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Xenophon's Hipparchicus, Commander of Cavalry

Xenophon, Steven L. Ossad, Graphite on paper, 2007

Xenophon's Hipparchicus, (ιππαρχικος) is a "how to" pamphlet for those aspiring to command of cavalry. Specifically addressed to the leaders of the Athenian standing cavalry force, it should be read in parallel with his Memorabilia, III, 3, 1-3, where Socrates raises questions about the duties and obligations of the Hipparch. The perspective and outlook of the author, as well as the issues discussed - readiness, logistics, maintenance, and esprit de corps - will certainly be familiar to a modern armored cavalry regiment commander and staff. Even more important, and at the core of renewed interest in Xenophon, at least among students of warfare, the lessons of leadership buried in the brief text - the uses of deception, the value of personal appearance on the battlefield,  the "favor" of the gods (fortuna) - are as relevant today as they were in the cavalry clashes during the fourth century wars of the Greek city states.



Soldier, historian, biographer, memoirist, "novelist", and companion of Socrates, at the end of his life Xenophon wrote a small book proposing reform of the Athenian cavalry. A discussion of specific suggestions, the Hipparchicus reflects decades of the author's experience as an army commander. The wily survivor of battles, court intrigues, assassinations and staggering betrayals offers subtle insights on leadership - as well as observations valuable to modern theorists and practioners of the "mounted service" that will always resonate.

Head of a Horse, Parthenon Frieze, British Museum, London

Xenophon, son of Gryllos of Athens, was a handsome, well-born and practical man with a talent for survival against very long odds. An expert on horsemanship and an experienced combat veteran, he gained his reputation during a relatively short time when he served as an elected “strategos” (στρατηγός, or, general), during one of the critical moments of the Persian Empire in the 4th century BC. His memoir of his great adventure, Anabasis, or, The March Up Country, remains one of the classics of world literature and has long been described by literary critics as an important precursor to the novel. It recounts with colorful detail, a true and rivetting story: a group of desperate soldiers, adrift after a defeat, their leaders murdered, facing a long, bloody, hopeless retreat through the heart of Mesopotamia, across hundreds of miles of hostile terrain, surrounded and constantly harried by a myriad of ruthless tribes.

Born into a politically inactive, but prominent family of Athens in 431 BC, Xenophon began his service in 409 BC as a young cavalry officer from the deme of Erchia. By the time Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC, he was already a veteran of several campaigns and may have been a prisoner-of-war held in Boetia. He was at least an observor - and probably a participant on the wrong side - in the political conflict surrounding the murderous reign of the Thirty Tyrants in the years following Athen's defeat.

A companion of Socrates, and at ease in the circle of young aristocrats who flocked around the philosopher, Xenophon was invited by a well-placed friend to serve a Persian prince as a high ranking mercenary. After consulting the oracle on how to insure his success - rather than asking whether he should even undertake journey - Xenophon left Athens in 401 BC to pursue his fortune.

Decades later, around 365 BC, he wrote the Hipparchicus, often translated as "Cavalry Commander", but actually a discourse on the specific duties and responsibilities of an Athenian commander of cavalry.

At the time he wrote Hipparchicus, war loomed between Thebes and Athens, which had been at peace for some time and was reportedly suffering from a decline in the quality of its standing cavalry. The Hipparchicus was intended to convey Xenophon’s advice about how to restore the force to its previous excellence. It incidentally also contains the only surviving extended description of the organization and many other details of the Athenian cavalry, including its very important ceremonial functions. Any viewer of the surviving Parthenon sculptures needs no further evidence of the importance of the cavalry to the full life of a city-state like Athens.

Fully armed Hippeus, Attic Black Figure Amphora, @550 BC, Louvre, Paris

The tone and specific suggestions of the Hipparchicus echo the concerns of the time when alliances were once again shifting, and Xenophon saw an opportunity to press his advantage of great knowledge and reputation to gain favor in his home city. Fortune favored Xenophon in the end. He reached a degree of reconciliation with Athens including a revocation of his degree of banishment, and reportedly ended his life in relative comfort in Corinth. The very respectable showing of the Athenian cavalry during the Battle of Mantinea (361 BC) just a few years after circulation of the Hipparchicus, undoubtedly reflects the debate about the old professional’s suggestions. In one of the powerful ironies of history - and literature - Gryllos, elder son of Xenophon, and educated in Sparta, died a hero's death in the service of Athens at Mantinea.

Hippeus, Rider Painter, Lakonian Black Figure Cup, @540 BC, British Museum, London

Xenophon’s reputation as a soldier, memoirist, and historian has been established by centuries of authority, and his texts have been valued greatly for two thousand years by students of military history as well as the classics. As a historian, however, Xenophon’s contributions have been dwarfed by his predecessor, Thucydides. Still, Xenophon’s Hellenica completes the narrative of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath in credible fashion - picking up the story at 411 BC and taking it to the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC.

Xenophon and Socrates

While the reputation of Xenophon as a powerful, or even reliable witness on Socrates has varied over centuries, that issue is moot in this discussion. No one will mistake the Hipparchicus as a work of philosophy. Socrates is not present or mentioned. The subject matter could not be more practical, or farther from theoretical discussion. Still, there is no doubt that the philosopher exerted an enormous impact on Xenophon, and that he was an actual witness to conversations between Socrates and the political elite and ordinary citizens of Athens. Those discussions most certainly included military matters as is evident in many of Plato's dialogues, and Socrates's reputation as a valorous soldier who had risked his life to save comrades (especially Alcibiades) was well known, and acknowledged even by his adversaries. He was known to be particularly reliable in retreat or in difficult field conditions.

The presence of the veteran heavy infantryman and philosopher - the most famous victim of Athen's postwar murderous political divisions - is palpable in the text.

Socrates Defending Alcibiades at Potidea, Canova, 1797, Marble, Gipsoteca Canoviana, Possagno

Having spent a half century looking at life from horseback, Xenophon turned in retirement to consider the preoccupations of a Hipparch, a cavalry commander in Athens, in peace and war. His credentials for addressing those issues are beyond dispute. While the original purpose and writing style of the Hipparchicus may be narrow in scope, even shamelessly self-aggrandizing, the book reflects the author’s vast experience of cavalry and command, men and horses. It should be read, at least in part, as a response in word and actions to questions posed by Socrates to another young man who had just been appointed Hipparch; Xenophon gives the conversation the authority of his own presence in his Memorabilia, Book III, iii, 1-2.

“Again, when someone had been chosen a leader of cavalry, I remember that Socrates conversed with him in the following manner:

“Young man,” he said, “can you tell us why you hankered after a cavalry command? I presume it was not to be first of the cavalry in the charge; for that privilege belongs to the mounted archers; at any rate they ride ahead of their commanders even.”


“Nor was it to get yourself known either. Even madmen are known to everyone.”

“True again.”

“But perhaps you think you can hand over the cavalry in better condition to the polis when you retire, and can do something for the good of the polis as a cavalry leader, in case there is any occasion to employ that arm?”

“Yes, certainly,” said he. (Xenophon, Memorabilia, III, iii, 1-2)

The Hipparchicus is practical, a "how to" pamphlet of military advice with some innovative ideas – like, for example, permanently attaching light infantry units directly to cavalry, thus formalizing the traditional attachment of the state-owned "mounted archer" auxiliaries. The booklet has no grand theoretical intent and cannot be read as a great work of strategy or the operational art. A valid question is how broad the advice is, or whether any of it has relevance today, either to the professional soldier or serious student of classical civilization. But, what cannot be challenged is Xenophon's reputation as a great cavalry commander and a battlefield leader of incomparable personal bravery, initiative, daring, resourcefulness, and luck. In that sense, the Hipparchicus still has immense authority and must be approached as a serious work. From that perspective, the work has relevance to the modern armored reconnaissance commander, student of leadership, and lover of cavalry all of whom will finds value in the advice of a weathered veteran of many wars.

Socrates, Brancusi, 1922, Oak, MOMA, New York

The Athenian Cavalry, 400 BC


At the time of the Peloponnesian War, the standing cavalry of Athens was a 1,000 man force organized into ten “squadrons” each raised from a levy drawn from the demes, or districts, of Attica and the city of Athens. A force of 200 mounted archers (hippotoxōtœ), slaves of the state, was integrated into the main body and served as mobile light infantry, skirmishers, and scouts. The cavalry was commanded by two equal rank “hipparchs”, each responsible for commanding five squadrons, or one half of the force, and both subservient to the overall commander, or (strategos). Each hundred man squadron was commanded by a “phylarch” (from υλή, "clan, race, people). The term is translated as “colonel,” but that is misleading in modern usage as the unit ("phyle") is closer in size to a modern armored cavalry troop usually commanded by a captain. The entire cavalry force of Athens was equivalent in size, organization, and impact on the battlefield to a Civil War-era cavalry brigade, eg. Union Col. John Farnsworth’s 2nd brigade of cavalry at the Battle of Antietam (1862) which mounted 850 men organized into 10 troops.

Weapons and Tactics

The typical equipment of an Athenian heavy cavalry trooper of the late 5th/4th centuries BC, was light leather body armor, helmet, 2 throwing javelins, and defensive edged weapons. Light cavalry consisted of mounted archers, who frequently rode at the front of columns or line of cavalry. Lightly armed infantry were also occasionaly used as auxiliaries. The saddles did not include stirrups, nor were horses shod, so some of the maneuvers described in the text were difficult to perform, especially accurate mounted javelin throwing.

The cavalry was funded and managed by the Council of Athens, and its level of support rose and fell with the political realities of the time. Each year, the city conducted an inspection and registered each mount to faciliatate payment to each hippeus of the annual maintenance allotment. These records, uncovered in the Agora training area, include descriptions of horse color, brand, and value and were used partly for determining war-related compensation.

At all times, the standing cavalry played a major role in religious celebrations, especially the every four year Panathenaic rites honoring Athena - portrayed on the Frieze of the Parthenon. Its professionalism, especially in performance of public civil and religious duties was essential to the political life of the city.

By 365 BC, the cavalry's strength was down by a third, and reports of low troop morale and poor quality horses were widespread and had undoubtedly reached Xenophon. Some of the advice offered in the Hipparchicus clearly relate to details of those reports and are reflected in specific recommendations.(Hipparchicus, I, 13-16)

Parthenon Horsemen, British Museum (London) & Acropolis Museum (Athens)

The highly orchestrated and greatly anticipated participation of the Athenian Cavalry was an important part of the procession of the Panathenaia festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess, and the occasion of active decoration of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. The current locations of the blocks displayed are Athens (A), or London (L). Labels (of varying quality) are from British Museum Galleries.

North Frieze

Block I (L)
Block XXXI (A)
Block XXXIII (L)
Block XXXIV (A)
Block XXXV (A)
Block XXXVII (L)
Block XL (L)
Block XLI (L)
Block XLIII (L)
Block XLIV (L)

The holes drilled in the marble surface - used to mount decorative bronze bits and bridles - are visible close to the horse's polls and corners of their mouths. The horse on the right, reigned back to a walk, dramatically portrays the discomfort caused by the bits.

Block XLV (L)
Block XLVI (L)
Block XLVII (L)
Block II (L)

The block shows a horseman, wearing a chlamys - a dark wool cloak worn pinned to one shoulder leaving the right arm free - tunic, knee-length boots, and an animal skin cap with ear and neck-flaps.

South Frieze

The South Frieze, like the North, includes a procession of riders, chariots, musicians, men carrying water jars or sacrificial implements, and leading sacrificial animals. The direction flow is from left to right (or, west to east). The riders are divided into ten ranks of six riders each, probably representing the actual Athenian cavalry of the mid-5th century BC, which was organized into ten regiments of a hundred men, mustered from each of the ten demes of Athens, and distinguished by distinctive dress and kit. The figures are carved over a total of twenty-four blocks, their composition less varied than those of the North.

Block III (L)

The block represents riders in the second rank wearing the chlamys. Especially dramatic is the rider whose cloak has blown backward indicating speedy movement, as do the manes of the horses. The nudity highlights the division between the first and second rank of riders.

Block V (L)
Block VI (L)
Block VII (L)
Block VIII (L)
Blocks IX (L)
Blocks X - XI (L)
Block X (L)
Block XI (L)

Block XI represents parts of three horsemen. They are dressed identically to the ones on Block X: body armor worn over a short tunic and boots. The armor is fashioned from two metal parts hinged at the sides, beaten to the shape of a male torso. Metal reins, which are now lost, were inserted in drill-holes. The remains of the three horsemen on this block are uniform in style. However those of the previous Block X, although part of the same group, are carved differently and probably the work of a different hand.

Block XII (L)
Block XIII (L)

The block includes parts of three horsemen wearing armour. They form a group of six with the ones on the previous block. The armour is of the kind made of plates of reinforced leather, comprising a corselet, shoulder straps and waistband hung with a series of straps worn over a short tunic. The riders wear animal skin boots with top flaps and a cap with a long tail. Metal reins, now lost, were inserted in drill-holes.

Block XV (L)
Block XXIII (L)
Block XXVI (L)