One element of warfare in ancient Britain that doesn’t get much press these days is the use of the chariot in battle. The common perception is of the battle-mad Celts, marauding on the battlefields, wielding large axes or swords and holding wooden shields, with their cloaks and beards flying in the wind. The common perception is also of the ancient Britons, hiding themselves behind barricades in their hill-forts, pelting their attackers with rocks and stones and beakers and whatever else is at hand. Although some elements of these descriptions might be accurate, one description should be added as well: that of charioteer.
No less formidable an opponent than Julius Caesar himself encountered Britons driving chariots into battle. Caesar, it will be remembered, tried to invade Brittania on two separate occasions; both ended in disaster. But it was Caesar who saw for himself just how well the Britons wielded their wheeled vehicles on the field of battle:
“”In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror caused by the horses and the noise of the wheels are enough to throw their enemies’ ranks into chaos. Then, after making their way between their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and fight on foot.”
One could argue that even the well-trained legions of Rome were given quite a start by this sight. The Romans were used to chariots, it is true, but those were usually driven in contests in hippodromes, not in battlefield engagements.
The advantage of the chariot, of course, was that it could move troops from place to place before, during, and after a battle. The chariot could carry two people: one driver and one warrior. The chariot could zoom into the thick of a battle, deposit its warrior, and then zoom back out of harm’s way. If the warrior was in trouble, he could call for his charioteer, who would zoom in and whisk him out of harm’s way. In effect, the chariot was a primitive form of armored personnel carrier. The charioteer depended on speed as his main defense, especially since the design of the chariot didn’t include an enclosed area to protect the driver.
Chariots were not new to Caesar; in fact, he had seen them used to devastating effect in Gaul. He hardly expected to see them in Briton, though, and was not prepared to fight them again. But fight them he did. On his second invasion, Caesar was more successful, driving the Britons back a good ways before again abandoning his quest. By this time, he knew how to defeat the chariot in battle. Caesar’s problem, of course, was that he had too few men and too little desire to prolong his absence from the mainland.
Until relatively recently, the archaeological record on this subject was empty, except for the rather famous statue of Boudicca wielding just such an item. Chariots have been found, however, at La Tene and in Yorkshire. As the amount of evidence to support this idea grows, perhaps, too, will be the re-emergence of the chariot as a credible weapon in ancient British warfare.