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The myths about horseback archery in the Greek armies


The combined usage of horse and Archery in Greece starts from the Bronze Age. The Minoans and the Mycenaeans fielded chariot units that carried a driver and a fighter. Truth is we do not know much on how they operated but we assume they did like the other period cultures.

Minoan seal depicting a chariot. British Museum

Mycenaeans are even more puzzling. A stele, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the verses of Homer suggest that chariots charged full speed. The fighters either skewered their opponents with spears or cast javelins

source: A. Salimbeti

A golden ring found in Mycenae depicts a deer hunting scene in which an archer shoots the animals from the chariot. The method of using the chariot corresponds in the way that other contemporary peoples used the chariot. The chariot born archer cannot be considered horse-archer as he is not mounted on the horse. The term “horse-archer” is not found either in Homer or the Linear B tablets.

Source A. Salimbeti

Herodotus uses the term “horse-archer” in order to describe the Persian cavalry in Platea and not Greek troops. The term appears again in Thucydides (5.17.1) but describes the Scythian mercenaries of the Athenians. It’s worth noting the Xenophon in his work “On Horsemanship” mention nothing about training and using horse-archers.  That implies that the horse-archery serving in the Athenian Army were imported.


The historian Christopher Webber in his works about the ancient Thracians mentions that Getai fielded horse-archers. Herodotus says that Getae are of Thracic origin but Strabo gives us insight of the customs of a clearly “barbaric nation” that performed human sacrifices to god Zalmoxes (Geography 7.3.12) while Justin says that the Dakae who he considers of Getic origin are clearly a barbaric tribe. (TROGUS synopsis 32.3.16).

Mr. Webber writes about a Thracian holding a horse and a bow appearing in a carving of tribute bearers inside the grave of Artaxerxes in Persepolis. The problem is that we cannot prove that these are simply prezents to the High King or trappings of amounted archer.

letni Horseman

The silver plaque, found in a royal burial in modern day Bulgaria band depicts a Thracian horseman show a semicircular item in the upper right corner but this might just as well depict a mountain or other religious symbol and not a bow.

Even in the remote Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms the mounted archer are depicted as non Greek people but are probably Saka (Scythians)

Saka with the pointed hats “Saka Tikrahauda” on Greco -Bactrian coin

Mounted archers are employed in the Byzantine Army but they are mercenaries recruited from the Eurasian tribes. General Belisarius is considered the first who introduced the lance/bow combination for the heavy cavalry but his work was not continued.

Byzantine horseman from Cappadokia

The later Byzantine military manuals describe the heavy cavalry units with half the men being lancers and the rest archers. According to contemporary descriptions their performance was so poor that they were converted to mounted javelineers. The light cavalry mounted archers were hired foreigners while the local light cavalry (Trapezitoi) were armed with lance and javelins.

During the Renaissance the Greek mercenary stradioti carry javelins and probably crossbows but the chances of carrying bows are really slim as contemporary military saints depictions should be treated with caution as they most likely try to depict what the artist perceived to be ancient military fashions. The only real contemporary European horse-archers are the Hungarian Székely. From the above it’s concluded that the Greeks, though employing horse-archers they did not develop them themselves but they hired foreigners.


The Thracians 700 BC–AD 46 OSPREY publishing

romano-byzantine armies 4th-9th centuries OSPREY publishing

Byzantine Armies AD 886 – 1118 OSPREY publishing

Byzantine Armies AD 1118–1461 OSPREY publishing

4 Σχόλια
  1. Yiorgos Nikiteas permalink

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