Learn more about Scythed chariot
The scythed chariot was a modified war chariot. Nefiodkin (2004) discusses their supposed invention by the King of Magadha, Ajatashatru in c. 475 BC who used these chariots against the Licchavis. Nefiodkin dismisses this idea completely. Instead he fairly convincingly argues that the Persians introduced them as a response to fighting against Greek heavy infantry. Nefiodkin proposes that they were first introduced sometime between 467 BC and 458 BC.
A scythed chariot was a war chariot with a blade(s) mounted on both ends of the axle. The blades extended horizontally for a meter on the sides of the chariot. Xenophon, an eyewitness, describing the scythed chariots at the battle of Cunaxa says, "These had thin scythes extending at an angle from the axle and also under the driver's seat, turned towards the ground".
The scythed chariot was pulled by a team of four horses and manned by a crew of up to three men, one driver and two warriors. Theoretically the scythed chariot would plow through infantry lines, cutting combatants in half or at least opening gaps in the line which could be exploited. It was difficult to get horses to charge into the tight phalanx formation of the Greek/Macedonian hoplites (infantry). The scythed chariot avoided this inherent problem for cavalry, by the scythe cutting into the formation, even when the horses avoided the men. A disciplined army could diverge as the chariot approached, and then collapse quickly behind it, allowing the chariot to pass without causing many casualties. War chariots had limited military capabilities. They were strictly an offensive weapon and were best suited against infantry in open flat country where the charioteers had room to maneuver. At a time when cavalry were without stirrups, and probably had neither spurs nor an effective saddle, though they certainly had saddle blankets, scythed chariots added weight to a cavalry attack on infantry. Our historical sources come from the infantry side of such engagements i.e the Greek and Roman side. So this weapon has had a bad press. Here is the one-recorded encounter where scythed chariots were on the winning side: “The soldiers had got into the habit of collecting their supplies carelessly and without taking precautions. And there was one occasion when Pharnabazus, with 2 scythed chariots and about 400 cavalry, came on them when they were scattered all over the plain. When the Greeks saw him bearing down on them, they ran to join up with each other, about 700 altogether; but Pharnabazus did not waste time. Putting the chariots in front, and following behind them himself with the cavalry, he ordered a charge. The chariots dashing into the Greek ranks, broke up their close formation, and the cavalry soon cut down about a hundred men. The rest fled and took refuge with Agesilaus, who happened to be close at hand with the hoplites.” (Xenophon Hellenica IV,1,17-19)
One of the most notable defeats to the Persian scythed chariot was in combat against the Macedonian phalanx led by Alexander the Great. Realizing that the chariots were already a cumbersome element of the Persian army (as shock units are prone to be) led by Darius III, the phalangites were instructed to increase this disadvantage. At the last seconds before the chariots would close with infantry, the phalangites would quickly fold into an enveloping formation in the shape of an E, where the middle tab would be the chariot. By doing this, the chariots would be trapped by the bodies of soldiers it killed, and the long Greek sarissa. This particular tactic was most successful at the Battle of Gaugamela, where Darius fled.
Despite these shortcomings, scythed chariots were used with some success by the Persians, the kingdoms of the Hellenistic Era. They are last known to have been used at the battle of Zela 47BC. The Romans are reported to have defeated this weapon system, not necessarily at this battle, with caltrops. On other occasions the Romans fixed vertical posts in the ground behind which their infantry were safe (Frontinus strategems 2,3,17-18)
The Romans are not reported ever to have fought against scythed chariots in the west. Nevertheless the following statement about the British was made immediately after the Roman invasion of 43 AD. “They make war not only on horseback but also from 2 horse chariots and cars armed in the Gallic fashion – they call them covinni – on which they use axles equipped with scythes” (Pomponius Mela (3,52) c. 44 AD). No one knows how much value to give to this statement. There is the deep suspicion that it reflects Claudian propaganda to add glory to the Roman invasion of Britain by making the Britons more sophisticated than they were.
There is a statement in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae Severus Alexander LV that he captured 1,800 scythed chariots. This is universally regarded as false. But it is interesting that neither of these two later sources use the word quadriga for the chariot, implying that if they existed, these chariots no longer required four horses.
Late in the Imperial period the Romans might have experimented with an unusual variant of the idea that called for cataphract-style lancers to sit on a pair or a single horse drawing a "chariot" reduced to a bare axle with wheels, where the blades were only lowered into the fighting position at the last moment. This would have facilitated manoevering before battle. This at least is a reasonable interpretation of the rather enigmatic de Rebus Bellicis section 12-14. (Most probably the 2-horse version was a practical weapon which inspired the 1-horse version as an underpowered paper innovation by the armchair author of this text.)
There is no accepted archaeological evidence concerning scythed chariots. There are some large heavy scythe blades from late Roman Britain which are assumed to have an agricultural machine function, as they are too unwieldy for a man to use.
- A.L.F. Rivet 1979 A note on scythed chariots Antiquity vol. 53 pp.130-2
- Alexander K. Nefiodkin 2004 On the origin of the Scythed Chariots Historia vol. LIII/3 pp369-78no:Stridsvogn med ljå