Ancient Greek cavalry (1000-350 bc)

Ancient Greek cavalry

Geometric-Archaic Era

“In the Aegean basin the horse as a tool of warfare appears from 1700 BC. The initial use of the animal was for chariot traction. The importance of the horse as a tool of warfare appears in the poems of Homer who names the two horses of Ares (Mars) Panic and Fear (1) and in Hesiod who also confirms it. (2)”

The nomads of the Eurasian steppes were the first to develop the art of riding but its propagation to the Balkans is probably due to the Thracians. The struggles of the Minoans and Mycenaeans to establish colonies in the Late Bronze Age Thrace, is probably the source of the myth about the flesh eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. Hercules finally managed to capture and bring to Mycenae these terrible animals. (3) From the myth we conclude that the spread of horsemanship skills in southern Greece was a long and arduous process. Hercules 9th Labor to possess the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (4) informs us that the Greeks were very influenced by the Scythians in the matters of horsemanship equipment.

Many believe that the cavalry initially was used more in the role of scouts, as the tradition of the time wanted the aristocratic charioteers to dominate the battlefield and the small Greek horses could not carry armored men. But since the beginning of larger horses appearance, armored horsemen began to make their presence felt in battlefield. While only half of the charioteers could fight due to the need of one serving as a chariot driver, all the riders could engage the enemy. The sudden onslaught of fighters who had the skill to ride and fight at the same time served as a basis for the legend of the Centaurs.

Horsemen of the Geometric Period 1150-900 BC. Source A. Salimbeti

Some scholars say the word centaur means “bulls killer” (5). They also argue that the horsemen helped Doreans fighting against the Achaeans who fought under the bull emblem. Others argue that myths relevant to the brutality of the Centaurs have their source at the problems that the Doreans faced from their unpredictable Thracian or Scythian allies who fought on horseback. There is also the view that the legend of the Centaurs has to do with animistic rites in honor of the Moon that were preserved in the area of Thessaly. (6)

With the chaotic battle mode dominant in the Geometric Era cavalry cavalry usage saw its peak. The war took the form of raids and the horsemen were invaluable to terrorize the less organized footmen. They were also adept at snatching flocks by taking advantage of their superior mobility. The myth of the Dioscuri, considered protectors of horsemen is definitely related to the importance attributed to cavalry.

Geometric Era Horseman with round shields. Photo: Author’s archive. Geometric Era amphora from Paros Museum depicting horsemen with round shields.

Already by the time of Homer reappears the dense fighters close order array, which effectively checked the momentum of the enemy. (7) The heavily armed infantrymen who maintained their cohesion could intercept and resist the cavalry charge. But until the middle of the archaic period, the hoplites were limited in number as they were nearly all coming from noble families and constituted a small part of the total number of combatants. The cavalry could avoid the front of the hoplites and attack the lighter equipped fighters. If the horsemen put the light troops to flight they would reveal the side of the hoplite phalanx with disastrous results.

The most typical case where the cavalry won the battle in the archaic period was the war between Chalcis and Eretria for Lelantine field. (8) The “Hippovotae”, i.e. aristocrats of Chalcis closed an agreement with the Thessalian Cleomachus to have assistance from the famous Thessalian horsemen. The Thessalians defeated the lighter cavalry Eretrians and their allies and then flanked the infantry tilting the balance in favor of Chalcis. Cleomachus was killed in battle and Chalcidians honored him as a local hero.

The Thessalian horsemen became notorious and are starting to become an integral part of mercenary forces serving the various tyrants appearing in the Greek World during the archaic period. The most famous are Cineas horsemen serving Peisistratos. They dominated the Attic plains thus preventing the raids of the Alcmaeonides and their allies. They even managed to repel the Laconian Mora of Skiritis under Anchimolus (ally of the Alcmaeonides) with heavy losses. (9)

Thessalian cavalry

As mentioned, Thessalian horsemen were sought after as mercenaries. The plain of Thessaly was an ideal location for raising horses. Its fertile land made the local aristocrats wealthy so they created horse-breeding farms. Until the Middle Ages where a special harness that allowed the use of the horse for work was discovered, the possession of these animals was the privilege of the rich, as there was no other use for horses other than hunting and war.

Thessalian horseman from a 19th century drawing

The Thessalian cities formed a federation known as “The Thessalian Commonwealth”. They elected a supreme military commander who was called “tagos” i.e. man that marshals the troops. Two families: the Alevadae of Larissa and Scopadae of Crannon, competed ruthlessly for the post of the “Commander of the Thessalians.” According to an excerpt from the lost work of Aristotle “Constitution of the Thessalians”, the first “tagos” was Alevas the Red. He divided Thessaly into four regions (tetrarchiae). Each tetrarchy was divided into land allotments (kleroi) each of them with the obligation to provide 40 horsemen and 80 hoplites. (10)

The power of their horsemen made the Thessalians overlords of the Aenianians and the Peraivians who fought mainly as a light infantry. Opponents of the Thessalians faced serious problems as hoplite warfare was not well established among the Phocians and the Locrians. The Phocians though defeated the Thessalian cavalry near Hyampolis by using camouflaged ditches.(11) Nevertheless, Thessalians thanks to their cavalry could defend their fertile land effectively.

The conflicting interests of the Thessalian aristocrats caused the collapse of the defense in Tempe in 480 BC during the Persian Wars. Thessalians though escaped the consequences of submitting to Xerxes thanks to the support of the Athenians. So they became their allies until the later defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The fall of Athens opened the appetite of the Pherrean tyrants for hegemony in Greece. The strength of the Thessalian cavalry reaching at the time 16000 horsemen (12) was a force to be reckoned for the exhausted by civil conflicts southern Greece. The tyrant Jason of Pherrae even tried to create a fleet but this raised concerns in Achaemenid Court. So Persian involvement in the murders of the Thessalian rulers and the financing of the Boeotians in order to oppose them cannot be excluded. (13) Thessaly, torn by civil strife passed under the sovereignty of Philip II and its famous cavalry was incorporated in his army.

Athenian cavalry

Although the aristocratic families of Athens had the ability of maintaining horses, the Athenians were slow to develop a cavalry arm. Most aristocrats bred horses for their chariot or chariot races. Although there was provisions and regulations in the legislation of Solon about citizens that had income to keep horses (triakosiomedimnoi) the results were dismal. The first combat ready horsemen might belong to the Peonidae clan of Peisistratos, as the horse appears as the emblems of their shields.

Black figure kylix by Ischylus, painted by Epictetus and depicting an Athenian Horseman. Dated in 520 BC. British Museum London E 3

The Athenians, however fought during the Persian Wars without the support of their cavalry. Around 442 BC when magistrate was Diefphilos, probably with the law instigated by Pericles the cavalry corps is increased to one thousand men. Except the hoplites, each Athenian “tribe” (phyle) was also obliged to provide a number of horsemen. Their “tribal” leader commanded the cavalrymen of each “tribe”. (phylarchos) These officers were subject to the two hipparchs (cavalry commanders) who had the overall command of the cavalry and were elected annually. The HIPPARCHEION was near the Agora but so far its exact location is unknown .

Both men and horses were tested for competence every year. Those failing inspection were deleted from the lists of units. During the Peloponnesian War an allowance of one drachma established for the horse’s feeding. On entering war service the rider was provided an additional allowance (katastasis) but he give it back at the end of the war unless the animal had died or incapacitated during active service. The Athenians had units of heavy cavalry and light cavalry, in which usually served younger age classes (14) As light cavalry we can classify also the horse-archers (hippotoxotes). (15) It is almost certain that they were Scythians or Thracians with the Thracians being less likely.

Athenian cavalrymen. Image based on Parthenon freezes

The Athenian cavalry saw action and excelled during the Peloponnesian War. The leaders of Athens had serious doubts about gaining the upper hand over the Peloponnesians particularly the Spartan hoplites. It was determined however, not allow them to plunder the land of Attica unopposed. The light infantry or soldiers who had left their heavy gear in their camp did the looting of the enemy’s land. In order to plunder the Peloponnesians had to break down into small groups. The Athenians sent against them their cavalry and inflicted serious losses (16) Raiding parties should be supported by hoplites behind which they sought cover if the light cavalry and light infantry of Athens had not engaged them first. The Athenian heavy cavalry provided support in case the light horsemen were attacked from the enemy’s heavy cavalry, especially Boeotian horsemen. Athenian cavalry was particularly useful in hindering the activities of the Peloponnesian camp at Dekelia. (17)

The horsemen of Athens transported by the fleet were a continuous threat to the Peloponnesian coastal cities. (18) They were also useful in small numbers to subdue the mutinous islander allies of Athens, who lacked sufficient hoplites to resist them. The big test for the Athenian cavalry was the Sicilian campaign. The Athenians, despite warnings from their general Nicias underestimated their opponent. (19) They sent horsemen even without mounts with a view to procure horses in Sicily. (20) The defeat in Sicily undermined Athenian power and also their cavalry capabilities. The glorious last action of this corps was the battle of Tamynae at Evoia. (21)

Boeotian cavalry

After Thessaly, Boeotian plains were the most suitable for breeding horses. The Boeotian cavalry made its appearance in the archaic period at the battle Kerissos where the Boeotians repulsed the Thessalian invasion (22). Unfortunately they also proved very effective against Megareans and Phleiasians during the battle of Plataea while fighting alongside the Persians. (23)

Horseman from Beotean black figure pottery made by the “Atalanda painter”. Harvard University Art Museums

The rise of the Boeotian cavalry begins with the Peloponnesian War, where it helped to repelling the Thracian mercenaries at Mycalissos. (24) It also offered important services at Delium and later ensured the Theban dominance in the Boeotian plain by defeating Thespians under the Spartan general Phoebidas who was killed during the battle. (25)

The riders with white helmets are valuable instrument in the hands of Pelopidas and Epaminondas after the expulsion of the Spartans from Boeotia and dismantle their hegemony over Greece. (26) Gradually, however, fall short of the Thessalians and Athenians at Mantinea. The battle of Chaeronea marks the end of the Theban cavalry overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Macedonians.

Spartan cavalry

Like other states in Archaic Greece the Spartans also developed horse-riding fighters. Due to the development and perfection of hoplite warfare in Sparta the title of the horsemen (HIPPES) was merely honorary as all elite Laconian fighters fought on foot. The horses were bred only for chariot racing as demonstrated by the tale of Princess Cyniska of Sparta. (27) The issue of developing a unit of horsemen was dramatically with the events of Pylos. (28)

The Spartans looked down upon the cavalry service as fit for those who could not fight on foot and those crippled in war. Xenophon tells us that Spartan cavalry was poorly prepared and that is why its performance was poor. (29) Only the introduction of mercenary horsemen slightly improved the situation. (30) Although at sometime king Agesilaus came to command 1500 horsemen , the fall of Sparta brought elimination of its cavalry.

Other Horsemen.

The Thracian cavalry deserves mention because as mentioned above the Thracians influenced significantly the introduction of the horse in southern Greece. Euripides in his tragedy “Hecuba” calls the Thracians a “cavalry nation“. A text written by Clement of Alexandria (Stromata XV) identifies the Thracians as the first to use a shield while on horseback. Most Thracian horsemen were most probably mounted javelinmen and were widely used as mercenaries in the colonies of the Macedonian and Thracian coast and beyond. The almost endless hordes of Thracian horsemen were a constant problem for the south Greek colonists until their alliance to Philip II .

Although the Greek colonies in Asia Minor were wealthy, their inhabitants avoided military service. Xenophon says that Agesilaus compel the wealthiest colonists to maintain horses. He declared though that one could avoid being called for service, if he could provide a fully equipped horseman to serve in his place. (31) The cavalry thus formed was so good that it managed to successfully stand up to the Thessalians on Agesilaus return from Asia (32)

Coins from Tarentum depicting horsemen

According to Herodotus the Selinountians and Akaragantines were the first to develop cavalry in Magna Grecia. Gelon of Syracuse will repel the Carthaginians with the assistance of his cavalry. The aristocratic class horsemen of Syracuse were treated with suspicion because of their belief in oligarchy. This did not prevent them from fighting hard against the Athenians during the Sicilian campaign. (33) Their contribution to the final defeat of the Athenian army was catalytic. (34)

In the Western Greek colonies, citizens also dodged their military obligations and relied on mercenaries for their defense. Colonist Greeks perceived their mainland compatriots as naive villagers who paid them to risk combat but they suspected them also as potential tyrants. Good cavalry no longer existed in Magna Crecia except in Tarentum. The Tarantine horsemen were heavily armed and were also accompanied by a servant who probably fought too as a light horseman. (35)

Equipment – Tactics

As mentioned above, the Scythians and the Thracians in most matters about horse trappings and harness influenced the Greeks. Horses are depicted wearing their harness in pottery and sculpture. In the National Archaeological Museum there are also bridles that can cause great discomfort to unruly horses though Xenophon disagrees with their use (36) The saddle was known to the Scythians and Thracians and was made of felt. Its adoption by the Greeks was slow, probably because of its cost. Most riders used a simple cloth to cover the horse’s back in order to ride comfortably. Xenophon mentions that some did not use that either (37). This is consistent with some illustrations but because the touch of human flesh with the skin of the horse causes irritation, horsemen began to use cloth or animal skins to sit on them and ride comfortably.

Thacian horseman with saddled horses from the thracian tomb of Kazanlak

The riders executing heavy cavalry missions wore metal or composite armor. Xenophon recommends that riders better use vambraces (epicheirides) and armor their horses. But as this required considerable costs it was rare. (38) Cataphract Greek cavalry appears only in the Hellenistic Era. Xenophon also advises the usage of Boeotean helmet.

The shield appears to have been widespread despite writings the contrary. The riders of Geometric and Classical Greece after contact with the Scythians and Thracians horsemen saw its advantages. The semicircular shield seems to have been quite widespread while the Archaic period a shield of the ‘Boeotian type” seems to have been dominant. The shield was valuable to riders who had to fight against light infantry equipped with ranged weapons.

Classic Era horse armor fragment from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Author’s collection.

To execute a charge the horsemen formed ranks 4 men deep per row (39) but there were efforts to increase the depth as the Persian horsemen used a more dense formation. Xenophon advised a rapid headlong charge (40) but also the wise use of outposts and the careful choice of the ground (41) Another fighting method was the “emvolon”. It was a wedge formation that was designed to breakthrough the enemy formations. It was known in Thebes (42) but it is considered to be a Scythian invention and was improved as a rhomboid formation that could attack in any direction by Jason of Pherrae (43).

As mentioned above, the spread of hoplite method of fighting limited the role of the cavalry in scouting, neutralizing skirmishers and raids. This increased the importance of the light cavalry but heavy cavalry re-developed to counteract the enemy horsemen. The Greek cavalry gradually evolved into a shock weapon by Philip II and Alexander the Great in the Hellenistic era.


(1) Homer THE ILIAD 15.110 trn. K. Dukas eds. Georgiadis

(2) Hesiod “Hercules Shield” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(3) Apollodorus II.5.8, Diodorus Siculus 15.3 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Strabo, “Geography” VII.331 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(4) Apollodorus II.5.9, Euripides: “Hercules wrath” 408, Loeb Classical Library edition 1914 Pausanias “Description of Greece” V, 10.9 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(5) L. de Raunchaud “Dictionnaire des Antiquites Greques et Romaines” 1887

(6) “Crypto” magazine issue 1, article: “Centaurs were real?” Constantine Tsopanis, Dr. History & Philosophy of Religions, pp. 35

(7) Homer THE ILIAD XXIII 131-133, 145-150 trn. K. Dukas eds. Georgiadis

(8) Thucydides “Histories’” I.15, Herodotus V. 99 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Strabo, “Geography” III.448 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

Plutarch “Heroticus» 17 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(9) Androkides “On Mysteries” VII106 Oxford Press

Herodotus “Histories” V.63 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(10) British Museum. Fragment 479 comments. V.Rose

(11) Herodotus “Histories” VIII,28 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

Pausanias “Description of Greece” X, 710 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(12) Xenophon “Hellenika” VI.5 Classical Library edition, 1914

(13) Diodorus Siculus 15 57, 60, 80, 95 Loeb Classical Library edition 1914

(14) Thucydides “Histories” VII.92, 6 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(15) Thucydides “Histories” V 17.1, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(16) Thucydides “Histories” III.1, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(17) Thucydides “Histories” VII.27, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(18) Thucydides “Histories” VII.42, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(19) Thucydides “Histories” VI.20, 22 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(20) Thucydides “Histories” VI.94, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(21) Plutarch “Phocion” 13 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(22) Plutarch “Camillus” 19 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(23) Herodotus’ Histories” IX,69 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(24) Thucydides “Histories” VII.29-30, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(25) Xenophon ‘“Hellenika” V.4 Classical Library edition, 1914

(26) Xenophon ‘“Hellenika” V.4 10 Classical Library edition, 1914

Plutarch “Pelopidas”15 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(27) Pausanias “Description of Greece” III, 1.16 Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

(28) Thucydides “Histories” IV.55.2, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(29) Xenophon ‘Greek’ ST.4.11, Classical Library edition, 1914

(30) Xenophon ‘Hipparchikus” 9.4 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(31) Xenophon “Hellenika” III.4.15, Classical Library edition, 1914

(32) Xenophon “Agesilaus’“ 2.5 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(33) Thucydides “Histories” VI.66,68-70 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(34) Thucydides “Histories” VI.84 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914

(35) Livy “History of Rome” XXXV.28,29 eds JM Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

(36) Xenophon “On Horsemanship” ‘V trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(37) Xenophon “On Horsemanship ” VII trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(38) Xenophon “On Horsemanship” XII trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(39) Xenophon “Hellenika” III.4.13 Classical Library edition, 1914

(40) Xenophon “Hipparchikus” 3 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(41) Xenophon “Hipparchikus” 4, 5 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(42) Xenophon “Hellenika” VII.5.22 Classical Library edition, 1914

Aelianus “Tactica” XI.2 47.4 trans. E.Shepherd (1793)

(43) Asklepiodotus “Tactica” VII.2-3 6.7 Polyainus “Stratagems» VI trans. E.Shepherd (1793)


Aristotle “Constitution of the Athenians» Loeb Classical Library edition 1920

Frontinus “Stratagems” eds JM Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

The Seventy Great Battles of All Time, Edited by Jeremy Black, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005

William Stearns Davis, Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources , the 2nd Vols, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1,912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and te East.

American Journal of Archeology Vol. 107. # 4 October 2003 (Tom Stevenson aticle)

“KATHEMERINI” Newspaper 02/08/04


Doukas Gaitatzis

Doukas Gaitatzis

Παρατηρητής και ιστογράφος θεμάτων αμυντικής τεχνολογίας. Δεσμευμένος με τις Ελληνικές Ένοπλες Δυνάμεις και παθιασμένος με οτιδήποτε στρατιωτικό.

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