October 5, 2007

Arabians and Numidians

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Arabian horse owners often talk about the Arabian horse as being one of the oldest breeds. And they are, thanks in large park to the work of the Bedouin tribes preserving this lovely breed and recording the pedigrees.

What if we turned the clock back two thousand years? Would someone like Caesar or Hannibal recognize the modern Arabian? I think they both would, because the ancestor of the Arabian horse, the Numidian or Libyan horse, was used by both generals in their respective cavalries.

Hannibal used these horses with great success during the Second Punic Wars. The Romans initially were not fond of the Numidian breed because it did not meet a Roman ideal of equine confirmation. Romans preferred a stocky, muscular horse, preferably taller. Horses at that time were shorter then they are today: a tall horse would be 15 hands high (~60 inches, 4 inches per “hand,” the average width of a man’s hand). For example, staff at the International Museum of the Horse, learned that 12 hands was the idea height for a horse driving a reconstruction of the Wetwang chariot, an Iron Age chariot uncovered in East Yorkshire, U.K.

The Carthagian general Hannibal discovered that the Arab’s smaller stature, slighter build, and large eyes made them ideal for charge and retreat tactics on the battlefield. He brought 1,950 African cavalry, mostly Numidian, through Iberia and over the Alps into Italia, during the Second Punic Wars (218-204 BCE). Ann Hyland, in Equus: Horse in the Roman World illustrates the important role this breed played during successful cavalry charges:

While Hannibal’s massed bridled and heavy cavalry, mostly Spaniards, took the brunt of a head-on charge, the Numidians on their smaller, nimbler horses and using their charge and disperse tactics fought on the blanks, being most effective at Ticinus where they swamped the Roman’s Gallic cavalry, taking a heavy toll with their harrying, relying on their short daggers once javelins were spent. With an eye to the main chance, the Celts in the Roman pay then deserted to Hannibal, boosting his cavalry to over 10,000. At Trebia the Numidians were again the most useful of Hannibal’s cavalry. Employed on the flanks of the army they used their favourite hit, run and re-form, recharge and harry techniques, terrifying the Romans. At Trasimene, when the trap was sprung, Hannibal’s cavalry pursued the cornered Romans, driving them down into the waters of the lake where they were killed or drowned. (Hyland, 1990: 174-5)

The Roman’s also learned to rely on Numidian cavalry. In 125 BCE, the Romans, engaged with the Gauls in Arles, were bailed out by a Numidian cavalry force attached to the legions. The modern day Carmargue pony is said by French writers to have descended from indigenous stock crossed with the Numidian horses of the auxiliaries. (Hyland, 1990: 24)

How is this ancient breed related to the modern Arabian? The best concrete evidence of how similar the modern Arab is with the ancient Numidian breed is from a horse skull found in Newstead, Scotland. Hyland cites James Curle’s 1911 book, A Roman Frontier Post and its People, where he describes 14 hands high horses found with the auxiliaries in Newstead, Scotland. The front index measurements of one of the slender-limbed horses was almost identical to the skull of an Arabian mare (Jerboa) in the British Museum:

  • Length in mm: Jerboa–368; Newstead–372
  • Width in mm: Jerboa–205; Newstead–201

References

Hyland, Ann, and John Mann. 1990. Equus: the Horse in the Roman World. B.T. Batsford, Ltd., London.

All the queens’ horses : the role of the horse in British history. 2003. Harmony House Publishers, Goshen, KY.

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