The Jockey of Artemision
The Jockey of Artemision, (Credit: National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Credit: Joyofmuseums , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia)

The Jockey of Artemision: An awe-inspiring Hellenistic sculpture

A rare surviving original bronze statue from Ancient Greece dating to around 140 BC and a rare example in Greek sculpture of a racehorse

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Between 1928 and 1937, a large Hellenistic bronze statue of a small boy riding a horse was found in fragments in an ancient shipwreck off Cape Artemision, in north Euboea. The equestrian statue’s original artist remains unknown, although the work dates to around 150-140 BC.  It may have been dedicated at an important sanctuary by a wealthy person to honour victories in horse races.

Dr. Seán Hemingway, archaeologist, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and grandson of Ernest Hemingway, has suggested that the statue may have been plundered from Corinth in 146 BC by the Roman general Mummius in the Achaean War and given to Attalus but lost while in transit to Pergamon.

Artemision Jockey
The Jockey of Artemision (Credit: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After much study and restoration, the statue was reassembled. It is approximately life-size, with a length of 2.9 metres and 2.1 metres high. The pair is captured in a moment of high drama, Adeline Coe an archaeologist from Furman University writes in publication. The racehorse has its rear feet on the ground while its front two legs are lifted far off the ground, giving the impression that he gallops with tremendous speed.

The Jockey of Artemision (Credit: National Archaeological Museum of Athens, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“His wide eyes, flattened ears, and exaggerated veins vividly show his strain. His wide nostrils, parted mouth, and lolling tongue almost enable the viewer to see him panting and frothing as he pushes through to the end of the race” Coe describes. The image of the goddess Nike is engraved on the animal’s right thigh, holding a wreath in her raised hands—a common brand for racehorses in Ancient Greece. 

The majestic horse dwarfs its jockey, a very young boy only 84 centimetres tall  aged around 10-12 and possibly from Africa based on his physiognomy and original black patinated surface colouring. His hairstyle, however, is Greek, suggesting a mixed heritage.The boy rides bareback without a saddle. He wears sandals and a short chiton, which is blown back by the wind. He held reigns in his left hand and a whip in his right and looks back over his left shoulder.

“The boy sits astride his horse, his body leaning close to the animal’s neck to counterbalance the horse’s bounding gait. In one hand he grips a fragment of the preexisting reins while the other hand is poised to hold a whip or crop. The drapery of his simple clothing and the locks of his hair flutter freely in the wind. His mouth hangs slack and open, showing his exhaustion to match that of the horse” the American scholar adds.

The Jockey of Artemision (Credit: I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Jockey of Artemision is on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens since 1972 and is a rare survivor. Most ancient bronzes were melted down for their raw materials some time after creation, but this one was saved from destruction when it was lost in a shipwreck in antiquity before being discovered in the twentieth century. Also found in the wreck were parts of the Artemision Bronze, another masterpiece of ancient Greek sculpture.

This horse and his boy are very different from the images of the equestrians you may have seen on the Parthenon frieze, and is an excellent representation of the expressive freedom of the the Hellenistic period of art, generally taken to begin with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.