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The Wolves of Attica: Xenophon and the Evolution of Cavalry in Asymmetric Warfare

Frank S. Russell

The Wolves of Attica: Xenophon and the Evolution of Cavalry in Asymmetric Warfare

We can draw a distinction between notions of asymmetric warfare dominant in the early and in the late fifth century. In the Persian Wars, a smaller force resisted a greater by exploiting topographical chokepoints to force an engagement on term of local parity (e.g., Thermopylae, Artemisium, and Salamis; cf. the Vale of Tempe and the Isthmus of Corinth). Combat was between forces of essentially similar composition, and was fixed in place to the degree that the smaller, defending force was able to hold its position. The larger, offensive, force could attempt to bypass the blocking force through maneuver, or commit to battle in circumstances where the advantage of numbers was minimized.

In the Peloponnesian War, we see the development of a mobile response to large incursions. To limit the damage to the chora, the Athenians used cavalry to prevent the light-armed troops of the Peloponnesians from wandering at will (with varied success, e.g. Thuc. 2.22.2, 3.1). Similarly, the Lacedaemonians combined hoplites stationed at strategic points with a newly-raised a body of four hundred cavalry and archers in response to Athenian incursions along the Peloponnesian coast (Thuc. 4.55.2). Delaying actions against large armies were fought by smaller cavalry contingents during the Athenian retreat from Syracuse, and the Theban advance on Mantinea.

Not long after these developments, we find the emergence of a theoretical treatment of cavalry actions against a large invading force. Xenophon devoted a significant portion of his treatise on the Cavalry Commander to this specific type of asymmetric warfare. His recommendations for the weaker party are largely echoed by military theorists today: pious, diligent, flexible, intelligent, and informed command (Xen. Cav. Com.7.1-5); small, well-trained and well-mounted troops with high morale (8.1-3,12); hit-and-run tactics against targets of opportunity (7.12, 8.12-15); consideration of the psychology of friend and foe; and denial of intelligence and deception of the enemy (7.13-15). While he noted the role that small forces could play against larger in confined circumstances (7.10-11), he conceived of the conflict as a series of fluid, irregular actions over a long period of time. In contrast to the mythos of classical warfare, a decisive engagement is rejected. 

Xenophon made two allusions that transform an innovative theoretical discussion to a radical one, and not merely in the context of the early fourth century. The first (Cav. Com. 4.19) is to a wolf, and a wolf-pack, which preys upon whatever is vulnerable, and flees or distracts the dogs who guard it. While not a particularly heroic simile, and somewhat reminiscent of Dolon in his wolf-skin in Iliad 10, the method is made vivid even to a modern reader. In the second (Cav. Com. 7.7), Xenophon admonished the cavalry commander to use his men as lestoi (bandits or brigands). The latter is extraordinary, especially given the social class of the Athenian cavalry, and the general tendency for states, ancient and modern, to characterize insurgents (normally the weaker party in asymmetric warfare) with this pejorative term.

In brief, in his description of asymmetric warfare, Xenophon is articulating a new vision of war and warrior, in both descriptive discourse and metaphor.

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New Studies in Asymmetric Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World

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