Saturday, July 4, 2020

Horse trappings in the time of Alexander the Great

The power of mobility  given by mounted units in warfare was recognized early on, but was offset by the difficulty of raising large forces and by the inability of horses (then mostly small) to carry heavy armor. Nonetheless, there are indications that, from the 15th century BCE onwards, horseback riding was practiced amongst the military elites of the great states of the ancient Near East, most notably those in Egypt, Assyria, the Hittite Empire, and Mycenaean Greece. Cavalry techniques, and the rise of true cavalry, were an innovation of equestrian nomads of the Central Asian and Iranian steppe and pastoralist tribes such as the Iranic Parthians and Sarmatians.  Initially, riders had no spurs, saddles, saddle cloths, or stirrups. Fighting from the back of a horse was much more difficult than mere riding. The cavalry acted in pairs. The reins of the mounted archer were controlled by his neighbor's hand. Even so, at this early time, cavalry used swords, shields, spears, and bows.

During the classical Greek period cavalry were usually limited to those citizens who could afford expensive war-horses. Three types of cavalry became common: light cavalry, whose riders, armed with javelins, could harass and skirmish, heavy cavalry, whose troopers, using lances, had the ability to close in on their opponents, and finally those whose equipment allowed them to fight either on horseback or foot. The role of horsemen did however remain secondary to that of the hoplites or heavy infantry who comprised the main strength of the citizen levies of the various city states. However, Thebes produced Pelopidas, their first great cavalry commander, whose tactics and skills were absorbed by Phillip II of Macedon when Phillip was a guest-hostage in Thebes. Thessaly was widely known for producing competent cavalrymen, and later experiences in wars both with and against the Persians taught the Greeks the value of cavalry in skirmishing and pursuit. The Athenian author and soldier Xenophon in particular advocated the creation of a small but well-trained cavalry force; to that end, he wrote several manuals on horsemanship and cavalry operations.

Phillip and later, his son, Alexander, went on to develop both the heavy Companion cavalry as well as lighter horsemen, the prodromoi, for scouting and screening. Alexander also employed the Ippiko, a heavy cavalry armed with a kontos (cavalry lance) and sword who wore leather armor or mail and a helmet.

Images: Horse trappings dating to the time of Alexander the Great I photographed at the British Museum.  The fierce faces on the roundels depicting satyrs and a bearded man were meant to intimidate the enemy:

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