Uses of chariots in war the ancient sources

As we have seen, the Continental Celts used chariots until the second century BC: various Mediterranean commentators on the Celts remark on this 'barbarian' form of warfare and display. Athenaeus— speaks of the Celtic chieftain Louernius, who rode in his chariot over the plains, distributing gold and silver to the thousands who followed him. Bituitus, the king of the Arverni was displayed in the Roman triumph of 121 BC in multicoloured array, riding in a 'silver' chariot 'exactly as he had fought'.111 Diodorus Siculus comments on the Gauls thus: 'for their journeys and in battle they use two-horse chariots, the chariot carrying both charioteer and chieftain.'112 He goes on to describe how, when they met the enemy's cavalry in battle, they cast their javelins and then descended to fight on foot with their swords. The chiefs would stand in front of their army and chariot-lines, challenging their opposite numbers. The chariot-drivers were apparently poor but free men, presumably the landless men described by Caesar. In the definitive conflict between the Romans and the Gauls in north Italy in 225-224 BC, the Celts

employed 20,000 cavalry and chariots to the Romans' 70,000 horse. At the Battle of Telamon (225 BC) the chariots were positioned on the wings.

In Britain, as alluded to earlier, chariot warfare continued several centuries after such methods had become obsolete on the Continent. It was a vital part of the British battle-machine.114 The last reference to the use of war-chariots in Britain occurs in Dio Cassius's description of the Severan campaigns against the Caledonii of northern Scotland in AD 207.115

Julius Caesar's testimony on British chariot-warfare is detailed and informative. He ruefully remarks, 'thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying-power of infantry.' He frequently comments that they used a combination of chariots and cavalry: 'they had sent on ahead their cavalry and the chariots, which they regularly use in battle.'116 Again, he mentions how the Britons ambushed the Romans while they were reaping grain, surrounding the legion with horses and chariots, and throwing

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them into confusion. On one occasion cavalry and chariots were used together in order to block the progress of the Roman army at a river. The Britons had a trick of drawing the Roman cavalry away from the support of their legion and then jumping down from their vehicles to fight on foot, giving them an advantage over the enemy.119 In discussing the Catuvellaunian king, Cassivellaunus, Caesar's most formidable British opponent, the Roman general describes the native chieftain's 4,000 chariots.

Whenever the Roman cavalry went into the fields for grain, Cassivellaunus sent his charioteers out of the

woods, where they had been concealed, and attacked them.

Caesar's detailed account of the Britons' charioteering skills deserves to be quoted in full:

At first they ride along the whole line and hurl javelins; the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels generally throw the enemy ranks into confusion. Then when they have worked their way between the lines of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the drivers withdraw a little from the field and place the chariots so that their masters, if hard-pressed by the enemy, have an easy retreat to their ranks. . . . Their daily training and practice have made them so expert that they can control their horses at full gallop on a steep incline and then check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot-

pole, stand on the yoke and return again into the chariot as quick as lightning.121

The chariot in war thus combined several functions. Battles involving chariots would have been

formal engagements on selected ground. Conflict was highly ritualized, beginning, as Caesar describes, with insults, boastful riding up and down, clashing of weapons, challenges to single combat and only then a full-scale battle-charge. This all involved a great deal of social interaction and

display. In a pitched battle, a great deal of chariot warfare was psychological: especially to an enemy unfamiliar with such tactics, the noise and speed of the horses and their rumbling vehicles driven full-tilt, the rain of the javelins, all combined to cause panic. The first line of the enemy was especially vulnerable to being trampled beneath the horses' hooves.

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