Chariots—a rant

Why do people think they need to put history in a box? Why do they think they need to put it in nice little defined categories and say, “These people did things like this, and they never did them like that”? The real world is almost always more complex than the boxes we try to put it in.

Let’s backtrack. I read a book about chariots which drove me crazy. The author was a good scholar, and I learnt a lot from much of his research. But he had a conclusion which I thought was absurd. His argument was essentially, chariots in Egypt used the bow, chariots in Asia Minor and the Levant used the bow, so when the Greeks remembered their forebears in the Iliad and imagined them riding chariots and not really using a bow, then obviously they got it wrong. The Greeks must have been like everyone else around them. Right? Wrong. So wrong.

“Battle taxi”—that’s what Cotterell derisively calls the Greek idea of chariot use in the Iliad in his book Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. He says the Iliad’s idea of the purpose of a chariot in battle was simply to carry heroes around and not to be fought from. He says (regarding the Iliad’s mindset) “this is its only function” and he claims it’s a misremembered projection onto the past caused by the Greek Dark Age. In other words, while the Iliad thinks all chariots were good for was acting as “battle taxi[s]”, they would have actually been used more like the Egyptians and their chariot archery at that time. I think he’s wrong. And I think he’s wrong about both counts.

Firstly, he claims the Hittites (those lads in Asia Minor—and quite possibly a bridging culture to the Greeks, and definitely to the Trojans), he claims they used archery in their chariot warfare. And he’s right. We can see pictorial evidence of Hittite chariot archery. But see, we also see pictorial evidence of Hittites using a spear from the chariot as well. Granted they one-upped the Egyptians and made chariots able to carry three people so, in the scenes I’ve seen of Hittite chariotry with a spear—they still had the archer too. That’s fine. What’s interesting to me is that you see Hittite chariots with another weapon on them, not just a bow, therefore it stands to reason they probably weren’t just used for chariot archery among the Hittites.

And this is important, because as this brilliant article which delves into the Iliad points out, the Iliad actually mentions using spears from a chariot as well. I followed their references just in case but they’re solid. In book 4 of the Iliad, Nestor (an old lad) basically says, “Go on, keep your chariots all together and have spears ready to take out your opponents’ chariots.” Their article goes on to discuss the possibility that spear-use from chariots might have been an old-fashioned idea by the time of the Iliad and be less popular than the “battle taxi” use. But, crucially, it’s depicted and even suggested as a viable strategy, nonetheless. Side note—even if Nestor is only advocating using a spear to take out other chariots, it still proves the Iliad saw the chariot as more tactically flexible than just a battle taxi. So, if even the Iliad captures at least two tactical uses for chariots, then Cotterell’s idea it only had one—the “battle taxi”—is just flat wrong.

But, let’s leave Cotterell’s first mistake aside for the moment. It’s fair to say the Iliad usually uses chariots as “battle taxi[s]”. But just because it’s not depicted as the primary use for chariots in Egypt, doesn’t mean it wasn’t done in Greece. Let’s look at another chariot-using culture. The Celts. In the great Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Cu Chulainn—their version of Achilles—rides around in his chariot to get to where he wants to go, and then dismounts and fights. He clearly uses it as a “battle taxi” and the Irish seemed to have no problem with it. If you’re not happy with national epics though, how about Caesar’s Gallic Wars? How about a first-hand account from a general who fought the Celts?

Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot.

Caesar, Gallic Wars 4.33.

Nuff said?

I’d hope so, but just to hammer home the point—though the fact that Celts used chariots in part as “battle taxi[s]” should be enough to prove the Greeks could have, it gets even worse for Cotterell in light of more recent evidence. I think there’s really good reason we shouldn’t be comparing the Mycenaean Greeks to the Egyptians but rather to the Celts. See, a fairly recent paper published around 2 years ago at the time of writing this, has done a fairly solid gene test for the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. Interestingly, though both have a large genetic component of the same stone age farmer genes from Asia Minor—the Mycenaeans (the guys in the Iliad) have an extra component of what is effectively Indo-European genes as well. The people who the Iliad was based off had a direct genetic link to the Celts—more so than the Egyptians.

So if you want to play a game of, well people might have had similar practices to those near them, you can. But you have Celtic chariotry to the west and chariot archery to the south and chariot archery combined with spears to the east. So is it more likely that a people who say they used spears (like the east) and “battle taxi[s]” like the west—like their cousins—did in fact have a mix of chariot uses from partly geographical (spears use from the east) and partly genetic/cultural (spear use from Neolithic farmers and “battle taxi” use from Indo-Europeans), or do we just chuck all that out the window and say nah, they just used arrows like the Egyptians? I’ll let you decide.

Personally I think one of the biggest problems in this is trying to narrow down history too much and make it fit nice boxes. Even among the Celtic sources we sometimes have just “battle taxi” descriptions and sometimes they throw spears as well. The Greeks sometimes used a spear from the chariot and sometimes used it as a “battle taxi”. Nestor tells his men not to charge the chariots into the ranks of men—like most orders, it was probably given because someone at some time had actually done it—and almost everyone describes chariots as being just bloody terrifying to their opponents in the sounds they conjured up and the very sight of them. Chariots, like swords, like singing, like poetry—they were all used by people in as many ways as there were people. No one person did it just like another, and no one group of people did it just like another.  In our rush to try and understand history, I think sometimes we forget that and can oversimplify things because it’s easier to handle. And I think when we do that though, we can be at risk of trying to make history fit our theory of what happened rather than letting the weight of the evidence speak for itself. Even if the evidence is too complex and too fragmentary to be certain of, I still think we do such a thing to our detriment.

(Chariot frieze sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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