Armenian Cavalry: The Quintessence of Eastern Military Might

As a boy, when I first heard the term “ayrudzi,” I thought its root was “aryuts” – meaning lion. I imagined it was a lion cavalry, riders on lions, or horsemen as brave as lions.

Of course, I later realized that “ayrudzi” simply meant cavalry: “men and horses.” These valiant horsemen appear in each of our classic historical novels, like “Samvele,” “Vardananke,” and others. In every account, the Armenian cavalry is invincible.

Though reliable historical evidence about Armenian cavalry is both scant and abundant, it includes written sources, various reliefs, and miniatures from medieval manuscripts.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a comprehensive scholarly work dedicated to Armenian cavalry. The writer Mikael Shatiryan (scriptwriter of the movie “Parni Muzkomandy” and author of the renowned historical novel “The Silver Age”) gathered extensive material on this subject, but his untimely death prevented him from synthesizing it.

Using Shatiryan’s collected materials, writer Arutyun Karapetyan, the keeper of Shatiryan’s archive, published an exceptionally interesting article on Armenian cavalry in the “Droshak” magazine.

Various speculations—some even quite serious—about the Armenian cavalry are scattered across different historical and gaming forums (one user, Lion, distinguished himself with fervent pseudo-patriotism).

The earliest mentions of Armenian cavalry date back to the times of the Ararat, or Van, Kingdom. In those times, the cavalry was used only sporadically, mainly as a means to transport warriors to battlefields: the primary striking force consisted of chariots.

As time passed, effective countermeasures against chariots were developed, and they gradually became obsolete. In their place, the role of the cavalry grew, giving rise to new, specialized horse breeds.

Creating a first-rate cavalry primarily required the right kind of horses (I hope the reader will understand the difference between a horse and a pony). And it appears our ancestors excelled in this endeavor.

From “Sargon II’s Letter to the God Ashur”: “People living in this area (Subi), unmatched throughout Urartu in their skill of training horses for cavalry—little colts, offspring of this expansive land that he raises for his royal regiment and annually receives as tribute—until they are brought into the Subi region, which the people of Urartu call the land of the Mannaeans, and their quality is evaluated, they are not ridden, nor are they trained in exits, voltes, and turns, everything necessary for battle; they go unsaddled.”

It’s no coincidence that conquerors throughout history have demanded tribute from Armenia specifically in the form of horses. “What is said about Armenia confuses us. How did these mountain dwellers manage to develop a cavalry that could rival the riders of Media? It is an indisputable fact that Armenia was a source of exceptionally well-bred horses.

People in this country understood that horses had not only economic value but could also be used for military purposes,” observes V. Shapo. And though this remark pertains to a slightly later time, the essence remains unchanged.

The Nisean horses were particularly famous; Strabo provides the following information about them: “Concerning the Nisean horses used by the kings as the finest and largest, some claim that their breed originates here, while others say it’s from Armenia. …

This country is so abundant in horses (rivalling Media) that even the Nisean horses, which served the Persian kings, were raised here. The satrap of Armenia annually sent 20,000 foals to the Persian king for a festival called Mitrakinai. During the invasion of Media with Antony, Artavazd displayed, among other cavalry, an additional 6,000 armored horses, arraying them in battle order.”

Meanwhile, the bridle became more sophisticated, allowing the rider to control the horse with one hand. At the same time, the art of vaulting (performing gymnastic and acrobatic exercises on horseback) reached impressive heights, and “equestrian sport” became a favorite pastime of the kings.

Thus, Menua, even while still a prince, set the first record in horse jumping. In the late 19th century, a stone stele with cuneiform inscriptions was discovered in the wall of the Sikeh Church, near Lake Van, where an Armenian princes’ hippodrome was located even in the medieval era.

“By the power of the god Haldi, Menua, son of Ishpuini, says: from this spot, a horse named Artsivi, under Menua, jumped 22 cubits” (11 m 22 cm). This record was only broken 2775 years later, in the summer of 1975, when a horse named Swinger, ridden by K. Bergmann from Germany, jumped—though with a running start—over a pole fence and a ditch to a distance of 12 m 16 cm.

The cavalry, as a specific branch of the military in that time, appears only once—in 782 BCE, during the suppression of a rebellion in present-day Gugark. In that campaign, there were 15,760 infantry and 4,430 cavalry.

Due to the high cost of horses, especially riding horses, specialized equipment, and the complexity of training the riders, the cavalry was significantly smaller in number than the infantry, making up perhaps only one-fifth of the army.

Naturally, the core of the cavalry was made up of people who were financially well-off, specifically the nobility. Over time, however, cavalry units began to be supplemented with people of non-noble origin. In particular, in the army of Ancient Armenia, there existed a concept known as “ramik ayrudzi,” which roughly translates as “commoner cavalry.”

More or less accurate information about the composition of the Armenian army and cavalry is obtained during the era of the Yervandids, after the fall of the Ararat Kingdom. Armenia, now under Persian rule, had to participate in Median, and later, Persian campaigns, providing a certain number of troops.

Initially, these forces consisted of 20,000 infantry (archers and slingers) and 4,000 cavalry. Thus, Armenian cavalry actively participated in Cyrus’ conspiracy against the Medians, as well as against Babylon.

The infantry was commanded by Tigran, the son of Yervand, and the cavalry by General Emvaz. In the “Cyropaedia,” it is explicitly stated that the entire Armenian army consisted of 40,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry—half of the troops were always left for the defense of the country.

An interesting detail: in written sources from the Persian kings, Armenian cavalry is mentioned immediately after the Persian and Median cavalry, attesting to its truly high combat capabilities.

Taking into account that the Persian and Median cavalry consisted of cataphracts—fully armored riders on equally armored horses (essentially the tank units of the past)—the Armenian cavalry was likely made up of light cavalry, predominantly mounted archers.

We have new data from the era of Alexander the Great’s wars. It seems that the Armenian army participated in many of Darius’s battles. According to Curtius Rufus, the Armenian army, commanded by Yervand and Mithrast, consisted of 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry.

According to Arrian, the Armenians were positioned on the right flank of Darius’s army and displayed exceptional valor. The Armenians routed the left flank of the Macedonian army, commanded by Parmenion, and were already breaking through to the rear of the phalanx when the Persians, unable to withstand the pressure, panicked and fled.

Judging by the fact that Alexander did not invade Armenia and did not react to the destruction of a unit sent to Armenia under the command of Menon, Yervand III was able to maintain and retreat with a fully capable army. Based on the above figures, it can be said that since the time of Yervand I, the Armenian army had at least doubled in size.

The fact that the Armenian cavalry, which was initially likely exclusively light or medium, acquired heavy or armored cavalry units during the era of the Artaxiads is attested by many ancient chroniclers.

The armored Armenian cavalry is mentioned, in particular, in connection with the wars of Tigran II the Great. However, a significant portion of Tigran the Great’s cavalry was light cavalry—mounted archers.

They were the ones who ensured success in the Battle of Aratsani, which can rightfully enter the history of military art as the first victory achieved solely by cavalry without the support of infantry.

Armenian mounted archers—long before the Battle of Carrhae and centuries before the Battle of Harran—simply shot down Roman legionnaires without engaging in close combat. It’s worth noting that this common Eastern tactic also had its own uniqueness.

While Persians and Medians attempted to break the enemy lines with an attack by armored cavalry before shooting them down with mounted archers, Tigran did not send his heavy cavalry into battle during the Battle of Aratsani.

Apparently, after his defeat at Tigranakert, he decided not to risk them. According to Dio Cassius, in this battle, along with the Armenians, allied forces also participated—mounted archers from Mardi and mounted spearmen from Iberia.

As for armament, bows and arrows were apparently standard weapons even for cataphracts—although perhaps as secondary, rather than primary weapons, and used not during the attack but at a safe distance from the enemy.

A minor clarification: all of this occurred at a time when, contrary to “historical” films about antiquity, stirrups had not yet been invented. Scholars and the curious alike still wonder how cataphracts, clad in heavy (up to 60 kg!) armor, managed to not only stay in the saddle without support but also to wield spears, while light cavalry could shoot on the run and even swing swords.

Presumably, future riders were taught these skills from a young age (according to some data, even before they started to walk!). Likewise, the horses had to be equally up to the task. It’s no coincidence that King Menua’s record inscription was found at a place where, during the Middle Ages, the hippodromes and royal stud farms of Greater Armenia were located.

If during the times of the Ararat kingdom and the era of the Yervandids, the Armenian cavalry numbered only a few thousand, it gradually grew stronger and more numerous over time, becoming the main striking force of the army.

For instance, in 189 AD, King Artashes I, starting a war against the Seleucids, defeated Antiochus in the Battle of Magnesia. Artashes’ army consisted of over 50,000 people, mainly cavalry, commanded by Arax Basunti. During the time of Tigranes the Great, the size of the Armenian cavalry, according to some reports, reached 60,000.

And then… stirrups appeared, and cavalry became the symbol of the might of Eastern states, with Armenian cavalry epitomizing this power.

by Nelson Aleksanyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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