ElAnt v3n1 - The Athenian Cavalry

Volume 3, Number 1
June 1995

The Athenian Cavalry

by Iain Spence
Oxford, OUP: 1993. 
Price $95 (Australian)

Reviewed by:
J.K. Anderson,
Department of Classics,
University of California,
CA 90047,

This will be a valuable book to "readers who are interested in Greek warfare and society in general" (p.xvii), provided they come to it with a fair knowledge of Greek history. The first chapter, "Greek cavalry c.500-300" summarizes, city by city, information about the cavalry of different Greek states, and will be very helpful to readers who can set "the Battle of the Crocus Plain" or "the Greek camp at Plataia in 479" in their historical contexts, but puzzling to those who would like to be told what King Agesilaus of Sparta was doing in Asia Minor or who was fighting whom at Sellasia. But the purpose is not to give the reader an overall historical summary, but to show that many Greek cities over a period of centuries found it worth while, or even necessary, to maintain cavalry. Therefore cavalry must have had a military value in ancient Greek warfare. Surely nobody will deny this much, but some may find that this value is set too high in later

The Athenian cavalry is by far the best documented and so, inevitably, receives the most attention. In his Introduction (pp.xxi- xxxiv) Dr. Spence gives a very helpful sketch of the evidence, quite rightly putting the first emphasis on literature; noting the special importance of Xenophon (particularly his technical writings); mentioning other historians; and showing (pp.xxvi-xxviii) that for "attitudes to the cavalry and its position within society" we may turn to "playwrights, orators, and to a lesser extent the philosophers". The artistic evidence (pp.xxviii-xxxiii) is hard to assess, and perhaps no two scholars will draw precisely the same conclusions. Spence has compiled a list (Appendix 1:pp.231-260) of "Attic Red- and White-Figure" (sic) "Vases with Equestrian Scenes, c.530-300", containing two hundred and three entries, selected from "nearly 630" (p.231). In the Introduction (p.xxix) he seems to take "almost all" these vases at their face value, "supplying particulars of dress, equipment, equestrian technique, and the use of weapons on horseback". But in Ch.2, examining "The Combat Potential of the Hippeis ", he considers, quite rightly in my opinion, that artistic conventions may have led the vase-painter to omit breastplates and other armour which would have been worn in real life. The literary evidence is insufficient to let us say with certainty that all Greek cavalrymen wore armour, but there is enough of it to contradict the vase-paintings, which suggest that almost all of them did not. Of the vases in Appendix 1 more than one third represent mythological scenes, including exploits of Herakles, Theseus and the Dioscuri, and, far outnumbering the rest, Amazonomachies. These fall into two distinct groups, the earlier inspired by the great mural paintings of the Theseum and the Painted Stoa, the later intended for the Black Sea trade in the fourth century B.C.E. These later Amazons are all in barbarian dress (not universal in the fifth century) and are sometimes barely distinguishable from Arimaspians, not found earlier but common at this period. How much do these pictures really teach us about Greek cavalry? If Spence finds that any of them illustrate special points, he should explain.

The evidence of "Attic Equestrian Reliefs" (thirty-seven examples listed in Appendix 2, pp.261-266) is more satisfactory, in that we are mostly dealing with tombstones of real Athenians who actually walked (or rode over) the earth of Classical Greece. But here too we have to allow for artistic convention; can we on the evidence of tombstones that show unrealistically naked infantrymen being trampled down by horsemen (Plates 11-12), accept that the latter rode into action bareheaded and dressed only in tunics?

Special problems are raised by the Parthenon Frieze. In Appendix 3 (pp.267-271) Spence refutes (to me satisfactorily) Boardman's theory that the riders are heroes of Marathon, and Simon's that they are mounted epheboi . He has noted (Introduction; p.xxx) that "several riders on the Parthenon frieze, and who are therefore undeniably Athenian, wear the Thracian alopekis (fox-skin) cap". It will be interesting to see how he treats, in some future work, the new interpretation of the frieze as Athenian and Thracian armies going to the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus. As he points out, vase-paintings, some vases earlier than the Parthenon, show Athenian riders wearing different itemsof Thracian dress.

To return to the question of "Combat Potential". Chapter 2, whose purpose is to show what ancient Greek cavalry might have been capable of doing, is the least satisfactory part of the book. Some "examples of performance are included to illustrate what was possible" (p.35), but the claim that cavalry in wedge formation could break through a hoplite phalanx by a frontal charge is based (p.108) on another scholar's purely hypothetical account of what might almost be one of those televisionary games in which small bands of active Earthlings destroy hosts of passive and unintelligent Spacepersons. Spence offers no evidence that anything of the sort ever happened; do not Arrian's remarks (p.104) refer to actions of cavalry against cavalry? (Here one might note Alexander at the head of his Macedonian wedge cutting through Darius's guards on the Alexander Mosaic).

This chapter also offers too many modern comparisons, which do not always illustrate anything. Yes; the first tanks broke down in quagmires (p.34). So what? In comparing the performance of ancient and modern cavalry, might not one begin with the horse? The Athenians in 362 B.C.E., or Alexander's Companions, were not mounted on Walers. (The size of ancient horses is discussed on pp.282-283, in the excellent Appendix 4 on the cost of cavalry service, with a view to determining how much they might have eaten). Instead of considering whether Greeks, without stirrups, could have inflicted wounds comparable to those dealt by Japanese horsemen (p.55), Spence might have noted Livy (31.34) on the terrifying effects of Spanish swords wielded by Roman cavalry in the opening skirmishes of the Second Macedonian War. Like the Greeks, these Romans were without stirrups or saddles. (The stirrupless Roman cavalry saddle, which has been the subject of recent experiments, comes later). But did the Greeks ride bareback, or on saddlecloths? Here again the literary and artistic evidence contradict each other, and deserve discussion. And did they ride stallions, as they are generally portrayed? Spence finds here another conflict between art and literature, noting the use of mares in racing chariots (p.44). But he has not considered the possible results of combining mares and stallions in the same squadron. That gelding was generally practiced in Classical Greece is not proved by ancient evidence, though Xenophon was aware of its effects.

None the less, this chapter contains good information and raises interesting questions, under separate headings such as "Leadership", "Motivation" as well as the more obvious "Mobility", "Weaponry", "Protection". Chapter 3, "Cavalry Warfare, c.450-300", gives a good account of what cavalry did actually achieve in a world in which battles were actually decided by heavy infantry. In "Independent Operations" (pp.126-139) the cavalry proved its defensive and offensive worth, both by preventing the enemy from dispersing in order to do the maximum damage to farmland, and by raiding. In "Supporting Operations" (pp.140-162) we are shown that cavalry was used to screen infantry on the march, reconnoitre, pursue a broken enemy and protect its own infantry in retreat. "Flank or rear attack, harassment, and charging a disorganized formation" (p.162) are treated more realistically than in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4, "The Hippeis and Society" examines the attitude of the Athenians towards their cavalry. This has to be considered (pp.165-180) against the presumption that the heavy infantryman, the hoplite, was the true exemplar of military valour. Members of the cavalry were rich (though receiving some state subsidy; Spence gives a good account, based on newly-discovered evidence, of the katastasis that Cavalrymen were rich) and usually young; therefore Spence considers all the young and rich as forming the "cavalry class". This somewhat muddles the issue - e.g. p.208: in Demosthenes's speech against Konon there is no suggestion that the licentious young men were cavalrymen. Nevertheless, Spence shows that there was a public perception of the cavalry as a whole - favourable early in the Peloponnesian War; increasingly hostile after the Sicilian expedition as the hippeis became compromised in oligarchical politics; and gradually improving in the fourth century.

An interesting and helpful book, though after the manner of reviewers I have emphasized my disagreements. The production by the Clarendon Press is impeccable, though one could wish that the Plates had been given a full page apiece.

J.K. Anderson

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 1 - June 1995
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606