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The Mongol heavy cavalry in a battle (13th–14th century)

Call in the Cavalry: Famous Cavalries of the Ancient World

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‘Call in the Cavalry’ has become a proverb for reverting to damage-control expert assistance when things get out of hand.  Yet the quote is embedded in the history of a noble and often elite unit originally formed to provide support to the infantry.  Before the tank bulldozed its way into the annals of military history, there was the cavalry; the horse and its rider. Like every modern nation today, ancient kingdoms also had some kind of mobile land support, designed to punch holes through enemy lines, but only a handful of nations had the best trained cavalry, and their reputations withstood the test of time.

Warrior of Scythians, second part of VII and VI century BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Warrior of Scythians, second part of VII and VI century BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Scythians’ Light Cavalry

The Scythians (present-day Ukraine) may not have been the original inventors of asymmetrical warfare, but one could argue that they perfected it. The Scythians were ancient nomadic horse warriors who were first mentioned by the Assyrians during the reign of Sargon II (722 – 705 BC). What made these horsemen so powerful was that they were raised in the saddle and they used a very distinctive bow.

Their weapon of choice was the composite bow. The Scythian and Cimmerian bows were unique and revered throughout the ancient world by kings, historians, and a philosopher. King Esarhaddon of Assyria had a Cimmerian bow, the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus were equipped with their bows and arrows, and even Hercules’ Greek portrait displays him armed with a Scythian bow. The Greek philosopher Plato, commented: “The customs of the Scythians proves our error; for they not only hold the bow from them with the left hand and draw the arrow to them with their right, but use either hand for both purposes.”

Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs by Viktor Vasnetsov. (1881) (Public Domain)

Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs by Viktor Vasnetsov. (1881) (Public Domain)

When one examines the Scythian lifestyle, one can easily gain an understanding of the type of warfare they employed as opposed to the more sedentary (non-migratory) people, like those in Mesopotamia. The Scythian adopted a guerilla approach to warfare as their method, not to be confused with terrorism. The term ‘guerrilla warfare’ means irregular warfare and its doctrine advocates for the use of small bands to conduct hit-and-run military operations. Herodotus mentions their method of warfare when King Darius of Persia campaigned against them


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Cam Rea is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including:  The Wars of Israel: A Military History of Ancient Israel from the End of Judges to Solomon

Top Image: The Mongol heavy cavalry in a battle (13th–14th century) (Public Domain)

By   Cam Rea

Cam Rea's picture

Cam Rea

Cam Rea is a Military Historian and currently the Associate Editor/Writer at Strategy & Tactics Press. Mr. Rea has published several books and written numerous articles for Strategy & Tactics Press and Classical Wisdom Weekly. His most current publication is... Read More

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