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Horses of Ancient Rome: A Ride Through History

Last updated: May 2, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

While watching the movie Gladiator, I found myself captivated by the horses used in battle scenes, which sparked my curiosity about the horses of Ancient Rome. As an equestrian enthusiast, I felt compelled to delve deeper into the world of these magnificent creatures that played such a crucial role in Roman society.

My research led me to discover a variety of Roman horse breeds, each with its own unique characteristics and purpose. What was really interesting, though, was learning how these different breeds were specifically chosen for their functions in various aspects of Roman society, including military, agriculture, and entertainment.

Join me as we explore the horses that galloped through the streets and battlefields of Ancient Rome, their various roles in Roman society, and the ingenious battle tactics they were a part of. Together, we’ll gain insight into how these remarkable animals shaped the course of history in one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen.

Ancient Horse Breeds of Rome

Ancient Roman horses were not distinct breeds as we know them today but rather originated from specific geographical areas. The Romans often referred to these horses based on their region of origin, which was usually associated with certain traits and characteristics. The main types of horses in Ancient Rome were the Hispania War Horses, Barb Horses, and Gaulish Horses.

Hispania War Horses

The Hispania war horses were a type of horse that originated from the Iberian Peninsula, which is now modern-day Spain, Portugal, and parts of France. They were a mix of local Iberian breeds and other horses that were brought in by the Romans and were selectively bred to enhance their desirable traits for use in the Roman military.

The modern-day breeds that are believed to be related to the Hispania war horses include the Andalusian, the Lusitano, and the Sorraia. These breeds share many characteristics with the Hispania war horses, including their strong and sturdy build, muscular frame, and agility.

Hispania war horses were prized for their strength, stamina, and endurance, which made them well-suited for use in the Roman military. They were medium-sized horses, typically standing between 14 and 15 hands tall, and were known for their powerful hindquarters and quick reflexes. They were used primarily as cavalry horses but were also used in transportation and agricultural work.

Picture of a barb horse.
Barb Horse

Barb or Berber Horses

Berber or Barb horses are the same breed. The name “Barb” is derived from the Berber people who originally bred and raised these horses in North Africa. The breed is native to the region of North Africa known as Barbary, and they played a significant role in Ancient Rome.

Barb horses were known for their speed, agility, and adaptability to harsh environments, which made them ideal for scouting and light cavalry roles. The Romans highly valued Berber horses for their ability to navigate rough terrain and perform well in long-distance travel.

Barb horses were also well-suited for the desert conditions of North Africa, which were often encountered in Roman military campaigns. The Romans selectively bred these horses to enhance their desirable qualities, creating a distinct type of horse that was perfectly suited for Roman military conquests.

Barb horses were also used as chariot horses in Ancient Rome, particularly in racing events at the Circus Maximus. They were highly prized for their speed and endurance, making them ideal for racing competitions. In fact, chariot racing was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Ancient Rome, and the use of Berber horses played a significant role in its success.

Gaulish or Celtic Horses

Gaulish horses, also known as Celtic horses, originated from the regions of Gaul, which encompassed modern-day France, Belgium, and parts of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. They were smaller in size compared to other breeds, standing at around 13-14 hands tall, but were known for their hardiness and adaptability to various terrains.

These horses were highly valued by the Romans due to their hardy nature and versatility and were used in a variety of roles throughout the Roman Empire. In the military, Gaulish horses were used as both cavalry and draft animals and were highly regarded for their stamina and ability to navigate difficult terrain.

They were used in the transportation of troops and supplies, as well as in reconnaissance and scouting missions. Outside of the military, Gaulish horses were used extensively in agriculture, transportation, and even in entertainment events such as chariot races.

Due to their muscular build and strong endurance, they were ideal for heavy labor tasks such as plowing fields and hauling goods. They were also used in the transportation of people and goods throughout the empire, as well as in the construction of roads and other infrastructure projects.

Mosaic representing horses of ancient rome.
© Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Roles of Horses in Ancient Roman Society

Horses were an integral part of Ancient Roman society, serving a multitude of purposes. Highly valued for their strength, stamina, and versatility, they played crucial roles in the military, agriculture, transportation, and entertainment. Through selective breeding and expert training, the Romans developed various types of horses perfectly suited for their specific tasks.

Horses of the Roman Army

In the military, horses were primarily used as cavalry, with the Hispania war horses and other breeds playing a significant role in Roman conquests. These horses were highly trained for battle, with soldiers riding them into the heat of battle. Horses were also used in chariot racing, which was a popular form of entertainment in Ancient Rome. Teams of horses would pull chariots around a track, with the winner being the team that completed the race first.

Agriculture and Transportation

Outside of the military and entertainment, horses were also used extensively in agriculture and transportation. Horses were commonly used for farm work, pulling plows and carts to help with planting and harvesting. They were also used for freight transport, pulling wagons filled with goods across long distances. For personal transportation, horses were used for riding, with well-bred horses being highly valued for their beauty and speed.

Sports and Entertainment

Finally, horses played a significant role in sports and entertainment in Ancient Rome. Horse racing was a popular event, with races taking place at the Circus Maximus, the largest stadium in Rome. Horses were also used in circus games, where skilled riders would perform various tricks and stunts on horseback. In gladiator contests, horses were used to pull chariots carrying gladiators around the arena, adding to the excitement and spectacle of the event.

Picture of a Roman calvary helmet.
Roman Calvary Combat Helmet: Claire H., CC BY-SA 2.0

Battle Tactics Involving Horses

Horses were critical to Ancient Roman warfare, with cavalry units forming a significant part of the Roman army. Highly organized cavalry units consisted of both auxiliary and citizen cavalry. Roman military strategies involving horses included various tactics, such as skirmishing tactics, shock tactics, and combined arms tactics, to achieve success in battle.

The auxiliary cavalry consisted of non-Roman soldiers who were highly skilled riders and were used to support the Roman citizen cavalry in battle. These soldiers were granted Roman citizenship after serving a certain number of years in the military. The Roman citizen cavalry was made up of Roman citizens who were wealthy enough to own a horse and provide their own equipment.

The Romans employed various military strategies involving horses, including skirmishing tactics, shock tactics, and combined arms tactics. Skirmishing tactics involved sending small groups of cavalry to harass and disrupt enemy formations, while shock tactics involved charging the enemy line with a larger group of cavalry. Combined arms tactics involved coordinating the use of cavalry with other military units, such as infantry and archers.

Several notable battles in Ancient Rome highlighted the critical role that horses played in warfare. The Battle of Cannae, for example, was a decisive battle in the Second Punic War where Hannibal of Carthage employed a double envelopment strategy, encircling and annihilating the Roman army. The Battle of Cannae is an example of the significant role that cavalry played in the outcome of a battle.

In the Battle of Zama, Roman cavalry, led by Scipio Africanus, played a crucial role in defeating Hannibal’s army. The Romans employed a combination of shock and skirmishing tactics, which helped them to gain the upper hand in the battle.

The Battle of Adrianople was a significant battle in which the Roman army suffered a crushing defeat against the Goths. This battle demonstrated the importance of horses in warfare, with the Roman cavalry playing a significant role in the initial stages of the battle.

The Romans organized their cavalry units in a highly structured manner, employing various military strategies involving horses to achieve success in battle. The role of horses in Ancient Roman warfare cannot be overstated, with notable battles such as Cannae, Zama, and Adrianople highlighting their importance in shaping the course of history.

ancient rome horses edited

Horse Domestication

The domestication of horses during Ancient Rome was a significant event in human history. It allowed humans to harness the strength and speed of these majestic animals for various purposes. It is believed that horses were first domesticated by nomadic tribes in the area that is now Kazakhstan around 3500 BC. From there, the use of horses in transportation and warfare spread to other parts of the world.

During Ancient Rome, horses were selectively bred for specific purposes. The breeding process involved carefully choosing two horses with desirable traits and characteristics to produce offspring with those same traits. This selective breeding resulted in various breeds of horses, each with unique physical characteristics and purposes.

The Romans used their horses for transportation, farming, and warfare. Horses were used to pull plows and other agricultural equipment, as well as for transportation of goods and people. In warfare, horses were employed in cavalry units, providing speed, mobility, and power on the battlefield.

The domestication of horses during Ancient Rome revolutionized human society and paved the way for modern transportation, agriculture, and warfare. Without the domestication of horses, the development of these aspects of human society may have progressed at a much slower pace.

Conclusion: Horses of Ancient Rome

Horses of Ancient Rome were integral to the success of the Roman Empire. From their use in battle to transportation, agriculture, and entertainment, horses helped shape Roman society. Their successful use of cavalry units and military strategies involving horses contributed to the rise of the Roman Empire and the development of modern horse breeds.

Studying the horses of Ancient Rome provides a fascinating insight into the world of equestrianism in ancient times. Horses’ strength, beauty, and versatility were valued then as they are now, and their impact on history is undeniable. By examining the roles of horses in Ancient Rome, we gain a deeper appreciation for the human-animal bond and the historical significance of the horse.