Officers of the Horsearchers in Ancient Athens
Herodotus uses the term hippotoxotes (horsearchers) in the ninth book while writing about the battle of Plataea to describe the Persian cavalry. He does never use this term for describing Greek troops. The word hippotoxotes occurs again in the writings of Thucydides (“Histories” 5. 17.1) but he rather describes the Scythian or Thracian mercenaries of the Athenians. According to Lysias they were paid eight obols (coins) per day instead of two that they received originally (Lysias Fragment 6 «Against Theozotides») but they were not considered an elite unit. Lysias informs us in another of his writings that when Alcibiades the younger (son of the notorious Alcmaeonid) was expelled from his cavalry squadron he served with the horsearchers, something like relegation to a “penal unit” as we would have said today. (Lysias, 15, “Against Alcibiades” 2)
Nevertheless many aristocratic Athenians believed in the usefulness of such a unit. In the «Laws» of Plato, the Cretan Kleinias discusses with someone anonymous Athenian for good institutions he intends to establish in a Cretan Colony. Kleinias says that Crete is mountainous and therefore Cretans do not think much of horses and equestrian units because their country is not flat like Thessaly. (“Laws”, 1. 625) During the development of the dialogue, the Athenian, who already has experience of foreign mercenaries in Athenian service, urges him to legislate for the equestrian sports, (“Laws” 8. 833b) so in the colony will be created a body mounted archers. (“Laws” 8. 834b)
Clearly, the Athenian acknowledges that Cretans have very little or no relationship with horses. Considering, however, that the use of horses in a Cretan colony would be a very good idea, he urges Kleinias to create proper infrastructure in order for the colony to acquire, not only greater relationship with horses as a means of war, but also to create units of cavalry and mounted archers. From this text and what mentioned earlier, it is taken for granted the absence of such a unit in Crete, so its creation, according to the Athenian, would be particularly useful. It can also be derived that most likely, no city state had created infrastructure to produce a unit of mounted archer but rather relied on non citizen mercenaries. It is also noteworthy that Xenophon in his work «On Horsemanship» doesn’t mention anything about the training and usage of mounted archers, so it can be assumed that the horsearchers of the Athenians may not have been indigenous. So who were the mounted archers of the Athenian Army if not native Athenians? Scythians or Thracians probably but a red figure vessel dated around 470 BC and exhibited in the Asmolean Museum complicates things further. It is painted by Pistoxenos and depicts horsearchers in Greek armor
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 Getic customs of a clearly “barbaric nation”. Getae 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). There is no reports concerning mounded archers in Thrace. The barbaric tribe of the Getae who are reputed to be horse archers lived in dug pits and preformed human sacrifices according Herodotus and Strabo are clearly not considered Greeks. And Euripides in his tragedy “IFIGENEIA” mentions that:” law forbids these vile things to the Greeks”
It is also now known that the Scythians and Thracians took pleasure in sporting tattoos. The absence of tattoo marks in Pistoxenos art makes us to consider the probability that the depicted horsemen are Athenians. But on the other side we do not know if all the Thracian tribes practiced tattooing. So only the Scythian origin of the depicted horsemen can be most likely excluded. The depiction of unit’s Athenian officers from Pistoxenos might have another explanation. It cannot be ruled out that the aristocrats in charge of this unit could have learned to shoot on horseback in order to impose themselves on the men under their command. Indeed today there are people involved in the sport of horseback archery without riding from infancy like the Mongols. This does not mean, however, that they can fight effectively in the ancient way of the nomads of the Eurasian steppe..
Publised originally in Greek on «Maches & Stratiotes» magazine issue 30 Septeber-October 2015
Iain Spence Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Warfare Scarecrow Press, 2002
Christopher Webber The Thracians 700 BC–AD 46 Osprey Publishing 2001
Herodotus “Histories” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914
Xenophon “On Horsemanship” Classical Library edition, 1914
Xenophon “The Cavalry Commander” Classical Library edition, 1914
Strabo “Geography” “Histories” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914
Plato “Laws” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914
Thanks to Mr. John Conyard for bringing the Asmolean Museum item image to my attention and to Professor George Nikiteas for advising me in the image analysis.