By: Darren and Theresa
Our few previous classes were emphasized the importance of conquest and trade between ancient civilizations, and naturally, horses became a crucial commodity for transporting armies and goods across borders. This sole reason is why we decided to write about the humble horse for our second blog post. Here we will discuss on the horse's significant role in the warfare of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and Warring States China. So hold on tight, it will be a great ride!
Horses and ancient civilizations
The history of horses dates back to around 50 million years ago but known as an animal called Eohippos (Stoecklein, n.d.). During this period of ancient civilizations, horses were animals considered to represent the wealth and status of the people. It was a part of the thriving economies and also played huge roles in many warfare's that took place. Due to its expensive cost of purchasing and caring, it was restricted to the wealthy and therefore an exclusive animal that were often used to hunt and race by these owners (Its All Greek, 2014). Alexander the Great however, changed this exclusivity of horses making them commonplace and available to everyone from different economic classes (Greek Roman Warfare Web, n.d.).
Horses was first used for reconnaissance, which means to acquire information about other territories' military advancements. Later, the Greeks and Romans developed the idea of horses to being used for chariots and it played a huge role in civic festivals. For instance, the Olympic games held in Olympia and Panathenaic games held in Athens involved chariot and single horse races which still exist until today (Its All Greek, 2014).
Horses and Warfare
According to American Museum of Natural History, the use of chariot horses extended into battle during 1500 BCE, but was found to be ineffective due to the incapability of reaching its full speed while having to pull a heavy load or weight of the chariot. Only by 900 BCE was the horseback battle introduced, proving to be more effective to reach its full capacity in a short period of time. The first of the three major civilizations to use the cavalry was the Chinese Warring States (476 BCE - 221 BCE) era, where the Zhou Dynasty dispersed to create seven states that is now taking part in a complex, bloody and decisive game of chess. Records state that the first official native Chinese cavalry unit was formed in 307 BC by King Wuling of Zhao and also declared the adoption of "nomads attire with galloping marksmanship", fitting his cavalry with trousers instead of traditional Chinese robes and equipping them with bows. The devastating end result meant improved agility and speed for the soldiers by riding the horse and the ability to lob projectiles with the invention of the bow. Evidence shows, that as the Qin used a reported 10,000 horse units with 1000 chariots to support their infantry in order to unite China (Loewe, 1999), the bloodshed and misery of the Warring States period goes a long way in explaining China's traditional preference for a united throne (Loewe, 1999).
Greek warfare, however, did not see many cavalry units deployed, instead relying on their trustworthy hoplites. Having been deployed in limited numbers, their aim of the horsemen was to chase enemies and scout ahead swiftly in the difficult terrain of Greece. However, their use of cavalry was used only in limited numbers. For instance, during that time Athens possessed the largest cavalry force during the Peloponnesian Wars (460-445 & 431–404 BCE) had only a sum of 1,000 mounted troops (Cartwright, 2013) for both battles, yet, this miniscule amount of mounted troops aided in the victory against Persia in the First Peloponnesian War (the one where the Spartans are the good guys).
The Roman Empire surpassed the Ancient Greek in utilizing horsemen in their army. Being a conquering state, with well armed and skilled soldiers, the Romans were able to penetrate the defense of neighbouring nations. Even so, the most resilient of soldiers could never have achieved this feat without the help of the Roman cavalry. The first Roman cavalry were the semi-legendary celeres or trossuli (Cartwright, 2014), armed with lances and had their horses were decorated with silver disks (phalerae) (Cartwright, 2014). Though the cavalry was never meant to replace the infantry as the bread and butter of the Roman army, their role in warfare is different as they could provide much needed cover on the flanks of armies, they could also be used as a shock tactic to cause disruption to enemy infantry formations and pursue an enemy during the chaos of retreat. The outcome of battles was often dependant on the skills and impact to these cavalries. Furthermore, Cavalry became especially useful to control and patrol borders with the ability to waste less time covering longer distances.
The Greeks and Romans being neighboring civilizations and war states meant that they had a similar culture and learnt from each other therefore explaining why horses played a role in both societies in similar aspects. Nonetheless, there is more evidence to how the Greeks perceived the horse as a special animal, treating them with both respect and admiration. The Greek horses have been long associated to their mythology of Gods and Heroes (Its All Greek, 2014). Centaurs and Pegasus are the two characters from the Greek myth portraying horses and research shows that they also like Zeus, play a significant role in the Greek mythology and in turn also affected the Greek society.
The Pegasus is a winged divine stallion also known as a horse usually depicted as pure white in color. Interestingly, He is the preferred way of mentioning Pegasus, instead of the usual “It” that is more commonly used for animals, this goes to show the respect given to Pegasus by the Greek Mythology. The Pegasus continues to be a significant symbol until today, albeit varying with time. Wisdom is the what the Pegasus symbolizes during the Middle Ages until the Renaissance, whilst in the current time, he is an inspirational magical creature endowing a sense of beauty and majesty to the works in which he appears (newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pegasus).
Centaurs are a combination of half-man in the upper body and half-horse in the lower body. Unlike the Pegasus, they are depicted as lustful and represented barbarism and chaos. Moreover, they are perceived unfavorably especially after drinking wine because it resulted to battles between centaurs and gods/heroes known as “Centauromachy” (Cartwright, 2012). Centauromachy in turn however, became a popular subject carved onto architectures and Greek pottery. The most significant centaur was Chiron(Cheiron) who was indeed exceptional due to his great wisdom and he held a position as an advisor (Cartwright, 2012). He was known to be “modest and civilised, and also for his medicinal skills and teaching abilities” (Centaur, n.d.). Unfortunately, there are conflicting ideas of how he actually died. Both sources one and two mentioned that Chiron had accidentally wounded by Hercules with his poisoned arrows. However, it is not known whether he immediately died due to the poisoned arrows or that according to source one where he volunteered and died to free Prometheus.
In Conclusion, based on the research and evidence present today, there is no doubt that horses clearly played a crucial role during the ancient times in the theatre of battlefield, it is clear to see the effect horses gave to turn the tide of battle during the Warring States era, Ancient Greek Warfare and Roman Conquest. There is no doubt why horses are celebrated in festivals and are symbolized in writings as a sign of nobility, freedom and honor.
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Cartwright, M. (2013, May 17). Greek Warfare - Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from http://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Warfare/
Cartwright, M. (2014, May 14). Roman Cavalry - Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from http://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Cavalry/
Cavalry Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavalry
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Greek Roman Warfare Web. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.imh.org/sites/default/files/Greek-Roman-Warfare-Web.pdf
Horse Timeline. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from http://www.ancient.eu/timeline/horse/
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Loewe, M., & Shaughnessy, E. L. (1999). The Cambridge history of ancient China: From the origins of civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pegasus. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2016, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pegasus
Roman Cavalry Wikipedia. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_cavalry
Riding into battles. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/how-we-shaped-horses-how-horses-shaped-us/warfare/riding-into-battles/
Stoecklein, D. Khan academy. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/big-history-project/expansion-interconnection/other-materials8/a/a-little-big-history-of-horses
- The Military of Ancient China. (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from http://www.ancientmilitary.com/ancient-chinese-military.htm