exhibition text. Each essay deals thematically with one or two exhibits and includes references and recommended reading at the end. In general, footnotes are not provided. Occasionally there are references in the text to further inventory numbers from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (p.174) or epigraphical references (p. 180).

Even though the essays and exhibits have been divided into various topics, each essay stands on its own. Dealing with various topics about horses does not make a coherent book, although the reader gains a quick overview and general understanding of the cultural significance of the horse in ancient Athens. A general bibliography about horses and horsemanship in Greece and Athens from the last decade is found on p. 280, but for specific recommendations for each topic the reader must consult the individual essays. The usual form of an exhibition catalogue would have made this more accessible for further research. Nevertheless, this volume contains an impressive summary of the role of horses in ancient Athens.[1]

Due to the abundance of exhibits and subjects, this review focuses on the first part of the book, “Horse Skeletons,” written by Stella Chrysoulaki and Ioannis Pappas and discusses the new finds and their archaeozoological examination. In the area of the Phaleron Delta, an area 4 km outside the city centre of Athens and close to the coast, almost 2,000 human burials and 15 horse skeletons were discovered.

These horses occupy a large area of the burial ground and were not interred in such a way to save space. Some of them were positioned “with very bent legs, some with slightly bent legs, some with bent and intertwined legs, some with bent front legs and extended back legs, whole in others it is difficult to understand the position of the horse because not enough of its bone survive” (p. 35). The legs were bent carefully to different degrees, which could indicate their gait, either galloping or trotting. The horses were buried without any grave goods. Human burials were located around the horses, but at different layers and without correlation to the horses. Many vases with horse motifs were found from child burials in the cemetery as well, which shows the importance of horses on symbolic levels as well.

Horse burials with similar leg positions from the 6th century have been found over the course of the last twenty years elsewhere in Greece. In the coastal cemetery of Akanthos in Chalkidiki, equine and dog burials have been found, although without any grave goods, which makes them difficult to associate with the human burials. In Sindos, near Thessaloniki, horse burials have been discovered in a variety of positions; some pots were found around the horse and have been associated with a funeral ritual. Equine burials have also been found at Abdera and one on Chios. This leads to the conclusion that the horse burials in Athens are part of this common funerary practice.

The effort of burying these horses indicates that aristocrats showed their admiration for their horses and their (potential) achievements by giving them honourable burials. The way the horses were laid to rest, might emphasize an aspect of a funerary ritual. In ancient Greek iconography, i.e., the Panathenaic Prize Amphoras, individual gaits were carefully depicted to honour and document the riders’ and horses’ accomplishments. These horse burials are located next to human burials rather than being confined to restricted areas. A detailed bibliography is given at the end of the Greek version of this essay (p. 49).[2]

To understand this burial practice further, Flint Dibble summarizes the examination of the horse skeletons (p. 50-55). The leg bones revealed that the horses were quite small, measuring from 1.27 to 1.40 (12.5 hands to 14 hands) at the withers, which would be now classed as ponies. The examination of the teeth indicate that all these horses died at a young age (mostly 5-6 years, the youngest was 3.5 years). On the bones, cuts were visible on the right shoulder blade and the left thigh. These cuts were made after death to position the bodies for burial (p. 50–51), which would confirm the assumption of a funerary burial ritual. The buried horses did not have broken bones which would have been a very serious injury, likely leading to their deaths, and they had “not been ridden or otherwise worked for very long” (p. 52). Therefore, the author suggests that these young horses were sacrificed although they were of great value to the owner.

Jeffrey Banks (p. 261–266) summarizes further zoological evidence, which indicates that horses were sacrificed not in cemeteries, but in sanctuaries in Thasos, Ephesus, Troy, Messene and Kalapodi. But horse flesh was considered as marginal food, at times and places even a cultural taboo. There are literary sources about sacrificing horses by drowning or casting them into a body of water or burning them. The sacrifice of horses were very exceptional occasions because of their high value and utility in Greece (p. 261–263).

But the lack of evidence for trauma or wear on the bones of the Phaleron horses does not necessarily rule out the death of these horses in the context of racing. Horses, as they are today, were used for racing from the age of two. This early start carries the risk of fatal injury mostly due to stomach ulcers, bleeding into the lungs, or ripping of the aorta caused by stress. These and various other factors (like extreme heat in the summertime for example) can cause an early death without leaving any traces on the bones. Analysis of the bones regarding structural properties and overall physical appearance constitutes an indispensable premise for the interpretation of these burials. However, for a more thorough interpretation, analysis of the physical and mental composition of young horses used in competitions is necessary.


Authors and Titles

FOREWORD & Acknowledgements





Jenifer Neils, Where did Greek horses come from?… p. 29

Stella Chrysoulaki, Ioannis Pappas, About Horses at the Phaleron Delta… p. 33

Flint Dibble, What does science tell us about the Phaleron horses?… p. 50




Jenifer Neils, What is the first horse in Athenian art?

Rebecca A. Salem, Why do horses serve as handles on Geometric pyxides?

Will Austin, Peter Thompson, What was the meaning of Horse-Head amphoras?

Anne McCabe, Who was the first Greek to write a book about horses?

Carol C. Mattusch, What Xenophon tell us about horses?

Jenifer Neils, Tack, or what you need to ride a horse

Kevin S. Lee, How were the Athenian youth involved in the hippic culture?

Joe Miller, What were common horse names?

Paul G. Johnston, What humans had names with Hippo-/-ippos in them and what does this mean?

Sarah M. Norvell, Why do early Attic coins have equine imagery?

Elena Walter-Karydi, A Warrior’s departure




Anna Belza, What constitutes an ancient chariot and how was it used?

Emmanuel Aprilakis, Who were the Athenian victors in competitive horse racing?

Jenifer Neils, Some unusual hippic events at the Panathenaia

Jenifer Neils, What was the aprobates race?

Alan Shapiro, After the race: an historic chariot

Olga Palagia, A victorious horse




John McK. Camp, Horses and Athenian Archaeology

Alessandria Migliara, Joseph Miller, What do Attic cavalry inscriptions tell us?

Will Austin, Peter Thompson, What do we know about Athenian archers on horseback?

Amanda Ball, Why do Athenian horsemen wear Thracian dress?

Jenifer Neils, What was the role of the squire?

Jenifer Neils, The cavalry inspection

Olga Palagia, Cavalry battles beyond Dexileos

Olga Palagia, A cavalryman as hero

Mara McNiff, Bronze equestrian statues and the Medici-Ricardi horse head




Erin Lawrence-Roseman, Who was Athena Hippia?

Shannon M. Dunn, Who was Poseidon Hippios?

Shannon M. Dunn, Who was Hippothoon?

Luke Madson, What was the role of the Dioscuri in Athens?

Rush Rem, Did horses perform in Athenian theater?

Rebecca Levitan, Why are horse heads featured on hero reliefs?

Jeffrey Banks, Were horses sacrificed in ancient Greece?

Jenifer Neils, Why do so many horses decorate the Parthenon?

Tyler Jo Smith, Monkey business







[1] The exhibit was accompanied by a website, with high-resolution close-ups of the exhibits such as a 3D model of the 4th century BCE Medici-Riccardi bronze horse head. Lectures associated with the exhibit are also online.

[2] Another introduction to the excavations at Phaleron: S. Chryssoulaki, The excavations at Phaleron cemetery 2012–2017: An introduction. In: Rethinking Athens before Persian Wars: proceedings of the international workship at the Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität München (Munich, 23rd–24th February 2017) (München 2019), 103–114.