The origin of equestrian warfare

According to archaeologists, by all indications, around the second millennium BC, tubular arrowheads extended eastward, as against to the composite reflex bow, which spread from east towards west, and the concept of army formation from south to north. When these innovations met in Central Asia around 900 BC, it resulted in the formation of infamous and fearful cavalry armies.

Although the Roman Empire once conquered the majority of Europe, they got into trouble with the ancient steppe peoples, as the Roman infantry military technique was not effective against “saddle-born” cavalry archers.

Beginnings: from domestication of the horse to war chariots

85_1624_b.jpgThe domestication of the horse was a precondition for the establishment of a cavalry. The surviving finds testify that the horse was domesticated around 3,500 BC in present-day Kazakhstan and southern Russia, but presumably, they began to saddle-break them and bestride them earlier. Oddly enough, horses in the military were not used at first as part of the cavalry, but only to pull chariots. One of the best-known finds in this regard is the chariot unearthed in Tutankhamon's tomb. Although chariots were used in the Middle East already around 1600-1700 BC, strangely, cavalry did not appear as a form of warfare for the next 7-800 years. This is peculiar, because it is more difficult to train the horses in order to control the chariot, because they have to learn to move synchronized; but some tools had to be invented to create cavalry. 

How to wing arrows while riding? - Spreading of the composite reflex bow

20155379P2_713894.jpgOne of these inventions is the composite reflex bow, which has been widespread throughout Eurasia, according to finds, and it has been known in China for 3,000 years around the end of the Sang Age, at least archaeologists have found reflex bow representations on the animal bone tools used by the Sang emperors for divination. Although it is not possible to know where, exactly when and by whom the reflex bow was first invented, wherever this innovation came from, it is assumed that it started its journey towards Europe from the East and spread further. The problem with traditional bows was that they were too big and difficult to use when riding, and they had to be big because their effectiveness depended on their size (length).

knyv0257_nagy_e_csak_illusztr_atm_280826.jpgIn contrast to the large bows, the curved-arm reflex bow had great force despite its smaller size, allowing its user to wing an arrow while sitting in a saddle. The secret of the strength of a composite bow is that it was made by using a variety of materials: beech wood, water buffalo horns, animal skins and tendons. This process, one of the greatest military innovations of the era, was made possible by the discovery of an adhesive of natural origin that could be used to stick different materials together, obtained from the fins of Black Sea sturgeons, by soaking them in hot water. This innovation spread throughout East Asia and Eastern Europe 1,000 years before our era.

How to fix our arrowheads? - The development of arrowheads 

265131_b.jpgAlthough the reflex bow was a major step forward from a military point of view, there were once other obstacles to soldiers being able to fight together effectively on a horse and in a group. Namely that the arrowheads were not of uniform size and weight and therefore they did not have the same range. Some of them were made out of bone, some of them of bronze, and some were made of flint-flake. In addition, while it was tied only with twine or tendon, it could easily fall off, and the direction of the shot couldn’t be guaranteed for sure either. Certainly, the result of an attempt to solve these problems is the invention of the tubular arrowhead. 3156_lovash_717335.jpgA spike was placed in a mould and molten metal was cast on it, making it possible to produce arrowheads of the same size and weight. All the technical conditions for consorted military action were given. The efficiency of archery was increased by the fact that these arrowheads did not have to be tied, but could simply be pulled onto the arrow so they did not fall off easily.

How to overpower? - The origin of fighting in an army

201556213P2_714220.jpgThe gathering of individually fighting hero soldiers was the result of a process that was influenced by the South according to experts, and could be linked to urbanization. The first armies were founded in Mesopotamia and large cities in the Middle East. According to theories, the example of clustering into an army became apparent due to its effectiveness, and thus convinced nomads that they should follow this example as well.

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Perspective view of a besieged city  - Piarista Rend Magyar Tartománya, CC BY-NC-ND

The meeting of technical and organizational developments in different landscapes made it possible for cavalry to be the most striking and modern military force of the era. The challenge posed by nomadic peoples contributed to the development of civilized countries, for after a while leaders of settled agricultural communities also realized that fighting with infantry and chariots against equestrian archers, who attack ambush, was a lost cause, and they were forced to organize a cavalry as well.

How to attack ambush? - The Huns gliding like an unstoppable flock of birds and their tactics

C196974_f_atm.jpgAccording to a Chinese courtier, "Asian Huns glide through the countryside like an unstoppable flock of birds." Their leader, Attila, was referred to throughout Europe as the whip of God. He was considered by the Romans to be a man who, in a controversial way, was bloodthirsty and ruthless, but at the same time a strong and talented ruler. A Roman author described the Huns as almost mythical beings in his superstitious writing, "The Huns are the offspring of barbarian witches possessed by evil swamp demons." Attila, the king of the Huns, sought to unite in an extensive alliance the nomadic tribes considered barbaric by the Romans. Priscus, an Eastern Roman historian, described Attila as a cunning diplomat and wily strategist. Research shows that the secret of the Huns lay mainly in their equestrian knowledge. This made it possible to wage lightning wars characterized by arrow-flights and surprise attacks. But war requires supplies. You could ask ‘How could they provide their army with these?’

C1968157_atm__33442.jpgArchaeological artefacts and records of them suggest that the Huns made the peoples they conquered their subjects and also solved the task of supplying the army with them. It was a surprising and unusual strategy from Attila to seek to collect subjects rather than acquire land. These subordinated tribes merged with the Huns over time. Priscus, the diplomat who claimed to have visited Attila's camp, saw Gauls, Goths and even Romans there. All these suggest that the Hun king had a fairly good sense of foreign policy and diplomacy and knew how to deal with strangers from outside the borders of his empire. F_1269_397892.jpgOver time, the leaders of the settled, civilized nations also learned the lesson from the nomads, so the Chinese saw no other way out against the equestrian archer nomads but the organisation of their own cavalry around 350 BC.  According to former Chinese military manual books, they studied Asian Hun tactics in detail in order to learn how cavalry works.

Other combat efficiency improvers: the stirrup and the articulated plate armour

20155377P2_713894.jpgThe challenges posed by the equestrian nomadic peoples ultimately led to the development of the region, because their presence spurred the underdeveloped military culture of settled peoples. On the other hand, after that the Chinese cavalry was formed, it provided trade routes such as the Silk Road. Thus, it contributed to the development of great civilizations such as China, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, India, Rome, and Byzantium.

HMKGY811001_Petry_Bla__483314.jpgAfter the fall of the Roman Empire, another very important technical innovation spread, which can also be attributed to a nomad tribe. They were the Eastern European equestrian archer Avars, and the innovation is the stirrup. Although the invention originated in Asia, the Avars spread it throughout Eastern Europe. The stirrup, which is a footrest in function, made it easier to deploy even more weapons while riding. It is clear that the majority of the most important innovations of an efficient and striking cavalry spread in Europe owing to nomadic peoples. From the early days, there was perhaps only one really important invention that came from Europe, which later proved to be of key importance in the age of knights, and that is the articulated plate armour.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai

Sources

  • Kyle Murdoch: How the Silk Road Made the World2018. Mainz 
  • Bóna István (1993). A hunok és nagykirályaik. Budapest, ISBN 96313 33825
  • Laurent Portes: In the Footsteps of Attila: King of the Huns. 2020.
  • Szebelédi, Z., Patay-Horváth, A., Forisek, P., & Szilágyi, S. (2014). Priskos rhétór töredékei. Követségben Attila, a hunok nagykirálya udvarában. Máriabesnyő. ISBN 978615 5257841
  • Liu, X. (2010). The Silk Road in world history. New York, ISBN 9780195338102  
  • Szakály Ferenc: Korai hadtörténetünk. In: Nagy Képes Millenniumi Hadtörténet. 2000. Budapest, ISBN 963-679-086-8

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