Thursday, August 14, 2014


Please take note.  Much of the following content derives from two works: New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare [Garrett G. Fagan & Matthew Trundle] and Chariot: From Chariot to Tank, the Astounding Rise and Fall of the World's First War Machine [Arthur Cotterell].  I'm afraid that I couldn't get hold of the whole text for the second work; I could find just enough to demonstrate that the authors do not agree with one another.  There's no reason they should.  Almost everything we know about the use of chariots, their development and decline, is a matter for speculation.  I remember L. Sprague de Camp's book, The Ancient Engineers, was specific to what can be learned from the archeological evidence - that they were typically a two-wheeled contrivance pulled by typically two to four horses, that they were used as a taxi to enter combat and leave it, that they worked as a higher platform from which to shoot missiles and that later on they were used more for prestige than for combat.  A hunt around the internet will lead to other interesting details.

I know it isn't typical for me to open a post like this with sources, but this is one of those subjects into which everyone likes to weigh in as though the matter were decided and settled absolutely for all time - with the current speaker specifically knowing all the precise details while of course everyone else is deluded.  I am not going to write that post.  We know almost nothing about the use of chariots.  What we thought we knew from Homer and other sources has lately been demonstrated to be improbable, so that at the moment no one is making any definite statements.  Therefore let me emphasize that this post is NOT an academic work.  This post is largely speculation based on other speculation, written expressly for the role-playing crowd.  Please feel free to interject on the subject and provide details of your own, so long as you're aware that you're as full of shit as I am, and so is whatever source you feel justified in quoting.  There's a lot of bullshit scholarship out there on the subject - don't think because you have a book written by Billy-Bob that you've got the definitive work.

Since I'm mostly interested in why or how chariots could figure in D&D or other role-play, I want to talk about why chariots ceased to be relevant in warfare.  First and foremost, we need to understand when chariots were employed, and when they ceased to be relevant.  For that, we need a basis in history.

The most artwork of a chariot created by an ancient artist, the one best known to me, is the depiction of Alexander the Great fighting Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus, 301 BC.  Darius, incidentally, is the one aboard the chariot - the figure of Alexander is the one that is furthest to the left.

The Alexander Mosaic, circa 100 BC, believed to be a copy of a 3rd century Hellenistic
painting [possibly by Philoxenos of Eretria].  On display at the
Naples National Archeological Museum

It's a fascinating image all around.  For those unfamiliar with a mosaic, the above is made with little tiny stones - thus the picture's dimensions being 8 ft, 11 in high and 16 ft, 9 in wide.  This thing is immense.  If you find yourself in Naples, be sure to get a look.

The symbolism of Darius, the loser in the fight, directing the battle from the chariot, while Alexander, the winner, fights from horseback like a soldier, shouldn't be lost.  We don't know, of course, that Darius did fight this battle from a chariot - except perhaps that the original artist had spoken to Greeks who claimed as much, after the fact.  Still, we know that people make shit up, that stories go around and that any important looking guy riding around on a chariot could have been mistaken for Darius. We just don't know.

From archeological evidence, we know that the chariot was huge and very successful a thousand years before the above depicted image.  We know that the Hyksos, a violent horse-riding people from west Asia, used the chariot, the battle axe and the composite bow to overrun Egypt in the 17th century BC and establish the 15th Dynasty.  We have plenty of evidence for the invasion, the appearance of those weapons and tactics and the time period the dynasty thrived - for about 100 years between 1650 and 1550 BC.  Thereafter, the chariot became the crux of Egypt's power over the eastern Mediterranean during the next four centuries - most notably under Ramses the II.

The chariot was also in wide use as early as 2000 BC on the steppelands of Turkestan, between the Tien Shan and Altai mountains on the east and the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains on the west.  This was a bronze age culture known as the Sintashta that dominated the vast region for 300 years - from 2100 to 1800 BC. They were probably instrumental in the Hyksos adoption of the chariot; they were certainly instrumental in the development of the modern horse.  The 'horse' as we know it originated in this area, circa 4000 BC.

It is hard to fathom how long ago any of this was happening - just as it is hard to grasp that while the chariot was around in the time of the Romans, Britons and even the Byzantines, as an instrument of war it had ceased to be effective sometime about a thousand years before Christ.  There are a number of reasons for this given by the sources above . . . which I shall try to recount.

I know that many readers will not be aware of the 'dark age' that occurred in Europe and the Middle East between 1200 and 850 BC.  This would be after the rise of the Phoenicians and Minoans, after the Mycenaeans, after the mythological/historical events at Troy and after virtually everything the reader knows about the court and lifestyle of Egypt.  The Assyrians and Romans came after this dark age, while the Sumerians and Akkadians were very definitely before.  More importantly, widespread use of the chariot happened before that dark period.

Called the 'Late Bronze Age collapse,' there are a number of theories for its occurrence and exactly what happened that caused a wide range of cultures to fall into decline.  My favorite personal theory has to do with core samples in Greenland, where the years of ice can be separated like paper and examined for all sorts of things - including dust and pollen contained in the atmosphere - going back thousands of years.  Conclusions have been drawn that a shift in air currents similar to the Little Ice Age produced a 'drying out' of the Mediterranean, so that plant life went into a decline first before human culture very quickly followed.  This was NOT a theory popular with my Classics professors in university, but as with most humanities instructors, science is a myth and does not really exist.  But I digress.

With the eradication of culture in the late 13th century BC came the demise of the chariot.  The chariot calvary never recovered as a military force.  It is probably that the cost of putting a chariot together afterwards became prohibitive.  Consider - two horses must be trained to work together in tandem, whereas with the rise of ancient Greece in the 9th century BC the possession of one horse was enough to consider a man to be wealthy.  Then a rider must be trained to operate the two horses; the carriage must be built, which is no mean cost, particularly when compared with the cost of only a saddle.  To put together a whole force of fifty to a hundred chariots would have been a monumental task - an impossible one in a democracy like Greece or a republic like Rome.  Even the Kingdom of Persia - where there was some use of chariots post 900 BC - would have found the effort arduous (particularly when one considers that the Persian 'Empire' was really a bunch of semi-independent satrapies who paid tribute to a central authority.

As the coffers emptied and personal freedom developed, the cavalries of the 2nd millenium BCE became impractical.  But this isn't the only reason for the chariot's decline.

Consider where it was used during that ancient period.  India, for example, where the chariot was certainly in use during the writing of the Bhagavad Gita and the Rigveda, is FLAT.  Very, very flat. The same is true of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the lowlands of Anatolia (where the 2nd millennia Hittite culture flourished) and the steppes of Turkestan.  Flat, all of them.

Curiously, we have evidence that shows Egypt did not commonly use chariots in its own valley - where fighting units were more often supported by boats.  The reason for that is clear, once the extent of the nile's flood is fully understood.  See this video, starting about 7:20.

Compare, then, the terrain of Greece, Italy, Spain and Sicily ('Greater Greece') where the Greeks and Romans fought their battles.  Very much not flat.  In some parts of Greece, even the horse fails to be of much use.  The Carthaginians were blessed with flat country (northern Tunisia), but horses were in short supply, the land is fairly dry for horses and elephants were available (there were problems with elephants, but we can address those on another post).

Result: no chariot fighting.  Why go to the expense and effort of having one if the instrument can't be used because the enemy has decided to defend from a hill?

By the 1st millennia, the chariot had become a taxi for sure - this is how the Britons surely used them. The Assyrians built really large chariots, but these were mostly VIP carriers.  The most valued use of the chariot in Rome was as a sport - which it continued to be until the 7th century AD.

Think about the incorporation of chariots in your campaign.  How are they an improvement over horses?  By the time of Alexander the Great, firing a bow from horseback had become widespread - what benefits, then, does the chariot serve?

It is certainly a fascinating device.  On that I agree.  But the disappearance of the chariot was surely that it was improved upon - by the very animal that enabled the chariot in the first place.  I feel that what really happened was that we learned much, much more about the horse, making the chariot an unnecessary affectation.  It was a good idea, but in the long run, a disposable one.


JB said...

Again, excellent stuff...and good reason not to incorporate chariots (as "war machines") in most cases. I've often felt that D&D would fit well with a "bronze age" setting (where chariots might fit), but clearly there's extra consideration (terrain at the least!) that needs to be given.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Very cool. I did not know anything about chariots or their history before this. Thank you for the writeup.

Eric said...

Discussions of horseriding always make me wonder about stirrups. Clearly riding without stirrups was still superior to charioteering, from the historical evidence, but why did it take thousands of years for someone to go "hmm, I should hang some footrests from my saddle, it might help me stay on."?

Alexis Smolensk said...

To answer that, Eric, you must go to the Saddle - the following is from Wikipedia:

The development of the solid saddle tree [circa 1st century BC] was significant; it raised the rider above the horse's back, and distributed the rider's weight on either side of the animal's spine instead of pinpointing pressure at the rider's seat bones, reducing the pressure (e.g. pounds per square inch or kilopascals) on any one part of the horse's back, thus greatly increasing the comfort of the horse and prolonging its useful life. The invention of the solid saddle tree also allowed development of the true stirrup as it is known today.[11] Without a solid tree, the rider's weight in the stirrups creates abnormal pressure points and makes the horse's back sore. Thermography studies on 'treeless' and flexible tree saddle designs have found that there is considerable friction across the center line of a horse's back."

Issara Booncharoen said...

I feel that categorising Greece as democratic in the period mentioned is something of a misrepresentation. At best it can be said that democracies existed in Greece. Why do I feel this is important? I'm not sure the argument stands on Greece being poor mountainous and split up between hundreds of city states. It just seems important to note.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The source material I quoted backs me up Issara. Although Greece does include several kings, and in its early period was studded with tyrants, it is fair to say that as time advanced, democracies and oligarchies grew more common. Both were based upon individuals paying for their own equipment rather than state-funded armies.

I suggest taking a more in-depth look at it with Dr. Kagan of Yale. It will help you understand why I made the generalization that I made (and that the source material also made).