by Paul S. Dobbins
The following comments are made in response to Nigel Stillman’s short essay on the same subject in his supplement to Ancient Battles, Chariot Wars. I disgree very strongly with some of the points Stillman made in this essay, for reasons I am about to demonstrate, but first I would like to say something positive about a significant contribution he has made to the popularization of the new chronology proposed by Peter James and colleagues in the estimable Centuries of Darkness. Having wrestled with the arguments made in the latter, I confess to having joined fellow traveller Stillman in his acceptance of the new scheme. James would have us adjust all dates in the late Bronze Age by subtracting 250 years, implying among other things that the Trojan War, e.g., took place 950 – 900 B.C., rather than 1200 – 1150 BC. Applying this single, seemingly simple correction, eliminates mysterious “dark ages” from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other!
Any arguments that may be made about apparent weaknesses in the particular details of James’ account cannot be complemented with correspondingly well grounded, positive arguments about the old chronology. Even Colin Renfrew, doyen of Aegean Bronze age archaeology, does not dispute the overall weakness of the latter; he just isn’t convinced James’ correction is in the right direction. The gist of the James argument hinges on technical issues beyond the ken of the casual gamer or the amateur historian. Ultimately, following Renfrew, the issue may turn on the results of the extensive application of radio carbon dating and dendrochronolgy to ancient timbers; his expectation is that these techniques usually reveal surprising, greater-than-anticipated antiquity in the samples tested. The James group expects otherwise and there we shall leave it.
Chariot Functions in Ancient Warfare
Harking back to the matter at hand, chariot warfare, there seems to be much confusion in Stillman’s account of the tactical use and abuse of the chariot in antiquity, and in the late Bronze age in particular. Outside of the wargaming literature, there is general agreement the chariot had two functions in ancient warfare: ( i) providing a mobile platform for archery, and (ii) “taxi service” for transporting (usually elite) foot soldiers into battle. Its historical development initiated with function ( i) and gradually evolved through various stages of (ii) until its demise. Stillman perpetuates the wargaming fantasy of a third function, “chariot killer”, wherein chariot warriors are purpose armed with lance- and/or spear to overmatch the bow-armed chariot archers in swirling chariot-born melees. Putting to rest the myth of the “chariot killer” is the major theme of this article. In the absence of direct evidence, an analytical method that makes use of several “thought experiments” is employed. It is not claimed that these experiments – little essays – prove anything, rather it is hoped the arguments provide food for thought.
Starting from first principles, one may quickly dismiss the Sumerian precursors to the chariot, the ramshackle 4-onager wagon and the sulky-like, 2-onager log on wheels. The horse-drawn chariot proper was introduced into the Middle East, likely from the Caucasus, by PIE (proto-Indo-European) speakers in the 2nd millennium B.C. These were either the Hyskos or their immediate ancestors. No disagreements here with Stillman’s piece; the combination of the highly maneuverable and (in relative terms) very fast light chariot with the composite bow-armed archer was devastatingly effective.
Experiment 1 Hyksos chariotry vs. Middle Kingdom Egyptian infantry
To illustrate this, in our first thought experiment, imagine the following. A formation of Hyskos chariots falls upon a (Middle) Egyptian force patrolling the eastern frontier. The Egyptian army at this time was composed of infantry brigaded into units differentiated by their arms: spearmen, axemen and bowmen; there were no chariots in the army of the Middle Kingdom. Most of the infantry would be massed by unit into close order formations for battle. In the absence of rough terrain or some such to anchor their flanks, the Egyptian units are fully exposed in the open. The primary arm of the Hyksos army was the chariotry, comprised of 2-horse light chariots, bearing a driver and an archer, either or both of whom may be armoured; for simplicity’s sake, throughout the following text the chariot archer bears the designation, maryannu, which term is less generic than this use would imply.
The Hyksos would be expected to maneuver around the Egyptian battleline, focusing their attention on the flanks. One would observe squadrons of chariots setting up mere yards from the Egyptians, and methodically pumping aimed shots with their very powerful composite bows, at near point blank range, into targets of choice – file leaders, standard bearers and rank closers. The best Egyptian countertactics would be twofold: counterfire by massed bowmen, and ad hoc counterattacks (rushes) by groups of (elite) warriors. In the first case, success would be fleeting at best, primarily because (i) it is assumed the Egyptian bowmen were not trained to shoot as individual marksmen, and (ii) the Egyptian bowmen would be unable to bring volleys to bear upon their tormentors, who would be expected to utilize their mobility to maneuver out of, or better yet, under the firing arcs.
Once they had passed under the firing arc of the footbows, the Hyksos could quickly and ruthlessly outshoot the exposed front rankers still able to return fire and intrepid enough to do so. On a technical note, the phrase passing under the firing arc refers to the chariot warriors moving through the zone of optimal effectiveness of the footbow’s indirect, plunging fire and into the direct fire zone immediately in front of the foot; this direct fire zone is deep enough to give the chariots the 15+ yards they need to maneuver. Most of the footbows in a massed formation cannot fire directly at a target, rather they arch their shots over the heads of the comrades in the front rank(s); it is exceedingly difficult for a back-ranker to place a shot on a target 15 yards away via indirection. Wargamers have gotten used to the idea that bowfire is more effective at shorter range than long, but as noted wargamer and songmaster George Gershwin pointed out long ago, “it ain’t necessarily so”; for the direct fire of the heavily armoured Hyksos maryannu, peppering the unarmoured Egyptian foot bow at short range, it is; for the ineffective mixture of scattered direct and indirect volley fire returned by the latter, it ain’t.
There is a remote possibility that the Egyptian footbows could stand up to the maryannu, despite mounting casualties, and eventually bring their greater number of bows to bear, but the bet here is the Egyptian morale breaks as soon as the Hyksos move in for the kill.
As for rushing the chariots, one would expect no more than an occasional (isolated) success, provided the Hyksos were careful about rotating their squadrons and resting their horses; besides, mounting casualties to Egyptian officers would soon make any organized action unlikely. It may be safely argued that the Egyptian infantry, cowering behind their shields (those who had them), unable to bear so much pressure, would soon skedaddle.
The New Kingdom
Having lost to the Hyksos invaders, the Egyptians were co-opted into the former’s military system, which served them very well when it later came time to throw off the Hyksos’ yoke, at which point native Egyptian chariotry could match up with their Hyksos counterparts. In the subsequent era of the New Kingdom, light chariot archery tactics reached their zenith. Anatolia to Egypt – the entire eastern Mediterranean littoral – was dominated by the light chariot. The scenario played out above (thought experiment 1), demonstrating the overwhelming power of the new technology when opposed to the old, was transformed into a duel between technological equals.
In thought experiment 2, Egyptian chariotry is matched against Syrian, wherein the winner must earn victory against a formidable foe. Suppose Thutmose III is campaigning in Syria. An advanced division of the Egyptian army, composed of a mixed force of infantry and chariotry, is confronted by a mixed Syrian force. The battle will be decided by the outcome of the chariotry battle.
Experiment 2 New Kingdom vs. Syrian chariotry
The chariot squadrons employed by both sides are remarkably similar. Perhaps the modern modern analogy for the chariot squadron is the fighter squadron. Each chariot represents a very large investment for its respective side; in the subsistence economy of the ancient world, acquiring and maintaining horses was very expensive, requiring up to 10 acres of good pasturage per horse. The maryannu is a highly trained specialist, whose training and upkeep dominate the budget; his inventory of arms included: armour often but not necessarily comprised largely of scarce bronze (the anomaly of the bronze age was its scarcity; bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, and tin was very rare in the Mediterranean), a composite bow of horn and glue, taking up to 10 years to manufacture, and the finely crafted chariot itself, beautifully designed for its task, but difficult to maintain in good repair. Like aerial dogfights, chariot battles would rapidly consume both sides’ resources, so the circumstances inducing their commitment in battle needed to be compelling.
A recent study, Sumer to Rome: the Capabilities of Ancient Armies (Gabriel and Metz, 1991), makes two relevant points about chariot archery. First, in contemporary experiments simulating archery fire from a chariot moving at a 20mph clip, a skilled archer, who had never attempted such a stunt before, was able to achieve a good degree of accuracy after a remarkably short amount of practice. Second, when stationary, a skilled archer is able to consistently hit a 4 sq. in. target 15 yards away. These points imply the following: a chariot archer fixed 15 yards from his foe is a deadly proposition (recall thought experiment 1), but a chariot archer, moving at the same distance, is proximately just as dangerous, though perhaps less consistent. We shall assume that 15 yards defines the outside edge of the maryannu’s drop-dead kill zone. If one looks at illustrations of bronze age chariotry, e.g. the Perry drawings in Chariot Wars, there is no shortage of potentially crippling 4 sq. in. targets, even on the most heavily armoured of chariot ensembles, those of the Mitanni, whose maryannu, drivers and horses all apparently wore armour. Doubtless a direct hit by such a weapon at short range was a lethal proposition even for many a well-armored but unlucky warrior (or horse). Keep in mind, however, that powerful though the composite bow was, the body armors of the maryannu were sufficient to protect their owners from many varieties of direct hits at even close range, hence the importance of accurate fire into unprotected targets of opportunity (man or beast, arms or legs or groins or faces, etc).
One must put aside the romance of the chariot charge into melee. What the maryannu must do is close within 15 yards of his enemy and deliver kill-shots with his composite bow. In making his run-up, he must avoid presenting an easy target, by (e.g.) not taking a straight line of approach, instead weaving in and out, at varying speeds, etc. The better archer and the more stable platform have the advantage delivering death, but the faster car and the more skillful driver have the better chance ducking it. These were the parameters of the maryannu duel.
Our antagonists would be quick to seize a perceived advantage, such as attacking out of the sun (thereby confounding the aim and return fire of those attacked), but otherwise they would approach each other cautiously. Unless circumstances were extreme, an outnumbered chariotry could and would avoid closing with the enemy. Once the chariots of both sides were committed, however, all semblance of order would be lost, as “dogfights” break out all over the field. Operational losses would likely be high relative to combat losses; however sturdy the chariot cars may appear to have been, in the stress of mobile combat, as envisioned here, wheels would be broken and thrown, horses would come up lame, harness and tack would pull apart, and unwary maryannu would be tossed from sharply moving, twisting, turning and over-turning cars.
Charioteers operating within their kill zones face death as they deal death. Fatal and near fatal wounds to man and beast are the norm in the zone. The time of greatest vulnerability for the otherwise unimpaired maryannu occurs when he has pushed his team too hard, and the horses are blown. During the down time that follows, he is subject to attacks from all directions.
One supposes that the god of victory is on the side with the larger or luckier or more skilled chariotry, and the matter would end as the survivors on the losing side flee the field. Pursuit is possible, but dangerous and relatively ineffective. Victimizing the enemy left behind is the surer course to take.
As for our fight between Thutmose ///’s advance division and the Syrians, in the absence of an obvious advantage on either side, let’s suppose the Egyptians won, since thirteen victorious campaigns in Syria was Thutmose ///’s legacy.
We have with the advent of the Hittites the first appearance of Stillman’s “chariot killers”. The concept ultimately arises from the fact there is evidence in Egyptian glyphs (Ramesses II account of the battle of Kadesh) that the Hittites used three-man chariot crews, but there is no evidence in the same sources that the Hittites used chariot archery. The fact that there are plenty of epigraphs bearing Hittite chariot archers in Hittite sources has been given short shrift in the literature. Regardless, the argument is made the Hittites added a spearman (or spear-armed runner) to their chariot cars with the mission of killing an opposing chariot archer in hand-to-hand combat, from car to moving car.
Thought experiment 3 concerns a meeting between an Egyptian maryannu and the 3-man Hittite — sans bow – chariot killer. Experiment 3a makes the more probable assumption that the Hittite chariot had an archer and a spearman. In general, Hittite chariots are thought to be slightly heavier and less maneuverable than the Egyptian cars, especially when they bear three crew instead of two. Whether they are slower than the Egyptian chariots depends on the respective qualities of horses employed; it is not improbable that Hittite horses were qualitatively superior, since the Hittites had access to the best horse breeding lands.
Experiment 3 New Kingdom chariot vs. Stillman’s Hittite chariot killers
As posited in thought experiment 2, the maryannu had a kill zone of 15 yards. The question to be considered here is: could a spear-armed crewman outperform the maryannu in anti-chariot warfare? The resounding answer is no! The great difficulty with the spearman construct is imagining how the fellow gets anywhere close to the maryannu, given his co-riders do not include an archer who can suppress or distract the maryannu. How does the spearman bring his weapon to bear against an opponent who possesses lethal force at 15 yards. Indeed, there seems to be considerable difficulty using a thrusting weapon from a chariot under any circumstances. By supposition, the spearman is not seeking victory via missile fire (a javelin is a poor match against a composite bow at the edge of the kill-zone), rather by overwhelming force in melee, since Stillman believes the spear is used to better sweep the battlefield clear of enemy chariotry.
From the Egyptian viewpoint, there is no reason to maneuver into the attacking Hittites, thus playing into their hands. It would be better to stand off and shoot them down as they close. One is reminded of the tactics the Egyptian mamluks adopted against the crusading western knights approximately 2000 years later. The mamluk ghulams would stand their ground and pump as many arrows as possible into an attacking mass of knights; the intensity of the mamluks direct missile fire was capable of bringing the knights’ charge to a dead halt.
Stillman, however, in the estimable Armies of the Ancient Near East or AANE (WRG, 1984) argued (p.55) that “[t]he disadvantage to the Egyptians would be the danger of being swept away by their heavier opponents in the initial charge.” There appears to be some elementary notion of physics at work here, in which the presumed greater weight (mass) of the charging Hittite chariots, operating through the distance of the charge, brings an inexorable physical force to bear on the Egyptians, such that they are physically pushed back. This is nonsense. No one actually believes that chariots fought by charging into direct contact with each other, much like ramming galleys or hoplites.
If there were collisions between chariots, and there must have been, it is not because the drivers coaxed the horses into doing so. Such accidents as may have happened would in no way stand either Hittite nor Egyptian in better position apart from pure luck. The weight of the chariots and the number of men crewing them – their physical force — was irrelevant in chariot-to-chariot warefare, outside of considerations for the sustainable speed and stamina of the horses, and the maneuverability of the cars. Stillman’s statement may be turned around: the disadvantage to the Hittites would be the danger of exhausting their horses without ever bringing their melee weapons to bear against their more nimble foes.
One may imagine the Hittite tactics as follows. A Hittite chariot wants to close as quickly as possible with an Egyptian. A direct approach is the quickest, but fraught with danger, so the Hittite may attempt an elliptical one, circling his prey, perhaps seeking out rises and hollows that mask his approach. The last mad dash through the zone must pass as close to the enemy car as possible, giving the spearman a chance to strike the maryannu or his driver, and (too bad) the maryannu a chance to put an arrow between his eyes in the attempt. A tail chase would be the best, wherein the Hittite charioteer comes up (unobserved) behind the Egyptian, and strikes a deathblow as he passes by, but it is difficult to see how this could transpire, even if the average Hittite chariot were faster than the Egyptian (which is not impossible); just such a scene is depicted on the cover of Chariot Wars, and one notes poor pharaoh, distracted no doubt by the cheekiness of the Hittites, has put aside his bow and taken up a kopesh to do battle. This dead duck cannot have singlehandedly turned the tide against the Hittite onslaught at Kadesh.
There may be something of value to be gleaned from the example. Ramesses II’s monumental relief, dedicated to his victory at Kadesh, tells the tale of the pharoah’s heroic personal counterattack saving the Egyptian army. Suppose Ramesses account is broadly true, that a small number of maryannu saved the day by falling on the overextended and distracted Hittites, whose thoughts had turned to looting the Egyptian camp, and driving them from the field. If the Hittite chariotry were caught flatfooted and bowless, a relatively small number of maryannu could render great execution among them, once again, by closing to killing range and peppering the defenseless bastards. The Egyptian pharaoh of the Kadesh relief, in contrast to the Perrys’ Chariot Wars pharaoh, is depicted in his full glory as an archer – no kopesh for him.
Experiment 3a New Kingdom vs. Hittite chariotry (2)
Alternatively, Hittite tactics may have been evolutionary instead of devolutionary. If a third crewman – a spearman – were added to the standard archer-driver pair, additional possibilities loom large. Total Hittite chariotry may have numbered somewhere around 2000 – 2500 cars, implying 2000+ spearmen riding into battle. Since it is believed that bronze age armies were usually small, seldom exceeding 10,000 men (except at really big battles like Kadesh), the Hittites would have been capable in battle of delivering up to 20% of their force at 20 m.p.h! Having managed to slip or fight past an enemy’s flank, the chariots would discharge their spearman supercargoes on the enemy rear, not unlike a (very) large commando. If this speculation rings true, the Hittites may be considered the innovators of the second function of chariotry noted above, the ferrying of foot warriors into battle (this was later perfected by the Assyrians – see below). If Hittite chariotry had taken up the spear by adding an additional crewman, it was not because they had developed a superior tactic for chariot fighting, rather they had developed a new tactic for fighting infantry.
There remained the matter of defeating the enemy chariotry. This was the job of the Hittite maryannu, whose weapon of choice was the composite bow, with which he could deliver lethal force, rapidly and consistently, over a distance of 15 yards.
Stillman, in passim, mentions other possible tactical uses for chariot-borne spearmen/runners. There is no reason why they could not have dismounted during the chariot battle itself, dangerous as that seems, with the goal of seizing control of the ground and its detritus of wrecked chariotry. Roving groups of runners could kill off incapacitated or outnumbered enemy dismounted and succor friends in distress. Woe to the charioteers whose horses are exhausted in the presence of hostile runners; joy to those charioteers whose horses may rest behind a screen of friendly runners. Presumably, the charioteers would be too busy fighting their counterparts to pay heed to such actions; pity the poor runners if their side’s chariotry breaks, thus allowing the enemy maryannu to focus on them.
Robert Drews, in The End of the Bronze Age, theorized that the dart was an important late bronze age weapon; runners dropping off chariots to scavenge the battleground may very well have had darts, which would have made them potentially very dangerous to unwary charioteers. Thus, groups of runners, whether dart armed or not, fanning out across the ground upon which the chariots were fighting and maneuvering, could potentially deny some of that ground to one side or the other, thus tipping the scales of battle in their side’s favor. If Hittite chariotry had taken up the spear by adding an additional crewman because they had developed a superior tactic for chariot fighting, it was a very different tactic than that suggested by Stillman.
Hittite chariotry had greater antiquity than Egyptian, having fallen off the PIE tree earlier in time; it had succeeded against other formidable chariotries, including the Hurrian and the Syrian. At Kadesh, it apparently had the Egyptians on the edge of defeat before pharaoh’s desperate riposte extracted his army in the eleventh hour. There is no doubt the Egyptians suffered a strategic defeat at Kadesh, regardless how the tactical calculus works out. Thereafter, Hittite and Egyptian struck up a nonaggression pact that lasted until the Hittite empire finally succumbed to mystery aggressors in the catastrophic end of the Bronze Age.
The Aegean and the Mycenaeans
The ultimate statement of the chariot killer idea may be found in the romance of the chariot lancer. In what may be interpreted as a bald-faced fabrication, Stillman asserts that the Mycenaeans (i) learned their chariot tactics from the Hittites, and (ii) they perfected the latter’s anti-chariot spear tactics by adopting a lance, or pike, for formal chariot-borne jousting. Nowhere else in the literature is (i) found; rather, the Mycenaeans are usually assumed to have dropped off the same PIE tree as the Hittites, and share common chariot fighting ancestors. As for the chariot lancer, there is no extant evidence whatsoever of such use in anti-chariot warfare. What one can see is a few representations of Mycenaean chariot warriors (possibly) engaging foot soldiers with sword or spear.
The difficulty for the present argument lies in the lack of evidence for the use of the bow in Mycenaean chariotry. The few surviving scenes showing the chariot bow are strictly lion hunting scenes. However, there is considerable circumstantial evidence for the use of the bow, including inventories of arrow heads, the design of the famed Dendra cuirass, which is functionally the same as the heavy armors of Middle East maryannu, and the Mycenaeans’ PIE origins; if they originally used the bow in chariot warfare, why would they have given it up, unless their concerns had become so isolated and provincial that they no longer had to compete with superior chariotries to the east. But historians are convinced a Mycenaean power was a major player in eastern Mediterranean power politics in the late bronze age, so isolation was not a universal feature of Mycenaean military development.
As was argued above for the Hittites, forgoing the bow for a spear or a lance is a retrograde development, a devolution of tactics. There is the additional observation that Mycenaean horses are known from burial remains to have been very small, and despite counter-assertions in the gaming literature, Mycenaean chariot cars were small and lightly constructed. None of this adds up to a chariot-borne lancer boldly charging the enemy ranks. I continue to favor the argument of Robert Drews that the composite bow and the light chariot are a single, integrated weapons system that was common to all chariotries of the Bronze Age.
Experiment 4 Mycenaean chariot lancers duel
One may imagine an encounter between two Mycenaean chariotries armed as Stillman’s lancers. As per the foregoing analysis, the chariots feature relatively small cars pulled by smallish horses. The warriors are heavily armored, lance bearing nobles, but neither drivers nor horses are protected. As the chariots approach one another, a few champions emerge from the ranks to take center stage by issuing challenges to their opposite numbers.
Jousting via chariot is a tricky business. First, one assumes the warrior is braced by some means, most likely by use of a baldric, for otherwise any hit on a solid target would pop him right out of the car. Second, and far more serious, is the limited reach of the lance. Please examine for a moment the Perrys’ drawings of the Mycenaean chariot warrior, which may be taken as fair representation of the Stillman lancer. The lance is clearly depicted as a long thrusting spear or a pike; even so, the weapon does not appear to project forward of the chariot team, meaning the reach of the lance falls within the “footprint” of the chariot/team ensemble.
This implies that in a chariot joust, the obvious target of a lance thrust is the horses of one’s opponent. One can with impunity strike at the horses without leaving oneself open to a counterthrust, because your opponent is too far away to reach you with his lance; putting this another way, the horses are always significantly forward of the lancer, such that striking them and seriously injuring them may be accomplished well before the opposing lance can strike you. In a straightaway chariot joust, the horses are always at risk regardless the length of lance employed. This is the very big difference between the horseback lancer and the chariot borne lancer; the former must focus on his opponent, because a strike at anything else leaves him open to a killing counterthrust, thus he protects himself as well as his horse by aiming at the enemy lancer (that old canard, chivalry, has nothing to do with this). Chariot borne archers could also strike at each others’ horses, and one suspects they often did, but they also would leave themselves open to fatal return shots if they routinely did so, especially in the zone.
Presumably, good blinders, the whip, and a severe bit may go partway to solving the problem of the horses shying away from the approaching lance, but they cannot overcome the reality of injury. Chariot lancers would be compelled to play psychological games with each others horses; one imagines a hard rap on a horse’s nose being just as good as a killing blow to the neck or breast for derailing a chariot charge. An experienced horse would shy away from an enemy car well before “taking the rap” (again). It therefore seems too much of a gamble for skilled warriors to depend on the toughness of their horses to win the jousts, and so far as anyone knows, Mycenaean horses were not armored; no doubt they would have been had they actually been used to joust! Thus we are left, again, with the notion of the elliptical approach, or the tail chase, to arrive at a possible means of bringing a lance to bear on an enemy chariot warrior.
It is also clear that the chariot lancer’s inability to protect his horses would discourage charges into unbroken infantry, be they skirmishers, close order or whatever. Since the lance doesn’t project far enough forward to strike an enemy soldier in a straightaway run-up, the horses are asked to bear the brunt of the initial contact in melee. Doubtless though they may have fooled some of the people some of the time, most often they would have been fair game for a host of nasty tricks. If lengthening the lancer’s weapon was a rational response to this shortcoming, then one would expect to see at minimum 15′ – 20′ long pikes, much as the Perrys draw them. It is left to the reader to imagine how a chariot-borne warrior could wield a 20 foot pike forward, around the heads and shoulders of the horses, without fouling tack and/or spooking the team; if the lance cannot be used forward effectively, then the horses are so much dead meat.
The End of the Bronze Age
The end of the bronze age is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma. With the exception of Ramesses II’s Egypt, which narrowly escaped, the city-states of the eastern Mediterranean litterol, and the Hittite empire as well, were rent by predation on an unprecedented scale, all subsumed under the rubric “The Sea Peoples”; the bronze age didn’t so much end as crash-land. The grand age of chariot warfare ended as well. A few comments are in order before closing with a short piece on the Assyrians.
First, despite the effectiveness of the light chariot-maryannu combination, it has its limitations. Chariot warfare is a game that is best played by two, if played at all. Chariot warfare is literally best played out on a level playing field. It is therefore somewhat ritualistic in practise, since both sides implicitly agree on suitable grounds. The earliest experiences of unsupported infantries being victimized by aggressive chariotries was not a characteristic of the Bronze Age end-game. Rather, the end was characterized by refined, aggressive infantry tactics, by those peoples having little or no respect for the rituals of chariot warfare, putting the charioteers to run. (Bronze age infantry tactics is the subject of a future article).
Taking the initiative and conducting a strategic offensive is likely the best way to make use of the chariot’s great mobility to force an opponent otherwise not so inclined to give battle on ground favorable to its use. On the other hand, the great mobility of chariotry makes it an excellent countermeasure to diverse threats operating across a broad front, provided the force it can deliver is sufficient to meet the separate threats. It is the feeling here that the bronze age chariotries were caught “wrong-footed”, i.e. off-balance, by being put on the strategic defensive by large scale threats that could (either) dictate the ground of the encounters and (or) shrug off underpowered counterattacks.
Whether the new chronology is accepted or not, the ascendency of the Assyrians is part of a new age – the iron age — issued in after the Bronze Age disasters. There may or may not have been a 200 – 250 year hiatus separating the two, but the military regime that came into power in Assyria was very different from its Levantine predecessors. The economics of the light chariot/maryannu combination turned decisively against their continued use into the new age. The widespread adoption of abundant iron to replace scarce bronze as the fundamental material of warfare resulted in the proliferation of individual arms and armor, and an upward scaling in the size of armies. And cavalry appeared on the scene, the final nail in the coffin of the light chariot for Near Eastern armies.
The advent of the so-called heavy chariot seems anomalous. Assyrian glyphs in the British Museum indicate its obvious function as a command vehicle and presumably a status ride for notables in the army. The heavy chariot featured a three to four man crew and a three to four horse team. The car was substantially a large, heavy box. Its crew consisted of a (probably noble) archer, a driver, and one or two shieldbearers. The horses were armored with textile and/or scale housings.
If chariots of this ilk were expected to play a major role in battle, then one has to consider what they added to the tactical mix that made them so useful. I am certain chariots were never used to break steady infantry lines by charging frontally into melee, apart from the occasional, ineffective gimmicks utilized later such as scythes and cataphract lancers. Chariots operating on the flanks had to have been very effective; similarly, chariots committed against disintegrating battlelines would have ended organized resistance. The gaming convention of identifying some chariots, such as the fictional Mycenaean lancer-armed light or the Assyrian heavy, with knights, may hold water under WRG assumptions, but it simply doesn’t fly outside of those conventions.
The obvious answer that comes to mind is the still very dangerous combination of the expert archer, composite bow, and mobile platform. Was this combination so effective that the Assyrians were willing to pay a greater price than hitherto seen to keep the chariot archer alive on the battlefield?
In Chariot Wars there is a wonderful panoramic, 2-page Perry drawing of a meeting engagement between Assyrian and Babylonian forces. The Assyrian heavy chariots are drawn up in two lines on the right flank, squared off against the Babylonoian chariots, formed up in two lines before them. The remarkable aspect of this set-up is the chariotries of both sides are deployed in front of large bodies of bow and/or lance armed cavalry.
Stillman has argued for years, ever since AANE, that cavalry was necessary to guard the rear and flanks of Assyrian heavy chariots. So, for each chariot archer, it apparently required two on-board shieldbearers and an indeterminate number of cavalrymen — we’ll assume at least two — to make a viable force, or a total of 5 to 6 horses (and up to 60 acres of permanent pasturage), five skilled supporters (a driver, two shieldbearers, and at least two cavalrymen), and the large, expensive and probably temperamental chariot car. The numbers given by Stillman in AANE imply a larger proportion of cavalry to chariots than two; it is interesting that the original Assyrian sources lump the cavalry with the charioteers under the common designation chariotmen. The economics of this arrangement suggest the chariot was prohibitively expensive for practical use.
There is another possibility, suggested above (see Experiment 3a), that the Assyrian heavy chariot was used to deliver up to two elite close combat warriors to a crucial spot on the battlefield. I would like to suggest that the deployment of heavy chariots in the Perry drawing is not likely an accurate picture. To deploy the cavalry passively behind the chariotry is nonsensical, since it suggests the more valuable resource is to be committed first, and the decisive battle will be fought to its rear, when- and wherever the cavalries collide.
Rather, one would expect the cavalry to be formed up in front of the chariots, such that the initial stage of the battle would be a cavalry action to clear the field for the safe deployment of the chariots into battle. The victorious cavalry would accomplish two things, (i) clear the field of enemy cavalry thus making it safer for their own chariots, and (ii) immediately force the withdrawal of the now overmatched opposing chariotry.
As described (speculated) above for the Hittites, the Assyrian chariots, once freed from the threat of enemy mounted, could skirt a flank and operate on the enemy rear, disgorging a strike force of commandos and peppering key targets with direct fire. Thus, 500 cars could deliver up to 1500 warriors (including archers) at speeds of up to 20 m.p.h., a very considerable strike force. The second function of chariotry – the taxi service — may well have reached its zenith with the large cars and full crews of the Assyrian chariotry.
The foregoing essays demonstrated the shortcomings of some of the conventional views about the tactics used in the age of Chariot Wars. The arguments hinge crucially on the skills of chariot-borne expert archers, who are assumed to be no less proficient 3000 years ago than their proxies are today. In military terms, these experts were technologically superior in anti-chariot warefare to a short list of alleged evolutionary countermeasures, including chariot-borne spear- and pikemen, whose adoption by Hittite, Mycenaean and Assyrian chariotries cannot be taken at face value as an “improvement” in chariot tactics. Rather, they are interpreted here as augmentations of the archer-light chariot combination, which was the primary weapon system of all chariotries well into the iron age.
Finally, these comments are reactions to Stillman’s historical commentary on the use of chariots; there is no overt proposal here to change anything about any given rules set. I would hope that historically-minded wargamers might test some assumptions in friendly games.
Drews, Robert. The Coming of the Greeks. Princeton University Press. 1988
—————– The End of the Bronze Age. Princeton University Press. 1993
Gabriel, Richard A. and Karen S. Metz. From Sumer to Rome: The Military
Capabilities of Ancient Armies, Greenwood Press. 1991
Stillman, Nigel. Chariot Wars. Warhamer Historical Games Ltd. 1999
—————— and Nigel Tallis Armies of the Near East, 3000BC to 539 BC.
Wargames Research Group. 1984.