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Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted…

Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe (2004)

by Robert Drews

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151992,993 (4.5)3
In this wide-ranging and often controversial book, Robert Drews examines the question of the origins of man's relations with the horse. He questions the belief that on the Eurasian steppes men were riding in battle as early as 4000 BC, and suggests that it was not until around 900 BC that men anywhere - whether in the Near East and the Aegean or on the steppes of Asia - were proficient enough to handle a bow, sword or spear while on horseback. After establishing when, where, and most importantly why good riding began, Drews goes on to show how riding raiders terrorized the civilized world in the seventh century BC, and how central cavalry was to the success of the Median and Persian empires. Drawing on archaeological, iconographic and textual evidence, this is the first book devoted to the question of when horseback riders became important in combat. Comprehensively illustrated, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of civilization in Eurasia, and the development of man's military relationship with the horse.… (more)
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    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony (AndreasJ)
    AndreasJ: Anthony and Drews represent, and argue eloquently for, very different views of the importance of riding before the Iron Age.

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In the ancient Near East, horseback riding is first heard of around 2000 BC, but doesn't become important (militarily or otherwise) until more than a thousand years later, despite the horse as such being of prime military importance during much of the interval - ca 1600-1200 BC is the golden age of the horse-drawn war chariot. This might be thought odd - Drews seeks the explanation in, among other things, the relatively late invention of effective bits - but that it happened is generally agreed.

What's not generally agreed is whether the same line of development applies for all of Eurasia. Where there are any historical evidence from the Bronze Age - primarily Greece and China - the Near Eastern pattern does seem hold, indeed horseback cavalry becomes important even later in these places, but what about the rest of the continent, where we have to rely solely on archaeology? In particular, what about the Eurasiatic steppe, where the horse was an important food animal way back in the stone age, and probably domesticated long before it turns up in the Near East?

One school of thought - whose best presentation is perhaps David Anthony's The Horse, the Wheel, and Language - holds that the ridden horse was of great importance on the steppe well before 2000 BC, not to speak of 1000 BC. Drews takes the opposite view, arguing that significant riding on the steppe (for military or pastoral purposes) predated Near Eastern by little if any. Absent written records (and pictorial depictions of riders - which in itself suggests that if riding occured, it wasn't considered worthy of depiction), the debate centers on the distribution in time and space of various pieces of horse-gear (bits in particular) and on the necessity or otherwise of horseback riding for Bronze Age steppe economies ("classical" nomad pastoralism starts early last millennium BC - Drews thinks it coincides with the widespread introduction of mounted warfare and good riding techniques in general). For what it's worth, I tend to find Drews's side the more persuasive here.

The book concludes with sections about the importance of cavalry in the rise of the Median and Persian empires, and about the subsequent failure of Iranian horsemen to defeat Greek hoplites. This part is I felt weaker than the preceding chapters; Drews is more at home discussing archaeological distributions than in infering battlefield dynamics. Or maybe it's just that he's a demolisher not a synthetizer - in his earlier books too I've tended to be more convinced by his demolitions of others' hypotheses than by his syntheses.
  AndreasJ | Jul 7, 2012 |
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