Roman Cavalry in Britain

The troops and their war horses

stallion and foalThe Romans initially brought only a few cavalry units to Britain. What they apparently did not bring was a large number of "Roman" or Italian horses.

Caesar's invasions

Julius Caesar describes his campaigns in his War Commentaries. In 55 BC 100 ships were used for the expedition to Britain, which was mainly a military information-gathering exercise. 80 ships carried 12,000 infantry. 18 ships carried cavalry, but storms prevented their landing. A ship averaged 150 infantry; estimating that one cavalryman with horse takes the same space as 4 or 5 infantrymen, the 18 ships transporting the cavalry could each carry 30 or 40 cavalry giving a total of 540 to 720 auxiliary cavalry. There would have had to be space spared for forage for at least a day or so during the embarkation, voyage and landing, so the lower number is more likely. Caesar did not hire ships; he had the army build them, as they had done on occasion in other campaigns.

The second invasion in 54 BC brought "more than 800 ships" used to transport five legions (around 25,000 men) and 2,000 cavalry troops with their horses and a large baggage train. The proportion of cavalry to infantry was higher, but still fairly small -- less than one in twelve of the total force. Caesar had left three legions (15,000 men) and 2,000 cavalry in Gaul "to defend the harbours and to provide corn."

We know a little about the southern British manner of fighting from horse or pony-drawn chariots, from Caesar. (We do not know whether this was also current through Northern England although there is evidence of chariot use in Yorkshire.) Despite his admiration for the skills of the charioteers and the warriors, he says the British system is dangerous to both sides:

[4.33] Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the mean time withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again.

[5.16] the horse [Roman cavalry] also fought with great danger, because they [the Britons] generally retreated even designedly, and, when they had drawn off our men a short distance from the legions, leaped from their chariots and fought on foot in unequal [and to them advantageous] battle. But this system of cavalry engagement is wont to produce equal danger, and indeed the same, both to those who retreat and to those who pursue. To this was added, that they never fought in close order, but in small parties and at great distances, and had detachments placed [in different parts], and then the one relieved the other, and the vigorous and fresh succeeded the wearied. (Caesar)


Roman troops in the North

From 130 AD and for nearly 300 years the Ala Petriana was stationed outside Carlisle. It was the largest unit on Hadrian's Wall, and consisted of 24 troops of 32 cavalry, nearly 800 men.

The troops who lived and worked along the Wall itself were often "auxiliaries" or helpers. They were not all "Roman" soldiers in the fullest sense. The Roman legionaries were the first grade troops, experts at engineering and maintenance work; but the auxiliaries were seen as expendable and were likely to have been in the forefront of any fighting. Auxiliary units were normally raised in Roman provinces and "maintained in ethnically-distinct units which retained homeland names and fighting skills. But many units spent centuries stationed in Britain." (Bedoyere, 1996). They were deliberately stationed as far as possible from their homelands to prevent mutiny.

The local people of the region now known as Cumbria were called the Carvetii. The Brigantes, the tribe in possession of the south easterly and Pennine areas of Cumbria, had family links with members of the tribe in Ireland and also in Northern Spain (Asturia, another horse producing area).

The Italian Romans were not particularly good horsemen, and the Army were not trained to be heavily reliant on cavalry; but they raised auxiliary mounted regiments where riding and horse production was commonplace. According to an official Wall web site (which seems to be offline, Nov 2016) , men who manned the Wall came (in alphabetical order) from Algeria, Belgium, Bulgaria, South West and Eastern France, North Germany and the Rhineland, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Morocco, Romania, North and North West Spain, Switzerland, European Turkey, Syria, Tunisia and Wales. The ancient terms for some of these recorded recruitment areas are:

  • Asturia: the north coast of Spain;
  • Batavia: the region close to the mouth of the Rhine, in the south of the Netherlands;
  • Frisia;
  • Holland;
  • Gaul: Celtic France between the Seine and the Garonne rivers;
  • Germania: Germany;
  • Pannonia: parts of Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Switzerland and Austria;
  • Sarmatia: between the Vistula River [Poland] and the Caspian Sea; the steppes of Ukraine, Georgia, possibly northeastern Turkey and Iran;
  • Tungria: the middle stretch of the river Meuse in modern Belgium.

Troop numbers in Northern Britain

This is only a sample. For detailed information on the Roman occupation of Britain see sites available from Intute - the most comprehensive, Roman Britain (roman-britain.org), seems to be defunct. For contemporary information written by people living near Hadrian's Wall, "straight from the horse's mouth" see Vindolanda Online.

  • - the Ala Augusta Gallorum Petriana bis torquata milliaria civium Romanorum, 1,024 men; the largest unit on Hadrian's Wall; consisted of French horsemen and was based at Stanwix, outside Carlisle
  • - the Ala Gallorum Sebosiana, 512 men; is recorded from several locations from Lancaster to Brough
  • - the Spanish Ala II Asturum is recorded at Chesters on the Wall and may have used Asturcon ponies who ambled (moved laterally instead of diagonally in the next gait up from walk)
  • - the Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana (512) at Corbridge (ref)
  • - the Ala Sarmatarum (512) at Ribchester, Lancashire.
Pliny the Elder (d. AD79) describes Sarmatian endurance practices: "The Sarmatians prepare their horses in advance for a long journey by withholding their fodder the day before and only allowing them a little water. This way they ride 150 miles non-stop." Tacitus in the "Germania" (AD55) also describes the Sarmatians, "who live on horseback and dwell in waggons." The Roman historian Cassius Dio speaks of 5,500 Sarmatian hostages taken from their Hungarian homelands in AD175 and sent to Britain (Dio, History LXXXI.xvi) under Marcus Aurelius. It was possibly only a temporary posting, but it was a very large one. Some of the hostages were apparently formed into the Ala Sarmatarum and stationed at the Ribchester fort.
"On retirement the Sarmatians may have received land in Bowland, as a tradition of horse-breeding survived in the area through to the monastic period. Kirkstall Abbey had horse breeding "ranches" in the Slaidburn area up until the dissolution. A local farmer has deeds for his farm that actually mention that horses were kept rather than sheep or cattle as they were able to escape the predations of wolves." (D Higham, pers. comm. 2002, quoting the opinion of Dr M C Higham).

It is possible that this Wing bred and trained army remounts but so far no location has been identified for the breeding and rearing of the young horses; a tentative suggestion of the enigmatic Affetside Enclosure (close to Watling Street, the Roman Road from Manchester to Ribchester) has not so far been supported, and lack of water there is a major drawback.

The Sarmatians are said to have been fond of the Dragon as a fighting symbol. In the third century AD, the Romans adopted the Sarmatian standard, the draconarius, in all their cavalry regiments. (ref)

Another Roman adoption was that of the Celtic horse Goddess, Epona, from Gaul; her worship was widespread throughout the Romanised world, including Britain. Celtic horsemen enjoyed a high reputation, rather as Irish racing trainers do now.

  • - cohors I Aelia Dacorum milliaria (1,024, possibly mixed infantry and cavalry) at Birdoswald on the Wall
  • - cohors I Augusta Nervia/Nervana Germanorum milliaria equitata (500) recorded from Burgh-by-Sands and Bewcastle, again along the Wall
  • - cohors II Gallorum equitata (512) at Old Penrith (Plumpton)
  • - cohors I Thracum equitata civium Romanorum (512) at Bowes and Birdoswald
  • - cohors I Frisiavonum/Frixagorum at Rudchester (Frisiavoni were Belgic soldiers)
  • - cuneus Frisiorum Ver(covicianorum) Se(ve)r(iani) Alexandriani at Housesteads (Frisiori were Germanic but apparently distinct from the Frisiavoni. The cuneus was a very small, "humble" cavalry unit that fought in a wedge shape, hence its Latin name.)
  • - c(u)neus Frisionum Aballavensium Philipp(ianorum) at Papcastle and Burgh-by-Sands
  • - c(uneus) Fris(iorum) Vinovie(nsium) at Binchester.
  • - VEX LEG XX V V: the builders of Voreda (Old Penrith) were a "vexillation" or detachment of legionary troops from the Twentieth legion (Valeria Victrix) based at Deva (Chester).
  • Also at Old Penrith were French and German troops:
  • - COH(ors) II GAL(lorum) : second cohort of Gauls;
  • - VEX GERMANOR(um) VORED : detachment of German troops from Voreda.
  • A PDF map of the various troop dispositions is available from Futurelearn

"The troops of the first grade, the legions (5,500 to 6,000 men), were divided into cohorts, of which there were ten in each legion: the cohort thus contained 600 men.

"Among the troops of the second grade (the auxilia) the cohorts were independent foot regiments (500 or 1,000 strong), corresponding to the alae, which were similar regiments of cavalry (500 or 1,000 strong); they were generally posted on the frontiers of the Empire in small forts of four to eight acres, each holding one cohort or ala." (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1911)

The auxiliaries seem to have formed the backbone of the Roman cavalry. Such cavalry, whether they were originally volunteers or enslaved prisoners, must surely have ridden to their postings and it seems likely that their horses, at least to begin with, came from their point of origin. The army may have been able to charter ships to transport horses as well as men across the Channel; after all, the amphitheatres managed to import lions and elephants for the gladiatorial Games in Rome. Friesian merchantmen held the main seagoing power of the time all along the coasts of the North Sea and traded cloth, weapons, metalwork, and horses. Richardson thinks it likely that horses from Friesland were supplied for the mercenaries. Remounts were probably obtained for them at their destination or at points along the route, but it seems equally likely that many of the horses were from the same place as the cavalry themselves. However, not all the regions would necessarily supply stallions; some tribes had already developed the practice of gelding in order to provide more tractable mounts.

Artist's impression of cavalry barracksStabling was re-excavated by Tyne and Wear Museum staff in 1999-2000 at South Shields (Arbeia) and in 1998 at Wallsend (Segedunum; see artist's impression >>). The centralised, oblong drainage pits found there suggest that the stables were intended to house male horses rather than female. The roughly square outline of ~10 x 12 Roman feet (3.6 metres) which was allowed for three troopers, gave each horse (pony) a stall space 4 feet wide by 10 feet long. The nine stables in each barrack block would house 27 horses of a 30-strong "turma", with 3 officers (principales) and their horses accommodated at the end of the range in a slightly larger space. Horses may have been tied up outside the stables on a regular basis as there is further drainage provision outside each building. Hodgson cites Sommer (1999a) who points out that cavalry mounts would have had daily work and exercise outside; this apparently small space may have been perfectly adequate because the horses were kept in readiness for instant action and might spend long stretches of the day working hard. In addition the stables would rarely be full since the troops would be out working. The horsemen evidently lived in the same barrack, backing onto the stalls at ground level, while their servants (calones) lived above in attics. These must have been unenviable places to live - full of smoke from the calvalrymen's fires and of the smell of ammonia from the horses below! (Also see English Heritage pages. Another useful site is Hillwalk Tours, connected with the Nationals Trails of England and with the Hadrian’s Wall Path Trail Officer in particular.)

The cavalry auxiliaries were among the highest paid of all the Roman soldiers because they had to pay for their horses' needs out of their own salary. At least one route might be hypothesised for an infusion of foreign blood, of whatever type, into local pony stock: perhaps the word would go round - "Auxiliary soldiers with cavalry stallions seek oats or forage." "Local farmer close to the fort-gate has hay available and some pony mares from whom he would like better quality foals." Simple barter would be required.... something horse people the world over are good at! And this is quite apart from the obvious need for buying or breeding remounts, which any cavalry commander would have to consider.to top


French Cavalry.

The largest cavalry unit in Cumbria was approximately 1,000 strong. It was known as the Ala Petriana and came from the nearest Continental country, Gaul (ie France and possibly Belgium). It was stationed at Stanwix, Carlisle, in command of Harian's Wall.

During his 25 years service a trooper would have been supplied with a remount at least once and probably more. A cavalry horse's working life was much shorter than that of his rider - always supposing that neither was injured or killed in battle. The remount could have been a horse from the cavalry unit's own region, an imported horse, or one bought or bred locally for the purpose. The possibility of some of these being stallions - whether belonging to French, Spanish, Dutch (Friesian), Turkish, Hungarian, German or Ukrainian troops - does give the possibility of breeding remounts by crossing with the local stock. It has been suggested that remounts were bred and trained in the Ribchester area (North Lancashire) where the Sarmatians were located (see above). Given the Roman Army's preference for protocol, discipline and control, a programme for buying, bartering or breeding remounts seems plausible whenever a unit was posted to a district for any length of time. Again, these "horses" cannot be automatically assumed to be large by modern standards.

Auxiliary cavalry of all nationalities are likely to have brought at least some of their own war horses with them. Not to have done so would be like taking a tank regiment overseas without any tanks. It was Roman policy to keep recruits in racial groups for service but to move them as far as possible from their home areas to prevent mutiny brewing. This could have been a source of considerable mingling of equine blood as foreign horses from all over Europe and local horses (ponies) were interbred with the indigenous pony of Northern England; French, Friesian, Spanish, German, Hungarian or even Russian. The process could have gone on for two or three hundred years, with or without active human intervention, if the market demanded it. While the presence of foreign animals is very probable, if there were interbreedings with the local stock, I suspect they would be for the use of the army, not to improve the local stock per se; most of the saleable offspring would go on to work and not to breed, so the local stock would still be of the same foundation blood. Whether any of the crosses were expected to produce further generations must be impossible to answer. It is more likely that they were simply used and did not have any significant input into the local population - a situation rather like the modern crossing of the Border Leicester ram onto hill bred Rough Fell ewes to produce the vigorous Greyface sheep for lowland farmers. The Romans certainly bred mules, so the crossing of two species or separately-bred lines to obtain a precise product was a familiar practice to them.

There may have already been a common gene pool in north-western European horse stock; it could have included the ancestors of other present-day sturdy breeds in which a dark coat colour is common, such as the Dales, the Dole of Sweden, the Merens and Ariegeois of France and the Gudbrandsdal pony of Norway. These possibilities cannot be proved one way or the other at present. Dent mentions this but also mentions sacred white or cream coloured horses associated with the Frisian and Jute areas of Europe. (Dent). It is possible that a dark coat is a development due to breeding selection.


Richardson (1990) also suggests that when the mercenary soldiers were paid off from their short term of service it made more sense to leave their battle-scarred horses behind, rather than to trek to the east coast and ferry them home to a country in which their breed was in any case common. This can be argued against, however: assume that you were a veteran cavalryman, used to riding everywhere. Would you sell your mount at "market bottom", and walk home to Frisia, Hungary, Poland, Germany or wherever, from the other side of the Channel; sail to Europe and buy another horse from a dealer at "market top"; or pay the passage by sea for your horse, whom you know and have trusted with your life?

Whichever breeds or types were involved, we know from archaeology only that there was a mixture of types in northern Britain during almost four centuries of occupation. Actual "breeds" of fixed type did not exist as such until much later. They were not recorded and bred systematically in Britain until the 18th century. Breeding practices are much more likely to have been based on the word-of-mouth pattern common in modern "coloured" cobs and "blagdon" cobs, eg on the Dragon Driving website.


Sources for the data on this page are listed on the Thanks page.

 

A good source of modern research and demonstrations of practical riding in Roman styles is Comitatus, http://www.comitatus.net/index.html