Scythed Chariots
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Categories: Ancient

Scythed Chariots

A Persian scythed chariot as imagined by the artists at DBA Online I like the style and colour, although someone should have reminded the artist that these chariots just had a driver, no passengers with bows!

As I write a section of the chapter of my dissertation on Greek literature, I have been thinking about how that literature drives ideas about the Achaemenids along certain channels. Achaemenid historians trained as classicists have trouble forgetting a long list of tropes, stereotypes, and traditions which began in the Achaemenid period but were even more vividly expressed in Roman times. A good example is the most famous Persian weapon, the scythed chariot.

One way to look at the scythed chariot is to list the times and places that they were said to be used. Xenophon says that Cyrus the Great invented them (Cyropaedia 6.1.27ff.), and deploys them in one of the imaginary battles of the Cyropaedia, while Ctesias is quoted as saying that the legendary king Ninus of Babylon gathered no less than 10,600 to invade Bactria (Lenfant F.1b = Diodorus Siculus 2.5.4). But Xenophon attributes all kinds of aspects of the real or imaginary Persia of his day to “Cyrus the Great” in the Cyropaedia, and Ctesias’ statements about the distant past are very unreliable. If Ctesias’ informants told him that the chariots were invented “long ago,” it would have been very difficult for him to determine whether that meant “two or three generations” or “two or three thousand years” (and it is not clear that he was more interested in finding the truth than in passing on amusing foreign stories and teasing Herodotus).

Scythed chariots appear on both sides of the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE, then at a skirmish outside of Dascylium in the winter of 395/4 BCE (only recorded in Xen. Hell. 4.1.17-19), and at the battle of Arbela in 331 BCE. After the fall of the Achaemenid empire, they continued in use among the successor kingdoms of Anatolia. They appear in stories about battles from Magnesia (190 BCE) to Zela (47 BCE: Pseudo-Caesar, Bellum Alexandrinum, §75). After the Romans subjugated the lands west of the Euphrates, scythed chariots disappear from the sources. But around the time of Claudius’ invasion of Britain, Pomponius Mela claimed that the Britons used chariots with scythed axles called covinni (de Chorographia 3.6 = § 52) while Silius Italicus said the same thing about the inhabitants of “Thule” (Punica 17.418).

A black-and-white, grotesque drawing of scythed chariots galloping forward in confusion
The charge of the scythed chariots at Gaugamela as imagined by André Castaigne before the First World War. Just in case the drawing was not dramatic enough, he added in the elephants which appear in lists of Darius’ army before the battle. Scan courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Another way to look at scythed chariots is in terms of surviving sources. In this case, we have Xenophon and Ctesias who found themselves on opposite sides of the Battle of Cunaxa in 401. Then there is a gap of more than two centuries. Scythed chariots next appear in a group of writers from the first century BCE to the second century CE who were firmly aligned with the Romans (Diodorus, Lucretius, the Caesarian author of the Alexandrian War, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, Arrian, and Appian not to mention Aelian and Asclepiodotus the tacticians). These writers love stories about Romans defeating the decadent armies of the east, despite all of the exotic weapons and foreign auxiliaries they could muster. They also enjoyed describing the wounds inflicted by scythed chariots in gory detail, with severed limbs, spouting arteries, and startled soldiers not realizing that they have been struck until their bodies fall apart. After Christianity became the state religion, Jerome (Judges 1.19, 4.13), Vegetius, and the author of de Rebus Bellicis all found excuses to talk about the scythed chariot, and that preserved their memory after Greek ceased to be read in the west.

A currus drepanus [scythed chariot] as imagined in fifteenth-century Italy (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Canon. Misc. 378, fol. 073r) and reproduced on Wikipedia Commons
A currus drepanus [scythed chariot] as imagined in fifteenth-century Italy (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Canon. Misc. 378, fol. 073r) and reproduced on Wikipedia Commons

Of course scythed chariots were used after Xenophon and before Caesar. But for that period of 300 years, no source which mention scythed chariots survive. Polybius probably discussed them, but the relevant parts of his history have been lost. No doubt the kings of Pontus had archives listing pairs of scythes and jars of axle-grease, but those have long since perished. So we can only learn about chariots in the intervening period through much later writers.

The scythed chariots of Achaemenid armies seem to have been reasonably effective despite their small numbers. They seem to have been intended to disrupt the enemy formation just before the battle lines came together. Like horse archers or a cloud of skirmishers, their goal was to weaken the enemy not win the battle on their own. (This creates problems for wargamers, who usually want separate units of scythed chariots which can be represented with miniatures, despite sources saying that a few hundred chariots were scattered along the front of an army several kilometres long and numbering tens or hundreds of thousands of men). Xenophon insists that they failed at Cunaxa, but he insists that Artaxerxes’ whole army failed. The other traditions about the battle do not say whether or not they fought well. Xenophon says they were successful outside Dascylium where they broke up a crowd of soldiers who had run together as cavalry approached. It is often said that the chariots at Arbela were useless. However, some of my former colleagues in Calgary point out that the sources are more complicated. It appears that the chariots which attacked Alexander and his Companions were shot down with javelins, but some of the chariots which attacked the phalanx found gaps and rushed through, killing some of the Macedonians until their horses fell or their drivers were pulled down. In other words, in half of our stories about them they are successful, and in the other half not. In the Cyropaedia Xenophon seems to say that scythed chariots are useful weapons as long as they have brave, well-trained drivers and are deployed in the right circumstances.

However, I would argue that writers of the Roman period and stories about Hellenistic armies shape what we say about Achaemenid scythed chariots. It is hard to read Xenophon without thinking of all the other stories about scythed chariots failing, even though those stories were selected as examples of spectacular failure and modelled on Xenophon’s words. The general who trusted in scythed chariots to defeat his enemy and was disappointed became a recognized type in Roman literature, and stories were slanted to fit it. The Alexander historians are not very interested in describing other aspects of Darius’ army, but they are interested in the scythed chariots at Gaugamela.

Leonardo da Vinci invokes Michael Behe and imagines his own scythed chariot with rotating blades for extra gore!  Courtesy of
Leonardo da Vinci invokes Michael Behe and imagines his own scythed chariot with rotating blades for extra gore! Courtesy of

Now here is another thing. As I thought about it, I realized that I do not know of a single depiction of a scythed chariot before the middle ages, or a single piece of archaeological evidence (although my dissertation has a footnote about the chariot from Biga near the River Granicus). I do not know of a single reference in a document or letter either (of course the cuneiform sources mention plenty of chariots, but no Assyrian relief or Babylonian letter shows chariots fitted with blades). So the only ancient things which can inspire our modern takes on the scythed chariot are Greek and Latin literature.

Do my learned readers know of any exceptions? Is there a Roman coin or Hellenistic relief which I don’t know about? Only you can prevent cranky footnotes when someone reviews the monograph which my dissertation will become.

Further Reading:

  • Alexander K. Nefiodkin, “On the Origin of Scythed Chariots,” Historia 53.3 (2004) pp. 359-378 discusses earlier theories and shows that we have no evidence older than Xenophon and Ctesias for this weapon, as well as explaining how Jerome got from ‘chariots of iron’ in the Hebrew to ‘scythed chariots’ in his Latin.
  • Waldemar Heckel, Carolyn Willekes, and Graham Wrightson, “Scythed Chariots at Gaugamela: A Case Study” in Elizabeth Carney and Daniel Ogden eds., Philip II and Alexander the Great: Father and Son, Lives and Afterlives. Oxford University Press: New York, 2010. pp. 103-112 discuss Gaugamela.
  • Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83: Rome’s battle at the edge of the world (Osprey: Botley, 2010) pp. 30-31 insists that not only did the Caledonians have scythed chariots, but all the covinni at Mons Graupius were scythed.
  • Jeffrey Rop, “Reconsidering the Origin of the Scythed Chariot,” Historia 62.2 (2013) pp. 167-181 defends Ctesias’ statement that the chariots were used in the time of the legendary King Ninus of Babylon.
  • If you want a collection of sources on scythed chariots in translation, James Grout has an essay with a list of classical sources and none of my skepticism in his Encyclopedia Romana under Scythed Chariots

Edit 2021-12-04: converted to block editor, fixed links broken when block editor was introduced, fixed broken link to image

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0 thoughts on “Scythed Chariots

  1. russell1200 says:

    The guy in the Ben-Hur Chariot had blades on his wheels, and that was a very realistic movie!

    The scythed chariot’s usage sounds very similar to the two-handed swordsmen, halberdiers, etc. that were used as push of pike scrum-breakers. They sound a bit expensive though for what I gather was considered a highly heroic (aka semi-suicidal) endeavor. Who is going to pay for the chariot. Presumably pay went to the next of kin.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Oh yes, there are stories that some horses and/or extras died in filming! There are scythed chariots in “Gladiator” (Ridley Scott, 2000) and probably some documentaries. Adding scythed chariots to a scene always makes it more awesome! So I wish I was sure when those Roman writers are just following their sources, and when they are improving things.

      In the Cyropaedia the brave volunteers for the new chariot corps all throw themselves into battle and die heroically, and Xenophon is the only source who actually fought against them (well, I guess Caesar’s ghostwriter might have seen them). So I figure we should take him more seriously than the writers centuries later. Some people guess that the drivers were supposed to jump clear at the last minute, although crowds are good at making a hole when something loud and pointy charges at them.

  2. Aaron says:

    There was a suggestion on the Society of Ancients forum that ‘De Rebus Bellicus’ could be worth a look:

    No one knew of any coins or reliefs though, however.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      It would be interesting to see what the earliest illuminated copies are! I know that some people think that the illustrated version of the “Notitia Dignitatum” from the 9th century is closely based on illustrated versions from around the 5th century (so the shield blazons and so on are based on sources, not just made up), but don’t know so much about illustrated versions of “de rebus bellicis.” The library in Innsbruck should have some resources which mention early manuscripts.

  3. anon says:

    So does this comment about the “normal” mode of using chariots as getaway battle taxis say something about what he “knew” which actually dates back to the late bronze age? Evidence for LBA usage of chariots?

    “And again, what would you have done, if you heard that chariots are coming which are not, as before, to stand still facing back as if for flight,…
    Xenophon, Cyropaedia (VI.2.17)

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Anon,

      Xenophon explains that a few chapters earlier (6.1.27-28) “Besides, with the chariots taken from the enemy and with whatever others he could get he equipped a corps of chariots of his own. The method of managing a chariot employed of old at Troy and that in vogue among the Cyrenaeans even unto this day he abolished; for in previous times people in Media and in Syria and in Arabia, and all the people in Asia used the chariot just as the Cyrenaeans now do. But it seemed to him that inasmuch as the best men were mounted on the chariots, that part which might have been the chief strength of the army acted only the part of mounted shooters (akroboloi) and did not contribute anything of importance (οὐδὲν μέγα βάρος) to the victory. For three hundred chariots call for three hundred combatants and require twelve hundred horses. And the fighting men must of course have as drivers the men in whom they have most confidence, that is, the best men to be had. That makes three hundred more, who do not do the enemy the least harm.”

      An interesting passage, because it reminds us that chariots were very much a part of classical warfare! We tend to forget them because they were not used in mainland Greece or Italy, but if we were used to looking at the ancient world from Cyprus or Babylonia, maybe we would say that the Latins and Athenians were weird for not keeping a few chariots in the field.

  4. anon says:

    What are the primary sources for the smell of camels spooking horses? Aside from Herodotus? Seems that the Crusaders might have written something about how to handle facing camels, if it were true.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Good question! I think there may be something in Xenophon, and a horsey friend tells me that something as small as another horse wearing unfamiliar shiny noisy tack can make other horses refuse to approach. I would agree that checking for medieval sources, or maybe even 19th century ones, would be a good idea.

      Horsey people in most cultures seem to know that horses need to be exposed gradually to things which disturb them until they accept them. There is an anecdote in a Roman writer that the Persians trained horses to tolerate the clashing of weapons and shields, and I think that Polybius talks about training horses to be less frightened of elephants. Some horses will never accept some things, and some don’t mind them at all.

  5. Another old gamer says:

    Alexander K. Nefiodkin, “On the Origin of Scythed Chariots,” Historia 53.3 (2004) pp. 359-378

    When I look this up on the JSTOR index of Historia, the “stable URL” for the article is wrong; the download is a few pages of reviews of nothing having to do with it.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi, post a comment with a real email address or email the address on the About page and I will see what I can do. Humanists are not always smart about open access, and the journal Historia is ‘paper first.’

  6. Another old gamer says:

    can’t find the server at

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi, unfortunately that site did not allow itself to be archived by the Wayback Machine and I can’t invest the time to find another copy or another site with the same information. De Rebus Bellicis is one of those texts which would do with a good online edition and translation, there must be some open-access manuscript with renaissance illustrations of all the weird devices.

  7. Another old gamer says:

    Jeffrey Rop, “Reconsidering the Origin of the Scythed Chariot,” Historia 62.2 (2013) pp. 167-181

    Can’t get thru the paywall for either of these Historia articles. Not in Sci.hub !!!

  8. alofs says:

    In China, giant toothed bronze swords have been found that are in fact the axle caps of chariots, so the “scythed” chariot may originally not have been as limited in time and place as is often suggested.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi alofs, where have they been published? or what museum are they in?

      I would love to work with archaeologists of China or the Eurasian steppes sometime, although in my period there is no evidence of contact between China and the western half of Eurasia. After the Late Bronze Age that seems to start up again around the rise of the Han and the Kingdom of Bactria.

  9. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Hi Sean,

    I think, it was in this book But I’m not sure, if there is direct source, where, when. Try to contact Peers, or Ralph Sawyer You can also try to find something there I’m seeing more and more with upcoming years the big disadvantages of not learning Mandarin or Russian… There are many interesting sources for ancient history in these languages.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Apparently Lloyd Llewellyn Jones in Cardiff is trying to expand his program from Greek and Roman Studies to Ancient Eurasia starting with Egypt and the Near East and then moving east. I want to write something about Parthian swords and Han dynasty jian but I have a long list of things to finish first … I think that a basic expectation in ancient world studies should be that you can connect two language or regional traditions of research and two fields (eg. archaeology and art history) but which languages or regions may need to be flexible.

      I keep banging on about Roman Army Studies and Roman Military Equipment Studies because they do a good job of keeping knowledge about new sources and new research circulating without relying on super-scholars who have time to read all the site reports in all European languages plus Turkish plus Arabic. You could be an Eduard Meyer or Mikhail Rostovtzeff in 1920 but not in 2020.

      I hope that reviewers of the monograph will suggest other relevant sources and archaeology because I think I have swallowed as much as I can and for the next few years I need to sit in the sun digesting it.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      I think that imperial China could give us some great comparanda for Near Eastern recruitment systems but the challenge is finding someone who can give an overview of the sources to read and research literature to start with. Most ancient armies were a loosely organized mob of farmers and craft workers, we need to think harder about how you take one of those and conquer Lachish or Chou or sail all the way from Piraeus to Syracuse (A Greek Army on the March is a great start with its suggestion that Greek soldiers organized themselves in camp, but it is not so interested in world history). The way a gang of aristocrats solves that problem is not the way that Frederick the Great or Sir Arthur Currie solves that problem.

  10. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Update about scythed chariots. I got trough index in A Cumulative Bibliography of Medieval Military History and Technology (Brill) and similar sources. Also I looked for info, about scythed chariots in the newest book of Medieval warfare, technology. Nothing. I searched like crazy in books about Renaissance warfare, Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, I have to admit, that nothing could be used for reconstruction of Persian scythed chariot. I read except one passage practically nothing usable. This description seems nice (especially, if painter should throw it on the canvas), but from military history view, You don’t know more about chariot tactics, or scythed chariot, than before. Generally, this book should have some Osprey Publishing book, it will be worth it, Celtic warfare in Ireland of 1st CE BC.

    In ancient manuals from BC era I got nothing deep enough for new reconstruction. Recently (, I have started to study Byzantine manuals, this year I got last missing books. I have found out, that knowledge from these sources, can be used (as Polyaeunus) for reconstruction of ancient history, especially military history of Macedonians. Generally parallels and solutions described here can be used elsewhere as food for thought. Problem is, that Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos is released only as chapter 56-65. Parts 66-178 are composed from old tacticians like Onasander and others. This is a big problem, because original manuscript is in Oxford Bodleain Library (Codex Oxoniensis Barrocianus 131). BC Greek language is different from Byzantine Greek (I can process texts only from 5th-1st CE BC).

    So even, if I have copies of folios, or acces to them online, I cannot read them. My teacher of Greek Dr. Neupauer can, because he knows, Homeric Greek, Classical Greek, Hellenistic (koiné) Greek, Byzantine Greek. But he doesn’t have time, and I missing the resources to employ him for such work. I can make a proposal, but he wants to translate De Administrando Imperio, he is also working on other topics, which have priority. Even in Byzantine paraphases of old classics, can be something new or previously unknown. That’s I want to read Ouranos Taktika in full. I wrote to Mr. McGeer, if he knows about current state of manual publishing for near future, publication or articles. I’ll let You know, if I get the answer.

    I have some Persian spoiler for You in Byzantine sources, but I want to wait for completing my Byzantine knowledge (2 books ahead, with complete Ouranos 3). I can only propose, to write article or include knowledge into Persian theme, how are scythed chariots depicted in movie, documentary. There are few titles (Ancient Discoveries, Deadliest Warrior), (ancient version) (Vinci version, really deadly). I remember that M. C. Ford in novel The Last King: Rome’s Greatest Enemy (2004) described scythed chariots as efficient (89 BC). Otherwise I can’t remember historical novelist who is depicting them in our needed way.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Is that the bibliography by Kelly de Vries? I think I mined a version of it in Victoria once.

      I will never understand why the triplex acies / quincunx in Maur. Strat. is not cited in every discussion of early Roman tactics, other than that some scholars are role-playing the prejudices of their Ur-Doktorvater circa 1830 and other scholars imitate them because they seem so clever and have such impressive qualifications and employers. The gap in time and source problems are less than with the Suda or Photios!

  11. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Yes, it was Kelly de Vries book. My mistake in comment, Táin Bó Cúailnge is Ireland in 1st CE AD, yet I think the book about British islands (Ireland included of course) from times 100BC-100AD wouldn’t be bad idea, there are new archeological discoveries. Recently there was many popular articles why Romans didn’t conquer Ireland, or it was contemplated in Cicero’s lifetime, etc. Boudicca’s revolt isn’t only interesting theme. I don’t understand why Boudicca episode was never made into animated movie, or normal movie, it’s really cool.

    I also agree, why Byzantine sources are omitted in research of Roman army BC, but if I rember correctly (I still didn’t read and some French books, 1 collective monography and I there is book only about Antigonid army) I have never saw Byzantine manuals cited in book about Macedonian army. Maybe is something in Cole (Legion versus Phalanx), or in but I doubt it. Also I have to complain, that Polyaenus is usually used very superficially. But more motivation for me, to properly put it together new reconstruction of Macedonian tactics, phalanx, archeology, manuals (BC era and Byzantines), written sources, reenactment, numismatics give us plenty of material.

    I still think, that Pressfield is brilliant historical novelist, who understand theme better, than some academics. Even in ideological faulty novels like Colin Falconer’s
    Colossus, You can find mind shift in thinking about the theme, informations and conclusions which are agreeable (like efficient war elephants, big horses, sophisticated horse furniture, etc.). Mind oponnents can be useful, even Christian Cameron changed his thinking about functioning of Macedonian phalanx, it took only year from Tyrant to Storm of Arrows. I believe, that academics (doesn’t matter if officialy employed) should know contemporary popular culture, media discourse about our research theme and address it in some way. Connotations are sometimes intriguing like Lori Khatchadourian in Imperial Matter, where she describes parallels between Czechoslovakia regim controlled by Soviets in 1968 and satrapal conditions in Persia. Not joyous reading (because I know our history of 20th century better and better), but very eye opening and inspiring.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I have only read bits and pieces of Steven Pressfield’s novels, but I think he falls into the trap of “ancient soldiers as U.S. marines” (there is a John Ringo novel with the same but for Roman centurions). And the trouble is that the Van Doos or the 44th Austrian Infantry Division at Stalingrad are not U.S. marines, and the Spartans were nothing like a short-service professional bureaucratic mechanized army (someone on RAT suggested looking to 19th century British officers, with their conspicuous rejection of technical skill and ways of expressing hierarchies indirectly: “I say old chap, could you take some men and get rid of those peltasts for me?”) Jason P. Crowley had a paper on one specific aspect of this, which he calls the ‘universal soldier’

      I am re-reading some Anthony Beevor, and he describes the German and Soviet armies on the Ostfront as very sentimental about women back home, even though they were committing appalling atrocities. Whereas veterans of US ground forces in the same war, like Paul Fussell, remember a much coarser attitude and ideologies of sex as violence and violence as sex.

      1. Sean Manning says:

        Robert Citino likes to cite Generalfeldmarshal Blücher’s potty-mouth and inarticulateness which shocked contemporaries but would have been par for the course in the US Army in WW II. I suspect that Imperial Roman soldiers were a foul-mouthed bunch, but they probably tended towards the creative kind of cursing and had insults like “temple-robber” and “broken-legs” which would sound as weird to a company commander in Afghanistan as N***er would sound to them (“Gaius, is the barbarian talking to you?” says Afer from Carthage).

  12. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I don’t know, when I have discovered piece of information below (excuse my Czech style of writing names), but except China, world of military historians needs serious movement forward in ancient India history BC. Indian king Adžátašatru (Magadha kingdom, 491-461 BC) introduced into army scythed chariots (A. K. Srivastava, Ancient India Army, New Delhi, Ajanta Books 1985, p. 38, according to tradition, he invented also catapult – mahšhilakantaka, scythed chariot was called rathamušala). I think it’s better to give it on Your website, then to my email which could be lost in time.

    Second piece of information, is my speculation, but if somebody has contacts in Armenia, or way to Jerevan museum, he should make photos of Urartu weapons and descriptions. Sadly there is still no book about Urartu military (I’ll make proposal to Osprey). In this TV documentary time 1:06:18 You can see board with Urartu weapons. Please pay attention to the three blades above! Normally I would say swords in style of Judean blades depicted in Lachish relief ( part left, where soldier carries several of them over shoulder). But I have several new books or articles about Uratu finds, weapons. Such blades aren’t there (only short curved swords), length of these blades tells me some proposals.

    1) Scythed blades for chariots.

    2) Weapon in the style of Thracian rhompaia, ideal for hacking close lines of regular/heavy infantry.

    3) “Normal” swords, but just as in Judean case. I have to ask. How would You use them, against who? Infantry in close order, or groups of individual swordsmen fending off enemies skirmishers, or against riders? Shape of weapon could nastily slash horses legs. I wrote one swordsmen who is producing and researching fencing techniques for old weapons. Will see. My dream to found research/reneactment group Weapon of Ashur (centred not just on Assyrian, but also their enemies) is stucked. There are so many things to discover and tests, arrows vs. armour, construction, using of shields, spears, swords, horse combat. Also javelins are somehow non-existent in works about ancient military history. I believe careful reneactment, production of this weapon, tests can tell us many things (Kushites and Phrygians are usually identified as javelineers in EIA).

    1. Sean Manning says:

      There is some information on warfare in Urartu in: Linke, Julia (2015) Das Charisima der Könige: Zur Konzeption des altorientalischen Königtums im Hinblick auf Urartu (Harrasowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden) I did not have time to go through it properly or track down the site reports on Ḥasanlu.

      Javelins can be fun because you don’t need so much space to play with them as you do with archery.

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