A Brief History of Chariot Warfare and Its Effects on the Catastrophe of ca 1200 B.C.

Brian Hollenberger

STS 5205

  For many people, both laypersons and scholars, the history of science begins with the Classical Age of Greece.  With the appearance of such great thinkers as Aristotle and Ptolemy came ideas that would influence science and the study of nature for centuries to come.  But underlying this chronology of the history of science is the assumption that nothing of value occurred prior to this time.  There is so little written evidence of the Bronze Age cultures of pre-Classical Greece and the Mediterranean that many do not treat it with the attention it deserves.  The assumption seems to be that if anything of any import occurred during that time period it was never written down and has since been lost to us forever.  However there is very clear evidence of important discoveries made during this period in history.  Improvements such as metal working (with bronze and copper), the invention of the wheel, and the domestication of the horse to name just a few, were not just happy accidents.  The difficulty of first discovering and then mastering these and other advancements make it clear that artisans and craftsmen must have spent generations perfecting their use and development. 

            I picked out these three events for a reason.  The domestication of the horse, the invention of the wheel and metallurgy also had a very direct impact on the birth of the Classical Age.  These developments, along with many others, brought about major changes in warfare, political boundaries, and the population distribution over much of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean.  In many ways it was these inventions and the subsequent changes they created that brought about the end of the Bronze Age and set the stage for the birth of the Classical Mediterranean.  Specifically these events resulted in the invention of one of the most famous and enigmatic weapons of Bronze Age warfare; the chariot. 

            Though best known from Egyptian tomb reliefs and steles, the chariot has a far more ancient history that must be understood before its true impact on the Bronze Age World can be explained.  By 5000 BC there is evidence that the horse, a creature native to the eastern European steppes, had been domesticated by the native tribes there.  Coincidentally the ass and the onager, both relatives of the horse had been domesticated in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean by this time as well.  At this early stage in history, the horse was probably nothing more than a food animal such as cattle are today.  “During the Ice Age, horses were perhaps the favorite game animal of hunters in Eurasia…other equids flourished in the warmer regions…the ass (Equus asinus) in Northern Africa and Southern Europe; and in south western Asia, from India to Anatolia and Palestine, Equus hemionus commonly known as the onager or the Asiatic wild ass” (Drews 1988, pg 74).  This creature is not the horse we know today.  It would not have even been called a horse by today’s standards but rather a pony.  As a result these creatures, though very quick and nimble, were too small to carry a man for very far before tiring.  These early horses also made poor work animals.  At this time many wheeled vehicle were very heavy, weighing as much as one thousand pounds.  The method for harnessing a horse was a neck strap.  Therefore the harder an equid tried to pull against a heavy load the more their breathing was impaired.  In fact it seems unlikely that these ancient horses could pull loads greater than four hundred pounds.  The preferred beast of burden was the oxen.  Despite having a walking speed of only 2 mph, the oxen was a far sturdier and stronger beast than the ancient horse, capable of pulling much heavier loads for longer distances.  It was not until the development of the chariot that the horse’s greater speed and agility would come into use.

            There is evidence for wheeled carts and wagons as far back as the third millennium BC.  Prior to this time is seems that many people pulled heavy loads on sleds using their own power or perhaps tethering the sleds to oxen.  The first evidence of these vehicles comes from Sumeria in depictions of kings been driven in wagons by teams of onagers.  It was in Sumeria in fact that the first evidence for a battle chariot was uncovered (Figure 1).

These vehicles, commonly called “battle wagons” were not much like the chariots that most people know of.  They were wood constructs with four solid wheels and could weight several hundred pounds.  Instead of being pulled by a pair of horses, onagers or asses pulled them into battle.  Depictions from Sumerian tombs show a pair of riders, one driving the animals and another armed with javelins.  Modern reconstructions of these vehicles show they were capable of a top speed of only 12 mph, not any faster than a man can run.  Additionally, having four wheels made the cart very difficult to turn.  Finally the bit had not yet been introduced to the Near East at this time and the onagers were controlled by nose rings.  This made directing a team of four of these creatures very difficult.  Going straight ahead was no problem but turning them all in unison was probably a very serious one.  To use their weapons effectively, the team would’ve had to get very close to the enemy infantry and this would’ve been very dangerous for the slow and unwieldy machine.  “No representations of carts in battle appear in the last three centuries of the third millennium BC; the idea must’ve been abandoned” (Anglim 2002, pg 80).  What were needed was a much lighter, faster and more maneuverable “battle wagon”.

            These were developed by the twentieth century B.C. in Anatolia and quickly spread to other areas of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia.  “By 1600 chariot warriors were in control of Mycenae and elsewhere in Greece, and not long thereafter chariots took over northwestern India” (Drews 1993, pg 106).  The chariot remained the main weapon of the late Bronze Age until the Catastrophe of 1200B.C.  Depictions of these vehicles show a light weight construct with two spoked wheels set far back on the machine for easy weight distribution and turning.  These were truly the chariots that most people think of when they see Ben-Hur or Gladiator.  Chariots were usually made out of a light wood such as cedar that was sturdy and easy to work.  The frame sometimes left bare but usually covered with tough leather and stucco.  The wheels of the chariot were one of its major technological developments.  Prior to the use of chariots all wheels were made of solid wood.  With the invention of the chariot came spoked wheels.  These were usually four spoked (or later six spoked) wheels that could be as much as 80% lighter than the solid wheels used previously.  The floor was made of interwoven leather strips to provide a light weight but strong elastic support for the riders.  (Figure 2)
This vehicle was then attached to two horses via harnesses across their necks and chests.  Modern reconstructions of such chariots show that they could sustain speeds of over 24 mph for several minutes and with the maneuverability of two wheels were clearly an improvement on the old Sumerian models.

            But chariots would’ve remained nothing more than glorified carts without the development of useful weaponry and armor for the charioteer and driver.  One of the most important pieces of equipment for a charioteer was his composite bow.  Composite bows are bows that are made out of several layers of different material.  They usually started with a few base layers of wood covered by tendon on the front of the bow and horn on the back.  This allowed a bow to have up to three times greater an effective range than the self bows in wide use by infantry at the time.  A well made composite bow can have a range of up to 175m compared to an average range of only 60-90m for a self bow.  Prior to chariot warfare composite bows were not used extensively in war as a good one would be very costly and take up to ten years to make.  The armor for a charioteer was also revolutionary.  Before the use of chariots on the battle field there is little evidence of heavily armored troops.  Charioteers however were equipped with some of the finest armor available.  This armor was made from a knee length leather robe that did not allow for much mobility (not a problem when one is riding in a chariot) but greatly protected the wearer from enemy arrows. (Figure 3)  Next several hundred copper or bronze scales were sown onto the leather robe providing a flexible and strong mesh of interweaving metal scales.
This armor is known as scale mail due to its similarity to reptile scales.  Finally to understand why chariotry was such an effective and terrifying force on the Bronze Age battlefield, we must understand how it was used in battle.

            Over the past couple of centuries there have been several theories of how chariots were used in ancient battles.  These ideas have been based mainly on Homeric texts; the Iliad and Odyssey and reliefs from ancient tombs.  “Most often it is seen as nothing more than a battle taxi:  the Mycenaean Greeks fought on foot but were transported to and from the battle by chariots” (Drews 1993, pg 114).  Before this idea can be accepted one must remember that the date usually given for the creation of Homer’s works is 800 BC nearly four hundred years after the time of massive chariot warfare.  This perhaps makes Homer not the most reliable source for information on the actual use of chariots in ancient battles.  Secondly it seems unlikely that chariots would be used in this manner.  For a king to maintain and field a chariot army would’ve been incredibly expensive.  Most kingdoms had chariot armies that numbered in the thousands to ten of thousands.  This was, however, to protect a kingdom of perhaps several hundred thousand or even several million people.  This discrepancy points to the expense of maintaining a chariot force.  The weapons and armor of a charioteer were provided by the king in most cases and would have been very costly to make.  The actual chariot and the chariot horses would’ve been the most expensive pieces of equipment.  If a king had a chariot force of almost two thousand chariots “…the cost of maintaining them would’ve been enormous:  in addition to all the professional and specialized personnel, they would’ve required…almost ten thousand acres of grain land” (Drews 1993, pg 112).  It simply makes no sense for a king to spend that much time, effort, and money so that a few of his troops could travel to the battle in style.  According to another theory, in Hatti (present day Turkey) “…the offensive weapon of the chariot warrior was the lance…and not the bow.  The Hittite chariots…made a furious rush at the opponent’s vehicles…attempting to thrust a lance through one of the enemy crewmen” (Drews 1993, pg 114).  This also seems improbable since a lance held between the chariot horses would require the chariot to ram into its target and effectively destroy the rider’s own vehicle.  Even if the lance is held off to the side of the horses, the rider, with nothing to brace himself against, would be flung from the back of the chariot if he did strike home with his charge.  It seems that chariots did carry lances but they were only used as secondary weapons when chasing down fleeing infantrymen.   

            A far more likely explanation is that the chariot was used as a mobile firing platform for archers.  This idea also explains how chariots first came to prominence.  During the early Bronze Age, evidence suggests that battles were composed of mainly infantry armies.  Spearmen were equipped with long spears and arranged in a phalanx formation.  This simple formation presents a wall of spears to an enemy attacking from the front.  (Figure 4)

The goal was to meet the enemy spearmen and try to break their formation and make them run.  In addition to their spears these infantry had little else besides a kilt, sandals, and if they were relatively well off, a helmet.  As a result massed spear infantry made an excellent target for archers.  Luckily these men were supported by archers themselves.  Usually these archers were equipped with a self bow, a supply of arrows and little else.  Their main goal was to keep the enemy archers from breaking up the spearmen’s formation before melee could be joined by shooting off volleys of arrows and keeping the enemy archers from returning fire.  Chariots, with their much greater speed and agility on the battle field, could easy outmaneuver massed phalanxes of spearmen.  With their composite bows, they had greater range and power than the self bows used in most infantry armies.  They could attack and retreat, shooting off volleys of arrows until the enemy army routed.  Once this occurred the chariots could then be used to chase the terrified men from the field.

            All-chariot battles played out a little differently.  It seems most likely that opposing chariot armies would line up in single or double lines.  The reason for such shallow formations is to prevent the collisions between downed chariots and those coming up from behind.  If a chariot army consisted of thousands of chariots these lines would be truly enormous.  On a relief depicting the Battle of Kadesh, Pharaoh Rameses the Great claims have lined his chariots in formation over a mile long.  The opposing lines of chariots would then charge each other firing arrows at the enemy’s chariot horses.  As the lines approached each half of the army would turn towards the outside in a U-turn while continuing to shoot volleys at the enemy army.  The armies would continue this charge and retreat tactic until one of the armies broke and ran.  Despite popular depictions chariot armies did not weave through each other and then turn and charge.  The two armies would most likely have rammed each other head on and destroyed huge numbers of chariot and lives in the process.  If this were attempted both armies would be destroyed after just a few charges.  As chariotry warfare was played out on the plains there was little chance of one army moving undetected and flanking the enemy army.  In fact with one exception, the infantry that was used at this time was used solely to prevent such tactics. 

In other words infantry was used in a defensive manner except for the ‘runners’.  ‘Runners’ were men in excellent physical shape who were expected to keep pace with the chariots and act as a screening force during the charge.  These men were armed with little more than javelins.  They would run between the chariots of their army and attempted to disable enemy vehicles with javelins before the chariots retreated.  Once the armies retreated, the ‘runners’ would dispatch fallen enemies, loot the slain, and retrieve lost javelins.  While the role they played was secondary it was still an important one.  The effectiveness of the javelin against chariot forces plays a very important role during the catastrophe.     

            Despite the deadly speed and power of chariot armies there is little record of their use after ca. 1200 B.C.  In fact by the time of the Roman Empire, chariots were entirely relegated to a ceremonial use and had no value on the battle field.  The abrupt disuse of chariots and a return to infantry warfare is no doubt related to the catastrophe of that overtook much of the eastern Mediterranean ca. 1200 B.C.  To understand why chariots became outmoded it is important to understand exactly what occurred during this catastrophe. 

            As a result of the catastrophe nearly every major urban center in the eastern Mediterranean (outside of Egypt) was destroyed. (Figure 5)

Many of these sites show abundant evidence of violent and fiery destruction.  For example there are stone pillars at the Syrian site of Ugarit that are deformed from the intense heat of fire.  The level of destruction at these sites has led many to assume that the catastrophe was caused by an earthquake (or earthquakes) of massive proportions.  This is unlikely as an earthquake of that magnitude would be unprecedented throughout all of history.  Secondly many of the sites seem to have been reoccupied within less than 100 years of the catastrophe.  These secondary sites in many cases became prosperous cities with little evidence of the sites prior destruction.  Given the slow rate of change for geologic phenomenon, there should have been other signs of major tectonic activity within only 100 years.  While many of the sites were eventually reoccupied, none of them were immediately rebuilt.  “The general rule in antiquity, however, as in modern times, was that after a quake the survivors repaired the damage done to their city” (Drews 1993, pg 38).  Finally most of the sites seem to have been destroyed by fire.  Earthquakes rarely cause entire cities to burn down.  There may be sporadic fires around the city but not city-wide destruction.  This would be even truer in the late Bronze Age, given that the preferred building materials of many Eastern Mediterranean cities were mud-brick and stone which do not burn easily.  With the exceptions of Thera and Pompeii there are almost no known examples of an ancient city being destroyed by an “act of God.”

            A second theory, related to the previous one, states that starvation was the cause of the catastrophe.  Drought and famine caused by earthquakes or other natural changes in climate may have resulted in a breakdown in social order amongst these cities.  This theory has two major problems.  First of all if mobs of starving peasants attacked these cities how could they have defeated the lords inside them?  These kingdoms were supplied with thousands of troops armed with the most advanced weaponry of the time.  ”…the villagers could have posed no military threat.  Against the chariots and professional infantrymen of the palace, the villagers would’ve fared no better than any other civilian population has ever fared against an army” (Drews 1993, pg 82).  Secondly, many of these sites were burned downed and destroyed.  Why, after having gone to the trouble of defeating the king’s army, scaling the citadel’s walls, and taking the palace, would the starving peasantry proceed to burn it all down?  These are not the acts of starving people but of another more insidious force.     

Another theory claims that the destruction of these cities came as a result of a mass migration into the region from the “barbarian” nations on their fringes.  According to this theory, barbarian migrants forced out the original occupants of the region whether through force or simply by volume of people.  The main body of evidence for this theory comes from a relief on the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh, Merneptah.  This relief describes the Pharaoh’s victory, on land and sea, over the forces of the Libyan king Merye, also known as the “Sea Peoples.” According to the relief the king Merye had amassed a force and was intent on settling in an eastern part of the Nile delta.  This force consisted of native Libyans, as well as Tursha, Shardana, Shekelesh, and Zakkala peoples.  These last four are believed to come from western Anatolia, Sardis, and eastern Anatolia respectively.  For years this was accepted as a migration of peoples into the Nile delta.  This idea was first proposed by the Egyptologist Sir Gaston Maspero.  The supposed route of these migrants, Maspero claimed, was over land.  This is ridiculous, however, since, to get to western Egypt by a land route would’ve required these migrants to travel west for over 2000 miles across southern Europe.  They would then have to cross Gibraltar and travel east for another 2000 miles to reach the delta.  There is no reason for migrants to travel so far.  There are thousands of miles of perfectly usable land free for the taking all across southern Europe.  If these peoples main goal was Egypt (the most powerful nation on Earth at the time) they would have to be very militarily powerful and would have had no problem taking land from anyone en route.  There is simply no reason for such a long a pointless migration and outside of the tomb relief of Merneptah there is little evidence for it. 

Another interpretation of the tomb relief is that the Libyan king intended to take the eastern Nile delta with an army of mercenaries from all around the eastern Mediterranean.  There is also abundant evidence around the Mediterranean for invading armies of barbarians.  The destruction of the cities by fire fits in well with the idea of raiders and barbarians besieging, sacking, and burning these cities.  There is evidence that these barbarians were militarily superior to the kings of the Near Eastern cities as will be shown later.  The cities were not re-occupied for many years.  This makes perfect sense if there is still a fear of barbarian raiders.  Finally there is a shift in the sites of new cities following the catastrophe.  Prior to ca. 1200 B.C. many major cities were built on open plains where they king’s chariot armies would excel.  Following the catastrophe there is a shift away from the open unwalled settlements on the plains to heavily fortified settlements located in easily defensible mountainous regions.

As mentioned earlier these barbarians seem to be at an advantage militarily compared to the chariot armies of the Near Eastern kingdoms.  The reason for this lies with the advent of new weaponry and military tactics that made the chariot effectively obsolete.  The javelin has been used in warfare for millennia but around the time of the catastrophe there is a huge increase in its use as noted from numerous javelin heads and shafts found at burial sites around the Near East.  Javelins, while having a much shorter range than a typical bow, also have much more power.  This makes the javelin an excellent weapon for maiming or killing chariot horses.  While the scale mail armor of the charioteers would’ve have been good defense against arrows they would’ve been of little use against javelins.  With a single hit from a javelin the attacker could disable two to three men in one chariot.  The lack of mobility provided by the charioteers’ scale mail armor would’ve put them at a great disadvantage when fighting on foot.  This would’ve been especially true with the advent of a new type of sword. 

Prior to the catastrophe there is no evidence of swords designed for slashing.  There were two types of swords in use then. (Figure 6)  The most ancient is the sickle sword.          

This sword mostly likely developed from an axe and was effective for slicing but completely useless for thrusting and too light for cutting bone.  The second type used is the rapier.  This is a long blade with slanting unsharpened edges.  This sword is designed for thrusting and is completely useless for slashing.  Both of these weapons are best used in formation with other soldiers to support the sword wielder.  It was this reliance on formation that made the use of infantry very dangerous during the time of chariot warfare.  During the catastrophe there is evidence that a new type of sword came into use.  This is a long bladed variety with roughly parallel sharpened edges and a broader head than shaft. (Figure 7)

This sword is known as a broad sword and had been in use since the 13th century in Northern Europe.  It was not until the 11th century that records exist detailing the production of these swords in the Near East.  The leaf shape of the blade made this sword less useful for thrusting but very well balanced for slashing.  The use of this sword against unarmored opponents would’ve been devastating.  This sword requires wide arcing swings to be effective though.  The wielder cannot be in a formation when using this or he will risk injuring this comrades.  This meant that soldiers using a broad sword would have been far less vulnerable to arrows.  This lack of formation lends itself to guerilla-style warfare very easily.  In fact during the previous 500 years before the catastrophe barbarians had been relegated to the fringes of the great empires.  These were mountainous regions that had never been taken over specifically because chariots perform poorly in that terrain and against guerilla tactics.

            Like the broad sword, the round shield is another invention of that time that demonstrates how warfare was changing.  Shields prior to the catastrophe were exclusively tower shields.  These shields cover the user’s entire body and provide excellent protection against arrows.  Infantry that used the tower shield would be well protected from the enemy chariots.  The down side is that these shields are very large, heavy, and cumbersome.  Against other infantry these men would be at a disadvantage due to their lack of mobility.  The invention of the round shield shows a move away from formation infantry tactics to ones that requires greater mobility and speed. (Figure 8)  A round shield is much smaller than the tower shield and usually only large enough to guard a small part of a soldier’s body at one time.      

The trade off for this lesser protection is greater speed and maneuverability.  With this shield a warrior could more easily parry and redirect an opponent’s sword thrusts but be left more vulnerable to arrows volleys.

            At the time of the catastrophe new types of armor emerged as well.  The bronze breast plate is a piece of armor that protects the wearer’s chest from the shoulders to the navel.  This piece of armor is difficult to pierce with sword thrusts and slashes as any blows tend to be deflected by the rounded surface of the armor.  It only does not hamper the wearer’s movement much reinforcing the idea that this armor was used in melee combat with other infantry.  It would not however be of much use against arrows as it leaves much of the soldier’s body open.  In combination with the breast plate came the invention of greaves.  Greaves are sheets of copper or bronze wrapped around a soldier’s shin to protect them from slashes and thrust from swords.  These were thin, lightweight and would provide little defense at best but would not weigh a soldier down who was trying to maneuver in battle unlike the bulky robes of the charioteers.      

            Before 1200 B.C. the armor and weapons of infantry armies clearly show a need for protection from arrows as well as swords designed to be used only as a last resort and not a primary weapon.  For much of the 2nd millennium the primary weapons of most armies were spears and bows.  During the catastrophe there is a clear change in the style of warfare.  Formations are replaced by loose organization or guerilla tactics.  The javelin as the weapon of choice against chariots greatly increases in number.  Swords become far deadlier and are designed to be used outside formations.  A single man wielding a broad sword would be a far harder target for a chariot archer to hit than a whole formation of men.  The added speed and mobility afforded by his smaller, lighter shield and armor, and the deadly efficiency of the broad sword would have outmatched any previous infantry in combat.

            There is archaeological evidence to support that barbarian armies armed with this new weaponry defeated the kings of the Near East.  Out all the kingdoms affected by the catastrophe the two that suffered the least were Assyria and Egypt.  The reason for this can be seen in the types of armies both kingdoms employed.  Assyria was located in a mountainous region of eastern Anatolia at the time of the catastrophe.  Like other kingdoms, Assyria had a massive and powerful chariot force.  Unlike the others though it was surrounded by mountains on all sides and regularly had to repel raids from the barbarians in the hinterlands.  As a result Assyria is the only kingdom known to have a substantial force of infantry available throughout the 2nd millennium.  There are tablets detailing the provisions required to support an army of solely infantrymen.  These tablets show that these infantry army were used and well maintained in Assyria. 

            Egypt is the only nation to have survived the catastrophe intact.  The reason for this is Egypt adaptability.  Similar to the other kingdoms of the time Egypt had a massive, well-organized, and powerful chariot force.  Similarly Egypt lacked a large and well-organized infantry.  For much of the 2nd millennium B.C. infantry was simply not useful.  There is evidence that Egypt quickly adapted to the changes in warfare and this is the reason why it survived the catastrophe.  As mentioned earlier Pharaoh Merneptah defeated a force of Libyans and mercenaries lead by the Libyan king Merye soon after 1200 B.C.  This victory is attested to in Merneptah’s tomb on a relief decorating one of the walls.  One of the most interesting things about this relief and the history behind it is the composition of Merneptah’s army.  In order to win the day, Merneptah created an army of almost all infantry.  There was a small chariot force that seems to have been the Pharaoh’s personal bodyguards but the rest of the army was composed of skirmishers with javelins, infantry in formation armed with the traditional Egyptian weaponry of a tower shield and a bronze rod, and infantry armed with the new broad swords and round shields.  To judge from the list of booty taken from the defeated Libyans, Merye’s army had much the same composition.  The vast majority of the booty is in the form of swords, shields and javelins with very little of it coming from chariots.  It seems that Merneptah beat the Libyans at their own game.  In fact during the sea battle Merneptah made use of his chariot archer’s skills on his own navy’s ships while the Libyans armed with only javelins and melee weapons were slaughtered on their ships.

            The evidence from these two kingdoms shows that to field large number of chariots during the catastrophe was suicide.  The kingdoms that tried this strategy, Babylonia, Mycenaean Greece, Levant and Hatti, suffered terribly and were destroyed.  The only way to survive the encroaching barbarians was to field infantry armies using the barbarians own weapons against them as did the kings of Egypt and Assyria.  However, even these victories were slight.  Assyria did not survive the ensuing Dark Age brought about by the catastrophe.  Even Egypt never again regained its former glory and within 700 years was subjugated by numerous foreign conquerors.

            With the decline of Egypt and the urban centers in the Near East came a power vacuum.  This allowed the Greeks to gain dominance in the Mediterranean and opened the door for the Classical Age of Greece.  The chariot was no longer an important military vehicle and infantry warfare was once again wide spread.  The last documented use of chariots in warfare comes from India around 600 B.C.  The weaknesses of the chariot, its expense, small army size, and inability to cope with rough terrain combined with an over reliance on one type of weapon and military strategy brought about the end of chariot warfare and the downfall of these kings who had ruled the plains for the over 700 years.  


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