The Cavalry of the Roman Republic by Jeremiah B. McCall

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

Relative to the infantry, the cavalry wing of the Roman army has attracted little critical attention. In Training the Roman Cavalry (1993), Ann Hyland applied her own experience as a horse trainer to Arrian’s Ars Tactica which dates to Hadrian’s time. In Riding for Caesar (1994), Michael P. Speidel provided the first comprehensive work on the emperors’ horse guards (equites singulares Augusti). More recently, Karen R. Dixon and Pat Southern collaborated on The Roman Cavalry (1997), a general study of the horses and the men who rode them in peacetime and war. The available literature has a notably imperial bias. Welcome indeed is Jeremiah B. McCall’s The Cavalry of the Roman Republic (2001) which provides what is probably the first single-volume study of cavalry combat and elite reputations in the middle and late Republican period.

The book started life as a doctoral dissertation submitted to Ohio State University by the author. The book seeks to answer the questions of what compelled young Roman men to risk their lives in battle on horseback; and why Roman citizens had stopped serving in the cavalry by the end of the Republic.

In chapter 1, McCall reminds us that the senate attached a unit of 200 -300 citizens on horseback to each legion. Livy says all men serving as cavalry were called equites. The earliest cavalry were the equites equo publico, a band of elite Romans paid at state expense. Additionally these men voted in the 18 equestrian centuries of the equestrian assembly. Wealthy Romans who served at their own expense as cavalry – among them was Cato’s own grandfather – were called equites eques suis. With the publicly funded cavalrymen they formed a pool which served with the first four consular legions. A man had to be at least 17 years old to join, but wealth was a key criterion for entering the service. This mean there was relatively small mounted force in the Roman army: according to Polybius just 23,000, compared to 230,000 infantry around the time of the Second Punic War. Their high status was recognized in an annual parade, the transvectio equitum, in which riders displayed their military honours; and religious observance at their own temple to Fortuna Equistris and to their own gods, the Dioscuri.

In chapter 2, McCall’s attention moves to assessing the Roman cavalry’s effectiveness. There is no evidence, he asserts, that suggests the Roman citizen cavalry were any less effective during the period of the fifth century BC to the end of the Second Punic War, or even down to the time of Sulla, than any other ancient society from around the Mediterranean. Roman cavalry fought well before the Second Punic War, such as against the Gauls in the 220sBC, and it was defeated only once between 200 and 168BC at Callinicus River in 171 by Perseus. They could harass enemy marchers, attack foragers, screen troop movements and reconnoitre, and on the battlefield they could inflict harm and defeat on foot soldiers. The tactical use of cavalry to engage foot soldiers on the battlefield required highly motivated troops. McCall draws upon the work of earlier scholars – Lt.-Col. Dennison, Arnaud du Picq, and John Keegan – to discuss morale as a factor in cavalry service. For men on the ground, a group of men riding at speed towards them was an intimidating sight. Some formations might hold, but others could disintegrate under psychological pressure. Cavalry could and did break up formations, however, direct frontal attacks with infantry formations put cavalry at greatest risk, so they were more often used for flanking attacks.

Equipment and tack of the Republican cavalry are the focus of discussion in chapter 3. According to Polybius, early Roman cavalry fought naked except for loincloths, armed with flimsy shields and thrusting spears which were inclined to snap. McCall reviews the evidence for several modern historians’ claim that they only began fighting with armour after the Battle of Magnesia (189BC). The only certain date for adopting the Greek style panoply, he concludes, is the monument of Aemillius Paulus celebrating his victory at Pydna (168BC). The adoption of heavier kit meant Roman cavalry had to adapt its mode of fighting. Speed, agility and flexibility were sacrificed for improved chances of inflicting harm on heavily armed enemy.

The Battle of Cannae marked the low point for Roman cavalry. Facing some 10,000 horse on Hannibal’s side, comprising Gallic, Numidian and Spanish cavalry, the 1,200-2,400 Roman cavalry on the right flank and were trapped by their own heavy infantry to their left and the bank of the river on their right. When they met the Spanish and Numidians they dismounted and fought on foot, which, Polybius records was their preferred mode of fighting. McCall deduces that the Roman cavalry were still lightly armed relative to their opponents.

211BC seems to be a pivotal date in the development of the Roman cavalry. The city of Capua had earlier switched to the Carthaginians’ side and the Roman cavalry suffered severe damage during the siege of 216-211. Campanian cavalry inflicting humiliating and demoralizing defeats on the Romans. According to Livy, in 211 the Romans developed the velites and used them in combination with the cavalry. One lightly armed foot soldier rode into battle with a cavalryman to within missile range of the enemy, the foot soldier dismounted, launched his projectile, and then the cavalryman charged. McCall asserts that this combination actually pre-dates 211, but that it did prove effective in bringing about the fall of Capua. In the years` thereafter Roman confidence in their cavalry returned. By the middle of the Second Punic War Roman cavalry was kitted out with infantry breastplate, Spanish shield and spear which protected them in close quarters fighting.

In chapter 4, McCall discusses cavalry tactics from 300-100 BC. Roman cavalry were formed in units of thirty men, turmae, subdivided into three groups of ten, each led by a decrurio and a rear rank officer called an optio. Despite the paucity of evidence for how cavalry fought, McCall attempts to show how the Roman cavalry could fight against close-order infantry, other cavalry in formation and skirmish cavalry. “The Roman cavalry was fully capable of wheeling manoeuvres,” writes McCall (p. 67). “The Romans preferred fighting stationary hand-to-hand battles; no lack of equestrian skill required them to fight that way.” This may, in part, have been due to the style of dismounting to fight enemy cavalry. In their repertoire of tactics, the Roman cavalry was no less effective or flexible than other mounted units of its day.

McCall returns to the subject of motivations in chapter 5. Elite reputations, he argues, were based on demonstrated qualities of leadership, both individual and collective (expressed as esprit de corp and unit cohesion), and that quintessentially Roman notion of virtus – manliness or courage. Drawing on examples from Livy, Plautus, Pliny the Elder, Polybius and Sallust, the author shows how Romans valued public displays of courage. Shows of courage had to be convincing to raise a man’s reputation, and battle scars were compelling evidence of virtus, as was the honour of a public funeral. He notes, paraphrasing Polybius, “the Romans valued martial courage more highly and had better methods to inspire courage than their rivals. It is Polybius who stated a reputation for courage, though important in other states, was most important in Rome.” (pp. 95-95) It applied regardless of whether a Roman fought on foot or horseback. The rider was driven to demonstrate his courage just as much as his compatriot in the legions.

So if the Roman cavalry was as effective as its enemy and as motivated as its foot soldiers, when did it disappear? In chapter 6 McCall traces the effective end of the citizen cavalry to the 90s/80sBC. In the aftermath of the Social War the Roman senate did not want the men of Italy taking over its elite cavalry, giving them the prestige previously only available to its own sons. The senate simply did not reinstate the citizen cavalry. McCall notes that “when Sulla fought Mithridates and the Marians, he had no citizen cavalry corp.” (p. 110). Moreover, Rome’s cavalry needs could now be met through her allies and subject peoples as auxilia. They brought their own special skills which helped Rome’s legions in building her empire. Julius Caesar, for instance, used both Gallic and Batavian cavalry in his army. Roman cavalry did not disappear altogether, however. Roman citizens still served as cavalry with the legions as alae, but increasingly as escorts, couriers and scouts. Even without their horses, equestrians were recognized as a special class. Equestrians took over the officer ranks of the army – as aides, tribunes and prefects. “To be in the infantry was to be in a lower social rank” (p. 111) asserts McCall.

How and why the citizen cavalry disappeared is the subject of chapter 7. McCall traces the cavalry’s demise to the increasing number ways the equites could win prestige and recognition in Roman society. By the 90s/80sBC, Rome’s Italian allies had become citizens. They sought legal representation in Rome’s courts, and their growing numbers created the opportunity for more orators. Winning in the courthouse became as legitimate a place as the battleground to establish a reputation. The growing empire also created new opportunities for making profits through banking and trading operations. Thus, an ambitious Roman could now make his fortune right at home without the need to put himself at risk on the battlefield during the years of a military career. Displaying personal wealth from this success became equally acceptable.

Three appendices show how the cavalry was used at the battles of Cannae and Zama, the cavalry formations it fought in, and give an assessment of the size of the cavalry class and the burden of service before the Social War. The 31 pages of endnotes detail the sources of McCall’s research, including long extracts in Greek or Latin of works by Livy, Plautus, Pliny the Elder, Polybius, as is to be expected in a doctoral thesis. A bibliography of nine pages provides plenty of opportunity for further reading.

McCall’s writing style can often seem repetitive but The Cavalry of the Roman Republic is a book which is accessible both to the specialist and general reader. His study fills a gap in the literature and reminds us that in early Roman society, a man’s reputation for courage among his peers at home was raised by success in war (with or without a horse), and that with imperial expansion a lavish display of wealth gradually became an acceptable substitute for the equestrian order.

Lindsay Powell is a historian and the author of Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania (Pen and Sword Books, 2011).

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