Sunday, January 18, 2015

Companion Cavalry: Forging Alexander's Empire

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was the renowned Macedonian general that conquered the lands of all Greece, Egypt, Persia, and attempted to conquer India as well. His army led him to numerous victory. They never failed him in battle. In all his victories, Alexander always relied in a unit of cavalry he always accompany. They were known as the Companion Cavalry.

The Companion Cavalry or Hetairoi in Greek was the core of the Macedonian Army. Started by King Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father, they showed their reliability and effectiveness in battle. Besides fighters, they showed also their skills as advisers and administrators. With political and military skills they were always accompany their leader; hence, being known as the Companions of the King or Companion Cavalry.

The Macedonian Army was one of the greatest army in the ancient world. They matched the power of their contemporaries, like the Immortals of the Persian Empire. Its bulk contained the traditional hoplites. But King Philip saw the significance of cavalry in battles. They served as shock troops, reconnaissance, raiding parties. They served as the tanks of the ancient times. And King Philip exploited it. Because of this, one-sixth of the size of the army were cavalry.

King Philip began to recruit for an elite cavalry unit that would be the pride of his cavalry force and his personal bodyguards. Nobles and landowners of Macedonia who excelled in horseback riding were recruited to be part of the cavalry unit. They were trained in combat as well as other non-combat skills. They were educated and trained as administrators and diplomats. They would serve as the elite units of the King as well as advisers became Companions of the King. Initially, 600 were recruited to be part of the Companion Cavalry. Later on, as the army met success and grew, the number of Companion Cavalry grew to 2,000 and later 3,000.

The Companion Cavalry also were well organized into squadrons. At first, the 600 Companion Cavalry were divided into 8 squadrons known as ilae. And each of this ilae were divided into 4 terrachiai each having at least 49 men under the command of a tetrarch. But when the number of Companion Cavalry rose, so as the organization. The number of ilae were increased to 16, each having 150 to 225 men. Then in 331 BCE, under Alexander, each illae were divided into two companies or lochoi.

In addition, one squadron of Companion Cavalry served always at the side of the King and became known as the Royal Guards or the Somatophylakes.

The overall command of the Companions also changed as time progressed from its founding. At the time of King Philip, Alexander commanded the Companions. But when Alexander became the King, he placed Philotas as the commander of the Companions. But in 330 BCE, Philotas was executed. Alexander reformed the command and placed the Companions under the command of two hipparchs or commander of cavalry. Then in 327 BCE, six hipparchs were placed in charge. The reason for the increase of commanders was to avoid to place the command of an elite and dangerous unit in one hand.

The armor and weapons of the Companion Cavalry were typical of their time. They wore light armor, which might be a breastplate or a kilt made of leather. They wore metal helmets and had shields. They were armed with spears made of cornel wood and for close quarters, they had a curved sword perfect for slashing down an enemy. Some Companions were given javelins to add a range attack capability. Other that weapons and armor, the Companions also had their own retainers and servants during in times of military campaign. Because they came from nobility and wealthy, they were allowed to bring with them their one or two servants to help them during the campaign seasons.

In battle, they served as the shock troops of the Macedonian army. When charging the enemy, they created a wedge formation. When in contact, it could cause a formation to be destroyed in the center, dividing the enemy forces into two. And also, a wedge formation was flexible formation. It could go forward but also, it was easy to turn to left or the right as well.

The Companions showed their tactics and combat skills in many campaigns of King Philip and Alexander the Great. In 338 BCE, under King Philip and his son, Alexander, they fought the Athenians in the Battle of Chaeronea. Then in 334 – 330 BCE, along with ilaes under Clitus, Glaucias, Ariston, sopolis, Heracleides, Demetrius, Melager, and Hegelochus joined Alexander the Great in his campaign to conquer the Persian Empire. They also accompanied Alexander during the Indian campaign from 327 BCE to 323 BCE.

Upon the death of Alexander, some of the Companions rose and contended against other generals who claimed to be successors of Alexander the Great’s Empire. And the legacy of Companion continued through the empires made after the death of Alexander the Great.

The Companion Cavalry was cavalry unit that forged ta great Empire. Under the brilliant military minds of King Philip and Alexander the Great, they utilized effectively in battle and their skills and notoriety spread with the Empire that their Kings build. 

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Gilbert, A. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

Sacks, D. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.

Sheppard, R. (ed.). Alexander the Great At War: His Army, His Battles, His Enemies. Maryland: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

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