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Cavalry, Hellenistic

  1. Nicholas V. Sekunda

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah09069

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Sekunda, N. V. 2012. Cavalry, Hellenistic. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

In the reign of Alexander, the striking force of the army was the regiments of Companion and Thessalian cavalry, and later in the reign these were augmented by large numbers of Iranian cavalry. Cavalry continued to be used in large numbers and to decisive effect under the “Successors,” not least in their long-range, swift-moving campaigns switching from one continent to another.

After the third-century bce gap in our sources, the picture we have is of much smaller numbers of cavalry handled without the confidence of the previous era. The financial resources available to these later monarchs were much lower than those available to their predecessors, and this seems to have had a decisive effect on the quantity of Hellenistic cavalry. The army with which Alexander III, the Great crossed into Asia comprised infantry and cavalry in a ratio of six to one, whereas Hellenistic armies (see Army, Hellenistic) rarely reached the ten to one ratio which had been typical of Classical Greek armies. The cavalry formations used in the fourth century, the rhomb and the wedge, seem to have fallen into disuse. Polybius, who had served as hipparch of the Achaian League, imagines that Alexander's cavalry was organized in the linear formations of his own age (12.18.3) in lines no more than eight deep. He describes the Achaian cavalry as organized in files (lochoi) and double files, and then into troops (oulamoi), squadrons (ilai), and brigades (hipparchiai). The oulamos was generally fifty strong drawn up in a square five deep and ten wide (Plut. Lyc. 23.1).

Most Hellenistic kingdoms maintained forces of national cavalry. These are generally shown as heavy cavalry, armed with a spear for offense and with defensive body armor. Cavalry shields seem to come into use around 280 bc, possibly as a result of contact with Galatian shielded cavalry, although this is uncertain. Cavalry shields were large and round, reinforced by a large boss in the center, or by a boss and medial spine. The national cavalry would include at least one elite formation, distinguished by their saffron yellow cloaks with crimson or purple borders, which Polybius generically calls “The Court Cavalry” (οί περί τήν αùλ;ήν ίππεῖς: 4.67.6; 5.65.5) and which may have been permanently embodied. The title of “Companion Cavalry” was retained by the elite regiment in Seleucid service, while the Antigonid elite cavalry was known as the “Sacred Squadron” (Livy 42.58.8–9) (see Antigonids; Seleucids). The majority of the national cavalry would be mobilized only in time of war.

Forces of citizen cavalrymen retained their importance in many areas of Greece, for social reasons among others, for example in the cities of the Boiotian League, where their importance is attested by enrollment lists (Feyel 1942: 200–4; Étienne and Knoepfler 1976). They also played an important role in policing the borders of the state, as is once again attested to not only in Boiotia but also in the city-states of Asia Minor such as Kyzikos and Apollonia Salbake (Chaniotis 2008).

The national cavalry might be supplemented by mercenary regiments of cavalry, who, though they might be lighter armed (without body armor), also fought at close quarters with lances.

According to the taxonomy of the Tactical Writers, all the cavalry which fought at close quarters was called the doratophoroi “spear-bearing” or xystophori “lance-bearing” cavalry (Asclep. 1. 3). They also mention the thureophoroi, cavalry bearing long oval infantry shields (thureoi), as belonging to this group, and then horse archers and javelinmen. The latter consisted of the Tarentines, who only throw their javelins from afar, and others who close with the enemy after casting their javelins. Cataphract cavalry, fighting with both horse and rider defended by armor, only seems to come at the end of the Hellenistic period, introduced by Antiochos III Megas.

References and Suggested Readings

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  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Chaniotis, A. (2008) “Policing the Hellenistic countryside: Realities and ideologies.” In C. Brélaz and P. Ducrey, eds., Sécurité collective et ordre public dans les sociétés anciennes: 10353. Geneva.
  • Étienne, R., and Knoepfler, D. (1976/2002) Hyettos de Béotie et la chronologie des archontes fédéraux entre 250 et 171 av. J.-C. Paris.
  • Feyel, M. (1942) Polybe et l'histoire de Béotie au IIIe siècle avant notre ère. Paris.
  • Sekunda, N. V. (2006) “The introduction of cavalry thureophoroi into Greek warfare.” Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae 19: 917.
  • Sekunda, N. (2007) “11 military forces A. Land forces 5. Cavalry.” InP. Sabin, H. Van Wees, M. Whitby, eds., The Cambridge history of Greek and Roman warfare, vol. 1: Greece, the Hellenistic world and the rise of Rome: 3447. Cambridge.