Friesian horses galloped their way into popular culture in the 1985 movie “Ladyhawke,” and they’ve majestically stood their ground in cinematic imagination ever since.
So much so that I’m often amazed to see which historical period a Friesian horse will end up in next.
And I often wonder just how historically accurate their appearance might be?
Gleaming ebony coats. Long, sweeping manes with forelocks to match. Feathering on their legs that flutters down to salad plate-sized hooves.
No wonder the camera loves Friesian horses.
Friesians in the movies
Video compilation of Friesians in the movies by Gabriela 1. How many different movies can you spot?
Friesians in the movies
In 300, a movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, advance riders from the Persian army threatened the Spartans from aboard Friesian horses.
The equine actor in the role of Bucephalus, the horse only Alexander the Great could tame? Friesian.
On the Starz network series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” in a recent episode titled “Delicate Things,” Spartacus fantasizes about liberating his wife from slavery. They gallop off away from the gladiator school/prison aboard — what else? — a Friesian.
Actually, that latter example, I’m okay with. Spartacus, a former warrior now slave-gladiator, is a noble man brought low by Roman treachery. He understandably has dark thoughts and big dreams. A Friesian makes a perfect fantasy horse that’s big enough to carry two riders.
What I have a problem with – and what turned this particular episode into great fodder for the Horse Movie Drinking Game – is that the cart horses said to be from Syria turn out to be a matched team of well-fed Friesians.
That makes me think, “Huh???”
The Roman Empire – hell on women and horses
Like the old saying about Texas, the same could be said for ancient Rome, especially this portrayal of ancient Rome.
FWIW, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is not a show for those with delicate sensitivities. Both the Russell Crowe “Gladiator” movie and the recent HBO series “Rome” were “Ancient World Lite” compared to this.
With full nudity, graphic violence, “that-goes-where?” orgies and scatalogical oaths that I couldn’t even dream up, Starz runs a disclaimer/warning before each episode, that the show depicts the brutality of ancient Rome for historical accuracy.
And they’re not kidding. Some nights, I don’t feel that I’m old enough to watch it, even though I have an AARP card. Yet, I enjoy jeering for the bad guys and rooting for the good. Plus, this is a show that knows how to milk suspense.
So, when Spartacus dreams about fleeing Roman brutality aboard a Friesian, I wondered if the production might have rented a more work-a-day-looking horse for the cart?
Silly me. They’d rented two horses. But two Friesians.
The cart the horses pulled looked as dusty and as battered as a regular viewer of Spartacus would expect. A nice touch would have been for the horses to have looked a bit scruffy, too, more like the hellish steeds ridden by the Ringwraith in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
I read a story that those Ringwraith horses had been made up to look so scuzzy that concerned citizens passing the set had called animal welfare on the production company.
But, no, these horses in Spartacus, from a far-flung outpost of the Roman empire, didn’t even look that dusty. Or muddy, since a long drought had ended as a plot point.
Anyway, like the gleaming white teeth on many of the actors, the pristine cart horses made me blink. Historical accuracy? Hmm. Not in this incidence.
But I’m well aware that historical accuracy doesn’t draw people to the TV as much as the other historically accurate skin, sin and swearing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Especially for entertainment
So, what is Friesian history?
The Friesian Horse Society’s history of the breed says:
The Friesian horse is the only horse breed native to the Netherlands where the Friesian has been known since as far back as the 13th century.
Hokay. That’s a bit after the era of 300 otherwise known as the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), Alexander the Great’s time (356-322 B.C.) and the Roman Empire (@44 B.C. – 395 A.D.) But then in the next sentence:
At the start of the Christian era, the Friesian was used in battle and Friesian troops were documented in Britannia. In the 4th century, English writer Anthony Dent1 wrote about the presence of Friesian troops at Carlisle and their horses. Both cases probably involve Friesian mercenaries mounted on Friesian stallions.
Let’s see what else we can find. An article on Horsequest.com quotes a passage from a Dutch history (I would quote it, too, but they have permission, which is why I’m only linking to it.)
Paraphrased, Friesians reportedly were the mounts of Dutch horsemen serving with the legionnaires at Hadrian’s Wall. The Emperor Hadrian went to Britain in 122 A.D.
So, Friesians in the ancient world are entirely within the realm of possibility.
Equisearch takes us for a longer trip on The Way Back Machine:
As far back as Roman times, the Friesian was noted for its value as a powerful utility animal, however the Roman historian Tacitus (AS 55-120) felt compelled to make note of its ugliness!
Ugliness? Are we talking about the same breed? Or an acquired taste? Or, more likely, the modern Friesian is probably a much more refined horse than its ancestors?
But, of more importance, is the time frame.
Friesians in the ancient world are entirely within the realm of possibility. Although Cadua (the setting for Spartacus), Sparta (300) and Macedonia (Alexander’s turf) are a long way from northern Europe.
But, then again, those Roman legions got around.
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