Last update 1-Jan-2012
Robert Drews, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe
An aspect of mounted warfare far more important than pursuit by individual horsemen was the charge. Because the charge was effective only if executed by a unit, it is properly called a cavalry action, and more precisely a shock cavalry action.110 The cavalry charge is also the most misunderstood aspect of mounted combat in antiquity. As John Keegan has shown, how the cavalry charge worked and how it did not work depended much more on psychology, of both men and beasts, than on physical factors.111 [...] Fear is the normal reaction to aggression, and the more rapid and massive the attack, the more frightening it is. The horse, which is both large and fast, was therefore an ideal animal for an aggressor, although the horses themselves were not aggressors: with their herd instinct, the horses were simply following the lead horse, determined not to be left behind. For their riders, however, the shock cavalry action was the ultimate act of aggression. The horseman held the reins in one hand and in the other wielded a thrusting spear, a sword (or cutlass), a battle-axe, or some other weapon for hand-to-hand combat. Even a brave infantryman would have been frightened by the sight of a company of riders galloping directly toward him with their swords drawn or their spears at the ready. In theory, then, the cavalry charge was a supremely effective means of turning infantrymen to flight.
From the foregoing description of shock cavalry one might conclude that it must have been a devastating force in all of ancient warfare. That would be an erroneous conclusion, however. [...] Shock cavalry may have been used as early as the eighth century BC, but it is nevertheless true that we have no description of a shock cavalry attack before the fifth century BC. And over the next thousand years of Greek and Roman history we know of only a few battles (most of them involving Alexander the Great and his near successors) in which shock cavalry played the decisive role. This is because the Greeks and Romans knew that horses – unlike men – cannot be made to charge against a stationary line, whether the line is made up of men or of other horses. As Keegan has reminded us, the experience of cavalries from ancient times to the nineteenth century indicates that infantrymen who were well formed up, and who resolutely stood their ground, would have suffered few casualties at the hands of shock cavalry, because the cavalry horses would have slowed and eventually come to a stop before running into a close-order formation of infantrymen. And once their horses had come to a stop, the cavalrymen were no longer on the attack and instead had suddenly to begin defending themselves. Ancient cavalrymen were at a special disadvantage. Unlike the armored knight of the Middle Ages, who could brace himself in his stirrups and who rode a horse that weighed more than 1500 pounds, the ancient rider had no physical advantage over an opponent on the ground. His horse was relatively small, and Xenophon makes it quite clear that the ancient rider was insecure in his seat, ever mindful that even if he were able to parry the spear thrust by a man on the ground he might well, in the parrying, be knocked off his horse. Also worrisome to the rider was the likelihood of losing his balance if he thrust his own spear or swung his sword with too much force. In hand-to-hand combat between a single hippeus and a single infantryman, the odds were therefore in favor of the man on the ground. And if a troop of cavalry lancers found itself engaged in stationary fighting with a hoplite phalanx, the cavalry troop was certain to get far the worst of it. A Greek phalanx or a Roman legion seldom had to worry about a charge by a shock cavalry.
Alexander’s own success as a cavalry commander needs some explanation here. Under Alexander and his successors shock cavalry may on several occasions have turned the tide of a battle. Like the Median and Persian kings, Alexander himself went into battle as a cavalryman, heavily armored of course and surrounded by horsemen who were as heavily armored as he was. [...] A cavalry charge against a hoplite phalanx was in most circumstances foolhardy, but Alexander is said to have managed it at the age of eighteen: at least one version of the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC seems to have claimed that Philip stretched the phalanx of the Thebans and Athenians into a thin line, only a few ranks deep, and that at a critical moment Alexander launched a cavalry charge against it.17 How was that possible? The arms and armor (the horses too wore protective breastplates) were important, but more important were the wedge-shape formation of the Macedonian cavalry,18 and its commander’s timing and judgement. The success of Alexander as a cavalry commander was due in part to his personal bravery (or even recklessness), in part to the fact that he could rely on his Companion cavalry to follow him whenever and wherever he led, and in part to the fact that he was accountable to nobody. He was able to make his cavalry an effective offensive force, that is, because he could act on his instincts without a moment’s delay, and knew that all his men would be with him.
W.W. Tarn brought out very well the situation of an ancient cavalry commander intent on attacking a formation of heavy infantry:
I will take first the matter of breaking the enemy’s line. I have mentioned that there was one thing cavalry could not do, charge an unbroken spear-line; and I have also noticed the difficulty heavy infantry had in maintaining their line unbroken. Now if you will imagine yourself seated on a horse and watching an advancing line of spear-points, and if something happens to that line whereby the spear-points vanish from one bit of it, leaving a gap, you will realise that that gap must draw you irresistibly to it; that is the point you will certainly ride for. Over and over again, in Hellenistic literature, we get allusions to that gap.19
Because such a gap was always temporary, only a cavalry commander with quick reactions and supreme self-confidence could exploit it, leading the point of his wedge into it and breaking apart the enemy formation. A lieutenant who sought his superior’s approval before launching his attack would always arrive too late, and pay the price. Republics seldom fielded shock cavalries, and the optimum cavalry commander was either a king or a crown-prince, whose father would have little choice but to forgive an impetuous mistake, no matter how costly. Alexander at Chaeronea and Demetrios Poliorketes at Ipsus were of course “accountable” to their fathers, Philip II and Antigonos the One-Eyed. But both Alexander and Demetrios must have had full discretion to launch a charge if and when opportunity offered, and enough self-confidence to do so. Whether Alexander’s famous cavalry charges were as consequential as the Alexander-historians made them out to be we cannot know. Although the Macedonian infantrymen at Issus and Gaugamela were probably given less recognition than they deserved, it at least is true that the charges of the Companion cavalry were seen as having caused the defeat of the Persians. Alexander, in short, exploited the full potential of shock cavalry, and initiated a brief revival of shock cavalry as an effective arm. As in so many other ways, however, Alexander was the exception who proved the rule.
Robert Drews, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe, pp. 58-59 and 143-144
(Routledge, New York – London, 2004)
110 What Potratz 1966, p. 226, says about the heavily armed and armored Assyrian horsemen applies just as much to the Archaic and fifth-century Greek horsemen: “Man spricht von diesen Reitern fälschlich als von Kavalleristen. Die Kavallerie war eine taktische Waffe, die als geschlossene Geschwader in den Kampf eingesetzt wurde and durch den Aufprall der formierten geballten Kader dem Fussvolk überlegen ist.”
111 See especially Keegan 1978, pp. 95-97.
17 Although the details of Chaeronea have not survived, see Lazenby 1989, p. 91, and Worley 1994, pp. 160-63, for plausible reconstructions.
18 Spence 1993, pp. 177-78, makes the pertinent observation that the cavalry wedge (which seems to have been unknown to Xenophon) was designed specifically to penetrate a close-order infantry formation.
19 Tarn 1930, p. 62.
- Keegan, John:The Face of Battle. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
- Keegan, John:A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage, 1993.
- Lazenby, John: “Hoplite Warfare,” in Warfare in the Ancient World, ed. Sir John Hackett, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1989, pp. 54-81.
- Potratz, Johannes A.H.:Die Pferdetrensen des alten Orient. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1966.
- Spence, I.G.:The Cavalry of Classical Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
- Tarn, William W.:Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930.
- Worley, Leslie J.:Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.
The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpts are listed in the bibliography.