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war chariots

Poster: Neil Maclay <nmaclay@btg.com>

Lord Aelfgar writes:
> So, to sum up. I do not claim that the ancients did not use chariots in
> battle, merely that their effect must of necessity have been primarily
> psychological rather than physical, and that as armies became more
> disciplined, the chariot quickly became ineffective.

Lord Leifr Johansson has replied:
> Intimidation has always been far more effective a method to victory then

I agree that intimidation has always been important in war. I will suggest
that for a
weapon system to be effectively intimidating over a period of many years a
fear of it must be based on objective reality. A bluff that continues to
work for 
a thousand years strains credulity.

An example of a weapon system that relied on its psychological effect was
the war elephant. Whenever it appeared in battle against troops that were
unfamiliar with 
elephants they were very effective. But this effectiveness soon disappeared
and when 
used against soldiers that were mentally prepared elephants became as
dangerous to 
their own side as to the enemy.

The case is different for chariots. They were considered a necessary part of an 
effective army in Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Asia-Minor from
1800 BC to about 700 BC. They were also vital in China during the Shang and
the Chou 
dynamites, in India from the time of the Aryan conquest to the invasion of
and to the Mychaenian Greeks. I think that for chariots to be so valued over
range of time and territory they must have been effective even against
troops that had 
experience fighting against them.

OK - So if chariots were so great why did they fall out of use during the
8th century 
BC? I don't believe that it was simply that infantry just became more
disciplined all 
over the world.

My contention is that basic changes in the technology of warfare made
chariots obsolete.
Chariots appeared during the bronze age and withdrew from battle during the
iron age. 
I suspect that this is important.

What was the effect of iron on ancient armies? At first not much, as early
iron weapons 
were not especially stronger or sharper than bronze ones. But after metal
workers grew 
to be familiar with the working of iron, the supply of metal weapons and
tools increased 
because iron ore is much more common than copper ore and tin ore for the
making of good 
bronze is rarer than copper. More means cheaper and more foot soldiers could
be supplied 
with metal tipped arrows and spears, also armor if they could bear it. This
would lessen 
the relative advantage of a chariot warrior over a foot man. But the chariot
would still have the ability to carry more offensive and defensive armament
than a foot 
soldier. A charioteer would also maintain the advantage in mobility. I
propose that what 
removed chariots from the battlefields was not better infantry but better

What are the advantages of cavalry over chariots? First, what comes to mind
is that 
horses can travel over ground that would destroy a wheeled vehicle like a
chariot. Of 
course this is also true of infantry.  But on a plane infantry has a hard
time of 
catching up to chariots and engaging them if the chariots did not wish to
engage in 
close combat. Cavalry can move fast enough to force chariots to engage. The
advantage of cavalry over chariots then become important.

My suspicion is that chariots were not very good at concentrating into close
groups and 
maneuvering quickly as multi-vehicle units. The best historical accounts of
battles were 
written after chariots were no longer used for battle, but chariot racing
popular to the end of the ancient Hellenistic civilization. The funereal
epitaphs for 
charioteers giving their ages at death and the manner of their dying make
clear how 
extremely dangerous the maneuvering of chariots, close to each other, was.
If this was 
true on the prepared ground of a race track, think how risky chariots would
be to each 
other on a cluttered battlefield. I believe with a force of war chariots
each charioteer 
would be giving his neighbors plenty of room. 

Cavalry can form and maneuver with a separation of inches of the leg of one
rider from 
the next if the unit is very well trained and with a separation of a couple
of feet if 
the riders are reasonably competent. In battle this means that cavalry can
and overwhelm chariots piecemeal.

An obvious question  to ask is, why wasn't cavalry able to chase chariots
off the field 
before the eighth century BC? After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the 
archaeological evidence of horse back riding predates that of chariots by

Two conditions seem to be necessary for the appearance of cavalry at a
historical moment, better horses and better riders. I am not an expert on
the history 
of horse breeding. If someone who reads this has some knowledge about this I
would be 
very thankful if they would post a response with this information. I have
read that the 
Nicene breed of war horse was developed in Persia but I don't know if they
existed in 
the eighth century BC. I do know that better riders appeared in the
histories of the 
time in a spectacular way.

The Scythians started raiding into Asia-Minor and Mesopotamia at this time.
They were 
the first known representatives of the horse nomad cultures of central Asia.
Russian archaeological investigations indicate that true horse nomad
culture, that has 
clearly separated from agricultural villages, developed and colonized the
steppes during 
the tenth and ninth centuries BC. Nomads who live most of their lives on
guarding and moving their herds can and must develop a high standard of
They also have incentive to develop better riding equipment such as saddles
and better 
weapons that can be used from horseback like the double curved horse bow.

(It is interesting that the development of horse nomadism can at the same
time as the 
spread of iron. Was this a coincidence or is there some historical
necessity linking the two? Any suggestions are welcome.)

Civilized states when confronted with horse nomad cavalry can respond in
several ways. 
They can hire bands of nomads as mercenaries. They can train some of their
own people 
to imitate the nomad methods of fighting. And they can develop new methods
of cavalry 
fighting based on their wealth of technology and their ability to support a
military. The records of the Assyrians show that they did all of the above.
peoples seem to have done the same.

I should note that at this same time, the eighth century, the Greeks were
their heavy hoplite infantry that was able to defeat Asiatic light infantry
and cavalry 
if they were able to bring the combat to close quarters. Undoubtedly they
could do the 
same to chariots if they could close but I think that it was cavalry that
could chase 
down and destroy the chariots that had dominated battle for over a thousand

Master Malcolm MacMalcolm, Marshal
( just say MMMMM... )

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