Roman horse - copyright Ben Blackall

Image of the horse in the Roman world

The beauty and strength of the horse was celebrated in Roman art and culture. Whether as a winged beast, a straining charger or hitched to a speeding chariot, representations of the horse were naturalistic, dynamic and powerful. They were imagined as creatures from mythology, as beasts of burden and as the mounts for fearsome soldiers.

Symbols of virtue and wealth

Horses were vital to daily Roman life, as a means of transport and a source of power. They also had particular cultural and financial value.

Ownership of a horse signified your prestige and wealth. To ably train and ride a horse demonstrated your courage, self-control and mastery of the wild. These were all virtues prized by Romans.

3D Conquest stone

The conquest stones were used as Roman propaganda. This one found at Stanwix depicts a Roman Calvary man riding over the body of a defeated native Briton. Take a closer a look by clicking the image to zoom in:

Chariot racing

Horses were prized for chariot racing, a popular sport throughout the empire. Thousands of spectators attended the racing track – the circus, to support one of four teams. Success could bring immense fame to both charioteers and horses.

Equine decoration

In the Roman Empire, items were often highly decorated. Pottery had moulded patterns, brooches were enamelled and gilded, and furniture was finished with decorative studs.

The horse, so dominant in society, was one of the most frequently depicted motifs on Roman artefacts. The horse can be found on public art and household items, on everything from coins to tableware, tombstones to jewellery.

Fantastic beasts and where to view them

Horses were part of the mythology and ritual integral to Roman traditions. In many instances the horse is portrayed as the willing steed for different gods.

Horses could be mythical hybrid beasts. By combining the horse with other creatures, these imagine beasts could roam the sea and air. For example:

  • The hippocamp mixed the head and foreparts of a horse with the tail of a fish. A hippocamp was supposed to pull the sea god Neptune’s chariot across the surface of the sea.
  • Pegasus was one of a number of winged horses with divine origins and supernatural speed. He emerged from the cut neck of the Medusa.

Winged beasts were linked to military heroism. As a symbol of immortality they are also found on funerary artefacts.

Victor says...

Cartoon of Victor the cavalryman, with a spear, riding over an enemy"When cavalry soldiers die, their tombstones are sculpted to show them with their horse looking powerful and fearsome."

Discover more

Uncover more about Rome's elite horsemen in our Hadrian's Cavalry section.

 

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