Hippika gymnasia, the Roman cavalry tournaments

Modern recreation of hippika gymnasia exercises / photo Adsek on Wikimedia Commons

We are used, thanks to literature and cinema, to the image of medieval horsemen engaged in chivalry tournaments. Although this type of competition and its rules are exclusively of medieval invention, in reality similar exercises existed long before, such as the one practiced by the Roman cavalry, probably due to Greek influence.

It was called hippika gymnasia, from the Greek ἱππικὰ γυμνάσια (chivalry exercises) and, like medieval tournaments, it had a show component and a skill component. It served for the riders to practice their skills in combat, the execution of maneuvers in complicated occasions, and at the same time to impress friends and enemies alike.

Modern hippika gymnasia recreation / photo MatthiasKabel on Wikimedia Commons

The elite Roman cavalry had to perform complex maneuvers that required intensive training. They were mainly part of the auxiliary troops (equites alares), recruited among Gauls, Alamans, Iberians and Thracians, traditionally skilled and experienced in fighting on horseback, and therefore better paid than the riders of the cohorts (equites cohortales).

Roman helmet with mask, from the first century A.D. / photo Wolfgang Sauber on Wikimedia Commons

They used chain mail and helmets similar to those of the infantry, but with greater protection, and an oval or hexagonal shield, in addition to carrying a lance, javelin or bow and the sword (spatha), longer than the gladius and therefore designed to fight on horseback.

The role of chivalry is profusely described by the Greek historian Arrian (h.86-175 A.D.) in his work Ars Tactica, where he details the practice of hippika gymnasia. Arrian, who was consul in Betica, proconsul in Cappadocia and commander of the legions on the border with Armenia, stood out for his tactical ability in repelling an invasion of Alans in 135 A.D., a battle that he describes in The order of battle against the Alans.

Roman horsemen use spears, and collide, like Alans and Sauromats, with long and wide swords, which they carry as a shoulder strap, oblong shields, iron helmets, chain mail, and small boots. Some of them are armed with javelins, suitable for throwing and charging. However, the sword is the weapon most used in close combat.

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The participants in the hippika gymnasia were dressed in colorful red or purple cimerian tunics over their armor, with helmets fitted with silver or gold masks and with long scythian plumes and banners with brightly colored cloth tails that swelled when they rode, all in order to impress:

Crosby Garrett Roman helmet found in England, 1st-3rd century AD/ photo Portable Antiquities Scheme on Wikimedia Commons

The riders enter fully armed, and those of high rank or above in horseback riding wear golden iron or bronze helmets to attract the attention of the spectators. Unlike active duty helmets, these not only cover the head and cheeks, but fit the entire face of the riders with eye openings. Yellow feathers hang from the helmets, a matter of both decoration and utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes. They carry oblong shields of a lighter type than those used in action, since both agility and intelligent participation are the objects of the exercise and they improve the appearance of their shields by beautifying them. Instead of breastplates, the riders wear tight cimmerian tunics embroidered in scarlet, red or blue and other colors. On their legs they wear tight pants, not baggy ones like those worn by the Parthians and Armenians. Horses have custom-made fronts and also have side armor.

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Archaeological excavations have recovered numerous examples of this sports equipment, such as armor, helmets and masks made of different alloys and metals, almost always decorated with reliefs and engravings of mythological figures alluding to war.

Helmets with masks are one of the most unique and curious elements. For several reasons. The first is that there were both male and female ones. The latter present elements such as headbands, jewelry, ribbons and distinctive hairstyles. They were used to distinguish the Greeks from the Amazons in competition. And the second is that their origin is uncertain, although some authors give as place of origin the eastern provinces of the empire.

They were also used in combat, since one appeared at the site of the battle of Teutoburg Forest, where in 9 A.D. three Roman legions were annihilated. And in the Syrian site of Dura Europos, which in 257 AD the Romans lost after a terrible Persian siege, horse armor appeared, which coincides with what was written by Arrian:

javelins fall harmlessly on the sides of horses, especially since the sides are mostly protected by the horses’ armour

Arrian, Ars Tactica
Modern hippika gymnasia recreation / photo MatthiasKabel on Wikimedia Commons

However, the weapons used in the hippika gymnasia were not lethal, since it was more of an exhibition in which two teams participated, one attacking and the other defending, with the defenders being prepared to receive the opponents’ attacks.

It is at this point that a good horsemanship is especially needed to be able to throw simultaneously those who are charging and to give the right hand the protection of the shield. When riding parallel to his target, the rider must turn to the right to throw; when making a complete turn, he must throw in the manner called, in the Gallic language “petrinus”, which is the most difficult of all. Because he must turn to the right as much as the flexibility of the sides allows him, facing the tail of the horse, to throw backwards as straight as possible, and once this is done, he must turn quickly forward and bring his shield to cover his back, because if he turns without protection, he exposes a vulnerable target to the enemy.

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Gallic maneuver called petrinos according to Ann Hyland / photo Ann Hyland, Training the Roman Cavalry: from Arrian’s Drs Tactica, 1993

Another usual exercise was to pursue the enemy, trying by all means to prevent them from regrouping.

They advance first with leveled pikes on the defensive and then as if they were overtaking a fleeing enemy. Others, as if against another enemy, when their horses turn, move their shields over their heads to a position behind them and turn their pikes as if they were facing the assault of an enemy. This maneuver is called in Gaul “toloutegon”. They also draw their swords and make a variety of strikes, better calculated to overtake a fleeing enemy, to kill a man who has already fallen, or to achieve any success by means of a rapid movement along the flanks. And that’s not all: they demonstrate in the most varied way possible the number of forms that can be given to the act of jumping on a horse. Finally, they show how a man in his armor can jump on a horse when he is running. Some call it the “walker’s jump”.

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The Cantabrian Charge according to Ann Hyland / draw by Marcus Junkelmann, Reiter wie Statuen aus Erz (1996)

After performing the petrinus and the toloutegon, both characteristic Celtic maneuvers, together with the xynema or testudo (technical terms taken from the Gallic military language that kept its name within the Roman army), the teams performed the famous maneuver of the northern villages of Hispania called Cantabricus densus (also cantabricus impetus or cantabricus circulus), a type of charge that included the use of throwing weapons from a distance and at a gallop.

In this, a “Cantabrian Charge” is carried out, named after the Cantabrians, of Iberian lineage, which the Romans made their own. It is as follows: The prominent wing of the riders is arranged in a closed formation on the left side in the direction of the march, except for the two riders in charge of receiving the darts shot on them. And they are launched from the right side, as before, leaning over the venablo, and while they advance there is another charge initiated on the right side of the march, turning in a circle. These riders do not yet make use of their light darts but of their polished pikes, not of iron, since by their weight they are not easy to carry by the shooters nor dangerous for those against whom they are shot. In this respect, it is ordered not to aim at the helmets of those riding next to them, but before the rider turns around, leaving part of his side exposed or being exposed when showing his back, to shoot with all his strength aiming at the shield itself. The precision of this maneuver is based on the fact that, when getting as close as possible to those riding nearby, the rider located within this circle fires his venom as close as possible to the center of the shield and when he falls on it, it resonates or even crosses it from side to side; the next one turns next and so does the third one and those following in line in this order. The terrifying roar makes one lower his guard, and the turning display in this maneuver is showy; it is a military exercise of skill and strength in shooting for some, of safety and safeguard against the attackers for others. In addition to this, the safety practice of the shooter as well as his demonstration is not executed by all riders – since not all are suitable for such skill – but by those who excel in the art of horsemanship. They lead their horses with a slope on their right from which, making the horse advance gently to the top, they have to shoot incessantly and as far and as scattered as possible, while wielding the venom. And it is the best one who manages to shoot 15 javelins before removing his horse from this location. Above these, one cannot be precise unless one deceives the crowd by appearing to be as stable as possible, so that one can fire two or three more shots before reaching the top of the slope. However, I praise much more the one who, according to the rules, acts using even resources of skill for the admiration of the spectators

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Possible representation of the Cantabrian charge in the stele of a cavalry instructor found in Cherchell (Algeria) / draw by Eduardo Peralta, photo Michael P. Speidel on Roman Cavalry Training and the Riding School of the Mauretanian Horse Guard (1996)

As Eduardo Peralta Labrador explains in The Cantabrian auxiliaries of the Roman army and the manoeuvres of the Roman cavalry the Cantabrian charge was a particular type of charge in which a double turn movement was executed. The most difficult was the turn to the left that forced the horse to change its front leg in the march and the rider to continue holding the shield with the left hand, moving it to the right to protect its exposed side from the enemy, while continuing to throw javelins with the right hand and defending himself from those thrown at him. Therefore, only a handful of very experienced riders were able to do this. The exercise, performed in hippika gymnasia, consisted of obtaining a perfect synchronization between the circular progression, the rotation of the riders’ shields and the throwing of javelins.

In combat, the riders executed the Cantabrian charge by approaching in line and trotting towards the enemy infantry. Once they were a few paces away, the turmas turned to the right, presenting the left flank protected by the shield and throwing a great number of venoms. The riders continued galloping to the right, evolving in a circle to pass again in front of the enemy lines again and again until they were disorganized by the attack.

The aim of all these exercises, besides the impressive show given to dignitaries and representatives of subdued peoples, was obviously the training of the riders. They were taught to ride from both sides of the horse, wearing full armor and all weapons, to ride while the horse was galloping, and to control the saddle only with knees and legs. The person in charge of directing the hipikka gymnasia was called campidoctor (from which comes the nickname Campeador for Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), and we know the name of some, such as Titus Aurelius Decimus, centurion of the Legio VII Gemina in Hispania during the reign of Commodus.


Sources

Peralta Labrador, Eduardo, Los auxiliares cántabros del ejército romano y las maniobras de la caballería romana, Hispania Antiqva. Revista de Historia Antigua XLII (2018), doi.org/10.24197/ha.XLII.2018.123-198 / The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History (Pat Southern) / Blood of the Provinces (Ian Haynes) / Ars Táctica (Flavio Arriano, texto francés) / Wikipedia.