Ancient Athens’ close connection with horses is best expressed by the epithets assigned to its two main deities: Athena Hippia and Poseidon Hippios. The sea god produced the first horse, a wild, untamed creature, and he is the only divinity shown riding one. Pausanias records a huge statue of Poseidon on horseback launching his trident at a giant in the city’s Eleusineion. However, it took the metis (wisdom) of Athena to tame the wild creature and make it useful to mankind through the invention of the bridle. She was also the genius behind the ruse of the Trojan Horse with which the Greeks finally won the Trojan War. She is often depicted driving a chariot, and her grandest temple, the Parthenon, was decorated with over 270 horses carved in marble.
While men in Greece rode horses, women (usually goddesses) only drove chariots. On this one-drachm coin Athena is commanding a triga, or three-horse chariot. Trigas were not used in racing but more likely war; in the Iliad (15.149-154) Achilles has two immortal horses, and one mortal.
Athenian coin with Athena Hippia. Bronze, Roman Imperial period, 3rd century AD
Agora Excavation N 2625 - Ephorate of Antiquities of the City of Athens
Winged Eros, the god of love, does not need a horse, but the combination of a handsome youth and a beautiful horse was irresistible to Greek coroplastic artists.
Plastic vaseof Eros on a horse Terracotta, 4thcentury BCE From a grave at Brauron
Brauron Museum K1882
A draped woman is mounting a two-horse chariot on this much abraded statue base. Unfortunately, her head is missing but it may represent Athena, especially since it was part of a dedication on the Acropolis. The goddess is often shown driving a chariot on Attic black-figure vases of this period.
Base with relief of Athena (?) driving a biga. Marble, Archaic, early 5th century BCE
From the Acropolis Acropolis Museum 2993
Among the 227 horses carved on the marble frieze ofthe Parthenon, this one is surely the most dramatic. It is poised in the air, balancing only on his rear right leg. The man behind him is surely a cavalry commander on account of his special head gear and beard. The entire sculptural program of Athena’s temple celebrated the importance and beauty of Greek horsemanship.
Plaster cast of relief with a hipparch. Block West 8 of the Parthenon frieze, 447-432 BCE
American School of Classical Studies at Athens