How did Companion Cavalry fare in close quarter combat?

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,776
Actually I have wondered how they fought......

At that time and age, horses seemed to mostly be a way to move faster around the battlefield, outflank and outrun the ennemy or alternatively shock them through noise, dust and fear of horse mounted fighters, to whom the horse gave a significant weight advantage (assuming the average soldier with armor was about 100 kg, once on a horse the combination was 600kg of weight or more) and height advantage.... but when it came to fighting, apparently in many cases horsemen dismounted (unlike middle age heavy cavalry charges)... I do not know however what actually happened with the macedonian cavalry... Did they usually fight on horses, did they dismount, did they often engage in close combat ?

My understanding -correct me if I am wrong- is that macedonian cavalry had neither stirrups nor saddles....
No one knows for sure how they fought but most likely the Companions used Scythian style saddle which is still subject to some debate but this overview is pretty good- http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/vol14/Stepanova_SR14_2016_1_18_Pl1.pdf

Stirrups barely matter in a charge but could make a difference in melee allowing riders to shift weight more easily and also allows more effective use of weapons other than a lance or slashing sword. Still it is possible to fight in a melee especially with a lance while on a well-trained horse- especially if the opposing infantry is not well trained in how to deal with cavalry which is probable in most of the battles the Companions fought in where the majority of cavalry were skirmishers armed with javelins though there did exist some other melee/shock cavalry such formations were quite rare.
 
Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
Hammer and anvil, the Macedonian forces holding the enemy while the Companion cavalry hammered the unholy hell out of them from the exposed flanks or behind.

They didn't have much armor because they were pure offense. The typical horsed units of the day wore linen armor and didn't have shields, keeping speed and distance at a premium while they lobbed javelins or shot bows. But Alexander changed that: not only would the Macedonian cavalry now fight hand-to-hand, but he would lead them, too. The shock of something like 2000 horses plowing into the pinned enemy lines decided many of the battles Alexander fought; in fact I believe they were the first shock troops in history in which horses were used on a battlefield in this manner.

But even after the charge, they were more than the equal of most enemies they might face. They had the xyston, and most were deadly with that spear. Even shattered, they had the kopis to fall back on, a kind of curved slashing sword, or the xiphos, a double edged short sword. If they didn't have those, they would borrow a weapon from a nearby Companion. If no one else could give them one, then they would literally seize the weapons of their enemies and use those, if not rocks, their fists, and teeth.

Their casualties must've been serious but their ferocity was second-to-none because none other than Alexander himself fought amongst them. The same effect that Julius Caesar had upon his Legions who suddenly fought like demons when he appeared with the cavalry in his red cloak in the deciding charge of Alesia.
 
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Nov 2011
1,146
The Bluff
The notion of the "anvil" Macedonian infantry is something of a chestnut nowadays. The Macedonian infantry were not simply a static holding force and could be used quite offensively. Gaugamela demonstrates this as do the Argyraspides at Paraitakene and Gabiene. Philip V's phalanx turned the Roman left into a cushion for so many oversized pins.

The Macedonian infantry carried the xyphos; the cavalry the kopis. The latter is very much suited to delivering shocking downward slashing/hacking blows.
 
Mar 2016
77
Germany
I don't think that the changes of Philip (Alexander changed presumably nothing, if it really was Alexander, then not "the Great") for cavalry were in the direction of sustained close combat. It was more in the direction of aggressive shock tactics, in disciplined formations, with wheeling around and attacking again and again if necessary, similar to the modern era most successful cavalry tactics. For such tactics long lances were good, and shields not mandatory.

Of course close combat surely occurred but was not the ultimate goal. In the description of Pyrrhus' fights with the Romans there is some talk about divergent Roman cavalry tactics, forcing the Greek cavalry to a prolonged melee (wether in the special situation or as a rule of combat is not clear). So such melees did at least not seem to have been a speciality of hetairoi cavalry. The unfortunate combat situation resulted in the known high casualties among the elite of Pyrrhus army and the term "Pyrrhic victory". While such stories, written by authors friendly to the Romans who were very embarrassed by the fact that they clearly lost two big battles against Pyrrhus despite numerical superiority, should not be taken too seriously, it made sense to a certain degree.

BTW I would also not take Polybius as a very reliable source when he talks about what the Romans once did a long time ago with their cavalry and why they changed.
 
Last edited:
Sep 2019
186
Vergina
The shock of something like 2000 horses plowing into the pinned enemy lines decided many of the battles Alexander fought; in fact I believe they were the first shock troops in history in which horses were used on a battlefield in this manner.
I don't think that the changes of Philip (Alexander changed presumably nothing, if it really was Alexander, then not "the Great") for cavalry were in the direction of sustained close combat. It was more in the direction of aggressive shock tactics, in disciplined formations, with wheeling around and attacking again and again if necessary, similar to the modern era most successful cavalry tactics.
I'm not so sure about this. Tactics of Philip seem to be penetrate enemy formation and then follow on waves further break it open. It does not look to have been about shock tactics through repeated charges. Sustained combat looks to have been an essential element in splitting apart the enemy formation.
"It was not the shock of the cavalry charge but the continuous push and press of the cavalry horses and lance and saber wielding cavalrymen that broke the infantry line...Once an opening was made in the first rank, it was widened and deepened by the closely following second and third ranks"
Richard A. Gabriel, Philip II of Macedonia, pg 78-79.
 
Last edited:
Nov 2011
1,146
The Bluff
Love Gabriel's anachronistic use of "saber". The kopis was hardly a sabre (of classic English cavalry type for example). It was a heavy and very deadly slashing weapon capable of horrific injury. It reinforces the notion that these cavalrymen were at home in close quarter fighting. Arrian is clear in his description of how this style of cavalry fought (as is Diodoros' ultimate source for books 18-20). At both Granikos and Gaugamela, Arrian describes the Hetairoi as repeatedly stabbing their opponents in their faces. Diodoros describes similar at Gaza (19.83.5):

In the first charge, indeed, the fighting was with spears, most of which were shattered, and many of the antagonists were wounded; then, rallying again, the men rushed into battle at sword's point, and, as they were locked in close combat, many were slain on each side. The very commanders, endangering themselves in front of all, encouraged those under their command to withstand the danger stoutly; and the horsemen upon the wings, all of whom had been selected for bravery, vied with each other since as witnesses of their valour they had their generals, who were sharing the struggle with them.
1579138782978.png1579138815901.png

Gaza above. Apologies, but centre spread artwork does not always comply with editing....

Kopis image below:

 
Sep 2019
186
Vergina
Love Gabriel's anachronistic use of "saber". The kopis was hardly a sabre (of classic English cavalry type for example). It was a heavy and very deadly slashing weapon capable of horrific injury. It reinforces the notion that these cavalrymen were at home in close quarter fighting. Arrian is clear in his description of how this style of cavalry fought (as is Diodoros' ultimate source for books 18-20). At both Granikos and Gaugamela, Arrian describes the Hetairoi as repeatedly stabbing their opponents in their faces. Diodoros describes similar at Gaza (19.83.5):
Gaza above. Apologies, but centre spread artwork does not always comply with editing....
Thanks, excellent combat description. You highlight an important point that even if a companion's spear breaks he still has a very capable weapon at his disposal.
 
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Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,074
MD, USA
Love Gabriel's anachronistic use of "saber". The kopis was hardly a sabre (of classic English cavalry type for example). It was a heavy and very deadly slashing weapon capable of horrific injury.
Just a minor point, the kopis was really no heavier than any other sword of about the same length (such as the usual hoplite sword or xiphos). It was light and fast. Deadly, yes! But any decent sword was deadly. There is still some debate about how much a leaf-shaped blade or curved blade adds to cutting power, but my feeling is that if the ancient warriors using the thing felt it was the best choice for the job, that's good enough.

Here's mine!

kopis1e.jpg

Matthew
 
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Nov 2011
1,146
The Bluff
From archaeological reports, the blade was reasonably thick but my point, not terribly well made, was the weight forward aspect. This empowered the slashing swing. It gives the lie to Livy's infamous claim that Philip V's Macedonians were appalled at the wounds inflicted by the gladius and became afraid. Any Macedonian who'd seen what the kopis could do could hardly be so taken aback.

Nice remake by the way. Pity you don't have the bird handle!
 
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Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,074
MD, USA
From archaeological reports, the blade was reasonably thick but my point, not terribly well made, was the weight forward aspect. This empowered the slashing swing. It gives the lie to Livy's infamous claim that Philip V's Macedonians were appalled at the wounds inflicted by the gladius and became afraid. Any Macedonian who'd seen what the kopis could do could hardly be so taken aback.
Well, part of the problem is that we don't have really good measurements of the (often-corroded) surviving examples, nor anyone who has studied them closely enough to make highly accurate copies for testing. BUT those who *have* handled originals tell me that the widest part of the blade is the thinnest, so while the balance may be different than for a straight xiphos, it won't be like swinging an axe.

I'd have to go back and re-read that passage, but my impression was that Philip was trying to rile up his soldiers by parading their dead buddies, and cause some anger. And it backfired, they kind of freaked out instead. And as I recall, those dead men were killed by cavalry, so maybe those *were* kopis wounds! Or they could easily have been caused by the gladius hispaniensis, which had over 2 feet of blade and a pretty devastating weapon itself. So there's no reason to doubt Livy.

Nice remake by the way. Pity you don't have the bird handle!
Thanks! I went with a nice ram's head hilt that was well-preserved from Aigai.

Matthew