Roman Imperial horses?

A type of horse which was ridden by Roman emperors is to be recognised for the first time as a distinct breed. The Maremmano horses of Lazio, the region around Rome, are believed to be the descendants of steeds ridden by emperors such as Marcus Aurelius 2,000 years ago.

Their distinctive characteristics include a strong build, a broad chest, thick manes and tails, and robust legs. The archetype of the breed can be seen in many of Rome's bronze and marble equestrian statues, most notably one of Marcus Aurelius which stands in front of the city's town hall, in a piazza designed by Michelangelo in the 1530s for Pope Paul III.

Genetic studies have shown that the breed is unique to the Maremma, a marshy region which straddles the border between Lazio and Tuscany. They are different even to a breed of horses in the Tuscan part of the Maremma, which is famous in Italy for its home-grown cowboys, known as "butteri", skilled horsemen who manage the region's herds of sheep and huge white bulls.

The Lazio horses are about to be officially recognised as a separate breed by the Association of Italian Breeders. The genetic make-up of more than 130 of the horses was studied by Donato Matassino, from the agriculture department of a university in Naples. He is preparing to publish the results in an American science periodical.

"We're establishing a regional register for the protection of the genome, which is unique to Lazio," he told Corriere della Sera newspaper. Breeders hope that the historic link with Rome's emperors will increase the value of the horses and help to preserve the breed.


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