A Tarentine Cavalryman. The dolphin emblem on his shield is the symbol of Tarentum, the most prestigious Italiote-Greek city in southern Italy Artwork by Johnny Shumate.

Tarentine Horseman of Magna Graecia: 430–190 BC

Latin soldier and Tarentine levy, c. 280 BC. the Latins were solid allies of the Romans and contributed thousands of warriors to the Roman war machine. Here the warriors clash in Southern Italy during the Pyrrhic war.

Hippeis Tarantinoi are a superb elite cavalry that long ago made their home city of Taras, on the southern coast of Italia, famous for its own modest equestrian tradition. They wear light, high quality linen armor and charge into combat with a curved kopis blade and several javelins to weaken enemies for their charge or sustained melee fighting. In appearance and style they are a distinct, traditional Hellenic light cavalry, but fight with far more skill then their less recognizable predecessors from Hellas itself. As a force, they can be relied upon in any situation to perform as missile cavalry or as melee troops, providing that they do not get bogged down in the thick of battle.

Historically, the Hippeis Tarantinoi were the elite cavalry force of Taras, an old foundation of Sparte on the southern coast of Italia. They were fairly unique among the various cavalries produced in the Hellenic tradition, as outside of the successors of Megas Alexandros, most such states were never recognized for the maintainance of an effective cavalry force – outside of Thessalonika. With them to form an effective compliment to their less impressive citizen infantry, Taras and the cities and Hellenes under its authority were able to hold the Leukanoi and Bruttiai at bay for many years, and were eventually used to some effect in the Epeirote army fashioned by Pyyrhos.

The Hippeis Tarantinoi are excellent skirmisher cavalry, armed with lots of javelins and having a high range to pepper enemies making it easy for them to avoid danger.

Due to being well-armored and well-armed for skirmisher cavalry, they are able to defeat and pursue missile units and defeat light cavalry but they cannot defeat medium or heavy cavalry by themselves.


Tarentum was founded in 706 BC by Dorian Greek immigrants and was Sparta’s only colony. Its founders were Partheniae, biological anomalies believed to be the sons of virgins. In reality, they were the sons of unmarried Spartan women and Perioeci, free men who were not officially citizens of Sparta and whose sole function in life was to increase the Spartan birthrate and thereby recruitment to the Spartan army during the Messenian wars. These spurious marriages were later annulled and the sons were exiled. Phalanthus, the Parthenian leader, consulted the oracle at Delphi as to how best to handle this and was told that Tarentum was to be the new home of the exiles. Tarentum grew, and by the time Roman power was spreading south, it had become a leading commercial and military force amongst the cities of Magna Graecia in southern Italy.

From the eighth and seventh centuries BC, famine, overcrowding and a need for new commercial opportunities, trade and ports, led the Greeks into a programme of extensive colonization which included such widespread places as the eastern coast of the Black Sea, Libya and Massalia, Sicily and the southern tip of the Italian peninsula – territories collectively known as Magna Graecia. With the Greeks came Greek culture: dialects of the Greek language, arts, religious rites, the polis – all subsumed into native Italic culture. The Chalcidean–Cumaean version of the Greek alphabet was adopted by the Etruscans and the resulting Old Italic alphabet subsequently evolved into the Latin alphabet. Major cities included Neapolis, Syracuse, Acragas and Sybaris, Tarentum, Rhegium, Nola, Ancona and Bari.

Sheep farming was a major factor in Tarentum’s economic and commercial success; fleeces, dyed purple with the mussels from the harbour, were much in demand throughout Italy. Ceramics too were important to the economy, and trade generally soon spread into the lands bordering on the Aegean, beyond the Po and across the Alps. Commercial prowess was matched by political stability and the ability to raise an army of some 15,000 men, to complement the strongest navy in the Mediterranean. The Tarentine armed forces were strengthened further by bands of Greek mercenaries, giving them the power not only to snuff out incursions by the Oscans but also indulge in territorial expansion. During the First Samnite War, the Tarentines allied with King Archidamus of Sparta and then, in 334 BC, with his brother-in-law, King Alexander of Epirus. Alexander successfully quelled incursions by the Brutii, Samnites and Lucanians and concluded a non-aggression pact with the Romans on behalf of Tarentum. Tarentum, however, was increasingly suspicious of Alexander’s motives and left him to hang out to dry, and to be murdered by the Lucanians. Rome’s expansionism, too, was viewed with some anxiety in Tarentum; they rejected Rome’s attempts at diplomacy. The Battle of Tarentum followed soon after.

The influence of Tarentum stretched from Rhegium in the south as far northeast as Illyria, and as far northwest as Naples. Archytas was a skilled diplomat, gaining control of the Italiote League and limiting Syracusan interests in southern Italy-but the ultimate basis of Tarentine power and influence was not diplomatic. Nor was it economic, although Tarentum by the mid-fourth century had finally become a wealthy city, and an intellectual center. Rather, the expansion of Tarentine influence was based-as the expansion of influence was usually based in the ancient world-on military power. In this period the Tarentine army numbered thirty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry: the cavalry were famous; the infantry were also of good quality, for they were often employed in offensives into the Italic hill country. In addition, ancient writers say that the Tarentine war fleet was now the most powerful among the Western Greeks. The area enclosed within the city walls now rivaled Classical Athens at its height , the total population approximated Classical Athens , and the Tarentine army equaled in size the Athenian army under Pericles-though the Tarentines were able to put a higher percentage of armed citizens into the field ( 22,000 vs 13,000 ).

Along with military strength came militaristic ideology. Like contemporary Romans and many other Hellenistic states, the Tarentines worshipped Victory: given both Tarentine strength and the multiple dangers the city faced, this should cause no surprise. The goddess Victory appears widely on fourth-century Tarentine coinage; often she is crowning an armored cavalryman-a figure more and more frequent on the coinage after 300 BC. From 300 Tarentum also possessed a large and famous statue of Nike sculpted by a disciple of the great Lysippus; it stood in the center of the city.

Tarentine Light Cavalry

Light cavalry of the Hellenistic period were generally mercenaries, called Tarentines. Although originally from Taras in south Italy, the name came to mean just a type of light cavalry armed with javelins and a small shield (Head 1982, pp. 115–16). The small shield of Macedonian style from Olympia, mentioned in connection with Cretan archers, could equally have been used by a Tarentine cavalryman. It is a moot point as to whether they wore helmets. We might presume that those who could buy their own helmet would have done so, but that they were not essential. Apart from battles, these soldiers were used chiefly for scouting by all the Hellenistic kingdoms and many Greek states.

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