Chariot Armies of the Ancient Near East

For thousands of years all the kings of the Ancient Near East would ride in chariots as part of official processions. The sun god was deemed to ride a chariot across the sky in number of different myths. This was no mere symbolism. The chariot was in fact the machine that held in place the social order of the Bronze Age as both a formal vehicle and often as a lethal presence on the battlefield.

By the 14th century BCE the maintenance of large chariot forces had become the number one expense for Late Bronze Age Kingdoms. Trade between Babylonia, Mitanni and Egypt as revealed in the Amarna Letters archive from Egypt shows chariots to have been a key commodity.

The Late Bronze Age chariot was built for speed with a leather covered light-weight wooden frame. Kingdoms that did not have their own source of wood, such as Egypt, became dependent on the flow of the timber trade from regions like the forested mountains of Lebanon.

Unassembled chariots in Tutankhamun's tomb.

Disassembled chariots in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Bronze Age Kingdoms were now also required to maintain large herds of horses. Of the all the people of this era, the Hurrian people from the kingdom of Mitanni in Syria, have been identified as having had an intense devotion to horse husbandry. The Mitanni are credited with holding first horse-derbies in history. For centuries these skilled horse-folk of Syria set the standard for a new equine based military culture.

Tutankhamun depicted riding in a chariot during battle.

Tutankhamun depicted riding in a chariot during battle.

The Maryannu

The chariot warrior elite amongst the Hurrians were known as the maryannu. By the 13th century BCE the maryannu had come to resemble a landed aristocracy upon which the king could call in times of need. These chariot warriors were skilled in the use of the composite bow which had an effective range of over 100 meters. In battle the maryannu wore an expensive suit of bronze plates known as a sariam which was emulated in detail by Egyptian and Hittite charioteers.

Years of detailed analysis of the textual records from Alalah, Ugarit and Nuzi make it possible to discern some of the life and times of these men. The most widely accepted view of the political elite during the Mitanni Kingdom is of a ruling class of Indo-Europeans who formed a horse-breeding aristocracy. This idea has developed for over a century and most scholars of the period do not hesitate in labeling the maryannu as the chariot-owning nobles of Mitanni. Scholars also agree on the accepted etymology of the word maryannu which linguists trace to the root marya, a Sanskrit word meaning young man or warrior.

The Great Kingdoms

The Great Kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age

Tablets from Alalah, Nuzi and Ugarit

When trying to discern how it was that the maryannu fit into the social stratum of Bronze Age Syria, the most detailed records available are the census tablets and similar administrative texts. These ancient archives are largely from the Mitanni vassals in Alalah and Ugarit in western Syria as well as some texts from Nuzi which lies to the east of the Tigris River. These records show a placement of maryannu throughout the small villages of these vassal kingdoms. The overview shows that the maryannu were not always present, but when they were listed, their numbers were consistently close to 10 percent of the village population.

This dispersal of the maryannu in groups that were not in every village, but when present were part of a uniform ratio, is suggestive of a highly organized system of maintaining these troops. This set number of chariots, horses, and fighters required an additional set number of assistants in the communities support structure. Further evidence of central control can be found in the ilku system. Hereby, kings would undertake a liberal dispersal of land to individuals who then pledged their professional skills to the crown.

Aristocracy or Professional Chariot Fighters?

An intricate system of monitoring the ownership of land, along with the specified skills of the individuals who had pledged service for land, reflects a powerful centralized system of control. Even if the land was sold, the ilku obligation would remain with the original owner, and a son would inherit the land from his father along with the ilku. While some families may have had a long-standing attachment to pieces of real estate, such ancestral landholdings should not be considered as meaning there was a separate authority, such as an independent nobility, that could balance out the power of the king.

The ilku pledge of service has often been problematically compared to a feudal obligation. Understanding this arrangement is essential to proponents of a theory that suggest a two-sector model of society, with a private and a royal component, existed in Syria during this period. However, given the ultimate say of the king over property rights, there appears to be little room here for a proper two-sector model, which would allow for the existence of a typical land-based aristocracy.

The system of a simple military organization based at the village level is well testified in the ancient texts. There are notes that some individuals are designated as commanders, chiefs of 10, charioteers, or archers. In the Nuzi texts, different designations are given for the maryannu, who served the local king, and the imperial charioteers who received their commissions directly from the King of Mitanni.

Complications arise as efforts are made to determine the role that the maryannu played in the governance of their society. Were they a ruling elite or just chariot fighters? Or were they possibly some combination of both? In the various listing for the maryannu, these records include at least one maryannu with the rank of hazannus, chief of the settlement. This then can be placed alongside the other maryannu, who are listed with not only martial labels such as archer, but as also as possessing skills as varied as leather-workers and scribes. Taken together some idea of the nature of this group can be gleaned. Even if, in some instances, the local hereditary chief was classified as a maryannu, he served at the pleasure of the king and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many chiefs were not maryannu.

Evidence from Ugarit shows the maryannu had large agricultural estates. Yet, in light of the necessary support infrastructure for a chariot warrior, this should be considered a natural development. There is also evidence that an individual could be adopted into a family with a maryannu designation, or a king could simply appoint someone to what then became a hereditary rank. The training that would have been required is not mentioned in available sources, but likely followed an apprentice model as found elsewhere during this era. These details would place the maryannu as part of the typical patriarchal structure seen within many professions that were state sanctioned during the Late Bronze Age.

Additional records reveal that the maryannu were something other than a typical aristocracy. Various chariot tablets show the royal palace dispensing equipment to the fighters rather than the fighters provisioning themselves. These men were clearly members of a privileged elite, if based on nothing but the resources their war-gear consumed. However, the maryannu did not dominate society; it might be better stated that they were tools of domination.

During the Late Bronze Age, after stabilizing control of Anatolia, the Hittites invaded the Mitanni territories in Syria around 1350 BCE. Following decades of war the Kingdom of Mitanni, which had literally written the book on chariot warfare, was defeated by the Hittites. In the aftermath of the Hittite invasion the remaining Mitanni lands were overrun by the Assyrians and rebellious vassals from the kingdom of Alshe. The victorious rebels executed thousands of captured maryannu  forever ending Syria’s ability to field sizable chariot forces.

The Hittites and Egyptians

Other cultures, such as the Hittites and Egyptians, developed similar horse based warrior cultures to that of Mitanni. All kings rode to battle in chariots and in many cases infantry troops served merely to support the chariot force. Men designated as runners would follow the chariots into battle and protect them from close range assault while they rained down deadly arrows on their foes.

 Along with the bow wielding chariot warriors each chariot had a driver. The driver often carried a shield on one arm but was otherwise unprotected. By the time of the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE the Hittites had begun to build a heavier chariot that was capable of carrying an extra warrior to wield the shield. This design allowed for the driver and the primary warrior to stay focused while protected. The Hittites also relied on javelins at close range while the Egyptians relied primarily on the bow and arrow. The Egyptians innovated by adjusting the placement of the chariot axle to provide increased maneuverability.

A Hittite chariot.

A Hittite chariot.

With as many as 20,000 men the pharaoh Ramses II marched out to meet the Hittites at Kadesh, which had then been in Hittite hands for two generations. As the Egyptian army marched in a column towards its objective the Hittites attacked with thousands of chariots and nearly destroyed the leading division of the Egyptian army. Only the timely arrival of the Egyptian king’s own chariot corps reserve would allow the day the to end in a draw. This battle marked the peek of chariot warfare with as many as 6,000 chariots taking the field. Casualties were high on both sides. It is likely that neither kingdom’s chariot forces ever fully recovered their pre-Kadesh strength.

The Cost of Chariots

The training and outfitting of such warriors was a long term effort that required a considerable amount of resources. The price of a chariot and a team of horses are reported to have cost King Solomon of Israel, 900 shekels of silver in 1 Kings 10.29. This cost can be compared with the cost set as a liability for the death of a slave, which was fixed at 30 shekels of silver in Exodus 21.32.

The expense of food for the horses, and continued maintenance of the equipment, was extensive. It can be estimated that the amount of good grain-land that would have been required to feed one team of chariot horses was between eight to ten acres. At the Battle of Kadesh there were at least several thousand chariots in the field from both the Hittite and Egyptian armies.

In addition to the fodder there were naturally the specialists, such as the grooms, veterinarians, leather-workers and carpenters, who were always in demand. Once constructed a chariot required continued repair. According to various chariot tablets from the Mitanni territories of Nuzi and Alalakh, there are indications that up to eighty percent of a typical chariot force could be in disrepair at any given time. When armies were on the march chariots were in fact often transported disassembled so they would be in good condition for a pending battle.

Kikkuli of Mitanni

The growth of chariot armies created a vital need for horses. Along with the normal efforts of raising herds of horses there also developed the specialized training to make effective war-horses. The Hittites readily accepted the mastery of horse husbandry demonstrated by their rivals the Hurrians and became apt students. Evidence of this specialized training was found in the ruins of the Hittite capital city of Hattusas. A manual of horse training techniques shows a well established training routine. Tellingly this manual was not written by a Hittite but was rather attributed to an individual named Kikkuli from the kingdom of Mitanni.

This war horse manual also contains many references to Indo-European deities. This fact, along with the use of Indo-European throne names by the kings of Mitanni, and the previously stated Sanskrit link to the name maryannu, have all been used in support theories of an Indo-European influence. It was once widely believed that these specialized horse training techniques, and the subsequent martial expertise in chariot warfare, were skills that were brought into the Near East by an invading Indo-European aristocracy.

There is however no evidence of any type of invasion of Indo-Europeans. Modern theories look to trade as the medium for the influence rather than war. Future archaeological work in Syria and Turkey may yet explain more about the origins of the chariot culture of the Ancient Near East.

        The Last Chariots

A few years after the Battle of Kadesh the last remnant of Mitanni, known now as the Hani, were being defeated by Assyria. The Assyrian King Shalmaneser registered a complaint about the difficulty in moving his chariot forces. “I forced my way over difficult roads and passes. Then, after the Assyrian King had entered enemy territory, He [the King of Hani] cut off (seized) the passes and my water supply.” Then again, as Shalmaneser responded to an enemy counterattack, he betrayed the cumbersome nature of his chariot army by indicating that he had to leave behind his camp, and as he went to battle he was only able to take “his choicest third of chariots.”

With the collapse of the Great Kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age few states could afford to field large scale chariot forces and given their limitations innovation was needed. Advances in infantry armor and shields now made the arrows of charioteers less effective. This was coupled with new breeds of horses more suitable to carrying a rider. Next came the invention of the saddle around 700 BCE by the Assyrians which made it easier to shoot arrows from horseback. Several centuries later the invention of the stirrup in India made the expensive chariot obsolete as a battlefield weapon.

Chariots At Guagamela

Nearly a thousand years after Shalmaneser in BC 321 at the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great is said to have faced 200 scythed chariots fielded by the Persian King Darius. This battle, unlike so many others that involved the chariot, was recorded for posterity with a fair amount of detail. On a reconnaissance ride Alexander and his personal cavalry, the Companions, rode in a circle around the battlefield. They saw snares and stakes that had been driven into the ground to deter a cavalry charge, while elsewhere the terrain had been leveled for the scythed chariots to advance. The Macedonians were well aware that a chariot needed open space to operate properly.

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The Persian King Darius flees from battle in his royal chariot.

The Macedonians knew how to defeat the fearsome chariots before they could do any damage. The scythed wheels were likely for the purpose of frightening an enemy and causing them to break ranks. This would have been devastating to the heavy infantry phalanxes of the Macedonians. The counter-tactic was to place a numerically superior force of javelin throwing light infantry in opposition to the chariot force and, when possible, to use the terrain, not as much to advantage the infantry, but to disadvantage the chariot. At Gaugamela this is exactly what happened when, the Macedonian left flank employed the well-known anti-chariot tactic. Two thousand Agrianian javelin-throwers were placed in direct opposition to a chariot charge and most of these chariots were stopped before their scythes got anywhere close to the Macedonian phalanxes. The battle report from officers fighting in the area say the chariots caused no casualties.

Chariots in Britain

By late antiquity chariot warrior culture had spread across much of Europe and Asia even though the cost of these weapons would make them continually less effective. One of the last times that chariots are reported to have been used in battle was by the Britons, defending themselves against the invasion of Caesar’s legions in BC 54.

Caesar tells how, in order for the 4,000 charioteers of his rival the British Chieftain Cassivellaunus to make their very formidable attacks, they were forced to restrict themselves to well known lanes and pathways. Soon the Romans were able to predict the chariot attacks and they were able to use pointed stakes to shape the terrain to their advantage enabling them to stay away from sniping charioteers. When Cassivellaunus’s stronghold was taken the Romans captured and burned the hated chariots.

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Statue of Queen Boudicca in Westminster.

The chariot remained as the war vehicle of royalty in Britain for a few more centuries. At the Battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland during the year AD 84 chariots took the field against the Romans in a set piece battle. The Romans, now experienced at dealing with chariots, were victorious. To this day the chariot is still seen as a symbol of power. In 1905 Prince Albert commissioned a statue of Queen Boudicca, who led a rebellion against the Romans in the first century AD, to be placed in London near Westminster Pier. The Queen is depicted as a commanding presence in a scythed chariot.

Sources

  • McRoberts, Robert. The Maryannu, Questio, University of California Los Angeles, 2006.