Athens Greece Horses and Social Status

Since earliest times all over the Mediterranean, the horse has been a symbol of prestige, wealth, and status. Social rank has often been defined in terms of one’s ability to own and maintain a horse: the hippeis in Greece, the equites in Rome, or the chevaliers of Medieval Europe. The word in English, “knights,” carries the same meaning.

In the Agora the earliest evidence for the association of horsemanship and high social status is found in the burials of the Iron Age cemetery which underlies the later civic center. The first is a tomb of the 9th century B.C., with rich grave goods in the form of pottery and an iron sword-in a period when such metal was still rare. The burial was a cremation, and found among the ashes of the pyre and the urn for the bones were two iron snaffle bits from the bridle of a horse.

In the 8th century B.C. many of the graves contained elaborately painted cosmetic boxes (pyxides) bearing lids with handles in the form of one to four horses. In Athenian society of the early 6th century B.C., the second-highest property classification was a group known as the knights (hippeis). Thus it now seems clear from the grave goods in these early burials that our recognition of the horse as a token of high social and political status should be pushed back several centuries, to the 9th or 8th century B.C.

Throughout the 6th century B.C. Athens was ruled by several large aristocratic families who took pride in their nobility. One expression of that pride was the association of one’s name with horses, and several prominent Athenians had names starting or ending with the word hippos. Perhaps the earliest example is Hippothoon, one of the ten eponymous heroes of Athens and the son of Poseidon. The two sons of the tyrant Peisistratos were named Hippias and Hipparchos, and the father of Perikles himself bore the name Xanthippos.

These old aristocratic families do not disappear with the advent of democracy at the end of the 6th century, and the association with horses in Athenian nomenclature continues well into the Classical period. There are literally hundreds of late examples of equine names. In his play The Clouds (423 B. C.), Aristophanes clearly and specifically addresses the deliberate use of some form of the word for horse in a personal name as an indicator of aristocratic pretensions and breeding. He paints thereby a telling picture of the tensions between aristocrat and commoner in democratic Athens. Strepsiades opens the play with a discussion of his marriage and the birth of his son, Pheidippides:

Curses on the go-between who made me marry your mother! I lived so happily in the country, a commonplace, everyday life, but a good and easy one-had not a trouble, not a care, was rich in bees, in sheep, and in olives. Then indeed I had to marry the niece of Megakles, the son of Megakles; I belonged to the country, she was from the town; she was a haughty, extravagant woman, a true Coesyra. On the nuptial day, when I lay beside her, I was reeking with the dregs of the wine-cup, of cheese, and of wool; she was redolent with essences, saffron, voluptuous kisses, the love of spending, of good cheer and wanton delights.

Later, when we had this boy, what was to be his name? It was the cause of much quarreling with my loving wife. She insisted on having some reference to a horse in his name, that he should be called Xanthippos, Charippos, or Kallippides. I wanted to name him Philonides after his grandfather. We disputed long and finally agreed on Pheidippides…. She used to fondle and coax him, saying, “Oh, what a joy it will be to me when you have grown up, to see you in your chariot driving your steeds toward the town.” And I would say to him, “When like your father, you will go, dressed in a skin, to fetch back your goats from Phelleus.” Alas! He never listened to me and his madness for horses has shattered my fortune.

This same class distinction, actually defined by horses, is found in a speech of Lysias. The defendant, claiming a cripple’s pension, must show that his use of a borrowed horse is necessary and not an expression of wealth or a claim to prestige: But the strongest proof, gentlemen, of the fact that I mount horses because of my misfortune and not from insolence, as this man alleges, is this: if I were a man of means, I should ride on a saddled mule, and would not mount other men’s horses. But in fact, as I am unable to acquire anything of the sort, I am compelled, now and again, to use other men’s horses.