Collections: Ancient ‘Tanks’? Chariots, Scythed Chariots and Carroballistae

Building on last week’s post on tanks and a few of the comments there, this week I wanted to talk about the ancient (and medieval) weapon-systems often analogized to tanks and the degree to which they had a role similar to tanks.

I have lost count of how many times I have seen in this or that documentary made for the public an interviewee explaining to the camera how “______ was the tank of the ancient world!” or some similar explanation, for a variety of different kinds of ancient combat vehicles: chariots, scythed chariots or the Roman carroballista, for instance. Now obviously none of these ancient weapon-systems are going to fill our definition of a tank from last time, but we can talk about how they were used and the degree to which that use does or does not overlap with tanks.

In particular what folks tend to mean when they say this or that thing was the ‘tank’ of the ancient or medieval world, they mean it was a heavy and heavily armored platform capable of tremendous offensive power, able to ‘smash’ infantry out of defensive positions or engage in maneuver-and-fire assaults. Mostly, as we’ll see, this is not how these ancient war vehicles were used.

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We’ll start chronologically with the oldest of these, the two-wheeled war chariot, which was first developed on the Eurasian Steppe and percolated into Bronze Aged Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Egypt beginning in the 18th century BCE (though it takes a while to finally get all the way through the region) and China in the 13th century BCE.

And it isn’t hard to see the ‘tank’ analogy: in their hey-day before the introduction of cavalry, chariots were the most expensive, cutting edge military technology, requiring lots of specialized artisans to produce and maintain and specialized soldiers to employ (typically a trained but commoner chariot driver and an aristocratic warrior to whom the chariot actually belonged).

And in film and the broader popular culture, chariots tend to be depicted with some ‘tank’-like attributes: heavy shock weapons that can ‘smash’ infantry out of position. If my warfare survey, I use a clip from Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) as an example of this popular vision of the chariot: the chariotry first devastate the enemy with a massive arrow volley and then crash through their infantry-line effortlessly using the raw weight of the chariots. Very tank-like! This is also exactly how ‘chariot’ units function in most Total War games: they have massive ‘charge bonuses’ and high ‘mass’ but low base attack and defensive stats, making them devastating in impact but vulnerable if they get stuck or stick around.

The only problem is that this vision of chariot warfare has almost nothing to do with actual ancient chariots.

Let’s start with weight. In a little ‘making of’ featurette, the folks behind Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) go on about how proud they are of their chariot battle and how hard it was to make. Of note they comment on how it was hard to build the chariots and keep them light, with most of their chariot-cabs weighing around 250-350kg. It makes one wonder how the Egyptians could have used such a heavy weapon-system, but of course the answer is they didn’t. We have a handful of preserved Egyptian war chariots and they tend to mass around 35kg, about a tenth of what the movie props massed. Chariot wheels were spoked to save weight (over time the number of spokes increases so as to reduce the pressure on any individual spoke). Far from being armored, the chariot cab was built for speed, which with two horses means building light. But you certainly don’t want to take a high-speed impact in such an expensive but lightly built cab!

Via Wikipedia, a panel of the Kadesh Inscription (c. 1274 BC) with its illustration from the Great Temple at Abu Simbel showing Ramesses II riding a war chariot. Note the relatively light construction and how the railing rises not quite to Ramesses’ waist.

Well, surely you could at least drive them up and hit someone with your weapons? Well, no. Not well, anyway. Again, the problem is that chariots are built for maneuvering at speed, which means they need a wheel-base wide enough to not tip over when they turn. Measurements here vary, but they tend to be pretty wide; the Lchashen chariot has a wheel-base around 7ft. Chinese chariots tended to be even a bit wider, with the axle length generally running around 3m. In short with most Bronze Age cutting weapons (axes, swords), it would be difficult if not impossible to actually reach out to offend a target outside of the wheel-track; a spear could reach, but the angle is all wrong since your own horses are in the way of a thrust forward.

(For more on chariots, Lee, Waging War (2016) has a solid introductory chapter for the lay-reader. See also E.L. Shaughnessy, “Historical Perspectives on the Introduction of the Chariot into China” JHAS 48.1 (1988) and P.R.S. Moorey, “The Emergence of the Light, Horse-Drawn Chariot in the Near-East c. 2000-10500 B.C.” World Archaeology 18.2 (1986))

Via Wikimedia Commons, an Egyptian light chariot (18th dynasty) now in the Florence Museo Archaeologico. Note just how lightly this chariot is built; the cab here weighs less than 30kg.

Instead the primary weapon of the chariot-riding aristocrat were missile weapons: the composite bow or in some cases javelins. This was, in essence, a skirmish platform. Now it is worth noting that chariots had limited ability to absorb the shocks of moving across ground (some later chariots use reed-work floors to cushion this somewhat) so accuracy on the move is going to be limited – you have no ability to predict the vertical motion of the chariot cab the way a horse archer can time his shots with the footsteps of his horse. But you can harass enemy infantry while on the move or rapidly reposition to fire accurately while stationary.

That said, I don’t think the comparison of even the formidable composite bow with a tank’s main armament is particularly useful. As discussed previously, part of the tank’s advantage is bringing a lot of direct fire to the front where it can support infantry, but for all of its expense, for all of the space it takes up, a chariot has exactly the fire potential as a single foot archer (but much more potential to aggrandize elites, which may explain much of the chariot’s popularity).

Finally, chariots are scary: they are big and loud and fast and could be charged for the morale impact. If the enemy ran away you could ride them down firing arrows and throwing javelins; if they didn’t run away, you could swerve aside and ride off! But you absolutely did not want to smash-impact them because remember that your unarmored, vulnerable and panicky horses are in the front of your vehicle.

Via Wikipedia, another illustration of the Kadesh Inscription, this time from the Rammesseum, showing Ramesses aiming his bow from his chariot. Note that this and the other image both omit the chariot driver; this is common in Egyptian artwork where the non-elite chariot driver is either represented in miniature or omitted entirely in favor of displaying the (elite) warrior.

So a light, fast, barely-armored weapon-system meant mostly for aristocratic display and skirmishing with some morale-shock potential – the chariot is less the ‘tank’ of the ancient world and honestly more like a technical, an improvised military vehicle produced by attaching a heavy weapon, typically a large machine-gun but sometimes even heavier weapons, to the bed of a civilian truck. This comparison seems particularly in the sorts of conflicts where – due to insufficient purpose-built military vehicles – technicals acquired important prestige signalling function among local warlords in addition to tactical importance as ‘battlewagons.’ But I suppose ‘the technical of the ancient world’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Via Wikipedia, a technical, in this case used by Ansar Dine Salafi jihadist group in 2012.

Alternately one might compare the role of chariots to the way that some expensive prestige combat systems, particularly fighter jets, are used by some autocrats as a tool of aristocratic signalling as much as an actual component of combat readiness. The chariot might have been categorically outperformed by the later development of true cavalry, but as a platform for aristocratic display and legitimacy building, it was practically unbeatable: a literally elevated platform for kings and their elite retainers to perform military excellence for their armies in highly visible ways. It is striking that, even once chariots lose their battlefield role, they are retained in some places as command platforms for kings and officers and even among the Romans, who as far as we can tell never made much battlefield use of chariots, the chariot was still the prestige vehicle of the triumphing general in his grand victory parade back in Rome (in part because even after their battlefield use dwindled to zero, chariots remained in both Roman and Greek thought as the vehicles of the gods).

Scythed Chariots

Scythed chariots come on the scene rather later and the distinction is important to make. The war chariot as a battlefield weapon practically vanishes in the Near East beginning in the early Iron Age (there’s a transitional period, but by the end of the 7th century BC, it is functionally complete), because cavalry (in particular, horse archers) could do everything chariots could do, but better and with half the horses and half the humans. Chariots stuck around as prestige vehicle for kings, but no longer saw extensive use on the battlefield.

Scythed chariots were developed later, although there isn’t much scholarly consensus on exactly when; possibly under the Achaemenids, possibly in the Neo-Assyrian period (which would be contemporary with the decline of traditional war chariots). Scythed chariots essentially take one element of the older war chariot – the terror of their charge – and dial it up to eleven, putting large blades both on the wheels and also beneath the chariot’s cab; unlike the older war chariots these seem frequently to have been four-horse chariots. Unlike war chariots, these were always specialty limited-use systems: you only brought a handful, compared to much larger numbers of cavalry. As Jeffery Rop notes (“Reconsidering the Origin of the Scythed Chariot” Historia 62:2 (2013)), scythed chariots required ideal terrain – open and flat – to function and as a result seem to have been, at best, infrequently used; we have just a handful of instances of the Achaemenids using them total over at least a century.

Generally, scythed chariots attacked in front of the advance of the main body of the army and the idea here seems to have been that they would break up enemy formations and disorder the enemy thus allowing the main attack to succeed (e.g. Xen. Anab. 1.8.10). Alexander Nefiodkin has proposed that this was explicitly a response to Greek heavy infantry, but I tend to think he has this exactly backwards: this trick almost never works against dense, cohesive heavy infantry – where it does work (e.g. at Cunaxa, Anab. 1.8 and also in 396 against a foraging party, Xen. Hel. 4.1) it is against either lighter troops or troops scattered in the open (and sometimes not even then, consider the failure of Seleucid scythed chariots against skirmishers at Magnesia in 191).

Indeed it is difficult to come away from the sources with a very high opinion of scythed chariots: they tend to be notable because of their notable failures to deal with heavy infantry. At Cunaxa, Xenophon contends that the onset of the chariots caused no losses among the hoplite formation (Xen. Anab. 1.8.20), with the Greeks simply opening ranks to allow the chariots past; Alexander uses the same tactic as Gaugamela (Arr. Anab. 3.13.5-6), but there also integrated light infantry with javelins, we are told, also disabled many of the chariots before they reached the lines. That use of light infantry also occurred at Magnesia where Pergamon light infantry allied with the Romans similarly routed Seleucid scythed chariots (Liv. 37.41.10-12).

As I noted when discussing war elephants, the Romans seem to have classified scythed chariots with war elephants and other Hellenistic ‘gimmick’ weapons unsuited to serious warfare and it is hard to disagree. Livy’s quip that the scythed chariots at Magnesia were an inanis ludibrium, “a useless mockery” of war compared to the ‘real thing’ that began moments later (Liv. 37.41.12) serves as a neat summation of the Roman opinion (especially when paired to his dismissal of war elephants as elephantomachae nomen tantum sine usu fuerunt, “the war elephants were just a name without any use,” Liv. 44.41.4). In practice, scythed chariots seem to have underperformed precisely when it counted: when the enemy was well-organized and highly motivated.

In the sense of a heavy, armored vehicle designed to shock infantry out of position, it seems like, in concept the scythed chariot is something like an ancient tank. But unlike tanks, which ended up as a staple weapon-system is nearly every military in the world, scythed chariots strike me as being more akin to various wunderwaffen – ambitious if often over-complicated ‘wonder weapons’ whose costs or limitations were not equaled by their utility.

The Carroballista

The Roman carroballista, which first appears in the second century AD, is also sometimes described as being like an ancient ‘tank.’ Saying anything about the carroballista is complicated by the scarceness in the sources; it is mentioned in a grand total of two texts, both of them late: Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris 2.25 and the anonymous De Rebis Bellicis.1 Both sources are troublesome; Vegetius is notionally writing about the ‘old’ Roman legions from the late fourth century, but Vegetius is at best careless, drawing elements from a variety of periods and mixing them together. The De Rebis Bellicis is also quite late (possibly early fifth century) and anonymous. Were it not for the fact that carroballistae are also clearly depicted on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, scholars might well doubt this was ever a real military device.

Via Wikipedia, a Roman carroballista on the Column of Trajan which commemorates and depicts Trajan’s Dacian Wars (101-2 and 105-6 AD). Note that the soldier is helping the heavy cart along by pushing it with an effort that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has looked at footage of artillery-men from the First World War trying to get their own artillery out of the mud.

Nevertheless they are so depicted, multiple times and so it seems that the carroballista was a very real thing and used fairly regularly; Vegetius, for what it is worth, claims each legion would have had 55 of them. The figure is not, on its face, implausible.

From what we can see, the structure of the carroballista was generally a two-wheeled cart pulled by a pair of mules or horses with a two-armed torsion arrow-throwing catapult (the ballista) mounted on the cart.2 This was a crew-operated weapon as Vegetius notes, with each carroballista having a contubernium – a unit of eight soldiers – assigned to it, though on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus the weapon itself seems to be worked by a two-man team. And unlike the chariot, which could only develop the same fire potential as a foot archer, the carroballista could hit a lot harder; Vegetius again notes that neither the heavy armor of cavalry nor the shields of infantry could stand up to it, which is perfectly believable for a Roman torsion catapult. These things hit hard.

So we have a mobile, powerful direct fire platform. Is it a tank? Well, no.

First off, from what we see on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus, the carroballista is entirely unarmored; not only the cart but also the animals lack any kind of armor. Moreover, the animals on the columns are mostly mules, not horses. The choice of mules suggests an emphasis on endurance and pulling-strength over raw speed; we have no idea how heavy a carroballista was, but the choice of mules would seem to suggest fairly heavy indeed. Moreover, a close look at the carroballistae on the columns reveals that at least one of the crew members is always shown on foot next to the cart, either assisting in firing or helping to push it; only one soldier is ever shown riding in the cart. If, as Vegetius suggests, the whole system had a contubernium assigned to it, there’s no way they could all have moved on the cart or its draft-animals; there isn’t enough space. So the mobility of the carroballista is necessarily limited to the foot-speed of its operators.

Which brings us to operation. Loading a ballista required the working of a winch (with a ratchet to prevent premature release) at the rear of the weapon to pull the bow-string back; this stored energy because the string was attached to a pair of levers which were in turn inserted through a pair of torsion-springs (typically made out of sinew or hair) kept under tension. Pulling the string back (further) twisted the torsion-springs so that once the string was released they would snap back into their previous position launching the projectile (with some engines designed for throwing arrows and others for throwing stones).3 Needless to say that requires a fair amount of muscle-power to be put to the winch back, which in at least one of the panels of Trajan’s Column seems to be what the soldier on foot is doing (one wonders if in practice the weapons were designed to allow two soldiers, one to teach side, to winch together; other Roman torsion catapults were designed like this); the soldier apparently in the cart aims the weapon. The important implication here is that this is a system which cannot fire while moving (or more correctly, cannot reload while moving). That impression is reinforced by how Vegetius describes their use, with the carroballistae having two roles: defending camps and firing from behind the heavy infantry line.4

Via Wikipedia and also from the Column of Trajan another carroballista, this one apparently in action. The soldier to the far left seems to be turning the winch while the soldier in the cart aims.

So what we want to imagine here is not a hyper-mobile ‘tank’ dashing about the battlefield firing on the move, but rather a mobile field artillery piece, able to relocate (at something like a jogging pace) during a battle to set up at one protected firing position to the next and offering fire support over the infantry line which protects it. In this sense, the carroballista is less like a tank and more like 17th-20th century horse artillery. While nearly all artillery of that period was drawn by horses, horse artillery took this a step further by employing a much larger team of horses for each gun, allowing the entire crew to be mounted. Of course they couldn’t fire on the move either; the idea was that they could rapidly reach a new firing position to unlimber5 and fire, similar to how modern self-propelled artillery can shoot-and-scoot.


It is perhaps not surprising that none of these ancient systems is actually a very good analogue for tanks: tanks were, after all, created to solve a battlefield problem – overwhelming firepower that could effectively prohibit infantry advance over open ground – that didn’t exist before the modern period. Contrary to what one might sometimes see in movies and video-games, even the best archers could not produce enough downrange fire to actually stop a determined infantry charge (the French at Agincourt reached the English after all, even if they didn’t then win), but of course machine guns could.

Now at the beginning I said I would stick to ancient vehicles, but of course there is one other kind of pre-modern combat arm which gets compared to tanks: cavalry. And there is something to that: many country’s armored formations are the direct heirs of earlier cavalry formations and at various points tank or other armored fighting vehicles have done some of the jobs, especially scouting, that would have in earlier eras been assigned to cavalry (at some points light tanks were used for reconnaissance and these days that is often one of the roles of specially outfitted IFVs like the M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle). We have, of course, discussed cavalry dynamics here at some length, though focused purely on the pre-gunpowder era.

Discussing the way that the lineage of various cavalry forces shaped the emergence of armored forces is beyond the scope of this post, but for the curious I should note that Nicholas Moran has a series of videos detailing the interwar development of tank doctrine in various militaries which often gets into the debates that were had about the future battlefield use of the horse and the place of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles in a truly modern, mechanized cavalry.

That said, I think that comparisons describing this or that ancient or medieval fighting system as the ‘_________ of the ancient/medieval world’ tend to obscure more than the elucidate and often serve as cover for a failure to really interrogate how those pre-modern combat arms actually worked in practice. It is, unfortunately, the rare bit of public-facing history that efforts to do this effectively without recourse to inaccurate modern analogies or absurd hyperbole.

In any case, pre-modern war vehicles existed, but they were not tanks or even very much like the public’s conception of a tank.

Next time: something that doesn’t have much or anything to do with tanks!

  1. I do not have a copy of the latter at hand to check the exact citation. My notes on the carroballista were, alas, written by a younger version of me who was less careful!
  2. It must be noted there is some necessary speculation in all of this because, again, the sources are very limited.
  3. Ancient torsion engine terminology here is tricky. In modern parlance, we tend to call arrow-throwing devices ballista and rock-throwing devices catapults, but in ancient usage these terms doesn’t precisely follow. In the Late Republic and the Early Empire, it is the larger stone-throwing engines which get term ballista, while smaller arrow-throwing engines are a catapulta or more commonly a scorpio. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear (but may be related to some technical differences in the design of the engines and the shape of the torsion-arms), by the late Empire, the terms largely reverse positions, with catapultae being larger rock-throwing engines (note also the onager by this point), while ballistae are the smaller, arrow-throwers. For more on this technical question and on ancient artillery in general, the standard reference work remains E.W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery, 2 vols (1971), though it can be quite difficult to get a hold of.
  4. non solum autem castra defendunt, verum etiam in campo post aciem gravis armaturae ponuntur, “they not only defend the camp, but indeed in the field are placed behind the line of heavy infantry.”
  5. Gloss: Set up the guns.

183 thoughts on “Collections: Ancient ‘Tanks’? Chariots, Scythed Chariots and Carroballistae

  1. On scythed chariots: Hmm, maybe rather than wunderwaffen gimmick weapons, might another modern analogy be Iraq War jeeps designed to absorb IEDs, or other vehicles designed for use against weaker foes? It’s hard to say because we have better records of the glorious huge battles of the Hellenistic states vs. peer competitors (i.e. the cited Battle of Magnesia), but if we say for the sake of argument that scythed chariots worked better vs. undisciplined rebels than peer heavy infantry… well, the Seleucids probably fought a lot of undisciplined rebels, but most of those battles weren’t recorded in the history books too deeply, since most rebels lost. So a weapon that was useful against such undisciplined foes wouldn’t be totally pointless… with the disclaimer this only would help vs. rebels in flat plains (i.e. Babylonia) and not hills or mountains (Asia Minor, Armenia, Judea, etc.).

    1. On the other hand, heavy infantry formations would also help against lightly armed opponents in open fields. And those same heavy infantry would help against the heavy infantry of other settled powers! Scythed chariots weren’t without a use, but heavy infantry does the same job and does other jobs beside. So rather than having a heavily specialized tool, it would make sense to invest in the generalized one.

      1. I think the implication here is that the scythed chariot would be so much better at its specialized job than generalist heavy infantry that it was worth the expense. And they were used against the greeks and romans since they already had them, so they might as well use them to see if they would falter.

        1. I would also note that it’s not like bad military decision-making was invented in Febuary, so they might’ve used them when it’d be better to dismount their riders.

      2. On another hand, heavy infantry formations are infantry formations.

        So, it’s more men to train and equip, more supplies to feed them, a lesser speed issue (chariots likely can sustain higher speeds on a march), and it’s likely more expensive to ensure their loyalty (As, presumably, it takes far less men to control the necessary number of chariots to equal an impact of a given heavy infantry formation).

        Also, chariots look more impressive than infantry. So, good enough for domestic suppression of peasant rebellions.

    2. I guess, scythed charoits, would be a lot better against horses, than against foot. Riders have a much harder times to pull of the dense formations needed, to see off chariots, and horses probably would be prone to panic when near to whirling blades.

    3. Like most terror weapons scythed chariots don’t seem to have been worth the trouble. Scary, yes very, but not all that difficult to evade. If they’d been genuinely effective the Romans would have adopted them not made fun of them.

        1. Yeah, this pretty much. If we’re quoting Lily that scythed chariots were a “useless mockery”, we should also quote Lily’s opinion on the Seleucids in general: that “Syrians and Asiatic Greeks (are) the vilest of mankind, and born only for slavery”. (From the Founding of the City, Book 36.) This is not a guy with a high opinion of anything the Seleucids did.

          1. And yet the Romans did manage to defeat the Seleucids without much difficulty. Unless you suppose that our accounts of the Battle of Magnesia are fabricated, I don’t think we can dismiss Livy’s low opinion of scythed chariots as just a bit of anti-eastern prejudice.

          2. GJ: For sure, but imagine you’re trying to assess the military techniques of countries Britain conquered in the Age of Imperialism, but for some reason you only have the absolute snootiest, most Anglophilic historians to draw upon. These historians may well be right often – the British really did beat the Marathans, the Boers, etc. – but they’ll also have blind spots, and may not closely examine just how close any battle was, but fall back on British pluck and determination vs. irresolute enemies. Which would miss whatever tactics / weapons they did have that could have succeeded, but didn’t due to the other advantages Britain (Rome) had.

            Anyway, as discussed above, it may well be correct that scythed chariots weren’t great vs. disciplined Romans, in which case the Seleucid general just made a mistake by deploying them at all. But were they bad “in general”? That seems a tougher question, and one where Livy simply saying that they couldn’t beat the Romans isn’t enough. Lots of states couldn’t beat the Romans.

          3. Anyway, as discussed above, it may well be correct that scythed chariots weren’t great vs. disciplined Romans, in which case the Seleucid general just made a mistake by deploying them at all. But were they bad “in general”? That seems a tougher question, and one where Livy simply saying that they couldn’t beat the Romans isn’t enough. Lots of states couldn’t beat the Romans.

            Well, nobody here has been able to point to any instance at all of scythed chariots being used effectively, so…

          4. GJ, the linked PhD thesis cites two successes of scythed chariots and explains that the problem is that our sources about scythed chariots are not a random sample of occasions where they were used but a list of battles where an army without scythed chariots defeated one with them. And the Romans had a lot of trouble at Magnesia: the horsemen about Antiochos smashed the infantry on their left wing (“but the survivors were really brave once they ran into camp and locked the gates” says Livy), and they could do nothing to the Seleukid phalanx at close quarters, and had to sit back throwing things. It happened that the elephants panicked before the Seleukids could march off the battlefield or the Romans ran out of ammunition, but it was a near-run thing.

          5. GJ, the linked PhD thesis cites two successes of scythed chariots and explains that the problem is that our sources about scythed chariots are not a random sample of occasions where they were used but a list of battles where an army without scythed chariots defeated one with them.

            Actually I only count one instance, a small skirmish in Asia Minor. (The Cyropaedia is more a historical novel than an actual history.) But anyway, the author’s argument — that scythed chariots were used for a long time, therefore they must have been effective — isn’t the best explanation for the evidence. Instead, it seems more likely that various generals experimented with introducing scythed chariots into their armies, but they weren’t successful enough to roll out into general use. This would explain why they keep popping up, without the need to posit a load of battles where scythed chariots performed well but which were completely unmentioned by ancient authors.

            And the Romans had a lot of trouble at Magnesia: the horsemen about Antiochos smashed the infantry on their left wing (“but the survivors were really brave once they ran into camp and locked the gates” says Livy), and they could do nothing to the Seleukid phalanx at close quarters, and had to sit back throwing things. It happened that the elephants panicked before the Seleukids could march off the battlefield or the Romans ran out of ammunition, but it was a near-run thing.

            So the Romans, including Livy, were actually capable of writing about enemy armies performing well in battle, even in battles which the Romans ended up winning. And yet they never wrote about scythed chariots in this way. I wonder why this might be.

        2. I repeat; if they were an effective weapon the Romans would have adopted them regardless of source. They didn’t.

  2. I wonder how closely the war wagons are in terms of tank-like without being actual tanks. Considering they’re mostly again like the horse artillery in terms of rapid movement of men and cannons, but aren’t the armored behemoths that are actual tanks.

    1. You can make a fair argument for most war wagons being armoured against the small arms of there day.

  3. Interesting read, as usual! Funny that you should mention “technicals” since I read about the Toyota War rather recently. Also interesting discussion of the Carroballistae, a weapon I did not know about before. As for chariots, they seem to be mentioned “non-scythed” in Classical Greek accounts as well, for instance when Herodotus describes the Achaemenid cavalry (7.86) or in the descriptions of the Indian armies that would be arrayed against Alexander had he continued (for instance Curtius 9.2). Is this just Orientalism, or were chariots perhaps in use in India later than the 7th century?

    1. Yes chariots were still being used by the Indians at the battle of the Hydaspes. However, they were ineffective. Take a look at “A Military History of Ancient India” by Maj. Gen. Gurcharn Sing Sanduhr, Vision Books, 2000.

      1. Makes one wonder why they continued with chariots when they also had cavalry, and according to Herodotus even brought chariots to the Greco-Persian Wars. Thanks for the recommendation, perhaps that might answer my question

        1. The combatants brought cavalry to WWI, which was totally useless (apart possibly from doing some scouting in the early months of the war). Inertia and the political difficulty of dissolving a prestigious branch of the service would probably be the main reasons.

          1. I tend to think that if a military tactic, technology, or organization sticks around for a while it’s probably in some sense a good idea under the then-prevailing circumstances. We see a lot of cases of things sticking around after the development of something that obsoletes them, but when a war shows they’re obsolete that tends to start changing pretty quick.

            That said, the reason X is a good idea can be “we aren’t able to do Y”. Retraining and reequipping an entire arm of the military is a significant undertaking, especially when you don’t run centralized training and procurement.

          2. I’m not sure about useless. Not a match for mechanized infantry, sure. But saying that no one got use out of cavalry in WWII isn’t true.

            When you don’t have the gas or trucks to mount all your troops, putting some on horses can still ad valuable mobility. Just don’t expect them to fight tanks with cavalry charges

          3. Cavalry was useful in the early stages of the war for scouting, pursuit, and screening. They were kept around afterwards because, if someone did manage to find a way of breaking the stalemate, the war would once again turn into a war of manoeuvre, in which cavalry would be useful for the same reason they were useful in the early stages.

          4. Phillip Sheridan saw it coming and predicted a much heavier scouting and less charging future for cavalry based on the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.

  4. I also wonder if the scythes could even be effective, or if it was just for seeming more frightening. Would the horses not just be in the way if the chariot’s use was to cut up enemy soldiers (unless it was more like Leonardo’s designs)? I guess it might make more sense to me if i saw a reconstruction/accurate illustration of what it would look like.

    1. A quick Google search doesn’t turn up any premodern depictions, but it does bring up plenty of reasonable-looking reconstructions that have straight spikes sticking out of their wheels’ hubs.
      Also one on Pinterest which has sword-like blades hanging off the sides of the outside horses and spears sticking out between them, which I find…less reasonable.

  5. When it comes to chariots as prestige symbols, it seems it continued to be so in Persia too since Greek accounts describe the Achaemenid kings as travelling in a chariot but switching to a warhorse on the battlefield. Also the Romans seem to have used various sorts of chariots (cisium, esseda &c.) for quick transportation

    1. Hmmm, that makes me wonder about the invention of the saddlebag.

      Transporting more than what you can hold in your pockets (or in pouches, or the various equivalents) while riding a horse really needs saddlebags, as a backpack will make you unstable in the saddle – even more so on a stirrupless Roman saddle.

      If saddlebags hadn’t been invented or didn’t work well with a pre-stirrup saddle (I have no idea about the mechanics of a saddlebag on a Roman saddle – a quick google only shows saddlebags for pack saddles), then it would be very reasonable for Romans to use chariots for moving around a courier with some light goods rather than a horse-rider with a packhorse on a string. Same number of horses and people, and the chariot may well be quicker and possibly even cheaper than all that tack (wood vs leather pricing is definitely not something in my wheelhouse).

    2. I seem to remember a an articela bout the irish adopting the roman-style chariot (for transportation) but also using it for warfare (which the romans never really did)

      1. Irish epics, like the Tain, have warriors fighting from chariots. Interestingly, no chariots have turned up in barrows or graves in Ireland, so it may be that they just borrowed the notion from abroad when describing archaic warfare.

        1. the Britons used a type of chariot in warfare against the roman invasion, so i could see it. the British chariots were really more like two wheeled light carts though, with some interesting suspension variation. the Gaul had a similar vehicle as well. both the Britons and Gauls used them similar. largely as transport for elite warriors, with the chariots racing around the battlefield to drop off groups of warriors. with skirmishing before hand.
          in Julius Caesar’s words:
          ”In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror caused by the horses and the noise of the wheels are enough to throw their enemies’ ranks into chaos. Then, after making their way between their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and fight on foot.”

          since the irish were influenced by many of the same cultural elements that the britons were, i could see them adopted similar chariots.

          1. They don’t seem to have copied them in using chariots – just in reciting poems where heroes use them.

  6. What might be worth looking into concerning chariots, is use of tachanka during Russian civil war. Just as in ancient warfare, not a infantry smasher but mobile gun placement.

    And anyway, what’s the big idea about chariot smacking infantry better than cavalry would? It’s the horse doing the smacking anyway, the cart only causes more trouble.

    1. My impression is that it’s a Warhammer thing. Where chariots generally do 1d6 impact hits, (with scythes adding another d6) This was in addition to any attacks by the horses and crew.

    2. Game developers often dont have a good idea of what is correct. So they look at a chariot, wonder what it role could be in combat, and then give them stats that fit that role. Cavalry is used for flanking in games. Now having units run away constantly because they are afraid of charging horses would be frustrating, so they make units always stand strong against charges. But then the problem is that cavalry cant really destroy people with charges, so they have horses turn into battering rams that just launch infantry in the air as they are run over by the cavalry.
      So then you have chariots. What do you make of them? Watered down horse archers? thats rather boring for a big bulky (since the chariot is made big and bulky) unit like the chariot. Cavalry that awkwardly hacks away at people after parking into the middle of an army? Regular cavalry can do that and it would look less silly. So they figure they would look cool as superpowered trample units. Since you have a horse and then a heavy chariot running into people.

      1. I think you could make something like TW that gets at morale impacts better, but you would need an entirely reworked morale system (e.g. in TW such an effort would result in either all cav, no cav or “constantly charge and halt”) and you would have to find a better way to handle how units “stick”.

        Interestingly, I do find myself using cavalry fairly accurately in Shogun 2, hit a flank or isolated unit and then run away immediately. Although a lot of the damage is still done via cavalry knocking people around.

  7. While calling chariots simple prestige vehicles for elites makes sense in later periods it doesn’t really make sense for the bronze age. Simply because cavalry didn’t exist, horses weren’t nearly large enough to carry a person until post bronze age collapse.

    So for the bronze age chariots were simply the fastest thing around and didn’t have competition in that regard, also modern tanks are themselves fairly vulnerable with some such as the leapord 1 forgoing heavy armour entirely. And i’m pretty sure the egyptians were on the extreme end of lightness when it comes to chariots with hittite and assyrian chariots being heavier.

    1. The Leopard 1 and AMX 30 were essentially a response to a specific design problem (armour technology was far behind firepower technology), so decided to forego armour almost entirely. That problem was then resolved by the development of new types of armour (composite and ERA), with the following generation being well armoured again. In that sense, I think it’s difficult to call the Leopard 1 a modern tank, even with the modernisations it’s undergone

  8. Ah yes, the 75 mm carroballista model Caesar&Bibulus.

    More seriously: weren’t (non-scythed) chariots a delivery system for dismounting heavy infantry? Like a truck (or APC, or IFV if the driver contributes some missiles when “parked”).

    1. This is the use depicted in the Iliad, that ‘s a battle-taxi for heroes, but this is kinda doubtful – many people believe that by the time of Homer, the Greeks had forgotten how war chariots were used and just had to make stuff up about them.

      1. As I mentioned in another comment, the Achaemenid kings seem to have used chariots in this way, but this is probably a prestige symbol like triumphal chariots in Rome. I’d imagine that larger wagons would be more useful for transporting infantry if they could not march or use barges/ships

        1. I was speculating elsethread about whether they were used for transporting relatively small items around – I don’t know how compatible pre-stirrup saddles are with saddlebags, but if they aren’t, then the amount a ridden horse can carry is minimal. For strategic mobility, that’s not a big deal; almost all cavalry travel with a string of spare/pack horses behind every ridden horse anyway, so the amount they can carry on the actual ridden horse is not especially relevant.

          But a light chariot would be able to carry much more than a single horse and would be much more agile and faster than a ridden horse with a packhorse on a string (which is also one person and two horses).

          If you had detailed dispatches or maps or sketches to transport around, then a light chariot might be the best way to do that with the tack available at the time.

          1. Depends on the terrain. A mount can tackle obstacles that stop a chariot.

          2. But horse-mounted couriers existed as soon as cavalry – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” is Herodotus describing the couriers of the Persian Empire. If a horse can carry an armoured man, it can carry a man with a rolled up document slung across his back.

            I’m not sure what sort of object would be too big for a mounted courier, small enough to fit in a chariot, and valuable enough to need urgent carriage, but I can’t think there were many of them.

    2. If a chariot is essentially unarmored and serves as delivery system for one (1) elite warrior, doesn’t that make it more like the military motorcycle of the ancient world?

    1. Something like that, although it was really more of a “pocket castle wall” or in modern parlance a mobile bunker. They did not deploy infantry, but served to provide the infantry with a mobile fire base that was safe from heavy cavalry charge.

    2. The Hussite Wars are right around the start of the early modern, so I understand why Deveraux didn’t include them, but I hope he does an analysis of Žižka’s tactics. I do think the vozová hradba were the closest think to tanks pre-WW1, as they were used primarily to give increased armor and direct fire support to infantry formations, who in turn screened them. They were even capable of maneuvering with their infantry units during the course of a battle, as the Crusaders learned to their doom at Kutná Hora, in addition to delivering a comparable psychological shock to tanks, though in this case goading the enemy into trying to rush them. There’s even some evidence of their foot infantry complement using a pistol barrage to essentially “pop smoke”.

      At the same time, operationally they were more similar to technicals, being up-armored civilian vehicles used by an insurgent force, with no centralized production, though the metal armor was still expensive and a limiting factor for their production. Any modern comparison is further confused by the fact that their main gun was the origin of the term howitzer, despite being as a short-barrelled weapon even for the time, which was fired at flat angles against primarily infantry and cavalry. By synecdoche, sometimes the whole wagon, including the infantry complement, is also called a howitzer, just to make things less clear.

  9. I do remember the chariots in Homer’s Iliad being used as skirmish vehicles, and I do remember they employed javelins almost exclusively. IIRC, the chariots used by the Gauls and the Britons were somewhat heavier, and likewise, used as skirmishing vehicles, the major difference iirc is that at least in the British Isles they were four-wheeled and relatively heavily built and were thus very highly capable vehicles on slopes and in lightly-wooded terrain where a lighter two-wheeled chariot would’ve come to grief.

    Queenj Boudicca used them in her battles and at first because the Romans were unprepared, they were very useful. In the final battle, iirc, the Iceni and allies were overconfident and the Romans were prepared, consequently the chariots were not so useful.

  10. Well, we should probably consider that the tank is in a long line of evolution of means of providing mobile protected firepower, with the emphasis on mobility, protection, or firepower having varied significantly over the years. From that perspective there’s DNA of the chariot in the tank but just because a system two or three of those elements doesn’t mean they can be used in the same way on the battlefield. Attempting to achieve results from shock effect is a heavy cavalry notion that derives down to medium and heavy (later: Main battle) tanks, where armored vehicles also perform the light cavalry role of screening and reconnaissance.

    Also as a nitpick: the US has withdrawn the M3 from service having converted them all to M2s (the primary difference between the two variants being the number of seats for dismounted infantry/scouts and the volume of ammunition carried).

    1. The replacement of chariots by calvary was like the use of treaded vehicles to improve mobility.

  11. Maybe already mentioned in the comments to the previous post, but amusingly in Swedish the same word is used for tanks and chariots: stridsvagn (~battle wagon).

    Another note: the last post was a missed opportunity in the lack of “is this 🦋a tank?”-memes.

    1. Yes, when I was a child it was quite confusing to read about the Egyptian pharaohs going to battles with tanks.

      1. Ah, someone’s been watching too much Stargate. Although that’s doubly confusing as I’m not sure the goa’uld have anything that would fit the description of ‘tank’ either…

      2. I have become rather annoyed that there is no precise Swedish equivalent for chariot. The best we have is making compounds like ‘stridsvagn’, ‘triumfvagn’ etc. (Är för övrigt lite förvånad över att vi är så många svenskar här)

        1. If there is a need, why doesn’t Swedish simply borrow the word? That’s what most languages do. Or go with hestevogn, like Danish, which would at least make it clear that we aren’t talking about tanks.

          P.S. My mother-in-law was Danish, but my knowledge is mostly limited to her dictionary, so maybe there is another word in Danish.

          1. And to non-Swedes, I just agreed that it was strange that we are over represented.

  12. The Hebrew word “Merkava” means “chariot,” IIRC. Also a pretty decent tank.

    1. I thought it meant throne, like the throne of God (in Ezekiel for example).

  13. So a chariot-mounted archer couldn’t even use the speed of the vehicle to give his arrows extra oomph? All the training of men and horses for not much advantage . . . sounds like chariots were the F-35 of the ancient world: an expensive boondoggle that odoesn’t coinfer much actual advantage. Makes me wonder if there Mitanni lobbyists running around selling the things.

    1. Don’t underestimate the value of mobility; chariots were around before cavalry and would let you put archers in places the enemy did not want you to have archers, then get out of there before their non-archers could make their objections known.

      1. Or even before you could move your own archers up to return fire, if they wer equick enough.

        1. Or even overrun misplaced archers in light formations forcing them to hug their infantry for protection.

    2. All ancient basorreliefs and paintings show the archer firing while the chariot is on the move. This is presented în battle scenes and hunting scenes so it was rather common. The precision of the shot might be discussable but most paintings show the archer and driver as wearing armour. The greatest threat for a chariot was another chariot which could close în and allow for an archery duel.

      1. I imagine being able to stand upright and not have to simultaneously control a horse makes shooting from a moving chariot easier than being a good horse archer.

      2. Yeah, this. Wouldn’t even need accuracy, bows weren’t fired from long range and the platform would give chariot archers the ability to drive by, shooting, along the enemy infantry line.

        This would be problematic if the enemy had missile troops at the front. The archers might be armored, but not the horses.

        But that would mean that the solid infantry line is diluted with light skirmishers, reducing its effectiveness against a more solid, heavy-only formation.

        So the most logical use case for chariots would be just before the infantry lines clash. Drive-by shooting from close range would both disorganize and dishearten them, then the line infantry moves in and finishes the job.

    3. I mean, the F35 is far from a boondoggle. The cost overruns are not that bad compared to other recent high tech projects. And the cost per plane has fallen dramatically. The F35 also has many capabilities beyond merely air superiority. F35s have been known to stick around even after expending all of their ammunition in order to use their advanced sensors, command and control, and data analytics to support continuing operations. Thanks to inflight refueling an 535 can stay up for long periods of time providing constant support from a stealthy platform.

      That capability is actually why the F35 has taken so long to develop and why it is now the best fighter jet on the market.

  14. “That said, I think that comparisons describing this or that ancient or medieval fighting system as the ‘_________ of the ancient/medieval world’ tend to obscure more than the elucidate and often serve as cover for a failure to really interrogate how those pre-modern combat arms actually worked in practice.”

    I think this is the most important statement in this essay–not that the rest isn’t good, just that this is so, so important, and so, so often lost in these discussions. There is a tendency to try to view the past through the lens of the modern world, be it weapons systems, farming methods, even ecology (you see this same tendency in paleontology; see “stem groups”). And it’s holding back our understanding of the past.

    To really understand the past you need to realize that each society was a fully-functioning entity that was, more or less, satisfied with itself. The people of Rome or Medieval Europe or Mesoamerica weren’t merely stopping points on the road from Point A (nomadic tribalism) to Point B (modern Western civilization); they were in fact people living in a society as rich, deep, and important to them as our own is to us. Their civilization wasn’t an attempt to become us, but rather made sense in its own terms. They had to. The arrow of time points in a single direction, and the people of the past had no knowledge of what our civilization would become; it is therefore a logical impossibility for them to strive to become us, and thus a fallacy to view their world as a stepping-stone to our own.

    In paleontology the equivalent is the idea that things were more primitive in the past, and everything was leading up to our modern world. It wasn’t; at each time-slice the ecosystem was vibrant, dynamic, and fully-realized on its own terms, and to understand the past you need to understand it on those terms. Dinosaurs didn’t die out because mammals are inherently superior; to understand the non-avian dinosaur extinction you need to look at the Maastrichtian world and the impact event. You need to view the extinction from their perspective, NOT ours. (Sorry, I love dinosaurs, have since I was a kid, and never will not love them.)

    I had a rather interesting discussion that really drove home this lesson. I do environmental remediation–cleaning up hazardous waste–and at one point my crew and I were wondering why anyone would use such dangerous chemicals as the ones we were cleaning up. An old worker laughed and said something like “Dangerous? Nah, you should have seen what we used before!” Turns out the stuff we were cleaning up replaced something that was insanely dangerous, the type of stuff that killed you today, not fifteen years down the road. I always bear that conversation in mind when doing re-enactment or studying ancient/Medieval culture. Just because something looks one way to me, doesn’t mean that it looked that way to the people of the past, and my job is to understand it from THEIR perspective, not mine.

  15. The only X of the Ancient World comparison I subscribe to is my high school Latin teacher’s insistence that Catullus was the Eminem of the Ancient World.

  16. Fascinating stuff as always. Since you have the maxim that successful armies always replicate the structure of their society, I’d love to see a break-down of how that was reflected in the Roman military of various era.

    1. The caveat to that maxim is probably ‘unless that society spends the requisite time and effort producing an endemic structure/cohesion within their army’, which is what makes a ‘professional’ army really work.

      It would still be an interesting breakdown to see though, especially through the lens of how the relative similarity of military and civilian society enables or hinders re-integration of veterans into civilian life. I suspect that would range from ‘there is no distinction between civilian and military structures, so reintegration doesn’t occur’ all the way to ‘reintegration is a painfully difficult and thorny issue as the structures are radically different’.

      Where the Roman military falls on that spectrum at different points would be very interesting to learn about!

      1. Since encountering Bret using that maxim and particularly reading his article in Foreign Policy about the failure of the Afghan army and suggestion it should have been organized along societal lines, I’ve been idly wondering if it’s reasonable to say successful professional armies are replicating the structure of their society.

        As a US worker, my ties to my job have very little to do with my family background, I’m not part of any major organizations except my job, and there’s significant effort expended in making me feel like part of the company, but I’m expected to serve bosses because they’re appointed over me. People are hired directly into managerial roles and have automatic authority over people with more seniority, just like a new lieutenant can be put in charge of an experienced sergeant. People may be expected to uproot their lives and move their family elsewhere to continue working. While it varies by company, some have very long professional training and sponsor further training.

        The military does have stricter standards and the pressure of combat and isolation intensify group cohesion, but from what I see from the outside it structurally looks like a company, just not one that’s using at-will employment.

        That would explain why efforts to export the NATO system seem to tend to founder in countries that don’t have the same domestic structure. Which raises the question of what they should do instead. It’s possible that under current technology long-service professional armies are just outright better, but it might be possible to organize it differently while still having the long-service aspect for training.

        1. Well, and: the expectations for how you relate to “professional society” were developed in tandem with the standing American army; the heyday of the Grey Suit Men (50s) was twenty minutes after the Green Suit Men apogee (WWII)

        2. That makes it easier, certainly. But there are also armies (the Arab Legion comes to mind) that pull this off by firmly separating their members from the rest of society upon recruitment, dropping them into a new social structure with different rules. I’ve only ever heard of it with small, long-service armies, but it’s a thing.

        3. I’m glad you wrote this so I didn’t have to. I’ve occasionally taken it farther (and probably too far) to make sens of NCOs as a tech worker: Officers strike me as being a lot like people managers, and then senior NCOs strike me as being sort of like what we call “tech leads”. For those who don’t work in the tech industry, a tech lead is someone who knows the system well and makes decisions on technical matters while still answering to the managers as far as business strategy goes. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. But one thing that’s interesting is that some companies require managers and tech leads to be the same people, while other companies are going more and more in the direction of requiring them to be different people, which reminds me a lot of the discussion of how, for example, the Russian military has officers with responsibilities that some other militaries assign to NCOs.

          1. Tech Leads are the NCOs and Warrant Officers of civilian organizations.

            It constantly amazes me that there isn’t a wider understanding that the Enlisted/Non-Com/Warrant/Commissioned are not *merely* a hangover of a class divide in the military (though they are also that); but an actual solution to a pretty significant problem. That management is a different skill set than leadership, which is another different skill set than execution.
            (Officer/manager decides what to do, NCO/Tech Lead decides how to do it. Enlisted/line worker does it)

    2. At least in the Republic era, their high-ranking military commanders and civilian leaders were literally the same people. Consuls were military commanders in the field, military tribunes were appointed or elected and often former or future magistrates, proconsuls were both governor and military commander and often future/former consuls.

  17. Do we have any information on the training requirements for good chariotry compared to horse archers? I got the impression that you really couldn’t *train* horse archers, you had to grow up that way. It seems that driving a chariot and shooting from it would require less rearrangement of your entire cultural system?

    1. China did quite well at introducing horse archery into their otherwise sedentary armies, allthough I must admit I’m ignorant as to whether they achieved this by training their own sedentary soldiers or by enlisting the assistance of existing nomadic groups.

      1. My vague recollection from AP world history is that it was at least originally mostly the later, and the biggest surge happened when the Mongols enlisted themselves.

      2. One thing that the Chinese did was equip their archer cavalry with repeating crossbows. 😏

    2. Eh, that’s not relaly the case. Plenty of non-nomadic groups have fielded horse archers with various degrees of success (Japanese, Manchu, various middle-eastern states, etc.) Nomadic society gave you that training by just growing up, but you can absolutely learn how to do it. And aristocrats (who were usually the ones doing it) have a lot of time.

      1. Waldemar Seunig (noted German horseman of the early to mid-twentieth century) reports that the German cavalry looked with disfavor on recruits who “already knew how to ride,” because they had acquired bad habits. Of course, horse archers of the pre-modern era needed a slightly different set of skills from cavalrymen of the Victorian/Edwardian (or Bismarckian/Wilhelmine) eras.

    3. Don’t know about chariots, but we definitely have copies of medieval cavalry training manuals from Egypt and the Middle East which include horse archer drills. (One summary and translation is sitting on my bookshelf). Fairly sure some Japanese training exercises for horse archery have been preserved as well.

      My guess is that it would be about the same for cavalry or chariots. If your military thinks horse archers or chariots are worthwhile, and especially if it’s for the “higher ranks”, time and money will be available.

    4. There is an Hungarian dude, who is teaching horese archery. Forgott his name. But he is able to teach grown up people, to be at least decent in traditional horse archer skills (like shooting in full gallop, shooting backwards, shooting arrows in short succession). Would those people be able to perform in an Eastern Roman muster, or in Ghengis Khans great hunt? Probably not. But this are civilians hobbists, not warrior elites. So yeah, you do not have to be born to be a horse archer.

  18. Thanks for a fascinating and helpful summary. I wish I had had something like it when, decades ago, I tried to research the actual use of chariots, from ancient texts (in translation), and concluded that they were often platforms for aristocratic displays of prowess (Caesar’s account of British chariots), or just a display of luxurious transportation on, e.g., processions and formal hunts (Chinese Book of Songs). In the Mahabharata I found them to be archery platforms, with what looked like a lot of exaggeration. The modern prominence of chariots in the popular image of antiquity may be due to Biblical references, like the Red Sea, or the defeat of Sisera in Judges, which anyone literate used to know. (I think briefer references mostly date no later than the Neo-Assyrian period, which provides some contemporary documentation, or are archaisms). Plus Roman/East Roman chariot races.

    1. Seems like a really interesting project, reading ancient literature from all over the world!

    2. That’s a really good point! Not only are chariots not the tanks of the ancient world, but tanks are not the chariots of the modern world, because we don’t have tank races! (Yet.)

      Though I suppose that also says something about the combat utility of chariots, that their use as a sports vehicle far outlasted their use as a serious combat vehicle.

      1. To be fair, the same is true of horses. Stunning combat vehicle for a very long time, but now primarily used for sport and leisure.

        I wonder when the leisure tank will become a thing…

    3. Did you look at the battle of kadesh? It was the largest chariot battle in history, it seemed to suggest chariots were mobile firing platforms.

    4. The explicit Biblical references to war chariots span the Late Bronze Age Collapse and show a clear pattern of declining effectiveness with a corresponding shift in both usage and force design.

      On one occasion early in the record, they acted as a successful deterrent. Judah declined battle with the lowland Canaanites because they were afraid of the Canaanites’ chariots. (Joshua 18) This was the single biggest success of massed war chariots across the entire Biblical record.

      The power of massed chariots allowed Sisera (Judges 4-5) free rein over much of Israel. However, when Israel eventually decided to fight them head-on, the chariots bogged down in wet ground and were annihilated. This defeat resulted in the destruction of the polity that fielded the chariots.

      In the Battle of Merom (Joshua 11), the chariots were defeated in a surprise attack, captured intact and then destroyed. This defeat resulted in the destruction of the polity that fielded the chariots.

      The Philistines assembled an absurdly large number of chariots against Saul, given at either 3,000 or 30,000 depending on the manuscript. (1 Samuel 13-14) This force broke up before battle joined due to internal disagreements.

      In 2 Samuel 1, a survivor of a battle reported that Saul had been pursued by a mixed group of horsemen and chariots after he fled from battle. This survivor was lying about other aspects of the report. However, the notion of such a mixed pursuit force would be plausible, given later usage.

      David fought Hadadezer, who used mass chariots and a smaller number of horsemen. (2 Samuel 8) David captured about a thousand chariots, but only maintained one hundred of them in an operational state. They might’ve been used in subsequent battles, but if so the text doesn’t mention it.

      Joab fought against the Ammonites and Syrians. (2 Samuel 10) The Syrian contingent broke and fled, then after the battle rallied around a larger force that included horsemen and chariots. The chariot force was then beaten in battle with heavy losses to the charioteers. The Syrians, who were participating as mercenaries, exited the conflict and their polity survived.

      Egypt under Shishak waged a war against Judah under Rehoboam with a very large force that included both chariots and horsemen, but with fifty horsemen per chariot. (2 Chronicles 12) This force successfully sieged several cities including Jerusalem.

      An Ethiopian army under Zerah fought against Judah under Asa. (2 Chronicles 14) This army had some chariots, but fewer than the other massed chariot forces described here. The Ethiopian army broke and was defeated; the text does not describe what role the chariots played or what their fate was.

      Syria rebuilt its chariot force under Ben-Hadad and fought Israel under Ahab with it. (1 Kings 20) The chariots were caught without infantry support and destroyed. Ben-Hadad blamed the terrain for this defeat. He then rebuilt the chariot force. This second army was also defeated and the king surrendered. In a third battle between King Ahab and the Syrians, the Syrians used hunter-killer teams of chariots to try to kill Ahab. (1 Kings 22) Ahab died, but not due to the chariots, and the battle was inconclusive.

      Still later, Syrians attempt to use chariots in siege warfare, (2 Kings 6-7) where they surrounded the cities but accomplished nothing else. After one siege, when the withdrawing Syrians broke contact, Israel used a pair of chariots for reconnaissance along a road. This was the last major battle involving massed chariots.

      The overall performance of chariots, as depicted in the Bible, was lackluster. They supported some successful sieges, they were on a non-losing side by default for some battles where both sides used chariots, and they accomplished some raids. But in a pitched battle in the field, the side described as having more chariots lost every single time. As a result, only the Syrians maintained a chariot-heavy force and replaced their losses. Everyone else was gradually replacing chariots with horsemen. When a non-Syrian force lost its chariots in battle, it never again relied on mass chariots. Still, for a period of at least 200 years, chariots and cavalry fought alongside each other.

      It is notable that David, the archetypal warrior king in Hebrew literature, was never described as fighting from a chariot and apparently disdained them (Psalm 20). King Solomon, the archetypal prestigious king, prepared a mass chariot force but apparently never used it in battle. King Ahab, however, rode chariots into battle on multiple occasions. (1 Kings 20 & 22) King Josiah, hundreds of years later, similarly fought from, and was mortally wounded in, a chariot (2 Chronicles 35) long after the text had otherwise stopped describing chariot warfare.

      1. I mean these are typically propaganda works so I’d also be slightly skeptical, are the Isrealites typically shown as outnumbered? Do the texts suggest being outnumbered didn’t matter if you were the chosen people?

        1. The portrayed military advantage did not come from being the chosen people. The Israelites lost many battles. They were repeatedly conquered, and just as frequently liberated, over the course of Judges, and the Egyptions rolled over them in the 2 Chronicles 12 sieges. Instead, faith in God was the decisive factor. Israelites lost when they were practicing foreign religions, but were delivered when they returned to worshiping God.

          King David was rather explicit in Psalm 20. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the name of YHWH our God. They have bowed down and fallen, but we have risen and stand upright.”

          The notion that faith in God gives your infantry a decisive advantage is not a propaganda invention. Rather, it’s an extension of the principles of cohesion and morale spelled out repeatedly on this blog, where the key to winning (or at least not losing) ancient battles is maintaining the individual soldiers’ discipline through the belief, in the face of the enemy’s best attempts to convince them otherwise, that the fight can be won if they do their part. This is particularly important against shock cavalry, hence David’s remark – the enemy cavalry or charioteers can destroy your own cavalry screen, but they can’t destroy God so your infantry’s faith and thus morale will remain and the attack can’t break them.

          This ties directly into the Bible’s general portrayal of massed war chariots as fear-inducing but ineffective before the power of God.

          1. Right so it’s a different kind of propaganda… I wonder if we’re still looking at a selection Bias similar to Agincourt. Where the battles which saw knights loosing heavily are remembered while the ones in which they won decisively are less talked about.

      2. I saw this: “Joab fought against the Ammonites and Syrians. (2 Samuel 10)”
        and thought to myself, “OK, ammonites would certainly count as ‘armored’, but I’m not sure how *mobile* they’d be on land, in addition to the problem of being extinct for tens of millions of years.” (I don’t think there’s an actual etymological connection between the two words, just an oddly charming coincidence.)

  19. Interesting that you hear those discussed as “ancient tanks” most often. Usually when I’ve heard the argument it was about elephants, sometimes paired with a claim that modern tankers study Hannibal’s elephant tactics.

    That said, I suspect I can predict your opinion on that. It’s not entirely crazy – they were more durable and hit harder than anything else on the ancient battlefield, and had decent speed – but they were far less versatile than tanks, certainly less armoured and more vulnerable (even once you adjust for relative weapon capabilities), and their direct-fire capabilities were, at best, a few archers on top. I could see analogizing them to WW2-era assault guns perhaps – something that was limited in flexibility but packed a real wallop – but not a true tank.

    1. Dr. Devereaux did a three-part series on war elephants a few years ago, so he may just not have wanted to go back over the same old ground.

        1. Yeah, Part 1 was linked in the post. But those didn’t discuss the “were they tanks” side of things, so I was referring to that added little bit.

  20. What is the modern scholarly interpretation of Arrian’s account of the Hydaspes, where chariots are described as *screening* the Indian cavalry in the same way as the elephants screen the infantry?

    The text is as follows:
    “In the van he stationed his elephants at intervals of about a hundred feet[1], on a broad front, to form a screen for the whole body of the infantry and to spread terror among the cavalry of Alexander. He did not expect that any enemy unit would venture to force their way through the gaps between elephants, either on foot or on horseback; terror would make the horses uncontrollable, and infantry would be even less likely to make the attempt, since they would be checked by his own heavy infantry and then destroyed by the elephants turning upon them and trampling them. Behind the elephants were the footsoldiers, though not on a front of equal extent; the various units, forming a second line, were so disposed as to fill the intervals in the line of elephants. On both flanks of the infantry were the mounted units, each with a screen of war-chariots.”

  21. It sounds really odd for the ballista to be on a two wheeled cart unless it was dismounted to fire. You wouldn’t have a stable firing platform, the cart could interfere with operation and the soldier providing the torsion power wouldn’t be able to so so until you stop anyway. Looking at the size of reproduction scorpios on the internet it seems like it would only take a few seconds for a pair of soldiers to load or unload. Unloading it to fire might even be quicker then making sure the cart it oriented correctly. The only advantage I see to firing from the cart would be the slightly elevated firing position but if that mattered, why not get a four wheeled cart and have a much higher firing position?

    1. Early-modern and modern field artillery pieces were/are also almost always mounted on a two-wheeled chassis of some sort. It must not have been as much of a disadvantage as it seems.

      1. I believe early-modern and modern field artillery pieces were attached to a caisson for travel. essentially turning the entire thing into a four-wheel vehicle.

        I do not have any real problem with firing from the cart vs modern practice because of mass considerations. Even a light bronze or cast iron cannon must have outweighed a ballista in Roman times by an order of magnitude.

        Depending on use, firing dismounted makes a lot of sense but firing mounted seems feasible.

    2. It does appear in one of the pictures that it’s being fired mounted. I’d guess it has some limited capacity to rotate rather than having to point the cart directly at the target. It might be firmly affixed so it doesn’t go flying off when you hit a bump in the road and two-wheeled to keep the weight down and the speed up.

      It’s also possible it wasn’t routinely fired mounted, and the depiction of doing so is artistic license, or excluding some additional bracing gear. That seems particularly likely if it was routinely used only for defense or behind the infantry line, so it didn’t have to suddenly scoot away from an infantry charge.

      1. I think Bret is mistaken here – I’m sceptical that the carving is actually of a carroballista being fired while mounted, because it seems to be pointing forward, over the mules’ heads, and my impression of mules is that shooting things close to their heads is not the way to win their enduring love and affection. I think what we have there is one soldier sitting in the cart driving it and another riding along in the cart hanging on the back.

        Horse artillery unlimbers and detaches from the horses before firing – mainly because of the noise. A carroballista wouldn’t have had the same problem with noise, but I think you’d still want to detach in case the mules got skittish and started dragging the cart around and spoiling your aim.

        In which case, we now have an explanation for why one piece takes eight men; you have a gunner (catapulter? ballister?) actually operating the thing, a couple of winchmen, perhaps a loader, a detachment commander, a horse-holder or rather a mule-holder standing some way away, and a couple of lads as spares or to provide security while firing.

        And, potentially, those last two are also to manhandle the cart left or right to change point of aim, if the ballista itself was fixed firmly to the cart rather than being mounted on a turntable (just as you traverse a field gun using the handspike). The obvious way to traverse the cart would be to use the shaft as a handspike, but then you have the problem that your traversing team are standing in front of the weapon system, which is not likely to win their enduring love and affection any more than it is the mules’. Which makes me suspect that possibly you had the ballista mounted in the cart pointing backwards, and wheeled it into action just like a modern horse artillery piece. The shaft to which the mules are harnessed rests on the ground and becomes the trail of a two-wheeled artillery piece.

  22. I do not have a copy of the latter at hand to check the exact citation.

    The De Rebus Bellicis is available online, e.g. here and here.

  23. I posted this in the wrong place accidentally, so reposting:

    One thing that I think is easily missed is that while battles and sieges where you had massive numbers on either side were decisive, they probably wouldn’t be the kind of fighting most soldiers would do most of the time. I’m more familiar with the 30-years war, but by that point armies would often send out smaller groups, scouts, foragers, parties sent out deliberately to burn and destroy, patrols to try to disrupt the enemy trying to do those things, etc. So a lot of fighting wouldn’t be the massive batltes but small patrols ambushing each other (or getting ambushed by angry peasants pissed about all these soldiers coming and trying to take their food)

    Someone (I believe it was Englund) described the army as often being a swarm of bees, there’s the core, but it’s surrounded by a constant buzzing of smaller groups that break off to do various things, and when thes two “clouds” intersect you get a lot of this smaller bits of skirmishing before they decide to actually have a battle between the major swarms.

    A couple of chariots might not be that frighening if you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with 5,000 men. But if it’s about 20 guys out looking for food they suddenly become a lot more threatening.

    1. Sort of reminds me of how I’ve seen modern naval engagements described–each fleet has scouts and other ships (nowadays with lots of equipment) that surround a core group. Engagements start–and can possibly end–with as little as a sonar blip, and if the parties decide to engage they bring in more and more of their force over time rather than all at once.

      This makes sense when you pare it with Defense In Depth–partially this tactic allows for scouting and skirmishing, but also, by the time your enemy reaches your main force they’ve been fighting for a while. The fog of war has set in, they’ve been consuming ammo, maybe a few officers have been taken out of commission, and only then do you hit them hard. It also gives you the opportunity to decline an engagement. If the other fleet or army is too big, you at least know where they are and can avoid them. Either option would work just as well for armies and navies. And it makes a lot more sense than having huge blocks of men moving around in blocks, for a variety of reasons.

  24. The references to Trajan’s Column remind me of a question I’ve had; how reliable do we think these artistic depictions are?

    I know modern Hollywood is notoriously bad about accurately representing the correct use of anything military and a lot of their accuracy in appearance is because they’re actually borrowing DoD gear or using stock footage. The triumphal columns and such have the advantage that at least the commissioner and in eras with less professional militaries quite possibly the artists had combat experience and may have been on the specific campaign being depicted, but on the other hand they’re meant to look good and are heavily stylized to begin with. So the carrobalista is shown being fired mounted, but does that necessarily mean it’s how it was used in practice?

  25. “tanks were, after all, created to solve a battlefield problem – overwhelming firepower that could effectively prohibit infantry advance over open ground – that didn’t exist before the modern period.”

    While clearly true in field battles, I think it’s worth thinking about how this relates to sieges. As you have discussed in the past, the Assyrians faced fortified cities that could prevent the infantry from delivering an assault; part of the solution was siege towers to suppress or kill defenders and destroy fortifications, enabling the infantry to prepare and deliver the decisive attack. This sounds fairly similar to the original job of the British heavies in WW1, but with the size of the fortified position expanded from a city to the Western Front.

  26. It seems like the closest thing to a tank in the pre-modern world was the war elephant (or elephantomacha, a new word for me), i.e., they were resistant at least to light missile weapons, they could fire missile weapons themselves, and they could push through and scatter infantry, possibly even if massed in tight formation. That said, as Bret notes, pre-modern weapons didn’t generate enough projectile volume to really require anything like a tank.

    1. A war elephant’s main weapon is the elephant itself, not the archers.

      I feel like war elephants were tank-like, because I feel like missile weapons aren’t part of the core idea of a tank. Tanks use missile weapons because they exist in an era when everyone uses missile weapons.

      1. Yeah. A bulldozer with a well locked, properly enclosed cockpit would make a REALLY GOOD tank by the standards of 200 BC. Or, for that matter, 1400 AD.

        1. Nah that would be a gimmick weapon, less useful then an elephant. You could push a fortification out of the way for a little bit but it would be hard to exploit the gap. If you push into the enemy lines, you are screwed. All it takes is one brave soldier to climb on board and start banging away at the top of the vehicle with a hammer, a shovel or the butt of a sword. It doesn’t damage the vehicle but the crew inside becomes so disoriented from the noise that they can’t operate the vehicle, immobilizing it. There are accounts from WWII of militia and civilians using these tactics against lone tanks that thought it was safe to push without support into areas where the defenders had no anti tank weapons.

          1. Armoured bulldozers were used extensively in Iraq and Syria, to clear paths through earth berms thrown up as defensive measures. The armour was often improvised but effective enough against small arms. A bulldozer also played a key role at Kohima in WWII (Japanese were entrenched on a rise impassable to tanks – bulldozer cut a ramp to allow tanks to close on Japanese bunkers).

    2. Elephants, even African bull elephants, are not really big enough to be the irresistible juggernauts that would have allowed them to be a true analogy to a tank. Something more like the fictional oliphaunt, an elephant the size of a sauropod dinosaur, would have been necessary.

        1. Three species of elephant, Indian, African bush, and African forest.

          African bush elephants are the biggest, but they can’t be domesticated. No evidence they were ever used in battle.

          Indian elephants can be domesticated. Armies around India obviously used Indian elephants, and they were imported by Achaemenid Persians, the various Alexandrian / Greek successor states in the middle east and Asia Minor, and some even made it as far as Macedonia.

          Transporting elephants is difficult, so Carthaginians and other states in or near North Africa also tried African forest elephants. These are rare, only being recognised as a separate species in the late 20th C. Until then there were only “African” elephants which are now called “African bush”.

          African forest elephants can be domesticated, but they are smaller than Indian elephants.

          So yeah on a battlefield the Indian elephants will be bigger, but not everywhere.

          1. AFAIK the war elephants used in North Africa, and likely the Levant, were a now-extinct species (or sub-species) called the North African Elephant. It was smaller than Indian elephants. They didn’t have to ship them all the way from India.

            You’re definitely right though that they didn’t use African bush elephants.

      1. Palaeoloxodon namadicus was big enough being a 22 tonne behemoth, only issue is that it went extinct in the ice age…

    3. Elephants are much bigger than humans, which should have given them a great advantage in charging home against an army of humans. On the other hand, elephants are much bigger than humans, so it is not obvious how you could force them to charge home, if you were a human general.

  27. Fascinating as always.

    But I do wonder how Hittite chariots fit into this? As I recall they were heavier built with a three-man team. And I could swear at least one of them was armed with a spear.

    1. There is a scholarly opinion that the outcome of the Battle of Kadesh was decided by the Egyptian 2-man Chariots being lighter and faster. And that being of lesser weight gave their horses more endurance.

        1. They lost the initial encounter, but held on until their reinforcing division arrived. At which point the Hittite’s withdrew.

          1. At least that’s Rameses’ version. By any rational measure Kadesh was a disaster for the Egyptian forces. Rameses’ was extremely proud of the battle because he personally preformed well, fighting like mad until his reinforcements arrived to rescue the survivors.

  28. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention what I think of as the pre-modern / early modern device most like a tank: Hussite and Chinese war wagons. They had armor and they had firepower, sometimes carrying a cannon. They would typically remain stationary during a battle, so it’s probably better to think of them as pieces of a movable fort than as a tank.

  29. The biggest problem with chariots, at least to me, would seem to be enemy missiles. To be effective, a chariot has to move in relatively unobstructed ground. The size of two-to-four horses, plus a small platform and two humans, is a huge target. Although the humans are probably armored, and the horses may have some armor as well, I realistically wouldn’t want to risk getting a nearby line of soldiers chucking javelins in my general direction.

    This makes more sense when facing looser formations, and the driver can also monitor potential danger and avoid it. Presumably that would have been part of the training, to maximize the offence while minimizing risk.

    1. For starters, you’d want to stay out towards the outer limit of javelin range or beyond, and plink away with arrows from outside that range.

  30. The impression I get from this article is that chariots were never used to attack directly- that they were light and fragile, so you’d have to keep them far away from danger. But that’s different from the impression I get reading other things? For example this:
    “The Hittites were renowned charioteers. They developed a new chariot design that had lighter wheels, with four spokes rather than eight, and that held three rather than two warriors. It could hold three warriors because the wheel was placed in the middle of the chariot and not at the back as in Egyptian chariots. Typically one Hittite warrior steered the chariot while the second man was usually the main archer; the third warrior would either wield a spear or sword when charging at enemies or hold up a large shield to protect himself and the others from enemy arrows.”
    Or this:
    “While Ramesses was talking with the princes, the Hittite chariots crossed the river and charged the middle of the Re division as they were making their way toward Ramesses’ position. The Re division was caught in the open and scattered in all directions. Some fled northward to the Amun camp, all the while being pursued by Hittite chariots.

    The Hittite chariotry then rounded north and attacked the Egyptian camp, crashing through the Amun shield wall and creating panic among the Amun division. However, the momentum of the Hittite attack was already starting to wane, as the impending obstacles of such a large camp forced many Hittite charioteers to slow their attack; some were killed in chariot crashes.”

    Granted that’s just wikipedia, so maybe those articles are totally wrong and I should just ignore them. But it seems at least… plausible? I don’t think it would be that hard to use a long spear to attack forward over the horses, and then it’s just a standard cavalry charge. Maybe that’s how they were used originally, and then chariots became obsolete as cavalry got better?

  31. The chariot in the photo looks very small for two people. Or am I just not getting the right sense of scale from the picture?

  32. As a historian of early China, can confirm that chariots, at least in ancient East Asia, were never used as tanks. The most common fighting methods regarding chariots, according to Zuo Zhuan (our main source on the early Iron Age China), were 1. shooting arrows and 2. waving halberds from either side of the chariot – like how motorcycle riders in action movies strike down each other using pipes and sticks from the side of the vehicle. So no “engage enemies using the front and crush them down under the horses” here.

    This is likely because one cannot realistically waving a weapon that could reach beyond the length of horse on a mobile platform (unless it was a Macedonian sarissa, but that was a weapon for foot soldiers). As a result everyone simply chose to fight from the side of the chariot.

    Another interesting detail was that, Chinese chariot warriors (mostly military aristocrats and urban dwellers) at the time have no mental obstacle of getting out of the chariot and began to fight on foot. When encountered terrains very hard for the chariots to operate, such as mountains and forests, these warriors would leave the chariot immediately, blend into the supporting foot soldiers, and try to scale the terrain on foot. In a way, they treated their chariots more as APCs than tanks.

    1. I’m really struggling with the idea of running around scything people with a halberd, from a chariot. Unless you’re strapped in somehow, when that weapon gets caught on one guy’s armor either it’s getting ripped from your grip of you’re going flying off the back. Or both. And of course, it means closing into melee range as well, close enough that somebody can easily chop at your horses’ legs or even shield-check you off the chariot.

      It might work if you were carving up poorly-trained or unarmored infantry though.

      1. RE: halberds that’s like proposing the lance was unlikely to have been a serious calvary weapon as it was likely to smash after delivering one or two strikes. If you drop it, you drop it. Retreat and grab another one. Similarly the shock of a lance striking should knock a cavalryman out, but instead they couch the lances. Chariot warriors would have techniques for striking from a chariot.

        And the risks for engaging in melee on a chariot are the same as calvary—speed is your greatest armor. Lead horse legs are going to be chopped at on the same frequency as are calvary horse legs—at speed unlikely, if you get stuck in you have blundered.

        The yoke is going to set the height of the chariot floor; this in some cases wouldn’t be any lower than the height of the feet of cavalry, meaning the torso is in roughly the same place. Are you imagining soldiers are regularly leaping up and shield checking cavalrymen out of the saddle? Even if the floor is a foot or two lower than a cavalry man’s foot, there are there wheels and the surrounding chariot wall as obstacles.

        No, none of this adds up.

    2. My understanding was always that scythed chariots worked similarily: You didn’t crash headlong into an infantry unit but rather drove by the side and let the protruding blades do the work.

  33. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that before this, my entire understanding of historical units’ roles was informed by the upgrade paths in the Civilization series.

    Really informative and enlightening stuff, as always.

  34. How exactly would scythed chariots have engaged infantry? Would they have tried to run through infantry lines? That seems to have the problem that the horses would have to get past the first lines of infantry before the scythes start cutting anyone. Would they instead have run parallel to the front lines of infantry, so that the scythe would cut down the first line? That seems impractical, since the horses would be within striking distance of the infantry (and it seems like it would be difficult to keep going straight when the scythe on one side is constantly cutting down infantry, and the other is just spinning in empty air). Or were the scythes mostly there for intimidation, and wouldn’t be used to cut down infantry unless they were already routed?

    1. I do wonder if scythed chariots were more intended to be used against cavalry. They’d have a tough time catching them as an individual horse would be faster, but blades attached to spinning wheels would do very nasty things indeed to the legs of horses beside the chariot.

      1. > They’d have a tough time catching them as an individual horse would be faster,
        But this could be the point, couldn’t it? Light horses running away from your chariots, can’t screen their army while forming up, they can’t bother your light horses harrassing the enemies skrimishers. They might even take some time to reform after paniced horses run everywhere.

        1. Agreed. Might work well against armies that utilise plenty of cavalry, but not so effective against those that focus on heavy infantry. Hence the Romans’ low opinion of them.

  35. What changed to make a cavalry a viable replacement for chariots? I thought of breeding bigger horses, but as you talk about in the Dothraki Horde series, the Steppe Nomads employed armored horse archers on all natural fun-sized horses just fine.

    1. Probably more docile, less panicy horses, that accept an rider on their back and did not run at the first loud noise, where pretty important.
      But I also think it had a lot of cultural elements. Horses where hunting game for most of humanities past. Convincing people, that it might be a good idea, to go into combat, ontop of an flight animal, that you hunt for food, took some time. Imagine it, like explaining an european knight of the 13th century, he should ride into combat on a cow.

    2. Pretty sure even steppe horses were bigger than the original undomesticated horses who maxed out at pony size, hence why the earliest chariots of sumeria were just modified wagons pulled by oxen or donkeys.

      Also the bridle and bit had to be developed as well, without these it was difficult to control a horse. Let alone fight from one.

  36. The carroballista sounds like something the Mythbusters made once. On the “Arrow Machine Gun” episode. As I recall, it wasn’t terribly quick and couldn’t easily be fired while moving.

    1. Something to bear in mind with modern reconstruction of ancient things, is that the ancient craftsmen generally had at least some training and experience in that specific thing, and the reconstructors do not.

  37. > comparisons describing this or that ancient or medieval fighting system as the ‘_________ of the ancient/medieval world’ tend to obscure more than the elucidate

    Challenge accepted. Chariots are the strike fighters of the ancient word. They are vehicles, light weight, lightly armored, mobile, fast, expensive, require extensive maintenance, and logistics, fire at range against similar vehicles as well as at infantry, prestigious to own and are often crewed by two people one of whose position is fairly prestigious.

  38. Are we reading too much into the fact that a carroballista has a whole contubernium assigned to it? Could such a contubernium have fewer people in it? Would the entire contubernium necessarily have been crew vs, say, assigned to ferry ammnunation from stockpiles to wherever the carroballista is on the battlefield or perform maintenance when necessary but otherwise fight as infantry? And is the soldier depicted in the cart riding it or is he operating it while unlimbered?

    1. Thanks for that, fascinating site.

      Makes it very clear that war wagons/carts are not tanks. Tanks were invented as an offensive weapon, able to advance against heavy missile fire.

      The operating manual for these Ming Chinese war carts includes the “crew” mostly walking alongside so as not to fatigue the animals, and in rough ground helping push the carts. When the enemy approach, the mules are removed, presumably to keep them safe from arrow fire and so a panicked animal can’t upset the cart or move it out of position.

      Mobile barricade / pavise, with accompanying light artillery. Definitely not a tank.

      1. In *Hardtack and Coffee*, the author discusses how you had to use horses where you could hear the gunfire, though you used mules everywhere else.

        1. Hadn’t known that about mules, thanks.

          I’m always glad to introduce greatmingmilitary to new people. It’s a fun site for those interested in its subject matter.

        2. “Servants of the Queen” by Kipling mentions that, while you can use elephants to pull heavy artillery most of the time, they are neurotic and angst-ridden creatures and so can’t be used under fire. So you unhitch them and hitch on the oxen instead. Interesting as a description of virtually the last days of an animal-draught army…

  39. Ah, I was hoping you’d get to chariots one day. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but would always get conflicting information on how they were employed.

  40. Even somebody as militarily ignorant as myself can see at a glance that two wheeled Ancient Egyptian chariots were skirmish weapons, light and maneuverable. They were used in big game hunting too, obviously they were effective mobile platforms for archers. Warrior pharaohs boasted of their archery skills not their swordsmanship.
    In the Illiad the Greek warriors all have chariots but they don’t fight from them. They’re used as transport to the site of battle for the kings and heroes and maybe as a mobile platform by archers but Real Men get down and dirty in melee battle. How far this reflects actual historical practice in the Bronze Age, or Homer’s Dark Age Greece is anybody’s guess.

  41. I watched the clip from Exodus: Gods and Kings and I have say, owwwwwww. There is (of course) a sword fight between two charioteers. Literally “Drive me closer, I want to hit them with my sword!”

  42. Having unthinkingly repeated the “chariots were the tanks of the ancient world” line myself before, thanks for this informative write-up. I never really thought about why chariots went away in favor of cavalry, but the fact that they only provide mobility without an increase in armor makes a lot of sense—once you could reliably ride the horses themselves, why bother with the extra weight?

  43. Although they weren’t in fact ever adopted as practical weapons, Leonardo DaVinci’s designs for a “tank” and a scythed war machine come to mind. The former being a sort of armored gun carriage or mobile fort and the latter using a geared mechanism similar to a reaping machine.

  44. RE that last bit, I’ve always thought of aircraft as the closer cavalry equivalent. Although on reflection I suppose the jobs are split between them and light AFVs.

  45. What about Hittite chariots? Aren’t they generally regarded as being more “shock” than Egyptian ones?

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