Methods and use of cavalry forces

The Celts used cavalry units in a number of ways: they could act as advance or reconnoitring troops; they guarded marching columns; they challenged and taunted; they ambushed foraging Romans; they cut off supplies; and in pitched battles, they harried and outflanked. A favourite method of fighting was to charge, hurl javelins and then dismount to fight hand to hand. Cavalry operate best in open country: Tacitus describes Celtic cavalry tactics in wooded areas of Britain, where troops dismounted and led their horses until the trees thinned.67 There is conflicting testimony as to how much actual fighting was done on horseback. Polybius68 states that Iberian and Celtic cavalry were not really a coherent squadron of horse, but merely mounted warriors who dismounted once they arrived on the battlefield. But this is not borne out by other writers who describe cavalry charges; and iconography does depict horsemen actually fighting from their horses.

There are several instances where Julius Caesar69 alludes to the Britons' use of cavalry and chariots together for mutual support. Chiefs and nobles gradually abandoned chariots for horseback, as their skills increased, except for Britain, where chariots were retained long after they became obsolete in Gaul. Caesar speaks in detail of cavalry tactics in Britain, Gaul and Germany. In Britain, mounted forces

were used to harry the Romans as they landed from their boats in shallow water. He recounts how

British cavalry charged the Romans while they were offguard, fortifying their camp. The Roman general complained that the Britons fought in scattered groups rather than closely knit units, with reserves posted at intervals so that the various sections could cover one another's retreat and with fresh troops to replace tired soldiers.

Vercingetorix used his cavalry to cut off the Romans' supply lines and prevent them from foraging. While the Romans were building siege-works against the fortifications of Vercingetorix's stronghold at

Alesia, they were continually harassed by Gaulish cavalry. An interesting tactic used by the Arvernian

leader more than once was his deployment of cavalry and light infantry as mixed units.

Caesar describes a particular form of cavalry-fighting in which his German adversaries were trained: horsemen went into battle supported by an equal number of infantry, each foot-soldier having been carefully selected by the cavalryman for his personal protection. In any crisis, the infantry surrounded an injured, fallen horseman and guarded him. These unmounted warriors were able to keep up with rapid advances or retreat of horse by running alongside, clinging to the horses' manes. In addition, German cavalrymen trained their horses to stay in one spot once they had dismounted, in order that they could be swiftly reunited with their mounts when necessary.76

Another method of fighting on horseback is described by Pausanias in his account of the Celtic invasion of Greece in the early third century BC. He alludes to something called the trimarcasia, saying that marca was a Celtic word for horse. The trimarcasia consisted of a group of horsemen, composed of a nobleman and his two grooms. The servants stayed behind the army ranks, ready to supply their master with a fresh horse should his be injured. If the lord were himself killed or wounded, one groom replaced him in the cavalry action, while the other took him back to camp if he were still alive. The idea of the

trimarcasia was thus to maintain the original number of horsemen in an engagement. Caesar himself was a superb horseman, who clearly understood the potential of cavalry. He not only utilized Gallic horsemen for his own troops, but he was keenly interested in the Gauls' use of cavalry against the Romans, and in his Gallic Wars he chronicles its

importance over and over again. He comments, for instance, that some tribes, like the Nervii, had

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virtually no cavalry, but that the Sontiates of Aquitaine and the Aedui were very strong in their horse regiments. The German and British cavalry also greatly impressed him. Caesar discusses at length the role played by the Gallic cavalry in the war between himself and Vercingetorix, the Arvernian leader of the great uprising against the Romans in 52 BC. Vercingetorix had paid particular attention to cavalry

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provision when preparing for rebellion. For the Alesia campaign, he ordered the entire cavalry force of 15,000 to assemble at Bibracte, in the territory of the Aedui. Caesar85 was only too well aware of the superiority of Gaulish horsemen. As an example of courage and brash confidence, the Roman general describes an oath sworn by Gaulish cavalry officers86 that any one of their number who did not ride twice through the Roman marching columns should consider himself exiled and would never see home and family again. But Vercingetorix was deeply concerned by the terrible losses being inflicted on his horse regiments and at one point he sent all the mounted forces away from Alesia into safety, under cover of night. At the final attempt of Vercingetorix's forces to relieve the besieged stronghold, the Arvernian chief's army consisted of 240,000 infantry and 8,000

Figure 4.10 Incised decoration on a pottery vessel, depicting horseman, seventh century BC, Sopron, Hungary. Maximum diameter of vessel: 63.2cm. Paul Jenkins.

Figure 4.11 Romano-Celtic bronze brooch in the form of a horse, York. The Romans' use of Celtic cavalry

The Romans themselves never fully developed their own cavalry arm: instead, they recruited regiments of horse from those of their provinces which possessed a strong indigenous tradition of cavalry fighting, most particularly Numidia, Spain, Germany and, above all, from Gaul. Gallic cavalry was renowned throughout the empire for its superb horsemanship: Strabo's comments about its excellence have already

been noted. In Gaul, the regions which provided the most cavalry included Narbonensis, Belgica and Lugdunensis.90 Caesar says that he raised his horse mainly from Narbonensis and from the Burgundian Aedui — By AD 70 British horse were being recruited as well. In the Roman army, native cavalrymen were generally levied with their own mounts. Up to the Flavian period (later first century AD), many Roman auxiliary cavalry units were raised as a national troop which was then posted abroad, thus retaining its integrity as an ethnic unit. However, in time of war, replacements had of necessity to be

levied on the spot, thus diluting the unit's ethnicity. But the Romans had to exercise caution in transferring cavalry around the empire: moving horses from hot to cold regions works reasonably well, but horses adjust badly to increased heat and so care would have been taken not to move - say - Gallic or British horse to the east.

Caesar repeatedly describes his own use of Gaulish and German cavalry whom he greatly admired. On one occasion, he recounts how he horse.88

ordered the Gauls to provide him with cavalry to use against the Germans.93 He speaks of another campaign in which he engaged a Gallic horseman to take a letter through the enemy (Gallic) lines to his general Cicero.94 In the revolt led by Vercingetorix, Caesar used German horse as reinforcements, perhaps because nearly all of Gaul was hostile to him.95

Figure 4.12 Bronze harness-mount inlaid with red enamel, first century AD, Santon Downham, Norfolk. Height: 7.9cm. Miranda Green.

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