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(History is Fun) Big Horses and Feudalism, Part 1

Posted by on June 23, 2011

Image is public domainThe concept of knights was briefly touched upon in a recent Odd Idea of mine. However, the idea of an elite mounted warriors dominating the battlefield is older than medieval. In fact, it goes back to antiquity. In this short series, I will look into the development of the mounted warrior elite, from the bronze age to their last days in thee 20th century.

The development of the mounted elite warrior is linked to both changes in weapons technology and changes in society. Heavy cavalry has never been a cheap investment, it requires trained soldiers and expensive equipment. Both of which take a lot of resources to maintain and build.

The Age of Chariots

The bronze age saw the birth of the mounted elite warrior. They weren’t true cavalry but chariot riders. Despite not being cavalry, in the word’s truest sense, chariots define the realities and costs of fielding elite mounted troops. The pharaonic Egypt might be best known for its war-chariots, but the platform did not originate there. Earliest archaeological finds place chariots in the steppes of Turkey and Persia, from where they spread across the fertile crescent and beyond. The spread of this new style of warfare coincided with the transition from city-states to larger empires. Hittites, Syrians and Egyptians adopted chariot warfare on a large-scale and expanded rapidly thanks to it. Fast moving chariots also provided centralized government with a tool for controlling larger areas with faster moving armies. 

Chariot warfare replaced massed foot warfare, quite similar to later phalanx warfare. Simultaneous development of bronze armor and helmets rendered maces and clubs obsolete on the battlefield and infantry’s main focus became providing archery support for fast moving chariots and holding ground. Chariots had crews of two or three, with a driver, warrior and in some cases a shield-bearer. The warrior wielded a spear or a bow and mainly engaged other chariots, either by shooting at them or by dismounting and fighting on foot.

Like with their successors, chariots and their crews were expensive to field and to maintain. The chariot warrior was an elite soldier, with equal status to a medieval bonded knight. His team was comprised of trained professional soldiers too and the chariot itself required constant maintenance. The charioteers were dressed in expensive heavy armor and armed with expensive weapons. Some nations also employed unmounted support troops called chariot runners to capture enemy charioteers knocked from their vehicles or rescue their own allies in similar situations.

The focus on chariot warfare had an interesting effect on warfare. As long as the chariots dominated the battlefield, casualties were quite minimal on open battles. For example, in the battle of Megiddo fought between the Egyptians and Canaanites only 83 Canaanite casualties were recorded by the victorious Egyptians, despite the battle having tens of thousands of combatants.

The age of chariotry presents an interesting setting. A fighting chariot has a crew of three, which gives an opportunity for bringing more characters to the limelight. The wonders and myths of the ancient world are the deep-buried root of most modern fiction, yet it is under used as a source of inspiration.

Next time: Cataprachts, legions and Romans.


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