2012-06-09 / Columnists


Celebration of History: Horses Add To the Glory of Rome
by Candice C. Dunnigan

A recent trip to Rome this May had the Dunnigans traversing more than 75 miles, within the city proper, by “Shanks mare” this time, instead of in the saddle. We had each wanted to see something special; be it seven of the Seven Hills, as many classical monuments as there were to find, or all the churches mentioned in Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons.” I was interested in the rich history of horses in Rome — classical, pontifical, empire, and modern. None of us were disappointed. We got much more than we bargained for.

To begin with, horses have been a major factor in the glory that made Rome. Magnificent statues of Marcus Aureluis, other Caesars such as Trajan, Julius, Augustus, Claudius, and Caracalla, as well as King Victor Emmanuelle, all pay homage to the horse. The horse is everywhere, in dramatic bronze and marble statues, columns, arches, and mammoth mosaics, and fountains. The horse can be found in public pavilions, as well as in dark nooks and narrow, winding streets. The Roman goddess of equines was called either Epona or Hippona, who was greatly revered. The Vatican has much in the way of horses in art.

Magnificent statues of Marcus Aureluis, other Caesars such as Trajan, Julius, Augustus, Claudius, and Caracalla, as well as King Victor Emmanuelle, all pay homage to the horse. Magnificent statues of Marcus Aureluis, other Caesars such as Trajan, Julius, Augustus, Claudius, and Caracalla, as well as King Victor Emmanuelle, all pay homage to the horse. Nearly all of the central squares have some major significance to the life and history of the city. This is where the tourists can also be found. And, where you have tourists in locations such as these, you have the modern Roman horse. These current horses, however, are a far cry from the horses who were there in the glory days of the capital. What Rome has today are horses and carriages for hire.

Being from Mackinac Island, we all took a wry look when we saw rather thin, bay horses with ear nets and dropping heads, resting on three legs by the Colosseum. Their carriages were clean and carried numbers, but the whole operation was loose, and fast, and in truth, few people were waiting in line to have a carriage tour of Rome. We certainly did not want to have one.

I later found out (in more detail than I needed) about these horse and buggy operations, which the Romans call “botticelle.” The drivers, or hack men, are known as “vetturini.” There is a strong movement to disallow this type of conveyance on the streets of Rome. Coming from a place where the horse is so central to our comings and goings, and then functioning in Rome as a temporary citizen, I can understand why. The whole aspect was akin to what the Island must have been like before there were regulations and a cohesion of horse, driver, carriage, and tour. In short, in Rome there are no real rules. It is very expensive (more than 100 Euro) for a carriage ride, and the length is of no fixed time. Everything can be loosely agreed upon, from the fare to the tour, and then the payee often finds this is not what they wanted to see. There have even been fistfights between drivers and irate tourists.

Recently, the vetturini have argued to the City Council that they want to be considered taxi drivers, and therefore belong to the same union, but not have to pay the same dues.

While there is no official stabling for carriage horses in the city, there is also no standard city veterinarian or animal council to advocate for their care. Mackinac Island has a handle on the equine in city and park that today’s Romans would give their eyeteeth for.

So, these horses, which quite probably were a wonderful and romantic way to see so much of the city 100 to 70 years ago, are outmoded. It is so sad, but it’s also quite true. They are a real liability. Roman auto traffic, from more than two million cars, or scooters, or thousands of buses, is chaotic and dangerous in its own right.

Rome was made by horses and auxiliary cavalry. The Roman Empire would have never been so vast, were it not for horses. The cavalry horse of Rome was sometimes a soldier itself. The men on horseback were at the front of the line, and they were swift and fierce. Many were Gauls. A man on a horse was twice as tall as his opponent. The horses and riders could send plans and tactics via couriers, as well as being able to scout out territory and travel over immense distance. Romans rode in saddles, but didn’t use stirrups (this caused them defeat later in history). Their animals were at first mainly of Spanish-Lusitano descent, later greatly influenced with Arabians.

The City of Rome maintains mounted units of carbenari (police), who frequent central areas. We came upon two officers and their horses in the Borghese Gardens. The horses were Arab and Warmblood crosses. Their horse box, which was a small truck van, was parked nearby. The horses are moved in it from the horse barracks, to where they are then dispatched into areas of the city.

The outstanding Circus Maximus still exists, and the size and scope of it are amazing. The site was built for the main purpose of chariot racing, which the Romans took quite seriously. It was constructed between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Races were held daily. There were, of course, professional drivers, and the art of breeding horses for charioteering was a serious hobby of many a wealthy senator or emperor of Rome. If you have the time and inclination, a walk around the existing circus is an amazing transport back into time. The views from it include the Imperial Forum, Caesar’s places, grand terve (bathhouses), as well as the Colosseum.

Perhaps proud Julius or Augustus are the rulers you’re most familiar with. They both were lovers of horses. So, too, was the infamous Caligula, who was somewhat over the top in his love for Incitatus, his horse. This animal lived in a stall made of marble, with a feed trough made from ivory. It has been reported that the horse drank from a fountain, or goblets of gold. Some say that Caligula was so crazed about the animal, he drew up a proposition to make him a member of his consul. What a place!

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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