Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.15

Robert E. Gaebel, Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World.   Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  Pp. xiv, 345.  ISBN 0-8061-3365-1.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Glenn Richard Bugh, Virginia Tech (
Word count: 2428 words

Gaebel (henceforth G.) has joined a group of scholars who have recently taken up the topic of ancient Greek cavalry: G.R. Bugh, The Horsemen of Athens, Princeton, 1988; I.G. Spence, The Cavalry of Classical Greece: A Social and Military History, Oxford, 1993; and L.J. Worley, Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece, Boulder, CO, 1994. Ancient Greek cavalry has recently become somewhat of a hot topic, but he proposes that "there is still room for a purely military study of the subject from the beginning of the Classical period to the end of Greek independence [ca. 150 BC], especially since much of the content of recent works is devoted to social history" (xi). Reconstructing battles, or operations on the battlefield in antiquity, ultimately rest on a collection of a few surviving historical narratives, e.g., Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, to which point G. concedes the "inherent inaccuracy and incompleteness of all battle accounts" (p. 8). His following statements are, however, puzzling: "I have adopted as a working hypothesis the premise that examination of the original sources in the aggregate would reveal a sufficient amount of correct and consistent information about cavalry operations and fighting style to permit a reasonably clear understanding of the use of the mounted arm in antiquity" (p. 8). To suggest that this approach is something new, that modern commentators of ancient battles impose "rational, scholarly principles and logic to primary sources" is a straw man. G. is doing exactly what empiricists have done before him, milk the sparse and fragmentary primary sources and then reconstruct the battle. What G. produces, then, can be summed up in his own words, "a chronologically arranged study of battle narratives and commentary covering the period from circa 500 to 150" (p. 9). This is, plain and simple, a book for military historians.

The book is divided into four broad chronological sections: Part 1: Background: Circa 2000 to 500 B.C.; Part 2: The Greek Cavalry: 500 to 360 B.C.; Part 3: The Age of Philip and Alexander: 359 to 323 B.C.; and Part 4: The Aftermath: 323 to 150 B.C. There follows a conclusion; a list of battles; a selection of maps and battle plans, a glossary, bibliography, and index. It is not clear to me why G. needed to devote almost 30 pages to chapters 2 and 3 of Part 1, material covering much earlier time periods and non-Greek cavalries. It is entirely derivative, and could have been condensed. Although the Archaic period (800-500 B.C.) is slight in battle accounts (outside of the Homeric poems), it is rich in Black and Red figure pottery, an ample quantity of which depict horsemen in various activities. G. reasonably accepts P. A. L. Greenhalgh's (Early Greek Warfare. Cambridge, 1973) basic thesis that mounted hoplites tend to monopolize the seventh century ceramic evidence while true cavalry appear increasingly in the sixth. His comment, "It is perhaps unlikely that by 500 cavalry played an important military role anywhere south of Thessaly, where cavalry traditionally dominated, but there can be little doubt that there were aristocratic cavalrymen on the battlefields in some states, if not in Athens" (p. 59) is consistent with the evidence.

In Part 2, G. constructs petits-chapters around historical segments of time, e.g., Persian Wars, 500-479 B.C., the Pentekontaetia, 479-432 B.C., the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., The March of the Ten Thousand, 404-399 B.C., etc., down to 360 B.C. This schema strikes me as a bit misleading; it should not be assumed that changes in cavalry operations justify these narrow divisions. Several theses emerge out of these chapters: 1) true cavalry, limited to hippotrophic Sicily and northern Greece, i.e., Thessaly and Macedon, until the period of the Persian Wars, begin to appear in the armies of the poleis of southern Greece by the mid-fifth century B.C. -- perhaps from the lessons learned at the hands of the formidable Persian and Boeotian cavalry; 2) the Peloponnesian War marks the great divide, the turning point for the regular use of, and respect for, the capabilities of cavalry in Greek warfare, to wit, that the world did not begin and end with the hoplite warrior; 3) from the Peloponnesian War to the time of Philip of Macedon, the Greek cavalry was more militarily important than previously granted by modern scholars. Moreover, the gradual introduction of a more aggressive hand-to-hand, in-your-face cavalry engagement with lance or sword -- in contrast to the hurling of javelins from a safe distance and then galloping off to the security of one's hoplite lines -- generated a rougher edge and decisive possibilitites to cavalry combat; this was consciously cultivated by the Thebans under their famous cavalry commander Pelopidas and by the Macedonians under Philip II and Alexander the Great (cf. p. 310); and 4) the commonly held belief that the lack of stirrups and saddles limited the effectiveness of ancient Greek cavalry (in contrast to the famous heavily-armed medieval knights with lances) is brought into question by G., who obviously draws from his own equestrian experience.

The first two propositions represent nothing particularly original, having been noted by other modern writers on cavalry in this period, but the last two merit further comment. It is dangerous generalizing when G. remarks after examining the sketchy battle accounts of the Corinthian War (395-386 B.C.) that "Greek cavalry of this period almost certainly lacked nerve -- a fearless, aggressive mentality that was essential if horsemen were to engage in close combat with spear and sword. Such qualities do not seem to have been common among cavalrymen until the rise of Macedon under Philip. Their absence in 394 may reflect a lower level of training and discipline or perhaps an incomplete awareness of the full potential of cavalry" (p. 120). Dexileos, a young Athenian horseman who died on the battlefield in 394 and was memorialized in an inscription and a magnificent cavalry relief found in the ancient cemetery, certainly did not lack 'nerve', nor presumably his fellow troopers whose names are proudly recorded on a cavalry funerary monument in the National Archeological Museum. Secondly, G. has to reject Xenophon's own address to his troops on the march up country from Persia (Anabasis 3.2.18-19), to the effect that hoplites had the advantage over cavalry (Persian) because infantry stood firmly on the ground, while cavalrymen were vulnerable to a phalanx of spears and were prone to fall off their horses in the melee. Of course, ancient Greek and Macedonian cavalrymen rode and fought well without the benefit of stirrups and saddles, but to suggest that it was an advantage in combat (p. 165) is romanticizing bareback riding to the extreme (and I have done a fair bit of bareback riding myself).

Part 3 deals with the age of Philip and Alexander. G. is correct to suggest that military innovations often attributed to Philip and his famous son were the culmination of progressive cavalry developments beginning as early as the Peloponnesian War and extending into the mid-fourth century. G. argues that Philip and Alexander implemented a more rigorous regimen of training; that they integrated the diverse arms of infantry, cavalry, and light-armed troops more effectively; and that they capitalized on the advantage of 'asymmetrical' forces on the battlefield. "Asymmetry occurs on the battlefield when one or more differences exist between two armies in such a manner that one side is able to exploit them for its own advantage" (p. 4). Alexander's personal command of a cavalry strike force and his brilliant coordination of infantry and cavalry against the Persian armies are interpreted as perfect example of his exploitation of this 'asymmetry'.

Interestingly, G. has adopted a suggestion by P. Rahe (AJA 85, 84-87) and J. Buckler (Teiresias 20, supp. 3, 75-80) that the eighteen-year old Alexander led an infantry force to victory against the elite Theban Sacred Band at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. (pp. 155-57, 261, 278, 286). This idea stands in sharp contrast to Alexander's famous cavalry exploits, glorified in art and literature, during the Persian campaigns. While it is true that no ancient source explicitly associates cavalry with Alexander at Chaeronea, he is usually thought of as commanding the Macedonian Companion Cavalry on that day. On balance, I think G. is too eager to accept the revisionist reconstruction, and he knows all too well the paucity of our ancient accounts of the battle. Philip certainly had cavalry with him, precisely because he knew that the plains of Boeotia were ideal for cavalry operations (as Mardonius had concluded in 480 B.C.), that both the Thebans and the Athenians had respectable cavalry forces, and that the area around Chaeronea was well suited to its use (contra p. 157). It might be useful to compare Plutarch's narrative (Sulla 11-21) of Bruttius Sura's and Sulla's campaigns around Chaeronea and Orchomenos in 86 B.C. where cavalry operations are prominently featured.

G. rejects the theory advanced by M.M. Markle (AJA 81, 323-39; AJA 82, 483-97) that the Macedonian cavalry wielded a long spear, over 20 feet long, analogous to the sarissa held by the Macedonian infantry, arguing instead that the Macedonian cavalry lance was only seven to ten feet in length. The only cavalry force which might have carried a long lance (sarissa) would have been the prodromoi, at times called sarissophoroi -- advance mounted forces and skirmishers/scouts which Alexander deployed during his early Persian campaigns (pp. 172-79). G. mentions in passing that there was also a force of prodromoi at Athens in this period (p. 178), but he apparently missed the recent article that calls into question their lower social status (G.R. Bugh, Hesperia 67, 81-90). In addition, G. claims that Alexander's perceived preference for cavalry over other military arms is not supported by the evidence, and that his success lay in his "tactical open-mindedness and exceptional adaptability" (p. 196).

G. continues his survey of battles after the death of Alexander in Part 4, particularly the ones waged by his generals (later kings) and their descendants. G. advances the iconoclastic idea that cavalry did not become the preferred military arm of the Successors, that in fact the infantry retained its preeminence on the Hellenistic battlefield (pp. 261-62, 295, 298, 311), and that the lessons of Alexander's military success were to be found in his ability to effectively coordinate cavalry and infantry. The real novelty in Hellenistic warfare was the co-option of the war elephant, and G. nicely assesses their battlefield role in the Hellenistic period. It is regrettable, however, that G. chose not to comment in similar detail on the value of two distinct cavalry forces on the Hellenistic battlefield, the Tarentines (pp. 216-17, 230, 244) and the so-called 'cataphracts', the fully-armored heavy cavalrymen (pp. 173, 245, 251-52). G. would have the reader believe that the Tarentine cavalry was a light, mercenary cavalry from Tarentum (in southern Italy), but this description is blurred by the presence of Tarentine cavalry in second-century B.C. Athens under the command of Athenian hipparchs; this may suggest that 'Tarentine' was a style, a type of light cavalry (originally from Tarentum) which became increasingly popular in the Hellenistic period. G. sprinkles references to cataphracts throughout his text, but does not sufficiently explain their origins nor significance to cavalry operations in the post-Alexander period. More curious, however, is that G. does not even bother to include an entry for the cataphracts in his index, whereas he does for the prodromoi and Tarentines.

G. returns to his principal theme of 'asymmetry' and 'symmetry', arguing that the armies of the Successors were so evenly matched, "virtual mirror images of one another, each exhibiting the same strengths and weaknesses" (pp. 219, 233, 264, 295) that none of them had a decided advantage and consequently the victories were not decisive. However, G.'s survey of ancient military treatises (pp. 303-310), mainly Xenophontic, to test the hypothesis that Greek commanders actually thought in these terms and applied them on the battlefield is hardly persuasive, and threatens to reduce his commentary to the same rationalistic, scripted models he accuses modern arm-chair tacticians of imposing on ancient battles. Nevertheless, G. has some justification to claim: "an awareness of the effect of symmetry has not always been recognized as a determinant of tactical options" (p. 301). G. cannot resist the pull of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general. Although G. is hardly breaking new ground when he concludes that Alexander the Great and Hannibal were military geniuses, he adds some color to the standard portraits by explaining that these two are exceptional because "they were able to recognize and exploit the asymmetry between their armies and those of their enemies to achieve decisive victories with seemingly spectacular cavalry tactics" (p. 310). The symmetry of evenly matched Hellenistic armies and generals led to few other opportunities of this sort.

The book is relatively clean, but there remain a few typos and mistakes: p. 90 ('Peloponnesian' for 'Pelopennesian'); p. 96 ('Thracians' for 'Tracians'); p. 297 ('Antiochus I' for 'Antiochus III'); pp. 313-314 (confusing use of 'Cynoscephalae I' and 'Cynoscephalae' -- shouldn't be 'Cynoscephalae II'?); p. 317, on map ('Coronea' for 'Choronea'); p. 318, on map ('Pherae' for 'Pharae'; and 'Aegae' is not correctly located with respect to Pydna); p. 325, Glossary (prodromoi refers only to Alexander's cavalry units, no reference to Athens; yet Athenian infantry are referred under 'taxis'); p. 329 ('I. Worthington' for 'I worthington'); p. 344 (inconsistent use of royal epithets for Ptolemy I, III, and IV-- none for Ptolemy III). Finally, this book is terribly repetitive: the 'Conclusion' is longer (34 pages!) than any of the chapters, and it rehashes again and again much of what was covered in them. The editor should have pulled in the reins and insisted on more restraint.

This book covers a lot of familiar ground -- the primary sources are standard and most of the battles fought many times before -- but it is carefully researched and fair-minded enough in its argumentation for the general (Greek-less) reader to come away with a good understanding of Greek cavalry in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. It is a welcome corrective to those books hung up on the classical period, as if nothing important happened after Alexander the Great. G.'s book contributes some new ideas to the field of ancient Greek military studies generally, and cavalry studies particularly, and the diachronic format should appeal to linear-minded students of military history. No future study of ancient Greek cavalry tactics will risk omitting a reference to 'asymmetry', and the thesis that cavalry did not supersede infantry on Hellenistic battlefields should stimulate lively debate. I am happy to include this book in my library.

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