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The British War-Chariot

"I hear that there's no gold or silver in Britain. If this is so, I advise you to get a war-chariot and hasten back to us as soon as possible."

Cicero, Ad Familiares (To Trebatius, VII.7)

The first Roman expedition to Britain was a reconnoiter of the island by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, purportedly to suppress the reinforcements being given the native tribes in Gaul. There, chariots no longer were being used, and the ambush of a legion caught in the open and surrounded by the cavalry and chariots of the Britons provides an excursus by Caesar on their tactics, so unfamiliar to the Romans.

"In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents' ranks into disorder. Then, after making their way between the squadrons of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariot and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance from the battle and place the chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry; and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning" (Gallic War, IV.33).

Arviragus, an otherwise unknown British king, is said to have been hurled from a chariot pole (Juvenal, Satires, IV.126-127). The passage is cited by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth-century, who romanticizes Arviragus in the Historia Regum Britanniae (IV.12ff). The second son of Cymbeline, Arviragus becomes king of Britain, marries the daughter of the emperor Claudius, refuses tribute to the Roman Senate, allies with Vespasian to attack Ireland, is famed throughout Europe, and mentioned by Juvenal himself. Arviragus also appears in Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

The next year, there was a second expedition and another encounter between Caesar and the Britons. Again, the novelty of fighting, which took place "under the eyes of all," was disconcerting. The Roman infantry, too heavily armed, was at a disadvantage, as was the cavalry. The Britons, fighting in open formation, deliberately would give ground to draw the cavalry after them and then jump from their chariots and fight on foot, with fresh detachments taking the place of the weary (V.16). In a subsequent engagement the next day, Caesar's legions routed the Britons, who were prevented by the Roman cavalry from rallying. Cassivellaunus was obliged to disband most of his troops but continued to watch Caesar's line of march with the remainder of his force, harassing any Roman cavalry straying too far from the column of infantry (V.19). Caesar remarks that some four thousand charioteers shadowed his men, although it is likely that this number consisted both of warrior and driver, and that the British force actually consisted of two thousand chariots. Even this number requires four thousand horses (probably similar to the Exmoor pony, the oldest of the native British horses), which in turn would graze almost eighty thousand acres of forage, land that may have been contested by Caesar to sustain his own Gallic cavalry, which itself numbered two thousand animals.

It was about this time that Diodorus Siculus began his Library of History, the first author since Caesar to comment at length about the Gauls.

"In their journeyings and when they go into battle the Gauls use chariots drawn by two horses, which carry the charioteer and the warrior; and when they encounter cavalry in the fighting they first hurl their javelins at the enemy and then step down from their chariots and join battle with their swords. Certain of them despise death to such a degree that they enter the perils of battle without protective armour and with no more than a girdle about their loins. They bring along to war also their free men to serve them, choosing them out from among the poor, and these attendants they use in battle as charioteers and as shield-bearers" (Library of History, V.29.1-2; cf. Strabo, "For the purposes of war they [the Britons] use chariots for the most part, just as some of the Celti do," IV.5.2).

Noting that some tribes fight from chariots, Tacitus says that "The nobleman drives, his dependents fight in his defence" (Agricola, XII). Here, the person of higher rank is the charioteer and his client who leaps from the chariot and goes into battle.

More than a hundred years later, chariots still were in use, this time by the Caledonians far to the north against Agricola, governor of the province. Tacitus relates that the charioteers at Mons Graupius (AD 83) "filled the middle of the plain, making a din as they rode back and forth" (XXXV). Given that Caesar, too, had remarked on the noise, one suspects that it was deliberate. As the battle continued and the Romans began to advance up the mount, the drivers were forced to abandon the field, and the "runaway chariots or terrified, riderless horses with nothing but fear to direct them careered into the ranks from the side or head on" (XXXVI).


About the time of Claudius' triumph in AD 43 (a century after Caesar's expeditions), Pomponius Mela, the first Roman geographer, says of the Britons that

"they fight not only on horseback and on foot, but also in wagons and chariots [bigis et curribus], and are armed after the manner of the Gauls. They call those chariots covines which are set with scythes round about the naves [falcatis axibus]" (De Chorographia, III.43; first translated by Arthur Golding in 1585 and modernized here).

Several others writers of the first century AD also speak of the covinnus. Lucan writes of the "the Belgae, skilled drivers of the chariot with scythes" (Pharsalia, I.426) and Silius Italicus that "the woad-stained native of Thule drives his chariot armed with scythes [falcigero...couinno] round the close-packed ranks in battle" (Punica, XVII.417; Silius was a contemporary of Martial, who was the subject of several epigrams, e.g., IV.14, VII.63, X.86, XI.48). It is these three citations that are given by the Oxford Latin Dictionary to support the definition of couinnus: "A war-chariot with scythes attached to the axles, used by some Celtic peoples; also, a kind of travelling carriage." And, to be sure, it is covinnarius that is translated as "charioteer" in Tacitus (Agricola, XXXV, XXXVI; the plural of which, coincidentally, is the only use of that word).

Given the name, which derives from the Celtic, the chariot must have resembled the Roman covinnus, a covered travel carriage pulled by two horses (or fast-stepping mules) and driven by its occupant. Martial writes that he once was given such a vehicle as a present and reveled in the privacy it offered in allowing him to converse with his friend (Epigrams, XII.24, cited by the OLD to support this secondary meaning). In Frontinus, however, who was governor of Britain from 76-78 AD, the phrase is falcatas quadrigas. "Gaius Caesar met the scythe-bearing chariots of the Gauls with stakes driven in the ground, and kept them in check" (Stratagems, II.3.18; quadriga is a four-horse chariot and falcata, a type of sword from the Iberian peninsula in which the blade widens toward the point to give the cutting edge more weight).

Caesar, himself, does not use covinnus to describe the chariots he confronted in Britain (nor does he speak of defending against falcatas quadrigas). Rather, he uses essedum (Gallic Wars, IV.33; another Celtic word taken into Latin), chariots that are driven by essedarii. Cicero, too, in his letters to his protégé Trebatius, uses essedum and essedarii (VII.6; 10), as does Martial, who remarks that his covinnus is more pleasant than an open carruca (also of Celtic origin, which here means a four-wheeled carriage) or essedum. The fact that the covinnus is a travel carriage may explain why Mela and Silius feel compelled to remark that it has blades, although in the context in which the word is used, it is supposed to have them by definition. This emphasis may be poetic license or an attempt to convey the notion that, fitted with scythes and possibly with the covering removed, it was not the same as the familiar conveyance of Martial. Nor was he the only one to have ridden in what essentially was a modified Celtic chariot. Years before, Maecenas, a patron of the arts and confidant of Octavian, had driven fashionably about town in an elegant esseda Britanna (Propertius, Elegies, II.1.76; also IV.3.9, "Britain with its painted chariots").

When later sources are cited, the terminology is made more complicated. For example, early in the fifth century AD Claudian, the last poet of classical Rome, published a series of minor poems on animals. One is in praise of Gallic mules, which "haul along the rumbling carts [esseda...multisonora]" (XVIII). In AD 551, Jordanes completed his history of the Goths, commenting that the Britons, who paint their bodies with iron-red, drive "scythed two-horse chariots [bigis curribusque falcatis] which they commonly call essedae" (Getica, I.2.15). Here, then, essedum describes both the mule-drawn wagon of Claudian  and the scythed chariot of Jordanes.

Jordanes also differentiates between the biga (a two-horse chariot) and currus (variously translated as chariot, wagon, or cart), a distinction that Mela makes as well. Currus also is used by Tacitus to describe the chariot from which the Britons fight (Agricola, XII) and in which Boudica and her daughters ride (Annals, XIV.35). All this has led Rivet to conclude that a biga is an essedum and a currus, a covinnus—and that the Britons, possibly even Boudica herself, used scythed chariots.

But the war-chariot of the Britons almost certainly did not have scythes. Arrian, in fact, explicitly distinguishes between the Persian chariots that did and those of the Britons, who "used two-horse chariots, with small, bad horses. Their light, two-wheeled chariots are well adapted to running across all sorts of terrain and the wretched horses to enduring hardships. Of the Asians, the Persians long ago practiced the use of scythe-bearing chariots and armored horses, beginning in the time of Cyrus" (Ars Tactica, XIX). There is no archaeological evidence for scythed chariots in Britain, although seamless iron wheel rims (a Celtic invention) have been discovered in chariot burials. Caesar, who was an eyewitness, does not indicate the use of scythes in confronting the Britons but states that their chariots actually were retired from the battlefield. Nor does Agricola, who personally led the troops at Mons Graupius (XXXV), describe the British chariot as being scythed. Had they been, the empty chariots that careened into the infantry at that battle presumably would have done so deliberately—and the carnage commented upon. Certainly, the naked charioteers would not have survived such an attack into the ranks of heavily armed legionaries. Finally, the depiction of Celtic chariots on the Roman coins minted by Hostilius Saserna (above) do not show them fitted with blades.

All this being said, a passage from the Tain Bo Cuailnge ("The Cattle-Raid of Cooley"), an epic cycle of Celtic stories written down in the eighth century AD that reflects Irish heroic society at the beginning of the first century, does show how powerful such imagery continued to be.

"When the spasm had run through the high hero Cúchulainn he stepped into his sickle war-chariot that bristled with points of iron and narrow blades, with hooks and hard prongs, and heroic frontal spikes, with ripping instruments and tearing nails on its shafts and straps and loops and cords. The body of the chariot was spare and slight and erect, fitted for the feats of a champion, with space for the lordly warrior's eight weapons, speedy as the wind or as a swallow or a deer darting over the level plain. The chariot was settled down on two fast steeds, wild and wicked, neat-headed and narrow bodied, with slender quarters and roan breast, firm in hoof and harness—a notable sight in the trim chariot-shafts. One horse was lithe and swift-leaping, high-arched and powerful, long-bodied and with great hooves. The other flowing-maned and shining, slight and slender in hoof and heel. In that style, then, he drove out to find his enemies" (p. 153).


The denarius above was minted by the moneyer Lucius Hostilius Saserna in 48 BC, following Caesar's campaign in Gaul. The reverse depicts a naked Celtic warrior holding a spear and small shield, while a crouched figure drives the horses with a whip. It is from Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 52 (October 7, 2009), item 867. One can see that the charioteer is driving the horses from the pole and that the sideboards are quite low. The open front makes it that much easier for the warrior to leap onto the pole himself.


References: "A Note on Scythed Chariots" (1979) by A. L. F. Rivet, Antiquity, 53, 130-132; Pomponius Mela's Description of the World (1998) translated by F. E. Romer; Silius Italicus: Punica (1961) translated by J. D. Duff (Loeb Classical Library); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (1982) translated by S. A. Handford (Penguin Classics); "The Ars Tactica of Arrian: Tradition and Originality" (1978) by Philip A. Stadter, Classical Philology, 73(2), 117-128; The Tain (1969) translated by Thomas Kinsella; "The British War Chariot: A Case for Indirect Warfare" (2009) by Carl Meredith Bradley, The Journal of Military History, 73, 1073-1089; "The Alleged Existence of Scythe-Chariots in Ancient Britain" (1881) by J. Jeremiah, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 10, 127-128 (This brief note, with a postscript by E. B. Taylor, shows the early origins of the discussion. It continues with Duncan Campbell, author of Mons Graupius AD 83, which was published in 2010. There, he contends that the native Britons did use scythed chariots.)

See also Mons Graupius, Essedarius, and Scythed Chariots.

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