Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Royal Nisean Horse of Ancient Persia

The horse was a favorite artistic subject in ancient Iran, where horsebreeding flourished. This muscular Sasanian stallion was descended from the royal and sacred Nisean breed of the Achaemenian Persians. Although now extinct, Nisean horses were highly sought after in the ancient world. The ancient Greeks called him the Nisean after the town Nisa, where he was bred but the Chinese called him the Tien Ma – Heavenly Horse or Soulon-Vegetarian dragon. The horse came in a variety of colors including the more common dark bay, chesnut and seal brown but also the more rare black, roan, palomino, and various spotted patterns. The royal Nisean was the mount of the nobility in ancient Persia. Two gray Nisean stallions pulled the King of Kings’ royal chariot, while four of the regal animals pulled the chariot of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Persia and Medea. Cyrus the Great was so distraught when one of his stallions was drowned while crossing a river, he had the river where the horse was drowned drained. He did not believe that anything could kill a horse so beautiful.
The Greeks (mainly, the Spartans) imported Nisean horses and bred them to their native stock. The Romans had their first encounter with the Nisean and the Parthian cataphract at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae. Later, when Marc Antony avenged Marcus Licinius Crassus and his legions lost at Carrhae by ravaging Armenia, his plunder included the first Nisean horses in Rome. Later, when Antony died in Egypt, Augustus seized the horses. The Nisean became extinct with the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.
Although Sasanian horse-trappings were elaborate, they did not include stirrups for mounting. In this rendition, the steed lies still, as camels in the Near East do today, waiting for its rider to mount. The medallions on each shoulder contain busts, perhaps of rulers of different parts of the Sasanian Empire, holding their rings of authority. Images courtesy of the museum.

Silver Sasanian Horse-Shaped Drinking Vessel 200-325 CE at the Cleveland Art Museum in Cleveland, Ohio

Silver Sasanian Horse-Shaped Drinking Vessel 200-325 CE at the Cleveland Art Museum in Cleveland, Ohio

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