Abstract: The Sport of Kings, Queens, Tyrants and Playboys: Equestrian Athletics in Ancient Greece
Lecturer: Carolyn Willekes
The horse has long played a part in human society. From the time of its domestication until the early 20th century horses filled an intrinsic role in the daily lives of cultures all over the world. In the Greek world the horse was a living status symbol owned by the elite who paraded them in processions, rode them in battle and entered them in athletic contests as a way to flaunt their wealth and prestige. Greece is for the most part, not particularly well suited to horse husbandry – hippotrophia. Certainly it was nothing like the plains of Anatolia or the Central Asian steppe. In the Greek peninsula the horse was expensive to breed, raise and maintain, hippotrophia was the prerogative of the elite, something the debt-ridden Strepsiades discovers all too clearly in Aristophanes’ Clouds Hippotrophia has never been a hobby for those with shallow pockets. Despite the inherent ‘eliteness’ associated with it, horse sports and in particular horse racing, have been popular for thousands of years, and the Greek world is no exception.
This lecture will explore the origins and history of equestrian competition in the Greek world, from the ‘big-ticket’ races in the hippodromes of the Pan-Hellenic games to the military contests of the Pan-Athenaia and the unique events of the local festivals. I will then examine the socio-political importance of equestrian athletics as a marker of class distinction. The main point of contention with regards to the equestrian events and their role in Greek sports and society is related to who actually earned the accolades that came with victory. The owners of the horses rarely rode or drove them in competition. The jockeys and drivers appear to have been hired professionals or slaves. I will investigate this issue in the context of the ancient Greek world, but also from the perspective of modern horse sports.
Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:
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Olivova, J. (1989), ‘Chariot Racing in the Ancient World’, Nikephoros, 2, 65-88.