BMCR 2005.04.17

Early Riders. The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe

, Early riders : the beginnings of mounted warfare in Asia and Europe. London/New York: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 218 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 0203071077 $90.00.

In chapter 1 (‘Introduction’) Drews immediately nails his colours to the mast: his central argument is that effective cavalry did not emerge before the eighth century BC (1). He then surveys the vastly diverging opinions of archaeologists, anthropologists, ‘hippologists’ and military historians as to the date of the introduction of horse riding and mounted warfare (ranging between c. 4500 and 1000 BC). Drews neatly avoids getting bogged down in the controversy by not overly concerning himself with when riding first appeared (he does concede very early yet rare occurrences of riding). Instead he focuses on when it became effective and therefore when riders became militarily important (7).

In chapters 2-4 (‘Horse Meat’, ‘Speed’ and ‘Control’) Drews convincingly dismantles Gimbutas’ influential Kurgan theory of the appearance of effective mounted warriors on the Pontic-Caspian steppe c. 4500 BC (59-60). He demonstrates that the horse was kept primarily for its meat in the fifth-third millennia BC (indeed until the later second millennium BC in parts of Europe) and used to a lesser extent as a pack animal, not for riding, though he does not dispute that very occasional riding did occur (22). Drews highlights the fallacy of applying the Native American/Plains Indian rider model, much favoured by anthropologists, to the study of the prehistoric steppe (20, 40, 86-87). The Native Americans learned from the Spanish that horses were supposed to be ridden. The principal evidence for early horse riding on the steppe, i.e. apparent cheek pieces from bits and horse burials, are shown to be misidentified finds or to date from the Iron Age. However, Drews is less than convincing on the aspect of herding (or the lack of it) by early horse keepers (21).

Unattended riding emerged after 2500 BC but representational evidence (lacking for the apparently advanced steppe) shows that relatively effective riding was attained in the Near East only around 2100 BC and probably resulted from sporting activity. Control of the horse was hampered by the use of crude nose rings and unconfident riders adopting the ‘donkey seat’, i.e. sitting across the horse’s loins rather than in the correct forward position behind the withers (38-48). Drews asks, if artefactual and textual evidence suggests riding was poor in c. 2000 BC, how it could have been good on the steppe in c. 4000 BC, and if it was so good why it did not spread rapidly like the use of the wheeled cart and the chariot. The great age of chariot warfare effectively halted the development of riding between 1700 and 1200 BC (51). Good riding was finally attained in the Near East and on the steppe in the ninth century BC and mounted soldiers had entirely replaced the charioteer, but it was not until the eighth and seventh centuries BC and developments and experience gained from pastoralism and nomadism, hunting, rustling and raiding, that riding styles and means of control and comfort (i.e. bits, methods of saddling) were perfected (65-98).

Chapters 5 (‘Plunder’) and 6 (‘The Iranian Empires’) concern the rapid development of effective mounted raiding in the late eighth and seventh centuries BC by the Kimmerians and Skythians, who capitalized on the developments in horse control, and their influence on the cavalry of the expansionist Medes and Persians. Drews follows a growing body of research in Assyrian and Iranian studies that dismisses Herodotus’ hearsay account of the origins of the Kimmerians and Skythians and relocates them (as a probable single ethnic group with no relation to the steppe people called the ‘Skythians’ by the Greeks of the Classical period) from north of the Black Sea to southeastern Anatolia and northwestern Iran (118-122), whence they launched increasingly wide-ranging expeditions into Assyria, Lydia and the Levant, not to seize land and settle but to carry off plunder. No doubt many archaeologists and classicists will find it difficult to swallow Drews’ outright dismissal of Herodotus and the apparently supportive material record, but Drews’ argument is persuasive and may be more palatable to traditionalists if one concedes that Herodotus’ tale of migrating peoples vaguely recalls the migration of Indo-Europeans into northeast Iran (including the Medes, with whom the Assyrians closely identified the Kimmerians/Gimmirri, suggesting a similar Iranian pedigree rather than recent incomers) at the end of the second millennium BC.1

The use of the horse by the Kimmerian-Skythians gave them the speed to surprise unfortified towns and religious complexes, to outdistance pursuers and, on occasion, to surround or outmanoeuvre predominantly infantry or less adept cavalry opponents. Drews emphasizes the shock value of the Kimmerian and Skythian cavalry. Armed with composite bows they could fight from a distance or using the Parthian shot technique launch repetitive and morale-sapping hit and run strikes; their existence as raiders gave them cohesion to act in unison and charge as a body. Armed further with slashing swords and spears they were far more effective in hand-to-hand combat against infantry than the charioteer ever was (99-105). Drews admits that clear literary and representational evidence for massed cavalry tactics is not available until the fifth century BC (cf. 58-59), but striking successes in the open field such as the death in battle of Sargon II and the defeat of the much-vaunted Assyrian army in Anatolia in 705 BC (111, though not all scholars would agree that Sargon’s army was defeated or that the enemy were the Kimmerians), suggest that the Kimmerians and Skythians had already perfected the charge. For Drews (a keen advocate of John Keegan’s Face of Battle approach) the ‘shock’ charge functions principally on a psychological level, i.e. the fear inspired by the sight of a body of cavalry bearing down on a body of infantry leads to its collapse, rather than the shock of the actual collision of the cavalry. Drews suggests that the nature of Assyrian (and Chaldaean) infantry made it particularly susceptible to such cavalry tactics. Soldiers operated in pairs, archer and spearman. The spearman covered himself and the bowman from opposing archery with his tower shield and would defend the archer from any attempt by the opposing force to over-run their position: the spearman acted as much as a psychological as he did a physical deterrent. Warfare was generally carried out at long range, and it was until one side was suitably broken by archery or in retreat that the spearmen would finally close in and fight hand-to-hand. Drews therefore questions the assumption that the Assyrian spearmen would automatically form a stout close order formation to counter a Kimmerian-Skythian or Median cavalry charge. It was not in their experience to regularly fight in close-order or to face charging cavalry. It would not be surprising if they simply fled from such a charge or bravely made a stand in a relatively open formation that allowed the horsemen in among them (126-128).

Having identified the Kimmerians and Skythians as Iranians Drews proceeds to incorporate them into the newly centralized kingdom of Media under Kyaxares (c. 625-585 BC) (123-126). Kyaxares put a stop to the horse tribute the Assyrians demanded from Media and thereby magnified his superiority in cavalry to such an extent that even the mass of Assyrian infantry could never hope to defeat it. Rather like the Kimmerian raids of the eighth and seventh centuries BC, Kyaxares was more concerned with taking plunder and slaves than conquest, though empire was the ultimate result of his aggression. Unlike the Kimmerians he targeted the great fortified cities of Assyria, and his army necessarily contained a considerable force of infantry and a siege train, and, as Median operations spread further afield and targeted cities in regions where cavalry could not effectively operate, infantry began to reassume its importance as the principle element of ancient armies (126-133). Drews is keen to stress, however, that cavalry continued to play a central role in Median-Persian armies until they were met and defeated by the hoplite phalanx early in the fifth century BC (chapter 7, ‘Hoplites and Horsemen’).

Throughout chapters 5, 6 and 7 Drews is scathing of Herodotus as a source for the Kimmerians, Skythians, Medes and Persians. Herodotus (and Xenophon, cf. 136) comes in for particular censure for his ignorance of Persian cavalry, his battle and campaign narratives often focusing on blocks of infantry and unaware of the armament and tactics of the various types of Persian cavalry, e.g. horse archers (of whom Herodotus seems oblivious), of evident Persian pride in their status as mounted warriors, and the apparent absence of cavalry at the battle of Marathon (134-141).

The rather short chapter 7 offers little that is new to the military historian about the triumph of the hoplite over the Eastern horseman: the heavy armour and shield protected the hoplite from arrows and melée weapons; his close order formation bristling with spears could not be charged unless a gap developed in the line; he was concerned with close order, hand-to-hand combat and could not be as easily intimidated by horsemen as the long-range missile troops of the Assyrians. Drews does, however, make the rather intriguing suggestion that the pace of the development of hoplite equipment and the phalanx were stimulated in the early seventh century BC by Kimmerian raids into western Anatolia. Local forces could not hope to match the Kimmerians’ numbers or skill on horseback but they could form effective defensive, close-order infantries to hold back or deter the cavalrymen. Drews focuses on the tradition that the Carians adopted hoplite equipment early in the seventh century and made improvements to it (Hdt. 1.171; Strabo 14.2.27), and he suggests that this was in direct response to the Kimmerian threat and subsequently influenced the hoplite warfare of the Ionian and mainland Greeks (144-146). This is somewhat tenuous, and Drews admits as much, but it remains a fascinating possibility.

In conclusion, this is a valuable work on the appearance of effective cavalry and its brief domination of the battlefields of the Near East between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. There is little to fault with this book. One feels that Drews could have made his point about the arrival of effective cavalry in the eighth century BC in fewer than four chapters, and that the real meat of the book, the two chapters on the dominance of Kimmerian-Skythian and Median-Persian cavalry, is unfortunately brief. Chapters 1-4 do sometimes suffer from rather unengaging discussion and repetitions about the conflicting theories of archaeologists, anthropologists, hippologists and military historians, some of which could have been relegated to the (already extensive) endnotes. At $90 (£55 in the UK) it is an expensive volume, but one that will make a worthwhile addition to the shelves of research libraries.


1. See the excellent on-line article (search term “Cimmerians”), for a summary of recent research.