Thursday, March 27, 2014


Stavros Lazaris (ed.), Le cheval dans les sociétés antiques et médiévales: actes des journées d'étude internationales organisées par l'UMR 7044 (Étude des Civilisations de l'Antiquité), Strasbourg, 6-7 novembre 2009. Bibliothèque de l'antiquité tardive, 22. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2012. Pp. 309. ISBN 9782503544403. €90.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Philip Rance, Koç University RCAC (

Version at BMCR home site


Sociocultural histories of 'the horse' typically feature a large but variable cast of equine characters, ranging from the undistinguished draught or packhorse, through the post-horse, hunter, lady's palfrey, knight's steed and racing thoroughbred, to a creature of the imagination, evoking complex responses and symbolism, and emblematic of aristocratic culture and identity. This volume is the outcome of a 2007-9 research programme based at the University of Strasbourg and coordinated by Stavros Lazaris, with the principal objective of re-evaluating the place and significance of horses in late antiquity and Byzantium. The project culminated in an international symposium (November 2009), which extended the investigation to encompass corresponding studies in classical antiquity and the western Middle Ages.

Lazaris' thoughtful preliminary essay, though conceived within the project's original late antique/Byzantine horizons, identifies three unifying strands of research: equestrian technology, stock-breeding and hippiatric science. He accentuates their shared characteristics as ways of acquiring equine and equestrian knowledge, overcoming or compensating for natural vulnerabilities, and optimising performance and value; in effect, different mechanisms whereby man sought to master nature. Readers may disagree on points of detail, but Lazaris formulates a coherent and genuinely introductory introduction, an increasing rarity in the publication of conference proceedings. Underpinning this thematic signposting is a judicious selection of contributors and topics, which makes this a more-than-usually satisfying collection of papers (12 French, 1 German, 1 English).

Étienne pursues several lines of enquiry concerning warhorses and racehorses in ancient Greece, arising from three tabulations of data assembled in previous studies. The first examines regional distributions of breeds (loosely defined), inferring shortcomings in stock-breeding for warfare and a prominence of racing breeds reflective of sociocultural phenomena peculiar to Greece. Second, analysis of the provenance of Olympic equestrian victors discerns patterns explicable by political (rather than equine) considerations and charts the increasing parochialism and ultimate desuetude of such contests. Third, a collection of numerical references to cavalry forces from the sixth to second centuries BC, alongside modern comparanda, permits consideration of state expenditure and procurement.

Furet investigates the institutional evolution and operational roles of Roman cavalry during the Republic, with a view to tracing the emergence of a mounted force, gradual specialisation of its equipment and changes in its tactical utilisation. Conceding interpretive limitations, she treats equites in a strictly military sense, divorced from political and socioeconomic contexts, though clearly status and wealth were determinants of martial ethos, combat roles, equitation and weaponry beyond utilitarian considerations.1 The enquiry mostly follows well-beaten paths, and some might question whether sources for the early Republic can sustain the weight placed on them, but Furet usefully reprises points of scholarly contention and, by emphasising multiple functions and capabilities, offers a more positive appraisal of the Republic's cavalry.

Matter explores commercial and administrative aspects of horses used in ludi circenses throughout the Roman empire, from the late Republic to fifth century, as documented in literary, legal, epigraphic and papyrological sources, and contextualised using abundant representational evidence, notably inscribed mosaics. He investigates regional origins and breeding of racehorses, their supply, trade and prices, and fate upon retirement, persuasively delineating elements of a veritable 'industrie' of far-reaching economic and social significance.

Chauvot examines the utilisation of Roman cavalry as reported in surviving sections of Ammianus' Res gestae. Dividing his assessment geographically between Europe and Oriens, he discerns regional variations. Vegetius' Epitoma is cited as theoretical comparanda, but remains of uncertain value. This is again well-trodden ground, but Chauvot nuances readings of certain passages and addresses interpretative difficulties arising from Ammianus' objectivity and artistry, seeking to locate his frequently negative judgements of cavalry's performance within a literary strategy for praising or deprecating individual emperors as military commanders.

Kolias' short but rich survey of horses in Byzantine society touches upon transportation, communications, warfare, sport, ceremony and veterinary science, including breeding and supply. He also treats the status and symbolism of horses and equestrianism in aristocratic and imperial culture, popular belief and diplomatic gift-giving. The contribution is most instructive as a selective introduction to equine-related information found in diverse (especially Middle) Byzantine sources.

In a classic exercise in histoire des mentalités, Georges Bischoff explores assumptions and codes of chivalric imagination inherent in interrelationships between the knight, his lady and his steed, a triad whose archetype is sacralized in the damsel-rescuing figure of St. George. Bischoff shows that parallel feminine/equine attributes of beauty, lineage, nobility and (ultimately) submission, as portrayed in later medieval literature and art, remained surprisingly resilient to subversion or parody.

Fest's enquiry into myths and realities of la chevalière, a broadly construed category of women who reportedly assumed combatant roles, follows recent attempts in medieval studies to release women from a narrow, marginalizing cultural framework by emphasising their power and participation. Fest investigates contemporary perceptions and representations of such figures, and examines some historical examples, typically brief episodes motivated by exceptional circumstances, as well as female involvement in chivalric orders.

Despite the almost over-familiar prominence of horses in the iconography of the knightly class, the practicalities of equine management and commerce remain understudied. Schwien and Jeannin scrutinise stock-breeding, trade, stabling, tack and farriery in the later Middle Ages, focusing on eastern France and England. They assemble an impressive array of evidence, principally archaeological – structural, artefactual, osteological – analysed in light of pictorial, sculptural, literary and documentary sources, together with selected later comparanda. The implications of their study exceed its chronological and geographical parameters.

Ivanišević and Bugarski provide the first of two papers on equestrian finds from Cariçin Grad (I thank the authors for graciously allowing me to read their paper prior to publication). This important study presents a recently discovered (2002) Byzantine stirrup, dated by context and coin finds to the late sixth/early seventh centuries, the second such item from this site and an exceptionally rare find empire-wide for this period.2 They affirm that these are 'véritables étriers', contrary to an earlier characterisation of the first-discovered specimen as a 'Fußstütze'. They consider typological features in the context of finds within the Avar khaganate and across Central Asia, though uncertainties of chronology and interpretation hamper definitive conclusions.3 They suggest that the Cariçin Grad stirrups may represent either Byzantine experimentation in the design of an Avar-inspired practice or, more controversially, interaction with an alternative steppe martial culture(s), conceding that such contact has (so far) left no other archaeological or artistic trace. The authors are justifiably cautious in approaching this intricate subject.4 Finally, they reappraise three stirrups from Rujkovac, Serbia, which must be dated to the tenth century and excluded from future discussion of early Byzantine stirrups.

Bavant locates 36 fragments of (at least 21) horse-bits from Cariçin Grad within the chronology of horse-bits from Germanic cemeteries and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Cariçin Grad sample, unusual for its number and urban context, furnishes a rare Byzantine and non-funerary perspective. Its typological distribution illuminates the development of horse-bits in the early Byzantine Balkans, providing a more nuanced scenario of continuities and changes inspired by both external influences and indigenous innovations.

By far the longest contribution is Kraft's detailed study of Latin scala, 'step', as a term for 'stirrup', first securely attested as σκάλα in Maurice's Strategikon. Kraft examines the emergence and long-term development of this usage in Greek, drawing substantially on earlier scholarship (Mihăescu, Lazaris) and reprising the, in my view unpersuasive, contention that this meaning should also be discerned in fifth-century Hesychius (Lex. σ 806). He charts derivatives in Balkan Romance (Rumanian languages/dialects) and Albanian, in contrast to the silence of western Latin sources and the complete absence of correspondents in Western and Italo-Romance, in which Germanic-derived terms predominate. Contrary to scholarly consensus, Kraft contends that stirrups were known to and used by the Roman army before the fall of the western empire, apparently made of archaeologically untraceable materials (and, presumably, omitted from contemporary representations of horsemen). To this end he engages in sustained special pleading to account for the non-existence of etymological or textual testimony and to make the existing evidence fit (or at least permit) his preconceived hypothesis. The motivation for this endeavour appears to be his assumption that the occurrence of σκάλα in the Strategikon implies prior usage 'im Lateinischen', itself an unexceptionable inference, but which for Kraft seems necessarily to entail Latin-speakers in the western empire (161). Still less easy to follow is a parallel line of reasoning that the attestation of scala = 'stirrup' exclusively in Greek, Balkan Romance and Albanian indicates its currency 'im spätantiken Latein … schon vor dem Zusammenbruch des weströmischen Reiches und seiner Armee' (163). On the contrary, this pattern of documentation points to a later terminological coinage within the Latin-based Heeressprache of the East Roman army, whereby scala was applied to a newly adopted equestrian device, and thence passed into Vulgar Latin of the Balkans.5 Within the context of the evolution and diffusion of the professional jargon of the East Roman army, this scenario is less remarkable than Kraft's etymological odyssey seems to appreciate, and even if evidence for the usage scala = 'stirrup' were to be found in Italo-Romance, this would be consistent with its subsequent introduction into Italy by East Roman/Byzantine armies, as exemplified by other Late Latin termini technici in this semantic sphere (e.g. bandum, punga, roga, sculca).6 Nevertheless, Kraft's lexical survey yields new insights into late medieval/early modern Latin, while his catalogue of terms for stirrup in European, North African and Asian languages enhances the interdisciplinary potential of the volume.

Kazanski briefly surveys the archaeological data for weaponry, equestrian equipment and fighting techniques of nomadic peoples of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, from Huns to Avars, concentrating on the former, but discerning heightened capabilities in close-quarter fighting among the Avars from the 560s. This contribution most usefully digests recent Russian scholarship for non-Russian readers.

Vanderheyde examines the representation of equestrian equipment and ornamentation in Byzantine depictions of warrior saints from the fifth/sixth to fourteenth/fifteenth centuries. A richly caparisoned mount became an important component of the portrayal of these soldiers of Christ, whose imagery assimilated the iconography of imperial triumph. The chronological range reveals unexpected fluidity in iconographic types, including regional variations, notably in Cappadocia, reflective of local military identities, and external artistic influences, especially from western crusaders.

Doyen-Higuet provides a necessarily technical but erudite lexical study of Greek hippological-hippiatric literature from the fourth century BC to fifth/sixth century AD. Remarking on the abundance and precision of vocabulary for equine qualities and defects, she observes, in contrast, a lower degree of specificity in terms relating to external anatomy, with the exception of the foot, whose intricate terminology she explores and clarifies.

The production quality of the volume is high. Typographical errors are negligible, though some English abstracts (if one has gone to the trouble of providing them) would have benefited from a glance by a native speaker. The appended illustrations and diagrams will be a valuable resource for future research, while the thematic and cultural range of the contributions offers something of interest to a diverse readership beyond hippomaniacs.


1.   E.g. J.B. McCall, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic (London 2002), curiously not cited.
2.   Another 'stirrup' from Rupkite (Bulgaria), noted by the authors, has since turned out to have been misidentified: F. Curta, 'Horsemen in Forts or Peasants in Villages?' in A. Sarantis and N. Christie (edd.), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity (Leiden 2013) 809-50 at 818, who also re-classifies two other specimens from Bulgaria as sixth/seventh-century Byzantine.
3.   The hunting scene on the sarcophagus of Yu Hong, adduced as evidence for 'un cavalier turc qui monte sans étrier' (137), depicts not a horse but a camel.
4.   Curta (n. 2) 816, 818 now brings into the debate a stirrup from Pergamon, though its date and/or relevance remain undetermined.
5.   For the Latin-based argot of the East Roman army see bibliography in P. Rance, 'The De Militari Scientia or Müller Fragment as a philological resource. Latin in the East Roman army and two new loanwords in Greek: palmarium and * recala', Glotta 86 (2010) 63-92.
6.   See relevant case studies in J. Kramer, Von Papyrologie zur Romanistik (Berlin 2011); P. Rance, 'Sculca, * sculcator, exculcator and proculcator', Latomus 73 (2014).

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