The Horsemen of Athens

The Horsemen of Athens

by Glenn Richard Bugh

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Glenn Bugh provides a comprehensive discussion of a subject that has not been treated in full since the last century: the history of the Athenian cavalry. Integrated into a narrative history of the cavalry from the Archaic period through the Hellenistic age is a detailed analysis of a military and social organization the members of which came predominantly from

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Glenn Bugh provides a comprehensive discussion of a subject that has not been treated in full since the last century: the history of the Athenian cavalry. Integrated into a narrative history of the cavalry from the Archaic period through the Hellenistic age is a detailed analysis of a military and social organization the members of which came predominantly from the upper classes of Athens. Bugh demonstrates that this organization was not merely a military institution but an aristocratic social class with political expectations and fluctuating loyalties to the Athenian democracy.

The last major work devoted exclusively to the subject appeared in French in 1886 and predated the publication of Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, which provides valuable information not only on the administration of the Athenian cavalry but also on the democracy that financed it. Furthermore, since the 1930s the American excavations of the Athenian marketplace and the German excavations of the ancient cemetery have yielded unparalleled epigraphical evidence pertaining to the Athenian cavalry, particularly in the areas of personnel and administration.

Originally published in 1988.

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The Horsemen of Athens

By Glenn Richard Bugh


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05530-5


Aristocratic Horsemen of Archaic Athens

Marathon, 490 B.C. "... the Athenians were few in number and coming at a run without support of cavalry or bowmen." (Hdt. 6.112)

No single piece of evidence can prove, incontestably, the existence of an Athenian cavalry before the mid-fifth century B.C. That there were hippeis cannot be denied, but that these "horsemen" belonged to a cavalry corps still eludes unanimous consent. A. Martin, in his monumental study, attributed the creation of an Athenian cavalry corps to Solon in 594 B.C. W. Helbig replied that, on the basis of the literary and ceramic evidence, an Athenian cavalry did not exist until after the Persian Wars. He argued that vase paintings depicting men on horseback in a military context represented one of three possibilities: (1) foreign cavalrymen, e.g., the famous horse-breeding Thessalians; (2) mounted hoplites, i.e., hoplites who rode their horses to the battlefield, but like the Homeric heroes with their chariots, dismounted and fought on foot; or (3) mounted squires accompanying the mounted hoplites.

Since 1904 scholars have routinely placed themselves in one camp or the other in this debate, prompting A. Snodgrass to confess:

Our ignorance of much of the military field should not be underestimated: there is still room for learned discussion, and complete disagreement over many fundamental questions, such as whether or not the Athenian 'cavalryman' of the 7th, 6th, and early 5th centuries actually rode his horse into battle.

Recently, P.A.L. Greenhalgh, reexamining all the relevant ceramic material, 5 has proposed a compromise: the mounted hoplite and the cavalryman were but alternative forms of service in the sixth-century Athenian army, thus both existed at the same time.

What are we to make of all this? A survey of the relevant evidence will, at least, allow us to choose with more confidence. Certainty will probably never be attainable. For my part, I am persuaded that an Athenian cavalry did in fact exist in the Archaic period.

It remains to prove it. Because of the difficult nature of the evidence, I have chosen to divide the chapter into four distinct, but ultimately interrelated, sections, each of which addresses the question of the existence and nature of the Athenian cavalry: (a) all the relevant literary testimonia, excluding the problematic Solonian census classes which will be discussed at length in the third section; (b) the ceramic evidence of the sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.; (c) Solon's "cavalry" class and horse traditions in Attika; and (d) various political, military, and societal considerations which militated against a major Athenian cavalry force in this period.


The most explicit statement supporting the position that Athens had a true cavalry in the Archaic period comes from the lexicographer Pollux. Under the lemma naucraria, he writes that each naucrary provided two horsemen (duo hippeas) and a ship (naun), from which it gets its name. Since there were forty-eight naucraries in Archaic Athens, the cavalry force would have numbered ninety-six. But because the information linking two horsemen to each naucrary is cited only here, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of accepting the testimony of Pollux without benefit of supporting evidence. Busolt and Swoboda considered the information "of very dubious worth." Nevertheless, the testimony of Pollux should not be rejected out of hand.

An obvious question follows: what type of force? Mounted hoplites or true cavalry? Alfoldi argued for cavalry, Greenhalgh for mounted hoplites; Anderson remained noncommittal.

In my own mind, there is no reason to believe that Pollux thought of these horsemen as anything but true cavalry, whatever the source of his information may have intended. In any event, Anderson (p. 130) is probably correct to suggest that these ninety-six hippeis constituted a border or coastal patrol. To counter pirate raids or rapid sorties across the frontier border, mobility was essential.

The Atthidographer Kleidemos says that Kleisthenes replaced the four tribes by ten and divided them into fifty parts which were called naucraries. Martin, writing before the discovery of the Athenaion Politeia attributed to Aristotle, supposed that the Athenian cavalry was correspondingly increased to 100 men in the Kleisthenic reforms. The Athenaion Politeia (21.5), however, clearly states that the naucraries were replaced by demes, whose number is attested in the literature at 100 (Hdt. 5.69) or at 174 (Strabo 9.1.16 = 396 C). In fact, we hear no more of the naucraries after Kleisthenes.

In the end, we must acknowledge that there is no evidence to support the claim for an Athenian cavalry numbering 100 connected with post-Kleisthenic naucraries. Even if we accept Pollux on the naucraric-cavalry connection, we cannot say how Kleisthenes might have integrated the cavalry quota into the deme organization.

Herodotus (1.63) offers a tantalizing piece of information connected with the victory of the Athenian aristocrat Peisistratos at Pallene in 546 B.C. In this battle Peisistratos succeeded in defeating the Athenian forces with the help of mercenaries, notably the hippeis of Eretria (AP 15.2–3), and thereby secured his return from exile. While the Athenian army was in retreat, Peisistratos ordered his sons, "to mount (their) horses," overtake the Athenians, and persuade them to return quietly to their homes. How and Wells repeat Helbig's claim that this passage shows that the sons of Peisistratos were serving as mounted hoplites, not as true cavalrymen. This is far from certain. One can easily imagine a situation where the sons have dismounted to congratulate and converse with their father — himself perhaps fighting as a hoplite — then remount in obedience to his command. Thus they may have fought as true cavalrymen. Furthermore, the fact that the Athenian force appears to be on foot in their retreat does not mean that there might not have been some Athenian cavalrymen present. In the end all that this passage confirms is that the sons of Peisistratos rode horses in the concluding stages of the battle at Pallene. We must not facilely suppose that all members of the wealthiest class in sixth-century Athens raised horses, but Peisistratos at least probably did, even if he is not explicitly identified as a hippotrophos, i.e., a man who raises horses. He clearly had a penchant for "horsey" names, witness his sons Hippias, Hipparchos, and Thessalos, the last, a reference to the land famed for its horse traditions. Later, Hippias, succeeding his father as tyrant, will enlist the Thessalian cavalry as allies against the Spartans (Hdt. 5.63). And there is some evidence that Peisistratos married off one of his daughters to a certain Thrasyboulos, famed as a hippotrophos.

In the early decades of the fifth century B.C. Persia twice invaded Greece. The detailed narrative of these wars by the historian Herodotus should have settled the question of whether or not Athens possessed a cavalry, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. In the second invasion (480 B.C.) Herodotus reports that the mighty Persian army under King Xerxes is descending upon southern Greece. The Athenians debate whether to stay and fight or to flee to safety before the Persians arrive in Attica. Into this debate Plutarch adds an anecdote involving Kimon, scion of the illustrious clan of the Philaidai. Reportedly, Kimon, probably about thirty years old at the time, marched triumphantly with his companions through the Kerameikos, ascended the Acropolis, and dedicated his bridle to Athena, claiming that in the present crisis Athens needed sea-fighting men (naumachôn andrôn), not ones with equestrian expertise, hippikês alkês (Kim. 5.2–3). This anecdote assumes that Kimon served as a cavalryman, because the juxtaposition of horsemanship and naval service clearly implies a military contrast. Only a horseman is limited to land warfare, while a hoplite can fight as a marine (epibatês) on board a ship. According to Plutarch's account, Kimon thereupon borrowed a shield from the temple and marched down to the ships.

Kimon's interest in horses should not surprise us. He belonged to a family with a brilliant reputation for hippotrophia in the sixth century B.C. Kimon's great-uncle, Miltiades III, won the four-horse chariot race at Olympia and his grandfather, Kimon I, won the same event at three consecutive Olympiads (536–528 B.C.). This tradition continues in Kimon's own son, Lakedaimonios, who was a hipparch around the middle of the fifth century — incidentally, our first indisputable reference to a true cavalry in Athens. Epilykos, son of Nikostratos, who served as hipparch in 325 B.C., may also have belonged to the Philaidai.

What then can we conclude from the Kimon incident? If the anecdote reflects a genuine historical event — and there is no compelling reason to dispute it — then it seems inescapable that Kimon had expected to serve his country as a cavalryman and was so doing in 480 B.C. But it is disturbing that supporting evidence for this conclusion is not forthcoming from Herodotus. In fact Herodotus will state directly, or imply by silence, that at no time during the Persian Wars (490–479) did the Athenians field a cavalry. Let us take a look at the evidence.

During the Persian invasion of 490, the exiled tyrant Hippias led the Persian army to the plain of Marathon. The two armies faced each other for a number of days and then, under the generalship of Miltiades IV, the father of Kimon, the Athenians charged the enemy lines, almost a mile distant. This "Marathon" run by the Athenian hoplites has been recorded by Herodotus 6.112:

The Persians, seeing them advancing at a run, prepared to receive them, though they thought the Athenians mad and bent on their own destruction, inasmuch as the Athenians were few in number and coming at a run without support of cavalry or bowmen.

How else can one interpret the Greek words oute hippou than that the Athenians had no cavalry force at Marathon? This could simply mean that an Athenian cavalry did not exist at that time, but two other possibilities bear serious consideration.

First of all, the Athenian cavalry may have been stationed elsewhere, perhaps in the plain of Phaleron near Athens in anticipation of a sea-borne attack from that direction. There may be some support for this suggestion in the Suda s.v. chôris hippeis, a gloss which states that Dads and the Persian cavalry (perhaps only a part?) had withdrawn from Marathon before the decisive battle. Since the Persian fleet sailed to Phaleron immediately after the battle in hopes of attacking Athens before the victorious Athenian hoplites returned from Marathon (Hdt. 6.116), one might suppose that Datis and the horse-transports had preceded them there. According to this scenario, the Athenian cavalry would have been forced to hurry home to meet them before the battle of Marathon and therefore were not present. But there is no evidence for this.

Moreover, Herodotus 6.112 plainly implies that Persian bowmen and horsemen were present. If not, how do we account for the incredulity of the Persians? Besides, Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., speaks of neighing horses at Marathon (1.32.4) and stables of Artaphernes' horses (1.32.7). If we disregard the heroizing elements, Pausanias' account does confirm a strong tradition. For what it is worth, Aelius Aristides' Panathenaikos 106–8 (Behr), also second century A.D., claims that the Athenians even captured some of the Persian horses. Furthermore, the exiled Athenian tyrant, Hippias, had guided the Persian army from Eretria on Euboia to the plain of Marathon not only because it was the nearest convenient disembarkation point on the coast of Attika, but because it was the most suitable region in Attica for cavalry maneuvers (epitêdeotaton chôrion tês Attikês enhippeusai: Hdt. 6.102). The plain of Phaleron, south of Athens, on the other hand, could hardly be so described. In 510 B.C. Hippias, then tyrant of Athens, had to remove obstructions in the plain — thereby making it "more suitable to cavalry" (hippasimon) — to enable his Thessalian cavalry allies to carry out their assault against Anchimolios and the Lakedaimonian camp (Hdt. 5.63). The advantage for the Persian cavalry, therefore, lay at Marathon, not at Phaleron.

Secondly, the Athenians may have deliberately chosen not to field their small cavalry force because of the superiority of the Persian cavalry. This suggestion deserves serious consideration. A cavalry numbering only ninety-six men would hardly have offered much resistance against a better trained and more numerous Persian cavalry. These Athenian cavalrymen would have been deployed more efficiently in the hoplite ranks. There is absolutely no doubt that all those who could provide themselves with hoplite armor were expected to fight as hoplites if the occasion demanded. More to the point, every cavalryman was by the very presumption of wealth that that service entailed, a hoplite. When he left cavalry service, he automatically became a hoplite until the end of his normal military obligations (around sixty). Thus the richest members of Athenian society were in a sense always hoplites. Aristotle notes that hoplite service is appropriate to the "well-to-do" (euporoi) not to the "poor" (aporoi, Pol. 132.1312–14).

This dual military role can be seen in the careers of a few well-known Athenians. Kimon may have been a hippeus in 480 B.C., but during his ostracism his companions fought bravely at Tanagra (458/ 7 B.C.) around his hoplite armor (Plut. Kim. 17.5; Per. 19.7). And Alkibiades, young lion of the famous Athenian clan of the Alkmeonidai, fought as a hoplite at Poteidaia in 431 (Pl. Ap. 2.8 E–Plut. Alk. 7.6, Smp. 221 A). His son and namesake was registered as a hoplite in 395, but his illegal attempts to pass himself off as a mounted archer presuppose at least a passable degree of equestrian training, though apparently not cavalry service ([Lys] 15.5–8). Lysias 14.10 also remarks that some legitimate cavalrymen had been ordered to serve as hoplites in this campaign. One, at least, volunteered to do exactly that. Mantitheos, a young aristocratic cavalryman, had been selected to serve by his cavalry officer. Mantitheos successfully petitioned his commander to strike his name from the cavalry register (katalogos) in order to serve as a hoplite; he apparently was still a hoplite in the campaigns of the following year (Lys. 16.13-17). And during the troubled year of 404/ 3, the Athenian cavalry patrolled as horsemen by day, while at night they guarded the city walls as hoplites (Xen. Hell.

That the Athenians elected not to deploy their small cavalry force can likewise explain its apparent absence during the second Persian campaign in 480 B.C. The numbers of Persian and allied cavalry, admittedly exaggerated, do confirm an enormous superiority in that arm. The superiority lay not only in sheer numbers. Aeschylus proclaims the international reputation of the Persians in the use of the horse and bow: "masters of the bow and horsemen, fearful to behold, terrible in battle, steadfast in spirit." It is no wonder that the Greeks were elated when on one celebrated occasion they beat back the attacks of the Persian horse trying to recover the body of their fallen commander, Masistios, and even forced them to retreat (Hdt. 9.2,5).

It may, then, have been by deliberate design that the Athenians deployed no force of horsemen to meet the mighty host of Asia. Throughout the Plataian campaign of 479, when the Persian cavalry repeatedly harassed the Greek allies, not one mention is made of an opposing cavalry. The mounted messenger (spheôn hippea) whom the Athenians dispatched to receive instructions from Pausanias (Hdt. 9.54) is identified as a herald (kêryx) in 9.55–56. The same function as messenger can be claimed for the horseman sent from Pausanias to the Athenians in Herodotus 9.60 although this can certainly not be used as proof that the Spartans had a cavalry at this date — in fact, Thucydides 4.55.2 tells us that the Spartans did not organize a cavalry until 424 B.C. In view of the distances sometimes separating even allied armies, it would have been foolish not to have had some rapid means of communication. That these messengers, at least in the case of Athens, were drawn from horsemen normally expected to furnish cavalry service is quite possible. Thus Martin assumed that the cavalry, being too few to give the Persian cavalry a good fight, served as ordonnances (aides-de-camp), and thus as messengers. Alföldi suggested that the hippeus in 9.54 must have been a member of the aristocratic cavalry corps (ein Ritter) because of the importance of the mission. This does not necessarily follow, but the idea of cavalrymen being used as bearers of important information is reasonable.


Excerpted from The Horsemen of Athens by Glenn Richard Bugh. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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