The story

Call in the Cavalry: Famous Cavalries of the Ancient World

Call in the Cavalry: Famous Cavalries of the Ancient World



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‘Call in the Cavalry’ has become a proverb for reverting to damage-control expert assistance when things get out of hand. Yet the quote is embedded in the history of a noble and often elite unit originally formed to provide support to the infantry. Before the tank bulldozed its way into the annals of military history, there was the cavalry; the horse and its rider. Like every modern nation today, ancient kingdoms also had some kind of mobile land support, designed to punch holes through enemy lines, but only a handful of nations had the best trained cavalry, and their reputations withstood the test of time.

Warrior of Scythians, second part of VII and VI century BC ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Scythians’ Light Cavalry

The Scythians (present-day Ukraine) may not have been the original inventors of asymmetrical warfare, but one could argue that they perfected it. The Scythians were ancient nomadic horse warriors who were first mentioned by the Assyrians during the reign of Sargon II (722 – 705 BC). What made these horsemen so powerful was that they were raised in the saddle and they used a very distinctive bow.

Their weapon of choice was the composite bow. The Scythian and Cimmerian bows were unique and revered throughout the ancient world by kings, historians, and a philosopher. King Esarhaddon of Assyria had a Cimmerian bow, the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus were equipped with their bows and arrows, and even Hercules’ Greek portrait displays him armed with a Scythian bow. The Greek philosopher Plato, commented: “The customs of the Scythians proves our error; for they not only hold the bow from them with the left hand and draw the arrow to them with their right, but use either hand for both purposes.”

Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs by Viktor Vasnetsov. (1881) ( Public Domain )

When one examines the Scythian lifestyle, one can easily gain an understanding of the type of warfare they employed as opposed to the more sedentary (non-migratory) people, like those in Mesopotamia. The Scythian adopted a guerilla approach to warfare as their method, not to be confused with terrorism. The term ‘guerrilla warfare’ means irregular warfare and its doctrine advocates for the use of small bands to conduct hit-and-run military operations. Herodotus mentions their method of warfare when King Darius of Persia campaigned against them


Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World

Gaebel (henceforth G.) has joined a group of scholars who have recently taken up the topic of ancient Greek cavalry: G.R. Bugh, The Horsemen of Athens, Princeton, 1988 I.G. Spence, The Cavalry of Classical Greece: A Social and Military History, Oxford, 1993 and L.J. Worley, Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece, Boulder, CO, 1994. Ancient Greek cavalry has recently become somewhat of a hot topic, but he proposes that “there is still room for a purely military study of the subject from the beginning of the Classical period to the end of Greek independence [ca. 150 BC] especially since much of the content of recent works is devoted to social history” (xi). Reconstructing battles, or operations on the battlefield in antiquity, ultimately rest on a collection of a few surviving historical narratives, e.g., Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, to which point G. concedes the “inherent inaccuracy and incompleteness of all battle accounts” (p. 8). His following statements are, however, puzzling: “I have adopted as a working hypothesis the premise that examination of the original sources in the aggregate would reveal a sufficient amount of correct and consistent information about cavalry operations and fighting style to permit a reasonably clear understanding of the use of the mounted arm in antiquity” (p. 8). To suggest that this approach is something new, that modern commentators of ancient battles impose “rational, scholarly principles and logic to primary sources” is a straw man. G. is doing exactly what empiricists have done before him, milk the sparse and fragmentary primary sources and then reconstruct the battle. What G. produces, then, can be summed up in his own words, “a chronologically arranged study of battle narratives and commentary covering the period from circa 500 to 150” (p. 9). This is, plain and simple, a book for military historians.

The book is divided into four broad chronological sections: Part 1: Background: Circa 2000 to 500 B.C. Part 2: The Greek Cavalry: 500 to 360 B.C. Part 3: The Age of Philip and Alexander: 359 to 323 B.C. and Part 4: The Aftermath: 323 to 150 B.C. There follows a conclusion a list of battles a selection of maps and battle plans, a glossary, bibliography, and index. It is not clear to me why G. needed to devote almost 30 pages to chapters 2 and 3 of Part 1, material covering much earlier time periods and non-Greek cavalries. It is entirely derivative, and could have been condensed. Although the Archaic period (800-500 B.C.) is slight in battle accounts (outside of the Homeric poems), it is rich in Black and Red figure pottery, an ample quantity of which depict horsemen in various activities. G. reasonably accepts P. A. L. Greenhalgh’s ( Early Greek Warfare. Cambridge, 1973) basic thesis that mounted hoplites tend to monopolize the seventh century ceramic evidence while true cavalry appear increasingly in the sixth. His comment, “It is perhaps unlikely that by 500 cavalry played an important military role anywhere south of Thessaly, where cavalry traditionally dominated, but there can be little doubt that there were aristocratic cavalrymen on the battlefields in some states, if not in Athens” (p. 59) is consistent with the evidence.

In Part 2, G. constructs petits-chapters around historical segments of time, e.g., Persian Wars, 500-479 B.C., the Pentekontaetia, 479-432 B.C., the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., The March of the Ten Thousand, 404-399 B.C., etc., down to 360 B.C. This schema strikes me as a bit misleading it should not be assumed that changes in cavalry operations justify these narrow divisions. Several theses emerge out of these chapters: 1) true cavalry, limited to hippotrophic Sicily and northern Greece, i.e., Thessaly and Macedon, until the period of the Persian Wars, begin to appear in the armies of the poleis of southern Greece by the mid-fifth century B.C. — perhaps from the lessons learned at the hands of the formidable Persian and Boeotian cavalry 2) the Peloponnesian War marks the great divide, the turning point for the regular use of, and respect for, the capabilities of cavalry in Greek warfare, to wit, that the world did not begin and end with the hoplite warrior 3) from the Peloponnesian War to the time of Philip of Macedon, the Greek cavalry was more militarily important than previously granted by modern scholars. Moreover, the gradual introduction of a more aggressive hand-to-hand, in-your-face cavalry engagement with lance or sword — in contrast to the hurling of javelins from a safe distance and then galloping off to the security of one’s hoplite lines — generated a rougher edge and decisive possibilitites to cavalry combat this was consciously cultivated by the Thebans under their famous cavalry commander Pelopidas and by the Macedonians under Philip II and Alexander the Great (cf. p. 310) and 4) the commonly held belief that the lack of stirrups and saddles limited the effectiveness of ancient Greek cavalry (in contrast to the famous heavily-armed medieval knights with lances) is brought into question by G., who obviously draws from his own equestrian experience.

The first two propositions represent nothing particularly original, having been noted by other modern writers on cavalry in this period, but the last two merit further comment. It is dangerous generalizing when G. remarks after examining the sketchy battle accounts of the Corinthian War (395-386 B.C.) that “Greek cavalry of this period almost certainly lacked nerve — a fearless, aggressive mentality that was essential if horsemen were to engage in close combat with spear and sword. Such qualities do not seem to have been common among cavalrymen until the rise of Macedon under Philip. Their absence in 394 may reflect a lower level of training and discipline or perhaps an incomplete awareness of the full potential of cavalry” (p. 120). Dexileos, a young Athenian horseman who died on the battlefield in 394 and was memorialized in an inscription and a magnificent cavalry relief found in the ancient cemetery, certainly did not lack ‘nerve’, nor presumably his fellow troopers whose names are proudly recorded on a cavalry funerary monument in the National Archeological Museum. Secondly, G. has to reject Xenophon’s own address to his troops on the march up country from Persia (Anabasis 3.2.18-19), to the effect that hoplites had the advantage over cavalry (Persian) because infantry stood firmly on the ground, while cavalrymen were vulnerable to a phalanx of spears and were prone to fall off their horses in the melee. Of course, ancient Greek and Macedonian cavalrymen rode and fought well without the benefit of stirrups and saddles, but to suggest that it was an advantage in combat (p. 165) is romanticizing bareback riding to the extreme (and I have done a fair bit of bareback riding myself).

Part 3 deals with the age of Philip and Alexander. G. is correct to suggest that military innovations often attributed to Philip and his famous son were the culmination of progressive cavalry developments beginning as early as the Peloponnesian War and extending into the mid-fourth century. G. argues that Philip and Alexander implemented a more rigorous regimen of training that they integrated the diverse arms of infantry, cavalry, and light-armed troops more effectively and that they capitalized on the advantage of ‘asymmetrical’ forces on the battlefield. “Asymmetry occurs on the battlefield when one or more differences exist between two armies in such a manner that one side is able to exploit them for its own advantage” (p. 4). Alexander’s personal command of a cavalry strike force and his brilliant coordination of infantry and cavalry against the Persian armies are interpreted as perfect example of his exploitation of this ‘asymmetry’.

Interestingly, G. has adopted a suggestion by P. Rahe ( AJA 85, 84-87) and J. Buckler ( Teiresias 20, supp. 3, 75-80) that the eighteen-year old Alexander led an infantry force to victory against the elite Theban Sacred Band at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. (pp. 155-57, 261, 278, 286). This idea stands in sharp contrast to Alexander’s famous cavalry exploits, glorified in art and literature, during the Persian campaigns. While it is true that no ancient source explicitly associates cavalry with Alexander at Chaeronea, he is usually thought of as commanding the Macedonian Companion Cavalry on that day. On balance, I think G. is too eager to accept the revisionist reconstruction, and he knows all too well the paucity of our ancient accounts of the battle. Philip certainly had cavalry with him, precisely because he knew that the plains of Boeotia were ideal for cavalry operations (as Mardonius had concluded in 480 B.C.), that both the Thebans and the Athenians had respectable cavalry forces, and that the area around Chaeronea was well suited to its use (contra p. 157). It might be useful to compare Plutarch’s narrative (Sulla 11-21) of Bruttius Sura’s and Sulla’s campaigns around Chaeronea and Orchomenos in 86 B.C. where cavalry operations are prominently featured.

G. rejects the theory advanced by M.M. Markle ( AJA 81, 323-39 AJA 82, 483-97) that the Macedonian cavalry wielded a long spear, over 20 feet long, analogous to the sarissa held by the Macedonian infantry, arguing instead that the Macedonian cavalry lance was only seven to ten feet in length. The only cavalry force which might have carried a long lance ( sarissa) would have been the prodromoi, at times called sarissophoroi — advance mounted forces and skirmishers/scouts which Alexander deployed during his early Persian campaigns (pp. 172-79). G. mentions in passing that there was also a force of prodromoi at Athens in this period (p. 178), but he apparently missed the recent article that calls into question their lower social status (G.R. Bugh, Hesperia 67, 81-90). In addition, G. claims that Alexander’s perceived preference for cavalry over other military arms is not supported by the evidence, and that his success lay in his “tactical open-mindedness and exceptional adaptability” (p. 196).

G. continues his survey of battles after the death of Alexander in Part 4, particularly the ones waged by his generals (later kings) and their descendants. G. advances the iconoclastic idea that cavalry did not become the preferred military arm of the Successors, that in fact the infantry retained its preeminence on the Hellenistic battlefield (pp. 261-62, 295, 298, 311), and that the lessons of Alexander’s military success were to be found in his ability to effectively coordinate cavalry and infantry. The real novelty in Hellenistic warfare was the co-option of the war elephant, and G. nicely assesses their battlefield role in the Hellenistic period. It is regrettable, however, that G. chose not to comment in similar detail on the value of two distinct cavalry forces on the Hellenistic battlefield, the Tarentines (pp. 216-17, 230, 244) and the so-called ‘cataphracts’, the fully-armored heavy cavalrymen (pp. 173, 245, 251-52). G. would have the reader believe that the Tarentine cavalry was a light, mercenary cavalry from Tarentum (in southern Italy), but this description is blurred by the presence of Tarentine cavalry in second-century B.C. Athens under the command of Athenian hipparchs this may suggest that ‘Tarentine’ was a style, a type of light cavalry (originally from Tarentum) which became increasingly popular in the Hellenistic period. G. sprinkles references to cataphracts throughout his text, but does not sufficiently explain their origins nor significance to cavalry operations in the post-Alexander period. More curious, however, is that G. does not even bother to include an entry for the cataphracts in his index, whereas he does for the prodromoi and Tarentines.

G. returns to his principal theme of ‘asymmetry’ and ‘symmetry’, arguing that the armies of the Successors were so evenly matched, “virtual mirror images of one another, each exhibiting the same strengths and weaknesses” (pp. 219, 233, 264, 295) that none of them had a decided advantage and consequently the victories were not decisive. However, G.’s survey of ancient military treatises (pp. 303-310), mainly Xenophontic, to test the hypothesis that Greek commanders actually thought in these terms and applied them on the battlefield is hardly persuasive, and threatens to reduce his commentary to the same rationalistic, scripted models he accuses modern arm-chair tacticians of imposing on ancient battles. Nevertheless, G. has some justification to claim: “an awareness of the effect of symmetry has not always been recognized as a determinant of tactical options” (p. 301). G. cannot resist the pull of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general. Although G. is hardly breaking new ground when he concludes that Alexander the Great and Hannibal were military geniuses, he adds some color to the standard portraits by explaining that these two are exceptional because “they were able to recognize and exploit the asymmetry between their armies and those of their enemies to achieve decisive victories with seemingly spectacular cavalry tactics” (p. 310). The symmetry of evenly matched Hellenistic armies and generals led to few other opportunities of this sort.

The book is relatively clean, but there remain a few typos and mistakes: p. 90 (‘Peloponnesian’ for ‘Pelopennesian’) p. 96 (‘Thracians’ for ‘Tracians’) p. 297 (‘Antiochus I’ for ‘Antiochus III’) pp. 313-314 (confusing use of ‘Cynoscephalae I’ and ‘Cynoscephalae’ — shouldn’t be ‘Cynoscephalae II’?) p. 317, on map (‘Coronea’ for ‘Choronea’) p. 318, on map (‘Pherae’ for ‘Pharae’ and ‘Aegae’ is not correctly located with respect to Pydna) p. 325, Glossary ( prodromoi refers only to Alexander’s cavalry units, no reference to Athens yet Athenian infantry are referred under ‘taxis’) p. 329 (‘I. Worthington’ for ‘I worthington’) p. 344 (inconsistent use of royal epithets for Ptolemy I, III, and IV— none for Ptolemy III). Finally, this book is terribly repetitive: the ‘Conclusion’ is longer (34 pages!) than any of the chapters, and it rehashes again and again much of what was covered in them. The editor should have pulled in the reins and insisted on more restraint.

This book covers a lot of familiar ground — the primary sources are standard and most of the battles fought many times before — but it is carefully researched and fair-minded enough in its argumentation for the general (Greek-less) reader to come away with a good understanding of Greek cavalry in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. It is a welcome corrective to those books hung up on the classical period, as if nothing important happened after Alexander the Great. G.’s book contributes some new ideas to the field of ancient Greek military studies generally, and cavalry studies particularly, and the diachronic format should appeal to linear-minded students of military history. No future study of ancient Greek cavalry tactics will risk omitting a reference to ‘asymmetry’, and the thesis that cavalry did not supersede infantry on Hellenistic battlefields should stimulate lively debate. I am happy to include this book in my library.


10 The Peltasts


Peltasts were Greek light infantrymen and skirmishers of the late fifth century. Usually recruited from the ranks of Thracian mercenaries and citizenry, they were the original peasant army. They were most often armed with spears, javelins, or slings, and they used light shields called pelts, from which they get their name.

The peltast forces would open a battle, launching their javelin or sling attacks, and then retreat to let the better-protected phalanx move in. As the phalanx cleared the way, the peltasts would advance again, and the process would repeat itself until both armies were engaged in close quarters.

Peltasts generally wore no armor and fared poorly if forced into hand-to-hand combat. However, these brave skirmishers fought alongside their much better-protected phalanxes, sowing panic and confusion among the enemy hoplite phalanxes and maintaining the ability to avoid attack. Peltasts even went at it with Spartans, playing an important role in the Peloponnesian Wars in 425 B.C. at the island of Sphakteria, where the Spartans faced a nearly unprecedented defeat at the hands of the Athenians.


Types of Roman Cavalry

  • Lancearii or Antesignani: The Roman light cavalry, the Equites Legionis was generally this type of trooper.
  • Conttarii: These troop types were created under the reign of Trajan probably to counter the cavalry of the Sarmatian people and carried the heavy lance (contus).
  • Cataphractii or Clibanarii: This heavy cavalry was developed in the east and probably first appeared in Roman service under Hadrian. They were completely armored from head to toe to counter archers.
  • Sagittarii: Mounted archers.

The heart of Alexander’s success

For Alexander, the Macedonian phalanx would be the nucleus of his army throughout his conquests – from his first victory on Asian soil at the Granicus in 334 BC, to his final pitched battle against Porus, King of the Parauvas, at the Hydaspes River in India.

Indeed, so vital was the Macedonian phalanx to the perceived invincibility of Alexander’s army, that he even recruited 30,000 Asian levies and had them trained in the Macedonian manner.

This provided Alexander another phalanx formation to rival the one made up of now-grumbling Macedonian veterans it also provided him a ready supply of pikemen, available for future conquests.

The Macedonian phalanx was thus critical to Alexander’s entire campaigning life. This was partly due to a brilliant battle tactic Alexander used that made the most of his core infantrymen: the hammer and anvil.


ANCIENT GREEK CAVALRY (1000-350 BC)

In the Aegean basin the horse as a tool of warfare appears from 1700 BC. The initial use of the animal was for chariot traction. The importance of the horse as a tool of warfare appears in the poems of Homer who names the two horses of Ares (Mars) Panic and Fear (1) and in Hesiod who also confirms it. (2)

The nomads of the Eurasian steppes were the first to develop the art of riding but its propagation to the Balkans is probably due to the Thracians. The struggles of the Minoans and Mycenaeans to establish colonies in the Late Bronze Age Thrace, is probably the source of the myth about the flesh eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. Hercules finally managed to capture and bring to Mycenae these terrible animals. (3) From the myth we conclude that the spread of horsemanship skills in southern Greece was a long and arduous process. Hercules 9th Labor to possess the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (4) informs us that the Greeks were very influenced by the Scythians in the matters of horsemanship equipment.

Many believe that the cavalry initially was used more in the role of scouts, as the tradition of the time wanted the aristocratic charioteers to dominate the battlefield and the small Greek horses could not carry armored men. But since the beginning of larger horses appearance, armored horsemen began to make their presence felt in battlefield. While only half of the charioteers could fight due to the need of one serving as a chariot driver, all the riders could engage the enemy. The sudden onslaught of fighters who had the skill to ride and fight at the same time served as a basis for the legend of the Centaurs.

Horsemen of the Geometric Period 1150-900 BC. Source A. Salimbeti

Some scholars say the word centaur means «bulls killer» (5). They also argue that the horsemen helped Doreans fighting against the Achaeans who fought under the bull emblem. Others argue that myths relevant to the brutality of the Centaurs have their source at the problems that the Doreans faced from their unpredictable Thracian or Scythian allies who fought on horseback. There is also the view that the legend of the Centaurs has to do with animistic rites in honor of the Moon that were preserved in the area of Thessaly. (6)

With the chaotic battle mode dominant in the Geometric Era cavalry cavalry usage saw its peak. The war took the form of raids and the horsemen were invaluable to terrorize the less organized footmen. They were also adept at snatching flocks by taking advantage of their superior mobility. The myth of the Dioscuri, considered protectors of horsemen is definitely related to the importance attributed to cavalry.

Geometric Era Horseman with round shields. Photo: Author’s archive. Geometric Era amphora from Paros Museum depicting horsemen with round shields.

Already by the time of Homer reappears the dense fighters close order array, which effectively checked the momentum of the enemy. (7) The heavily armed infantrymen who maintained their cohesion could intercept and resist the cavalry charge. But until the middle of the archaic period, the hoplites were limited in number as they were nearly all coming from noble families and constituted a small part of the total number of combatants. The cavalry could avoid the front of the hoplites and attack the lighter equipped fighters. If the horsemen put the light troops to flight they would reveal the side of the hoplite phalanx with disastrous results.

The most typical case where the cavalry won the battle in the archaic period was the war between Chalcis and Eretria for Lelantine field. (8) The «Hippovotae», i.e. aristocrats of Chalcis closed an agreement with the Thessalian Cleomachus to have assistance from the famous Thessalian horsemen. The Thessalians defeated the lighter cavalry Eretrians and their allies and then flanked the infantry tilting the balance in favor of Chalcis. Cleomachus was killed in battle and Chalcidians honored him as a local hero.

Athenian 5th century black figure depicting a warrior mounting. Ashmolean Museum AN 1884 710 Courtesy J. Conyard

The Thessalian horsemen became notorious and are starting to become an integral part of mercenary forces serving the various tyrants appearing in the Greek World during the archaic period. The most famous are Cineas horsemen serving Peisistratos. They dominated the Attic plains thus preventing the raids of the Alcmaeonides and their allies. They even managed to repel the Laconian Mora of Skiritis under Anchimolus (ally of the Alcmaeonides) with heavy losses. (9)

Thessalian cavalry

As mentioned, Thessalian horsemen were sought after as mercenaries. The plain of Thessaly was an ideal location for raising horses. Its fertile land made the local aristocrats wealthy so they created horse-breeding farms. Until the Middle Ages where a special harness that allowed the use of the horse for work was discovered, the possession of these animals was the privilege of the rich, as there was no other use for horses other than hunting and war.

Thessalian horseman from a 19th century drawing

The Thessalian cities formed a federation known as «The Thessalian Commonwealth». They elected a supreme military commander who was called “tagos” i.e. man that marshals the troops. Two families: the Alevadae of Larissa and Scopadae of Crannon, competed ruthlessly for the post of the «Commander of the Thessalians.» According to an excerpt from the lost work of Aristotle “Constitution of the Thessalians», the first “tagos” was Alevas the Red. He divided Thessaly into four regions (tetrarchiae). Each tetrarchy was divided into land allotments (kleroi) each of them with the obligation to provide 40 horsemen and 80 hoplites. (10)

The power of their horsemen made the Thessalians overlords of the Aenianians and the Peraivians who fought mainly as a light infantry. Opponents of the Thessalians faced serious problems as hoplite warfare was not well established among the Phocians and the Locrians. The Phocians though defeated the Thessalian cavalry near Hyampolis by using camouflaged ditches.(11) Nevertheless, Thessalians thanks to their cavalry could defend their fertile land effectively.

The conflicting interests of the Thessalian aristocrats caused the collapse of the defense in Tempe in 480 BC during the Persian Wars. Thessalians though escaped the consequences of submitting to Xerxes thanks to the support of the Athenians. So they became their allies until the later defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The fall of Athens opened the appetite of the Pherrean tyrants for hegemony in Greece. The strength of the Thessalian cavalry reaching at the time 16000 horsemen (12) was a force to be reckoned for the exhausted by civil conflicts southern Greece. The tyrant Jason of Pherrae even tried to create a fleet but this raised concerns in Achaemenid Court. So Persian involvement in the murders of the Thessalian rulers and the financing of the Boeotians in order to oppose them cannot be excluded. (13) Thessaly, torn by civil strife passed under the sovereignty of Philip II and its famous cavalry was incorporated in his army.

Athenian cavalry

Although the aristocratic families of Athens had the ability of maintaining horses, the Athenians were slow to develop a cavalry arm. Most aristocrats bred horses for their chariot or chariot races. Although there was provisions and regulations in the legislation of Solon about citizens that had income to keep horses (triakosiomedimnoi) the results were dismal. The first combat ready horsemen might belong to the Peonidae clan of Peisistratos, as the horse appears as the emblems of their shields.

Black figure kylix by Ischylus, painted by Epictetus and depicting an Athenian Horseman. Dated in 520 BC. British Museum London E 3

The Athenians, however fought during the Persian Wars without the support of their cavalry. Around 442 BC when magistrate was Diefphilos, probably with the law instigated by Pericles the cavalry corps is increased to one thousand men. Except the hoplites, each Athenian “tribe” (phyle) was also obliged to provide a number of horsemen. Their “tribal” leader commanded the cavalrymen of each “tribe”. (phylarchos) These officers were subject to the two hipparchs (cavalry commanders) who had the overall command of the cavalry and were elected annually. The HIPPARCHEION was near the Agora but so far its exact location is unknown .

Both men and horses were tested for competence every year. Those failing inspection were deleted from the lists of units. During the Peloponnesian War an allowance of one drachma established for the horse’s feeding. On entering war service the rider was provided an additional allowance (katastasis) but he give it back at the end of the war unless the animal had died or incapacitated during active service. The Athenians had units of heavy cavalry and light cavalry, in which usually served younger age classes (14) As light cavalry we can classify also the horse-archers (hippotoxotes). (15) It is almost certain that they were Scythians or Thracians with the Thracians being less likely.

Athenian cavalrymen. Image based on Parthenon freezes

The Athenian cavalry saw action and excelled during the Peloponnesian War. The leaders of Athens had serious doubts about gaining the upper hand over the Peloponnesians particularly the Spartan hoplites. It was determined however, not allow them to plunder the land of Attica unopposed. The light infantry or soldiers who had left their heavy gear in their camp did the looting of the enemy’s land. In order to plunder the Peloponnesians had to break down into small groups. The Athenians sent against them their cavalry and inflicted serious losses (16) Raiding parties should be supported by hoplites behind which they sought cover if the light cavalry and light infantry of Athens had not engaged them first. The Athenian heavy cavalry provided support in case the light horsemen were attacked from the enemy’s heavy cavalry, especially Boeotian horsemen. Athenian cavalry was particularly useful in hindering the activities of the Peloponnesian camp at Dekelia. (17)

The horsemen of Athens transported by the fleet were a continuous threat to the Peloponnesian coastal cities. (18) They were also useful in small numbers to subdue the mutinous islander allies of Athens, who lacked sufficient hoplites to resist them. The big test for the Athenian cavalry was the Sicilian campaign. The Athenians, despite warnings from their general Nicias underestimated their opponent. (19) They sent horsemen even without mounts with a view to procure horses in Sicily. (20) The defeat in Sicily undermined Athenian power and also their cavalry capabilities. The glorious last action of this corps was the battle of Tamynae at Evoia. (21)

Boeotian cavalry

After Thessaly, Boeotian plains were the most suitable for breeding horses. The Boeotian cavalry made its appearance in the archaic period at the battle Kerissos where the Boeotians repulsed the Thessalian invasion (22). Unfortunately they also proved very effective against Megareans and Phleiasians during the battle of Plataea while fighting alongside the Persians. (23)

Horseman from Beotean black figure pottery made by the «Atalanda painter». Harvard University Art Museums

The rise of the Boeotian cavalry begins with the Peloponnesian War, where it helped to repelling the Thracian mercenaries at Mycalissos. (24) It also offered important services at Delium and later ensured the Theban dominance in the Boeotian plain by defeating Thespians under the Spartan general Phoebidas who was killed during the battle. (25)

The riders with white helmets are valuable instrument in the hands of Pelopidas and Epaminondas after the expulsion of the Spartans from Boeotia and dismantle their hegemony over Greece. (26) Gradually, however, fall short of the Thessalians and Athenians at Mantinea. The battle of Chaeronea marks the end of the Theban cavalry overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Macedonians.

Spartan cavalry

Like other states in Archaic Greece the Spartans also developed horse-riding fighters. Due to the development and perfection of hoplite warfare in Sparta the title of the horsemen (HIPPES) was merely honorary as all elite Laconian fighters fought on foot. The horses were bred only for chariot racing as demonstrated by the tale of Princess Cyniska of Sparta. (27) The issue of developing a unit of horsemen was dramatically with the events of Pylos. (28)

The Spartans looked down upon the cavalry service as fit for those who could not fight on foot and those crippled in war. Xenophon tells us that Spartan cavalry was poorly prepared and that is why its performance was poor. (29) Only the introduction of mercenary horsemen slightly improved the situation. (30) Although at sometime king Agesilaus came to command 1500 horsemen , the fall of Sparta brought elimination of its cavalry.

Other Horsemen.

The Thracian cavalry deserves mention because as mentioned above the Thracians influenced significantly the introduction of the horse in southern Greece. Euripides in his tragedy “Hecuba” calls the Thracians a “cavalry nation«. A text written by Clement of Alexandria (Stromata XV) identifies the Thracians as the first to use a shield while on horseback. Most Thracian horsemen were most probably mounted javelinmen and were widely used as mercenaries in the colonies of the Macedonian and Thracian coast and beyond. The almost endless hordes of Thracian horsemen were a constant problem for the south Greek colonists until their alliance to Philip II .

Although the Greek colonies in Asia Minor were wealthy, their inhabitants avoided military service. Xenophon says that Agesilaus compel the wealthiest colonists to maintain horses. He declared though that one could avoid being called for service, if he could provide a fully equipped horseman to serve in his place. (31) The cavalry thus formed was so good that it managed to successfully stand up to the Thessalians on Agesilaus return from Asia (32)

Coins from Tarentum depicting horsemen

According to Herodotus the Selinountians and Akaragantines were the first to develop cavalry in Magna Grecia. Gelon of Syracuse will repel the Carthaginians with the assistance of his cavalry. The aristocratic class horsemen of Syracuse were treated with suspicion because of their belief in oligarchy. This did not prevent them from fighting hard against the Athenians during the Sicilian campaign. (33) Their contribution to the final defeat of the Athenian army was catalytic. (34)

In the Western Greek colonies, citizens also dodged their military obligations and relied on mercenaries for their defense. Colonist Greeks perceived their mainland compatriots as naive villagers who paid them to risk combat but they suspected them also as potential tyrants. Good cavalry no longer existed in Magna Crecia except in Tarentum. The Tarantine horsemen were heavily armed and were also accompanied by a servant who probably fought too as a light horseman. (35)

Equipment – Tactics

As mentioned above, the Scythians and the Thracians in most matters about horse trappings and harness influenced the Greeks. Horses are depicted wearing their harness in pottery and sculpture. In the National Archaeological Museum there are also bridles that can cause great discomfort to unruly horses though Xenophon disagrees with their use (36) The saddle was known to the Scythians and Thracians and was made of felt. Its adoption by the Greeks was slow, probably because of its cost. Most riders used a simple cloth to cover the horse’s back in order to ride comfortably. Xenophon mentions that some did not use that either (37). This is consistent with some illustrations but because the touch of human flesh with the skin of the horse causes irritation, horsemen began to use cloth or animal skins to sit on them and ride comfortably.

Thacian horseman with saddled horses from the thracian tomb of Kazanlak

The riders executing heavy cavalry missions wore metal or composite armor. Xenophon recommends that riders better use vambraces (epicheirides) and armor their horses. But as this required considerable costs it was rare. (38) Cataphract Greek cavalry appears only in the Hellenistic Era. Xenophon also advises the usage of Boeotean helmet.

The shield appears to have been widespread despite writings the contrary. The riders of Geometric and Classical Greece after contact with the Scythians and Thracians horsemen saw its advantages. The semicircular shield seems to have been quite widespread while the Archaic period a shield of the ‘Boeotian type» seems to have been dominant. The shield was valuable to riders who had to fight against light infantry equipped with ranged weapons.

Classic Era horse armor fragment from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Author’s collection.

To execute a charge the horsemen formed ranks 4 men deep per row (39) but there were efforts to increase the depth as the Persian horsemen used a more dense formation. Xenophon advised a rapid headlong charge (40) but also the wise use of outposts and the careful choice of the ground (41) Another fighting method was the “emvolon”. It was a wedge formation that was designed to breakthrough the enemy formations. It was known in Thebes (42) but it is considered to be a Scythian invention and was improved as a rhomboid formation that could attack in any direction by Jason of Pherrae (43).

As mentioned above, the spread of hoplite method of fighting limited the role of the cavalry in scouting, neutralizing skirmishers and raids. This increased the importance of the light cavalry but heavy cavalry re-developed to counteract the enemy horsemen. The Greek cavalry gradually evolved into a shock weapon by Philip II and Alexander the Great in the Hellenistic era.

(1) Homer THE ILIAD 15.110 trn. K. Dukas eds. Georgiadis

(2) Hesiod “Hercules Shield” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(3) Apollodorus II.5.8, Diodorus Siculus 15.3 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Strabo, «Geography» VII.331 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(4) Apollodorus II.5.9, Euripides: “Hercules wrath” 408, Loeb Classical Library edition 1914 Pausanias “Description of Greece” V, 10.9 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(5) L. de Raunchaud «Dictionnaire des Antiquites Greques et Romaines» 1887

(6) “Crypto” magazine issue 1, article: «Centaurs were real?» Constantine Tsopanis, Dr. History & Philosophy of Religions, pp. 35

(7) Homer THE ILIAD XXIII 131-133, 145-150 trn. K. Dukas eds. Georgiadis

(8) Thucydides “Histories’” I.15, Herodotus V. 99 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Strabo, «Geography» III.448 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

Plutarch «Heroticus» 17 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(9) Androkides «On Mysteries» VII106 Oxford Press

Herodotus “Histories” V.63 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(10) British Museum. Fragment 479 comments. V.Rose

(11) Herodotus “Histories” VIII,28 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Pausanias “Description of Greece” X, 710 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(12) Xenophon “Hellenika” VI.5 Classical Library edition, 1914

(13) Diodorus Siculus 15 57, 60, 80, 95 Loeb Classical Library edition 1914

(14) Thucydides “Histories” VII.92, 6 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(15) Thucydides “Histories” V 17.1, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(16) Thucydides “Histories” III.1, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(17) Thucydides “Histories” VII.27, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(18) Thucydides “Histories” VII.42, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(19) Thucydides “Histories” VI.20, 22 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(20) Thucydides “Histories” VI.94, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(21) Plutarch “Phocion” 13 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(22) Plutarch “Camillus” 19 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(23) Herodotus’ Histories” IX,69 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(24) Thucydides “Histories” VII.29-30, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(25) Xenophon ‘“Hellenika” V.4 Classical Library edition, 1914

(26) Xenophon ‘“Hellenika” V.4 10 Classical Library edition, 1914

Plutarch “Pelopidas”15 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(27) Pausanias “Description of Greece” III, 1.16 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(28) Thucydides “Histories” IV.55.2, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(29) Xenophon ‘Greek’ ST.4.11, Classical Library edition, 1914

(30) Xenophon ‘Hipparchikus» 9.4 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(31) Xenophon “Hellenika” III.4.15, Classical Library edition, 1914

(32) Xenophon «Agesilaus’“ 2.5 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(33) Thucydides “Histories” VI.66,68-70 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(34) Thucydides “Histories” VI.84 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(35) Livy “History of Rome” XXXV.28,29 eds JM Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

(36) Xenophon «On Horsemanship” ‘V trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(37) Xenophon «On Horsemanship » VII trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(38) Xenophon «On Horsemanship” XII trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(39) Xenophon “Hellenika” III.4.13 Classical Library edition, 1914

(40) Xenophon “Hipparchikus” 3 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(41) Xenophon “Hipparchikus» 4, 5 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(42) Xenophon “Hellenika” VII.5.22 Classical Library edition, 1914

Aelianus «Tactica» XI.2 47.4 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(43) Asklepiodotus «Tactica» VII.2-3 6.7 Polyainus «Stratagems» VI trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

Bibliography:

Aristotle «Constitution of the Athenians» Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

Frontinus “Stratagems” eds JM Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

The Seventy Great Battles of All Time, Edited by Jeremy Black, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005

William Stearns Davis, Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources , the 2nd Vols, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1,912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East.

American Journal of Archeology Vol. 107. # 4 October 2003 (Tom Stevenson article)


Ancient Persian Warfare

The ancient Persian military evolved from the earlier armed forces of the Medes which, in turn, developed from the warrior class of the indigenous people of the Iranian Plateau, the Aryan migrants (including the Persians) who later settled there, and the Assyrian army which was defeated by the Medes. The Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) took the best aspects of these earlier models to create one of the most effective military forces in the ancient world.

Certain aspects of their model would be changed by the Parthian Empire (247 BCE - 224 CE) and improved upon by the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) which skillfully integrated the various aspects of their predecessors in forming a military so effective it was able to withstand repeated invasions by the legions of the Roman Empire. The Sassanian Empire only finally fell when its army was faced with a different, and more effective, military paradigm in the form of the Arab cavalry.

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Early Military & Development

Information on the earliest armed forces of the region, those who would have been associated with the ancient civilization of Elam and Susiana, is unavailable. According to scholar A. Sh. Shahbazi of Encyclopedia Iranica:

Source materials for a study of pre-Islamic Iranian military concerns fall into four categories: textual evidence archeological finds of actual specimens of martial equipments documentary representations (on monuments and objects of art) and philological deductions for organizational matters. The availability and value of these categories vary according to different periods. (Army, 1)

There must have been some form of military for defense of the cities of the region, however, as the Sumerian King of Lagash, Eannatum (r. c. 2500-2400 BCE) conquered the area and his inscriptions suggest he met resistance in doing so. Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE) suggests the same in defeating Luh-ishan, son of Hishiprashini, King of Elam c. 2300 BCE.

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Whatever weapons, uniforms, and organization characterized these early armies, they were defined by the 1st millennium BCE as comprised of separate citizen units under the command of a tribal chief who could call upon them to fight in times of war. These armies carried a spear, mace, short sword, simple bow and 30 arrows, a dagger, animal-hide or wicker shield, and a poleaxe.

Aryan tribes had migrated to the region at some point prior to the 3rd millennium BCE and, by the 1st millennium BCE, had established themselves in various areas. The Persians settled east of Elam in the territory of Persis and would later expand from there. The Persians, like the Medes and other Aryan tribes (“Aryan” understood as referencing Indo-Iranians), were superb horsemen, and through them, the concept of cavalry was introduced to the region.

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The Persians offered their services as mercenaries to the various kings who found them effective in hit-and-run engagements. Cavalry units could strike and retreat quickly, inflicting maximum casualties on the opponent while suffering minimal losses. The use of horses in battle was further enhanced by another innovation also brought to the region by the Aryans: the chariot.

Median Standing Army

In the 8th century BCE, the disparate tribes of the Medes were united under their first king Dayukku (known to the Greeks as Deioces, r. 727-675 BCE). His grandson, Cyaxares (r. 625-585 BCE), expanded Median territory and was instrumental in the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had steadily expanded their empire since the reign of Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 BCE) but had overextended themselves to the point where they had few resources for defense when the Babylonians and Medes led the coalition against them in 612 BCE which would topple their cities.

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According to Herodotus, Cyaxares was able to accomplish this by reforming the military:

[Cyaxares] was the first to divide his troops into regiments and to make separate units out of the spearmen, archers, and horsemen, who had previously all been jumbled up indiscriminately. (I.103)

The earlier model of drawing up an army was now replaced by the spada – a standing army – which was trained under the direction of the king and led by him. Cyaxares' new army was equipped with spear, bow, short sword, and dagger. The units were separated into infantry, archers, and cavalry chariots were only used for transportation, not in battle. Cavalry units wore a shirt and trousers under a light leather tunic with a girdle-harness around the waist holding weapons. Their headgear was a cloth tiara possibly worn over a leather helmet. Infantry seem to have worn a similar uniform.

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Rise of the Achaemenid Army

C. 550 BCE, Cyrus II (the Great, r. 550-530 BCE) overthrew his grandfather, Astyages of Media (r. 585-550 BCE) and founded the Achaemenid Empire (named in honor of Cyrus' ancestor Achaemenes). Cyrus II defeated the Median army and then conquered Lydia (546 BCE), Elam (540 BCE), and Babylon (539 BCE) with an army raised on the levy system known as the kara. Scholar Stefan G. Chrissanthos explains:

Initially, the Persian army consisted of a militia of the king's Persian subjects. However, not all Persians participated. Only those with sufficient wealth to procure their own military equipment were liable for service therefore, the levy, or kara, represented the wealthier elements of Persian society. (21)

This was not a standing army – like the Assyrians or the Medes had formed – but continued the model of the earlier practice of a chieftain (now the king) calling on those who owed him allegiance to fight. Once Lydia, Elam, and Babylon had been conquered, Cyrus the Great had a great many more resources available to him and, while keeping the kara system, established the standing army of the spada, whose ranks were filled with conscripts from the different satrapies (provinces) of the empire under the command of their satrap (governor). Chrissanthos writes:

As the empire grew, the kara remained the backbone of the army, but now an imperial levy conscripted not only poorer Persians but also subjugated ethnic groups into the army. Herodotus gives a detailed list of the various ethnic contingents that served in the Persian army, and the list includes practically every group in the empire. (21)

The closer a subject people were to the Persians, the less tribute they were required to pay to the king but they were expected to supply more soldiers. The Medes, closely associated with the Persians, were part of the elite units and served as officers – as with the rank of the hazarapatis – a commanding officer of a given unit – along with Persians.

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Organization

Organization of the army was based on the decimal system, meaning each unit was comprised of ten lesser units:

  • 10 men = a company
  • 10 companies = a battalion
  • 10 battalions = a division
  • 10 divisions = a corps

Each company, battalion, division, and corps had a commanding officer and the whole army was led by a supreme commander, either the king or a noble Persian or Mede who was in the king's trust. The army was divided into infantry (foot-soldiers, archers, slingers) and cavalry and the cavalry further into those who used horses (the asabari – horse-borne) and those who used camels (the usabari – camel-borne). Chariots were also employed in battle but their use depended on the era and ruler. The chariot was commonly used by the supreme commander and the standard-bearers who were responsible for the symbols of the gods Ahura Mazda and Mithra as well as the sacred divine fire which accompanied the troops into battle. The elite of the infantry were the 10,000 troops which made up The Immortals, the king's trusted guard, so-named because, if one fell in battle or could not – for whatever reason – fulfill his duties, another would take his place so their number remained the same, giving the impression they could not be killed.

Different units were identified by different colored uniforms (among the Persians, purple, yellow, and blue). The Immortals wore felt caps (tiaras), brightly-colored, sleeved tunics over shirts and trousers, breast-plate-armor, and carried wicker shields, bows, quivers and arrows, short spears, and daggers (Herodotus 7:61). By the time of Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE), their spears were longer and ornamented at the bottom by a gold or silver knob.

Training & Battle

Training for the army began at the age of 15 (five for Persian nobility). Youths were divided into 50 classes for military training under an instructor or instructors which included horse grooming and horsemanship, hunting, running, swimming, archery, javelin-throwing, swordsmanship, martial arts, military discipline (such as forced marches, long watches, battle drills, living off the land), and were also expected to contribute to the community by developing agricultural skills. Sons of the king and nobility were also taught to cultivate administrative skills. Military service began at the age of 20 and professional soldiers were allowed to retire at 50 conscripts served for the duration of an engagement or campaign and then, if they survived, could return home until called up again.

Prior to any engagement, a war council was held with the senior staff to solidify the battle plan. Once the enemy was met, archers held the center front of the line with infantry – slingers and foot soldiers – flanking and cavalry on the wings. The archers would begin the battle with support from the slingers hurling small stones and lead pellets and the cavalry would then try to break the enemy lines from either side.

When Darius I invaded Greece in 490 BCE, this was the basic formation which only failed because the Greeks were undeterred by the rain of arrows and, further, had better shields and armor. The Persian army did not pay much attention to body armor or the quality of their shields prior to engagements with the Greeks because, previously, the armies they met had more or less the same equipment and used the same tactics they did. The Macedonian-Greek phalanx, however, was far more effective than the Persian line of formation and the wicker-reed shields of the Persians were no match for the great Greek shields and body armor.

This same basic paradigm held in 480 BCE when Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) invaded Greece in retaliation for Darius I's defeat. The Greeks stopped the Persians at Thermopylae and could have held them there indefinitely if not for their betrayal by one of their own. At Platea, the Persian army was defeated, in part, because of the inferiority of their shields and body armor compared to the Greeks.

Persian Navy

Under Darius I, the Persian navy was expanded. This fleet was not built, nor was it manned, by Persians but by the subject nations of the empire. Cyprus provided 150 ships, Cilicia sent 100 as did Pamphylia, Caria sent 70, and others more or less depending on their resources. The Egyptians and Anatolian Greeks provided a large number but a third of the fleet – at times more but never less – was Phoenician. The Anatolian Greeks, Egyptians, and Phoenicians supplied the great triremes, warships manned by 200 sailors, while other nations shipped and manned smaller vessels, among the most popular being the 50-oar vessel manned by 80 sailors. In battle, in order to prevent defection, 30 Persian Marines were assigned to each ship.

The Persian navy, especially the Phoenician ships, were instrumental in Darius I's campaign to crush the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks which had spread to Cyprus and other regions starting c. 498 BCE. As the revolt was encouraged and funded, in part, by Athens, Darius I launched his massive campaign against Greece in 490 BCE, in which the navy also played a pivotal role but was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Ten years later, Xerxes I would employ the fleet in his invasion of Greece. The Persian navy was defeated at the Battle of Salamis owing to its reliance on the heavy triremes which were easily outmaneuvered by the smaller and more agile Greek ships.

Parthian Innovations

The Achaemenid Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE and, after his death in 323 BCE, was succeeded by the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE). The Seleucid Empire was severely compromised following its defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE and the resultant Treaty of Apamea in 188 BCE through which they lost most of their territory. The Parthians, who had risen in revolt against the Seleucids in 247 BCE under their king Arsaces I (r. 247-217 BCE), took note of this as well as one of the central reasons for the fall of the Achaemenid Empire to Alexander: unevenly matched weaponry, armor and shields, and tactics. Further, the Parthians realized their own revolt had been able to succeed because the Seleucid military had been unable to respond quickly enough.

The Parthians decentralized the Persian government, instituting a feudal system in which each satrap, who had sworn loyalty to the king, was responsible for a levy of soldiers in times of crisis but no standing army garrisoned, primarily, in a single city (such as at Persepolis under Darius I and Xerxes I) which then had to be mobilized and sent against an enemy. The system of the levy allowed satraps to mobilize an army in their own region and respond directly to a threat, then notify the king of the situation afterwards.

To address the problem of the better body armor and tactics of the Greeks and Romans, the Parthians reduced their reliance on infantry and concentrated their efforts on cavalry. The Parthians, famous for their skills as horsemen, created a powerful force of light and heavy cavalry troops with smaller infantry units for support. The Parthian light cavalry was armed with a bow and arrows, a sword, and probably a dagger and was used in hit-and-run engagements as well as raids and the early stage of battle but they could not contend head-on with heavily armored troops.

In battle, the Parthians relied on their mounted warriors known as cataphracts. These units wore steel helmets and chain mail tunics which went from their necks to past their knees and down the sleeves of the shirt worn under them. They carried composite (compound) bows, which had greater reach and accuracy than the simple longbow, swords, daggers, and a lance. Their horses were equally well-protected with their own chainmail armor.

The most famous battle tactic of Parthian warfare was the Parthian shot in which light cavalry would engage the enemy and then feign retreat, drawing the opponents after them, then turn and fire their arrows back at the enemy, while at full gallop (even more impressive in that they did not have the stirrup). Even after this tactic became known to opposing forces, it still remained effective. Once the enemy was reeling from the shower of arrows, the cataphracts would engage.

The Great Sassanian Army

The Parthian army remained a powerful force but could not finally save the empire from an unexpected threat. The Parthian Empire was not toppled in battle by a superpower like the Roman Empire but by one of its own vassal kings, Ardashir I (r. 224-240 CE), a great warrior who revolted against the Parthian king Artabanus IV (r. 213-224 CE) and founded the Sassanian Empire. Ardashir I was a brilliant general and able statesman and administrator, who learned from the lessons of the past and combined the most effective elements of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian empires as well as the tactics of the Romans and the Greeks.

Ardashir I centralized the government and reorganized the military according to the Achaemenid decimal system, bringing it directly under his control. He utilized both the Seleucid and Parthian body armor, kept the Parthian cavalry units, expanded his infantry (again, in line with the Achaemenid system), employed Roman tactics, and also made use of their technology of siege engines and other devices. He also revived the navy, which the Parthians had neglected, although it would play a relatively minor role, after Ardashir I's reign, in battle. Ardashir I's army was so well organized and effective that, under his son, Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE), the Sassanian army not only expanded the empire but defended it against Rome successfully, even capturing the Roman Emperor Valerian (r. 253-260 CE) who was then forced to serve as Shapur I's footstool when he mounted his horse.

Under the later king Kosrau I (also known as Anushirvan the Just, r. 531-579 CE), the Sassanian military was placed under the command of the Minister of Defense who acted in the king's interests. Kosrau I, considered the greatest of the Sassanian kings, continued Ardashir I's basic paradigm for the military and it remained an effective fighting force until the invasion of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century CE. The Arab armies employed hit-and-run tactics similar to the Parthians, were able to muster larger armies and employ camel-mounted cavalry in greater numbers which performed better than horses on uneven or sandy terrain, and used fast-moving infantry archers, armed with the compound bow, to devastating effect. The Sassanians, last of the ancient Persian empires, fell to the Arabs in 651 CE, and their army and navy were disbanded. In its time, however, the Sassanian army represented the best version of the Persian military, among the greatest fighting forces of the ancient world.


10 Heroic Cavalry Charges

Cavalry charges have proved to be one of the most efficient and devastating battle tactics in history. Even against vastly superior numbers cavalry charges have proved themselves to be dominant shock attack in warfare. It involves soldiers mounted on horseback to charge as quickly as they can into the enemies lines, and engaging in close combat. Armoured knights, and lighter mounted troops have been able to completely route enemy units in the past but it doesn’t always go well. If the unit being charged at stands firm and fortifies it’s position a charge will often fail, the horses may even refused to keep charging at the enemy. Cavalry charges are always a risk.

Battle Of Eylau

This war was so bloody, and damaging on both sides that we don’t even know who won it. Napoleon took on the Russians after a string of victories had given him confidence. He had 75,000 soldiers under his command, and the Russian leader Bennigsen had almost the same. They clashed at a French village called Eylau, and both sides suffered heavy losses. Napoleon attempted a frontal assault early in the battle, which ended with calamitous results for Napoleon. Midway through the battle Napoleon was in grave danger. He was hold up in a church and had just barely escaped being captured. His centre wouldn’t last long, and it was only a matter of time before he was defeated unless he did something. Napoleon then ordered one of the most heroic cavalry charges in history. 11,000 thousand French cavalry charge into the Russian army. They split into two groups, one called Grouchy’s Dragoons which flanked the enemy cavalry, and fought them back until enemy reinforcements made them retreat. This bought the French right enough time to attack, dealt serious damage to the Russian forces. With the Russian army close to destruction it looked as if victory was finally in Napoleon’s hands, but then reinforcements arrived and combated the French right, which saved them from collapse. This allowed the Russian’s to hang on until later that night when they reluctantly retreated.

The Battle Of Poitiers

At the battle of Poitiers the French force, led by King John, got over excited and launched a cavalry charge on the English, led by the Black Prince. The French mistakenly thought the English were about to retreat and rushed in with 100 knights on horseback leading the charge. The English archers began to fire at the enemy but their arrows couldn’t do anything to their armour, so the archers changed position and attacked them from behind, this time aiming for their horses. The French forces were beaten back over and over, losing thousands of men. King John tried to withdraw and escape from the battle but the Black Prince ambushed him with a unit hidden in the woods. He captured king John, 17 lords, 13 counts, 5 viscounts, and 100 knights.

Battle Of Klushino

Polish forces were completely outnumbered against the Tsarist Russian force. The Russian’s numbered 30,000 to 40,000 troops, the Polish only had 4,000 and they were almost entirely Cavalry. The polish cavalry force known as the Winged Hussars were one of the most elite cavalries in the world at the time, famous for wearing wings on their armour. This battle didn’t just have one cavalry charge, it had 10 cavalry charges which eventually whittled down the enemy forces. The battle started with the Winged Hussars making 8-10 cavalry charges on the enemy. The Polish broke the left flank, and destroyed the centre, leaving only the right flank, and some mercenaries on the left. The mercenaries were forced to abandon their position when reinforcements came, and eventually surrendered.

The Battle Of Vienna

In one the largest cavalry charges in history, a coalition of Polish, Australian, and German cavalry spearheaded by 3,000 winged Hussars charged into the Ottoman lines. The battle took place in 1683, when the Imperial city of Vienna had been taken by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman’s were losing the battle, and the Poles were preparing for a massive cavalry charge. The Ottoman’s tried to turn the situation around, and went on the offensive successfully taking two villages. This gave them an opportunity to attack the Turkish central position, and they were determined to take it. But before they could the Polish cavalry began to emerge from the forest, and battered the Turkish lines. The Ottoma’s were now surrounded and decided to retreat. The coalition was ready to finish them off, and put together one of the largest cavalry charges in history. This devastated the Ottoman’s and the coalition had won the battle.

The Battle Of Gaugamela

Alexander the Great led a small cavalry unit of 1,800 Greco-Macedonian companion cavalry, supported by brigades of hypaspists, and part of his phalanx, charged and broke through the centre of a massive army of 50,000 Persian warriors led by Emperor Darius III. Alexander used an uncommon strategy to do this. While his infantry kept the centre of the Persian army busy, Alexander rode to the end of the right flank with a cavalry unit. This led to an intense battle between Alexander’s cavalry, and the larger Persian cavalry. Even though he was outnumbered Alexander managed to defeat the enemy cavalry, this led to his most important move and he won the battle in the centre. After the centre was taken Darius ran for his life. It was one of the most successful cavalry charges of all time.

Battle Of Salamanca

This is famous for being one of the most destructive cavalry charges in history. The battle was between the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Portugese army, and Marshall Auguste Marmont’s French force. The British heavy cavalry consistently flanked the enemy forces. These attacks crushed the left wing of the French forces. The French launched a desperate counter attack on Wellington’s centre, which had been weakened. Wellington sent reinforcements to back up the centre, and the French attack ultimately failed. Wellington prevailed and the French were forced to retreat.

Battle Of Borodino

This battle was one of the bloodiest days of the Napoleonic wars. An allied cavalry force of French, German, and Polish regiments charged the centre of the Russian army. The Russian’s countered with a cavalry charge of their own. And the two cavalry charges led to all out battle between them. Both sides suffered thousands of deaths, and eventually the Russians retreated. It ended in a French tactical victory, but the cost was so severe it was tantamount to defeat. The Russian army failed to stop the advance of Napoleon onto Moscow, which he captured only a week later. Napoleon came close to conquering Russia but ultimately his invasion failed and he had to retreat.

Charge Of The Light Brigade

This is without a doubt one of the most heroic cavalry charged on this list. In the Crimean war at the Battle of Balaclava. A tiny force of 670 British light cavalry were accidentally ordered to charge into an army much larger than theirs with no chance of victory. The force led by Lord Cardigan courageously charged into the centre of the Russian, and succeeded in both breaking through as well as disengaging. They suffered heavy casualties as a result but it’s amazing that such a small force could do so much damage to such a large army.

Third Battle Of Winchester

At the Third Battle of Winchester, the largest cavalry charge of the American civil war tool place. On September 19 th , 1864 Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early raided the B&O railroad at Martinsburg. Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan led an army to defeat Early. The battle went on for hours, with severe casualties on both sides. The confederates were slowly losing ground. Sheridan orchestrated a final charge to end the battle. He organised cavalry charges to attack the confederates on both flanks. Although the journey there was tough, they eventually made it and crushed the enemy flanks due to the immense size of the charge the enemy was completely overwhelmed.

Battle Of Omdurman

Facing an army twice as numerous, General Herbert Kitchener managed to win the battle losing less than 50 people, and killing 12,000 opposing soldiers. It was a coalition of the United Kingdom and Egypt, vs Sudan, and although the British-Egyptian force had only 25,800 to Sudan’s 52,000, they still scored a decisive victory losing only 47 men, while killing 12,000, injuring 5,000, and capturing 5,000 of the enemies men. The battle started and Sudanese forces were completely decimated by the superior weapons of the coalition force. Sudanese spearmen charged straight into the gunfire of quick firing British artillery. Part way through the battle, the British light cavalry known as the 21 st lancers was ordered to charge through a few hundred men and clear a path, but what they thought were only a few hundred men were actually over 2,000. Numbering only 400 strong the 21 st lancers had a tough time of this, but heroically managed to push back the numerically superior force. One of the participants of this clash was Lieutenant Winston Churchill.


Soldiers of Fortune

Some of the best Nordic warriors found employment as mercenaries far from the shores of Scandinavia. As early as the 10 th Century, the Byzantine ruler Basil II brought together a band of Norsemen to serve as his personal guard – the Varangians. But the elite axemen did more than just secure the royal palace – emperors were known to send them on campaign where they would be held in reserve, only to be unleashed at the turning point of a battle (and often with devastating results for the enemies of Constantinople). The Varangians were well paid for their loyalty. And as an added bonus, upon the death of the king, each soldier in the guard was allowed to carry away as much gold as he could from the royal treasury before being discharged. So many Vikings clamoured to join this elite army, Swedish rulers decreed that those who left home to join foreign armies would be legally prohibited from collecting their own families’ inheritances.


Approach of Romans toward black people

Seneca the Younger claimed that people with black complexion were not a surprise in Rome.

In the next place, we ought to conder the whole state of mankind, in order to pass a just judgment on all the occurrences of life: for it is unjust to blame individuals for a vice which is common to all. The colour of an Æthiop is not remarkable among this own people, nor is any man in Germany ashamed of red hair rolled into a knot. You cannot call anything peculiar or disgraceful in a particular man if it is the general character of his nation.

Seneca the Youher, De Ira, XXVI

Romans were not racists at all they did not judge by their skin colour, but rather by their origin.

The Romans used the general term for black inhabitants, describing them as “Ethiopians”. The Ethiopians had their own state – Kingdom of Aksum – which in the first century BCE experienced its “golden period”. Goods were transported from the port of Adulis to the Mediterranean, as well as to India and Ceylon. The Romans maintained commercial contacts with the Ethiopians. Thanks to the fact that the residents of Aksum certainly had a black skin colour, hence the general term for all black people in the Empire.


Watch the video: Kavallerie Schwadron 1972 (August 2022).