Friday, July 9, 2021

The horse: A perfect gift to a Persian (or Parthian)

"For a nomadic people like the Persians, the horse had a significant practical and symbolic purpose and the importance of horses among the Iranian nobility is evidenced by the fact that many of them bore names compounded with the Old Persian word aspa – ‘horse’, observes Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Edinburgh.  "Several of Darius I’s inscriptions note that Persia was a land containing both good men and good horses (DZe §1; DPd §2) and Herodotus famously states that Persian fathers were intent on teaching their sons ‘to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth’ (1. 136; see also Strabo 15. 3.18). The premium Persian horses were bred in the alfalfa-rich plains of Media, and it was here that the main royal stud farms were located (Polybius 10.70). Most prized of all were those steeds bred on the plains of Nisaea near Ecbatana and Bisitun, and Nisaean horses became celebrated for their magnificence, fine proportions, and swiftness (Herodotus 3. 106, 7. 40; Aristotle, History of Animals 9. 50.30). Nisaea is said to have sustained 160,000 horses (Diodorus 17.110), although stiff competition came from Media and Armenia which were also used for breeding good steeds (Strabo, Geography 11. 13.7; 11. 13.8, 14.9), as were the provinces of Babylonia (where one satrap possessed 800 stallions and 16,000 mares; Herodotus 1. 192), Cilicia (which provided an annual tribute of 360 white horses, Herodotus 3. 90), Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, and lands of the Saka which provided the Empire with its cavalry."

The Persepolis texts tell us that individuals who safeguarded the royal horses and officials serving as Masters of the Horse were paid well and enjoyed a diet of regular meat. Horses symbolized wealth and status and appeared in courtly ideology to model the ideal warrior image. They were also the center of aristocratic pastimes including hunting and racing.

According to Xenophon, the finest present to give a Persian was a horse and horses served as exceptional religious sacrifices.  

"As founder of the Empire, Cyrus II was honored with a horse sacrificed to his soul every month (Arrian, Anabasis 6. 29.7.)," states Llewellyn-Jones. "Moreover, the infamous tale recounted by Herodotus (3.85) of how Darius I acquired his kingdom through a trick involving the neighing of his horse is, in all probability, a Greek misunderstanding of the Iranian practice of hippomancy, or divination through the behavior of horses (see also Ctesias F13 §17), demonstrating the deep-set importance of the horse as a hallowed species in the Iranian consciousness."

Image: Procession of nobles, possibly from Palmyra, Syria, 100-150 CE, limestone, now in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, image courtesy of the museum.

Palmyra was a key center for trade between the Roman and Parthian Empires. This unique relief at the Cleveland Museum of Art has been associated with Palmyra only through stylistic comparisons because its find spot is unknown. 

"It depicts men in Parthian dress riding Arabian horses with bejeweled harness trappings ahead of riders on camels—a possible reference to the caravans that made Palmyra so wealthy. Although all of the riders are dressed and equipped as Parthians, the proportions and perspective of the scene seem to be informed by Greco-Roman conventions. It may depict a ceremonial procession." - Cleveland Museum of Art

The museum defines the horses as Arabians but their body structure is quite stocky, not at all like the Arabian horses of our time. Yet, a 2017 study by evolutionary biologist Barbara Wallner at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna concluded that nearly all modern horse breeds can be traced to two distinct, ancient Middle Eastern lines, the Arabian and the now extinct Turkoman horses from the Eurasian Steppe. Wallner and her colleagues studied variations in a segment of DNA along the Y chromosomes of 52 modern male horses that represented 21 modern breeds then expanded their analysis to include 363 males representing 57 modern breeds.  


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