Abstract: Horses for Forces: Equine Form and Military Function


The history of the horse is closely intertwined with that of humans,  Equids have played an indispensable role in the evolution of human culture for thousands of years.  By far the most significant role fulfilled by the horse has been on the battlefield.  The martial debt owed to the horse has been immortalized by monuments and epitaphs, like that dedicated by Damis for his ‘steadfast war-horse/Pierced through the breast by gory Ares’(Greek Anthology vol.II 208).  The courageous glory of the warhorse has been praised in every genre of literature.  The Old Testament recounts how the horse ‘mocks fear and is not dismayed; he does not turn away from the sword nor the rattling quiver, the flashing spear and the javelin’ (Job 39.20-22).  The sacrifices made by military horses are still honoured by charities like the Brooke Foundation and on screen and stage with blockbusters like ‘Warhorse.’

In the field of military history the study of cavalry is a popular subject.  Articles, monographs and edited volumes on the mounted units of the ancient world abound.  The majority of this work, however, focuses on cavalry tactics and logistics.  Research on ancient cavalry has long followed the same trends as other work on warfare in antiquity.  Painstaking attention is given to the minute details of a battle or campaign: supply lines, climate, topography, arms and armour, strategies and tactics.  We dissect with great detail the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a particular unit or style of fighting.  Nonetheless, military historians have habitually overlooked one very important component of warfare in antiquity: the horse.

Cavalry units are arbitrarily defined as ‘heavy’ or ‘light,’ but there is not a standard definition for what this terms designate.  Their meaning changes between cultures and centuries.  Furthermore, very little attention is devoted to the horse himself.  All military equines are lumped together in one mould.   Rarely do analyses of cavalry tactics mention, let alone discuss, how equine behaviour and conformation influenced weaponry, armour and fighting style.  It is, however, only by establishing how horse type (form) influenced military use (function) that we can truly examine and understand the tactics and details of cavalry battles.

In this paper I use equine iconography, literary descriptions, material remains, native breeds and experimental archaeology to establish the regional typology of horses found in the ancient world.  These types are categorized as Mediterranean, Northern European, Central Asian, Near Eastern and North African.  Having introduced these types, I will explain how the physical form (conformation) of each type influenced its use on the battlefield.  Further, this paper will explore the notion that culture-specific tactics and armament developed as a result of particular equine idiosyncrasies found within each type.  Finally, the potential strengths and weaknesses of the types will be discussed in relation to their training, maintenance and military use.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

Anderson, J.K.  Ancient Greek Horsemanship.  University of California Press:1961.

Hildinger, E.  Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia.  Da Capo Press: 2001.

Clutton-Brock, J.  Horse Power: A History of the Horse and Donkey in Human Societies. Harvard University Press: 1992

Gaebel, R.E.  Cavalry Operations in the Ancient World.  University of Oklahoma Press: 2002.

Greenhalgh, P.A.L.  Early Greek Warfare: Horsemen and Chariots in the Homeric and Archaic Ages.  Cambridge University Press: 1973.

Hyland, A.  (2003), The Horse in the Ancient World.  Praeger Publishers:2003

Hyland, A. Equus: The Horse in the Roman World.  B.T. Batsford Ltd.: 1990.

Speidel, M.  Riding for Caesar: The Roman Emperors’ Horse Guard.  Harvard: 1994

Spence, I.  The Cavalry of Classical Greece: A Social and Political History.  Clarendon Press: 1995.

Worley, L. J.  Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece.  Westview Press: 1994.


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