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The following was Part II of a 'crash course' written for a 'Hollywood Type' who was mounting a Roman Production. It's a good primer for the material and of course doesn't include any developments since it was written in 1996.
All of the illustrations contained herein were taken from THE ARMIES AND ENEMIES OF IMPERIAL ROME by Phil Barker. They were selected for their accuracy, and their suitability for electronic transmittal. Permission for commercial use must be obtained from that author.


Americans are usually urban dwellers and don't have very much general knowledge about horses (I know I don't). They tend to think that those animals down at the public stables are the only kind of horses there are, or ever have been. This is wrong. The 'Average American Horse' is medium sized, with good wind (endurance), and average strength. All this means nothing because modern horses are so much larger and stronger than ancient ones.

Horses have always been described by their height, on the theory that a taller horse will have a bigger build and a shorter horse a smaller one. Horse height is measured from a point on their back just in front of the saddle straight down to the ground. The equine unit of measure is the "HAND". This started out as the distance across a man's knuckles, but the modern "Hand" is now officially four inches. Whenever someone describes a horse as so many "Hands" tall, multiply by four and that's the real height.

To get a better idea about what the Roman's were up against let's take a quick detour onto the subject of Mediaeval horses. During the Middle Ages Western Europe produced many different types of horses, but we need only concern ourselves with three. The "DESTRIER" was a knight's jousting horse. It wasn't the size of a Clydesdale, but was big, strong, and slow. It was 17 hands tall. In battle a knight rode a "COURSER". This was lighter, more maneuverable breed of "Destrier", between 16 and 17 hands tall. Finally the cheapest war horse was the "HOBBY". This was the animal used to mount infantry and move them around faster. It was considered so small and inferior that no one in his right mind would use them in a charge against infantry, let alone real cavalry on real horses. It was 12 to 14 "Hands" tall.

Archaeologists have unearthed skeletons of Roman cavalry horses and the big ones are between 13.2 and 14 "Hands" tall. Inferior horses, the kinds ridden by people like the Germans, were 11 to 12 "Hands" tall. What's even more astonishing is that the Numidians, Hannibal's fantastic light cavalry from North Africa, rode animals that the Romans considered small by comparison with their 'normal' sized horses! It's no wonder that the Romans weren't very good cavalry. It's pretty difficult mounting a successful cavalry charge when you know you're riding an animal too small to make it work.


The answer to this question is simple; The Circus (that means chariot races, not the modern style circus), and the Army. Augustus introduced a diplomatic postal system using fast horses, but that was after he became emperor. Before that no one else really used horses. Farmers preferred oxen for plowing. They were bigger and stronger, although slower, than horses and the poorly designed Roman yoke didn't strangle them quite so badly because their shoulders were broad.

Mules were considered stronger and more docile than horses and were far more frequently used for riding and as pack animals. While on the subject of baggage, dispel any thoughts you might have of Roman armies being followed by enormous convoys of wagons. The Romans didn't use wagons much, partly because of their puny horses. Mediaeval armies used large numbers of wagons - huge four wheeled wagons pulled by big, strong, horses. Modern scholars have calculated that the baggage from one Mediaeval wagon could be distributed over 17 ancient pack mules. The Romans thus avoided trying to corner with multi-mule wagons, visualize the '20 Mule Team wagon' from the Borax Soap box, and could build their military roads with much steeper grades. You don't have to worry about a pack mule running out of control down a hill like a four-wheeled wagon full of tents and cooking pots.


Have a look at figure #136 on the right. This is a Roman cavalry horse from the early empire. It has no stirrups, but does have the Celtic/Roman saddle. Modern western-style saddles have only one horn. Located in the center of the saddle's front, it's the part guests at a dude ranch hold on to. Roman saddles had four horns, one in each corner. This arrangement supposedly compensated for the fact that the rider had no stirrups.

I can't quite buy the 'wonders of the 4 horn saddle' theory. Take for example the "Clibanarii" (super-heavy cavalry) of the late empire. Historians delight in describing their heavy armor, long lances, high maintenance costs, and inability to mount successful charges. To me the explanation seems simple. Their horses were too small for a shock attack, and they couldn't use increased speed to compensate because they knew they'd fly out of the saddle when they hit the enemy. Four horns or no horns!

Figure #137 on the left is an 'inferior' horse with primitive equipment. It's the sort of thing Germans might use, but not Gauls they'd be on #136. There is no saddle, only a blanket held in place by straps. I guess its purpose is to keep horse sweat off the rider. German horses were considered to be bad mounts. Not small just poor quality. Consequently Romans offered replacement mounts to German recruits.

Finally #138 on the right is a Numidian pony. It has no stirrups, no saddle, not even a blanket. There is a rope wrapped around its neck, and one around the jaw acting as a primitive (very primitive) bridle. Ancient scholars wrote in amazement about the numerous hand and knee signals the Numidians used to tell their ponies what to do. That's all very nice, but look at #138 again. Anyone riding that animal has no mechanism for enforcing his suggestions, no matter how numerous or impressive they are. It's no surprise that Numidian cavalry knew better than to try anything other than skirmishing like plains Indians.


Roman cavalry came from three sources: Legionary Cavalry - see below, Allies - troops from foreign countries fighting on the same side as Rome, and Auxilia - foreign troops from a country/tribe at peace with Rome's enemy, but willing to fight anyway. Gradually these foreign units became 'Roman'.

"Legionary Cavalry" changed over time. It started out as conventional heavy cavalry, Polybius estimating that during the Punic wars each Legion had 200 attached. Modern scholars lean towards 300. Cavalry were organized in "TURMAE" (squadrons) of 30 men. "Turmae" were divided into 3 troops each commanded by a "DECURIO" (Commander of 10 men) assisted by an "OPTIO". The senior "Decurio" commanded the whole "Turma". In battle these troops were grouped with those from other Legions and placed on the army's left flank, seemingly in the hopes that they would do the least damage there. (Have I mentioned that Roman cavalry doesn't seem to have been very good?) The right flank was held by cavalry of the "Italian Allies". We would consider them Romans, the Romans considered them foreign allies. The Italians didn't have Legions they had "ALAE SOCIORUM" (Allied Wings), which were just like Legions except they had a different name and 900 cavalry attached. Italian cavalry was more numerous and performed better than its Roman counterpart.

By Caesar's day the "Alae Sociorum" and Legionary cavalry had both been abolished. All heavy infantry were organized in Legions, and all cavalry came from foreign sources. Later Augustus inserted 120 mounted men back into each Legion, but they were dispatch riders and scouts no longer fulfilling the role of Battle-Cavalry.

As might be expected "Allies" had their own leaders and organization. Roman commanders just told them where to go, what to do, and hoped it worked out OK.

The exact nature of "Auxilia" (Auxiliaries) can be a bit confusing. We know that Caesar and his contemporaries used them to augment and eventually replace all Roman cavalry. They started out as a Bunches-of-Mounted-Barbarians (not a Roman term), usually Gauls or Germans, in their own loose organization commanded by tribal chiefs. Later the chiefs were made Roman citizens upon taking up command, Arminius was one of these. Finally the tribal leaders were replaced by Roman officers, "PRAEFECTUS EQUITUM" (Prefect of Horse).

During the reign of Augustus the term "CUNEI" (wedge) was applied to these units which seem to have been standardized (HA!) at 'around 500' or 'around 1000' men since the time of Caesar.

It is with the mounted "Auxilia" of the Augustan army that we finally have units with a well documented chain of command. Each "Turma" still consisted of 30 troopers, and was commanded by the one and only "Decurio". The "Turma" may have been divided into two subsections - they deployed in two ranks, or three troops of 10 men - because it included two new officers replacing the two junior "Decurios"; the "DUPLICARIUS", a double-pay man with the same status as a Legionary "Optio", and the "SESQUIPLICARIUS", a one-and-a-half-pay man with the same status as a Legionary "Tesserarius" (drill sergeant). Each "Turma" also included a "CURATOR" who, it is assumed, took care of the horses, and a "Signifer" who carried the "Turma" standard which was a "Signum".

"Turmae" were grouped into "Alae" (wings). "Alae Quingenaria" had 16 "Turmae", so 480 men. "Alae Milliaria" had 24 "Turmae", or 720 men. These numbers are sufficiently close to the previously mentioned barbarian units of 'around 500' and 'around 1000' that one is tempted to hypothesize the gradual evolution of individual irregular "Cunei" into regular "Auxilia Alae".

All "Alae" were commanded by a "PRAEFECTUS ALA" (Wing Prefect). "Auxilia Alae" were brigaded together into units called "Vexillum" (sometimes anglicized to Vexillation), named after the type of standard carried by each "ALA". "Vexillum" commanders and cavalry generals were also called "Praefectus ALA". This didn't seem to confuse the Romans who probably used the same technique they employed to differentiate between "Centurions" in a Legion - tacking descriptive names onto the end of the title. "Praefecti ALA" (Wing Prefects) would serve under a "Praefectus ALA Vexillum" (Vexillar Wing Prefect) and everybody was commanded by the "Praefectus ALA Intra Gallias" (Wing Prefect of the Field Army in Gaul), or something like that. I admit that it's much easier to work out the titles for Roman admirals, who were also all "Praefecti" (Prefects) by the way.

In the middle empire things get a lot easier with the introduction of a new title for an army's cavalry commander, the "MAGISTER EQUITUM" (Master of Horse). Unlike Legionary officers (Legates & Tribunes) all "Praefecti ALA" were expected to charge into combat with their men.


Figure #30 on the right is a Roman cavalryman of the Late Republic. He wears the same "Lorica Hamata" (chainmail shirt) and short sleeve tunic as figure #1 (Late Republican Legionary) from the "Topics Roman I" page. His shield is not the square Legionary "Scutum", but an ordinary round one - with the elbow and hand straps necessitated by mounted use. His sword is not the "Gladius", but the longer "Spatha" capable of the longer reach necessary in mounted combat. The saddle is more advanced than the simple blanket on horse #137, but less so than the four-horned Celtic style on horse #136. It has low padding in front, with no support behind. Its principle purpose seems to be keeping the horse's spine separated from the rider. The helmet is more complex and expensive than those of contemporary infantry, members of the equestrian order were richer than foot sloggers, and is similar in design to the headgear frequently worn by Hollywood extras. At this time helmets were provided by the wearer. Roman cavalry helmets were usually in Celtic or Greek style, while those of the 'Italian allies' were Greek or Samnite.

Figure #31 is from around 50 AD. The shield is more narrow, hence lighter and more maneuverable, and the saddle is the Celtic four-horned style from horse #136. He is wearing the calf-length breeches also worn by "Auxilia Cohorts" (Auxiliary Infantry). Compare him with the very similar figure #53 from "Topics Roman I." The helmet is just a tarted-up version of the one from figure #30. The wavy lines represent stylized hair. To get a better idea look at the photo on page 80 of THE ROMAN LEGIONS RECREATED IN COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS, by Daniel Peterson.

Figure #35 is a Numidian. These are the chaps who rode around the Roman flanks at Cannae. Later many of their tribes joined Rome in defeating Hannibal at Zamma. They also fought against Caesar in Africa during his civil war with the Senate. In all these cases they fought under their own chiefs as 'Allies' (see above) and were mounted on horses like #138.

Figure #67 is a Gaul. He would ride a horse like #136. Only the most wealthy could afford chainmail shirts, the "Lorica Hamata" was actually a Celtic invention, but most cavalry would be rich enough to own a helmet. Styles could vary enormously; cheek guards, no cheek guards, neck guards, no neck guards, tall and pointed, short and round, etc. Round shields of the size shown were the most popular with the cavalry, but they could also be oval, although more narrow than that of figure #31. Tunics, pants, and cloaks could be one color, bordered, striped, or tartan. Remember the Scots are Celts too. Romans considered Gauls to be superior horsemen too anyone in the western half of the Republic/Empire.

Figure #81on the right is a German. He would be mounted on a horse like #137. Note that he doesn't have a sword, because Germans were poorer and thus had less metal than the Gauls. Again cavalry was drawn from the more affluent, but the social attitudes towards armor were reversed from those in Gaul. In Germany the wealthy might have a sword, the rich a chainmail shirt, but only a chieftain would wear a helmet. Some tribes dyed their hair bright red, but it is not clear whether this was a fashion statement, or something like Indian war-paint. German shirts were baggier than those in Gaul, but the pants were tighter. Clothing was left natural or dyed in dark solid colors; greens, blues, and browns predominated.

Despite the fact that Gauls were better equipped, better mounted, and considered better horsemen than the Germans they couldn't really stand up to them in hand to hand combat. In fact German horsemen grew so self-confident that they considered any cavalry using saddles effeminate and would charge them on sight!

How do these various costumes apply to Roman cavalry? Allies naturally used native equipment and wore their native dress. "Auxilia" probably started out that way, but as their status and organization evolved into that of "Auxilia ALA" their wardrobe gradually shifted to resemble that of figures #30 & #31.


Forget about Alexander the Great. His cavalry was armed differently, convinced that no one could stop their charges, and faced nervous opponents who agreed with that opinion. Roman cavalry, and everybody else whose cavalry was armed like the Romans, used three basic tactics.

1.) Ride up in a series of lines, throw your javelin, turn right, ride away, and come back until you run out of javelins. Since shields were always worn on the left arm the rider remained protected. Archaeologists and reenactors who have experimented with this sort of thing claim that the volume of fire delivered is pretty impressive. Remember the cavalry javelin is smaller than the infantry "Pilum", but a lot larger than an ordinary arrow. Besides cavalry can ride off, get more javelins, come back and start over again a lot quicker than the fastest infantry bowman.

2.) Form up in a wheel, turning clockwise, and when you ride past the enemy chuck your javelin at him. If you could surround the enemy, like Movie-Indians with a wagon train, the wheel turned counterclockwise. You always wanted your shielded side facing the enemy.

3.) Ride up in a series of lines, throw your javelin, and, if the enemy looks disorganized, draw your sword and charge. Official doctrine was that only half each "Turma" actually charged, the remainder trotted along behind as a tactical reserve.

Finally, let me emphasize that Roman cavalry wasn't timid, just operating at a severe disadvantage. They were perfectly willing to charge other cavalry, after all everybody was riding the same puny ponies. After enough of steps #1 & #2 they'd charge other people's infantry, but a successful frontal charge against a Legion was very rare. If they were taken in the flank by Hannibal, or wanted to change sides and join Caesar OK - but under normal circumstances, not a chance. Take the battle of Pharsalus as an example. Titus Atius Labiensus, possibly the best Roman cavalry general, smashed Caesar's right flank cavalry only to bounce off eight reserve Cohorts. Titus had even abandoned the use of tactical reserves, lumping all his men and horses into what he hoped would be one big sledge hammer blow against the Legionaries. It didn't matter, 7,000 charging cavalry were defeated by less than 4,000 infantry.

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