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Roman Drills for Medieval Horsemen


Although siege warfare had enjoyed primacy in the later Roman empire, field forces were not neglected. Horsemen with lances were trained to dismount rapidly, so that they could fight on foot as 'pikemen', and to vault into the saddle when the time came to fight on horseback.


The infantry carried less body armour than the legionaries of earlier days and could deploy more rapidly. Major battles of the later fourth and fifth centuries illustrate the flexibility of late Roman battle tactics - for example, Mursa (in 351, fought against Magnentius, who had usurped the imperial title from the emperor Constans), where lancers dismounted to fight on foot, or Châlons (451, against the Huns), where imperial infantry fought in concert with allied Visigothic and Alan horsemen.


Ammianus Marcellinus, a professional soldier and the leading Roman historian of his day, paid tribute to this flexibility in his description of the emperor Constantius (d.361): 'He was especially able in riding, in hurling the javelin and in the use of the bow. In addition, he was very knowledgeable with regard to all the tactics and armament of foot-soldiers.'


Throughout the early middle ages, troop training programmes provide considerable insight into prevailing tactics. In both East and West, revised versions of Vegetius's Concerning Military Matters, based upon the earliest surviving revision which was done at Constantinople in AD 450, abounded.


Although he focused on the training of infantry (he believed that the mounted arm needed little reform), Vegetius did devote special attention to the need for tactical flexibility among mounted troops.


This flexibility was pursued throughout the middle ages and ultimately it became institutionalized in the 'dragoon', a term which originally, in the sixteenth century, applied to a mounted soldier trained to fight on foot.


The following passage was copied and edited by Rabanus Maurus, a cleric and scholar at the court of the Carolingian king Lothair Il, who provided an epitome of Vegetius's work which included only those things which were of importance 'in modern times'. Rabanus selected, among other chapters, a key element in the training regime for cavalry recruits:


Wooden horses are placed during the winter under a roof and in summer in a field. The recruits at first try to mount unarmed, then they mount carrying shields and swords, and finally with very large pole weapons.


And this practice was so thorough that they were forced to learn how to jump on and off their horses not only from the right but from the left and from the rear and in addition they learned to jump on and off their horses even with an unsheathed sword.


Mounted troops also trained to fight on horseback and no less importantly trained their horses for combat. These training exercises of the early middle ages anticipate the spectacle of the tournament. Nithard, a grandson of Charlemagne, described a particularly impressive (but hardly isolated) practice session carried out near Verdun in 842:


For purposes of training, games were often arranged in the following manner. Fighting men would be deployed in a place where they could be observed. The entire group...divided into two units of equal size. They charged forward from both sides and came towards each other at full speed.


Then [before contact was made] one side turned its back and under the protection of their shields pretended to be trying to escape. Then those who had been engaged in the feigned retreat counter-attacked and the pursuers simulated flight.


Then both kings [Louis the German and Charles the Bald] and all of the young men, raising a great yell, charged forward brandishing their spear shafts. Now one group feigned retreat and then the other. It was a spectacle worthy of being seen as much because of its nobility as because of its discipline.