Xenophon on Horses
Keywords:animals, Greek history, Athens, Greece
Based on Xenophon’s writings on horses, the paper begins with a partial account of his life prior to his decision to join Cyrus, and continues by outlining his attitude to horses, animals with whom he lived in close contact.
Except for the period spent campaigning with Cyrus’ Greek mercenaries (401–400 BC), the life of Xenophon remains largely unknown, raising a number of still unanswered questions. While the final answers are probably going to remain obscure, it may be surmised – on the basis of his horse writings as well – that the author came from an affluent family. As an Athenian of substance, he would have been classified as a knight, and since the representatives of this class fought in the Athenian cavalry, it was this combat arm to which he would have belonged. There is no hard and fast evidence that he took an active part in the last years of the Peloponnesian War. However, his fairly detailed account of the Athenian developments following the peace treaty suggests that Xenophon remained in the city during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, when many residents were obliged to leave, and, as a cavalry mem- ber, actively supported the regime to the end.
In fact, Xenophon’s presentation of the contemporary events highlights the cavalry’s role to the extent that it appears to have played a crucial part in defending the city and regime. But despite the cavalry’s support of the Thirty, its members do not seem to have flocked out of Athens in the uncertain conditions which followed the fall of the Thirty and the restoration of democracy. Thus Xenophon’s decision to join Cyrus the Younger’s expedition may have been influenced not by his recent support of the Thirty alone, but also by reasons unknown today. While there is no solid proof of his closer association with horses prior to Cyrus’ expedition, Xenophon’s writing in the Anabasis leaves no doubt that he spent at least the greater part of the campaign on horseback. The horses not only eased his difficult journey but helped him stay alive. Of this he was well aware: as he admonishes horse owners in his work On Horsemanship, the master entrusts his life to the horse in times of danger, and the one who neglects his horse practically neglects himself.
Xenophon’s chequered and adventurous life brought him in close contact with horses, affording him a wealth of personal experience and knowledge of these animals. His writings, On Horsemanship in particular, are thus a mine of information on their breeding, grooming, training, feeding and general treatment, as well as on what can be expected of them when they are suitably groomed and treated. While this paper omits a detailed account of Xenophon’s advice on horse treatment, it does examine more closely those instructions which reflect most clearly the author’s attitude to the noble animals.
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