This is a short book – 150 pages of text, annexes included - but nevertheless a valuable one on the cavalry of the Roman Republic between 300 and 100 BC. Essentially, the author seeks to make three main points.
The first is that, contrary to an assumption initially surfaced by historians but never really demonstrated, Roman citizen and Italian allied cavalry were not inefficient. The second is that it was even able to adapt and evolve in order to keep being efficient and that its efficiency was largely due to its aggressive tactics based on Roman war ethos. The third is that the disappearance of Roman and Italian cavalry therefore did not happen because it was efficient but for other reasons that the author believes to have identified and following a period of particular stress on Roman manpower.
The main value of this little book is that the author has mustered sufficient elements on each of the points and conducted his investigation in such a way that he makes an intriguing, and often a very good case. A related item is that the author is however honest enough to recognise in a number of instances that the points he makes are often not backed by evidence simply because there isn’t any. Even when the points seem very plausible or very likely, there are therefore interpretations or even speculations if you happen to dislike or disagree with them. What is interesting, however, is that there may be no less “speculative” than the statements which have become “conventional wisdom” and according to which Roman cavalry under the Republic was of poor quality because the Romans were no horsemen and that this is why Rome replaced Roman and Italian cavalry by auxiliaries drawn from conquered people such as the Spaniards, Gauls, Thracians or Batavians, to mention only those.
As the author demonstrates rather convincingly, the poor reputation earned by the Roman cavalry goes back to the Second Punic War where they were comprehensively defeated as the Tessin, at the battle of Trebia and then at Cannae. They also lost another cavalry engagement against the Macedonians but won just as comprehensively their cavalry battles at Zama and at Magnesia.
This is where I had a bit of a problem with the author’s views. While it is easy to agree with him that the defeats against Hannibal may have occurred partly because the Carthaginians were better lead and outnumbered the Roman and allied cavalry, this was not necessarily the case against the Macedonians. Moreover, and in all fairness, the Carthaginian cavalry was also heavily outnumbered at Zama, a point that Jeremiah McCall fails to make. As for the battle of Magnesia, the Romans did get the better of the Seleukid cavalry opposing them, but their numbers included some 700 Hellenistic heavy cavalry from Pergamon (out of 3000). Moreover, they were commanded by King Eumene and they won against an enemy cavalry that was already disordered. Again, none of the points are made by the author. Accordingly, the author is certainly correct in stating that the Roman cavalry may not have been as ineffective as some have made it out to be. However, neither was its track record as excellent as he may want to convince us.
One last comment here is that part of the discussion related to numbers is simply missing from the book. Simply put, one reason for the Romans to increasingly use non-Roman and then non-Italian cavalry is simply that they did not have enough of their own, regardless of whether it was as efficient as that of their opponents or not. This can be seen in the organisation of the legions of the Republic, with the Romans only Fielding 300 citizen cavalry per legion while requiring their Italian allies to field twice or three times more than them. Even that, however, was not necessarily enough, with Scipio making use of allied Numidians at Zama and Roman generals having use of Hellenistic allied cavalry in Greece and Asia Minor during the second century.
The second point made by the author is about the Roman and Italian cavalry’s ability to adapt and, more precisely, to become armoured cavalry after Cannae while still preserving its aggressive tactics of fighting hand-to-hand. Here, the author essentially assumes that Roman and Italian cavalry were essentially unarmoured at least up to the battle of Cannae included (that is up to 216 BC) and that as a result of “lessons learnt” from this defeat against their Carthaginian opponents, they adopted body armour. This is where the author’s assumptions become rather unconvincing. As the author shows very well, both Roman and Italian cavalrymen belonged to the elites of their respective cities, as had been the case throughout Antiquity in many other civilisations, if only because having a horse was expensive and therefore limited to those who could afford it. A similar comment can be made about body armour. It was also costly and also reserved under the Middle Republic to those who could afford it. To try to justify and explain why Roman and Latin cavalry would lack body armour while their Greek, Macedonian and Carthaginian opponents did not, the author is then obliged to come with rather unconvincing explanations about their special tactics of often fighting dismounted, and the handicap that metallic body armour would represent in doing so. There are, however, three and perhaps even four issues which the author fails to discuss or even mention.
First, while Roman and Latin cavalry may have avoided wearing metallic armour which could be burdensome and cramp their ability to mount and dismount during hand to hand engagements, especially against other cavalry, this does not necessarily imply that they were not wearing any body armour. They may very well have had leather or linen cuirasses, for instance. They certainly had the means to equip themselves with them and their status, on which the author insists so much, would also probably ensure that they were as best equipped as they could.
Second, the whole case for Roman and allied cavalry’s ability and willingness to fight on horseback and to dismount and fight on foot is also unconvincingly argued. While there may have been cases where this happened during skirmishes, the sources do not really help to identify them. Contrary to the author’s statement, it is not certain that this occurred at Cannae, for instance. Moreover, and contrary to what the author claims, the advantages that could be obtained by dismounting part of one’s light cavalry to fight against enemy cavalry in an open melee are not as one sided as they are made to be. The risks, which are not mentioned, were simply to be knocked down by the enemy horses, or even trampled if these were trained to do so or unable to avoid the obstacle.
A third issue is the impression that the author, in his eagerness to make his point, comes up with a somewhat artificial and simplistic divide between Roman and Italian cavalry, who are presented as willing or even eager for hand-to-hand fighting, and their enemies who almost seem to have preferred javelin throwing and fighting. The points about Roman “heroic” fighting, and the benefits associated with outstanding bravery are well made. The very positive effects that this could have for young bluebloods’ reputations and future political careers are clear and, in the case of rare very well made. One cannot help wonder, however, to what extent this was not also the case for Greek citizen cavalry or Gallic nobles. Neither seems to have been exactly timid or particularly reluctant to fight their enemies up close.
A fourth point where there is some uncertainty concerns Roman and Italian cavalry’s arms, equipment and tactics before and after the alleged reform. From a somewhat obscure passage in one of the surviving sources, the author concludes that this equipment, in particular the smallish and flimsy shield and a rather weak spear, were of poor quality and therefore replaced. Rather than depicting such equipment as inadequate per se, as the author does, its replacement could simply illustrate the shift from light to heavier cavalry.
Finally, there is the author’s third contention. He quite plausibly identifies the disappearance of Roman and Allied cavalry and their replacement by (non-Italian) auxiliaries with the Social War and the huge constraints this placed on the Romans. He also explains in a very interesting and convincing way why this emergency measure was never reversed by showing that, by the first century BC, Roman and Italian elites no longer needed to display “heroic” deeds in order to get noticed. Good rhetoric as a lawyer, patronage together with pots of money, were enough to get elected.
This part and the one describing the traditional warlike ethos of the Roman and Italian aristocracies are perhaps the most convincing of the book. The others, even if less so, were nevertheless thought provoking and interesting, even when speculative. Four stars.
on 17 November 2010
As many people know, information on the citizen cavalry of the mid Roman Republic is hard to come by. Ancient history, with its patchy details, is wide open to interpretation of one kind or another. Sometimes these interpretations become the accepted 'way things were', even if there's no real proof to back up the conclusions are made.
A case in point is the subject of this little volume, by Jeremiah McCall. Citizen cavalry, the Republic's staple mounted force from the fifth century BC until the first, had disappeared by the time of Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. Until this excellent text came along, the widely held belief was that Roman citizen cavalry had become inferior to the enemies it faced, and was therefore dispensed with.
As McCall cogently argues, there is no hard proof for this at all, and in fact, the evidence points to the Roman citizen cavalry being, for the most part, just as good as the enemies they faced. When they weren't - for example in the Second Punic War - changes were made. (This is when McCall moots that the much debated change of equipment and weaponry took place.) The theory he comes up with for the demise of the citizen cavalry is also sensible: that by the first century BC, the route to success, fame and fortune for young equestrians no longer began with service in the cavalry, but in the political world.
Just seven chapters long, this text is well-written and presented. There is an exhaustive set of notes at the back mentioning all its classical sources. With its well-made challenge to another common assumption about Rome, it's a 'must read' for anyone interested in the Roman Republic's armies. And the good news is that a paperback edition is scheduled for Jan. 2011. Bringing the price down significantly will definitely make it worth purchasing.
Ben Kane, author of Hannibal: Enemy of Rome.