[Ahmed rides back into the pallisade after taking a risk to rescue a child who fell behind the evacuation from the imminent attack by a proported fire-breathing dragon.]Herger:So you saw the fire worm?Ahmed:It’s cavalry.Herger:I rather prefer a dragon.Ahmed:Hundreds, with torches.
— “The 13th Warrior” (1999)
Horses and men were kept fit both physically and mentally by hunting. The men learned military tactics and stalking techniques which were useful when they were sent on scouting patrols, and at the same time enjoyed a day’s exciting sport, although in the context of the Strategikon hunting was a means of teaching manoeuvres and supplying meat to the camps. The Byzantine military hunt was a major undertaking, with 800-1000 men per mile spread in a line across the country to be driven for game. Using the whole army, drawn up in similar fashion to a battle line with centre, right and left, and according to total numbers from one to four horsemen deep, game was trapped in a gradually closing circle, the right and left divisions eventually meeting, passing each other and tightening the circle till the centre was filled with animals ready for slaughter.
If infantry were present they came into the circle stationing themselves in front of the inner circle of horsemen, using ‘their shields to prevent small animals escaping through the horses’ legs. If no infantry were available the rear line of horsemen dismounted and lined up before the front line. Only then was permission given to designated officers to dispatch quarry, the circle being large enough for safe shooting and the trajectory from mounted archers directed downwards.
Apart from exercise and food shot, soldiers learned to negotiate any type of country while maintaining position in ranks. Powers of observation and physical responses were also honed. The horses had their tendons, bones and muscles toughened and their minds and responses sharpened at the same time, getting enjoyment from the chase with minimal chance of being injured.
Most cavalry consisted of archers who trained first on foot, then on horseback. They could shoot in either the Roman or Persian manner, that is, using either a thumb lock or a finger release, the former adopted from the Huns. The Hunnic method afforded a faster delivery. Practice was to be carried out on a fast-moving horse, preferably on a route march to conserve the horse’s energy, and the rider should shoot both straight ahead and to the rear, both to right and left. Speed and dexterity were vital, the archer being expected to shoot, replace his strung bow in its case, grasp and manipulate the spear carried on his back, replace it, and once again take up his bow. He needed a level-headed horse who did not quicken once the reins were slackened, nor as the rider shifted his position for the various releases. Above all, whether the rider was loosing arrow, lance, javelin or spear, the horse had to keep a straight course, an even pace, and a lowered head and neck to facilitate the rider’s aim.
The full panoply of the higher-ranking Byzantine cavalrymen consisted of ankle-length hooded mail coat, gorget, small plumed helmet, bow and bowcase, covered quiver for thirty to forty arrows, two cavalry lances of Avar type, and sword. In his baldric the soldier carried an awl and a file for on-the-spot mending of gear and sharpening of weapons. His clothing consisted of a roomy tunic, fixed at the knee when riding (this helped to prevent the pinch and chafe of stirrup leathers), which suggests a garment rather like trousers. The outer covering was a large felt cloak, both for wet weather and to mask the gleam of mail when on patrol. It also gave some protection against arrows.
The horse’s tack consisted of a saddle with stirrups, a thick saddle pad, a good-quality bridle, a capacious saddle bag to carry three or four days’ iron rations, and spare bowstrings. No doubt other essentials were also carried, such as hoof picks, strips of leather [thong] for saddlery and personal gear repair, etc., plus some food for the horse along with the soldier’s own rations, and a lasso with a thong and a pair of hobbles. Wicker cages were provided for carrying mail coats when not in use. During battle or when on a raid one of these containers was attached behind the saddle of the soldier’s charger to protect the mail coat against the elements, and so that the soldiers could unburden themselves when they were not needed.
The thick saddle pad protected the horse’s back from saddle sores and pressure galls, which could have put it out of action, and also gave some protection against arrows or other weapons.
Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.
The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.
Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.
The cavalry revolution originated in the Middle East about 900 [B.C.E.] and had several implications. First, making war from a galloping horse was a dangerous occupation. In order to be effective, the warrior on horseback needed both hands free to wield a weapon; yet letting go of the reins seemed to guarantee that the fighter would end upon the ground, bruised and helpless. The only alternative was to guide the horse with one’s feet and legs, perhaps using the voice to direct a trained horse. Training both horse and rider took time and practice.
Moreover, a horse was expensive, and not everyone had the leisure time to practice. A horse could consume as much grain as 6 to 8 persons, and the owner was responsible for mating and training the animal. Furthermore, the horse was not very useful aside from its war-making capabilities: its meat and milk could not compare to the cow’s, and it could not pull a plow until the Europeans invented the horse collar about 1000 [C.E.] Therefore, civilized societies that utilized the horse extensively tended to have specialized fighters. In some cases, the warriors might be aristocrats, in others, slaves; but always the big question was how to pay for such an expensive military system.
There were two types of [Japanese] armor: the solid iron cuirass (tankō) and lamellar armor (keikō). The former may have been introduced from Southeast Asia and is seen on many clay figurines of sixth-century [C.E.] fighters. Although it was composed of separate pieces of metal fastened together by leather or bolts, the cuirass permitted little freedom of movement, and lost its popularity after the year 400 [C.E.].
Lamellar armor was of Northeast Asian origin and was the accepted battle wear after 500 [C.E.] because it was lighter than the cuirass and allowed greater mobility. It was especially well-suited for mounted warfare. About 800 pieces of iron went into each suit….
The Macedonian cavalry [of the fourth century B.C.E.] was not markedly different from the Greek cavalry. In particular, the Thessalians were comparable in individual and unit capability. The employment of the Macedonian cavalry was what made it superior to anything seen prior, or for a millennium afterward. Boldness, vision, and exquisite timing, derived from the inspired and personal leadership of Alexander, were the characteristics of Macedonian cavalry success. Several battles illustrate the distinctive employment of Macedonian cavalry: Philip II‘s decisive victory at Chaeronea, and Alexander III’s string of victories at Granikos, Issus, and Gaugamela. These battles became the model for the employment of cavalry that other armies tried to emulate into the twentieth century [C.E.]
— War Horse, p. 42
I have previously posted on Hunting as War Training. Both this and that excerpt reference the medieval European experience, but the concept is not exclusive to that period.
Hunting in all its forms was strongly recommended by chivalric writers as the perfect preparation for military life. The typical argument was put forward in the first half of the fourteenth century [C.E.] by [King] Alfonso XI, who found time between ruling his kingdom of Castile and fighting the Moors to write a book about the sport.
For a knight should always engage in anything to do with arms and chivalry, and if he cannot do so in war, he should do so in activities which resemble war. And the chase is most similar to war, for these reasons: war demands expense, met without complaint; one must be well horsed and well armed; one must be vigorous, and do without sleep, suffer lack of good food and drink, rise early, sometimes have a poor bed, undergo cold and heat, and conceal one’s fear.
Different types of hunting required different skills, all relevant to warfare, including knowledge of the quarry’s habits, handling a pack of hounds, complete control of an often-frightened horse and the use of various weapons, including spears and swords to perform the kill.
— Agincourt, Chapter 2
The large scope of military action forced the Assyrians to fight in all types of terrain, a condition to which the heavy chariot was ill-suited. A major Assyrian revolution in battlefield capability was the invention of cavalry. Assyrian cavalrymen used the saddle girth, crupper, and breast strap to stabilize the rider, and the horse was controlled by the leg and heel pressure of the boot. (The spur and the stirrup had not yet been invented.) These innovations made possible the first use of mounted archers, the famed ‘hurricanes on horseback’ mentioned in the Old Testament. In set-piece battle the cavalry was used to pin the enemy flanks and to take up blocking positions to prevent a retreat. Once in position behind the enemy, the cavalry acted as an anvil against which the chariot and infantry units could drive the enemy. The ability of the horse to traverse uneven terrain made the cavalry especially lethal in the pursuit. This same ability made cavalry forces highly flexible and valuable for reconnaissance in force and for providing flank security for the army on the march, two new tactical capabilities.
The Persians expanded the role of the cavalry in their fighting formations. By the time of Cyrus, the Persian army’s ratio of cavalry to infantry was 20 percent cavalry to 80 percent infantry. It was the largest cavalry force in the world. Although an elite force, Persian cavalry was used primarily to draw the enemy into infantry battle….
— From Sumer To Rome, p. 32
…[In the Warring States Period], the art of war in China was radically transformed in weaponry, strategy, and army size. Iron now provided stronger, more durable weapons…. It was also during this epoch that cavalry replaced chariots as the primary mobile arm. Threats from nomadic horse people just to the west and north of the Chinese states encouraged the turn to cavalry. In fact, the king of the Choa reformed his cavalry dramatically in 307 [B.C.E.], ordering his soldiers to wear barbarian-style trousers and tight-fitting sleeves in place of robes and to ride horses and learn mounted archery. These cavalrymen lacked stirrups until the end of the Han [Dynasty], and saddles were rudimentary; understandably, this hampered the effectiveness of men on horseback. Therefore, cavalry at first supplemented chariots rather than replacing them, but chariots eventually gave way….
The power of the steppe was based on the individual pastoral unit, the man on horseback. By all accounts, he was a unique creation, singular in his abilities and outlandish and terrifying in the eyes of victims, so much so he frequently defied description. Aesthetically, he left much to be desired. Clad shabbily in boots and trousers—both inventions of the steppe—kept supple through liberal portions of leftover butter and grease, he was likely a pungent warrior, especially since he himself never bathed. Upper garments were composed of crudely stitched pelts, valued only for warmth and protection. Strapped to his back was a quiver full of carefully crafted arrows and his formidable bow, both encased against the elements due to their extreme vulnerability to moisture. A well-cast bronze dagger would have completed his personal arsenal, since the steppe’s rich copper and tin deposits were exploited almost from the beginning of penetration.It was horsemanship that set the pastoral trooper apart. Under ordinary circumstances control was exerted by reins attached to a bit—sometimes copper or bronze, but also bone or hemp. Saddles were blankets and hides. There were no stirrups, not before 500 [C.E.] at the earliest, so balance was based on experience and skill. Over time a horseman’s thighs and knees grew so sensitive to his mount’s movements that it became possible to maintain a firm seat at full speed using legs alone. The net effect was a union that left some wondering where the man left off and the horse began—the Greeks, for instance, imagined a race of centaurs, wild and unpredictable, humans and equines joined at the hip. Others were less fanciful, but nearly all who crossed his path were amazed by the steppe horseman’s ability to let go the reins and launch a rapid-fire barrage of arrows at full gallop through an arc of 270 degrees or more. He was as dangerous in retreat as moving forward—his fabled rearward Parthian shot brought an end to a legion of pursuers. No one was more lethal in the ancient world.
I never understood why centaurs were envisioned as forest creatures. Horses and ponies live on plains, steppes, and savannas.
I occasionally regret creating the Rellugai as turkic humans instead of centaurs. They would have been more difficult to write, but my writing can sometimes be too human-centric.
Dragoons were mounted infantrymen, their designation originating from the French dragon, the large-bore, and therefore close-work, fire-belching short musket—the Uzi of the Baroque Age, a special weapon that came into its own for a small force committed to hanging on for a brief period, if it was to be useful at all. With different emphases, they fought from war to war, hitting hard at a distance, and being professional enough to do so as a matter of essential routine. A heavily armored man who has lost his horse is vulnerable; light cavalry may not have the strength for nasty impact. The point of the dragoon was that he was at his deadliest when dismounted, to seize a bridgehead, to push across a ford. Akin to today’s airborne forces, dragoons struck fast, forcefully, and deep—expecting rapid backup if they were to succeed or being positioned at the flank of an army, flexibly employing their weapons against infantry and cavalry alike.
In the two great battles of the Peloponnesian War, at Delium and Mantinea, one sees the very beginning of the Greek infantry tactics of deep columns, reserves, integrated cavalry units, adaptation to terrain, and secondary maneuvers, which would only accelerate in the fourth century [B.C.E.] under Epaminondas and come to fruition with Philip and Alexander. Hoplite battle in the Peloponnesian War began a slow transformation, from phalanxes rather artificially deciding wars to hoplites becoming part of an integrated force of horsemen, light-armed troops, and missile troops that could win theaters of conflict on the basis of military efficacy rather than traditional protocol.
The steppe horse should probably be considered a pony rather than a horse, and the distinction between pony and horse is recognized by horsemen today, even if that distinction is not precise. Ponies are generally smaller than horses, usually no more than fourteen hands high, and in the common view this is their principal distinction. However, there are other equally significant differences between ponies and horses, and these are important in considering the effectiveness and threat posed by the steppe peoples who rode them.
Ponies are tough, often stockier than horses, and surprisingly strong. Some modern ponies, such as the halflinger, while not as tall as a horse, may be as heavy. As a rule their proportions are different—their legs may be relatively shorter and thicker and their heads proportionately larger. Their manes and tails are often longer and their hair more coarse. Their generally smaller size may account for the fact that they live longer than horses and require less food, and food of lesser quality. All of these factors, along with some Paleolithic evidence, suggested to a Scottish scientist at the turn of the century that ponies and horses were distinct “races” in ancient times and that size alone might be a rather arbitrary distinction. Clearly the two are very close and are often interbred, but the question of their lineage is not so much a concern here as are the pony’s excellent qualities of strength, stamina and ability to subsist on little food. All of this was well known in antiquity. In the fifth century the Roman author Vegetius wrote of Hun horses that they were ugly and small, but rated them as best for warfare because of their toughness and obedience.
…From the late seventeenth to the late thirteenth century [B.C.E.], for the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms warfare was a contest between opposing chariot forces, and the only offensive infantrymen who participated in battle were the ‘runners’—the skirmishers who ran among the chariots…. Although there is distressingly little information for the centuries following the Catastrophe [in the 12th century B.C.E.], what there is suggests that all over the eastern Mediterranean the principal role in battle was now borne by offensive infantrymen. Thus chariot warfare, which in the Late Bronze Age had distinguished cities and kingdoms from the barbarous hinterlands (where horses and a chariot were a luxury that few, if any, could afford), did not survive into the Iron Age, and even the wealthiest kings had now to depend primarily upon footsoldiers.
It is generally recognized that the chariot was less important in the Iron Age than in the Late Bronze Age. By the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III [of Assyria] (745-27 [B.C.E.]) the light, two-horse chariot rarely appeared on the battlefield, since by that time the tasks hitherto assigned to chariots were normally carried out by cavalry. As a result, the Neo-Assyrian chariot became an enormous and cumbersome vehicle, carrying a variety of passengers and drawn by three or four horses. Such vehicles had little in common with the war chariot of the Bronze Age and seem to have served as prestige conveyances for the king and lesser dignitaries. In classical times (if we except the dreadful but ineffective ‘scythed’ chariots of the Persians) the chariot was associated almost entirely with status, parades, and recreation. We may thus say that in the Iron Age cavalry ‘replaced’ chariotry as an effective military arm.
The earliest representations of archers shooting from the backs of galloping horses are ninth-century Assyrian reliefs. These reliefs show the cavalry archers operating in pairs: one cavalryman holds the reins of both his own and his partner’s horse, allowing the partner to use his hands for the bow and bowstring. The early cavalry teams thus parallel exactly the charioteer and chariot archer. The cavalry archer was undoubtedly less accurate than his counterpart on a chariot (bouncing on a horse’s back was less conducive to a good shot than standing—knees bent—on the leather-strap platform of a chariot). But in other respects the cavalry teams were surely superior. They were able, first of all, to operate in terrain too rough for wheeled vehicles. And their chances for flight, when things went wrong, were much better: when a chariot horse was injured, both crewmen were in immediate danger, but if a cavalryman’s horse was killed or injured the cavalryman could immediately leap on the back of his partner’s horse and so ride out of harm’s way. Yet another advantage of cavalry over chariotry was economic, since the cost of purchasing and maintaining a vehicle was considerable. The Chronicler claims…that in the tenth century [B.C.E.] the chariot itself cost twice as much as the team that pulled it.
How early in the Iron Age kings began to use cavalries in place of or alongside chariotries cannot be determined, since there is so little documentary and pictorial evidence for the period 1150-900 [B.C.E.]. By the middle of the ninth century cavalries were obviously well established, since at the Battle of Qarqar Shalmaneser III faced many men on horseback (and some on the backs of camels) and since he himself claimed to have 2,002 chariots and 5,542 cavalrymen. For earlier centuries all we have are Hebrew traditions, and although they are hardly trustworthy it must be noted that they routinely associate cavalries with the kings of the period. Solomon was said to have maintained twelve thousand parashim; David was believed to have defeated enormous horse troops consisting of both chariots and cavalrymen; and Saul was reported to have been slain on Mt. Gilboa by Philistine parashim.
The basis of the [Persian military and political] system [circa 500 B.C.E.] was the spirit, skill, and resourcefulness of the Persians. An important weapon was the bow, used effectively by both cavalry and infantry. Insofar as possible the Persians avoided close-quarters infantry combat until their foes had been thoroughly disorganized by swarms of foot archers from the front, and the daring onrushes of horse archers against flanks and rear. The Persians were versatile in adapting their methods of warfare to all conditions of terrain. They respected the shock action of the Lydian cavalry lancers, and incorporated this concept into their mounted tactics.
Subject peoples were required to render military service. The garrisons scattered throughout the empire were principally composed of unit from other regions…but always contained a Persian contingent. Imperial expeditionary forces were also multinational. The Persians received a surprisingly high standard of loyalty from these diverse peoples, due largely to their policies of leniency toward the conquered, and of carefully supervised but decentralized administration.
— The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 22
The 6th-century [C.E. Byzantine] soldier was in fact much more than a cavalryman: he had become an all-around mounted warrior. With his bow he could skirmish at a distance, but he was also heavily armoured and well equipped for close mounted combat. When a steady force was needed to hold ground, he was quite happy to dismount and fight as a heavy infantryman. On many occasions Belisarius took only cavalrymen with him, and when Narses needed steady infantry, he dismounted his cavalry.
— Late Roman Cavalryman: 236-565 AD, p. 24
Horsemanship was the first prerequisite for a military career. [A boy] would have had his first riding lessons almost as soon as he could walk. Under the strict gaze of his father’s grooms he would have progressed from donkey to pony, from pony to horse, learning by practice how to keep his seat, how to govern a fractious beast or calm a nervous one, how to ride for long hours over rough country without tiring, and all the other skills that would go to preserve his life in the melee of combat. Hunting and hawking, the nobleman’s pastimes, developed further skills: an eye for country—surface and slope, vantage point and dead ground; the habit of moving on horseback in company, if necessary swiftly and silently; the difficult art of shooting from horseback with bow and arrow at a moving quarry; the courage needed to dismount and face the charge of a boar with only a spear to protect the hunter from its tusks; endurance of heat and cold, hunger and thirst; care of weapons and tack, where a loose knife-haft or girth worn to breaking could cost limb or even life.
[Parthian] Cataphracts or clibanarii were heavy enough to break any other type of cavalry which opposed them; they were reasonably immune from hand-propelled missiles and arrows, less so from sling pellets or machine weapons. Their attack would be carried out at an ambling trot in close order, and was often only a feint to cause infantry to regroup into close formation to enable the mounted bowmen to create havoc, thus producing a close order/open order dilemma in the ranks. If the charge was pressed home against infantry who had ben subjected to prolonged missile attack, who were suffering from lack of food, water, or rest, or who were already disorganized, the chance of success was high. Good, fresh, well-prepared infantry in dense formation were difficult if not impossible to break and could prove disastrously lethal.
Horse-archers were almost impossible to destroy; however, they could be dispersed by good light cavalry, who might in turn be open to eventual counterattack. Enemy cavalry could be attacked while the bowmen’s own cataphracts threatened any enemy counterattacking. The effect on heavy infantry was more demoralizing than destructive.