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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chariots in ancient warfare

 The origin of the chariot is not definitively documented but it is thought to have been a technology developed in the Eurasian steppe by cultures such as the Sintashta, a Middle Bronze Age civilization dating to the period 2200-1800 BCE.  The earliest remains of chariots have been found in Sintashta burials.

Russian archaeological analysis indicates the preceding Abashevo culture was already marked by endemic intertribal warfare. Intensified by ecological stress and competition for resources in the Sintashta period, this drove the construction of fortifications on an unprecedented scale and innovations in military technique such as the invention of the war chariot.   Many Sintashta graves are furnished with weapons, although the composite bow associated later with chariotry does not appear.

The Sintashta economy included the production of copper from ore in nearby mines  and arsenical bronze, that uses arsenic rather than tin, which was smelted on an industrial scale.  The metal was exported to the cities of Bactria-Margiana in Central Asia, for the first time connecting the steppe region to the ancient urban civilizations of the Near East.  It was through these trade routes that domesticated horses and chariots were introduced to the Near East and ultimately the rest of the Mediterranean basin.

The oldest testimony of chariot warfare in the ancient Near East is the Old Hittite Anitta text (18th century BCE), which mentions 40 teams of horses at the siege of Salatiwara.  The Hittites became renowned charioteers. They developed a new chariot design that had lighter wheels, with four spokes rather than eight, and that held three rather than two warriors. It could hold three warriors because the wheel was placed in the middle of the chariot and not at the back as in Egyptian chariots. Typically one Hittite warrior steered the chariot while the second man was usually the main archer; the third warrior would either wield a spear or sword when charging at enemies or hold up a large shield to protect himself and the others from enemy arrows.  The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE is likely to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving over 5,000 chariots.

The Persians may have been the first to yoke four horses to their chariots. They also used scythed chariots. Cyrus the Younger employed these chariots in large numbers at the Battle of Cunaxa. Herodotus mentions that the ancient Libyan and the ancient Indian (Sattagydia, Gandhara and Hindush) satrapies supplied cavalry and chariots to Xerxes the Great's army. However, by this time, cavalry was far more effective and agile than the chariot, and the defeat of Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE), where the army of Alexander simply opened their lines and let the chariots pass and attacked them from behind, effectively marked the end of the era of dependence on chariot warfare in Mediterranean battlefield tactics.

The Romans encountered the use of chariots in warfare by the Britons but never used chariots for warfare themselves.  Julius Caesar reported that, unlike earlier Near Eastern tactics where warriors or archers fought from chariots, the Britons would drive their chariots "in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops."  

The last mention of chariot use in battle in Brittania was reported to be at the Battle of Mons Graupius in modern Scotland in 84 CE (Agricola 1.35-36).  "The plain between resounded with the noise and with the rapid movements of chariots and cavalry." But the chariots did not win even their initial engagement with the Roman auxiliaries.

Fragmentary terracotta model of a four horse chariot from Cyprus, 700-500 BCE, Cypro-Archaic I-II Period, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

Nike mounted on a quadriga that I photographed in the King Victor Emmanuel II Monument in Rome, Italy.

Bronze Etruscan chariot inlaid with ivory, 2nd quarter of 6th century BCE found near Monteleone di Spoleto with scenes of the battles of Achilles that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A reconstructed four-wheeled Gallic "chariot" at the Musée archéologique de Strasbourg courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Chatsam

A four-horse Qin Dynasty chariot of the tomb of Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, 210 BCE, that I photographed at the Terracotta Warriors exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

A Lucanian tomb fresco from Paestum depicting a biga, two-horse chariot, courtesy of Carole Raddato.

A Roman mosaic depicting a quadriga, four-horse racing chariot courtesy of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Trier, Germany.

A reconstructed four-wheeled Gallic "chariot" at the Musée archéologique de Strasbourg courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Chatsam

 

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