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Did the Seleucids Invent Heavy Cavalry?
#1
Heresy alarm: Did the Seleucids invent heavy cavalry aka cataphractii? It is after all with them that the term first appears. Conventional history assumes that they adopted it from the Parthians, or more generally Central Asian peoples, but AFAIK there is no pictorial or literary evidence for their existence with these. The only Asiatic, pre-Hellenistic evidence I am aware of are archaeological finds of (parts of) armour which naturally raise the question of how it was employed and by how many.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#2
I am not convinced that the Seleucids invented heavy cavalry/cataphracts although they were influenced by the military usefulness of heavy cavalry by their eastern subjects and did eventually use them. Bar-Kochva in his book on the Seleucid army mentions the Agema cavalry recruited from Medes and other eastern provinces as opposed to the Seleucid Companion cavalry, recruited from more Westerly provinces so at some stage the Seleucids incorporated cataphracts into their army.  The Medes probably made good soldiers for firstly Alexander and then the Seleucids as they would have been grateful to break free of the Persian yoke. Tarn thinks changes to the Seleucid military organisation occurred around  the time of Antiochus III in his campaigns against the upper Satrapies and the Parthians. 

I always thought heavy cavalry was invented by the Massagetae/Choresmians based on excavations at  Chirik Rabat where pieces of iron plates were found and the descriptions by Herodotus of Massagetae armour for horses. As for Parthian influence Tarn thinks it was the time of Antiochus III in his campaigns against the upper Satrapies and the Parthians. 

 Xenophon mentions in his Anabasis the armour of Cyrus the Younger’s cavalry who were armed with breastplates and thigh pieces and helmets. Their horses had frontlets and breastpieces.

 A lot of people credit the ancient Assyrians with the invention of armoured cavalry with reforms under the reign of Sennacherib in late 600s BC where cavalrymen wore lamellar armour and helmets as well as boots and about 30 years later to reduce the loss in horses, horse armour was introduced.

I wouldn't totally discount the origin being further north-east around the regions encompassed between the Urals and the Altai with their accessible mineral deposits and metallurgy industry and larger horses for the rise of armoured cavalry there as well but there has always been a brisk horse trade between east and west by then.

A lot of people credit the ancient Assyrians with the invention of armoured cavalry with reforms under the reign of Sennacherib in late 600s BC where cavalrymen wore lamellar armour and helmets as well as boots and about 30 years later to reduce the loss in horses, horse armour was introduced. Whether heavy cavalry was invented in Persia or further east all the regions mentioned were basically straddled by the steppes were the transference of ideas, weapons and technology was rapid.  Cool
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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#3
The terms "heavy" and "light" have nothing to do with equipment; they refer to how the unit is deployed. A naked man with a shield and spear is classed as heavy infantry if he is fighting in a phalanx. A fully armoured cataphract is classed as light cavalry if he is used for skirmishing or scouting.
Author: Bronze Age Military Equipment, Pen & Sword Books
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#4
I would say the Seleucid Empire was a tad late in employing heavily-armored  "cataphracts." Early documentation is void of descriptive particulars, but all indications point to the East as influenced by Siberian chariot cultures. The oldest complete suit of armor was found in Omsk, dated to the early Bronze Age, 1900 to 1800BC.

The Siberian intrusion into late Shang and early Zhou gives us the earliest effective bronze helmets and lamellar, as used in chariot warfare. By the late Western Zhou period, the earliest cavalry units were so equipped. As soon as lamellar construction switched from bone to bronze or iron, it's weight increased to a point where it could not be practically used by infantry. This the important key, and it defines what we might call "cataphractism." In Siberia, the Sargatskya switched from bone to iron in the 4th century BC, most likely from contact with the Massagetae to their south. We have an "implied" use of heavily armored cataphacts in the two accounts of the Tomyris vs. Cyrus war of 550BC. First the Massagetae and Persians expended their arrows (from Herodotus), then the Massagetae "retreated" into a canyon followed by Cyrus' forces. The Massagetae then turned about and decimated the trapped Persians (from Julius Frontinus). This tactic could only be accomplished by a heavy cavalry armed with a contus.

In essence, heavy armor was developed for chariot warfare, then worn by cavalry beginning in the 10th to 9th centuries BC. During the late Spring & Autumn period, cavalry warfare increased, and it bloomed during the Warring States Period, ending in 221BC with Shihuangdi's consolidation of the First Chinese Empire. Basically, heavy armor did not change until the general use of chainmail. Here are pictorial examples of early heavy armor:

   
The bone lamellar armor found in Omsk, northwest of the Altai, dated to roughly 1900BC.

   
Typical bronze helmet, early Zhou, from Liulihe, Hebei, dated to first generation 1045-1015BC. It is identical to the helmet found in a woman general's grave at Baifu. dated to 950BC. These have also been found in Inner Mongolia and the Kuban above the Black Sea, mistakenly identified as "Scythian."

   
Terracotta representation of cavalry armor from Shihuangdi's Mausoleum. Originals were bronze and extremely heavy, and date back to Eastern Zhou, 771-400BC. We can rule out the use of heavy lamellar by foot soldiers-- it was chariot armor, then used by heavy cavalry.

   
Sargatskya armor, 4th century BC., likely based on Massagetae armor (the culture just south of the Sargatskya).

   
The Orlat Battle Plaque, found in Sogdiana, depicting a battle between the Yuezhi's heavy cavalry against the Sacarauli, c. 160BC. The helmets, lamellar, and swords are all based on Chinese prototypes.

   
Reconstruction of Roxolani heavy armor. You can see its provenance extends back to China and (before that) to Siberia. As far as I know, I'm the only person foolish enough to wear anything this crazy. It kills you, absolutely kills you, but it offered the best protection for its time. Personally, in view of its extreme north-eastern origin, I would say the Seleucids were preceded by early Siberians, the Zhou Chinese, and then the Massagetae and Sargatskya in chronological order. Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
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#5
The earliest attested use of any type of cavalry by the Chinese was in the late 4th century BC. In the western Zhou period (1046–771 BC) it was totally unknown.

(01-15-2018, 08:16 AM)Dan Howard Wrote: The terms "heavy" and "light" have nothing to do with equipment; they refer to how the unit is deployed.

I am currently reading Robert Gaebel's Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World. He follows your definition. But others, IMO the majority of scholars, refer to the weight and protective character of the armour.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#6
Not sure where you received, "The earliest attested use of any type of cavalry by the Chinese was in the late 4th century BC."
Archaeology proves otherwise, and we find horse riding gear back to the Western Zhou. The most conspicuous examples are "stirrup-shaped" bronze bitts and three-hole psalia, circa 850-800BC, just like the ones found at Arzhan 1. You can dismiss my post, but you cannot dismiss the fact that heavy armor came from the East, and the only way you could wear heavy armor was upon a horse. As such, the Seleucids adopted Eastern techniques.  Cool
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply
#7
Quote:I am currently reading Robert Gaebel's Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World. He follows your definition. But others, IMO the majority of scholars, refer to the weight and protective character of the armour.

A fully armoured knight is heavy cavalry if he is in formation charging at the enemy. He becomes light cavalry when he starts chasing down routers.
Author: Bronze Age Military Equipment, Pen & Sword Books
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#8
(01-16-2018, 01:24 AM)Alanus Wrote: Not sure where you received, "The earliest attested use of any type of cavalry by the Chinese was in the late 4th century BC."

For example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_...fare#China . Search in Google Books for "Wuling of Zhao cavalry introduction" and you will get higher quality sources. These equipment bits you mention will have been related to chariots warfare which was much older, of course.

Quote:Cavalry was first introduced to a state of the EAH near the end of the fourth c. b.c. To be more precise, this happened in the year 307, when King Wuling of Zhao commanded a portion of his men to adopt nomadic dress (pants and jacket or shirt instead of robes) and learn to ride horses so that they could resist the mobile nomad warrior of the steppe.

SOURCE: The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods, 2009, p. 41
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#9
For some reason threads on cavalry always seem to get diverted from the OP which in this case asked “Did the Seleucids invent heavy cavalry aka cataphractii?”

 I have Gaebel's Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World and although a good read he is referring to Greek and Macedonian cavalry and not Eastern influenced cavalry. Although effective the Companions could not be classed as cataphracts although they had helmets and breastplates. Erich B Anderson wrote a good book on the origin of cataphracts, surprisingly called Cataphracts Knights of the Ancient Eastern Empires not long ago. It covers Seleucid, Massagetae/Chorismean, Parthian, Armenian, Palmyran, Sassanid, Roman and Byzantine cataphracts.

 Just on deployment of cavalry I cannot imagine fully armed cataphractii being used for scouting unless they had a couple of mounts. Horses are not machines and eventually do tire after work. Eastern horses especially steppe horses had great endurance so often outperformed their western counterparts. Maybe heavy and light cavalry in ancient times is not the correct terminology possibly missile and shock. Sure cataphractii can chase down infantry routers but you get the sense that cavalrymen and their horses lose their heads a bit in the heat of battle. At the battle of Magnesia Antiochus III led his cavalry including cataphracts on the right wing and broke through but instead of wheeling and attacking the flanks or rear of the Romans they kept chasing fleeing troops to the Roman camp where they were stopped in their tracks by the camp commander rallying the troops leaving his infantry to be cut to pieces by the Romans and the forces of their ally Eumenes.

 While on the Seleucid cataphractii as I stated before most of their recruiting base were Medes and other assorted Eastern satrapies but after the 160s BC these regions were lost to the Parthians and recruiting was limited to Syria so I don’t know how much that affected the quality of their cataphracts. As a rule the Romans defeated cataphracts at Magnesia in 189 BC and Tigranocerta in 69 BC but got a rude shock at Carrhae in 53 BC although it was the lighter horse archers who had close to an unlimited supply of arrows which really won the battle after the cataphracts destroyed the Roman/Gallic cavalry which fell for the old “sucker punch” of pursuing retreating horse archers who were really separating them from their infantry support and having the rested Parthian cataphracts laying in wait to finish off the tiring Gallic cavalry.

 The Massagetae and Chorasmians more than likely were the originators of cataphracts but probably more to close in and attack the horse archers of their enemies. These fragments date from the 4th century BC. The image on the left is a fragment of a vessel showing the lower half of an armored horse and a rider with a spear from Khumbuz-tepe in Chorasmia, Uzbekistan. The one on the right shows Ceramic fragment showing a horseman with a long spear held with both hands from Koi-krylgan-kala in Chorasmia, Uzbekistan. They had a large sedentary part of their population with the skill, access, money and the ability to smelt iron for armour.

   

 I think the Roxolani, who going by their depiction on Trajan’s column could seriously be considered cataphracts were more effective against auxiliary, inexperienced or badly led Roman troops but seemed to be less effective against experienced heavy infantry and conditions had to suit them. If their charge lost momentum or conditions were against them then they were vulnerable like when they were defeated by the Romans in 69 AD. Smile
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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#10
Just a note.

The stirrup-shaped bridle bits I mentioned were used for horse riding, not for chariots. This bit style has been found in Northern China, in Xinjiang, in Tuva, also in Kazakhstan, and has been dated to 900 to 650 BC. The stirrup-shaped bit, and three-hole psalia, found in Baifu burial M2 (that of a woman general) is actually dated to 950BC. I'm aware of the Shi-ji's reference to the King Wuling argument, but Zhao was just one state of 7, and this commentary can easily be referenced as Wuling's attempt to catch up, cavalry-wise, with other states such as Qin and Yan which assuredly had cavalry contingents at this time, including Pazyryk-styled saddles and S-shape plalia. During this period, we find several Shi-ji references of Loufan mercenary cavalries, particularly in the Yan State. All of this points to the Chinese use of cavalry as quicker mobility than chariots. When we look at the archaeological armor going back to the Western Zhou period, we see a probable use of heavy cavalry.

In the final analysis, heavy cavalry has an Eastern origin, that is to say-- east of the Oxus with the earliest archaeological evidence pointing to China, then relating to the Saka and its culturally kindred Massagetae and Choresmeanians-- all cultures East of the Oxus. It was an East to West phenomenon. Heavy cavalry was foreign to Alexander's forces and any European entity, but it was recognized for what it was by Cyrus... and he lost his head because of it. To ascribe the "invention" of heavy cavalry to the Seleucids is a geographical error.
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
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#11
(01-16-2018, 05:24 PM)Alanus Wrote: Just a note.

The stirrup-shaped bridle bits I mentioned were used for horse riding, not for chariots. This bit style has been found in Northern China, in Xinjiang, in Tuva, also in Kazakhstan, and has been dated to 900 to 650 BC.

These areas where they were found were by a long way beyond proper China at the time ("Xinjiang" btw means "New territories"). The cultures they belonged to were non-Chinese.

(01-16-2018, 05:24 PM)Alanus Wrote: In the final analysis, heavy cavalry has an Eastern origin, that is to say-- east of the Oxus

The question is how many sparrows make a summer? Let me play the devil's advocate: Can we infer from a few finds of armour pieces to the existence of a proper heavy cavalry? Perhaps these armoured riders were all individual aristocrats, untypical of their armies.

Cavalry is a military unit and thus the existence of the mass use of armoured riders needs to be demonstrated. However, with the possible exception of Assyrian reliefs I don't see any eastern literary or pictorial evidence which points to it.

(01-16-2018, 04:12 PM)Michael Kerr Wrote: The image on the left is a fragment of a vessel showing the lower half of an armored horse and a rider with a spear from Khumbuz-tepe in Chorasmia, Uzbekistan.egards
Michael Kerr

What type of horse armour could that be? Maybe organic stuff?
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#12
I'm repeating myself because I don't think you actually looked at the Orlat Battle Plaque (back in my first post) or are aware of the use of heavy cavalry by the Yuezhi, nor the significance of the armor and weapons depicted. The plaque shows a contingent of Yuezhi Sacarauli cataphacts, on the left, fighting Bactrian Saka at the right. The belt plaque can be dated to either 162BC (two battles) or 125BC, depending on which battle this scene represents. This is the earliest depiction of shock cavalry I know of. Note that even some horses are heavily armored.

   
Again, the belt plaque in its entirety. It accurately shows the use of Heavily-Armored Shock Cavalry.

   
Here is an enlarged view. (Left-click on it, and it gets even larger.) The armor, with its high collar and lamellar plate, is directly borrowed from Qin and Eastern Han prototypes. The swords are 2-handed with disk pommels and hang from jade scabbard slides-- the precise style of Warring States Chinese swords. Simonenko, Treister, and others, have noted that these swords were forged in China or are steppe copies of Chinese originals. The contus is a contus, used in the same manner as a contus.

   
 Accurate archaeological drawing of fresco from the Yuezhi capital in Khalchayan, Bactria. The outliers are Yuezhi archers, and the central figure is a Yuezhi/Saka cataphract.

   
Actual head from Khalchayan statue, a cataphract wearing his arming-cap. The high Chinese-styled collar of his armor is still intact.


   
Fragments from Khalchayan fresco showing various pieces of cataphract and horse armor.

All of the above is factual, archaeological, proof of the Yuezhi and Saka as heavy shock cavalry in the 2nd to 1st century BC.
Now, if you would, please post an archaeologically authenticated, and dated, example of the use of heavy shock cavalry in the Seleucid Empire. Thank you.  Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
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#13
Just on the Seleucid cataphract Erich Anderson included a depicted relief of captured Seleucid arms and armour after their defeat at the Battle of Magnesia in his article for Ancient Warfare V5 issue 6 as well as his book Cataphracts Knights of the Ancient Eastern Empires. it was from the stoa of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephorus which was at Pergamon but this piece is at Berlin Museum, so probably erected by Eumenes II who played a major part in the Roman victory over Antiochus III at Magnesia. Looks a lot like parade armour with face mask, laminated limb armour and horse armour too. Smile

   

Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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#14
Hello, Michael

Does look like parade armor, but with practical variations. We see manica arm armor, a fancy horse "bonnet" of feathers, a face mask similar to Parthian, and (at far left) a lower portion of something like linothorax. We don't even know if the Seleucids had saddles. No doubt they had a contus because even Alexander's Companions used them. What we don't have is visual, dated, proof of Seleucids using heavily-armored cataphracts, or a historical description of shock cavalry.

   
Once again, we are left with an artist's "conception" of the Battle of Magnesia. Who knows how accurate it is?-- so what we really have is conjecture. To me, these cavalrymen look exceedingly "Greek"... for good reason, of course. It would seem to me, considering the time-frame, 190BC, that the Seleucids were quite conservative in borrowing "east of the Oxus cavalry technology," unlike the Chinese who jumped on it. I certainly have an "eastern" bias, no question about it, because I'm totally appalled at facts like Caesar's employment of German cavalry during the Gallic War, where we read of naked men riding without saddles.

   
Just a final note. Here we have a Qin-era "grunt" soldier, not even a cavalryman, yet he's wearing better armor than what I see in your illustration. Once again, this painting is rendered from extant archaeological evidence but it is only interpretive. We do find the same high collar on the armor and lamellar construction that we see on the Orlat plaque and the Yuezhi examples.

   
Here we have the actual terracotta "grunt" armor from Shihuangdi's Mausoleum, a copy of a real bronze or more-likely steel original. If an infantryman wore armor like this, what, then, did a cavalryman wear? And the Qin cavalry had saddles, two-handed swords, and 12-foot halbreds.

As a horse person and an armor fan, something more than linothorax (or even a probable over-cuirass) is needed to impress me in the "cataphract department."  Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply
#15
Eleatic Guest wrote: What type of horse armour could that be? Maybe organic stuff?

Could be but when you look at the rider closely you can see a sort of high neck collar attached  which Alanus mentioned of the Kushan warrior and Chinese so probably not organic.  Apologies for quality, original images were small and blowing them up in size degrades them slightly. Obviously not wearing a helmet with a protruding visor so depiction looks like the Scythian/Saka style cap that points forward like the caps on the Kul-Oba vase. 

   

   


 I found an artists impression of what the other fragment showing the bottom of the horse might have been trying to represent. The artist's depiction looks like some form of leg protection attached to either the horse's neck or attached to the horse barding but to me it looks like the rider is wearing a long coat like riders in Orlat plaque with his legs at the bottom with folds of trousers protruding or  the same sort of limb protection as shown above of the equipment of the Seleucid cataphract.

   

   

Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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