REVIEW: From H-Net
Robert E. Gaebel. _Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World_.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. xiv + 345 pp. Maps,
battle diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN
0-8061-3365-1; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8061-3444-5.
Reviewed for H-War by Kevin Carroll, Department of History, Arizona
Cavalry in the Ancient Greek World
In the introduction to his book, Gaebel makes the comment that
"until recently there were no book-length treatments of ancient
Greek Cavalry" (p. 8). He then mentions three books published
between 1988 and 1994. Of the three, two come close to what Gaebel
is trying to do, the works by I. G. Spence (1993) and L. J. Worley
(1994). Gaebel points out that neither of these works deals with
the Hellenistic period and that Spence uses a thematic approach and
contains no battle narrative (pp. 8-9). Gaebel then states, "I feel
that a need remains for a chronologically arranged study of battle
narratives and commentary covering the period from circa 500 to 150"
(p. 9). And that is what Gaebel sets out to do.
He gives a clear chronological survey of the use of cavalry. His
approach is to move battle by battle, period by period, giving a
summary of the tactics of each battle with an emphasis on what each
battle shows of the use of cavalry. This approach allows the
author to clearly show and demonstrate the change in the use of
cavalry over time, and its growing importance on the battlefield.
The development that Gaebel notes is generally accepted: cavalry
first used as transport; then as flank protection, messengers, etc.;
eventually used by Philip and Alexander as a striking force and in
close combat; and then a decline in use in the Hellenistic period.
Gaebel provides a fuller explanation for these developments and a
more detailed discussion of how and why the changes came about than
we have had before. His approach, studying the available
information on each battle, gives the reader a clear understanding
of the change in the use of cavalry.
Gaebel, as well as Spence and Worley, regrets the downplaying of the
cavalry of the fifth century in the literature. While it is true
that during that time period the hoplite phalanx dominated the
battlefield, cavalry did play a very important role. By closely
studying all the known battles, the author demonstrates the
cavalry's importance (chapters 4-6). In this work, the
fifth-century cavalry is shown to be a dynamic, vibrant force.
While the hoplite phalanx was supreme on the battlefield at the
time, the cavalry played an important role in protecting the flanks
and rear of the phalanx, in picking off stragglers, in harassing
foragers, in pursuing a retreating opponent, and in other ways.
Clearly, the cavalry were not simply bystanders. He is especially
good at pointing out the use of cavalry to harass the Spartans
during their invasions of Attica in the Peloponnesian War. And he
gives a good account of how the Spartans were almost forced to
develop a cavalry during the first ten years of that war in response
to Athenian seaborne raids.
The period after the Peloponnesian War shows the growing importance,
and use, of cavalry, culminating with Alexander the Great. These
changes were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Citing V. D.
Hanson, Gaebel states, "military change after the Peloponnesian War
was the result of incremental changes by many gifted leaders" (p.
131 with n. 10). In chapters 7-20 the author traces fourth century
developments up to Philip, correctly linking the increased use of
cavalry with the growing concept of a coordination of arms. This
development with cavalry was slower than that with peltasts due to
expense (pp. 120, 135-137). Another important factor here is the
greater amount of fighting in northern Greece (p. 144) where cavalry
had always been stronger than in the south. That was also true of
Sicily. Gaebel gives a good example of the Syracusan cavalry,
fighting near Corinth, showing a boldness, initiative, and
aggressive behavior not seen before on the Greek mainland (pp.
133-135). Others picked up that spirit; and, during the fourth
century, the cavalry became more involved in close quarter combat
Gaebel sees all of these developments culminating in the activities
of Alexander. Alexander's father, Philip, started out with a
first-class cavalry. He increased his infantry and developed its
use with cavalry, giving him a well-integrated army (pp. 147-149).
One very important development here was the use of a wedge formation
of cavalry, which overcame the problem of charging an infantry force
(for example, p. 158). Alexander improved on what Philip had done
and gave the Greek world a cavalry that was a major component of
military forces. In this part of the book, Gaebel's battle
narratives clearly show the cavalry's increasing engagement in close
fighting. Gaebel gives details on Alexander's tactics and
formations as well (pp. 179ff.). Little is really new in regard to
Alexander, but Gaebel puts the material together in a clear way and
explains it well.
Gaebel then moves on to the period after Alexander that saw a
decline in the effectiveness of cavalry. Here Gaebel sees the main
problem as a loss of coordination between cavalry and infantry which
had been used so well by Alexander. He also credits the better
training, discipline, and tactics of Greco-Roman armies during the
period (p. 206)--hence the ability to withstand cavalry charges such
as had been used by Alexander. Add to this the decline in the
quality of leadership (for example, p. 230). This is a time period
that had not been well studied, largely due to the lack of good
sources for large parts of it. (Gaebel recognizes the problem with
the information we have.) As before, he traces all the factors
through a detailed study of battles for which we have information.
Basically, the period shows a decrease in the importance of cavalry.
This part of his study is something that has been needed.
The last chapter is on Hannibal and may seem out of place in this
book, since Hannibal is not a Greek. In it the author contrasts
Hannibal's ability to use cavalry against massed infantry with the
lack of such ability in Hellenistic generals.
This book deals with several debated points that deserve mention.
First, it is a commonplace that the lack of a saddle, stirrups, and
horseshoes greatly limited ancient Greek cavalry. Gaebel (and
Spence) dispute this. Gaebel, drawing on his own experience of
riding and on relatively modern examples, does not see the lack of
saddle and stirrups or horseshoes as a major problem (pp. 11-12, 165
with n. 127; stirrups permit the use of inferiorly trained horsemen,
p. 166 n. 29). In fact, he claims that there is evidence that
bareback riders have a better seat (pp. 91, 165). He sees the skill
of the rider as being most important (p. 28). The best evidence, of
course, is simply the effective use of horse by the ancient Greeks.
As for horseshoes, "the hot, dry summer climate of the Mediterranean
region would condition the hooves naturally, and it is obvious that
the lack of horseshoes did not unduly limit the use of the horse in
battle" (p. 28). Gaebel argues well that the problems have been
Another problem is with the use of weapons by the cavalry. For
early periods, the evidence is uncertain but it seems that the
weapons were generally javelins and swords. The dispute comes with
the cavalry of Philip and Alexander. Spence and Worley argue for
the use of the _sarissa_ by the Macedonian cavalry, but Gaebel
disagrees (pp. 161-172). Spence and Worley follow the arguments
of M. M. Merkel to support their view. Gaebel refutes Merkel's
views, arguing for a lance and sword, reasoning that the _sarissa_
would be too unwieldy and not compatible with the close fighting of
the Macedonian cavalry. Gaebel also notes that there is no evidence
in the ancient literature that the main Macedonian cavalry used the
_sarissa_. On the whole, I think that Gaebel has the better
Above I wrote "main Macedonian cavalry" because of the question of
the _prodromoi_. They are also called "_sarissaphoroi_," obviously
meaning that they carried the _sarissa_. The difference is probably
due to their function. They seem to have been used mainly as scouts
and also, in Gaebel's view, as a force to soften up an enemy line.
So they were not used for the close combat that the main cavalry was
involved in. Spence limits their use to scouts. Gaebel gives
them an active role in fighting, proving his point through careful
examination of particular battles, such as Granicus and Gaugamela
(pp. 172-177, 184-187). Gaebel's examples prove that they were not
used only as scouts.
The maps in _Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World_ are
good, especially since they indicate which battles involved a
significant use of cavalry. Unlike Worley, he does not give
diagrams of the various formations mentioned. He is also weak on
diagrams of battles. Such diagrams would have made his points
clearer. Gaebel also does not include the artistic evidence for the
use of weapons as Spence and Worley do.
On the whole, this book is an excellent chronological survey of the
use of cavalry in battle. The meticulous battle descriptions
clearly show how the cavalry was used at any given time and how it
grew in importance and became an extremely important element.
Gaebel also does a good job of showing how the cavalrys use
declined after the time of Alexander. Some will prefer this strict
chronological approach, although Spence's thematic approach also has
its merits. Spence should be read along with Gaebel for a complete
understanding of the use of cavalry at the time.
. I. G. Spence, _The Cavalry of Classical Greece_ (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1993); L. J. Worley, _Hippeis: The Cavalry of
Ancient Greece_ (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1994). Spence
covers the period to 300 BC; Worley ends with the battle of Issus.
The third book is G. R. Bugh, _The Horsemen of Athens_ (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988). Gaebel points out that this work
solely concerns Athens and does not really deal with fighting. Bugh
is mainly concerned with administrative and financial matters, not
the issues addressed by Gaebel, Spence, and Worley.
. Worley uses the same approach, but his battle narratives tend
to lose the focus on the cavalry. See, for example, his discussion
of Sicily (pp. 100-119). Spence also discusses battles, but only in
regard to how they pertain to the particular theme he is discussing
at the time.
. Spence agrees (pp. 42-49 on stirrups; pp. 41-42 on horseshoes).
Spence puts even more stress on the training and skill of the rider
than Gaebel does (pp. 46-47, 117). Both Gaebel and Spence use
Xenophon extensively for these points.
. Worley, pp. 156, 172, 215; Spence, pp. 108, 109, 118.
. Spence (e.g., pp. 27 and 33) has the _prodromoi_ solely used as
scouts, a view that he also maintains in his _Historical Dictionary
of Ancient Greek Warfare_ (Lanham and London: The Scarecrow Press,
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