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Nisean horse

The Nisean horse, or Nisaean Horse is an extinct horse breed, once native to the town of Nisaia. Located in the Nisaean Plains at the foot of the souther region of the Zagros Mountains, Iran[1]. They were highly sought after in the ancient world. The famous mount of Alexander the Great, Bucephalus, was said by <some to be a Nisean horse.[citation needed] The Nisean horse was said to have come in several colors, including common colors such as dark bay and seal brown, but also rarer shades such as black, red and blue roan, palomino, and various spotted patterns. The ancient Nisean horse was said to have had "not the slender Arabian head of the Luristan Culture but a more robust one that was characteristic of the great warhorse". This suggests the Nisean may have been a descendant of the "forest horse" prototype

The Nisean, according to one source, was "tall and swift, and color adorned his sides. The ancient Greeks called him the Nisean after the town Nisa where he was bred; the Chinese called him the Tien Ma-Heavenly Horse or Soulon-Vegetarian dragon. He was the most valuable horse in the ancient world, and he was regarded as the most beautiful horse alive. Some were spotted like a leopard or as golden as a newly minted coin. Others were red and blue roan with darker color in the roan, what Mustang (sic) people call blue and red corn."[citation needed]

The royal Nisean was the mount of the nobility in ancient Persia. Two white Nisean stallions pulled the shah’s royal chariot, while four of the regal animals pulled the chariot of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Persia and Medea. Silver coins from the days of Cyrus the Great show him hunting lions from horseback using a spear. It is safe to assume that courage and manageability were more important than color on these occasions, and without the stirrup, Cyrus also needed a smooth riding horse, so it is assumed that the Nisean horse also had smooth gaits.[citation needed]

During the reign of Darius, Nisean horses were bred from Armenia to Sogdiana. The Nisean horse was so sought after that the Greeks (mainly, the Spartans) imported Nisean horses and bred them to their native stock, and many nomadic tribes (such as the Scythians) in and around the Persian Empire also imported, captured, or stole Nisean horses.

Nisean horses had several interesting traits that they passed on to their descendants. One of them were bony knobs on their forehead often referred to as "horns".[citation needed] When Persia (and the Spartans) defeated a rival country, they would usually leave behind one or two Nisean stallions to "improve" the native stock. The Greeks exported many horses to the Iberian peninsula, where the Nisean greatly influenced the ancestors of today's Iberian horse breeds, such as the Carthusian, Lusitano, Andalusian, Barb (horse), and Spanish Mustang.[citation needed]

The Nisean horse was first mentioned in great detail by A.T. Olmstead in his History of the Persian Empire. Pure white Niseans were the horses of kings and, in myth, gods. Cyrus the Great was so distraught when one of his stallions was drowned while crossing a river, he had the river where the horse was drowned drained. He did not believe that anything that could kill something so beautiful should be allowed to continue.

Olmstead also wrote that the Assyrians started their spring campaigns by attacking the Medes for their horses. The Medes were the breeders of the first Nisean horses.

The Romans had their first encounter with the Nisean and the Parthian cataphract at the Battle of Carrhae when General Crassus went up against the great Parthian General Surena. After Crassus fell to the Parthians. His head and standards were presented to Orodes II. In 36 B.C., Anthony in an attempt to avenge Crassus' death ravaged the region of Media Atropatene with 16 legions. At his disposal were 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, most of these from Spain. He also had with him 30,000 shock troops. The Parthians would not give him the battle victory he wanted, so in anger he ravaged Armenia and brought back the Armenian king Artavasdes to Egypt. Among the prized possessions were the first Nisean horses in Rome. When Antony died, these horses fell into the hands of Augustus.

Historical Events

When Cambyses II fell off his horse and died in 521 BCE, future king Darius the Great had his horse trained to whinny upon entering the city's gates. This action gives him the kingship of Persia.

On New Year's Day the Persians would slaughter and sacrifice 1,000 Nisean foals from Armenia to Mithra. This was a part of Armenia's yearly tribute to the Persians.

In 481 BCE Xerxes invaded Thessalonia and raced his Nisean mares against the legendary Thessalonian mares and beat them.

479BCE General Mardonius was killed beneath his white Nisean stallion at the Battle of Plataea. Another stallion was so feared by the Greeks for its training that the Athenians actually had a plan to kill the horse.

When the Roman writer Strabo (63-24BCE) saw them, he said they the most elegant riding horses alive.

St. Isidore of Seville (c.560-636)stated that the Roman horses of the imperial stud founded by Emporer Justinian of Constantinople, the last Byzantine outpost in the West, were the most beauitful horses in the world.

When Alexander the Great invaded Persia, he demanded a tribute of thousands Nisean horses from the captured cities.

Emperor Wu Ti was told about the Heavenly Horses to the West and sent an army to get some for China. Thirteen Heavenly Horses were taken from Ferghana along with a thousand lesser animals. When the Emporer saw the horses, he decided that the expedition was worth it.

The Nisean became extinct in the east with the sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

Elwyn Hartley Edwards in The New Encyclopedia of the Horse called the Nisean the "super horse of the ancient world".[citation needed]


Burris-Davis, Beverley. Parthian Horses, Parthian Archers. bibliography attached http://www.parthia.com/parthia_horses_burris.htm

Davis, Beverley. Timeline for the Development of the Horse. Sino-platonic papers. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp177_horses.pdf

Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. University of Chicago Press. 1948

Plutarch. The Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans


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