Roman Cavalry

Use of the Roman crossbow (arcuballista) from horseback. Note how it can be reloaded by hand using the pressure of the saddle. Emperor Julian was on one ocassion escorted by ballistarii; rather than being catapult operators, they may well have been mounted crossbowmen, such as this.

Adventures in the Roman Cavalry Part 1

Summer 2005.
We were in a burning hot field working with some good amenable horseman and their mounts, enjoying ourselves. The saddles and tack are, as ever, of great interest. Some of us would like to learn how to ride in the Roman style.

A week later in another hot burning field we were frustrated, trying to pursued some different riders to base their display on the skills of the Roman army, not just charging up and down. The interest in riding like a Roman hardened into a resolve. Comitatus must have our own cavalry, with our own levels of authenticity, and our own accurate portrayal of what these horseman could do. Coupled with torsion artillery, horses would add a new dimension to our larger displays.

For me one of the great joys of the hobby is being able to research a subject, collect the kit and develop an impression which works in the field, on the march, and for real. I do it for a living, and I never tire of it. But developing the kit and equipment for three Roman cavalryman would be a long term project, which would need to be coupled with the need to learn to ride as a Roman. This was and is a unique challenge.

First we had to find a yard where we could learn, practice, and hire horses for displays. The yard needed an all weather school of good size, and a selection of horses. And we needed an owner with no pre-conceived notions about what Roman cavalry should do, but one which would work us to develop our own ideas. Claire Chamberlainís Full Tilt yard near Goole (East Yorkshire) gave us all of this, and more. We own a big debt to Claire for her patience, honesty and good humour. She started us off with suitable horses and let us slowly progress.

All of this gave members the unmatched opportunity to sit on horses and discover what riding like a Roman is all about. Many just wanted to find out what it is like, but some wanted to take it further. Some of us were already able to sit a horse, and for a few of us it was an ambition. We were helped by new members joining who positively wanted to ride like a Roman. It takes a certain level of courage to ride, and confidence in your own ability. Just occasionally I do wonder why I am up so high moving so fast on an animal with so little brain. I have the confidence but little ability! But any doubt soon gets swamped in the excitement, fun and adrenalin rush, and I hope more of us try it, at least just the once, in the future.

Too often in the past we have worked with great riders, talented people, who could please the public but didnít carry out a Roman cavalry display. I appreciate the need for the dramatic, but if real Roman riding skills are not dramatic I really donít know what is! The starting point for our display was the second century writer Arrian who details the skills Roman cavalry should achieve. To this we added the experiences of the Eastern Emperor Maurice from around 580 AD.

I didnít expect Comitatus to immediately start furnishing our own riders for displays. We would need professional talented riders to do the things we were to ask of them. But it is great when our own members do ride for us, a real achievement for all those involved. Writers on the subject suggested it would take some time for beginners to achieve the classic riding position of straight back, slightly bent knee and toes down position. In practice we found that it was entirely natural and took minutes to achieve. However a deep seat, one that is stable and safe, only comes slowly and with practice. Everybody slowly develops their own style.

Initially I believed that Roman horses were relatively small, between 11 and 15 hands, with an average of about 14. However it soon became apparent that Romans had access to many different breeds. I encourage anyone to research the different breeds of horse used by the Romans, itís a fascinating subject. However it is obvious that Romans has access to every shape and type of horse, although they did prefer uncut stallions. I suspect the common run of cavalry mount in northern Britain resembled the modern Exmoor pony. Better mounts would resemble the Akhal-Teke, a wiry north African horse, used to improve many ancient bloodlines. Migrations introduced larger and heavily built ponies similar to the modern Highland pony. Some breeds like the Friesian are very very old. I have great memories of Lee riding a Friesian really looking the part in all his kit. Basically, almost any shape and size of horse can be justified, and not just those based on skeletal evidence from the period.

We need to ensure that the mounts we use match the abilities of the rider. We can then describe the horse in relation to Roman breeds and teach the public something new.

Equipping the riders was relatively easy. By our period cavalrymen could for fill a range of functions, using a range of equipment. Initially we have given them relatively small round shield which can be pushed up the arm to allow for horse archery and the use of the kontos, or held by the handle for close combat. Our own shield maker soon manufactured an initial batch, and now they seem to be multiplying. Research soon yielded a wealth of information on the Equites Honorari Taifali, our chosen unit. Helms, armour, darts, javelins, archery equipment etc. we had already. Many existing riders use leather breaches to help grip the saddle, and resist the heavy wear and tear. There is of course no evidence of this practice, and I was pleased to see our existing clothing reconstructions worked perfectly well when coupled with a simple sheepskin thrown over the saddle. The sheepskin cushioned the rider, and gripped the leather of the saddle. It almost instinctively gave the rider a deeper seat. They were used in conjunction with 18th and 19th century military saddles, and seemed an obvious solution.

But equipping the horses would always be the biggest challenge. Roman re-enactment is wedded to the four horned saddle reconstructed by Peter Connolly from fragments of leather saddle covers. It was is use throughout the Empire and is depicted on the Arch of Constantine. Yet by our period these saddles may have started to become things of the past, as the army moved to the steppe saddle introduced from the east. This saddle has a high flat pommel and cantle giving a secure seat. It would have become the standard saddle by our period.

Either would take time and money to reconstruct accurately. Despite itís anachronistic design, I want to be able to use at least one old fashioned four horned saddle. I examined the four horned saddles used by the Royal Armouries, the Ermine Street Guard and English Heritage, as well as the designs of Peter Connolly and Marcus Junkelmann. Connolly has done great work in reconstructing the internal wooden tree of the saddle based on fragments of leather saddle cover. Junkleman took a different approach without the wooden frame, to produce more of a saddle pad/bean bag. Every reconstruction has itís compromises, and all these reconstructions showed more compromises and limitations than I was happy with. With the exception of the Junkelmann concept, the reconstructed designs had to be sized specifically for each horse for them to work, causing the horse minimum discomfort. But surely the Romans were using the same saddle on various horses? And each individual horse would lose condition during campaign and would finish up a shape far different than they started with.

Normally authenticity leads you to the correct approach to making things work. But in this case they seemed to be operating against each other. Existing reconstructions are a balance between authenticity, and getting the thing to work without crippling the horse. The saddles based on an internal wooden tree are inflexible and would only fit certain horses, for limited periods of time. Frankly existing reconstructions donít seem to work, and I have yet to met the four horned saddle that you could use realistically in the field. The wooden frames are not only inflexible but seem liable to break easily.

That said I seem to be trying to recreate the design. I want the resulting saddle to be easy to make, capable of being used every day for a week on a pony trekking holiday without crippling the horse, and cost no more than £500. Iím working with Chris from the Saddlerís Den to put a working design in place and Iíll update you on our progress. Already I fear it will be a compromise!

This long term process would not help produce a cavalry display last summer. We used Portuguese saddles, the descendant of the steppe saddle. I was unhappy at using such a modern general purpose design. However they worked on the horse, and when used with a large sheepskin, looked the part. The steppe saddle would have been in general use so at least the look of the saddle was correct, even more so than using the four horned saddle. But it is a compromise and as such is unsatisfactory in the long term.

The tack is another area that we need to improve. Currently we keep it simple and basic, following the general patterns of the 4th/5th centuries. It doesnít look wrong, but small improvements would make it look better. While I love the Ermine Street Guard decorated tack, I want to avoid anything that isnít of our period, and stick to actual finds and illustrated examples from the later Empire. I think you can also make a good case for Romans using horse shoes in northern climes to protect the soft hooves of their animals in wet conditions.

Putting together a Roman cavalry impression takes proportionally more time and money than most impressions we put together. And sadly few clients will be able to afford a cavalry show, although those that can must be impressed with the massive success of our August Bank Holiday spectacular. To see five late Roman cavalry working as a team was a great thrill. Although the public may only get the benefit of cavalry display once or twice a year, currently some members get the enjoyment of the experience once a month, which is a good return on the investment.