They of the East ride gallant steeds,
And each knight wears a crown –
We fight on foot as our forebears fought
And we drag the riders down.
— Robert E. Howard, “A Marching Song of Connacht”
I’ve opened this post with the above stanza because it seems to embody a curious omission in REH’s writing about the Celts – whether in his letters, his stories, or his poems. He doesn’t say much about the ancient Celts’ prowess as charioteers or horsemen. Plenty about their racial and temperamental traits; a good deal about Celtic languages; a lot about their valor in war. About their horsemanship, and the importance of horses in their culture, not nearly so much.
He refers to it occasionally and in passing. His letter to Harold Preece, postmarked the fourth of January, 1930, contains the lines:
What a nation gains in one way, it loses in another. Had the Saxons, leaping from their dragon-beaked galleys, found the same yellow-haired giants that Caesar found, rushing down in their iron chariots, there had been no conquest, only windrows of slaughtered pirates, and the speech of Britain today would have been not English, but Cymric.
In “Kings of the Night”, the Gaelic prince Cormac of Connacht joins Bran Mak Morn against Rome’s legions, with a mounted body of “hard-riding, hard-fighting Gaels.” Bran declares to him, “With the chariots of the Britons and your own western horsemen, our success had been certain.”
So REH did refer to the matter occasionally – but not too often. And when he writes of Gaelic warriors fighting at home on Irish soil, as in his Turlogh O’Brien stories, or his references to Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s early life, he generally talks in terms of fighting on foot, clad in wolf skins at that, as in the stanza cited at the beginning of this post.
Going back long before Cormac, Turlogh or even Bran, it’s possible that the ancient Urnfield culture of the late Bronze Age – which dominated central Europe between about 1200 and 700 BCE – marked the emergence of distinctly Celtic culture and language. All Celtic languages were basically Indo-European. The swift spread and marked dominance of Indo-European languages was due to that new, fearsome weapon of war, the horse-drawn chariot, by which the early Indo-Europeans, whatever their original racial type may have been, conquered wherever they went.
Then came iron-working, first developed on a big scale by the Hittites, in their day imperial Egypt’s only real rivals. Once the technique spread to central and Western Europe, it led to the Hallstatt culture’s growing out of the Urnfield and becoming its direct successor. There followed the La Tene culture of the late Iron Age, roughly from 450 BCE until the bastard harsh merciless Caius Julius Caesar divided Gaul into three parts in the first century BCE. He also had the right hands removed from some forty thousand Gaulish captives for having the impertinence to resist his civilizing conquest.
(This blogger regards Caesar about as Talbot Mundy depicted him in his Tros of Samothrace novels. And as Robert E. Howard viewed the Roman Empire in general. Even Poul Anderson, less fiercely partisan than REH, has one of his characters thinking in his story “Delenda Est”, “There was something repellent about the frigid, unimaginative greed of Rome.” And coincidentally, or maybe not, REH had written a story about the Vandal king Gaiseric leading his fleet against Rome from the former site of Carthage, in a story also titled “Delenda Est”.)
Mind you, Talbot Mundy was a one-eyed Celtophile. As the novel Tros opens, the main character is warning the Britons against Caesar and describing what a liar he is with his slanders that the Druids burn human sacrifices to their gods. He’s correct that this is rich coming from Caesar, who “has slain his hecatombs”, but let’s face it, most primitive cultures are bloody and brutal, and to pretend that the barbaric Celts didn’t offer human sacrifice is a woeful evasion. I believe myself that the Druids didn’t actually offer the sacrifices themselves – that was probably the king’s job – but as wise men and interpreters of the gods’ omens, they would attend and preside. A distinction without much difference, especially if you were the sacrifice. And besides burning people alive in wicker baskets, the Celts were among the most ardent head-hunters the world has seen.
That’s probably quite enough academic background. Horses and Celtic horsemanship is the subject. Wild fellows that the ancient Celts were, they rode horses astride as well as driving chariots, and rode them without stirrups, which hadn’t been invented in their day. They probably rode without real saddles, too, just sheepskin pads for cushions under their butts, or else wholly bareback. If some time traveler had introduced them to stirrups, they’d probably have rejected the device with hoots of laughter. “What? Need that device to save us from falling? What are we, arthritic old women? Get out of town!”
There’s never anything as ridiculous as a new idea. The Celts also reckoned armor was unmanly, when armor appeared on their scene. REH makes a point of this in “The Grey God Passes”. Dunlang O’Hartigan is dubious of the armor his Danann lover Eevin of Craglea, fearing for his life, urges him to wear at the coming battle of Clontarf. He considers it craven. “Of all the Gaels only Turlogh Dubh wears full mail.” Eevin cries passionately, “And is any warrior of the Gael braver than he? Foolish! You will go into battle and the harps will keen for you, and Eevin of Craglea will weep until she melts in tears …”
Foolish, maybe. But as with armor, it does seem that long after being introduced to the idea of stirrups, the Celts just flat-out refused to adopt them. They weren’t the only ones. I hate stealing ideas without giving credit — Erich von Daniken made a steady and best-selling practice of that – but I haven’t found the name of the person who wrote the fine and informative “Riding Bareback” of January 26th, 2011 for Monthly Columns on the Internet. I’ll just have to cite the title and date. That writer points out that both Celts and Native American horsemen thought “that riding with stirrups was somehow ‘unmanly’ … the sure sign that someone couldn’t ride a horse … A Greek cavalryman in the days of Alexander the Great wasn’t considered properly trained until he could gallop bareback up and down the sides of steep hills while carrying a razor-sharp spear in one hand!”
I’m very much obliged.
The horse was immensely important in Celtic culture. There are inscriptions from the Roman period which show that the horse goddess, Epona, was worshipped on the continent from Spain across to Eastern Europe. Sometimes she was depicted as a horse and sometimes as a woman seated on a horse. Probably, like many divinities, she could shapeshift, but don’t quote me; I can’t support that from authentic sources, it’s one of my guesses.
The Gaulish light cavalry was famous, and after the Romans conquered them, Gauls were valued in the legions’ alae, or light cavalry wings, as much as the Sarmatians. Strabo said, “Although they are all fighters by nature, they are better as cavalry than infantry.” The British were famous charioteers, as REH knew and wrote to Harold Preece. I’m not too well informed about the chariot-driving skills of the Gauls, but I doubt that the continental Celts were far behind their island cousins in that respect.
Around 400 BCE, a Gaulish expedition led by the half-legendary Brennus actually took Rome. Livy and Plutarch both describe the event. REH refers to it in his “The Valley of the Worm.” The character James Allison, listing some of his former incarnations, tells the reader, “My name has been Hialmar, Tyr, Bragi, Bran, Horsa, Eric and John. I strode red-handed through the deserted streets of Rome behind the yellow-maned Brennus …” Skeptics used to doubt it, but most scholars now accept the event as historical, and the name Brennus as a Latinized form of the Old Celtic Brannos. Without the last syllable, it becomes Bran – a legendary giant-king of Britain, the word for “raven”, and also, of course, the name of REH’s Pictish king who resisted the Romans during his race’s twilight. The Gaulish Brennus of 400 BCE, I would think, had moustached wild men on barely tamed, stirrup-less horses in his following, and chariot drivers too. A Gaulish coin from the tribe of the Meldi in the first century BCE carries the image of a horse, as did the coins minted by the eastern British tribe of the Iceni, in the territory of modern Norfolk and Suffolk. They rebelled against Rome under Queen Boadicea, along with the Trinovantes, destroying legions and two cities with the onslaught of their scythe-wheeled chariots.
Moving across to Ireland, we find a pretty clear instance of a horse-goddess there – Macha, who gave her name to the capital of Ulster famous in the legends of Cuchulain, Emain Macha. She was forced to race against the horses of Conchobar, king of Ulster, even though pregnant. She won, but it killed her. Not surprisingly, in her pain she laid a curse on the men of Ulster, that for generations the anguish and weakness of a woman in labor should come upon them in the time of their greatest need.
It was said to be a custom in Donegal that the king’s inauguration in pagan times involved mating with a white mare. If that’s true, the mare no doubt personified the goddess. It may, though, be only a tale spread by Christian writers to show how disgusting those ancient heathens were. The source is Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century, after all.
Cuchulain, the Irish hero of heroes, naturally rode in a splendid chariot and hung the heads of his enemies from his chariot-pole. His horses were the most magnificent in Ireland, the Grey of Macha (the horse-goddess again) and the Black Sanghlain. The epic Tain Bo Cuailgne describes them. “One horse was lithe and swift-leaping, high-arched and powerful, long-bodied and with great hooves, the other flowing-maned and shining, slight and slender in hoof and heel.”
In the same epic, Cuchulain meets the charioteer of Orlamh, son of Queen Medb of Connacht, the great enemy. When he tells the charioteer his name, the man is frightened silly and cries, “Woe is me, then!” Cuchulain tells him, “Do not be afraid … Come along with me … for I never kill charioteers.” They were highly regarded. But Cuchulain cuts off Orlamh’s head without a qualm, and tells the charioteer to carry it back to Connacht’s camp.
The description of the islands of the Earthly Paradise, by an eighth-century Irish writer, would not have been complete without a mention of horses either. “Horses of golden yellow there on the meadow, other horses of purple colour; other noble horses beyond them, of the colour of the all-blue sky.”
All things pass. The glory days of Celtic heroic society faded into mist and dreams, and the Roman Empire which had given the Celts such a rough time in the interests of civilization began to decline and meet its own troubles at the hands of bloody invaders. The story that Rome fell – long out of date and discredited now – because it became decadent and corrupt, is a myth. Created by Victorian blue-noses. When Rome was at its most depraved, decadent and corrupt by our standards (first century BCE and first century after) it conquered the known world of the time. The Empire didn’t fall until at least a hundred years after it had become officially Christian. The obscene, degraded shows of the games were gone. They really had been obscene and degraded, too. Gladiators fighting to the death were the least of it. The Church was now a formidable state power, and that might have been good in the interests of unity, if there hadn’t been a thousand different sects and heresies battling each other. The biggest problem of all, I suspect, is that the Empire was just plain over-extended and couldn’t hold together any longer.
The horse played its part in the Empire’s downfall, though. Some of the barbarians who assailed its borders as it began to fray apart were fine horsemen. The Ostrogoths created a short-lived Empire of their own, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea over much of what is now Russia. Their eastward expansion provoked the Huns, which led to disaster. In the late fourth century the Huns smashed the Ostrogoths and moved west themselves. The Huns, of course, were horse nomads from central Asia. Under Attila they conquered a number of German tribes, made them their vassals, and built an empire themselves. Then they raided Roman territory from their base north of the Danube until they stood even at the gates of Rome demanding tribute. And getting it.
Attila’s Huns, where horsemanship was concerned, brought an effective saddle-and-stirrup combination to Roman territory. A rider can cover ground swiftly, hurl javelins, and even deliver a good blow with a sword from horseback without needing stirrups to brace his feet, if he’s skilled and active – but he can’t be an effective lancer. The Huns carried short sabres for close-quarter work, but their real terror lay in their lances and compound bows, and the speed with which they could attack and retreat. Those mobile, highly disciplined mounted archers were to be the mainstay and strength of many tribes of Asiatic invaders down the centuries.
The Huns weren’t the first mounted foes to give the Romans a drubbing. Around the year 350 CE the Visigoths were settled in lands east of the Black Sea, between the Danube and the Dneister, and they had adopted the cavalry saddle with attached stirrups even then. They also had bigger, stronger horses than the Huns. Perhaps it came to them through their eastern cousins the Ostrogoths, who in turn may have learned it from the Alans of the Caucasus. They combined big horses with stirrups and lances to create devastating cavalry charges. That’s one thing horsemen, no matter how skilled, cannot deliver without stirrups and a firm seat in a substantial saddle. The impact of charging with lances at high speed would drive them backwards over their horses’ tails otherwise.
Under their leader Fritigern, the Visigoths proved the worth of stirrups in 378 at Adrianople. They thrashed the Roman legions, which fought on foot, and left the Emperor Valens a corpse on the battlefield. The Goths never acquired the Asiatic nomads’ expert use of compound bows from horseback, though, or mastered their tactics of swift, confusing feint, attack and retreat, well-coordinated and under steely discipline. Perhaps because of that, the Huns drove them west into Gaul. Attila’s empire stretched from Gaul’s borders to the shores of the Caspian while it lasted, but on his death in 453 his conquests were split among his many sons and his German vassals rebelled. They shattered what was left of Hunnic power at the battle of the Nedao in 454.
Owning large numbers of horses makes an immense difference in war even without stirrups or bows. Soldiers who merely ride to the scene of a battle and then dismount to fight on foot have a crucial advantage. They’ve saved the strength a forced march would steal from them – and they’ve been able to reach the field more quickly than their enemies. They have more time to pick their ground and prepare their position. Unless they’re greatly outnumbered or the other side has better morale, they’re the most likely winners.
The lasting effect of all this was to take the future of warfare in Europe from the foot soldier and give it to cavalry. The seeds of knighthood and the feudal system were being sown even then. The Visigoths were heavy lancers already. They doubtless trained their young men in a crude form of the later jousting. Their rivals the Franks, who had conquered most of Gaul by the early sixth century, were stubborn, hidebound fighters on foot, but at last even they had to accept the stirrup, with all it made possible.
Yet it was a general of the East Roman Empire, Belisarius, who truly founded heavy cavalry – in the Christian world, at least. The Persians had employed heavy cataphracts for a long time. Belisarius was a Thracian Slav and a military genius. Coming as he did from the Danube frontier, he had seen first hand as a boy the swift, deadly raids of mounted Bulgars and Alans. There were Gothic lancers in the East Roman armies already. Belisarius put his disciplined “Roman” (actually Greek) troops on the big Gothic chargers with practical saddles and stirrups, equipped them with mail cuirasses, swords and round shields, trained them solidly to be skilled lancers and horse archers armed with stiff compound bows like those of the Huns as well. Nobody had ever produced such all-round heavy cavalry before. With his cataphracts, Belisarius, as honorable as he was smart, overthrew the Vandal Kingdom of north Africa and the Gothic kingdom of Italy for his master, the Emperor Justinian.
He got little appreciation. Gratitude wasn’t a feature of Justinian’s character. Religious intolerance was. So was jealousy. For this blogger’s money, that emperor had a general and a wife – the Empress Theodora – who were both too good for him.
The savage, treacherous king of the Franks, Clovis, avoided being crushed like the Vandals and the Goths by making two smart moves. He accepted Orthodox Christianity when he converted, instead of sticking stubbornly to the Arian heresy like most Germanic monarchs. Then he requested, and got, the rank of patrician and consul as a subject of the “Roman” Emperor in Constantinople. It was strictly nominal; in practice Clovis was King of the Franks, all right, an absolute monarch, and one you didn’t cross if you wished to keep breathing.
The Frankish armies remained essentially foot soldiers for a long time. By Charlemagne’s day – he took the title “Emperor” himself in about the year 800 – that had altered and even the Franks had become horse-warriors. The legends, the Chansons de Geste, make Charlemagne the overlord of a group of paladins battling the Moslems, but in fact the constant wars he fought were chiefly against pagan Saxons, whom he converted by force, and slaughtered if they didn’t appreciate his efforts. His greatest knight, Roland, in the epic, is betrayed and overwhelmed at Roncesvalles by the Saracens, but in historical fact the people who ambushed him as he retreated through the Pyrenees were pagan Basques, not Moslems.
In the tenth century Christian Europe would have been lost, overwhelmed, I firmly believe, without its heavy cavalry. It faced a devastating triple threat. The Vikings from Scandinavia inspired the fervent prayer from ten thousand throats, “Deliver us, Lord, from the Northmen’s fury!” The conquering Moslems came from the south. The pagan Magyar horsemen, from what is now Hungary, engaged in mounted land-borne raiding as sudden, unpredictable, and ferocious, and probably as widespread, as that of the Vikings.
The big war-horse was all the Christian world had with which to fight back. The feudal system largely grew out of the need to breed and support such horses, to feed them on large amounts of nourishing grain – which the warriors, if their profession was to be full-time, couldn’t grow themselves — and so there must be estates worked by serfs to perform the labor. The fighters needed large tracts of land, and strongholds from which to defend that land. Horses. Castles. Serfs. And land, most of all, first of all. Land which was most practically granted to them in exchange for war service by a greater lord to whom they would swear loyalty.
A whole society – based on the war-horse.
That takes the story to the early Middle Ages, in which REH set a number of yarns – among them those of Black Turlogh O’Brien and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Several make conspicuous mention of the Asian khans’ light horse archers in contrast to the heavy cavalry of the westerners, fighting with sword, axe and lance, a dichotomy that goes back to the days of the Huns and Goths. The vivid scenes include the dreadful onslaught of the Kharesmians against Jerusalem in the 1240s, and a (fictional) stand against the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the same century (“Red Blades of Black Cathay”). The protagonist there, like Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, is a less than idealistic Crusader. Godric de Villehard sourly describes the master who sent him eastwards, Montferrat, as “that devious-minded assassin”.
In “The Shadow of the Vulture”, set in the sixteenth century, with Ottoman Turkish armies advancing against Vienna, REH tells his readers, “Again the destroyer was riding out of the blue mysterious East as his brothers had ridden before him – Attila – Subotai – Bayazid – Muhammad the Conqueror.”
For all the above invaders, as for the Avars who were the immediate successors to Attila’s Huns, and the Khazars after them, then the Magyars, it was the horse that gave them their dreaded mobility and striking power. On foot they could have been as tough and relentless as they liked, without achieving very much across the vast distances they faced. The Mongols’ hardihood, their ability to ride fast and far, was little short of amazing. Their major military units were called “hordes”, and this soon came to signify, to the folk they devastated, a swarm of incredible numbers. Actually they were not. The wide barren steppes that were their home could not support many people to the square mile, but that hardly mattered militarily, when they could gather from across a great expanse any time the Khan’s order went out, and move so swiftly from one place to another. They appeared to more settled folk to be everywhere at once, and in endless numbers.
Or, to close with another stanza of REH’s:
Iron winds and ruin and flame,
And a Horseman shaking with giant mirth;
Over the corpse-strewn, blackened earth
Death, stalking naked, came
Like a storm-cloud shattering the ships;
Yet the Rider seated high
Paled at the smile on a dead king’s lips,
As the tall white horse went by.
Illustration of Epona the Celtic horse goddess appears courtesy of the artist, Joanna Barnum.
Read Part One , Part Three, Part4a, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5a, Part 5b, Part 6