Greece – The Athenian Cavalry

In addition to racing events as part of the games, the other principal use of the horse in antiquity was for warfare. As in other Greek and later armies, the Athenian cavalry was an elite corps within the army. For most of its history, it was quite aristocratic in composition and represented only a tiny fraction of the fighting forces of the city: Drawn from the upper classes, the hippeis were often under suspicion in democratic Athens, especially late in the 5th century when, with support from the knights, the city fell under oligarchic control. The cavalry at full strength in the 5th century numbered one thousand troops, whereas the infantry would have been ten or twenty times that number and the fleet-with two hundred crew members per ship-required tens of thousands of men. In the troubled times of the early 3rd century B.C., the number of cavalrymen seems to have dropped to as low as two hundred before recovering to around five hundred.

We have a number of Athenian treatises and other written sources on the cavalry and horsemanship in antiquity. One, by Simon and dating to the 5th century B.C., survives in part. Two works written by the general and historian Xenophon in the 4th century B. C., are fully preserved: On Horsemanship (Peri Hippikon) and The Cavalry Commander (Hipparchikos). Other information concerning the cavalry comes from Aristotle, the orators, and the comic poets. Many inscriptions found in the Agora are sources of further insight.

The cavalry was under the command of two senior officers, the hipparchs, who were seconded by ten commanders known as phylarchs, one chosen from each tribe. Numerous honorary inscriptions survive, rendering thanks to these officers for the conscientious performance of their duties or for the generous provision of food and equipment. These decrees, honoring individual officers or the whole staff, were passed by the state, by a single tribe, by the cavalry corps itself, and even in one instance by foreign mercenaries serving with the Athenian cavalry.

Other monuments were set up to honor individual commanders. The base of one such dedication was found in z99o, some twenty-five meters north of the Panathenaic Way. On two sides it shows horse- men with helmet and sword astride rearing horses. Above the better preserved side is an inscription referring to the tribe, Antiochis, and the name of a man (Hierophanes, son of Polyaratos of Alopeke), presumably the officer depicted, either a hipparch or a phylarch.

The cavalry is closely associated with the Agora square, in particular the area around the northwest corner, where the main street of the city, the Panathenaic Way, entered the square between the Royal (basileios) and Painted (poikile) Stoas. This area was known in antiquity as “The Herms” (Hermai) according to Harpokration, quoting an earlier source: “From the Poikile and the Basileios stoas extend the so-called Herms.”

A herm was a stylized, primitive image of the god Hermes mounted on a square shaft which was decorated with a sculpted representation of the male genitalia. Herms were used to mark crossroads, doors, and entrances, and dozens of examples set up at the northwest entrance to the Agora have been found in the excavations. The association of the cavalry with the Herms is indicated by a fragment written by the comic poet Mnesimachos in the 4th century B. C: Go forth from the chambers roofed with cypress wood, Manes; go to the Agora, to the Herms, the place frequented by the phylarchs, and to their handsome pupils, whom Pheidon trains in mounting and dismounting.

Excavation of a well at the northwest corner of the Agora has produced an extraordinary correlation of literary and archaeological evidence. Twenty-six round clay tokens were found, stamped with the name Pheidon of Thria, the hipparch on Lemnos. Lemnos was an Athenian island possession staffed with Athenian military officers, and it seems certain that the comic fragment and the clay tokens found in the area of the Herms refer to the same individual. Xenophon also envisions the cavalry performing in the Agora, near the Herms:

As for the processions, I think they would be most pleasing to both the gods and the spectators if they included a gala ride in the Agora. The starting point would be the Herms; and the cavalry would ride around saluting the gods at their shrines and statues…. When the circuit is completed and the cavalcade is again near the Herms, the next thing to do, I think, is to gallop at top speed by tribes to the Eleusinion. (The Cavalry Commander)

In all probability, the cavalry trained on the wide, packed gravel surface of the Panathenaic Way itself where it ran through the Agora; the situation is reminiscent of Ells, where the agora was known as the hippodrome because the citizens trained and exercised their horses there. At several points along the Panathenaic Way stone troughs or basins appropriate for watering horses have been found, and an iron ring set into a marble block beside the roadway may have served as a hitching post. Regular training would have been necessary as the ancient Greek horseman, to judge from thousands of representations, had the benefit of neither saddle nor-more important-stirrups; maintaining one’s seat, particularly while wielding a weapon, must have taken great skill.

Two buildings closely associated with the cavalry also probably stood near the northwest corner of the Agora square. One was the hipparcheion, office of the cavalry commanders, and the other was the Stoa of the Herms. Neither building has been recognized or uncovered as yet, but archival material relating to the cavalry which was stored or displayed in these two buildings has been found clustered in the northwest area.

An archive of the cavalry dating to the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. was found in the same well which produced the Pheidon tokens. It consists of several dozen inscribed thin lead strips. Measuring about 0.02 by 0,10 m, each was inscribed with a man’s name, the color of his horse, a description of its brand (a symbol such as a centaur, ax, trident, or snake), and a price falling somewhere between 500 and 1,200 drachmas, the average being about 700 drachmas (two years’ wages). Analysis of these tablets suggests that they are the record of the annual evaluation of the cavalry. The information preserved on them would allow the state to properly compensate a cavalryman if his horse was lost in battle. The tablets became obsolete at the end of each year; normally they were erased and reused, but in several instances they were thrown into two wells, one in the Agora and another by the Dipylon Gate.

The same Agora Crossroads Well also produced nine small round lead disks (0.02 m in diameter), each stamped with the representation of a piece of armor (helmet, corselet, shield, greaves) on one side and with a letter on the other. Written sources are silent as to their use, but it seems likely that they were tokens to be exchanged for actual pieces of equipment distributed to the cavalrymen from the state arsenal.

The Pheidon tokens, lead strips, and armor tokens all come from the same well and suggest the nearby location of the hipparcheion; several inscribed stelai, honoring various cavalry officers and found in the immediate vicinity, were set up in the Stoa of the Herms. Together with the sculpted monuments celebrating victory in the equestrian games, they suggest that the northwest corner of the square was the focal point of activity for the Athenian cavalry within the city.