Politismos eMagazine | Native Greek Horses: from Man- & Fish-eaters to Gaiters

Native Greek Horses: from Man- & Fish-eaters, BC, to DMRT3 Gaiters in Modern Times

In an ongoing interdisciplinary collaborative research project of the Aristotle and Texas A&M Universities, ‘mythical’ or prehistoric data from the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC reported by Greek writers, historians and tragedians in classical times are elucidated by a new approach reflecting taming, domestication, zoogeography and evolution of Equus caballus in Greece, from Thrace to the Peloponnese.

Man-eating horses: Myth or Myth-history?

It is our belief that factual events in stories written by ancient writers and painted or sculpted on vases and reliefs by artists were thought to represent unreal or mythical data. Less skeptical minds however, begin to realize that many ‘mythical’ events of the past were simply historical facts to which oral tradition, poets and tragedians had added mythical elements to render them “heroic” or “divine”. A typical example is Homer’s Troy, Mycenae, Pylos, Ithaca and Argos described in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer’s heroes, horses and city-states had been considered unreal, until the pickaxe of archaeologists unearthed Troy, Mycenae and Pylos. As if this weren’t enough, hundreds of Linear B’ tablets describing the number of chariots stored in palaces, and tombs containing the cremains of heroes such as Agamemnon or Nestor, are now the delight of museum visitors.

Examples of fact misinterpreted as myth are also found in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. They both reported the existence of man-eating horses in what we call prehistory. In Aeschylus’ tragedy Glaucus was the first son of Sisyphus, lived in the Boeotian city of Potnies, owned mares, and to render them more aggressive he fed them human flesh. Alas when he took them to Iolkos in Thessaly to take part at the funeral games (probably chariot races) organized by Acastus to honor his father Pelias, the mares turned crazy and devoured him. The reason? Human flesh, the ‘food’ they were accustomed to, wasn’t available in Iolkos. Instead the mares were given local hay. Another Boeotian myth claimed that this was not the reason the mares went crazy; instead, it was Aphrodite who turned angry with Glaucus and punished him because he would not allow his mares to reproduce. Note that Glaucus was worshipped in Corinth as hero: the locals called him Taraxippos (horse terrorizer) and claimed he scared the horses at the Isthmian and the Olympic equestrian events. Jockeys and charioteers used to sacrifice and offer libations to Taraxippos before racing to appease the hero-daemon.

Heracles, a worshipped Pan-Hellenic hero thanks to his twelve athla (labors), was involved in a very interesting myth reported by Euripides, Aelian and Diodorus. The eighth labor of Heracles was to steal the man-eating mares of king Diomedes of Thrace and bring them to Argos. A black-figured kylix c. 510 BC at the Hermitage depicts his bravery much earlier than Euripides. The hero is holding a stallion and at the same time threatens the animal with his club. The horse is trying to escape, and out of his mouth are the remains of a man (Abderos or Diomedes). Well, it seems that horses were meat eaters probably fond of human flesh in the 2nd or 3rd millennium BC. In one version of the myth, Heracles brought along many heroes to help him.

They took the mares but were chased away by Diomedes and his men. Heracles was not aware that the horses, Podagros (the fast), Lampon (the shining), Xanthos (the blond) and Deimos (the terrible), were tethered to a bronze manger because they were crazy and uncontrollable due to their unnatural diet consisting of human flesh.

Heracles left his friend Abderos in charge of the horses while he fought Diomedes, but on his return to the stables he realized Abderos had been eaten by them. In revenge, Heracles fed Diomedes to the mares and then founded the city of Abdera next to the boy’s tomb. This city—where Democritos was born—exists until today in western Thrace. In another version, Heracles stayed awake so that he wouldn’t have his throat cut by Diomedes in his sleep, then cut the chains binding the horses and scared them onto high ground. When king Diomedes returned, Heracles killed him and fed the body to the mares to calm them. Both versions conclude that eating human flesh calmed the horses. Once subdued, Heracles brought them back to King Eurystheus who dedicated the horses to goddess Hera, who allowed them to roam freely around Argos as they were permanently calm. Eurystheus ordered the horses taken to Olympus to be sacrificed to Zeus. Diodorus Siculus writes that when the crazy horses were brought to Eurystheus, he dedicated them to Hera, they roamed freely to Thessaly, and their breed continued down to the reign of Alexander the Great producing the famous Macedonian cavalry horses.

It is tempting to think that if modern horse, cattle or chicken breeders had taken some time to study Greek mythology, they might have prevented zoonoses such as BSE (mad cow), H1N1 and other ailments. Such a postulate may sound exaggerated but it is logical: the crazy mares of Diomedes symbolize nothing more than the fact that ‘savage’ equids (not domesticated) had reached the Greek mainland from central Asia through Thrace, an area joining Asia to Europe. Following the ‘heroic’ labor of Herakles the Thracian mares were tamed (domesticated) and taken by sea or land (moved) to Argos long before the Trojan War. Finally, the horses were dedicated to a female deity and were left to roam freely on the Greek mainland. In Troy we note hundreds of war horses: from Mycenae and Sparta (Agamemnon’s Aethe, Menelaus’ Podargos, Eumelus’ and Diomedes’ chariot mares); from Thessaly (Achilles’ Balios, Xanthos, Pedasus); from Crete (Meriones’ chariot horses); from Thrace (King Rhesus’ chariot mares); and from Troy in Asia Minor (Hector’s mare Podarge). Eons later their descendants reach Macedonia to breed cavalry horses. Ergo: the myths on man-eating horses are symbolic and explanatory at the same time. The primary lesson taught by them is that Man’s hubris of feeding meat to herbivorous animals is a grave insult to mother Nature and will inevitably lead to tragedy and disaster. In a very subtle manner the myth-history of Glaucus’ and Dio­medes’ man-eating horses explains the zoogeography, the movement, the domestication and last but not least, the expansion of Equus caballus on the Greek mainland during the late third or early second millennium BC. Moreover, there is a hard lesson to learn from the Greek tragedies: people have reverted to eating horsemeat for fear of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. I call innocent horses exported or stolen to supply the kitchens of consumers ’from stable to table.’

Fish eating horses: Was Herodotus lying?

In 2004 the pick axes of archaeologists unearthed five horses and two dogs dating to the 7th-4th centuries BC buried in a human cemetery found at Sindos, near Thessaloniki. A zooarchaeological study on these important finds which reflect the Macedonian and Mycenaean habit of burying heroes with their horses and dogs has been published. The preservation of the five horse skeletons was so impressive that prompted the research team to send samples for stable isotope analyses to two laboratories that came up with more or less identical and surprising results, namely, the 13C, 15N values and C/N ratios indicate that ca. 20% of the horses’ feed consisted of proteins of fish origin. As to the fish species Herodotus called papraces and tilones, the labs have gone as far as to identify the species found until today in the Axios and Aliakmon rivers close to Sindos. More analyses are necessary to compare the equine data to those of herbivorous (cattle, capra/ovis) and omnivorous animals (canines, felines) from the same time period and the same region, i.e., the Macedonian plains, however this is part of a future research project due to lack of funds.

Herodotus has been criticized for including “exaggerated stories” in his Historiae, however recent studies by archaeologists, archaeozoologists, geneticists, paleobotanists, and physicists have found elements of truth in his exaggerations. As surprising Herodotus’ statement on fish eating horses may seem, a less skeptical approach should lead modern scholars into considering his text from a new scientific angle.

Firstly, one has to wonder what reason led four ancient writers to mention man or fish eating horses. None of them was known to be a liar. Secondly, why should the perissodaktylon (odd-fingered) Equus need four sizable canine teeth, if it were purely herbivorous, must be answered. Last but not least, we should consider whether Herodotus, an invitee at the Macedonian court at Aegae, just 40 km from Sindos, should refer to “fish eating horses and other pack animals” unless he witnessed or heard from locals that this was a custom. In conclusion, Herodotus does not seem to have recorded myths in speaking of fish eating horses in the plains of Central Macedonia. Just as Homer before him was not referring to a mythical Troy but to a real citadel, Herodotus was seemingly telling a story in his capacity as the father of history—not as a father of lies.

Origins of the Greek horse breeds and the DMRT3 gait mutation

Linear B’ tablets from Knossos dating to the second millennium BC and decoded by Chadwick and Ventris have brought to light two ideograms: a-to-ro-qo (άνθρωπος) and i-qo (ίππος, hence equus). Horse skeletal remains have been unearthed in Archanes-Crete, Dendra-Argos, Nemea-Corinth and Mara­thon-Attica. Linear B’ tablets stating the number of chariot wheels stored in the palaces of Knossos and Pylos date to the 15th-16th c. BC, long before the Trojan War. Zooarchaeologists may debate the origins of ancient horses, however there is data in written sources that may help in suspecting some origins: (a) King Nestor of Pylos, after his war with the Eleans brings 300 xanthes (chestnut) mares-in-foal back home; (b) Agamemnon owns the fast chariot mare Aethe from Sikyon in the Argolid; and offers twelve victorious chariot horses of Argos to Achilles to apease him; (c) Eumelos owns mares bred in Pieria; (d) Hector and Rhesus own chariot horses bred in Thrace and Asia Minor; (e) Meriones owns Cretan horses. As the Trojan War was fought in the mid-13th century BC, i.e., one century after the battle of Qadesh between Ramses and Muawatalli, I don’t see how we can ignore the origins of Greek, Egyptian or Hittite horse breeds. In the archaic, classical and post-Christian eras (680 BC to 241 AD) many vase scenes depict gaiting war horses (Fig. 1); and race or chariot horses at the festivals of Olympia, Pythia, Isthmia and Nemea. Interestingly, all these horses are gaiters thus forcing the postulate that the DMRT3 gait mutation was present in their genome some 2,700 years ago. Also, that this important gait was preferred by riders and drivers for speed in racing and charioteering, and in cavalries consisting of warhorses. In classical and Hellenistic times, Macedonian kings minted coins depicting gaiters: Alexander I the Philhellene, 498-454 BC, who rode to Plataies in 472; Perdikas II, 448-413; Archelaos, 413-399, first Macedonian to win a wreath at Olympia’s tethrippon (quadriga) race in 408; Pausanias, 399; Aeropos, 399-396; and Philip II, 359-336, who won three wreaths at Olympia’s keles, tethrippon and synoris (biga) races (Fig 9-14, respectively). It is also noteworthy that the Thracian Getae and the Skythians of King Ataias, who were defeated by Philip in 339 BC had been riding gaiters since the times Chersonesos was governed by Miltiades in the sixth century BC. In fact, Theopompus and Justin inform us that after defeating the Skythian King Ataias, Philip brought back to Greece 20,000 “well fed” Skythian mares and 20,000 women and children to populate Macedonia. It is postulated that most Macedonian kings may have used gaiters in their cavalry. If one considers that Philip II rode some 25,000 km in his campaigns, and Alexander III more than 45,000 km riding bareback from Pella to Egypt and Pakistan, it would be no surprise to this author that everyone, king or soldier, would prefer to ride gaiters so as to save their gluteus muscles from turning into raw meat.

At the same time period, tribal Thracian Kings in the northwest who fought the neighboring Macedonians sporadically but with little success as they were eventually defeated by Philip II and later by his son Alexander the Great, also rode gaiters. Among them were the Bisaltai, and the Thracian kings Sparadokos and Seuthes in the mid-fourth century BC (Fig. 2-13, respectively).

The preference to use gaiters in cavalries was followed by Alexander’s successors. Coins minted by Eukratidas in the second, and Azes in the first century BC, depict gaiters (Fig. 14). As to Alexander himself, after 329 BC he replaced his exhausted cavalry units with Persian, Parthian, Bactrian and Indian men and horses. His example was naturally followed by several of his Epigonoi (successors) in the Middle East, Asia and Egypt.

In the post-Christian era, King Gondophares (Gr: Ινδοφέρρης) minted coins depicting gaiters. It was he who took over the Kabul, the Punjab and the Sindh regions from king Azes, the Indo-Scythian successor of the two governors Telephos and Hippostratos Alexander had left behind in the third century AD. As to Byzantine kings as Justinian (Fig. 15), saints as Theodoros Tyron and Stratelates (Fig. 16) or laymen, we can only theorize that their gaiters were crosses of Greek to Eurasian breeds. It is interesting that the use of gaited horses was later followed both in the east and the west: many English, French, Swiss, Italian and Μamluk manuscripts of the 14th, Chinese manuscripts of the 15th, and Epirote embroideries of the 17th century AD depict gaiters. It is hard to find sufficient written data in the Dark Ages in Europe or during the rise of the Ottoman, Arab, Mamluk and Mongol chieftains in the east. Pictorial evidence however, may convince scientists that the gait mutation was fixed on horses both in the East and the West. Such gaiters show up in ecclesiastical texts, paintings, textile, carpets, icons and other artifacts. As to which equine breeds gave birth to these gaiters it remains enigmatic. Will aDNA testing tell us? I wonder as there is no sufficient DNA testing done thus far.

The research project of DNA and aDNA testing native Greek horses

A two-year research project (1998-2000) run by the Department of Reproductive Physiology of the College of Agriculture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to define the phenotype of indigenous Greek horse breeds established that five breeds, from Mt. Pindus in Epirus to Mt. Ida in Crete, were gaiters. Their population had declined significantly in the late 20th century due to exports for slaughter, a sad horse reality: in 1950, Greece had ca. 280,000 horses, 170,000 mules and 450.000 donkeys (total, 900,000). In 1980, 105,000, 115,000 and 230,000, respectively (450,000); and in 2000, 34,509, 41,319 and 88,837 (~165,000), respectively. In a hard effort to save Greece’s native horse breeds from extinction the project had registered on a data base 4,000 horses from Epirus to Crete, defined six indigenous breeds, and published its finds in 2000.

Thankfully, the horse genome was mapped successfully a few years later and so did the outstanding find of the DMRT3 mutation on chromosome-23 of the horse. These two major discoveries led to an inter-university, interdisciplinary project led by the Hellenic Association of Traditional Equitation (HASTE) in collaboration with the Aristotle University and the Texas A&M University’s Dept. of Veterinary Integrative Bioscience headed by Prof. E. Gus Cothran. From 2011 to the present, blood and hair samples of 208 native horses have been tested to determine their origins and 186 to detect the presence of the DMRT3 gait mutation.


The next phase of this pioneer project should be running aDNA tests in ancient horse skeletons found in archaeological excavations from Dendra and Nemea in the Peloponnese (16th-15th c. BC) to Sindos, Polykastro and Therme in Central Macedonia (7th-4th c. BC) and analyzed by our team. The ambitious purpose of this future research project is to discern whether the DMRT3 mutation has been fixed on the genome of Greek horses during the last four or five millenia. It is my hope that Poseidon Hippios and Athena Hippia will be favorable to this ambitious project presently suffering from lack of necessary funds.


Acknowledgements: grateful thanks are owed to the 132 owners from Attica, Cephallonia, Crete, Epirus, Macedonia, Nafpaktos, Thessaly, Thrace and the Peloponnese who were kind to help us get blood and hair samples from their native horses. Thanks are also due to Dr. E. Gus Cothran of the Texas A&M University for his Animal Genetics Lab invaluable contribution without which this project would have been a utopia.

Theodore G. Antikas, DVM, PhD is an equine veterinarian, archaeozoologist, professor in anatomy and physiology and author. He has published books and over 250 papers and is a member of editorial boards including the Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine. He has served as head of the Anthropological Research Team (ART), Dept. of History, Aristotle University, Vergina excavation from 2009 to 2015.

Laura K. Wynn is an anthropologist, researcher, museologist and former correspondent for Minerva Magazine. She is currently working on analysis and cataloguing cremated human skeletal remains from the Royal Tombs, Vergina, and from other important sites in the north of Greece.


For the complete article, statistics and resource, as well as updates on the research, visit: www.hippologia.org and www.independent.academia.edu/TheodoreAntikas

25 Jan 2016, by Politismos Museum of Greek History in Historyx