This is the final part of the four part series on chariots.
Humans learned horse-riding before they build their first cart or the wheel. Cavalry has always been in existence and was very effective for surprise raids, transporting troops (actual battle is on foot but from a more strategic area), supply routes, reconnaissance & as couriers. Alexander’s cavalry & heavy infantry subdued the chariots in Persia, Egypt & India bringing the end of 1,000 years of supremacy of chariots.
The fact that Pheidippides ran a distance of 250km from Marathon to Athens on foot to deliver the news of victory against Persians in 490BC hints the complete lack of cavalry in the greek army. For such a nation to turn around and make the cavalry that overtook the whole world in less than a 150 years is remarkable. (Macedonia was a an insignificant Greek hill city at that time allied with Athens)
First strong factor is the genetic engineering through selective breeding. Greeks were a race that would abandon (killing through exposure to nature) its own human babies if found too weak or deformed. Such ruthless single-minded eugenics obsession for perfection helped increase the size of horses from 48 inches weighing about 360kg to 60 inches and 500kgs. They spend good money to motivate the breeders as well. Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was purchased at the cost 13 talents (each talent is 26kg of gold). Till 19th century, India imported almost all of its war-horses. For a country that contributed 26% of the world’s GDP, this reliance on imports tells a convincing story of how difficult & skilled horse-breeding was.
A horse can carry ~30% of its weight on its back. So larger horses could carry armor and gallop for longer distances. The horsemen were rich noblemen & landlords who unlike the modern anorexic jockeys of today had abundant muscle & fat weight (fat saves against fatal cuts & blows during warfare) with battle armor.
The selective breeding not only increased the size, but also made them more tame (without their ability to kick fatally or bite off the opponent’s face). This made the need to tie a horse to the wooden frame of the chariot an unnecessary luxury. These tame horse, through rigorous training learned to recognize battle commands and anticipate the rider’s intentional, thus freeing the warrior’s hands to fight. The Na’vi bond between the warrior and his direhorse or banshee that was depicted in the movie Avatar was achieved two thousand years ago and without the need of the chord. This eliminated the need of a charioteer and making chariots relics of the past.
Rigorous training bolstered by development of stirrups and saddles (though the modern optimized designed were a few centuries later) allowed for a more stable platform for warfare without the unnecessary overhead of a mechanical wheel and carriage.
Ancient world fighting was a smaller scale and revolved around harvest time in order to maximize plunder. The need to safeguard vast expanse of grain fields compelled defenders to meet the attackers in the open before they could lay waste to the countryside. This meant dry, rain free weather of harvest time and vast open fields conducive for chariot maneuvers. Fortifications, earthworks, trenches, traps and boulders of the later armies made chariots useless. Julius Caesar in the battle of Alesia 16km long circumvallation around the fortified city. He then constructed a second fortification as a ring to prevent attack from the rear relief party essentially the besiegers were ready to be under siege. (So there was a earthwork by Vandals to protect themselves but romans created a ring around it and another ring to prevent a relief party to attack it.)
Chariots cannot ride in the soft soggy soil after the rains, this added to the uncertainty that no general had the luxury off. Unlike horses, chariots cannot hide in the trench, forest or away from the enemy sight for the surprise element limiting their use in the battle.
Unlike peasant soldiers of the ancient time, who ran away at first sign of trouble, Greek and Roman infantries were professional soldiers. They were not subdued by enemy’s superior numbers, war contraption or even their own losses. This eliminated chariots as tools for psychological warfare. Larger armies meant that chariots could not toy with the infantry by circling them.
The first composite bow were too small, too expensive and prone to failure to be used for mass deployment. However, technology improved and the use of wood, horn and sinew made the first laminated bow that was portable (unlike longbow) and yet had power to pierce armor. This meant that archers could fire from safe distance behind the cover of infantry. So it was unnecessary to spend large sums of money to create a mobile archery platform through chariots.
In India & in Africa, chariots came under fierce competition from elephants. Elephants could trample at close range. They were impossible to kill or topple, could ram through city gates or fortifications, provided a very high platform to launch an attack and scan the battlefield for enemy weakness and movements. Elephants were used from prehistoric times to as late as early 17th century by Akbar & Mughals.
The cost of chariot construction and upkeep was so significant that the kings and rich noblemen used chariots for ceremonies just to show off their wealth. It became hard for armies to spend on machines that had so limited use and these vehicles were phased out after Alexander’s conquest.