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.
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.
COURSE ON ANCIENT HORSES
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.
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.
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.
WHO USED HORSES IN THE ROMAN WORLD?
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.
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.
HORSES AND THEIR EQUIPMENT
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.
ORGANIZATION OF 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'.
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.
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).
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".
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
"ROMAN-STYLE" CAVALRY TACTICS
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.
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.