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The Scythed Chariot

"And again, what would you have done, if you heard that chariots are coming which are not, as before, to stand still facing back as if for flight, but that the horses harnessed to the chariots are covered with mail, while the drivers stand in wooden towers and the parts of their body not defended by the towers are completely panoplied in breast-plates and helmets; and that scythes of steel have been fitted to the axles, and that it is the intention to drive these into the ranks of the enemy?"

Xenophon, Cyropaedia (VI.2.17)

These are the words of Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, to whom Xenophon ascribes the invention of the scythed chariot (Cyropaedia, VI.1.27ff; Arrian, Ars Tactica, XIX). Rather than have his best warriors fight from chariots, Cyrus reasoned that the vehicle, itself, could be a weapon, driven only by a charioteer. It had stronger wheels and a longer axle, which made it more stable, with a high turret-like box for the driver, who was completely protected with mail.

"On both sides of the wheels, moreover, he attached to the axles steel scythes about two cubits long and beneath the axles other scythes pointing down toward the ground; this was so arranged with the intention of hurling the chariots into the midst of the enemy. And as Cyrus constructed them at that time, such even to this day are the chariots in use in the king's dominions" (VI.1.29).

Xenophon relates that one hundred scythed chariots were built, with two hundred more constructed by allies or converted from other styles, all to be deployed against Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, at the Battle of Pteria in 547 BC. The Egyptians were said to have held the line against the unfamiliar weapon but were ranked so closely together that they could not move aside as the chariots scythed into them: "everything arms and men, was horribly mangled" (VII.1.31). Herodotus does not mention chariots in his account of the battle; rather, it was camels, the smell of which could not be tolerated by the horses of the Lydian cavalry, that won the day (I.80).

Greek mercenaries fighting for Cyrus the Younger did confront 150 scythed chariots at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, in a contest between Cyrus and his older brother Artaxerxes II for the throne. "These had thin scythes extending at an angle from the axles and also under the driver's seat, turned toward the round, so as to cut through everything in their way" (Xenophon, Anabasis, I.8). Although this is their first attested use, where scythed chariots were fielded by both sides, Nefiodkin postulates that they likely had been introduced by Artaxerxes I, some sixty years earlier, to suppress a revolt by the Egyptians and their Athenian allies (Diodorus, XI.71.3ff).

Shouting to Ares and clashing their spears and shields together as they advanced at the double, the Greeks caused the horses to startle and bolt. Abandoned by their drivers, the chariots careened through Persians and Greeks alike, the Greeks simply parting and letting them pass. Xenophon does tell of a time (395 BC), however, when several hundred Greeks, caught in the open by the Persians, were charged by just two scythed chariots, scattering the men and allowing many to be cut down by the cavalry (Hellenica, IV.1.17-19). Indeed, this was their proper function: to panic and disrupt the enemy, allowing mounted troops and infantry to charge the broken line.

Most famously, scythed chariots were used by Darius III against Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. There were two hundred such chariots, says Diodorus Siculus, designed to astonish and terrify the enemy.

"From each of these there projected out beyond the trace horses scythes three spans long, attached to the yoke, and presenting their cutting edges to the front. At the axle housings there were two more scythes pointing straight out with their cutting edges turned to the front like the others, but longer and broader. Curved blades were fitted to the ends of these" (Library of History, XVII.53.2; also Arrian, III.8).

Diodorus records that, when the chariots attacked the phalanx, the Macedonians beat their shields with their spears, creating such a din that the horses shied, turning the chariots back on the Persians. Those that continued forward were allowed to pass as the soldiers opened wide gaps in the line. Some horses were killed as they charged ahead but the momentum of others allowed them to ride through, the blades of the chariots severing "the arms of many, shields and all, and in no small number of cases they cut through necks and sent heads tumbling to the ground with the eyes still open and the expression of the countenance unchanged, and in other cases they sliced through ribs with mortal gashes and inflicted a quick death" (XVII.58.2-5).

Writing of the battle a hundred years later, Curtius, who had never seen a scythed chariot, adds even more spikes and blades.

"From the end of the chariot-pole projected iron-tipped spears, and to the cross-beam on each side they had fixed three sword-blades. Between the wheel-spokes a number of spikes projected outwards, and then scythes were fixed to the wheel-rims, some directed upward and others pointing down to the ground, their purpose being to cut down anything in the way of the galloping horses" (The History of Alexander, IV.9.5).

The Persians were allowed to penetrate to the middle of the phalanx, where the surrounded drivers were thrown from their chariots or lost control of them. Some were overturned by the terrified horses, as wounded animals dragged along the dead. Other chariots continued to charge forward, inflicting terrible carnage and littering the ground with severed limbs, even as the soldiers continued to fight, dropping dead only from a loss of blood (IV.15.14-17).

Diodorus had just begun to collect material for his history when the Roman poet Lucretius died. And yet, in philosophizing about the sentience of the body, he writes of the same horror.

"They say that in the heat and indiscriminate carnage of battle limbs are often lopped off by scythe-armed chariots so suddenly that the fallen member hewn from the body is seen to writhe on the ground. Yet the mind and consciousness of the man cannot yet fell the pain: so abrupt is the hurt, and so intent the mind upon the business of battle. With what is left of his body he presses on with battle and bloodshed unaware, it may be, that his left arm together with its shield has been lost, whirled away among the chargers by the chariot wheels with their predatory blades" (On the Nature of Things, III.642ff).

At the Battle of the Amnias River (89 BC), a victory that helped Mithridates VI wrest Asia Minor away from Rome, scythe-bearing chariots charged into Rome's Bithynian allies, "cutting some of them in two, and tearing others to pieces." So horrified was the army at the spectacle of men being cut in half while still breathing or their mangled bodies hanging in parts on the scythes that, "overcome rather by the hideousness of the spectacle than by the loss of the fight, fear took possession of their ranks" (Appian, The Mithridatic Wars, XII.3.18).

Yet, three years later at the Battle of Chaeronea, those same chariots were carried through the Roman line by their own momentum. Then, "before they could turn back they were surrounded and destroyed by the javelins of the rear guard" (Appian, The Mithridatic Wars, XII.42). Nor did the quick advance of the Romans allow them to gain any speed. Indeed, the chariots were so feeble that the "Romans, after repulsing them, clapped their hands and laughed and called for more, as they are wont to do at the races in the circus" (Plutarch, Sulla, XVIII.2-3). Frontinus, too, relates that they were hung up on stakes driven into the ground, screened by men in front, or driven back by the shouts and javelins of the Romans (Strategems, II.3.17).

Lucullus confronted the scythed chariots of Mithridates in 74 BC (Plutarch, Lucullus, VII.4) and paraded ten of them in his triumph in 66 BC (XXXVII.3). They also were used by Mithridates' son Pharnaces II at the Battle of Zela in 47 BC. Disconcerted at first, Caesar's legionaries soon halted the attack with a barrage of missiles in what is the last reliable account of the scythed chariot in battle (Aulus Hirtius, On the Alexandrian War, LXXV.2).

Although intermittently appearing on the battle field for six hundred years, the scythed chariot was curiously ineffectual. Their use by the Seleucid king Antiochus III at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC can serve as an example. It was there that Rome encountered them for the first time, although scythed chariots also had been used against Antiochus (Polybius, V.53).

"These chariots were armed in the following manner: On either side of the pole where the yoke-bar was fastened spikes were fixed which projected forward like horns, ten cubits long, so as to pierce anything that came in their way, and at each end of the yoke-bar two scythes projected, one on a level with the bar so as to cut off sideways anything it came against, the other turned towards the ground to catch those lying down or trying to get under it. Similarly two scythes pointing in opposite directions to each end of the axis of the wheels" (Livy, The History of Rome, XXXVII.41; also Florus, I.24.16).

Antiochus had expected that they would throw the enemy into confusion, but for Livy it all was a "silly show." Placed in front, the horses were terrified by the shouts and missiles directed at them and bolted wildly, without bit or bridle. The battle, in fact, could not even begin until the animals had been gotten off the field. But the panic and confusion had so demoralized the auxiliary troops held in reserve that they too took flight. Exposed, they were routed by the Romans cavalry and the whole flank collapsed. The retreating soldiers, stumbling blindly over one another, were trampled to death by elephants and camelsand the scythed chariots.

Appian, the only other authority for the battle, says that the slingers and archers had aimed deliberately at the horses, which, terrified, turned back on their own ranks, throwing the camels and mail-clad horses, which could not get out of the way, into disorder. Even more demoralizing was the confusion and tumult. "For, as by reason of distance and multitude, discordant cries and manifold fears, the truth was not clearly grasped even by those near the danger, so these transmitted the alarm constantly magnified to those beyond" (The Syrian Wars, XI.6.33).

To be sure, the grievous injury caused by scythed chariots had a profound psychological effect but, tactically, they were much less daunting, especially against disciplined troops. Requiring flat, open, and dry ground (Curtius, VIII.14.4) to maneuver and gain sufficient momentum, they often were prevented from charging by a quickly advancing enemy and overwhelmed before they could gain sufficient speed. Horses and drivers, too, shied from charging into a phalanx of Greek hoplites or a wall of Roman legionaries. Horses were thrown into confusion by the noise of battle or chariots allowed to pass and then surrounded and attacked in the rear.

By the fourth century AD, Vegetius could dismiss the scythed chariot as a "laughing-stock," rendered ineffective if a single horse were killed or wounded (Epitome of Military Science, III.24)which, as Appian recounts, is exactly what the Romans sought to do, "for when a horse becomes unmanageable in a chariot all the chariot becomes useless" (The Syrian Wars, XI.6.33). Most of all, says Vegetius, they fell victim to spiked caltrops, which the Romans scattered over the field. And so, in battle "the speeding chariots were destroyed as they encountered them."

In De Rebus Bellicis, another treatise of the late fourth century, a number of reforms are commended to the emperor (probably Valentinian I) regarding finance, provincial administration, the law and military. Several ingenuous mechanical contrivances also are suggested, including improvements to the scythed chariot. In each, the horses are ridden and, in place of the chariot, there only is a scythed axel. In one design, there are two horses, both of which are ridden and, like a cataphract, both protected by mail. The scythes themselves are attached by ropes, which could be individually tightened or slackened to raise or lower the blades, which presumably were hinged (XII). Ever helpful, the anonymous author also suggests a variant, in which the blades are managed by the rider on a single horse (XIII) who, in another configuration, commands two horses, which are urged on by automatic lashes and defended with shields surrounded by iron spikes (XIV).

Presumptuous but well-meaning, the unsolicited advice likely was never read by the emperor. To be sure, such a chariot was completely fanciful—a modification of a weapon that had not been deployed for four centuries and never was part of traditional Roman warfare, a liability to those foolhardy enough to use it, and contemptuously dismissed when it was. By then, the cavalry—mobile and able to function in rugged terrain, less costly and more practical—had long assumed the role of the chariot, scythed or otherwise.

Caltrops (tribuli) are barbs standing on three of four spikes that were strewn on the ground or buried just below the surface. Polyaenus speaks of them in a book dedicated to Marcus Aurelius at the beginning of the Parthian War. Among the anecdotes that he relates is how, in the expedition to Sicily in the fifth century BC, Nicias fixed wooden spikes in the ground in front of camp. When the Syracusan cavalry attacked, the spikes stuck in the horses' hooves "with every step that they advanced" (Strategems, I.39.2). In the same way, Darius III had them embedded along the approach he thought Alexander would take at Gaugamela (Curtius, IV.13.36).

Spikes also were used by the Romans. Scipio Aemilianus was urged to scatter caltrops around the walls of Numantia during his siege of the town in 134 BC but he refused, retorting that the person who intends to subdue a people should not act as if he were afraid of them (Valerius Maximus, Memorial Doings and Sayings, III.7.2). Caesar, however, did employ them. At the siege of Alesia (52 BC) in Gaul, he thickly planted blocks of wood with iron hooks into the ground (Gallic Wars, VII.73; The African Wars, XXXI). There also is a vivid account of their use at the Battle of Nisibis (AD 217), where Macrinus, who just had been installed as emperor, was defeated by the Parthian ruler Artabanus IV. Pretending to retreat, the Romans threw caltrops in their path, spikes that

"were fatal to the cavalry and the camel-riders as they lay hidden in the sand, and were not seen by them. The horses and the camels trod on them and (this applied particularly to the camels with their tender pads) fell onto their knees and were lamed, throwing the riders off their backs" (Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, IV.15.2-3; cf. Dio, LXXIX.26).

"Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? The glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting."

Job 39:19-25

The detail above is from a large mosaic discovered in the House of the Faun (Pompeii) in 1831 and now in the National Archaeological Museum (Naples). It depicts a frantic Darius III being confronted by Alexander at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, the charioteer of the king's quadriga determined to escape. Symbolically, the bow is unstrung and the quiver empty.

References: Xenophon: Cyropaedia (1914) translated by Walter Miller (Loeb Classical Library); Xenophon: The Persian Expedition (1949) translated by Rex Warner (Penguin Classics); Lucretius: The Nature of the Universe (1951) translated by Ronald Latham (Penguin Classics); Diodorus Siculus: Library of History (1933) translated by C. H. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library); Appian: The Foreign Wars (1913) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (1996) translated by N. P. Milner; "On the Origin of the Scythed Chariots" (2004) by Alexander K. Nefiodkin, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 53(3), 369-378; Herodian: History of the Empire (1969) translated by C. R. Whittaker (Loeb Classical Library); A Roman Reformer and Inventor: Being a New Text of the Treatise De Rebus Bellicis (1952) translated by E. A. Thompson; "Curiosities of Ancient Warfare" (1950) by R. F. Glover, Greece & Rome, 19(55), 1-9.

See also The British War-Chariot and Essedarius.

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