Robert E. Gaebel,
Cavalry Operations in
the Ancient Greek World

(University of Oklahoma Press, 2004)

Start off with the discovery that pretty much everything you thought you knew about cavalry in the ancient world is wrong: it did not spring full-blown from the forehead of Alexander the Great, the Scythians were not the best cavalry in the world, it was not a matter of a full-scale charge with concomitant thunder of impact, and that by the time we do come to Alexander, cavalry as an element of the army had evolved over the course of several centuries into a flexible, multifaceted arm with many uses.

Robert E. Gaebel, in Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World, gives us somewhat more than a military history of this particular aspect of armies; he has thoroughly researched the origins of equitation, the use of the horse as transportation and beast of burden, chariots as part of military operations, the development of cavalry in the ancient Middle East and in Greece during the Pelopponesian War and its aftermath, and the innovations in warfare and its aims that led to Alexander's stunning use of cavalry in his conquest of the known world.

His focus is specifically Greece and the Hellenistic world, from about 500 B.C.E. until its conquest by Rome in about 150, covering the period of the Persian Wars, the Pelopponesian War, Alexander the Great, Alexander's Successors and the Hellenistic Period. (And, as an added bonus, he includes a chapter on the career of Hannibal, who, although not really part of the Greek world, did have contact with and knowledge of Greek and Hellenistic methods.) He demonstrates quite clearly the evolution of the horse in Greek warfare from its early use as a means to transport a heavily armed hoplite to the battle through a highly mobile force used mainly for missile fire (javelins and arrows), characteristic of the Persian cavalry that showed so poorly against Alexander, and harrying enemies in retreat, to its transformation under Philip II and Alexander into a versatile and highly mobile force, used for everything from scouting, long-range missile fire to soften up enemy infantry, to close-in, hand-to-hand combat.

Although his stated intent is to provide a purely military history, Gaebel does make some indications of the broader political context, for example in his discussions of the early stages of the Pelopponesian War, when Pericles did not, as was the normal practice, send his infantry out to engage the Spartans, but kept them within the walls of the city while he sent combined forces of cavalry and infantry via ship to harry Pelopponesian ports and coastal areas. This was a radical change from the thinking of warfare in Greece up to this time, which had been limited and confined to heavily armed infantry.

His discussions of Alexander's battles are quite instructive, particularly as they contrast Alexander's use of cavalry with that of earlier generals. In his early battle against the Triballians, a people settled north to northwest of Macedon, we learn that he used cavalry and infantry together as an integrated force, to bring the armies into physical contact through a rapid advance, at which point the Triballian forces collapsed. This is in stunning contrast (at least, the Triballians were stunned) to earlier uses of cavalry as a separate force to harry an enemy's flanks and cause confusion among the infantry, or to engage enemy cavalry and keep it from doing the same thing to one's own forces.

We tend to focus on Alexander, not only because he was a glamorous figure, but because his career was so extraordinary. Consequently, the abilities of his father, Philip II, and his successors are often shortchanged. Gaebel quite rightly points out that it was Philip who created the basis for Alexander's victories, not only in the Macedonian army itself, which Philip essentially rebuilt and brought to a very high level of training and discipline, but in the creation of a major state that remained a political and economic force until its conquest by the Romans. Since Alexander was such an anomaly, it is against Philip's achievements that those of Alexander's successors should be measured; to do otherwise is tantamount to measuring every general of the 19th century against Napoleon.

What this means is that, in terms of battlefield tactics, particularly the use of cavalry, it was a different world after Alexander's death. Alexander was a military genius, and while his generals -- Antigonus, Ptolemy, Eumenes, Seleucus, Craterus -- had all had the benefit of exposure to his tactics, none of them was Alexander. Their armies were comparable, as were their skills and experience, they all knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, and none of them had the charisma and sheer drive of Alexander. This all left them without the asymmetry that is the usual deciding factor in battle: there was no particular point at which one could show a distinct advantage unless it be in sheer numbers.

All told, I found this book fascinating, being a long-time history buff myself. It is extensively footnoted, includes a substantial bibliography and glossary as well as several maps. However, a couple of caveats are in order. First, it is military history. It is about tactics and the use of armies, and Gaebel's analysis of key battles is directed toward that end. Don't look for a life of Alexander or discussion of the wider issues of the Pelopponesian War. Second, unless you are up on the periods involved, it is very easy to become lost. (Who were the antagonists in the Battle of Ipsus and why? Who was Timoleon and why was he in Sicily?)

On the whole, although the results of his investigations fly in the face of much received wisdom, Gaebel's arguments are cogent and well-documented, his analysis of not only written sources but examples from visual art and archaeology are relevant (he seems to be very aware of the fact that not every image you find on an ancient Greek coin can be taken as a literal rendering) and his discussions of such written sources as Xenophon, Diodorus and Appian show a good helping of common sense. This one is not only interesting for itself, but I think is valuable for any student of military history -- or for writers of historical novels, for that matter.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 12 February 2005

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