June 25, 2024

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Ancient Greece – The Role Of Donkeys, Mules And Horses

Both the donkey and the mule were certainly known and used in antiquity. Mules were employed both for riding and for drawing carts; from 500 B.C. on there were actually mule-cart races in the Olympic games, and one of Pindar’s odes celebrates such a victory (Olympian 6, 468 B.C.). Yet what must have been a somewhat undignified event did not maintain its popularity, and it was abandoned in 444 B.C.

One old Athenian mule, who worked long and hard on the construction of the Parthenon, is said by Aelian to have been fed at public expense in the town hall (prytaneion) for the remainder of its life. Donkeys, as today, were used primarily for riding and as beasts of burden. Often associated with the god Dionysos and his rowdy, drunken followers, they are readily identified on painted pots by their characteristic long ears and evidence of sexual arousal. Remains of a donkey were found in the kitchen of a house, a victim of the destruction of Athens by the Herulians in A.D. 267.

Ancient Athenian literature is full of references to the horse, which played a significant role in Athenian social, political, and military life. Athenian sculptors, painters, and potters found horses a popular subject from the beginnings of Greek art to the end of antiquity. The excavation of cavalry archives and victory monuments, as well as the roadway used for processions and the training of horses, has shown that the Agora, focus of so much of Athenian life, was also for centuries the center of equestrian activity in the ancient city.