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Mycenaean chariots

The first in a series of videos on the Trojan War and the Aegean Bronze Age, this video produced by Invicta History and written by Josho Brouwers deals with Mycenaean chariots.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Last year, I was asked by Invicta History to provide commentary on the depiction of Knossos and Mycenae in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the game set in ancient Greece and about which I have also written an extensive series of articles. The experience was enjoyable and I was asked if I would be interested in writing the scripts for an eight-part series on the Trojan War.

The series had to tie into A Total War Saga: Troy, the strategy game that was released on the 13th of this month. The game presents what Oliver Dickinson has referred to as the “Mycenaean” interpretation of Homer (1986, p. 20). In essence, this means that Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, are treated as if they reflect, at least in part, the conditions of the Late Bronze Age.

This “Mycenaean” interpretation was popular in the decades after the discoveries by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) at Troy and Mycenae, but as research into the Late Bronze Age advanced, it became more and more clear that the Homeric epics differ greatly from what was unearthed by archaeologists. The decipherment in the 1950s of Linear B, the script used by the Mycenaeans, was the final nail in the coffin. There’s more information about this issue on the Bad Ancient website.

Most academics no longer maintain that Homer has much if anything useful to say about the Mycenaean era. But in the popular imagination, Homer and the Late Bronze Age are inextricably bound together. A Total War Saga: Troy is an example of this, mixing details from different time periods together – with a healthy dollop of fantasy! – to create what the TV Tropes website memorably refers to as an “anachronism stew”.

Mycenaean chariots

For this video series, I have strived to keep Homer and the Bronze Age separate. In some instances, the two can be mixed together: this video provides a good example of that as far as the use of the chariot is concerned.

In the Late Bronze Age, chariots were most likely used to transport some high-ranking warriors to the battlefield, where they would dismount to fight on foot. This is also what we see in Homer. Rather than this being a genuine reflection in the epics of a Mycenaean tradition, it seems more likely that in Homer’s own time, chariots were simply used in the same way as during the Late Bronze Age.

The nature of producing videos, especially one like this which involves a lot of different people, means that some minor mistakes crept into it between the moment that I checked the storyboards and the video was actually made and released. For example, at around the 0:55 mark, a passage from Homer is said to “offer a taste of what it may have been like to set foot on a Bronze Age battlefield”, which is not a turn of phrase I would use, but sure.

Similarly, “Mycenaean chariots of Homer’s Trojan War” – the title of the video – is not what I would have used, but I do realize one needs to appeal to what people are familiar with. The average visitor of YouTube, after all, is probably much less familiar with the Aegean Bronze Age than they are with Homer or the Trojan War. Again, not what I would do, but I understand the choices that have been made. It also needs to tie into the message from the sponsor about A Total War Saga: Troy.

Corrections and clarifications

There are a few minor mistakes, and things that I would like to clarify. At around the 2:47 mark, a picture is shown of an “Eastern chariot” – clearly Egyptian – with the date 2000 BC, which is a little misleading. As the narration makes clear, chariots – in the sense of light vehicles with two spoked wheels – developed over the course of the first half of the second millennium BC. Chariots were probably not first developed for racing; depictions of chariot races usually follow after their introduction into the armies of the Near East.

At around the 4:00 mark, a map shows the possible routes by which the chariot may have been introduced to the Aegean. The argument is that the chariot is introduced into mainland Greece either via Crete or Anatolia. The Anatolian route, however, is shown as entering the Aegean basin via the Dardannelles and Thrace, which is not exactly what I meant. There is no evidence, as far as I am aware, of chariots being used in Northern Greece during the Late Bronze Age. Instead, Mycenaeans may have seen chariots in Anatolia and picked up on these vehicles there.

The total number of chariots at Knossos, mentioned around the 4:48 mark, included incomplete chariots. The actual number of chariots that were battle-ready was probably lower, but that’s a matter of debate. As a minor aside, the background picture during the discussion of the Mycenaean chariot, from about the fifth minute onwards, depicts the Lion Gate at Mycenae and shows that the tops of the walls were crenellated: in truth we don’t know if they were. Iconographic evidence also suggests the tops of walls were flat, and that they functioned as battle-platforms.

The discussion of types of chariots, from about 5:48 onwards, is based on the typology established by Joost Crouwel (1981). My script originally included a reference to his book, but this has been omitted in the final video. Crouwel’s work on chariots is foundational; if you want to learn more about them, check out his books.

Regarding the warrior, at 7:38, there is no evidence that he would have been armoured in the thirteenth century BC, and there is little evidence for shields, as noted before. The large figure-eight shield shown in the video was no longer in use around this time. Armour similar to the Dendra Cuiras, mentioned at 7:44, was used from the fifteenth century down to no later than ca. 1300 BC. The combination of the Dendra warrior and the rail chariot is therefore a bit anachronistic!

Regarding the picture of the chariot at around the 9:03 mark, I think the chariot box is perhaps a bit too large. The wheels also have eight spokes, which is too many: Mycenaean chariots always have four spokes (but note discussion in Crouwel 1981, p. 81). When discussing how Mycenaean chariots were actually used in battle, there’s perhaps a bit too much evidence on the Shaft Grave stele that shows a chariot running down a warrior on foot, but it’s a very minor point.

The warrior at around the 11:30 mark wears equipment that is fantastical: such rectangular shields are not known from the Mycenaean era, the closest parallel are the so-called “tower shields”, which still looked quite different. The warrior also has a beard, but the admittedly limited iconographic evidence of the thirteenth century BC suggests that Mycenaean warriors were clean-shaven. The remark that Homer wrote about events from the Bronze Age is dubious: see again the article on the Bad Ancient website.

At around 12:40, the remark that “warfare was fairly endemic in this period” should be prefaced by saying that we don’t know how frequently the Mycenaeans waged war. In my original script, I wrote that, based on what we know of the later periods, most notably the Greek city-states of the Archaic and Classical periods, that it could be argued that the smallish, independent Mycenaean kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age may also have clashed often.

That’s it! Like I said, the video has minor flaws, but overall I am very happy with how this turned out, and much impressed by the team at Invicta History. This was the first video of this type that I worked on and it was lots of fun. Seven more videos are forthcoming, discussing Mycenaean infantry, army organization, the story of the Trojan War, as well as two videos that discuss the archaeological research at Troy and Mycenae.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Trevor Bryce, Hittite Warrior (2007).
  • Joost Crouwel, Chariots and Other Means of Land Transport in Bronze Age Greece (1981).
  • Oliver Dickinson, “Homer, the poet of the Dark Age”, Greece & Rome 33.1 (1986), pp. 20-37.
  • Nic Fields, Bronze Age War Chariots (2006).
  • C.D. Fortenberry, Elements of Mycenaean Warfare (unpublished PhD thesis; University of Cincinnati; 1990).
  • Nicolas Grguric, The Mycenaeans, c. 1650-1100 BC (2005).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.