The Fine Horses of the Veneti

Ancient history and archaeological finds that reveal the importance of horses in the area

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In the ancient world, the Veneti, a people who lived in the more remote areas of the Upper Adriatic, were known as breeders of race horses.

As early as the Archaic Age, the Greek poet Hesiod mentioned the horses of the Veneti and praised their beauty. A few generations later, around the middle of the seventh century B.C., the Greek poet Alcman would mention the Veneti’s horses as being renowned for their speed.

In the Classical Age, evidence of the value of Veneti horses is to be found in Euripides – who tells us that Hippolytus drove “a pair of Veneti horses” – and in an inscription recording how Leontes of Spartan won an Olympic race riding Veneti horses. Ancient sources enables us to identify this episode as dating from the 85th Olympics – held in 440 B.C. – and also tell us that Leontes was the first to obtain a victory riding horses from this region.

Veneti horses would, around fifty years later, become famous throughout the Greek world when some were imported by Dionysus the Great, Lord of Syracuse, who wanted to breed from them to create a stable of winning racehorses. Our information on this comes from the Strabo’s great work of historical geography, which also makes it clear that Dionysus attached just as much importance to his racing stable as any modern car manufacturing might attribute to their own ‘stable’ of racing cars.

Anyone who visits Padua’s Archaeological Museum gets a clear idea of how important horses were to the Veneti themselves. The fact that horses were buried individually or else with their riders reveals that there must have been specific funeral rites for such animals. And the hundreds of small bronze horses unearthed within the city and its surrounding area are further proof of the sacred status enjoyed by horses – a status they would certainly maintain in the Roman culture that later occupied the territory of the Veneti.

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