Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Cavalry in the Roman Army

The area around the city of Rome has little in the way of good pasture land on which large numbers of horses could be grazed. The Roman army during the time of the kings and early republic had very few mounted men.

Even in 200bc the Roman army had only a few cavalry. These men were used to scout ahead of the legion on the march or to carry messages about the battlefield, they were not used as cavalry in battle.

Each legion (see page 86) had 120 horsemen as part of its strength. As in earlier times, these men were used for non-combat duties. They were, however, armed with spears and were used to fight enemy scouts.

From about 150bc the Roman began to employ auxiliary cavalry units. Most of these were Celts fighting for Roman pay but commanded by their own chiefs and leaders.

By around 50bc each auxiliary cavalry unit had a Roman officer attached to it. This man was probably expected to serve as an interpreter, but was also there to keep an eye on the auxiliaries and make sure that they remained loyal.

The auxiliary cavalry were reformed at the same time as the infantry (see page 90). The cavalry were now organised in units called alae, meaning wings, which were 500 men strong and commanded by a Roman officer.

Most cavalry was lightly equipped with a shield and lance, or sometimes a sword as well. From about 50bc some cavalry was equipped with mail shirts and helmets.

In ad100 the Romans met a new barbarian tribe called the Sarmatians. Some of these men wore mail that covered them from head to toe, and even the horses were armoured. The Romans began equipping some of their cavalry in identical fashion and called them cataphracts.

The stirrup had not been invented at the time of the Roman Empire. Instead cavalrymen used a saddle which had four leather-covered knobs which could be gripped by the thighs and knees.

Cavalry armour was often highly decorated with gold leaf, silver plate and semi-precious stones. It is thought that most of this armour was used only for parades.

from 1000 FACTS ON ANCIENT ROME by Rupert Matthews

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