Unsung Inventions: Stirrups to Cavalries

As mentioned in my last post, ancient Greeks were more likely to think of a charioteer than a jockey at the word “horse racing.” This was partly because Greek sports were essentially peacetime military exercises, and armies used chariots long before mounted units. If you read Homer’s Iliad, there are numerous mentions of chariots, but nary one of a mounted warrior.

To Americans, a charge of the light brigade might seem a lot more practical than chariots rolling about on the battlefield. But again, our ancient Greek predecessors lacked a little thing called stirrups. If you think riding bareback on a galloping, weaving horse sounds hard, imagine doing that holding weapons with arrows flying through the air. War chariots, which were the tanks of their day, each had a driver and an archer. That way one could concentrate on steering while the other could focus on attacking. And if you fell off, stepping into a chariot’s a lot quicker (especially with a partner) than trying to scramble onto the back of a spooked, saddleless horse.

Of course, chariots weren’t without their drawbacks. Namely, they only worked in places where a wheeled vehicle could travel at speed. Given Greece’s terrain, it was only a matter of time before armies started incorporating mounted units.

These early Greek cavalries fought with javelins or a heavy curved slashing sword and used horses that were quick and handy. Their MO was to deliver a lightning strike: charge, attack, and retreat at once so the enemy could not engage them. Prolonged close combat they left to the ranks on foot. Because any extended engagement was liable to unseat their bareback riders.

But once stirrups came along, mounted warfare completely changed. They not only secured rider’s position on a horse’s back, they gave fighters something to brace against if they struck an enemy or sustained a blow. That way, riders could stay in the fray for the long haul, eventually leading to the development of mounted knights and Civil War era cavalries. If you don’t believe that, just imagine a jousting match between bareback riders (LOL).

Next up: buckles.

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