The age of chariots
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The age of chariots

  The first chariots seem to have appeared in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, but came to prominence around 1,700 BC. At first they were slow and cumbersome vehicles pulled by the relatively small and slow onager, a cousin of the ass. When the much more powerful horse was employed for power, they became a more terrifying, useful, and prestigious weapon.


Historians have long pondered why chariots were so prominent in the accounts and pictorial representations of battle from 1700 to 1200 BC. In all the settled kingdoms and palaces of the late Bronze Age, from Egypt, to Babylon, to Assyria, to Anatolia (the Hittites), to Knossos (Crete), and Mycenaean Greece, chariots seemed to dominate the battles.

Chariots were used as fast, mobile platforms for composite bow archers. The relatively slow foot troops were at a great disadvantage when fast chariots could drive up, stop out of range, and pelt the infantry with powerful composite bow shots. The infantry was faced with the choice of falling back to a protected location or dying in place. If they advanced against the chariots, the chariots fell back faster and kept shooting. Infantry thereby lost its ability to take and hold open ground on the battlefield.

 Chariot archers could be contested only by other composite bow archers. Cavalry was not the answer to the chariots because the technology of the saddle, bit, and stirrup did not yet exist. A bareback rider could not use a lance at all or a bow with accuracy. Cavalry does not appear on battlefields with any consequence until around 900 BC.  Infantry in leather or cloth armor, or behind wood or leather shields, could not stand up forever to composite bow shots. They would fall eventually. Bronze mail armor was too expensive for common soldiers in this period. If the infantry broke formation, they risked being run over by pursuing chariots. 

Chariots were manned by two men—the driver and archer—and pulled by two horses. The crew stood on a leather platform and both wore leather or bronze mail armor from head to calf. They were probably tied into the chariot to free their hands for driving or shooting. The expense of bronze mail and composite bows were justified because the chariot armies were relatively small. Even the largest and richest kingdoms maintained no more than several thousand chariots at most. 

There is some evidence that Egyptian chariots were organized into groups of ten. These may have been distinguished by name or color, or by carrying left or right-hand firing archers. Five such groups made up a squadron. Each squadron had a commander and several squadrons made up a “host.” In his autobiography, the Egyptian Meryptah reports serving in the squadrons “Phoenix” and “Manifest in Justice.” Among the positions he held were “standard bearer of the chariot warriors” and “first stable master.” All the great Egyptian military pictorials from this period show the pharaohs fighting as archers from speeding chariots.

  Chariot tactics

Chariots attacked in wide, shallow lines, probably spread apart to facilitate turns or crashes without fouling neighbors. There may have been three or four lines, but the rear lines would have had impaired shots. Spreading wide minimized the risk of being flanked while maximizing the chance of flanking the enemy. A short chariot line must have run when facing a significantly longer line because it would have been easily enveloped, brought to a halt, and shot to pieces.

 A force might have split during its approach, with left-handed shooters turning to the right and right-handed shooters turning to the left, hoping to simultaneously flank the enemy line. A concentrated squadron may have attempted to drive a wedge through the enemy line and then wheel to both sides once through. The archers presumably opened fire when the range closed to 200 meters or less. As the range closed, shooting accelerated. The point of the chariot battle was to bring down as many opposing chariots as possible by shooting the enemy’s horses. The felling of one horse from a speeding chariot must have caused a wreck. 

It is not clear if opposing lines would charge through each other while firing or if they would approach, wheel, and shoot. A clash of chariot lines could cause a massive pileup of entangled horses and cars, or the point-blank shooting must have caused large numbers of casualties quickly.  Once the lines had passed or turned, the archers faced to the rear to keep shooting as the range opened. The chariots would then have wheeled and charged again. At some point, one side would break and run for a nearby fortification or safe position.  

Around 1200 BC, however, chariots lost their battlefield dominance. In a period of roughly 50 years, chariots were largely eclipsed and most of the great kingdoms and palaces of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East fell. City after city, including Troy of the Iliad, was destroyed and left in ashes. Only Egypt and Assyria escaped immediate destruction and the area entered a 500-year Dark Age. 

The principal reason for this catastrophe was the resurgence of barbarian infantry that used new weapons and tactics on the battlefield to defeat the chariots and overrun the kingdoms they defended.