A phalanx, typically, was a shield-wall and a hedge of projecting blades. Horses cannot be made to hurl themselves against a solid obstruction, especially one as lethally dangerous as the front of a phalanx. Any attempt to compel horses to do this would merely have exposed them to the blows of the enemy; whereas the bodies of the horses would have formed a barrier between the enemy and the charioteers, preventing the latter from landing effective blows of their own. This would have been a disastrously unequal fight, offering an expensive military elite up to easy destruction at the hands of ordinary infantrymen. Chariots were not tanks; they were mobile shooting platforms. To dominate the battlefield, they had to be used appropriately. Chariots are likely to have been deployed on the wings and to have attempted to turn the enemy’s flank, especially in battles fought on open plains with room for manoeuvre. If successful, they might then have taken the enemy phalanx in flank or rear. They would also have sought to exploit any weakening in the enemy line, any gaps, any wavering and disorder. And they would most certainly have been unleashed in pursuit in the event the enemy army broke and ran. In this way, chariots might convert tactical success into decisive victory.
Detail from the victory sculptures of Rameses III at Medinet Habu, early 12th century BC, showing a phalanx of spearmen and a supporting contingent of foot archers.
The Past | April/May 2021