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I have been reading a bit recently about the Roman period between say around 100bc to 100ad and I have noticed that the Roman's cavalry was almost always a small portion of their total troops and it was usually entirely made of foreign units (Gauls, Germans, Sarmatians, etc...)

From what I understand the equestrian branch (lower nobles) used to be the cavalry but by the time period I mentioned they no longer acted as cavalry but rather as military staff and civil administrators. Why did Rome move away from using their own citizens for cavalry?

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    It is worth commenting that before the invention of stirrup (early medieval times) cavalry was not as effective as we usually think of it today. – SJuan76 Dec 23 '16 at 22:24
  • It wasn't the technology (stirrup), the steppe warriors had more than a 1,000 years over them. I don't think they the Roman army could have done much against light cavalry/mounted archers. – J Asia Jul 24 '17 at 3:22
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In one word the answer is: specialization.

The Romans developed massed heavy infantry fighting to almost perfection in the legion (manipular and later cohortal). On the other hand, their cavalry was, on the whole, very indifferent. Thus, once the Roman state got powerful enough to call upon client states and tribes to supply specialist cavalry units (Numidian, Gallic, or German, etc) it rightly preferred to do so.

Note also that the Romans employed other auxiliary specialist units as well: e.g., Balearic slingers and Cretan archers.

As to why the Roman cavalry was so indifferent - well, to have a powerful cavalry arm in antiquity required a body of men who: (a) were sufficiently affluent to afford the large expense of war horse(s) and ancillary equipment (b) spent their leisure riding/hunting/fighting/jousting.

While the Roman nobles had the money and the warlike spirit alright, their way of life was sedentary and more indoor than outdoor (many of them were merchants and businessmen). The same goes for the Greek city states - none of them, as far as I know, had cavalry worthy of its name.

On the other hand, less civilized areas with large plains on the fringes of the Greek world, like Thessaly or Macedonia, produced splendid cavalry forces.

  • Excellent answer! do you think this lack of a "native" cavalry arm negatively affected the Roman army? – ed.hank Dec 24 '16 at 16:21
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    @ed.hank:This answer works well with mine to answer your question. "Specialization" was the mechanism; my answer addressed the root cause. Beleric slingers and Cretan archers may have come about because of the large supply of stones and wood on their respective islands. – Tom Au Dec 24 '16 at 16:59
  • @TomAu I totally agree, the whole geography angle is something that makes perfect sense when you think about it. And looking back in what I have read just like you said, every foreign cavalry unit was from areas where the ground was flat where cavalry would naturally be more useful. One other question that is related though, were there any Roman cavalry units during this time and if so where (what classes) did they recruit members from? – ed.hank Dec 24 '16 at 18:10
  • @ed.hank: That, I can't answer. – Tom Au Dec 24 '16 at 18:11
  • @ed.hank en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equites (Equus is latin for horse) – SJuan76 Dec 24 '16 at 18:55
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It was a matter of terrain. The Romans (and Greeks) lived in hilly areas in which the usefulness of cavalry was limited.This was true, with or without the presence of the stirrup (introduced in Europe near the fall of the Roman empire).

The same hilly terrain made for unusually hardy foot soldiers. (The classic example is that of Swiss "Guards.") That's why Rome was noted for its Legion infantry.

Rome drew most of its cavalry from countries with large amounts of flat plains that bred good horses and horse men. This included Numidian cavalry (against Hannibal), and later German cavalry from North German plains.

  • Wow, i never had thought of that before but it seems so obvious! – ed.hank Dec 24 '16 at 16:11
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    One thing that I believe is missing in Tom's and Felix' answers is the contrast to other nations that Rome face, as well as an analysis of the usefulness of cavalry at that time. Many have distinct ideas about "cavalry" which drift into the realm of the Skythian, Hun and Mongol mounted, armies, the heavy armoured cataphracts and then knights if Persia, Byzantium and Europe. The problem is that at that time of Rome those units were an impossibility for the reason of missing a humble little item: the stirrup! Without the stirrup the effectiveness of a mounted warrior is severely impeded. – Marakai Dec 25 '16 at 8:08
  • Added a parenthetical about the stirrup. – Tom Au Dec 26 '16 at 18:41
  • I dunno about how restricted the Romans were by terrain, at least in respect to horses. Travelling through central Italy, I was struck by how familiar it was -- the countryside, so help me, looked like Kentucky. Maybe there's a climate difference that makes it unsuitable for horses. – Rob Crawford Mar 15 '18 at 14:20
  • @RobCrawford: Kentucky en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentucky is mostly plateau. Not the worst terrain for cavalry, but not maximally accessible either. – Tom Au Mar 15 '18 at 16:15
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I thought I'd turn my comment into a proper answer. My main source is Adrian Goldsworthy's The Complete Roman Army, a must-read/have for anybody who's interested in that topic, IMO.

Originally, as @SJuan76 linked to, cavalry in the "Polybian" (i.e. pre-Marian reforms around 100 BC) Roman army was the charge of those who could even afford the cost of a horse and its and the riders equipment. These were the equites, who formed about 300 out of a legion of 4,200.

The 300 were divided into 10 turmae and each of these was led by a decurion ("leader of 10"). Unfortunately, Polybius only stated that the cavalry fought with "Hellenistic style equipment" and assumes the reader knows what that means. The estimate is that these we close order units

armed with spear and sword and protected by helmet, cuirass and circular shield.

However, at this time, cavalry riders had neither saddle, nor spurs, nor stirrups. Riding in that way is a challenge in any case, but fighting was a whole other thing.

Yet, other empires managed, and the Romans found out the hard way the cost of over-focusing on their infantry and neglecting their mounted units. One was Cannae against Hannibal, the other Carrhae against the Parthians, both fielding larger and far superior cavalry units. The result was some of the worst defeats the Roman armies ever suffered.

Still, the Romans continued to use their cavalry mostly as skirmishers and scouts. With the Marian reforms this reached its "conclusion" when the professional army virtually did away with the cavalry (and light infantry) leaving the Roman legionnaire of common imagination. The role of the cavalry (still skirmishing and scouting) was handed to those Alae who had proven to be good at it: e.g. Numidians and Celts. IIRC, I.Caesar also was fond of his Germanic mounted units.

I think @Tom Au has a very good point in stating that, coming from a hilly, even mountainous area, cavalry doesn't become as dominant compared to the people from steppes or desert. Yet, we have mention of Cretan cavalry units as core auxiliaries - a rocky, hilly island!

However, it's important to note that even after the Marian reforms, a Roman soldier would have had to own and provide for their own horse! Even if a common legionnaire in the new professional army would not have had to provide for their own armour. This puts a severe limit on the number of cavalry: only the wealthy, e.g. the equites could afford that expense.

Goldsworthy makes a point that very little is known of the allies of this period, so that we cannot tell to what extend these were trained and disciplined. This in the context of how the auxiliares, such as

the Gallic, German and Spanish cavalry, and the Numidian, Cretan and German skirmishers

became the main supplement to make up for the purely infantry make-up of the legions. Meaning, we have no idea how those supporting allies would have afforded their horses and providing for them.

At least some of those units remained essentially the personal followings of a tribal war-leader, fighting for him in the same way they would have done in inter-tribal warfare. Under Augustus and his immediate successors, the auxilia were turned into a much more regular and professional force.

The cavalry was organised into something called quingeniary (500 strong) and milliary (1,000 strong) forces. Contrary to infantry they were called alae instead of cohortes. A cavalry quingenary ala had 16 turmae of 32 men for a total of 512. Milliary units had 768(!) in 32 turmae.

That's actually nothing to sneeze at in numbers compared to a legion. But the role remained support, scouting and skirmishing.

There is a whole chapter on Equestrian Officers under the Principate and its not easy to pick what to quote.

The equestrians became a more important order than under the Republic, specifically to obtain their loyalty to the emperor instead of any senatorial family. Augustus even created equestrian governors. It's likely valid to ask just what connected these equestrian to actual cavalry, but the fact remained that they were "wealthy enough people to afford and ride horses and their provender".

Goldsworthy states that

there were never more than a dozen or so of these prestigious units in existence, so that such commands were reserved for the ablest, or best-connected, officers.

That does not mean that any of them actually sat, never mind fought, on horseback.

By this time the four-horned saddle also was around and Goldsworthy maintains that, contrary to some historians, this made up for the lack of stirrups when mounting charges or doing much of anything beyond harassment or skirmishing.

However he doesn't explain why the Romans, who were extremely adaptable in all other military matters, then never raised the profile of their cavalry, even when their enemies used it to increasingly devastating effect.

On a purely personal note, speaking as an equestrian myself, I think he is wrong here: the difference between having stirrups or not, regardless of the type of saddle, makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of a mounted soldier. Not just in the ability of the massive charge of the armoured knight from centuries later, but in the ability to be supported when shifting or leaning sideways and a four-horn saddle can restrict turning the upper body (such as the parting shot of mounted steppe archers).

Of course, in late antiquity the Roman army was largely made up of foreign troops, many of them fully mounted, anyway.

In summary, the Romans apparently never made the step, during professionalisation of their military, to also centralise the raising of horses and training them and the mounted soldiers. They left it to those who could afford it, whether their nobility or their allies.

Italy isn't ideal for raising horses, but other parts of the Empire certainly were - e.g. Hispania, Cappadocia (which became the main source of horses during the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire).

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    In fact, Roman society (sedentary culture) and the ecology - even at the outskirts - changes the steppe nomads. The Huns, for instance, became sedentary warriors in less that a 100 years. I've good grounds to believe that when they say foederati, the Huns were most likely fighting as infantry, not auxillary (in later stage of Empire). – J Asia Jul 24 '17 at 3:15
  • @j Asia Can you please elaborate about the Hunnic foederati? – Felix Goldberg Oct 30 '17 at 16:55

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