The Earliest Use of Cavalry

10 posts

Bronze Age Pervert

I just finished reading the book Early Riders by Robert Drews. I have also been looking up related books and academic articles online and the general conclusion is that there was no military use of horse riding before around 800 BC ...let's say around 1000 BC to be very liberal. Why should this be controversial? For the simple reason that, while military historians and archaeologists in general agree on this fact, Indo-Europeanists who follow Gimbutas do not. She dogmatically pushed for the notion that the IE peoples (I will refer to them as Aryans for shorthand, and I will call the historical Aryans Indo-Aryan or Indic in this thread) spread quite early and that horse-riding was a big reason...she imagined vast Volkerwanderung of tribes, flocks, with men riding horses and conquering Europe and other areas starting as early as 4000 BC and originating in the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

There are a number of reasons this theory had popularity after WW2. First, it rejected the notion of an Aryan homeland in northern Europe (a proposition that indeed has very little to back it up). Second, although it suggested that warfare and conquest was the reason for the expansion, Gimbutas wedded this to two concepts that attenuated or otherwise put in a bad light the notion of a Herrenvolk. On one hand the notion of a diffuse Volkerwanderung or gradual settlement by large populations seemed to "take the edge off" some of the earlier theories of elite dominance, morally speaking; on the other hand, she explicitly wedded this to a feminist fantasy of an essentially pacifist matriarchal Old Europe that was despoiled by horse riding sky-god-worshiping intruders. In a way, having your cake and eating it too.

In the Gimbutas model it is widely assumed that the Kurgan culture is in some ways the original IE culture and that these people spread by their skill with cavalry, which apparently they mastered as early as 4000 BC. But there is no evidence from the steppe for riding this early--no images, statuettes, drawings, bits, etc., nothing; now, if we look to the south of the Caucasus, where there is a stronger material record, we don't find evidence of COMPETENT riding, which would allow for the use of a weapon while riding, until much later. Until that is, after 900 BC or so (there are very few scattered earlier images of riders, but not before 2000 BC, and these show "riders" in very awkward positions...I will talk about this later). Gimbutas' theory and in general the Kurgan horseman theory depends on the idea that somehow people north of the Caucasus mountains were expert riders but that this advance was somehow kept secret from peoples in the Near East, despite the fact that the two had frequent contact (especially in Anatolia). This goes against everything we know about the spread of military technology in the ancient world. The war chariot, once developed (either in eastern Anatolia or in southern Siberia) spread very fast, and the bronze bit, when developed around 1000-900 BC or so, spread within 200 years everywhere from the Near East to Western Europe to Mongolia...with models in Central Asia today still essentially unchanged since the Bronze Age:


ancient Luristan bronze bit:


The previously-used organic bits were inadequate to manipulating the horse...the earlier-still nose rings were the worst, as these could hardly direct the horse to the right or left, and also probably panicked this very nervous and sensitive animal. The point is that as soon as we know it was invented such technology spread very fast, as did the chariot...yet somehow we are to believe that for thousands of years earlier people in the steppe were expert riders. That they were so without the proper tools (metal bits) for manipulating this animal, and so on. And that the inhabitants of the Near East, China, etc., did not learn how to do it despite being in touch with the steppe.

Also consider that the Egyptian Pharaohs used to recruit mercenaries from as far north as Northern Greece. It's not clear why they wouldn't hire the expert riders who are assumed to have then been living on the Danube, nor why these would have preferred to rule poor villagers rather than simply invade the rich Middle East or at least act as mercenaries (this is another of Drews' good points).

When we DO know that good riding developed, around 800 BC we immediately see disruptive predatory raids by various tribes of obscure origins, and then very soon we see a gigantic empire forged by the Medes and Persians, who built it on the strength of their riders. The failure of their empire against the heavy infantry tactics developed by the Greeks and Carians (and that quickly spread to the Mediterranean in general) inaugurated another era of military history, but that takes us too far into the future. The point is that we have no evidence for such expansions by horse-riders before this time, unless we are to take Gimbutas' mere assumptions as evidence. There are other, and much better, explanations for why the Aryans managed to make such spectacular conquests.

Chariots were far more expensive to maintain than cavalry, and also less effective. Yet from 1700-1200 BC we see the unchallenged use of chariots. I would argue, again following Drews, that this is also the time of the earliest Aryan expansions, again through the use of chariot. This is for a future discussion though.
Bob Dylan Roof

Interesting post, particulary the part about the politicized Gimbutas model.


Cadavre Exquis

Barton C. Hacker agrees with Drews' main points. Steppe dwellers only learned to competently use the bow on horseback by the ninth century BC, but this changed warfare dramatically. Having an inherent advantage of a lifelong association with horses, they were able to use many of their hunting techniques in battle. It would be interesting to see when, for example, the 'Parthian shot' was first developed and applied on the battlefield.

Hacker also makes the point that use of cavalry was adopted by resource-rich civilised peoples, but in a different way to the nomadic tribes. Grain-fed horses grew to be larger and could carry heavily armed and armoured riders into battle, but lacked the stamina of the nomads' grass-fed ponies. This led to somewhat of a stalemate on the fringes of the civilised world.

Bronze Age Pervert
Drews talks about the earliest representations of the Parthian shot...I'll look it up. But he points out that it's only useful against other cavalry because infantry can't pursue.

He also point out that the famous cavalry charge is a mostly psychological tactic. Against infantry out of formation and against retreating infantry it's very effective, but if men form themselves in a line and hold spears horses will simply not charge into this, they will stop before they reach the line. Obviously it's one thing to know this on paper another thing to be able to hold the line when you have a mass of horses charging you.
Cadavre Exquis
A short note on the psychology of cavalry use/tactics. Timothy May talks about the use of a Mongol hunting technique of encircling animals over a large area by a mass of riders. This was expanded to a much broader, strategic scale.

Indeed, as the circle contracted, populations fled toward the center, typically a key city. The impact of the nerge was great. First, it cut off the principal city from communicating with other strongholds that might be expected to give aid. Second, refugees from these smaller cities would flee to the last stronghold. Not only did the reports from these defeated cities and the streaming hordes of refugees reduce the morale of the inhabitants and garrison forces of the principal city, but in addition, the refugees strained its resources, taxing food and water reserves and thus undermining the defense of the city.​

From The Training of an Inner Asian Nomad Army in the Pre-Modern Period .
Cadavre Exquis

More from the above article:

The nerge was then adapted to warfare and applied through several techniques. The most obvious was the encirclement of the enemy, or double envelopment, in which the wings of the Mongol army would wrap around the opposing army so that they overlapped. In addition to making it possible to attack the enemy from multiple angles, the surrounding of enemy forces allowed the Mongols to employ another tactic. By leaving a gap in their encirclement, the Mongols created a seemingly innocuous hole that appeared to be a means of escape for those enclosed by the Mongol ranks, much as animals were permitted to flee during the nerge . During war, however, the gap served as a trap. Realizing that when cornered, the enemy would resist stubbornly, the Mongols allowed a safety valve in order to let the enemy escape. However, the fleeing troops quickly discovered to their detriment that the Mongols simply pursued and hunted them. Often discarding their weapons in their haste, the enemy rarely could maintain any semblance of effective defense once they chose to escape.​
President Camacho
Is heavy infantry really intrinsically superior against cavalry, or was effectiveness of Greek heavy infantry (in the Persian Wars etc) more symptomatic of the general superiority of Greek elan, discipline, etc, versus the heterogenous hordes that formed the Persian armies?

IIRC Alexander's army gradually became more "Eastern" in composition (more light cavalry, etc) as he advanced towards India, most notably he had to change to cavalry-centric tactics upon encountering the Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun I believe were mostly irregular cavalry and light infantry themselves.... Maybe this has more to do with cavalry's superiority in decentralized/guerilla warfare or mobile war over long distances, however.

Did any of Alexander's opponents rely on heavy infantry?
Bronze Age Pervert
Heavy infantry well-used is inseparable from discipline. Homeric warfare was appreciated in public performances of poetry, and the virtue of Achilles was seen as the paradigm of the best man, but in actual battle virtue was defined as keeping your place in line and keeping the phalanx formation. Thus at Plataea a Spartan commander came with an anchor and tied himself to it, showing symbolically that he would not give an inch. It was this battle more than any other, by the way, that permanently broke Persian plans for a European invasion. At this same battle I believe there were two Spartan survivors of Thermopylae who, to atone for their surviving that battle, repeatedly charged out of line "like madmen" at the Persians to show off their courage and so on...but very tellingly, these men were punished after battle for breaking formation. Victor Hanson talks at length about this new idea of discipline and military virtue, and how different it was from anything that existed anywhere else in the world, where battle was still defined in individual terms, swordplay, etc.; Greeks saw that as barbarian.

Furthermore you can't separate the existence of a heavy infantry from larger social and economic factors...dirt-poor serfs conscripted into an army simply don't have the money to equip themselves with a suit of bronze armor and the weapons that go with this (equivalent to maybe the cost of a good car today). Also, to develop the kind of trust among men and discipline you have in a phalanx you need a social system that encourages's why the Spartans had a common mess hall, why they called themselves homoioi, etc.; you don't get that kind of social spirit either among serfs or among feudal/rural nobles. You also need on top of this a political system that gives some insurance for property rights so that men who leave home on campaign can be sure their property won't be arbitrarily seized. The Persian king carried so much treasure with him in large part because even he couldn't be sure of that; this is a recurring phenomenon among Easterners, the Ottoman leader at Lepanto carried his whole property with him in battle because he knew back home it could be seized at any moment. On the flipside, heavy infantry tactics developed among men of middling property who owned farmland and didn't want to go campaigning for a whole year...they wanted a quick summer engagement and then to get back in time to taking care of their land. So they developed a preference for quick, decisive close-quarters engagements.

The point is that all of these things--preference for shock engagements, heavy expensive equipment, discipline in keeping together a formation, etc.--are inseparable from heavy infantry as such. A single man with heavy armor will probably be quite helpless by himself against a troop of horsemen, but you don't just get some guy spontaneously deciding to equip himself with this and engage Scythian mounted bowmen, etc.

In general I would say that yes, heavy infantry always trumps cavalry. The Carians who developed many of the early panoply (the crested helmet, the heavy "balanced" shield with strap) managed to fend off the earliest cavalry raids in their territory...again for the reason that horses will simply not charge a row of spears that stand their ground. If on top of this you add light-infantry auxiliaries (as you must) who will harass the horsemen with bows and slingshots, the cavalry is quite useless.

The development of heavy cavalry with Charlemagne changed this, but it should be noted that by that time the tradition of fighting in heavy infantry citizen militia formations was mostly lost in the West. And when such traditions started again, Swiss pikemen neutralized medieval infantry even before the use of gunpowder.

Alexander is a different issue, he made use of cavalry in very effective ways, but this is more the exception that proves the rule. He only repeated, more successfully, the adventure of the 10,000 from a century before, which was an all-infantry formation (hired by the Persian Cyrus who knew how effective they would be against Eastern cavalry). The Roman era was one of heavy infantry. While occasional losses against cavalry like at Carrhae did happen, they managed to consistently crush horse-peoples. The Byzantines later switched to mounted riders for different reasons.
President Camacho
It's probably true that there was more respect for property rights and the like in the polis, but I think this is more of a case of the more highly developed money-sense that the Persians adopted as inheritors of the highly evolved Babylonian/Sumerian civilization. "Money" as such was only starting to make itself a force in the Classical world at the time of the Persian Wars, and this is why the merchant class of the Greek cities, from Homeric times until probably the Hellenistic era, was dominated by foreigners like Phoenicians who were more well acquainted with acquisitive/middle man economics characteristic of highly matured civilizations. (The same is true for the Romans in Jesus' Aramea, and later the Jews of Gothic Europe)

By the age of the Romans, of course, it is a different story, and we see that the Romans placed the same importance on money-as-wealth as the Persians you mention. The Roman veteran carried his entire fortune in coins with him everywhere, and in fact the locations of certain battles--most notably Teutoberg Forest-- were confirmed by the examination of the vast treasure stashes that were left buried with the defeated armies. Naturally as Tacitus notes, the primitive Germans could not understand the importance the Romans placed on these completely abstract forms of wealth which had no utilitarian value or organic connection to agrarian economics, leaving much of the treasure behind for posterity to discover.

Only highly mature economies value "money" as paramount, and for the Greeks of the Persian Wars-- while more developed than, say, Arminius' Germans or the American Indian-- this was not yet true. As you mention, personal farming concerns still dominated even the military tactics and strategy of Sparta, while the "industrial" latifundia system and Marius' reforms shed any last bond the legionnaire had with agrarian economics.

Back to the original topic, I suppose I should re-qualify my juxtaposition of cavalry with heavy infantry by specifying mounted archery as the military tactic I was interested in, not spear/swordsmen on horseback. It was the former type of cavalry that Alexander encountered in Afghanistan I believe, and the same type that the Huns and later the Hungarians and Mongols were able to devastate Europe with. The Battle of Carrhae you mention, was notoriously against mounted archers (the "Parthian shot" especially enraging Roman sensibilities). It would seem to me that archer-cavalry--far from being weak against heavy infantry-- is the perfect trump card against it.
Bronze Age Pervert
Roman legionnaires carried property on long campaigns for a different reason than even Eastern potentates was not because of fear it might be taken by govt. authorities. We can get into that if you want. But your example actually proves my case, because the Roman soldier was promised land in return for his service in the heavy infantry...something not possible in the East. Even under the Empire the average Roman soldier had more formal rights and freedoms than any Oriental did, and he did not return to his home as a serf/slave but as a free landowner.

The contrast between the free Greeks and the slavish Persians was framed in these terms by the Greeks themselves, who saw the Persian style as slaves being whipped on to fight by their masters, and their masters being beholden to luxury and being slaves themselves (only the Great King was not a slave). They understood the fighting style of the Persians and their luxuries as connected to their slavish political arrangements.

Your comments about money I can't accept either. Coins were first minted in Phrygia or Lydia and were adopted first by the Greek cities, which were famous for their commercial life. There are theories that money in fact was first coined to pay for heavy infantry mercenaries. The development of heavy infantry itself, plus the later naval power of the Greeks, would have been impossible without a well-developed commercial life. And the Phoenicians were the commercial competitors of the Greeks, not their middlemen. There were old Phoenician families settled in some Greek cities, but I'm not aware of these having any special commercial function. The Greeks were a thoroughly commercial people even by the Archaic period, so I can't agree with your take on this.

Regarding the Spartans, I was actually going to make an exception for them in the last post, because unlike the other Greek cities they were not subject to the whole farming cycle...they turned themselves entirely into a military elite and had the helots do that for them. Of course they were often reluctant to go on wars because they had to police the helots, but that's different. Going against your account of the money thing, they actually had to go out of their way to ban coins in their constitution as well as open displays of was an ideological/philosophical choice on the part of their Legislator to do this, it wasn't a historical feature of a "young culture."

Your point about horse archers I also can't accept because that in fact WAS the tactic of the Persians to begin with and the Parthian shot is shown in statuettes as early as 900 BC I think. It is clear that, as with chariots, this was one of the chief ways that horse peoples fought from the beginning. But it was totally useless against heavy infantry the vast majority of the time, as in the Persian wars and later in the adventure of the 10,000 and so on. Again, Carrhae was an exception, one battle out of 100's of years of Romans, and earlier Greeks and others, crushing similar tactics. Even in that case it had little to do with Parthian shots (which are really only useful against pursuing cavalry) but with the special bows and arrows used against the legionnaires, which in this case were able to penetrate their armor and exhaust an isolated and extended formation (this is another thing...the arrows fired by horse archers are typically not able to penetrate the shield and armor of heavy infantry). But to single this out as a "trump card" is the same thing as using the battle of Isandhlwana as an example that Zulu impis were trump cards against British battalions.

The Mongol raiders and other Eastern raiders did not ever have to deal with heavy infantry formations of the type I'm talking about, that tradition had been mostly lost and certainly was not there in Eastern Europe. But it was heavy infantry that defeated the similar tactics of the Arabs at Poitiers earlier. Cavalry simply has no answer to this...only under exceptional and rare circumstances is it effective against an exhausted or overextended heavy infantry.