Cavalry: Ancient and Medieval Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Historically, cavalries were military forces that traveled and fought on horseback, unlike mounted infantrymen, who traveled on horseback but fought on foot, and charioteers, who fought from carts pulled by horses.

Nature and Use

Historically, cavalries were military forces that traveled and fought on horseback, unlike mounted infantrymen, who traveled on horseback but fought on foot, and charioteers, who fought from carts pulled by horses. Cavalry was less expensive and more mobile than was chariotry and could move two to three times faster than could infantry, covering at least 30 to 40 miles a day for an indefinite period. The physically and psychologically imposing combination of man and horse made resistance difficult for foot soldiers.Cavalry;ancientCavalry;medievalCavalry;ancientCavalry;medieval

Cavalry in antiquity fell into two basic categories: light Cavalry;lightcavalry, unarmored or lightly armored men on small, swift ponies or horses, and heavy Cavalry;heavycavalry, moderately or heavily armored men on large, sometimes armored, horses. The principal cavalry weapons were the composite bow, javelin, and lance. Almost every cavalryman used at least one of these weapons; light cavalrymen emphasized the bow or javelin and heavy cavalry the lance. However, many other combinations of weapons were used. On the march, light cavalry would scout ahead, protect the flanks and rear of their army, and raid enemy forces. In camp, at sieges, or on garrison duty, cavalry would patrol and undertake escort duties. In battle, light cavalry would ride at the enemy, fire missiles, and then gallop out of the range of return fire. Skilled horse archers could turn in their saddles and fire while withdrawing, a maneuver known as the Parthian Parthian shotshot, for the ParthiansParthians (third century b.c.e.), a nomad steppe people who perfected the technique. Heavy cavalry would mass and charge enemy forces, hoping to rout them. If this happened, the light cavalry would pursue. If things went badly, the light cavalry would instead try to cover the retreat of friendly forces. Finally, cavalry and mounted infantry used the horse’s high march rate to perform raids. After short-range raids, the raiders quickly returned to the safety of their border forts. In long-distance raids, traversing hundreds of miles of enemy territory, the raiders used speed and unexpected movements to avoid interception.

The first known cavalry appeared in the Near East, around 1200 b.c.e., after the collapse of the Bronze Bronze AgeAge civilizations there. Armies dominated by cavalry were fielded by Eurasian steppe nomad groups, such as the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Turks, and Mongols. Combined forces of cavalry and Infantry;ancientinfantry were fielded by the agricultural peoples of Europe, Asia, and North Africa, notably the Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Celts, Spaniards, Numidians, Carthaginians, Romans, Chinese, and Indians. Cavalry enjoyed a dominant position in the armies of many peoples, beginning with the Parthians and Sāsānian Persians and continuing with the Byzantines, Arabs, Russians, and medieval Europeans.


The Horses and horse ridinghorse was first domesticated and ridden six thousand years ago by the Sredni Stog Sredni Stog cultureculture of the North Pontic region in the modern Ukraine. The development of horseback riding and, several centuries later, the wheeled Wheelscart allowed nomads to exploit the resources of the prairie steppe that runs from Hungary past the Ural and Altai Shan Mountains of Central Central AsiaAsia to Mongolia and Manchuria in the east. Because Chariotschariotry preceded cavalry everywhere in the Bronze Age, the first mounted warriors probably fought dismounted, adopting the chariot because it allowed them to fight on foot, as they were accustomed, and leaving control of the horses to the charioteers. Armed riders are depicted in late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1200 b.c.e.) Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern art, but they appear sitting “donkey seat,” on the animal’s rump, not up on its shoulders: an inefficient position that is also harmful to the horse. It is likely such riders were only scouts or messengers, armed for self-defense.

After the collapse of the Greek and Near Eastern Bronze Age civilizations (around 1200 b.c.e.), cavalry gradually began to replace chariotry. The process is clearly depicted in reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-612 b.c.e.). The earliest cavalrymen, of the ninth century b.c.e., unarmored and still sitting donkey seat, were chariot riders on horseback. The “chariot warrior” wielded a Bows and arrows;charioteersbow, and the accompanying “charioteer” managed the reins of both his own and the bowman’s horses and carried a shield and spear for self-defense. By the mid-eighth century b.c.e., each horseman controlled his own mount, sat on the horse’s withers, used lances as well as bows, and, in some cases, wore Lamellar armorCorselets;lamellarlamellar corselets as body Armor;lamellararmor. By the end of the eighth century b.c.e., corseleted cavalrymen equipped with both bows and lances appeared, supported by horse archers. Half a century later, horses were outfitted with cloth armor similar to that of chariot horses.

Cavalry Accoutrements

Like most cultures in and after the ninth century b.c.e., the Sredni Stog culture managed its horses by directly controlling their heads, using reins connected to bits held in place in the horses’ mouths by antler cheekpieces attached to bridles. Even this was not always necessary; the NumidiaNumidians, raised on horseback, controlled their small, swift, and obedient Libyan steeds with only a stick or cord around the neck. Throughout the first millennium b.c.e., most horsemen rode either bareback or seated upon a saddle cloth. The first saddles, consisting of a pad with two cushions resting on either side of the horse’s spine and held on by a girth, appeared around 400 b.c.e., used by nomads in the Altai Shan Mountains of central Asia. It took five centuries for saddles to become commonplace. Whips or goads were favored by Asian horsemen, but spurs were used in Greece during the fifth century b.c.e. and in Celtic lands soon afterward.

To protect horses’ hooves from the wet conditions of the northwestern European climate, the Celts;horseshoesCelts began making horseshoes. The earliest Horseshoeshorseshoes were made in Gaul;horseshoesGaul between 50 b.c.e. and 50 c.e., and horseshoes also enjoyed some popularity in Roman Britain. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, temporary “hipposandals” of woven grass or leather and metal predominated. Horseshoes did not come into general use until after 400 c.e.

The earliest known Stirrupsstirrups, made of leather straps or wood, or featuring metal hooks, appear inScythians;stirrupsScythian contexts in the fourth century b.c.e. and in India;stirrupsIndia around the end of the first millennium b.c.e. Although stirrups may have been a necessity for the heaviest cavalry forces, they were rarely depicted in art of the period, perhaps because men reared in the saddle found the use of stirrups embarrassing. Only in fourth century c.e. China;stirrupsChina was the full metal stirrup adopted; by the seventh century c.e. it had made its way west with the Avars;stirrupsAvars. Although none of the aforementioned inventions can be demonstrated clearly to have had a decisive impact upon cavalry operations during the first millennium c.e., they must have made the creation of mounted forces easier for peoples unaccustomed to riding, such as the Chinese and the Franks.

A Parthian horse archer of the third century b.c.e. practicing the Parthian shot, a maneuver in which the rider turns in his saddle and fires while withdrawing.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

By around 1100 c.e., Western European Knightsknights had discovered the use of the couched Lances;couchedlance. Held onto the horse by a high saddle and stirrups, the knight could hold the lance firmly under his arm, adding far more force to the blow than any thrust by hand could do. However, because the massed charge of Western European knights had long been considered irresistible by their Byzantine and Arab foes, the couched lance would seem to be only a tactical refinement, not a decisive advance.

Cavalry Development in Civilized Nations

There were two general lines of development in cavalry: that of the civilized nations of the Mediterranean and that of the steppe nomads and those who imitated them. For the first group, the problem was in integrating cavalry into armies that were composed predominantly of Infantry;ancientinfantry. The Achaemenid PersiansPersia;cavalryAchaemenid Persians, who reigned from 560 to 330 b.c.e., followed the Assyrians’ example and used light foot archers and spearmen with missile-armed cavalry that did not try to charge massed infantry forces. This combination worked well in the Near East but failed in offensives against the Greeks and the steppe nomads.

The Greece;cavalryGreece;infantryGreeks themselves came to realize by the fourth century b.c.e. the value in the coordinated use of heavy and light infantry and cavalry together. Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;strategiesGreat (356-323 b.c.e.) used this strategy in the eventual defeat of the Achaemenid Persians. Alexander’s heavy, pike-armed infantry provided a solid base, and the lightinfantry provided missile fire wherever needed. Thessalian light cavalry, armed with Javelins;Thessalianjavelins, guarded his left flank, and other light cavalry were positioned on the far right flank. The elite Companion heavy lancers and supporting Hypaspists (Macedonian corps)hypaspist infantry massed farther in on the right. At both Issus, Battle of (333 b.c.e.) Issus (333 b.c.e. ) and Gaugamela, Battle of (331 b.c.e.) Gaugamela (331 b.c.e. ), after the other units had drawn out the enemy, the Companions charged into the Persian left flank cavalry, ruptured the enemy line, and then rallied and charged into the enemy flanks and rear, achieving the victory in both battles.

Alexander’s “combined arms” Combined arms;Alexander the Greatapproach was adopted by the CarthageCarthaginians and, eventually, by the Romans as well, after the Carthaginian general Hannibal BarcaHannibal BarcaHannibal (247-182 b.c.e.) had demonstrated its effectiveness. Although the Romans experimented with heavy cavalry, they generally preferred light cavalry, relying upon their superb legion infantry for shock action.

Cavalry Development Among Steppe Nomads

The Steppe nomads;cavalrysecond main line of cavalry development occurred among the steppe nomad peoples, who enjoyed far more pasturage than did the peoples of Western Europe, the Mediterranean region, and China. Because the steppe nomads spent so much time on horseback, their armies were dominated by cavalry, a tactical development imitated by Iranian monarchies and Chinese dynasties. The Cimmerians;cavalryCimmerians, a people who inhabited southern Russia and were driven to Turkey by the Scythians in the eighth century b.c.e., were the earliest known steppe nomad horse Horse archers;Cimmeriansarchers. As evidenced by later steppe nomad tactics, these people probably stressed hit-and-run attacks from front, flanks, and rear by small, scattered bodies of horse, using feigned retreats and ambushes to draw out and destroy enemy forces. As the Cimmerians passed over the Caucasus in the eighth century b.c.e., they wrecked kingdoms throughout Anatolia before finally being destroyed. Their ScythiansScythian and SarmatiansSarmatian successors fielded both light-armed horse archers and heavy cavalry, equipped with lances and Armor;horsesarmor covering man and, often, horse as well. Such heavy cavalrymen, called Cataphracts (cavalry)cataphracts by the Greeks, would charge and rout enemy forces already weakened by the horse archers’ attacks. The Parthians;horses Parthians, a steppe people who seized Persia from the Macedonians, exploited the matchless advantages of Iran’s wide pasturelands and unique Nisaean breed of horse–larger and better bred to carry weight than most steppe or western animals–to field numerous cataphract and horse archer units. The effectiveness of the Parthian force was displayed in 53 b.c.e. , when a Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus, Marcus LiciniusCrassus, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 b.c.e. ) invaded Parthian territory at Carrhae, Battle of (53 b.c.e.) Carrhae. Commanded by a noble known as Surenas, the Parthians lured Crassus into open desert Desert warfare terrain, where Parthian horse archers shot his infantry to pieces. When Crassus’s Gallic horses charged to drive them off, the cataphracts countercharged and crushed them. The Roman army was destroyed, and Crassus killed.

The Rise and Fall of Cavalry

Parthia, not Rome, influenced the development of cavalry over the next millennium. In the late Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor in the East, the balance tilted in favor of the horse, with infantry forming a defensive body in battle and serving chiefly as a refuge for the cavalry. Others who adopted this pattern were the Indians; the Chinese; the Arabs, who quickly moved fromCamelscamels to horses; and, more gradually, the European peoples as well. Whether the adoption of saddle and stirrup drove this development, or was driven by it, is unclear. Heavy cavalry service eventually became a justification for Aristocracy;and cavalry[cavalry]aristocratic political power and encouraged cavalry’s growing predominance. However, large infantry forces were still needed, if only for siege Siege warfare;infantrywarfare. Thus, aside from cavalry raids such as the long-distance Chevauchée (cavalry raid)chevauchées of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453 Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) c.e. ), offensive operations necessarily tied cavalry to an infantry pace. The Mongols Mongols under Genghis Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (Mongol king) Khan (died 1227 c.e. ) solved this problem: Their armies of highly trained, fast-moving horse archers and cataphract lancers simply rounded up local peasants by the thousands and forced them to perform siege warfare duties. The epitome of steppe nomad armies, the Mongols were hindered only by environmental factors and internal political prob-

lems until they suffered their first defeat in 1260 c.e. at Ain Ain Jalut (1260)Jalut, Israel, at the hands of the Mamlūks[Mamluks]Mamlūks, Egyptian slave cavalry, trained to steppe nomad levels. Toward 1500 c.e. , infantrymen began to return to prominence in Europe; notable examples are the English longbowmen, Swiss pikemen, and Hussite Wagenburg soldiers. The development of gunpowder artillery and firearms ultimately spelled the end of cavalry dominance in Europe and, eventually, everywhere that European armies marched.Cavalry;ancientCavalry;medieval

Books and Articles
  • DeVries, Kelly. Medieval Military Technology. Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1992.
  • Drews, Robert. Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Ellis, John. Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. Reprint. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword, 2004.
  • Gabriel, Richard A. “Cavalry.” In The Ancient World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Gaebel, Robert E. Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  • Gillmor, Carroll. “Cavalry, Ancient and Medieval.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Hyland, Ann. The Warhorse, 1250-1600. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998.
  • Morillo, Stephen. “The ’Age of Cavalry’ Revisited.” In The Circle of War in the Middle Ages: Essays on Medieval Military and Naval History, edited by Donald J. Kagay and L. J. Andrew Villalon. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999.
  • O’Connell, R. L. Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Sidnell, Philip. Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Man and Horse: Four Thousand Years of the Mounted Warrior. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2008.
  • Smith, Gene. Mounted Warriors: From Alexander the Great and Cromwell to Stewart, Sheridan, and Custer. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009.
  • Vuksic, V., and Z. Grbasic. Cavalry: The History of a Fighting Elite, 650 B.C.-A.D. 1914. New York: Sterling, 1993.
Films and Other Media
  • The True Story of Hannibal. Documentary. History Channel, 2004.

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