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Roman cavalry

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Roman cavalry from 90 CE.

In the Roman army, the role of driving (equites Romani) was neglected. This has often led to disasters (as during the Second Punic War). Both during the republic and the empire, she recruited mainly from allies, including Germans, Gauls. However, there were also Roman troops in the legions. Initially, they recruited from the richest citizens – they were equites, a military aristocracy (but in time they lost their military functions). However, the division of the Empire into two parts meant that the role of driving increased. In the eastern part it even became the core of the armed forces. Like the infantry, it underwent changes throughout the duration of the Roman state.


The first legendary ruler of Rome Romulus established a driving unit of 300 men (3 centuries, 100 people), called Celeres (“fast unit”), who was his private guard. This branch was enlarged to 600 people by king Tarquin the Elder (617-578 BCE). According to Livy, Servius Tullius established another 12 centuriae of driving. However, this seems unlikely, given that at that time the Romans had only 8,400 infantry (on the territory of the Apennine Peninsula, cavalry usually constituted 8% of the infantry – this is also incorrect, given the number of 1,800 cavalrymen).

Royal ride could only be constituted by patricians (patricii), an early Roman aristocracy. The Celeres patricians are thought to have contributed to the banishment of the last king of Rome – Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BCE. The dominance of patricians in cavalry seems disappear around 400 BCE, when an additional 12 centuriae equites were established, to the traditional six patricians. This fact resulted from the fact that the patrician state did not have sufficient numbers to ensure the strength of cavalry in a constantly developing country.


In the 2nd century BCE, the legion consisted of 300 horsemen, forming a unit called alae. It was divided into 10 divisions turmae, 30 cavalrymen each. One turmae in turn consisted of 3 decuriae (one decuriae consisted of 10 cavalrymen). Decuriae chose from their own members three decuriones who commanded the subunits. On average, the cavalryman received drachma per day, which is a triple pay of an infantry soldier.

Roman cavalryman (bottom) against Iberian rebels in the 2nd century BCE.

According to the Greek historian, Polybius (II century BCE), the Roman cavalry was originally unarmoured, dressed only in a tunic and armed with a spear and a round small shield, which caused the unit’s low combat capability.

The armament of the republic era consisted mainly of: a long spear (hasta), leather armor, a small shield (parma equestris) and a helmet (similar to those used in infantry). It is possible that some of the cavalrymen had, like infantry, a chain mail (lorica hamata), borrowed from the Celts – they had used it for about 300 CE BCE It was adopted in Rome around 150 BCE. It is uncertain whether Roman cavalrymen used small shields. Mostly, however, the shows show us cavalry with shields. There is also no clear evidence of whether Roman horsemen wore swords, bows or arrows. It is certain that horse cavalrymen did not appear in Rome until the first century BCE with the first contacts with the Parthians.

It is worth mentioning what role driving in republican Rome played. The troops consisted mainly of aristocrats who could afford a horse, necessary equipment and equipment. They were the least trained in the use of weapons. During the Punic Wars, Roman cavalry, according to the old custom – from the Homeric era – used mounts only to reach the battlefield, and then participated in the fight in infantry character. It seems that Roman cavalry had difficulty maintaining the direction of the impact and the tendency to break up into loose groups scattered throughout the entire battlefield. Roman commanders did not have much use of their cavalry, primarily due to its inability to cooperate with the infantry. The Romans also underestimated the basic role of driving during reconnaissance and gathering intelligence, which is why they rarely used it during these activities.

The disappearance of this formation occurred during the wars with Jugurtha (111-105 BCE). During this period, the republic used the services of mercenary driving en masse. Gaius Marius and his military reform contributed largely to the disappearance of legionary cavalry.

During the republic, the Romans depended mainly on their allies, the so-called foederati. During the Second Punic War, driving was mainly provided by the inhabitants of Italy. Along with their citizenship, the cavalrymen were recruited from Greece, Numidia, Thrace, Iberia, Gaul and Germany. During the battle of Zama e.g. Scipio Africanus was supported by numerous branches of the Numidian cavalry; in turn, Caesar during its conquests of Gaul was supported by the Gallic and Germanic cavalry. Naturally, they were not officially part of the Roman army but were only obliged to serve on the basis of cooperation treaties. They were often armed with their traditional weapons.


With the transformation of the republic into an empire, emperor Augustus created regular troops auxilia, consisting of non-Roman citizens. These professional soldiers were recruited from the provinces controlled by Rome and for the most part had strong cavalry traditions. These troops were part of the Roman army and were paid by the Senate. A typical ala cavalryman received a pay 20% higher than a regular legionary.

During the classical empire (1st – 2nd century CE), there were 300 – 500 horsemen in the legion, each forming the alae formation, each of which consisted of 16 turmae of 30 – 33 cavalrymen. There were also troops called cohors militaria with about 700 horsemen grouped in 24 turmae.

During the principate’s period, both the emperor and provincial managers recruited cavalry’s personal troops, which were called eqites singulares Augusti. These soldiers, acting as guards, received increased pay. Other units probably driving were Numeri, Exploratores and Cunei. The Numeri and Cunei branches were used, among others, to protect trade routes. The role of Exploratores was to conduct reconnaissance. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the first unit of heavy driving of auxiliary troops appeared – Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractaria. Her fighting tactics were modeled on the Sarmatian, Armenian and Parthian horse troops.

For the mentioned Emperor Hadrian, an imperial cavalry (equites singulares imperatoris) was created as an Emperor’s branch. It consisted of 500 selected cavalrymen.

The decisive increase in the importance of driving in the Roman army fell on the reign of Galien and Aurelian. During the reign of Emperor Galien, e.g. in the 3rd century CE, a reserve army was created, consisting solely of equites, whose task was to protect the vast borders of the Empire.

Clibanaries from the turn of the 4th – 5th century CE.

From the 4th century CE, heavily armored cataphracts and clibanarii began to appear (mainly in the east). According to most messages, the liaison officers were heavily armored cavalry, designed primarily to fight other cavalrymen. Their tactics were usually to form, in which the clibanarii were the walls of a wedge, inside of which there was a harmonious light cavalry of horse archers.

The offensive armament of the Clibanarius consisted of a long (360 cm), two-handed spear called a kontos or a kontarion, a sword or a heavy mace and a recurve bow. His protective armament was a helmet, a small round shield (cataphracts rarely used it), and chain mail covering the body from wrists to knees. Optionally, a scale armor was also used. The leg cover was covered with chain braid and the trousers were additionally reinforced, like forearms, with metal hoops.

The mount’s armor was quilted or lined with metal, horn or bone bones. Often limited here only to the plate breastplate and the pediment covering the nose, forehead and eyes of the horse. For comparison, cataphracts were used to fight the enemy’s infantry, and thus, they had well-armored horses, protected from blows from below and rarely used shields. They attacked in a simple array of several ranks.

In practice, the same trained cavalryman could, depending on the need and layout, fight both as a tailor and a cataphract. That is why both formations are so often mistaken not only in sources, but also in historical studies.

The armament of the Roman cavalry during the Empire was: a light round shield called clipeus; a long sword (spatha) modeled in its beginnings on the Roman infantry gladius; light javelin (iaula) – usually the cavalryman took two pieces of this weapon; helm; and armor (including chain mail). Some units specialized in shooting from the back of a horse had bows. This type of ride was intended for flanking, reconnaissance, skirmishes and pursuits.

Although August established auxilia, irregular allied troops remained in use. A good example are the Sarmatian cavalrymen, who in the second century CE recruited emperor Marcus Aurelius and sent to Britain. From the 4th century CE, gradual expansion of allied units dominated by the cavalry of Germans and Huns. It is worth mentioning that the Romans did not invent and use the stirrup that appeared after the fall of the Empire with the invasion of peoples.

Drawing showing a Roman cavalryman during the battle of Adrianople in 378 CE.

The then Roman literature abounded in numerous works of training cavalry for combat (eg Acies contra Alanos by the Roman writer Arrian). There was also a well-developed combat training system called hippika gymnasia, but infantry remained the main force in the Roman army until the middle of the 3rd century CE The situation changed dramatically after the defeat of Emperor Valerian at Edessa in 259 CE against the hard cavalry of the Persian Sassanid dynasty, where the ruler himself was captured. Soon Valerian’s son – Galien carried out a thorough reform of the army, separating large horse formations, the vexiliationes as part of a separate field army. Depending on their distribution, they are divided into equites promoti (Italy, Greece) and equites scutarii (Africa, Balkans).

The final resignation from the classic legionary formation in favor of the leading role of the cavalry took place after the defeat of the Romans in the battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. After this event, several most important types of riding or squads were distinguished, which included riders:

  • light cavalry (mauri, dalmatea, cetrati),
  • heavy horse archers modeled on the steppe peoples (equitus sagitarii, sogitarii clibanarii),
  • heavy cavalry on the Italo-Gallic pattern (promoti, scutarii, stablesiani, Armigeri),
  • heavy cavalry on Persian and Parthian patterns (catafractarii, clibanarii),
  • troops that included infantry and cavalry (pseudocomitatenes),
  • irregular mercenary units recruited by commanders, merchants or more important officials (bucelarii),
  • Irregular regional cavalry (equites indigenae).

However, this division is difficult to finally verify because until today the final number and specificity of all types of late-Roman cavalry is not known, which is reflected in the census of the Roman army from the 4th century CE. in a document called Notitia Dignitatum.

  • Bishop C., Coulston J. C. N., Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Bradsford 1993
  • Hyland Ann, Training the Roman Cavalry, Stroud 1993
  • Mielczarek Mariusz, Catafaracti and Clibanarii. Studies o the heavy armoured cavalry of the ancient world, Łódź 1993
  • Sekunda Nick, Early Roman Armies, Oxford 2001
  • Sekunda Nick, Republican Roman Army 200-104 B.C., Oxford 1996
  • Sidnell Philip, Warhorse, Cavalry in Ancient Warfare, London 2006

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