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QUESTIONING TWO MYTHS ABOUT ANCIENT GREEK CAVALRY

11/03/2013

Use of shield by the Ancient Greek Cavalry.

The prevailing view on the ancient Greek Cavalry is that did not carry a shield and were rarely armored. The depictions of mounted warriors of the archaic period on ancient Greek pottery are explained with the stereotype that: they depict hoplites that travel on horseback to the battlefield and will dismount to fight on foot.

Cucladic amphora depicting a Greek "mounted hoplite" from Paros Museum

Cucladic amphora depicting a Greek «mounted hoplite» from Paros Museum. Photo: Author’s archive

To support the argument, a brass statue of the same period from the British Museum that depicts an equestrian armored warrior is also mentioned.

Archaic bronze statue depicting an armored Greek horseman. British Museum

The Greeks were influenced by the Scythians and Thracians in matters of horse riding and horse trappings. The shield appears to have been widespread despite claims to the contrary. The horsemen of the Geometric Era and the classical Greeks, after their contact with the Thracian and Scythian horsemen used it. The crescent-shaped shield seems to have been quite widespread but during the archaic period the «boeotian shield» type was prominent if we trust contemporary depictions. Many times riders carried the shield on their backs attached with a baldric.

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Horsemen are depicted carrying round shields in pottery and sculpture of the Geometric Period. The protection provided was valuable to the horsemen as they had to face light troops armed with missile weapons. And this need was not eradicated at later periods but the academics characterize all shield bearing horsemen that appear in the art of the Archaic Era as «soldiers approaching the battlefield on horseback».

Geometric Era Horsemane with round shields. Photo: Author's archive

Geometric Era amphora from Paros Museum depicting horsemen with round shields. Photo: Author’s archive

Though terracotta at the Kanellopoulou Museum portrays a horseman of the 6th century BC, carrying a shield the size of a Macedonian pikeman’s shield of the 4th century BC and therefore contradicts the prevailing theory.

Modern Experimental Archaeology has shown that the hoplite type shield has great difficulty in its use by a mounted fighter but nothing proves that shields of the 7th century BC «mounted hoplites» are the Greek heavy infantry shields, but rather lighter shields suitable for use by the cavalry. An Attic Cup from the Amsterdam Museum and a bas-relief from the Museum of Corinth seem to not agree with the prevailing theory that Ancient Greek Cavalry did not carry shields. The Attic vase shows round shield probably assisted with a baldric and the Corinthian bas-relief depicts «a hoplite» dismounting holding his shield – something that can’t be done with the heavy hoplite shield as the weight will be dragging him down.

Votive shield from Corinth Museum depicting a dismounting "hoplite". Photo: Authors archive

Votive shield from Corinth Museum depicting a dismounting «hoplite». Photo: Courtesy A. Porporis

It is also curious that the armored horsemen appearing on Attic pottery carry semicircular shields of Thracian type and are also without hesitation described as Thracians. The academic viewpoint collides with the logic of combatants who exposed to risk seek maximum protection. The grave stele of unarmored cavalrymen charging opponents are rather idealized and do not give the true picture of the deceased aristocratic fighter on horseback.

Horseshoes in…Antiquity!

According to ancient literary sources there were no horseshoes in Antiquity, as we know them today. Even Xenophon in his work “On Horsemanship” never talks of the horseshoeing procedures.

It is commonly believed that the ancients tried to harden the horse’s heels though natural process as they had observed wild horses to negotiate rough terrain. Ancient sources though talk of “HIPPOSANDALA” (lit. horse sandals). From literary descriptions we know that these were either sole leather or metal plates (museum exhibits) attached with leather throngs on the horse’s foot.

6th century BC bronze horseshoe from Vravrona. Photo: Author's archive

6th century BC bronze horseshoe from Vravrona. Photo: Author’s archive

Yet in the Archaeological Museum of Vravrona exist a bronze horseshoe along with its nails and it is dated in the 6th century BC! Also in an Etruscan grave (*) dated in the 4th century BC four bronze horseshoes have also been found. These two finds raise the question: since Greeks and Etruscans knew of horseshoes why no sources mention them?

One possible explanation was that bronze was expensive and had better use for weapons or tools rather than as an accessory of an expensive luxury as the horse was considered in the Mediterranean cultures. Good steel that facilitated the spread of iron in metallurgy was not easily available before the 12th century AD. This is a possible cause why modern type horseshoeing cannot be dated before the 5th century AD in accordance with archaeological finds. Perhaps that art of horseshoeing had been abandoned for reasons of cost and reappeared once good iron products became widely available.

(*W. N. Bates • Etruscan Horseshoes from Corneto — AJA 6:398‑403

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