Warfare in the Bronze Age pivoted around the use of the battle chariot. The superpowers of the era - the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Assyrians and the Ahhiyawans/Greeks - all relied heavily on an elite corps of these explosively powerful devices. They were the tanks of their day.
The main strength of the chariot was its mobility. A team of rampaging horses could spirit heavily-armed warriors across a battlefield many times faster than a man could run. In this era, chariots largely took the form of a two-wheeled cabin towed by a pair of horses.
Anyway, back to chariots: the style and manufacture of these 'war-cars' varied across the Bronze Age world (largely the European/Asian 'Near East'), and required mastery in mettalurgy, woodworking, tanning, leatherwork and horse breeding. Let's have a look at a few of the main variations...
Chariots of the Aegean Region
In the lands around the Aegean, the 'box' chariot came into use in the 16th c BC and remained the car of choice for a long time. The cabin was a solid frame of hardwood, shielded side and front with wickerwork screens or hide, supported by a four-spoked set of elm wheels and axle set near the rear of the cabin. By the time of the Trojan war (probably sometime in the 13th c BC), this had given way to the much lighter and faster 'rail' style chariot - essentially just the hardwood frame with no accoutrements or shielding.
The crews of driver and warrior would be heavily armoured in grand style, with boar-tusk helms, bronze banded 'lobster' cuirasses and greaves and equipped with shields, spears and broad slashing swords.
Homer's Iliad describes the Greek heroes using their chariots mainly as 'battle taxis' to drive to one part of the battlefield, hop off and fight on foot. This is almost certainly a misconception that arose when the Iliad was first written down many centuries after the Bronze Age had ended and chariot warfare was long gone.
Chariots of the Anatolian Region
The sweeping hills and plains of central Turkey were perfect archer and chariot country. Here, the Hittite Empire held sway, and no small part of their dominance over such a huge terrain was thanks to their elite chariot core.
Excavated Hittite tablets demonstrate that the chariot was primarily used as something of a shock weapon, actively engaging with enemy chariots in motion, and ploughing into enemy infantry formations.
Up until the early 13th c BC, the Hittite chariot core was constructed in a similar manner to the Aegean 'box' style, with a hardwood frame of elm, yew or cypress, all sheathed in hide, but with six-spoked wheels encased in leather 'tyres' secured by copper hobnails (good for grip).
Paired crews of driver and warrior were initially the Hittite norm. The driver would be minimally-armoured, sporting perhaps a textile cuirass and a hardened leather belt to support his back. He would probably be weaponless. In contrast, the warrior would be heavily armoured and armed, draped in bronze scale and bedecked with bow, spear, sword and axe.
The Nile Region
But the masters of the chariot in this age were surely the Egyptians. The invading Hyksos had several generations before brought chariot technology to the Nile lands. The Egyptians ousted the Hyksos but held onto the technology, and seized a stock of good horses from their enemies in subsequent wars.
Soon, they had perfected the craft of chariot manufacture and Pharaoh's great war factories could produce fleet after fleet of light, nimble and super-fast battle-cars. Indeed, Egyptian chariots were all about speed rather than shock, and they employed an expert archer on every vehicle: in battle they would move like a murmuration of starlings, each paired crew of archer and driver whizzing close to their opponents, loosing arrows while being careful not to become embroiled with enemy infantry or chariotry. In great number, this must have been hugely frightening and demoralising for an enemy infantry host - something akin to what Crassus' Roman legions must have experienced many centuries later when they were destroyed by Parthian archers at Carrhae.
Steam-bent ash or elm formed the skeleton of an Egyptian chariot. Ash and Elm were not readily available in Egypt, and so Pharaoh required regular imports of these hardwoods to keep his chariot factories in production. Once a chariot skeleton was ready, ox-hide was stretched over the front to provide protection without adding significant weight (the back and sides were left open to further reduce weight). The D-shaped floor would have been crafted with a mesh of rawhide, providing something of a suspension effect for the crew - no doubt welcome when they charged across a rocky plain! An ash axle, 6-spoked plum wood wheels with rawhide tyres, an elm draught pole and a willow yoke would be added to complete the picture. In all, an Egyptian war chariot would have weighed no more than 30Kg - quite a feat, and just a little more than the weight of three modern road bikes. Recent archaeological finds show these vehicles would have been painted in vibrant colours - one find being a dragoon green cabin edged in blood red.
Regarding the crew: the driver was known as a 'kedjen', and he bore a shield as well as the reins. The warrior was called a 'seneny', and he would have carried a composite bow, several quivers, spears, a khopesh (curved sword) and a mace or battle axe. He would also have been clad in a bronze or leather scale corselet and bronze helm. Sometimes, each chariot had a support 'runner', whose job was to sprint alongside or close behind the chariot in battle and finish off enemies wounded by the crew.
In the Battle of Kadesh, Pharaoh Ramesses employed Sherden mercenaries to run along with his royal chariots, and tasked them with hacking off the hands of the Hittite dead and dying as some kind of 'kill total'.
A Lesson Well-Learned
At some point near the turn of the 14th c BC -> 13th c BC, the Hittites clearly recognised Egypt's chariot supremacy. This must have been a hard thing to accept as the two were the greatest powers of the time and drawing closer and closer to all-out war.
They may well have come to this realisation when, around 1293 BC, Pharaoh Seti routed a Hittite army (mainly composed of vassals) somewhere in Syria. in Dawn of War, I go with this theory, portraying Prince Hattu and his band of soldiers and chariots being torn to pieces by the far faster and nimbler Egyptian vehicles. Regardless of how and when the Hittites were drawn to the conclusion that their own chariotry was not up to the standard of Pharaoh's, we know that they did not sulk about it. Instead they used it as a catalyst to innovate.
To reinvent their chariot corps would have required the greatest minds of the Hittite realm. And in terms of the art of chariotry, there was none sharper that Kikkuli.
Kikkuli was a Hurrian who served in the Hititte court during the period in question. His name might well be Indo-European for 'Colt', hence my use of the name 'Colta' in Empires of Bronze. Kikkuli ran a chariot academy outside the Hittite capital, Hattusa. This complex encompassed stables, corrals, barracks and an oval exercise field as well as homes for scribes, stable-boys, handlers, grooms and wranglers. Hurrians were famed for their chariot warfare and horse-breeding, and we know from the surviving 'Kikkuli Text' that this man left no stone unturned in his work. He specifies practices such as:
He also masterminded, or at least had a big hand in, the redesign of the Hittite chariot. This new model dispensed with the futile attempts to produce fast and nimble vehicles. What was the point? The Egyptians were miles ahead in these respects. Instead, the new-look Hittite chariot would fully embrace the aspect of shock warfare.
Out with the old and artificial rule that a chariot had to be crewed by a pair: now a crew would consist of three - a driver, a warrior and a shield-bearer. This meant a wider base to accommodate the extra man and maintain stability. And they dispensed with light frames and thin ox-hide sheathes - now they built cabins of sturdy timber slats offering excellent protection for the three inside. They crafted wheels from multiple strips of steam-bent wood instead of one - meaning larger diameters and thus bigger wheels. These new chariot cabins must have looked like tanks compared to the old-style vehicles.
But surely the poor horse teams would suffer for this: three men to haul around instead of two, as well as a heavier cabin? Well Kikkuli and his team foresaw this and mitigated that risk in their design - moving the axle from its traditional position at the rear of the cabin (meaning the horses bear most of the weight), to the centre.
More, we know from the Kikkuli Text that the Hittite Chariot Master was engaged in a special program of horse breeding and diet. He pioneered the technique of feeding his herds not with grass, but with a mixture of barley, wheat, meal, groats and salt. This, along with his selective breeding, is likely to have resulted in gradually larger and stronger horses, capable of hauling these new vehicles and donning bronze aprons and masks for their own protection.
These vehicles must have been lumbering as they set off from a standstill, but capable of building up great speed and momentum. The penalty would have come in the shape of manoeuvrability, however - the great weight and momentum meaning that the turning circle would have been huge, unless the driver slowed the vehicle right down first. But every weapon has a weakness, and the key is to make the most of its strengths. For the Hittite King, unleashing this new wing of heavy battle-cars would have been like throwing a single volley of spears - absolutely deadly if aimed well... but if you missed on that one and only throw, anything could happen.
In Thunder at Kadesh, I describe these heavy chariots as 'Destroyers', with Prince Hattu leading one vehicle nicknamed 'The Harrower'. Quite apt, given what was to come in their first full-scale outing...
The Charge of the Destroyers
In 1274 BC, after years of threats and posturing, the mighty armies of the Hittites and the Egyptians met at last in the Battle of Kadesh. When Prince Hattu led a charge of this new and massive Destroyer wing - numbering anything up to three thousand vehicles - it was devastating, blowing apart Pharaoh's Army of Ra, then making ruin of his Amun camp. The ghosts of past defeats had well and truly been exorcised... but of course that was just the beginning of that long and brutal clash...
Thanks for Reading!
And remember, you can escape to the Bronze Age and ride a Hittite 'Destroyer' in Empires of Bronze: Thunder at Kadesh - out now!:
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy - a blistering new take on the legendary war from the dawn of history.