Economic aspects of military horses in Athens

Founded 30-Jul-2009
Last update 30-Jul-2009

Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World


Horse values

The discovery at Athens of two large deposits of inscribed tablets and armour tokens from the fourth and third centuries give much information on cavalry administration. In 1965, over 570 tablets were recovered from a well in the courtyard of the Dipylon Gate near the Kerameikos cemetery. In 1975, 145 lead and clay tablets came from the Agora, and would originally have been held at the cavalry headquarters, the Hipparcheion, at the north-west corner of the Agora, which was used for cavalry activities and training.122 The maximum value for horses from these tablets is 1,200 drachmae for the third century, and 700 drachmae for the fourth century, with over 500 tablets for the former and only 17 for the latter. It should not be assumed that all third-century values had risen, or that some horses were so superior to earlier examples. Xenophon sold a horse for 50 darics (1,250 drachmae).123 Aristophanes quoted 1,200 drachmae for a racehorse,124 and Lysias 1,200 drachmae for a horse given as security for a loan of this amount;125 1,200 drachmae was the conventional value for a quality animal, and the military’s ceiling evaluation price.

These tables indicate there was a wide range of horses in the cavalry. Although cost, or appraisal value, was not always the true worth of a horse, the tablets show the investment in a unit’s chargers. Prices range from 1,200 drachmae, reducing by 100 or 50 drachmae to the lowest value of 100 drachmae. Not all inscriptions are complete, but from almost 500 from the third century 44 horses were valued at 300 drachmae, 3 at 250, 12 at 200, 2 at 100; the average was just under 700 drachmae. Of the 17 fourth-century prices the average is just under 400 drachmae, with small-value animals ranging from 250 to 100 drachmae. There were more horses in both groups valued at 500 drachmae. The fifth- and early fourth-century sources record 300 drachmae for a cheap, adequate horse, and 1,200 drachmae for a class animal.126

Recruitment of cavalry horses

The Kerameikos and Agora tablets indicate that horses were procured from many sources. Studs and stables sold direct to troopers, or through dealers. Some troopers must also have raised their own horses. Well over fifty brands are recorded, and a sample shows that some are linked to provenance. Horses from Pharsalus in Thessaly carried the boukephalai brand. Axe-brand horses also came from Thessaly. Macedon was represented by the caduceus; Corinth by the koppe; Sicyon by the san-bearing and Larissa by the centaur.127 Once purchased the horses were subjected to two assessments, or Dokimasia, one for condition, and one for performance.128

Purchase and maintenance allowances

The katastasis, first recorded in the 420s, was the loan to help the recruit purchase his horse. It was a fixed sum, unstated, regardless of the evaluation. When the cavalryman retired it had to be repaid, the loan being passed on to his replacement. It is unclear what arrangement covered horses lost in action – whether the trooper paid the total cost of a new horse – if any allowance was made for depreciation due to injury, as opposed to normal depreciation. It is suggested that the yearly evaluations recorded what – if it did pay out – Athens was liable for when a horse was lost in action.129 Many conditions would have rendered the horse militarily valueless and should have been considered in the same way as lost in action. These included chronic lameness, and loss of nerve. The latter would have been dangerous if the horse was kept in the ranks and able to incite panic among the other mounts, possibly even trigger a rout, and could have cost a trooper his life. Long-service troopers would have had many horses during their careers, some of which lasted twenty-five years.130 The means test limited the state’s expenditure.

The sitos of a drachma a day, paid monthly, was allowed for maintenance of horse and rider during war; in peace it dropped to four obols per day for the horse.131 At the condition dokimasia an underfed charger cost his rider the sitos. Slow horses and those shying out of the ranks were cast out, and branded on the jaw with the sign of the wheel. Mounted skirmishers and infantry that worked with the cavalry were also inspected.132 A brand prevented a sub-standard horse appearing under another owner. Skirmishers would probably have ridden cheaper horses that were also spare-framed and suited to rapid manoeuvring on the flanks, rear, and out in the country in small mobile detachments, for reconnoitring, setting up an ambush, and harrying the enemy’s ranks.

Length of a charger’s service

The tablets show that cavalrymen generally changed horses on a regular basis. Some had more than one animal valued in a year.133 Some tablets relating to mounts of the Erectheis tribe show that six horses appear in four consecutive years. This is indicated by the annual decrease in value. Kleochares of Kephisia had an unbranded chestnut horse valued at 600 drachmae for four years. Kroll says that as unbranded chestnut horses were common this probably represented two horses; he considers it unlikely the same horse retained its value over four years.134 If it was a seasoned superior horse remaining sound and with full mental capacity I see no reason to automatically drop its annual value, unless it was done because of Athenian army regulations regardless of the animal’s condition. There are wide time differences for maximum capabilities being retained.135 If a man had bonded with a super horse it would be priceless to him. There would have been occasions when riders and horses did not remotely bond, friction resulted, and a different teaming would have benefited both. A cavalry troop was not just horse and human numbers, but individualistic duos that had first to work in concert, before being of any use in a cohesive unit, aspects overlooked by most military historians. Nevertheless, the tablets do show that devaluation normally occurred annually. In third-century Athens this was 100 drachmae, and several horses dropped 200 drachmae a year. Normally only 1,200 drachmae horses maintained their value for as much as three years, because their true value was far higher.136

Because inscriptions could be erased and the tablets re-inscribed, a lot of valuable information has been lost.

Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World, pp. 141-144
(Praeger Publishers, 2003)


122 Kroll, ‘Archive of Athenian Cavalry’, pp. 84ff.

123 X. Anab., Book VII, chapter 8, p. 349.

124 Aristophanes, The Clouds, lines 21-3.

125 Kroll, ‘Archive of Athenian Cavalry’, p. 89.

126 Ibid., p. 89.

127 Ibid., p. 88.

128 Ibid., p. 86.

129 Ibid., pp. 97ff.

130 Ibid., p. 103.

131 Ibid., p. 97, n. 36.

132 Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, Book XLIX.1.

133 Kroll, ‘Archive of Athenian Cavalry’, p. 94.

134 Ibid., p. 93.

135 National endurance ride records show names of individual horses appearing in the annual top six rankings. My own Nizzolan did so for seven years until an accident finished his career. Others, such as Margaret Montgomerie’s Tarquin had similar longevity at the top.

136 Kroll, ‘Archive of Athenian Cavalry’, p. 94.


Aristophanes:The Clouds. Greek text published for Greek Play Committee, W. Heffer and Sons Ltd, Cambridge, 1962.
Aristotle:The Athenian Constitution. Tr. H. Rackham, W. Heinemann Ltd, London, and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., MCMXXXV (Loeb).
Kroll, J.H.: ‘An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry’, Hesperia, 46, No. 2 (1977), 83-140.
Xenophon:Anabasis – The Persian Expedition. Tr. Rex Warner, Penguin Classics, 1949 (1986).



The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpts are listed in the bibliography.