- Chariots were used widely in ancient Mesopotamia for transportation, hunting, and warfare. War chariots were depicted in the Stele of the Vultures and other sculptures during the third millennium b.c. The earliest versions are better termed battlewag-ons, as they were clumsy, solid-wheeled carts pulled by four donkeys or onagers (wild Asiatic asses). Because they were heavy and not very maneuverable, they must not have been very effective on the battlefield; it is likely, therefore, that they were used primarily as "prestige vehicles" to carry the king and his officers to and from the battlefield or as pursuit vehicles to chase down fleeing enemies.This situation changed radically as two major innovations swept Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East in the second millennium b.c. First, horses, which had been rare in the area before, began to be bred on a wider scale and were harnessed to chariots, especially by the Kas-sites in Babylonia. Horses were considerably stronger and faster than donkeys and onagers. Second, Mesopotamian artisans perfected woodworking techniques that allowed the construction of spoked wheels and the manufacture of lightweight chariot bodies. The combination of lighter, more maneuverable chariots and stronger animals pulling them revolutionized warfare in the Near East. Massed charges of chariots could now be used to smash through or chase away groups of infantry (foot soldiers). Particularly maneuverable and effective were the chariots developed by the Assyrians in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries b.c. and improved in the centuries that followed. According to military historian D.J. Wiseman:Changes in technology enabled iron-smiths to design a light vehicle with a wooden frame set on a metal undercarriage with the wheel axis moved back from the center to the rear. The result was a highly maneuverable vehicle which required less traction effort. . . . The chariot's driver was held steady against the front screen while the rigid shaft, originally elliptical but later straight, made control of the two yoked horses easier. The car became increasingly rectangular in shape to accommodate more armor and crew. (Warfare in the Ancient World ,p.43)In fact, after the ninth century b.c. the standard chariot crew of a driver and an archer was supplemented by a third man, a shield bearer to protect the other two from enemy missiles. (The Hittites had used three-man crews in the late second millennium b.c.) The chariot archer also came to be protected by body armor. Sculptures and paintings from Egypt, Palestine, and other parts of the ancient Near East show armored outfits made of copper or bronze scales sewn or glued to leather or linen jerkins, along with metal helmets to protect the head.Later, in the mid-first millennium b.c., the Persian king cyrus II further improved on Assyrian chariot designs. In his account of Cyrus's life, the fourth-century b.c. Greek historian Xenophon states:He had chariots of war constructed with strong wheels, so that they might not easily be broken, and with long axles; for anything broad is less likely to be overturned. The box for the driver he constructed out of strong timbers in the form of a turret; and this rose in height to the driver's elbows, so that they could manage the horses by reaching over the top of the box; and besides, he covered the drivers with mail [armor], all except their eyes. On both sides of the wheels, moreover, he attached to the axles steel scythes [blades] . . . with the intention of hurling the chariots into the midst of the enemy. (Cyropaedia 6.1.29-30)Despite these improvements in chariot design, by the advent of the Persian Empire these war vehicles were used less frequently in battle than they had been in the past. First, cavalry increasingly came to replace chariotry. Also, whenever possible enemies of armies with chariot corps avoided fighting on flat plains where chariots could be used with maximum efficiency. In addition, the Persians came up against the Greeks, whose infantrymen were very well armored and trained to repel chariot charges. When King Darius III used scythed chariots against Alexander the Great in the 330s b.c., the Macedonian pikemen simply stepped aside and allowed the Persian vehicles to pass through the gaps that had formed in their line; the Greeks then surrounded the vehicles and showered their crews with javelins, putting them permanently out of action.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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