The Peloponnesian War was a war between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 B.C.E to 404 B.C.E. It is often referred to as the war between the elephant and the whale. Sparta had claim on the title of elephant with a formidable army. Athens was the obvious choice for whale, as it was well known for naval dominance. It may sound like every battle was one sided, depending on where it took place, but that isn’t the case. One little known advantage that Athens had was its cavalry. (Lendering)
Horses had been used in warfare for quite some time before the Peloponnesian War. In their earliest days however, they were reserved almost exclusively for use with chariots. Over the years, their use evolved until the more modern idea of cavalry emerged: a unit of lightly armored soldiers charging into battle on horseback (Sidnell, 2006). These units had many uses, from both launching and preventing raids to both martial and psychological benefits on the battlefield (Gaebel, 2002). However, in order for them to be useful the horses had to actually reach the battle field. This wasn’t always the trivial task that it sounds like it should be, especially because transporting horses over water isn’t exactly simple using a boat designed for humans. This put Athens in something of a bind. In retrospect, the solution is obvious: innovation. Athens needed a way to transport horses over water more easily, so they designed a ship to do just that (Worley, 1994). This innovation was what allowed Athens to prove how useful cavalry to the rest of the world, despite the expense and difficulty involved in raising and maintaining it.
The simple truth about Greece is that it is a terrible place to raise horses. A combination of mountains and poor grazing land leaves few regions capable of supporting enough horses for a proper cavalry. This was especially true for Sparta, which barely had enough food to support its human population. As the war wore on however, even Sparta had to admit that well used cavalry could be devastating. As the war neared its end, Sparta was forced to raise cavalry of its own to help handle the Athenian forces. Their lack of training prevented the Spartan forces from being as effective, but they were still far from useless. Ultimately, the Peloponnesian War proved beyond doubt that cavalry was essential for an army to maintain dominance on the battle field (Strassler, 1996).
Gaebel, R. (2002). Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World. University of Oklahoma Press.
Lendering, J. (n.d.). Peloponnesian War. Retrieved from Livius.org: http://www.livius.org/pb-pem/peloponnesian_war/peloponnesian_war.html
Nguyen, M.-L. (2009, June 28). Wikimedia Commons.
Sidnell, P. (2006). Warhorse. New York: Continuum.
Strassler, R. (1996). The Landmark Thucydides. New York: Free Press.
Worley, L. (1994). Hippeis. Boulder: Westview Press.