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Why Were Mules More Popular Than Horses in the Ancient Mediterranean?



ALCALA DE LOS GAZULES, SPAIN - JULY 03: A mule carries bark from cork oaks at Parque Natural de los Alcornocales on July 3, 2013 near Alcala de los Gazules, Spain. Spain and Portugal are the largest producers of cork in the world with Los Alcornocales Natural Park in the Iberian Peninsula being the leading region for production. The ancient cork cultivated in these oak forests is a major world export, financially benefitting the region. The bark from the oak is harvested every nine years, through traditional methods. The best planks are sourced for wine bottling corks while the rest is processed into agglomerate cork. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Stringer/Getty Images
Why Were Mules More Popular Than Horses in the Ancient Mediterranean?

Question: Why Were Mules More Popular Than Horses in the Ancient Mediterranean?

Answer: The following is information from Engineering in the Ancient World, by Landels.


The horse played an insignificant part in Greek and Roman transportation. Instead, they used mules for light transport and the ox for heavy. The human porter (saccarius) is more adaptable. Limitations - at a distance of greater than 40-50 yds, the saccarius could only carry 50-60 lbs or about 4 modii, or in Greek, 2/3 of a medimnos and only about 300-400 yds. He probably moved at a speed of about 3 mph. For larger loads or distances, ancient Greeks or Romans would have used a mule or donkey with paniers.


Mules were normally bred from a mare and a male donkey. Mules are less temperamental than horses and easier to train for that type of work. Mule's skin is harder and tougher. It can withstand extreme temperatures better than a horse and can go longer without water. It has harder hooves and is more sure footed on rocky terrain. A mule needs only 4-5 hours of sleep a day. A mule goes just over 3 mph or about 50 miles in a day. Oxen might cover 5-6 miles in a day.


The Greeks and Romans preferred not to eat horse, but would occasionally eat their mules. Even if they didn't prefer to eat mule, the high cost of horse would have likely made that particular dish a very rare delicacy.

Forum Member KL47 on Horses and Mules

>>>"Mules normally from a mare and a male donkey are less temperamental than horses and easier to train for that type of work."

"Mules are also stronger than horses of similar size and have considerably greater stamina, making them ideal pack animals. In addition to being less excitable than horses, they're also noticeably more intelligent, which is where their reputation for being stubborn comes from - they can't be readily fooled or goaded into putting themselves at risk. As there's obviously no value in keeping a mule stallion "intact", they are invariably gelded, which makes them even more level-headed. Indeed, the only area in which mules are generally inferior to horses is in running speed, which is pretty much irrelevant for draft and pack animals. Of course, being a long-time resident of Missouri, where the mule is our official state animal and was one of the state's most important exports until the middle of the last century, one tends to hear a lot about their virtues!:-)"

"As the peculiar nature of mule "production" requires a carefully controlled program with a suitable supply of mares and jacks on hand to maintain the desired traits, there were large-scale mule producers in various parts of the Roman empire. Around AD 60, L. Junius Moderatus Columella wrote a work called De re rustica (usually called On Agriculture in English) which is an encyclopaedic survey of all aspects of farming, animal husbandry, plant breeding, gardening, bee-keeping and so on. Book 6 concerns the breeding of horses, mules and oxen, and includes the following passage in chapter 27:"

  • "Horses are divided into three groups: the noble breed that provides animals for holiday races in the circus; the stock used for breeding mules, which fetches a price that puts it on a level with the noble variety; and the common breed, which produces ordinary mares and stallions."
"Mule-producing mares were thus considered to be of comparable value to those on racehorse studs, and certainly worth more than those producing horses for mundane use by soldiers and civilians!"

"Columella was born at Cadiz in Spain, and it was from Spain that the most prized jacks for producing mules were obtained in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to establish the American mule "industry". I don't know if Spain was a major source of mules in Roman times, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case."


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