The Nisean Warhorse in History
IV. The Persians (550- 330 B.C.)
After the death of Cyaxares II, his son Astyages (Arshtivaiga - lance hurler) came to the throne of the Medes. He ruled from 585 to 550. A series of dreams about his daughter Mandan led him to marry her off to a minor vassal king named Cambyses I. Mandan's son Cyrus (soon to be the Great) escaped his grandfather's attempts to murder him and succeeded in uniting all the Persian tribes in a revolt against Medean rule. From Anshan, his first kingdom, he looted Ecbatana and made Medea a Persian satrapy. But instead of treating the Medes as inferiors, Cyrus welcomed them as equals, and, as absolute rulers go, he was one of the best. He even made Ecbatana the seat of his treasury. From the start he was not content to rule Persia and Medea. Parthia and Sogdiana were quickly incorporated into the Empire, which also included the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Although dry now, the land was greener back them, and irrigation projects were begun by Cyrus to make the land even greener. To accommodate his army and merchants, he built seven forts along the southern banks of the Jaxartes, each a day's ride from the other to protect his newly captured territory and the foremost breeding grounds of his imperial horses. One of the constant enemies of Persia, which might be recognized by Akhal-Teke fans, was the Turans. Scythian art from Siberia indicates that Akhal-Teke horses may have been in development at this time, although the depicted heads were not as fine as they are now. As with the Medes, there were many different types of horses within the Empire, but the royal Nisean was the mount of the nobility. Well-bred Persian boys were taught to ride at six, and it was said that no nobleman allowed himself to be seen on foot in public.
Two white Nisean stallions pulled the shah's royal chariot, while four of the regal animals pulled the chariot of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Persia and Medea. Silver coins from the days of Cyrus show him hunting lions from horseback using a spear. It is safe to assume that courage and manageability were more important than color on these occasions, and without the stirrup, Cyrus also needed a smooth riding horse. The great horses of Central Asia were legendary for their gaits as well as their looks. Elwyn Hartley Edwards in his book The New Encyclopedia of the Horse called the Nisean the super horse of the ancient world, and it was certainly that. Although some Scythian bands lived peacefully within the Persian Empire, there were those who refused to give up their nomadic ways. One tribe, the Massagatae, led by Queen Tomyris came into conflict with Cyrus in 530 B.C. In a move reminiscent of Cyaxares II, the king prepared a banquet and then allowed the Massagatae chieftains to take part. When the leaders became drunk, Cyrus captured them; one of the men was the son of Queen Tomyris. Instead of surrendering, the enraged queen extracted a terrible revenge on Cyrus. When news of his death reached Cambyses II in Babylon he rode north to retrieve his father's body and then placed it in an elaborate tomb, which was guarded by the Magi. Every month the Magi sacrificed a horse to Cyrus's spirit. This was the highest honor for a man who once drained a river dry for drowning one of his sacred horses.
Upon assuming the throne of Persia, Cambyses II married two of his sisters, Atoms and Rushnak, and set about conquering Egypt. This he accomplished in 525 B.C. when he captured Psammenitus III at Memphis. He wanted to continue on to Carthage, but the Phoenicians would not help him. He died shortly afterwards when he leaped into his saddle and stabbed himself with his own sword. The Nisean did not have any lasting effect on the horses of North Africa at this time, although there were reports of spotted as well as painted Arabians in antiquity. But with the conquest of Egypt, any quality horses surviving from the days of Ramses the Great were taken back to Persia as war prizes. Greek merchants traded in horseflesh, but any horses that they took to Egypt would have come from one of their colonies in Spain. The Greeks were quite clear on their preference for the superior Spanish horses-the same horses the Phoenicians took to Spain a thousand years earlier. But this falls under the history of the Arabian horse. Cambyses' death created chaos within the Persian Empire, and a number of satrapies proclaimed their independence. Scythian nomads rode in from the steppes and practiced the ancient art of looting and horse raiding. (They preferred golden chestnuts and golden bays, and some of their tombs contain the remains of these stolen horses). For a while it appeared that Persia would collapse completely, but in a legend told by Herodotus, the son of the governor of Parthia, a man by the name of Darius used a ruse to assume to the throne of Persia. With several contenders beside him, he rode into the capital of Susa. His stallion neighed first and he won the title of Great King. What the contenders did not know was that Darius' groom had allowed the stallion to visit his favorite mare just inside the gates that they had ridden through. Remembering the mare, the stallion had called to her. Darius had a memorial to both his groom and horse carved into the cliffs to commemorate the occasion.
Once on the throne, Darius set about reconquering the lands that had been lost after Cambyses' death. It was even reported that some time during his reign he made the Massagatae pay for killing Cyrus. Darius, proclaiming to be good at everything, he also had it carved on his tomb that he was a good horseman. During his reign, Nisean horses were bred from Armenia to Sogdiana, which ended in the Davan Valley-Ferghana. He even claimed to rule the nomads beyond the Davan Valley although this appears to be a shaky claim at best. During his attempted invasion of Greece, Sogdian horsemen contributed to the make up of his cavalry. Finding Susa a less than desirable capital, Darius built Persepolis and left behind one of the greatest ruins of all time. Tribute from all the regions of the Empire made its way to Persepolis and on to the walls of his castle. Nisean horses, finely carved in great detail, still walk proudly through the centuries, along with Scythian horses, coarser and with less detail behind them. The tribute included pasture from the Saka Tigrakhauda for 50,000 Nisean horses. Armenia and Pactyica were required to send 20,000 Nisean foals to Persepolis for the New Year's Mithra Feast. The city of Babylon had to provide feed for 800 stallions and 16,000 mares as well as additional food for his Indian dogs (a type of mastiff). Darius attempted an invasion of Asia Minor and Greece but was not successful. Scythians living along his route practiced a scorched earth policy that left little or no feed for his animals. Unnerved by their behavior, and perhaps remembering the fate of Cyrus the Great, he gave up his invasion attempt but left behind a small number of ships, which were later driven off the Greece coast by the Athenians at Marathon. Although the story is much loved by the Greeks and modern marathon runners, it really was much to do about nothing.
Darius' successor Xerxes had better luck and even incorporated a Scythian cavalry into his army, along with horsemen from Bactria, Sogdiana, Parthia and Armenia. This time the drive made it into the heartland of Greece where a combined Greek army waited for them at a place called Plataea (flat earth). General Mardonius on a white stallion led the troops and faced the Spartans under the leadership of Pausanius, the nephew of Leonidas who had died trying to keep the Persians out at Thermopylae. The events of the battle can be found in detail in Herodotus' Histories, but everyone probably knows already that the Greeks won. General Mardonius, described as a splendid figure on his beautiful stallion, was killed when his horse fell and he was pinned beneath it. Of the Persian cavalry units that fought at Plataea (the Greeks didn't use any), the Scythians were described as the bravest.
The outcome of the battle was interesting. The Spartans weren't allowed to keep any of the treasures left behind, money and wealth were forbidden to them, but they were allowed a share of the livestock. In fact, Pausanius and his cousin were allowed ten of every living thing left behind, with the prince having first pick. There is no record of what Pausanius did with the camels, perhaps dedicated them to the temple of Apollo or something, but he did take the ten best horses left behind, as did his cousin. And every man after him took what was considered his share. Although not known for importing animals the way the Athenians did, the Spartans were dedicated racehorse breeders. The Olympic records show that Spartans won more Olympics after this battle than they had in all the time before it. Roman reports indicate that the imperial Persian horse, the Nisean, was faster than anything they were importing out of Spain. Spartan horses received a very valuable dose of Persian blood after Plataea, so much so that a Spartan princess many years later had the honor of being the first woman to win an Olympic race. She did it twice. An interesting note is that alfalfa, an important feed for the Nisean horse, was introduced to Greece at this time, and it should be noted that wherever the Nisean was taken, alfalfa followed.