Saturday, 1 January 2011

Considering Cavalry

I’ve always thought that Persian cavalry were the elite of the Persian forces. Thus the puzzle of why they seemed to do little at Marathon, and various attempts over the years to explain this fact away. For example, some have argued that that had already re-embarked for the descent on Athens; others have suggested that maybe Herodotus was wrong and there were no cavalry with the Persian force, or only a token number for scouting. Again, Krentz has argued that they were still deploying when the Greeks hit the Persian infantry, so they played no part in the battle.

I’ve not finished reading Herodotus’ account of Plataea, but there the Persian cavalry don’t seem to have played a major role in the battle itself. In the build up to the action they were significant – disrupting the Greek supplies and seizing the well that lead to the Greek withdrawal, which then bought on the battle. But when the battle is described, the Persian cavalry are mostly absent.

This passage in an earlier bit of Herodotus is interesting in this respect:
So they [the Scythians] used to watch for whenever they [the Persians] were gathering supplies of food and carry out their scheme. The Scythian horsemen would always rout the enemy cavalry and the Persian horsemen would retreat until they met up with their infantry, who would come to their assistance. At this point the Scythians used to turn back, because they were afraid of the Persian infantry, despite the fact that they had hurled themselves at the Persian cavalry. (Herodotus 4.128, tr. Waterfield, Oxford World Classics).

Now, given the warnings I’ve already made about the dangers of the lone passage out of context, what can we learn from this paragraph?

Darius’ Scythian campaign was in around 515 BC, and proceeded as most armchair strategists would expect, with the nomads refusing to engage in battle and the conventional forces wandering around achieving little. In this context, Herodotus’ passage makes a lot of sense: it describes classic hit and run tactics. The Scythians hit a foraging party which is forced to retreat until it finds some supports.
So far, so good, but the next part of the paragraph is that the Scythians always routed the Persian cavalry. But the Persian cavalry were armed with bow, spear, shield, nice curvy sword so beloved of ‘The Arabian Knights’ and so on. In short, they seem to have been regular cavalry of the ancient period. So why could they not withstand the Scythians?

There are two alternatives that I can see. Firstly, the Herodotus is wrong here, and they could. The second is that the Persian cavalry was fairly useless tactically.
The Persian infantry was armed with bows, and we know that, in general, foot archery was better than horse archery. So it makes a good deal of sense for the Scythian horse archers to avoid the Persian foot. So Herodotus does not seem to be wrong here, in this aspect at least.

So, the evidence from this passage is that the Persian cavalry could not stand against Scythian light horse. Now I’ll grant that Darius is unlikely to have sent out his elite cavalry to gather food, and that the Scythians were probably the best light cavalry around at the time. But this passage does seem to suggest that the Persian cavalry was below average.

If this is the case, then the absence of Persian cavalry in the accounts of Marathon is fairly easily explained. They may well have been there, but had not noticeable effect on the outcome. Similarly, at Plataea, their mobility in a grand tactical sense caused the Greeks problems, but not in the toe-to-toe stick poking that decided the outcome.
I’ve noticed this before in the ancient world. The much vaunted Sarmatians were defeated by a legion in the first century, for example. It is somewhere in Tacitus, but I forget where, although he does claim that they were weighed down with loot and fighting dismounted on a frozen lake at the time. Nevertheless, for much of the ancient period, cavalry was not up to much. There may well be exceptions, like Alexander’s companions, but mostly, before, say, 300 AD, cavalry wasn’t that much use.

Cavalry, then, seems to have been to the ancient world what artillery was in the seventeenth century. Useful to have around, but you could get by without it. The Greeks certainly managed to do as at Marathon, after all.

So where does this leave us, rules wise? Well, Mr Berry has already noted that the Imperial Rome rules are not going to please cavalry addicts. So be it. Ancient cavalry were not in the business of charging steady infantry from the front. Then again, I’m not sure cavalry of any age were quite that suicidally stupid. Cavalry have their uses, but mainly this is to protect the flanks of their own infantry and threaten those of the enemy. Strategically and grand tactically their increased mobility has significant advantages, but in battle, the Persian and most other ancient cavalry seems to have been fairly weak.

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