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Old October 6th, 2011, 05:01 PM   #1

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The Cavalry of Ancient Spain


Of the many provinces in the Roman Empire, fewer were harder-won than Spain (which was in fact divided into several small provinces, varying in names and borders over the centuries of Roman dominance). The tribes of Spain were diverse in culture - the Lusitanians of what is now Portugal, and the tribes of northern Spain were Gaulish-speaking Celts, whereas some historians detect an African influence in the language of the Iberian peoples in southern Spain. Even more diverse were the political and social divisions of these peoples-locked in a state of perpertual, small-scale warfare, raid and counter raid.

But all of these peoples were united by their fighting spirit. Both the legions of Rome and the mercenary bands of Carthage had to face Spanish warriors, but by the second half of the 3rd Century BCE Spain was providing Carthage with some of her most numerous and bellicose contingents. The various Hispanic and Celtiberian tribes provided Hannibal and other Punic commanders with tough, fleet-footed infantrymen as well as cavalrymen who were as flexible as they were eager for battle.

Diverse as their cultural and linguistic affinities may have been, the Spanish tribes were all warrior cultures; in particular they glorified the mounted swordsman. Strabo and other ancient authorities commented on both the numbers and the quality of the wild horses of Spain. Modestly proportioned, many of them were little more than ponies to modern eyes yet were allegedly able to carry two men for long distances. Their speed and beauty made them desirable for equestrian gentlemen even in the settled days of the Empire, when the former riders of these majestic steeds had long since been tamed.

While ancient texts comment at length on the ancient Spanish horsemen, archaeology has been very generous in backing up their claims. What remains of Celtiberian culture reveals a people who worshiped the horse with a devotion that bordered on fetishim. Horses, usually mounted, are depicted on a myriad of vases and inscriptions, and are also envisioned in many sculptures, some of which may have been intended as idols. A host of bronze figurines, likely votary offerings, further attest to the popularity of equine themes in the imaginations of ancient Spain's talented metal-workers.

In some ways, the Spanish equestrian tradition looks crude. Saddles seem to have been unknwon in pre-Roman Spain despite the usage of the four-pronged Gaulish saddle favored by the Romans as well as the Gauls. Instead the Spaniards rode bareback, or on animal hides; the usage of a spotted wild-cat's hide as a horse blanket is attested. On the other hand, some researchers have tentatively credited the invention of the horseshoe to the Celtiberian horsemen; one of the many ases from Liria (in modern Valencia) depicts a cavalryman mounted on a horse wearing some manner of armor resembling chainmail. Even the animal's individual legs are each armored, though this perhaps seems a bit implausible. Either way, the overall effect of this unique image (unattested by ancient accounts) reminds us of the cataphracts of the contemporary Middle East. This may be a case of military parallel evolution, though an armored steed is in contradiction to what was expected, tactically, of the Hispanic cavalryman.

In battle, the Celtiberian used his horse much like how his British cousin used his chariot-a vehicle to get to and from the place of battle, but not often ridden in battle itself. Celtiberian mounts were even trained to kneel and remain silent, so as not to betray warriors plotting an ambush. The Celtiberians functioned as what we would modernly term guerillas, launching surprise attacks and lightning raids on the enemy. The horse was the reason for their uncanny mobility, but seldom their comrade in the thick of battle. The typical Celtiberian horseman was not necessarily a chieftain, but was probably a better-off member of the tribe. His equipment would include a helmet (often bronze and decorated with a crest), likely some form of body armor (captured Roman chainmail and simple bronze discs strapped to the chest would be common, though vases depict scalemail), one or several spears that could be used as javelins or thrusting weapons, the caetra (a round shield similar to the bucklers and targes of later times, and reflecting the swashbuckling nature of Celtiberian swordsmanship), and the dreaded falcata, a heavy precursor to the falchion of the Middle Ages, and a sister to the machaera of ancient Greece.

It may have been common for a Spanish horse to carry two men into battle, its owner as well as a light infantryman. In Celtic warbands cavalry and chariotry often closely cooperated with javelineers and archers, the latter hitching rides with the former and supporting them in battle. Pausanias refers to the "trimarcisia" - a uniquely Celtic tactical unit consisting of three men sharing one horse, the man currently riding the horse using it to transport his comrades back and forth to the place of battle. The Celtiberian tendencies to fight dismounted with horses hidden nearby, as well as the notable sturdiness of their mounts, strongly suggests that a similar system was practiced by the tribes Rome faced in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Roman conquest of Spain began with the Punic Wars, and was not completely finished until Augusutus finally defeated the rebellion of the belligerent hill tribes of Cantabria in 19 BC. The Empire required at least ten legions, as well as the aid of friendly Spanish troops, to put these remarkably aggressive clans of shepherds and hunters in their place-an extremely powerul testimony to the stubborn warrior spirit of the pre-Roman Spaniards.

The story of the Spanish horsemen does not conclude with this final chapter to their independence. Not unlike the Scottish Highlanders of the 18th and 19th Centuries, it could be argued that the saga of Europe's Celtic warriors did not reach its climax until after their grudging submission to Rome. Spain was second only to Gaul in the number of recruits it provided for the Roman auxulia, most of them serving in the cavalry wings.

Though it enjoyed a prosperous upper class (who ruled the Roman Empire for much of the 2nd Century CE) , Spain was regarded as a squalid backwater in the days of the Empire. Most of its people lived in a state of poverty and misery, working as shepherds or miners, dangerous and notorious unrewarding professions. Service in the cavalry must have appealed to many young Spaniards indeed. It was a tribute to the brutal, passionate warriors the Roman Republic had once faced in Iberia, that their descendants were now on the front lines in the defense of the Empire their dashing ancestors had so valiantly opposed.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 05:04 PM   #2

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How long did it take for the complete subjugation of Hispania?
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Old October 6th, 2011, 05:26 PM   #3

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Fascinating read Salah.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Salah ad-Din View Post
...

The Roman conquest of Spain began with the Punic Wars, and was not completely finished until Augusutus finally defeated the rebellion of the belligerent hill tribes of Cantabria in 19 BC. The Empire required at least ten legions, as well as the aid of friendly Spanish troops, to put these remarkably aggressive clans of shepherds and hunters in their place-an extremely powerul testimony to the stubborn warrior spirit of the pre-Roman Spaniards.

...
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Old October 6th, 2011, 05:28 PM   #4

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The first Roman troops to claim Spanish soil marched under the Scipiones brothers Gnaeus and Publius, settling at Tarraco in the 218-215 BCE area. The last tribal revolt against Rome took place almost exactly two centuries later. The heaviest fighting took place right in the middle of the 2nd Century BCE, this was the era of Viriatos and the Lusitanian War, and the several attempts on Numantia by Roman armies.

In the period between the fall of Numantia in 133 BCE and the subjugation of the Cantabri in 19 BCE, there was almost constant unrest in Spain but most of this pertained either to minor tribal insurrections, or to disturbances within the Roman community (namely the Sertorian and Civil Wars)
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Old October 6th, 2011, 09:22 PM   #5

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Quote:
Instead the Spaniards rode bareback, or on animal hides; the usage of a spotted wild-cat's hide as a horse blanket is attested.
Surely this was not by choice?
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Old October 7th, 2011, 01:13 AM   #6

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Quote:
Originally Posted by okamido View Post
How long did it take for the complete subjugation of Hispania?
Best part of 200 years from what I recall. The heroic resistance at Numancia has gone down in legend in Spain, and generated it's own vocabulary. Rome lost many thousands of troops in various disasters over the years. Pompey and Caesar fought out their civil war there. As covered in OP Trajan and Hadrian hailed from Seville-way.

Pamplona = Pompey
Zaragoza = Caesar Augusta
Merida = Emeritus Augusta

Most of the old moorish castles and defences are built on Roman foundation walls, and at some they just kept the Roman EG: Lugo. At Merida and Tarragona (EG) you can still see the bottom half Roman and the top half moorish medieval!

Very interesting OP on the cavalry.
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Old October 7th, 2011, 02:16 AM   #7
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Excellent Salah, I really enjoyed reading this interesting post. I have learnt something new.
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Old October 7th, 2011, 07:51 AM   #8

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[QUOTE=
The Roman conquest of Spain began with the Punic Wars, and was not completely finished until Augusutus finally defeated the rebellion of the belligerent hill tribes of Cantabria in 19 BC. The Empire required at least ten legions, as well as the aid of friendly Spanish troops, to put these remarkably aggressive clans of shepherds and hunters in their place-an extremely powerul testimony to the stubborn warrior spirit of the pre-Roman Spaniards.

.[/QUOTE]

Hello.

The people Augustus came to conquer last were the Astures. He came with more than 70000 men to an area closer to the richest gold mine known to Romans near what is known Villafranca in the Bierzo region. Afterwards, The roman cavalry training methods incorporated many of the techniques of the Astures of which the most renown is the attack and retreat used vs. heavy armor cavalry.
Archeological finds: Caballo Iberico (bronze) would provide more insight as to the earlier southern culture.
Manuel.

Last edited by recondicom; October 7th, 2011 at 08:02 AM. Reason: pic
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Old October 7th, 2011, 08:02 AM   #9

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Old October 7th, 2011, 09:16 AM   #10

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Salah ad-Din, you've written an excellent article on Celtiberian cavalry. But this is only a part of the cavalry traditions of ancient Hispani.

I recommend to focuse too in the Lusitanian cavalry tradition. People tend to think that Romans faced a new challenge in Carrhae. Opposite to Celtiberians, Lusitanians were full cavalry fighters, extremly skilfull and able of complex maneuvers, a handful of them were able to annihilate Roman consular armies one after the other. Tens of thousands of Romans died in southen Iberian in few years. Their cavalry based army allowed Lusitanians to launch far and long expeditions even into Africa using small fleets, Roman cities were ravaged and Romans couldn't catch them. Only by treason could be stopped.

Click the image to open in full size.



Also I want to add that the military warlike spirit of ancient Iberians were channelized by Romans like you have told. But they went from auxilliars at first to legionnaries, and their influence in the Roman army peaked during the age of the Good Emperors. It has been stimated that by the years 100-150 AC, 10,000 new recruits were leaving Hispania to feed the Roman units yearly, probably around 1/4 of the legionnary manpower of Rome was Hispanic, the most famous of their soldiers, Trajan.
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