Roman Cavalry

Not in the Saddle - My Greek Riding Experience

Iím used to dressing up in lots of Roman armour, sitting in a four-horned saddle or sometimes a steppe saddle, and charging around doing horse archery etc. Iíve enjoyed using a reconditioned 1917 McCellan saddle and putting together an American Civil War impression. And Iíve messed around on Spanish and Portuguese saddles, because I like them. But I wanted to go back to the 5th and 4th century BC and use Xenophon to experience riding with no saddle at all. Riding the Greek way.

Equiptment For The Rider
As ever, carefully sourcing and making the equipment for myself was a challenge but a very enjoyable one. While it is possible to rely on some archaeological finds and written evidence, I was forced to use more inconographic evidence than I am used to. Happily oblivious to the hidden meanings of Hellenistic artistic licence, this is an approach fraught with danger. But with so little evidence to go on suddenly a small painting on a pot becomes important.

It was difficult trying to find a reasonable interpretation of riding boots on period pottery. Finally a suitable example was chosen. The design was worked up with Robin from Rigorevali Boots ( We underestimated the amount of stitching involved, and I think Robin developed a few grey hairs through the process, but the end result was worth the trouble.

I based my boeotian helmet on the Ashmoleum example, and had it made by Al Hamdd Trading Post in India. They also made me a pilos helmet.

I made a tube and yoke cuirass from vegetable tanned leather, based on a well-known example. I appreciate that there are many debates about the use of glued linen or various types of leather to make such armour. But laminated glued vegetable tanned leather has a long history as armour. Such armour could be very colourful, and I abandoned the more popular white for yellows and reds and purples. I suspect many cavalrymen of the 5th and 4th centuries used no armour, or a bronze thorax. The bronze thorax will have to wait.

Xenophon provides a list of body armour, including what I always took to be a sort of vambrace for the bridle arm, something easy and cheap to make. What he actually recommends is something that covers the whole arm including the elbow, something similar to a Roman manica enclosing the whole arm. A coin of Datames from 370-368 BC shows the Persian general seated possibly wearing such arm guards. However most riders seem to almost disdain armour.

Stephen Atkinson of Comitatus was tasked with making my design of a long cavalry kopis, and in the meantime I re-made a Depeeka kopis and scabbard, gold plating part of the hilt.

Javelin heads and spear heads I already had in profusion. Snodgrass classified spearheads back in 1964. I chose to use a common type of spearhead from the Classical period, a Type M, with a small flat leaf shaped blade, and tubular socket. It was made by a Polish smith, Adam Gutowski from an old T-55 tank rusting in his fatherís field.

Clothing was relatively straightforward. Iím lucky enough to have a supply of suitable wools and linens. Simple bow brooches were made from old electrical wire, and bone pins made for cloaks. Luckily Cezary Wyszynski was able to supply a lovely thick goat hair blanket, very like a Thracian kilim. This could supplement my other cloaks. Cezaryís cloak was so thick it proved able to keep me warm over a February frost-filled night sleeping on the ground. Belts were made of woven material, but Iím unsure about the type of weave used. I forced several tablet woven belts into service. I made a simple pair of very tough military sandals, and for socks used simple bands of wool wrapped around the instep and calf. All the clothing was put together quickly, and will be revised constantly.

The Horse and its Equiptment
By far the most interesting part of recreating cavalry lies in working with the horse. I ride at Claire Chamberlainís stable near Howden. Claire keeps around 20 horses at anyone time, most of which are used for historical re-enactments and jousting. The English-speaking world measures the height of horses in hands, measured at the highest point of an animal's withers where the neck meets the back, chosen as a stable point of the anatomy, unlike the head or neck, which move up and down. One hand is 4 inches (10 cm). Intermediate heights are defined by hands and inches, rounding to the lower measurement in hands, followed by a decimal point and the number of additional inches between 1 and 3. Thus a horse described as 14 hands is 140cm.Greek horses seem to have been small at around 13.1 hands, and unshod. In the UK native breeds have the capacity to live outside all year round, and remain unshod. But there were very few horses of such size at the yard. Generally such cold bloods or cobs lack the sensitivity of larger hot bloods, and the choice of horseflesh was limited and unappealing.

The closest candidate in terms of height was a mare called Chloe. Under 14 hands, she is relatively short necked and heavily built. I had already marked her as a possible Roman mount and had spent a few minutes riding her to ensure she was happy with weapons. While she couldnít neck rein, allowing the rider to hold the reins in their left hand while holding weapons with their right, this could be taught relatively quickly. However I suspect that generally the Greeks favoured lighter mounts with small heads and slender legs.

In the Iliad Homer mentions that Thrace could produce ďhugeĒ white horses. Votive tablets show Apollo on horseback, and the horse was of central importance to them. All breeds considered large by Greek and Roman writers seem to have come under the influence of Persian and Nisaean blood, capable of producing large horses even by todays standards. Strabo links the horsemanship of Thessaly to that of Armenia and Media. The Apadana frieze at Persepolis shows heavy, slightly convex headed, high crested, solid and well-muscled horses. Such horses were not rare. The Sarmation Pazyryk burials of the 5th century BC contained horses of 15 hands and more.

On that basis I made an easy choice and turned my heavily built Roman mount of 14.2 in to a well-built mount from northern Greece. Something a Thracian or Macedonian noble could use. A well-built horse of 14 hands would seem large compared to a lean 14 hand slender horse from further south.

Murph is an unshod Irish cob of around 14.2. A gelding, he is still the alpha male of the yard. Believed to be around 10 years old, he was and still is occasionally, a carriage horse. Sold to a riding school his lazy mean character meant he was passed on once again finally arriving at the stables, generally unloved by everybody. When he was introduced to me as a possible Roman horse he was busy kicking another horse through a wooden fence. He soon learnt how to neck rein and after three months of intensive work during the spring of 2007 he developed into a good solid warhorse. As his sense of self-importance has grown so has speed. Horses are controlled using the reins and the riderís balance legs and voice. Murph responds to the reins with the odd argument. He lacks the sensitivity to respond to balance, but when Iím using weapons his lack of sensitivity can be a good thing. He does respond to the leg, and is very good at understanding my voice. So he can be ridden without reins for horse archery or when using a two-handed kontos. Not all horses need spurs as an aid, but Murph is better with them, so a pair of simple prick spurs were strapped to the cavalry boots

Xenophon the famous cavalryman, writer and soldier recommends a flexible bit in preference to a stiff bit. Some of these flexible bits used sharp teeth to press into the horseís tough and mouth. Murph uses a simple stiff snaffle, but lacking the long cheek-pieces which prevent the bit sliding sideways in the horseís mouth. Instead I am sticking to the round discs we use for Roman shows.

Romans ride with saddles, but no stirrups. This often seems remarkable to the general public, but I feel it is easier to learn without having to worry about stirrups. But my riding experience is limited, and riding as a Greek involves no saddle. While it seems likely that the peoples of the steppe were using simple low saddles, I wanted to take the Greek approach. I had ridden bare back a few years ago to see what it felt like. I remember bouncing around generally grabbing at anything to stay on the horse. This was going to be the biggest obstacle. It was very likely that I could not ride as I wished without a saddle. A saddle is designed to lift the riderís weight from the horseís spine, and I was also concerned for the horseís wellbeing.

Xenophon mentions a man may ride bareback, but seems to assume a saddlecloth is standard for war. He recommends a thick quilted cloth to protect the horseís back and to give the rider safer seat. He rebukes the Persians for using too many coverings on their horses, putting comfort over safety. Presumably these extra covers stopped them developing a safer deeper seat.

I wanted to keep my approach simple but effective. I wanted to use a saddle cloth and chose an old hand woven woollen blanket, around 6 feet by 4 feet, made in 1988. It is made of thick thread but with a loose weave. I folded the blanket several times and laid it over Murphís back and up his neck. I then used a girth from my traditional Spanish vaquera saddle to secure the blanket. This type of girth is made traditionally from well-padded leather. The girth threads through a loop allowing it to be pulled back on itself and secured to an iron buckle. In truth it did not need to be properly tightened, since it was securing a cloth, not a saddle. I did not use a breast strap to stop the blanket slipping backwards. I then folded the blanket back over the girth to effectively keep the girth out of sight. Xenophon recommends a neck strap, a simple leather strap around the horseís neck, for the rider to hold when needed. This seemed a potentially splendid idea. I use a series of decorative straps as part of my Roman tack, and the largest seemed suitable. It was perhaps a little slender to hold my weight if things went badly, but it would do.

Murph appreciated the lack of tack and saddle. He almost seemed to view this as an amusing experiment. Roman troopers were meant to be able to mount a galloping horse. In armour I canít mount a stationary one, using a mounting block instead. But without the four horns of a Roman saddle to get past, mounting the horse was much easier. To a degree the rider does sink into the blanket, and if it was padded you would sink into it even more. This gives a sense of security. The blanket and boots meant no part of my skin was actually in contact with the horse. Murphís sweat, hair, dirt etc was not going to be a problem. However the lack of trousers seemed an issue.

To move in an authentic way you should use authentic clothing, down to the underwear. I have ridden in Roman saddles using simple loincloths, as well as trousers. Roman saddles can be very hard, but the rider gets used to it. Leather gives a good grip against skin, and sweat just helps you hold on. But body hair can be ripped out leading to painful infections. Thatís enough detail.

I was working on the principle that Greeks didnít wear underwear. The woollen saddlecloth was actually more comfortable than I was expecting, although the girth strap added an unwelcome ridge to my seat. The more amusing issue was what was on display when riding at speed. Initially I was unaware of the issue, but the way passing lorry drivers were waving at me alerted me to the problem. I suspect this was something that the Greeks were not concerned about, and it partly explains why the Persians fled before Greek cavalry. When riding in armour the pteruges held the chiton down.

Over the years my posture and seat have improved. I was used to Murph and his action. The trot was fine and the canter felt the same as if I was in a saddle. The riding experience was much nicer without horns holding me in position. My Roman saddle is relatively light and small compared to other saddles, and allows me to feel the horseís movement and reactions. Without a saddle I could feel and understand the horse even better. Rather than hooking my legs under the horns of my Roman saddle to help me in tight corners, now I had to lengthen my legs as I would in a steppe saddle. This is much easier on the legs and prevents cramps. You grip with your upper leg, and as Xenophon says, leave the leg loose beneath the knee. I want to ride like this as much as possible over the coming months. You automatically move with the horse, learning back and softening the stomach. I will enjoy the challenge and it will improve my riding. However it would be easy to pull a rider off a horse without a saddle to hold him in position. Getting back on the horse would be an important skill for a Greek to learn.

The Skills of the Greek Cavalryman
Recreating the clothing and equipment of a Greek soldier is a challenge. Making that equipment work on the back of a horse is harder still. Your equipment will be subject to bouncing around at speeds of around 35 mph for periods of time. It will need to protect you from falls, and be strong enough not to break. It needs to be fit for purpose. My experience of developing Roman cavalry helped me immensely. My Greek clothing and equipment made the transition to horseback relatively easily. Even without a chin strap my boeotian helmet stayed wedged on my scalp. The armour held my upper body rigid in the saddle, and the pteruges were initially very stiff inhibiting movement. But they will become more flexible.

Xenophon seems to assume the rider would carry a javelin, spear and recurved sword called the kopis. The kopis needs to be carried on a short baldric between the upper left and body to hold it in position and to stop it hitting the left elbow. Longer versions would be useful on horseback. The weight of the weapon coupled to the speed of the horse allows a heavy blow to be landed with out much exertion on the part of the rider. Useful when not braced by a saddle. The javelin and spear would seem to be around 1.8m long. The javelin is a good deal longer and heavier than my small roman veruta. I suspect that this is because without a saddle the speed of the throw is reduced, needing a heavier weapon to ensure penetration. The spear is the weapon of choice, giving reach, weight and penetration. A butt spike gives the weapon another dimension. I have also used a Skythian sagaris, or axe hammer. This is a real cavalry weapon designed to pierce armour and helmets, and cut, crush and chip bone.

Carrying two long shafted weapons on horseback is annoying. They seem constantly to get in the way. I seem to hold them in my left hand across my body behind the horseís head. I pity anybody having to ride next to me in close order. I tied some linen thread around the balance point of each weapon so my right hand could easily find the thread making handling and throwing them easier. A leather loop around the shaft could be used to gain a mechanical advantage and increase the distance of the throw. Something to try in the future.

Murph is used to running at targets. I make sure heís well balanced and he knows from my body language what is expected. At a verbal and leg command he reaches a canter in only a few strides. The rider needs to concentrate on a point past the target, ensuring the horse speeds past the target and doesnít stop at the target. For distance throw high, but at a target aim low since the speed of the horse will give your throw greater force. Many riders seem to throw at targets they could touch, putting the horse at risk from javelins glancing off the target. Throwing two javelins with the horse travelling is a straight line is a basic skill. Indeed on a well-trained horse you could drop the reins and give the animal its head to run, making weapon handling easier.

It often falls to historians to write about Greek cavalry, without ever having been introduced to a horse. It can be frustrating to read misleading statements presented with misplaced certainty.

Reconstructions have a powerful visual impact, engaging the general public and beguiling academics. Learning to use artefacts can yield valuable data and greater understanding. Reconstruction archaeology should be viewed as integral to the understanding of artefacts and those who used them.

But beyond the frustrations caused by historians, and the positive benefits of reconstruction, comes the sheer challenge and enjoyment of recreating Greek cavalry. Itís not just for the few or the wealthy. The clothing and equipment is not expensive, and you donít need to own your own horse. But the personal satisfaction and occasional insight cannot be measured in money.

John Conyard