Why Is This Black Youth Scuffling With a Horse?

Image of the Week: A Greek sculpture depicts an African groom who may have been a descendant of a highly skilled equine culture.

Greek. Black groom steadying a horse, from Athens, late fourth century B.C. Marble, 200 by 190 cm.
Greek. Black groom steadying a horse, from Athens, late fourth century B.C. Marble, 200 by 190 cm. National Museum, Athens

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

One of the most well-preserved, vivid impressions of the ancient Greek exaltation of the living form is evoked with consummate artistry in this sumptuous marble relief, carved in Athens more than two millennia ago. The main subject of the relief, as it exists now, is the magnificent steed carved in high relief across the surface of the panel. More broadly, however, its most fascinating feature is the frisson established by the sculptor between the spirited animal and the black groom who tries to restrain it.

The work today consists of two thin slabs of fine-grained, Pentelic marble, the same stone used to sculpt the figures that once graced the Parthenon. Filling the space of the relief is a spirited stallion, its every sinew straining as it is held in place by the black horse groom. The magnificent animal is a prized specimen, sporting a close-cropped mane and wearing a panther skin arranged so that the head of the feline hangs from his chest. One of the most remarkable qualities of the relief is manifested by the depth of its carving, especially in the upper zone, where the heads of the nearly life-sized horse and groom emerge from the stone in three-dimensional form.

The black groom wears a chiton, a common garment especially suited for strenuous activity, and short, form-fitting boots. His upturned face is rendered with skill and sensitivity. The gracefully curving features of his face and the tightly knit curls of hair characterize him unmistakably as of African origin. As he whistles through pursed lips, the youth looks into the eyes of the horse to gauge the intentions of his charge. With his right hand he holds up a whip, while he tries to calm the animal with the other. The groom’s face is not idiosyncratic enough to be taken as a portrait, but the suavity of his features faithfully captures the essence of youthful ardor and intelligence.

The entire visual effect of the relief once depended on the vivid coloring applied to its surfaces. The play of solid form and movement conveyed by the swelling masses of stone was dramatically accentuated by contrasting tones of color. From surviving traces of pigment, the skin of the groom was painted black, while the panther skin on the horse’s back was rendered in light red. Almost certainly the rest of the panel was painted as well. The martial context of the relief was further conveyed by the image of a warrior’s helmet and leather armor once depicted above the back of the horse and now reduced to near invisibility.

This outstanding example of Greek sculpture has been much discussed in the scholarly literature. The two preserved figures have been tentatively inserted into several reconstructed contexts of varied complexity and design. The simplest format is that of a free-standing naiskos, or grave marker in the form of a small temple. In this case the monument as it exists today may essentially be intact. The horse’s appearance suggests participation in a public ceremony or the commemoration of a battle. Remarkably, the person honored by the relief would be evoked solely by the symbolic image of the riderless horse.

The relief was discovered quite unexpectedly in 1948 during a routine construction project. The locale was almost certainly not its original site, since many of the tombs in this area date from the late Roman period and were constructed of material scavenged from earlier monuments. The relief most likely comes from the demosion sema, or public cemetery, which lay outside Athens in a long, narrow zone dedicated to the memorialization of the city’s most illustrious citizens.

Although Athenian in style, the relief reflects the impress on the social and political fortunes of the city by the powerful state of Macedonia to the north. This was especially felt during the struggle between the two powers waged during the last decades of the fourth century B.C. Recently, the historians Olga Palagia and Stephen Tracy have suggested that the relief was set up to honor Phokion, a prominent Athenian leader of the time. In 317 B.C., shortly after this monument was erected, the Athenians banned the practice of such “showy” public displays. In this case the black groom makes his curtain call in this particular context, though more generally his image persists in Western art to this day.