Riding Into Battles

Part of the Horse exhibition.

Horses were probably first used to pull chariots in battle starting around 1500 BC. But it wasn't until around 900 BC that warriors themselves commonly fought on horseback. Among the first mounted archers and fighters were the Scythians, a group of nomadic Asian warriors who often raided the ancient Greeks.

For Greeks who had never before seen a person on horseback, the first sight of these riders racing toward them while firing volleys of arrows must have been truly terrifying. Some modern scholars wonder if early sightings of strangers on horseback might have inspired the Greek myths about the legendary half-man, half-horse beings called centaurs.

Women Warriors

Fighting on foot against horses couldn't have been easy. The Greek soldier shown on this ancient Greek vase from 450 BC struggles against an Amazon warrior on horseback. Stories of these legendary women warriors might have been inspired by Scythian raiders, who frequently attacked the Greeks on horseback. In fact, recent archaeological discoveries indicate that some Scythian warriors were indeed female.

greek urn
Greek urn, Southern Italy, 440-430 BC.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

The Trojan Horse

According to ancient Greek myth, soldiers from Greece laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years, but could not conquer it. Finally the Greeks pretended to give up. They departed, leaving behind a large wooden horse as a gift. The Trojans brought the horse inside their city walls and celebrated victory. That night, however, Greek soldiers hidden inside the giant horse crept out and unlocked the gates. The rest of the Greek army rushed in and destroyed the entire city.

Fancy Pants

Amazon warriors on horseback were a common motif on Greek ceramics, perhaps symbolizing the confrontation between Greeks and outsiders. The Amazon warrior battling a Greek warrior on this urn is wearing pants with Persian patterns on them. Historically, trousers were invented for riding horses and were then adapted to other purposes.