Reiters in French Service

In the mounted Caracole formation, each rank of a troop of horse goes forwards in turn to fire its pistols at the enemy then retires to the rear of the formation to reload, preferably stationary. This was a complicated action that demanded steadiness of both horse and rider under fire. It was not helped by contradictory advice in drill books on how to perform the manouevre.

Germany produced mercenary cavalry (`Cleves horse’ played an important part in the campaigns of the 1540s). During the 1550s, French armies were increasingly accompanied by squadrons of German horse known as Reiters (in France reitres), sometimes also called pistoliers or `black riders,’ from their black cloaks.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, Thuringian Count Günter of Schwartzburg created the Schwarzern Reitern (Black Horsemen). It was a modern cavalry unit, stressing firepower and agility. Reiter or ritter meant only ‘rider’, but it became the generic name for the mercenary, partly armoured cavalrymen recruited in Germany in the 1550s, and later, during the Wars of Religion, in Spain, Italy and France.

These reiters (swarte rutters to the English) were also hired by Henry VIII. They were armoured cavalrymen, but rode unarmoured horses. Their principal weapon was a boar-spear – a broad-bladed spear, 2½-3 m/8-9 ft in length, with usually a small transverse bar below the blade. They also carried wheel-lock pistols, a German invention which soon replaced the spear, especially in the second half of the century, and became a symbol of the reiters. They played an important part in European warfare until the end of the sixteenth century.

The formation most often used by the reiters was the squadron of 300 or 400 men. Their preferred battle formation was the closed-order block, with 20 to 30 ranks. This deep formation enabled the men in the rear to reload after having discharged their weapons at the enemy and filed off to the flank and rear, allowing the next group to do so. This procedure was repeated until their opponents were sufficiently weakened to create conditions for a charge, when thrusting swords and clubbed pistols came into action.

The armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to three-quarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces. A reiter was usually armed with two or three pistols: two carried in holsters on his saddle bow, and the third,-precariously, in his right boot. There were, however, mercenary companies where reiters had up to six pistols – four in holsters, and one in each boot. Their armour was often blackened; a common measure to fight rust. However, it was also the source of the name schwarz reiter, as well as of the French diables noirs.

Their ill-treatment of the civil population was dire and, not surprisingly, they were widely feared. Part of the problem was that, as cavalry, they required large quantities of fodder and, because they were not at first incorporated in the elaborate supply system developed for the gendarmerie, they took what they needed. It was in March 1552, during the preparations for the German campaign, that we find one of the earliest levies of reitres for France, in this case by the Rhinegrave. He seems to have absorbed Fontenoy’s Cleves horse into his cornette in 1554 and there were complaints about their looting in 1555. Nevertheless, their captain was retained during the peace of 1556.

Immediately after Saint-Quentin, messages were sent to Reiffenberg to raise 2-3000 pistoliers and by December a surplus of men was reported ready to serve. Those retained normally expected Waitgelt of 5 écus for the three months of their retainer and then 8 écus conduct money. Secretary Fresne estimated the total cost at 500,000 écus. The army assembled at Pierrepont in August 1558 included around 8000 pistoliers out of a figure of roughly 11,000 cavalry, a sign of how fast they were emerging as a leading force in cavalry. Another levy was undertaken by arrangement with two Saxon princes and, separately, with Reifenberg. The latter had to be pacified since, while the Saxon princes had been commissioned for 4300 Reiters, Reiffenberg was only asked for 3000. The captains he had appointed had to be content with pensions. In November 1558, Guise drew up a reglement for the supply of the pistoliers in the King’s service which the King welcomed as a persuasive argument (`doulx moyen’). What was this? Essentially it was an attempt to limit the tendency of reitres to live off the land and oppress the people before the harvest, by designating areas in which they could gather fodder for their horses (excluding wheat) and then, after the harvest, by allocating villages where they could obtain fodder at a price fixed by the lieutenant-general. On campaign or in garrison they were to be given étapes in convenient places for the delivery of supplies at a fixed tariff of hay and oats worth 2s 3d p. d. Naturally, they were given freedom to live off the land in enemy territory.

These attempts at regulation were complemented by the capitulations agreed with colonels of pistoliers in 1557-8. Duke Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg mentions a `letter of retainer,’ which had fixed his annual pension, usually in abeyance on active service and replaced by direct pay. He undertook to raise a regiment of 1000 pistoliers in three cornettes and would be paid a florin p. m. for every man he produced (this could thus yield 12,000 florins p. a. = 18,000 lt.). The captains would receive 400 écus p. a. pension and on campaign a florin per month for every man as wages and the same again allocate to `the most notable gentlemen of his cornette.’ Conduct money would be paid to each captain at the rate of 8 écus per man to bring them to the place of first muster and thereafter musters would be monthly. The arms of the men are specified as: a corselet, mail `manches’, gauntlets, head-piece, good strong horse, `at least’ 2 pistols, a cutlass or mace. Pay would be 15 florins (22.10.0. lt.) p. m. (thus nearly four times the pay of a lansquenet). Terms of service were for a minimum of three months and thereafter as long as the King pleased, against all enemies, except the Empire and their feudal superiors in aggressive war. Right to obey a revocation by the Emperor, Cameral Court or their feudal princes was excluded. All orders for deployment were to be obeyed and one month’s pay was guaranteed for return. Detailed provisions were made against muster fraud, substitution (especially by lansquenets), provision in case of loss of horses or illness. No victuals were to be taken without paying, provision made for ransoms and booty. Exactly the same oath was administered as to the lansquenets.

These terms were more or less repeated for the capitulations with Saxe- Weimar, also dated March 1559, with the amplification of the special payment due to him. His retainer, or pension, was specified as 15,000 lt. p. a. with 1500 florins (2250 lt.) p. m. to distribute to `the most notable.’ In general, the terms are spelled out in more detail and prefaced by a series of états specifying the pay of all the officers and men. The duke was contracted to lead 2100 pistoliers in person in 7 cornettes of 300, led by seven captains, each of whom would receive a pension of 400 écus. The judicial staff of prévots etc. was doubled in the case of this regiment, in view of the likelihood that it would be divided for operational reasons. The only distinction with the capitulations signed with Guillaume Gombach was that his annual pension was fixed at the much lower sum of 1200 écus, an indicator that these retainers reflect the social standing of the colonel. As conditions of service, they were virtually identical to those agreed with the younger Rhinegrave, Jean-Philippe, in August 1568 for 1500 men in 5 cornettes, with the exception that the conduct money was fixed at 12 florins. These terms of service fixed by the crown were in practice undermined by events. Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg, for instance, reported as early as April 1558 (a few weeks after his agreement) that the men under his command `are very angry at the delay of their money from 1 October until now and I’m having trouble calming them.’ They had learned that they were to lose two months’ pay. Order was needed for munitions to be made available if he was to stop them foraging. They refused to obey the November 1557 ordinance on supply without express instructions.


Napoleonic Cavalry I

The major armies of the era each had formidable mounted forces, and during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) there was a rough parity between the horsemen of the Great Powers. Yet, when Napoleon (1769-1821) launched his Grande Armee on its campaigns of conquest in 1805, the cavalry of France emerged as the best in the world. The main reasons for this dominance were the superior organization of the French cavalry arm and the excellence of the officers who led it at every level of command.

The French Army of the ancien regime had been dominated by the aristocracy, and in no branch of service was this more visible than the cavalry. Here the ancient tradition of mounted knights was continued through the service of the sons of the finest families in France. When the revolution erupted – and especially after the ascent of the Jacobins to power in 1793 – the aristocratic officer corps was purged, and the army was deprived of much of its senior leadership. Significantly, though, even the radicals recognized the impracticality of removing all nobles from service with the cavalry, since there was a severe shortage of properly trained horsemen to take their places, at least initially. Nevertheless, the officer corps of the French cavalry from 1792 to 1799 was a distinctly mixed bag of generally mediocre talent.

Napoleon’s ascent to power, which began with the formation of the Consulate in 1799, marked a major change in many areas, including a complete reorganization and overhaul of the French cavalry. Napoleon was determined to make his cavalry a superior force to its opponents, and dedicated time, effort and money to re-equipping and reoutfitting the horse troops. In addition to promoting the best soldiers through the ranks according to his policy of ‘a career open to all talents without distinction of birth’, he also welcomed back emigre aristocrat officers and placed them in prominent positions of command within the cavalry. The result was that the French cavalry benefited tremendously in that it retained the very best aristocratic officers, who had to hold their rank based on ability rather than birth, while simultaneously taking advantage of the levelling of society, which enabled low-born troopers of extraordinary abilities to rise through the ranks. In fact, a number of ordinary troopers attained senior officer rank, with some, such as Joachim Murat (1767-1815) and Michel Ney (1769-1815), even becoming marshals of France. These men served beside scions of the ancient French nobility such as Etienne de Nansouty (1768-1815) and Emmanuel Grouchy (1766-1847), finding common cause in Napoleon and his empire, which embraced them all.

As part of Napoleon’s general army reforms, which were finalized in the training camps at Boulogne, the French cavalry emerged in 1805 as a force to be reckoned with. Within the next two years it would forcefully demonstrate that it was the finest cavalry in Europe, and would play an integral part in nearly every major victory of Napoleon throughout the Napoleonic Wars of 1805-15. French cavalry, and especially French heavy cavalry, was the dominant force on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. Though there were certain elite Allied regiments who would prove to be of the same calibre, such as the Scots Greys and the Russian Guard Cavalry, taken as a whole the French heavy horse were without peer from 1800 to 1812.

The Russian campaign changed that dynamic considerably, however. One of Napoleon’s greatest losses in the cataclysm of that horrific episode was the destruction of the French cavalry. In the 1813 and 1814 campaigns that followed, the French cavalry was simply unable to dominate its opponents as it had in previous years. In the opening battles of the 1813 campaign in particular, Napoleon’s lack of numbers and the mediocre quality of the cavalry severely limited his operations, and prevented him from turning his victories at Lützen and later at Bautzen into the decisive triumphs that in previous campaigns they most assuredly would have been. In his report on the battle of Lützen, for example, Marshal Ney praised the spirit and courage of his young horsemen but lamented that the attacks by the raw recruits were poorly coordinated and that they had the disturbing habit of falling off their horses during a charge.

The generally poor quality of his cavalry, and the inexperience of the raw recruits pressed into service to replace his lost veterans, had a dire effect on Napoleon’s campaign. Indeed, when Napoleon decided to seek an armistice in the summer of 1813, a move generally regarded as a major mistake, he stated that while he knew the risks, he needed time to train and equip his cavalry properly since there was no point in fighting battles until it could be suitably readied for action.

Cavalry Mounts

In addition to finding good recruits, acquiring proper horses for the cavalry was also a problem that concerned the armies of all countries. The armies of the Napoleonic era preferred cavalry horses that were around 15 hands (1.5m/5ft) high at the shoulder, though light cavalry were mounted on smaller animals. Horses were usually mature enough for duty once they reached five years of age and could then be relied upon for a good 10-15 years of service. Almost all cavalry horses were mares or geldings, since stallions were virtually uncontrollable around mares in season. Despite their size, horses are more fragile than humans, and have to be treated with great care. During the march into Russia in the summer of 1812, General Nansouty remarked: ‘Our horses have no patriotism. The men will fight without bread, but the horses won’t fight without oats.’ Thus it was as important for a cavalryman to know how far he could ride his horse, and how much water and food to give it, as it was for him to know how to fight on its back. Indeed, one of the great problems with raw cavalry recruits, such as those Napoleon was forced to employ after his Russian campaign had destroyed his cavalry, was the high attrition rate of their mounts.

France alone could not provide enough horses for the needs of the largest army in European history, and thus imperial lands in Germany and Italy were relied upon to provide enough mounts for the cavalry, as well as horses for the artillery and supply services. A severe shortage of horses occurred after the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. In addition to the loss of so many horses during the campaign, the German lands relied upon for remounts became battlegrounds and eventually fell into the hands of the Allies. As a consequence the French cavalry was a notably diminished force in size and quality during the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. The restored Bourbon regime imported large numbers of horses from other parts of Europe during Napoleon’s brief first exile, and upon his return to power in 1815 the emperor took full advantage of this to rebuild his cavalry arm. Consequently during the Hundred Days the French cavalry was better mounted than it had been at any time since Russia, and as a result played a critical role in all of the major battles of the campaign.

Napoleonic Cavalry II

In December 1805, brigadier general Jean Rapp led a memorable attack at Austerlitz, when he charged at the head of two squadrons each of the Chasseurs a cheval and the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard and the Guard Mameluks and decimated the Chevalier Guards of the Russian Imperial Guard.

Order and Discipline

Like all soldiers, cavalrymen were sometimes guilty of cowardice, malingering and lax discipline. Such problems included heavy cavalry discarding their cumbersome equipment and weapons on long marches in order to lighten their loads. Cavalrymen could also employ tricks to make an animal sick or hobbled – for example, by placing small rocks beneath their saddles in order to make their horses sore-backed. This provided the men with an excuse to take their animals to the rear, thus avoiding action.

At times cavalry were guilty of excesses against civilians. Sometimes lax discipline was viewed as one of the few comforts available while on arduous service, and the light cavalry seemed to take the greatest advantage of the liberty of action bestowed upon them. Light cavalry were not a welcome sight to civilians, be they countrymen, allies or enemies. The light horsemen lived, fought and marauded beyond the bounds of normal society and had a disdain for their own lives, let alone the lives of others. Looting was commonplace, and light cavalry managed always to find time for it, even when engaged in their assigned martial activities. Such activities, which could also include murder and rape, occurred with the compliance, and sometimes even the participation, of their officers. The Cossacks of Russia acquired the worst reputation of any light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. These wild nomads were barely controllable within the boundaries of the Russian Empire, never mind when they were set loose upon the peoples of Europe. Even Russian allies such as Austria and Prussia complained vociferously about the conduct of these marauders within their territories, so it is easy to imagine the despicable nature of Cossack activities in the territories of France and its allies.

Organization of cavalry varied greatly from army to army. The Austrians and Prussians, for example, arranged their cavalry in divisions, which were attached to their armies or, after the reforms of 1807-09, to a parent corps. The traditional role of assigning cavalry to the wings of an army/corps to defend its flanks continued in these forces. Although each French corps had a light cavalry division assigned to it, Napoleon also formed separate corps of cavalry and horse artillery. On the day of battle, Napoleon would gather the bulk of his cavalry corps into a formidable Cavalry Reserve, which was held out of battle in the centre of his position. He would allow his infantry and artillery to engage the enemy and develop the attack, and when the enemy had been properly softened up, or an opportunity presented itself, he would unleash his horsemen in a powerful charge against the enemy’s weak spot. Although an artillery officer by training and inclination, Napoleon appreciated the shock power of cavalry in battle. Often it was a charge by the units of this Cavalry Reserve that decided the day; or in some cases saved it, as was the case on the snow-covered fields of Eylau in 1807.

Cavalry Types

Delivering shock action on the battlefield was but one of many functions the cavalry was called on to perform. In addition, horse troops were used for reconnaissance, screening an army’s movements and for pursuit of a defeated opponent. Such widely disparate missions called for different qualities, and consequently the cavalry of the era was classified as either heavy cavalry, reserved for shock action on the battlefield, or light cavalry, charged with most other missions. Cuirassiers, carabiniers and the Grenadier a Cheval of the Imperial Guard were classified as heavy cavalry. Dragoons and lancers (uhlans in the Austrian and Prussian armies) were really a hybrid between heavy and light and thus were often used for shock action on the battlefield as well as traditional light cavalry missions. The British Army separated their dragoon formations into heavy dragoons and light dragoons (bah!) specifically to differentiate the role of a particular regiment, although even then there was some crossover brought about by the exigencies of a campaign.

Light cavalry received their general classification because they and their mounts were smaller than their counterparts in the heavy cavalry. Hussars were the most numerous of the various types of light cavalry found in the armies of the day. Their traditional braided dolmans, resplendent in a variety of bright colours, made them the gaudiest-dressed soldiers of their armies. French, Austrian and Prussian hussars also traditionally wore a moustache and long, braided side locks on either side of the face; with the Russians, facial hair varied, while British light dragoons (bah!) were clean-shaven.

In an age in which weeks and even months of manoeuvre preceded the decisive battle, these light horsemen swarmed the countryside, probing for enemy weak points, seeking out information on strength and location and doing near continuous battle with enemy light cavalry bent on the same mission. Such a role required horsemen with a high degree of motivation and elan, as well as a natural aggressiveness that would allow them to operate independently of the main army, and often deep inside enemy country. They enjoyed a roguish image and a reputation for galloping headlong into impossible situations. This hell-for-leather attitude was best expressed by one of the most famous hussar commanders of the age, General Antoine Lasalle (1775-1809), who quipped: ‘Any Hussar who is not dead by the time he is thirty is a blackguard.’ Lasalle was killed in action at the battle of Wagram when he was 34 years old.

Aggressive pursuit of a retiring enemy force was the key to turning a tactical victory into a strategic triumph that could win a war. Although heavy cavalry was employed in pursuit operations, it was the light cavalry that excelled in this mission, nipping at the heels of a retiring enemy, picking off stragglers and raiding vulnerable supply wagons and baggage trains, never allowing the enemy to completely disengage and recover its footing. Fighting was usually limited in these affairs, and the emphasis was on speed and initiative, hence the light cavalry were in their element.

Napoleonic Cavalry III

Modern-day Knights

The armoured warrior on horseback had dominated the battlefields of Europe for a millennium, but the advent of firearms had generally caused the disappearance of armour. By the end of the eighteenth century, most cavalry had abandoned it altogether. However, in the Napoleonic Wars armour made a comeback, especially in the French cavalry. Marshal Ney came up through the ranks as a cavalryman and was particularly fond of heavy cavalry – in spite of his early service with the hussars – and, along with General François-Etienne Kellermann (1770-1835), lobbied Napoleon to create more armoured cuirassier regiments.

Upon Ney’s recommendation and Napoleon’s own positive experiences with these armoured horsemen, a total of 14 cuirassier regiments were raised. French cuirassiers wore a heavy iron cuirass, which consisted of a breastplate and backplate to encase the horseman’s torso in armour but leave the arms unencumbered and free for action. Armed with a large, straight sabre, heavy cavalry were the modern incarnation of knights – big men on great horses who were used almost exclusively for shock action on the battlefield itself. Besides armour, these horsemen were equipped with a brace of pistols and a carbine, though within a short time most cuirassiers had dispensed with the latter. In 1812 Napoleon ordered French carabiniers to wear the iron cuirass. The carabiniers protested the order, since they believed that it essentially turned them into cuirassiers and thereby diminished their branch of the cavalry. So, to distinguish them from their rivals, decorative copper plating was added to their iron cuirasses, lending carabinier armour a golden appearance.

These ironclad horsemen came to be a dominant force on the battlefields of Europe, and the French cuirassiers and carabiniers became the bane of the Allied armies. Indeed, in the campaigns against Austria, Prussia and Russia during 1805-07 the cuirassiers proved themselves the finest heavy cavalry in Europe. They were an almost irresistible force on the battlefield, and Napoleon increasingly relied upon their dramatic charges to finish off a shaken enemy and win the day. Napoleon lavished rewards upon the cuirassiers. They were authorized to wear the red plume and flaming grenade symbol of elite troops, and as such received extra pay. He kept their scouting and screening duties light, and avoided involving them in skirmishes in order to reserve them for action in major battles.

Although the Austrian, Russian and Prussian armies contained regiments of cuirassiers, they never quite matched the skill and audacity of their French counterparts and were routinely bested on the battlefield. Indeed, many Allied regiments even dispensed with the cuirass, citing issues of weight and problems of manoeuvring in the saddle. By 1809 the Austrians had begun to place a demi-cuirass on their cuirassiers, which covered only the front part of the torso, leaving the flanks and back exposed. While this lightened the cuirassiers’ load and made it easier on their horses on campaign, it also made them more vulnerable in melee combat with French heavy cavalry.

For example, at the battle of Eckmühl in 1809, French cuirassiers dealt a stinging defeat to their Austrian counterparts. During the course of the engagement, the French inflicted nearly five times the number of casualties on their opponents, and much credit for this accomplishment was given to the superior armour of the French horsemen.

Cuirassier Equipment

French horsemen found the extra weight of the full cuirass negligible, and while certainly more encumbered than an unarmoured opponent, they believed the defensive benefits of the armour far outweighed any inconvenience. The cuirass could easily turn aside an enemy blade and could even stop the low-velocity lead balls that were the standard frrearms projectiles of the age. Thus, as these ironclad cavalrymen spurred their horses into a headlong charge, they felt a certain comfort in their perceived invulnerability. Other heavy cavalry, such as dragoons and the famous Grenadier a Cheval of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, lacked body armour. Therefore, it was common practice for dragoons to take their cloaks and roll them into a crossbelt of heavy cloth that they wore diagonally across their torsos. This improvised ‘armour’ actually provided some protection from enemy blades.

Besides body armour, all types of heavy cavalry in every nation’s army wore some kind of helmet. A horseman charged into battle bent forward over his saddle, and thus his head was thrust forward and vulnerable. Some helmets were made of thick leather, such as British dragoon helmets, which were both stylish and functional. Although light, they were capable of deflecting sword blows or lance thrusts and offered a modicum of protection from spent musket balls.

Russian, Austrian and some French dragoons also wore leather helmets, though in widely different styles. French cuirassiers and carabiniers wore iron helmets. Although ornate by modern standards, with their distinctive high brass combs and horsehair plumes, they provided real protection to their wearer from enemy blades and bullets, and were the best helmets worn by any horsemen.

Heavy cavalry attacks were an awe-inspiring sight. Drawn up in great masses of squadrons, these horsemen charged with tremendous fury, forming a mounted fist of steel that could smash through a weak point in the enemy line. They could also be used as an effective counterattack force against an enemy advance. If they could catch infantry in column or line formation and strike their flank or rear, heavy cavalry could wreak havoc, ramming right through such formations and cutting down the foot soldiers or trampling them under the flailing hooves of their powerful steeds.

A heavy cavalry charge would begin with the horsemen advancing at a walk, then increase the tempo to a trot. The idea was to maintain their tight-packed formation as long as possible to maximize striking power when they collided with the enemy. As they closed on their objective, the pace would be stepped up, reaching a thundering gallop in the last 100m (110 yards) until the cavalry crashed headlong into their target, slashing with sabre to right and left as they sliced through the enemy. The sheer mass of these armoured men on their mighty steeds provided a strike force unlike any other on the battlefield.


Equipment of lancer and reiter, also from Wallshavsen Art Militare a Cheval, 1616.

While the French and Spanish stuck with the lance as the weapon of choice of their heavy cavalry, the Germans changed over to pistols. These reiters (or schwartzreiters because of their habit of wearing black armour) became the usual sort of mercenary German horse hired by the various combatants in the wars. They developed the caracole, a system whereby a deep formation of pistoleers could deliver a continuous barrage of pistol fire against a stationary target (usually a pike block) – each rank firing in turn then moving off to the rear to reload. Each man carried up to three pistols, two in holsters and one in the right boot.

The Germans developed a new kind of cavalry armoured in a breastplate and high, heavy leather boots, and armed with three wheel-lock pistols. This new mercenary light cavalry, called Schwarzreiters or ‘black riders’ because of their black armour and accoutrements, attacked enemy formations using the revolving tactics of the caracole.

To execute the caracole, these reiters, as they were soon called, trotted toward their enemy in a line of small, dense columns, each several ranks deep and with intervals of about two horses’ width between files. In a tactic reminiscent of the Parthian shot, the reiters fired their three muzzle-loading pistols, then swung 180 degrees and filed to the rear to reload. Usually the caracole tactic was employed before a general advance as a means of disrupting enemy cavalry and infantry formations. But the time and awkwardness of reloading while mounted meant the caracole was a very difficult manoeuvre to carry out effectively, and, like light cavalry from the classical and medieval period, it was easily disrupted by an enemy heavy cavalry countercharge.

As the wheel lock’s distribution and production passed through Germany from northern Italy to the rest of Europe, the German Reiters (riders, or horsemen) recognized its potential and developed new tactics to exploit it. The wheel lock saw extensive use by all belligerents during the Thirty Years’ War, and demand for and the manufacture of wheel-lock pistols expanded rapidly during the period. The wheel-lock mechanism transformed the pistol into a compact, practical weapon suitable for mounted troops. The new pistol could be carried loaded, ready for instant use, and significantly extended the killing range. The advent of the wheel-lock pistol made possible the caracole, a military maneuver in which close-order waves of sword and pistol-armed cavalrymen rode within close range of infantry, fired their pistols, and then broke away, allowing successive waves to follow. The massed fire of the caracole proved effective against densely packed squares of pikemen and other formations of ground troops. Although short-ranged owing to their relatively short, smoothbore barrels, the wheel-lock pistols did reach significantly farther than the pike, and massed fire compensated for the pistol’s inaccuracy. The wheel lock also gave a similarly deadly advantage when used against cavalry armed conventionally with sword and lance.

German horseman with wheel lock Faustrohre pistols, about 1600.


The pistol emerged triumphant; its advantage was that it could be manipulated with one hand, the other being used to control the horse. It was not unknown for a pistol to fail to go off, which was why every man carried between two and six. Training to use a pistol also took less time than teaching a man to use the heavy lance, and smaller horses could be used by pistol-carrying units, as their armour was much lighter. On the other hand, the knights’ armour, though improved and strengthened, could no longer withstand the increased penetration of the firearms deployed by the infantry and light cavalry. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, heavily armoured cavalrymen stopped using horse-armour, and reduced their own, becoming cuirassiers. The tactics of the reiters were adopted by all cavalry forces. Owing to improved weaponry and training, the depth of battle formation decreased first to ten lines, and towards the end of the century to six or seven. Shallower formations using the same number of men meant wider fronts, which had to be controlled by discipline and training. The cavalry of the period was therefore a modern force, acting as an organized troop.

The armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to threequarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces.


Cyrus the Great wanted to use more mounted soldiers because he knew how important they were especially since two of his greatest enemies used cavalry or soldiers on horseback. The Persian army was organized in a new fashion. The cavalry flanked both sides of the army in the middle which comprised of archers who attacked first from a distance. Afterwards, the horsemen attacked anyone left standing in the opposing army by throwing javelins, which were light spears thrown by hand.


The Iranian-speakers who migrated into the land of Iran and the surrounding area in the years before 1000 BC were not one single tribe or group. In time some of their descendants became known as Medes and Persians, but there were Parthians, Sogdians, and others, too, who only acquired the names known to us later in their history. And even the titles Mede and Persian were themselves simplifications, lumping together shifting alliances and confederacies of disparate tribes.

From the beginning, the Medes and Persians are mentioned together in historical sources, suggesting a close relationship from the very earliest times. The first such mention is in an Assyrian record of 836 BC—an account of an extended military campaign by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and several of his successors that was waged in the Zagros mountains and as far east as Mount Demavand, the high, extinct volcano in the Alborz range. The accounts they left behind listed the Medes and Persians as tributaries—those paying tribute to the stronger Assyrians. The heartlands of the Medes were in the northwest, in the modern provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Hamadan, and Tehran. In the region of the Zagros south of the territories occupied by the Medes, the Assyrians encountered the Persians in the region they called Parsuash, which has been known ever since as Pars or Fars.

Within a century or so, however, the Medes and Persians were fighting back, attacking Assyrian territories. Later traditions recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC mention early kings of the Medes, called Deioces and Cyaxares, who appeared in the Assyrian accounts as Daiaukku and Uaksatar; and a king of the Persians called Achaemenes, who the Assyrians called Hakhamanish. By 700 BC the Medes—with the help of Scythian tribes—had established an independent state, which later grew to become the first Iranian Empire. In 612 BC the Medes destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (adjacent to modern Mosul, on the Tigris). At its height the Median Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush, and south to the Persian Gulf, ruling the Persians as vassals as well as many other subject peoples.


Around 559 BC a Persian prince named Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan upon the death of his father. Persia and Anshan, at that time, were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 BC captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia—he crowned himself king of Persia, making Persia the center of the empire and Media the junior partner. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, as well as Phoenicia, Judaea, and Babylonia. This created an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

Cyrus’s empire took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, notably in its written script and monumental iconography. But without romanticizing Cyrus unduly, it seems that he aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of kings and the supposed favor of their terrible war-gods were commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism, after the man who found it), measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was discovered near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BC–681 BC). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king . . . king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters . . . guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me . . . has made powerful my weapons . . . he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare. . . .

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils. . . . I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. . . .

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities . . . by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines . . . I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. . . .

The way the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was very similar to this, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently, either.

By contrast, another clay object, about 9 inches by 4 inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed—under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world, which is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. But the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan of a family that always exercised kingship. . . .

But it continues, describing the favor shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities . . .

and concludes:

As to the region . . . as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda—but it is propaganda of a different kind. It shows Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BC) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that he permitted freedom of worship to the Jews, too. Cyrus and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. For those acts they were accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs.

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased. But that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite, including the priests—the Magi. Leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s personal beliefs, which remain unclear, it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian. According to one account he was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of spouses or sexual partners, but men only one. Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in men’s apparent holding of women in common as practiced later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD, and by the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child; it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives. But in general, Persian society seems to have leaned toward limiting the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right—and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence. But this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there. That tomb, which can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared), is massively simple rather than grandiose—a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings. Many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs halfway up a cliff face. Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence, to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs—different religions, effectively. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizontal—a question of geography and tribe rather than of social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Halfway between heaven and earth—itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise, a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’s memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with imagination and vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as that other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period just as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

Caesar’s Allies

Gaul Cavalry

German Cavalry

It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.