October Horse and Noble Horse, from Ancient Rome to Ancient China

I was reminded by roguecatholicism that today is the Idea of October and therefore the day for a different sort of Oktoberfest, the ancient Roman rite of the “October Horse”.

Rite of the ‘October Horse’ — one of the many rituals which makes the study of Roman religion so fascinating. On this day a race between two-horse chariots would be held in the Campus Martius, and the right hand horse of the victorious pair would be sacrificed by the flamen of Mars on an altar (in the Campus Martius, of course). After the sacrifice, people who lived in the Via Sacra neighbourhood would fight the people who lived in the Suburra for the right to the head. If the ‘via sacranites’ won, they’d display it on the Regia; if the Suburranites won, it would be displayed at the Turris Mamilia. Meanwhile, the cauda (tail – genitals) would be rushed to the Regia so the blood would drip on the sacred hearth; the Vestal Virgins also probably kept some of the blood for use at the Parilia on April 21.

By the by, Colleen McCullough (yes, we all know what else she wrote) penned a series of books set in ancient Rome beginning with the rise of Gaius Marius in The First Man in Rome and going all the way through the time of Caesar into the whole Anthony and Cleopatra train wreck.  One of the books is The October Horse which concerns the assassination of Julius Caesar and the rise of Octavian.  The books are well-researched for historical novels.  She explains where she takes any liberties and why.  They do, however, stick well to the history of the devolution of the Republic and give great explanations of the events, Roman law, religion, culture, the fierce politics and dynamics of families and tradition, the role of the military.  The first volume, on Gaius Marius, shows she is just getting her feet wet. She hits her stride in The Grass Crown, about Sulla.  Yes, there are objectionable passages, blahhhaity blah blaaaaah.  Skip them and don’t get worked up.  They are historical novels, but they have a great deal of just straight history in them.

Speaking of horses, yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, I saw the new exhibit about the time of Kublai Khan.  It is worth your time.

There was a moving scroll with from the early 14th century of a stallion, head down, emaciated, walking slowly.  The horse’s mane and tail are being swept forward by the wind, blowing from behind (the past).  The image by Gong Kai is probably autobiographical, a lament about being a left-over from a past era, after a change of dynasty.  The artist explains in the inscription that horses are shown with their slender ribs.  Normal horses have but 10.  But “Noble Horses”, a “thousand-league” horse has as many as 15.  To display all these ribs in clarity the horse must be emaciated.


“I have made this image in order to show that the extraordinary deterioration of this thousand-league horse is not something to be avoided.”

Perhaps this is a good point of reflection for many of us who see so many problems in the Church today as result of a “change of dynasty” as it were, a time of discontinuity and rupture.

The Noble Horse:

Gong Kai

If you are in the area of Manhattan, go to see this exhibit before it leaves!

Also look for the Nestorian Cross and the 14th c. hanging scroll depiction of Christ as a Manichean prophet with a Cross emerging from a lotus.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Nitpick moment: Normal horses have 18 pair of ribs. Arabians have 17 pair. The noble horse shown is clearly of Arabian breed, by the testimony of its very typical head. However, the basic point of the story is still true, even if the factoid wasn’t right; adversity does display what you’re made of, and whether you have 18 ribs or you’re an Arabian. [Is it possible that the artist was speaking about the meaning of artistic representations of horses in Chinese art? Seeing that he was a 14th century Chinese artist explaining his own work, I think it is likely that that is the case.]

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    More nitpicking from the horsey set:

    Not an Arabian. The head has a straight profile, like a Barb or Andalusian, not the classic “dish face” of an Arabian. Ear set is too far back as well. Also, Arabians do not have the high withers, and their croup is lower. The shoulder is almost upright, which is also atypical of a hot blood.

    But oh my goodness what a pitiful sight! He’s got an elbow boil too. Makes you want to run for the bran mash and the Red Cell.

  3. AnAmericanMother says:

    Speaking of Arabs, [I never did. Let me be clear about that.] an antidote in the form of George Stubbs’s magnificent painting of Whistlejacket, owned by Rockingham. He was an early Thoroughbred (1740s) and thus almost entirely Arabian (what we would call an Anglo-Arab now). The small head, concave profile, well laid back shoulder, short back and smooth withers are characteristic.


    The only way to count ribs and such is to hang around the knacker’s yard, which is exactly what George Stubbs did. His horses really look like horses because he painted them from the inside out.

  4. Dr. Eric says:

    Wasn’t Kublai Khan also in Beijing when John of Montecorvino started evangelizing China?

  5. Ah, the dangers of nitpicking… Just as a spelling or grammar post usually comes with its own errors, a nitpick exposes one’s own lack of knowledge. But I’m okay with finding out I’m wrong, as long as I learn stuff.

    And yes, Father Z, I do understand the poetry of it. But factoids that sound true have a way of escaping into the wild and becoming believed as literal truth, so I wanted to make it clear that “10 ribs” is a folklore fact, not a fact fact. Especially since I’m exactly the sort of person who remembers and disgorges factoids.

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    Suburbanbanshee, you’re not far wrong actually. The “celestial horse” or “noble horse” is probably a descendant of the Turkmenistan desert horses imported to China along the Silk Road. The Turkmenistan breed is now known as the Akhal-Teke, and though it has a straight or slightly Roman nose profile, a longer back, long straight neck, and higher withers, it arose under similar conditions to the Arabian and shares a lot of traits. All the desert horses in the Middle East are related to each other, though the experts spend a lot of time arguing over exactly how. There’s an article on the net about some DNA typing done by Chinese geneticists on the local Chinese breeds, which would probably shed some light — but it’s on one of the paid services. If I get over to Emory U anytime soon I’ll try to remember to look at it.

    The Russians took over the breed in the late 19th century and founded a studbook (and named it). Of course like many horsebreeders they did some outcrossing, so the type is somewhat modified from the original. I’m sure the Chinese wound up outcrossing to their indigenous horses as well. But it seems to me, looking at the available pictures, that the “Noble Horse” is related to the Akhal-Teke. The long mouth of the Noble Horse looks more like the Akhal-Teke than the “teacup muzzle” of an Arabian. The sobriquet of “Thousand League Horse” would indicate that as well, since the Akhal-Teke is a notable endurance horse and eats up the miles even under very hot and dry conditions.

    early Akhal-Teke (foaled 1909)

    Another interesting thing is that the breed comes in metallic colors, especially a bright bronze.

    golden Akhal-Teke

    They also tend to be naturally very thin and rangy, with notably long legs, especially compared to some of the indigenous Chinese breeds which are rather short and stocky. If you’re used to plump little saddle/draft breeds, one of the “high horses” looks like a bag of bones even when he’s at a good weight.

  7. Fr Simon says:

    An answer to your question, Father, might in part be given by the small diocese of Frejus-Toulon in France, where something like what you are suggesting is taking place. The result: 13 priests and 21 deacons ordained this year in a ceremony which had to take place outside because the Cathedral was too small. I posted about it myself a little while ago after a visit there as my old seminary was closing, while the diocesan seminary there had been kept going though the lean years and is now much needed again. http://offerimustibidomine.blogspot.com/2010/10/ushaw-college-to-close.html

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