The Nisean Warhorse in History

Part Two

No horsemen have ever inspired the imagination quite like the Scythians have with their free nomadic life style and almost mythical female warriors. There were several dozens of these IndoIranian horse tribes roaming the steppes between the Balkans and China, but one set itself a part from the others sometime before 250 BC. The Parni, a part of the Dahi or Dahae tribe, which lived along the Ochus River (Tejend or lower Oxus) migrated into the Persian province of Parthava and stayed. From the time of Cyrus the Great, various Scythian tribes played active roles within the empire, helping in the campaigns, providing grazing land for the imperial Niseans, or paying tribute to the Great King from their own herds of tough little horses. The Dahae were no different and even joined Xerxes on his Greek campaign.

When Alexander the Great came along, the Dahae sided with Darius and even opposed Alexander at Gaugamela. Their dislike for the Greek king did not end easily. When Darius contemplated surrendering and was killed by the Bactrian governor, Bessus, the Dahae joined Bessus to continue the struggle. By the time Alexander had the Persian Empire conquered, the Dahae were fighting beside Spitamenes, Alexander's deadliest rival. During his conquest of Persia, Samarkand the ancient city of Samarkand was besieged by the Sogdians in revolt for religious insults inflicted on them by the Greek cavalry commander, Stasanor, Alexander decided he was going to lift the siege personally. The Scythians loyal to Spitamenes immediately attacked his rear. This forced Alexander to return north to deal with the Scythians, but not before dispatching an army of Greek mercenaries to lift the siege. They were never heard from again.

With a minor victory over the Scythians, Alexander and his elite cavalry, now mounted on imperial Niseans, crossed 290 kilometers of desert in three days to lift the siege, but Spitamenes, mounted similarly, disappeared. To bring a close to the war, Alexander did something the Assyrians had done earlier to defeat the Arabs; he captured and fortified all the oases. Without water, the last defenders of Old Persia could not go on. In December of 328 BC, Coenus, one of Alexander's generals, defeated Spitamenes in battle. When the Sogdians and Dahae heard that Alexander's main army was en route, they killed Coenus and sent his head to  Alexander. The ultimate irony here is that Seleucus, the Macedonian general who founded the Seleucid empire, married Apama, Spitamenes' daughter, and had a son by her named Antiochus. Antiochus founded a number of cities under his name Antioch.  After Alexander's death, his generals divided his empire among themselves. Seleucus claimed the lands that had once been the Persian Empire. But in 247, a Parni Scythian named Arsaces overthrew Andragoras, the Seleucid governor of Parthia. The main breeding grounds for the Nisean horse were under his control. Crowned king at Asaak, the capital city of Astauene, he quickly had to resist attempts by Antiochus III to recapture lost territory.

Being a son of Scythia, Arsaces was a superb horseman and he was about to revolutionize the way the great horses of Nisa were used. Instead of pulling chariots or acting as a simple cavalry, Arsaces developed the concept of heavy cavalry. Chain mail covered the great horses and riders, a change which required a new manner of tactics. Great horses became the ancient world's equivalent to tanks. Impregnable rings of metal protected man and horse.  Steadily picking off one Seleucid territory after another, he conquered not only Parthia and Astauene but Hyrcania, and Heart. And upon the death of Diodotus I, he formed an alliance with his successor, Diodotus II of Bactria. Seleucus II refused to accept the changes that were occurring within his empire and in 228 BC, he marched east to reclaim lost land. Arsaces was not strong enough yet to fight the angry Greek and prudently retreated back into his Scythian homeland. However by 223 BC with Seleucus III Soter on the throne, Arsaces was back reinforcing his position, strengthening his army, building forts and establishing new cities, the foremost being Apaortenon.

Map of Ancient Sycthia 130 B.C.: Antiochus VII invaded Parthia in an attempt to reclaim lost Seleucid territory. Phraates II caught the Seleucid king by surprise near Ecbatana, where he had wintered his troops. Although supported by John Hyrcanus, the leader of the Jews, along with 31,000 infantry, 7,200 horse and 10 elephants, Antiochus was no match for the Parthian leader who had 14,800 horse, 1800 infantry and 20 elephants at his disposal from Indian allies. Also in Phraates II's army were Tocharian mercenaries who would eventually create the Kushan Empire in Bactria. The slaughter was terrible and the Seleucids never did try to reclaim any more lost territory. The Tocharians, who had never really participated in the battle at Ecbatana, ravaged Parthian territory on their way back to Taxila. They would eventually lead four Scythian tribes into battle against the Parthians which would result in the death of Phraates II. The greatest Parthian king was Mithradates II who ruled from 123 BC to 88BC. It was during his reign that Parthia came into contact with the Romans and the Chinese. Emperor Han Wu Ti's quest for Heavenly Horses is one of the most famous stories from ancient China. Acquiring them from a fort at Kokand in modern Uzbekistan put the Chinese into contact with the Sogdians, allies of Parthia and ancient history's most important middlemen. This opened up the Silk Road, a caravan route that carried silks and other goods to the West; horses and alfalfa among other items to the East.  The relations between Parthia, Sogdiana and China were usually quite good in spite of the initial contact, which resulted in a loss of goods and life. This could not be said for the Romans, who saw themselves as heir to Alexander's once great empire. In 96 B.C. the Romans were challenging the Seleucids for control of the Middle East, when they came into contact with the Parthians. In 92 BC, the Romans and Parthians signed their first peace treaty-the first of many that were meaningless.


53 B.C.: During the reign of King Orodes II, Marcus Licinius Crassus decided it was time to add Parthia to the Roman Empire. He had seen Pompey and Julius Caesar climb to great power on their conquests, which made his defeat of Spartacus during the Gladiator Revolt seem simple at best. Facing him was Surena, a student of Roman tactics who was about to teach the proud Romans a valuable lesson.  Marcus Crassus was a vain man with an over inflated opinion of his own military skills. Marching through the mountains of Armenia, certainly a much larger country at that time than it is now, he believed he was following a safer route, although it took him directly across the Mesopotamian desert. In his service was a man named Ariamnes with a 6,000-horse force who assured him that this was the best way to enter Parthia. What Crassus didn't know was that Ariamnes was in the service of Parthia. In northern Mesopotamia, Crassus found himself facing a Parthian force of 10,00 horse archers and 1,000 cataphracts. Circling his troops, he hoped that the Parthian archers would run out of arrows before he ran out of soldiers. It was a foolish plan and doomed from the start. The Parthians had brought up 1,000 Arabian camels carrying more than enough arrows to finish off the Romans. After brutally hammering them, the light horse archers withdrew. Surena and his cavalry then emerged to a sound of trumpets from the woods where they had been watching the light cavalry attack.

Thinking the tide of battle was turning in his favor, Crassus sent his son Publius with six thousand troops to meet Surena. Relying on an old Scythian trick, Surena led the Romans farther and farther away from their support. At the right moment, he wheeled his armored horsemen and attacked. The slaughter was savage. Retreating to the city of Carrhae, Crassus stayed two days and tried to organize his troops for a westerly retreat. Unaware that Surena had spies everywhere, the Roman general led his troops into the open under the cover of darkness. Out of 44,000 Roman soldiers, 10,000 survived and were eventually resettled in Sogdiana. Crassus' head and eagles were presented to Orodes II as a war trophy.

Roman horse statues

Julius Caesar was planning a campaign to punish the Parthians for Crassus' defeat when he was assassinated in 44 BC. His protégé, Marc Antony would make the attempt in 36 BC. Ironically in the 1960s, the U. S. Appaloosa Horse Club ran an advertisement showing Marc Antony on a spotted horse courting Cleopatra. The possibility exists that this might not have been wishful thinking after all. Marc Antony wanted to avenge Crassus's defeat and with Parthia in a turmoil following Orodes II's assassination by his son Phraates, he thought it would be easy to carve off a large chunk of Alexander's old kingdom. He had Artavasdes of Armenia helping him, or so he thought.

Artavasdes was the son of Tigran the Great, who early in his reign had ceded seventy valleys to the Parthians, that weres used for the breeding of Nisean horses as they had been during the time of Cyrus the Great. But the Armenian king was not in an enviable position trapped between the Romans and Parthians, who were not averse to marching through his kingdom as Marc Antony did in 36 BC.  Wanting to get off to a good start, Marc Antony pillaged Media Atropatene with sixteen legions. Roman chariot horses In his army were 100,000 soldiers and 10,000 horses. Most of these horses were of the famous Iberian breed whose ancestors had been exported to Spain by the Phoenicians. Looking remarkably like modern Arabians, these horses were hardy, but not as swift as the Parthian horses. In his army were also 30,000 shock troops made up of various Roman allies. Deciding it was time to go after Phraata, the capital of Media, Antony separated himself from his supply train. This was a serious mistake because while he was building a ramp to capture the city, the Parthians attacked and destroyed his supplies and over 10,000 men, including a siege weapon.

Going after the Parthians, Marc Antony was further frustrated when they refused to attack him. Whenever he sent his cavalry after them, they simply outran his horses and disappeared. Technically Antony won, but eighty dead Parthian and thirty prisoners did not compensate for the 10,000 who had died with the baggage train. Returning to Phraata, he found that his ramp was abandoned. In retaliation, he killed every tenth man left behind at Phraata. With his troops on the verge of mutiny and the Parthians refusing to fight him outright, Antony accepted Phraates' offer to go home unmolested. The Parthians did not exactly keep their promise but Antony took his anger out of Artavesdes' kingdom. Ravaging it mercilessly, he took the king captive and dragged him back to Egypt along with endless war prizes taken from Armenia. Believing that the Armenian king had betrayed him, Antony had him executed in front of Cleopatra.  Among Antony's spoils were Nisean horses, perhaps even leopards as supposed by the Appaloosa Horse Club in the late sixties. This would be Rome's first good look at the Nisean horse, which the author Strabo described as the most elegant riding horse that he had ever seen. But Marc Antony was rapidly becoming a persona non grata to the Romans because of his obsession with Cleopatra. When Augustus Caesar finally defeated Antony and Cleopatra, he took possession of all valuables in the ill-fated queen's kingdom. Whatever valuable horses remained in Egypt were taken to an estate in Italy, where they began to slowly influence the imperial horses of Rome.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

One of the most interesting women of antiquity was Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who ruled from 266 to 273 A.D. A courageous woman with as much energy as she had ambition, she very nearly tore a large chunk of the Roman Empire away for herself. Unfortunately, her opponent was Emperor Aurelian, one of Rome's greatest military emperors.  Marching on Palmyra in the Syrian desert and facing the hardships of constant attacks by robbers and the weariness of siege warfare, he wrote her a letter saying, “Aurelian, Emperor of Rome and Restorer of the Orient to Zenobia and those waging war on her side. You should have done what I commanded you in my former letter. I promise you life if you surrender. You, O Zenobia, can live with your family in the place, which I will assign you upon the advice of the venerable senate. You must deliver to the treasury of Rome your jewels, your silver, your gold, your robes of silk, your horses and your camels. The Palmyrenes, however, shall preserve their local rights.” By 273 AD, fine horses resembling the modern Arabian had been introduced by the Romans into the Middle East. These horses whose ancestors had originally been the chariot horses of the Hittites and Mittani and imported from Spain made up Zenobia's light horse cavalry. Also within her service were noblemen on great horses weighed down with chain mail. Zenobia had incorporated the cataphract into her army. Although invented by the Parthians, those Scythian warriors were no longer in power. The Sassanids, who also utilized the cataphract but to better ends than Zenobia, had taken their kingdom away from them.

In 272 AD as he advanced on Antioch, Aurelian noticed that the Palmyrene army that blocked his way was made up of imperial horses in chain mail. Horse and rider were covered in glittering links of metal. Leaving his infantry at rest, Aurelian ordered his cavalry to make a slow, orderly retreat, allowing time to wear out the imperial horses and their riders. Once they were certain the great horses were too tired to be of any use, the Roman cavalry attacked. It was a route with the Palmyrenes retreating within the walled city of Antioch. But the inhabitants of the city wanted to hand them over to the Romans, so under the cover of darkness the Syrian army fled back to Zenobia with news of their defeat. Zenobia in grand style decided to lead her troops personally. Wearing a chain mail tunic with a purple scarf draped over her shoulders, secured by a large brooch that gleamed in the brilliant sunlight, she looked every bit the warrior queen with a Persian helmet covering her black hair. At Emses (modern Homs) she decided to face Aurelian. Her army was made up of 70,000 warriors, consisting chiefly of her elite cataphract (noblemen mounted on Nisean horses  wearing chain mail), Arab mounted archers (horse and camel), and Lebanese-Syrian foot soldiers.

Emperor AurelianAurelian opted to let the heat help with the cataphract and tried to lead them on an exhausting exercise again. But this time the Palmyrene cavalry easily defeated the Roman cavalry, but they were defeated by the Roman foot soldiers. Zenobia escaped back to Palmyra, refused to surrender and under the cover of darkness tried to escape to the Sassanid Persia. Arabian horsemen under orders for Aurelian captured her before she could reach safety. Rumors abound of what happened to the Syrian queen after her capture, but the one that is most believable is that she married a Roman nobleman and spent the remainder of her life in Tivoli, living off her notoriety as the warrior queen. Politics and the continuous wars in the East, particularly with the rising Sassanid power after their defeat of the Parthians, resulted in some soul searching and a change of military tactics. The man most responsible for the revision of the Roman military, in addition to creating a new capital was Constantine the Great. Aside from his importance in ending Christian persecution, he made the cataphract a powerful force within the Roman army. Mounted on Persian warhorses, the Roman cataphract was prepared to face the Sassanids in their disputes over eastern lands, in particular Armenia, one of the world's first Christian countries, not a welcomed event to the Sassanids. Armenia, long a supplier -willing or otherwise-of Nisean horses to the Romans was losing the breed and its grazing lands to outsider invaders, Roman and Persian.

Emperor Theodosius: To counter this loss, the Romans started raising their own imperial horses. Emperor Theodosius One emperor, Theodosius I (378-395), was a great horse lover and admirer of the Persian breed, which was still as the Roman author Strabo had said centuries earlier, “the most elegant riding horse in the empire.” A Roman horse from Constantinople was worth five pounds of gold, while a good British horse was worth maybe half a pound of silver. Theodosius, a Roman from Spain, passed laws to protect horses, setting weight limits and such, but one of his most interesting laws regarded the horses of the imperial cataphract. No horse was trained before six years of age, and after years of usefulness in the military, the horses were retired to royal pastures.

Emperor Justinian (483-567), who might well be called the last true emperor of a unified Roman Empire created an imperial stud in Bythynia, which would ultimately become the target of every invading Turkish and Arab army, but it would be from this stud that the stallions that would lead to the creation of the Andalusian and Barb breeds would come from. His wars against the Vandals in North Africa (533) would result in the largest Roman cavalry ever taking on the city of Carthage. Nisean stallions, proto-Arabs and even Mongolian ponies would be utilized. The fighting would destroy the Vandal culture once and for all, a culture that had brought countless Iberian horses to Africa, many of them gaited.  The Berbers, who had been allies of the Vandals and had sheltered them and their animals, would also try to take on the might of Constantinople, but they would be defeated as well. The Vandals, a people who had liked fine horses, had imported many excellent animals from Spain and had captured enough imperial horses that they left their images in the mosaics of their villas. Men on great leopard stallions still prance over the abandoned site, while women on gaited ponies enjoy the hunt. Their fine horses and later Byzantine horses bred freely with the Berber animals. It is a myth that the Barb is a pure breed from the dawn of time. The first horses in N. Africa came from the Middle East and resembled the Arabian. After Carthaginian and Phoenician colonies were set up in Spain, Iberian horses were added to the breeding stock.

PictureDuring the reign of Emperor Justinian, a civil war broke out among the Visigoths in Spain as to who would be the ruler. Athanagild (554-567), one of the contenders, asked the Byzantines for assistance and they gave it. General Lucius, well versed in Germanic customs, arrived at Seville with a veteran cavalry (cataphract) that quickly turned the tide of war in Athanagild's favor. Athanagild was crowned king and asked the Byzantines to leave, but they refused. Seville would stay in Roman hands for nearly a hundred years at which time it would be regarded as the most enlightened city in Western civilization.

The history of the Andalusian horse that most people are familiar with, that it is an Arabian Barb cross, was fabricated by the Elizabethans to protect their own heads from a very anti-Spanish Elizabeth I. Her father, Henry VIII, had imported Spanish racehorses as a part of his first wife’s dowry (Catherine of Aragon), but Elizabeth I and her ex brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain were fierce enemies. 1,500 years of history was rewritten by the anti-Spanish ‘historians’ in Elizabethan England.

Spanish writers when permitted to tell their own history without interference said that the Andalusian was the result of crossing these Roman battle stallions with native Iberian mares. Seville, the center of Spanish horsemanship, carried on the traditions first introduced by the Byzantine knights who occupied the city before the Visigoths and Berbers. For several hundred years Seville was a city of enlightenment famous for its arts, history and horses. When the Visigoths drove the Byzantines out, much of the beauty of Seville dimmed but the horses remained and the Visigoths adopted the skills of their predecessors.  In fact, it was a Spanish cataphract that saved Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours and that gave him the idea for the Order of the Knight.

His grandson, Charlemagne, tried to take the throne of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire by marrying widowed Empress Irene, a beautiful but unpleasant woman, who almost lost the imperial stud in Bythynia to marauding Arabs. In a feud with the iconoclasts, she was not going to send troops to save the horses until icons were returned to the churches.  She saved the stud at the last minute when the iconoclasts capitulated. Charlemagne saw a golden opportunity to rule the entire Christian world if he could just marry the strong willed young woman. Showing off her power and wealth, she sent Charlemagne a pipe organ and some horses. These created quite a sensation in the royal court at Aachen and with the Pope in Rome who had to have a pipe organ of his own.

These imperial horses played a role in the development of the Limousine and Norman warhorse. The Limousine, now extinct because of the French Revolution, was a handsome animal that closely resembled the Andalusian. Napoleon mounted on sabino stallion In fact, Andalusians had been used to refine the breed during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Peasants, destroying everything imperial during the Reign of Terror in the late 1700s, broke up the stud and sent the horses to work on farms. A famous painting by Jacques Louis David shows Napoleon on a handsome sabino stallion. When Napoleon came to power, he tried to revive the French imperial horse with Andalusians and in doing so, almost destroyed that breed. Stud farms were emptied, and the King of Portugal fled to Brazil, taking some of his precious Alter Reals with him.

Flaebehoppen, the ancestress of the Knapstrub breed, was a leopard Andalusian mare left behind by Napoleon's troops in Denmark. Flaehoppen Within a hundred years, leopards were missing from the Pura Raza breed, as it is now called. Color vanished in the Spanish horse because the Napoleonic wars left behind only grays and bays, although chestnuts have been reaccepted. In Portugal, the creams and buckskins remained, but the belief that the pinto or paint coloration (black/brown/white) represented inferior breeding, the tobiano was selectively bred out of existence in the twentieth century. A few sabinos still turn up in the Lusitano, but the tobiano and the Lp gene are gone. The Nisean is dead in his ancient homeland, but his blood lives on in many breeds from the Caspian pony to the Shire and Chinese Mountain Horse. The Nisean horse began its existence in the realm of the green valleys of Armenia. Humans fed it alfalfa and where the horse went the crop went too. Most of that is gone now, those wet green pastures, and there are few horses left in the Armenian mountain valleys. Some Turkish horses show color, but nothing like the color that once galloped through the streets of Constantinople.

In America, the Colonial Spanish horses (also known as Spanish Mustangs) carry on the ancient Nisean bloodlines. The descendants of Spanish conquistador war horses, these equines look as if they stepped off the monuments of  ancient Persepolis. Proud and beautiful, these smaller horses still carry the ancient color patterns of the tobiano, the pure white SB1 sabino, and the Lp gene of the immortal Rakush. New mutations have occurred including the patterns of the frame overo, the wildly colored non-SB1 sabino, even some whites that are of recent origin. The Spanish horses of the New World never hunted lions or tigers, but they once hunted buffalo, and that was a sight to behold.


For a complete list of works cited by Beverley Davis in her essay, email For Beverley Davis' complete essay, see The Horse That Hollywood Never Knew:The Nisean Horse in History (Part One), March Issue, 2014. See also Clio Reads for enjoyable suggestions on equestrian history.

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