Tuesday, October 06, 2009

'Chariot' - Book Review time

Arthur Cotterell has an awful lot of interesting material in his book on the ‘rise and fall of the worlds first war machine’. Perhaps as a consequence, it often feels incoherent, and there are frequent situations where he seems to favour mythology over archaeological evidence or historical records.

The book looks at the broad sweep of use of the chariot, focusing on four main areas, the near east, India, China and Asia Minor. The problem is that Cotterell’s evidence is frequently drawn from limited or mythologized sources, which he relies on too much. Also he has fixed in his mind his own clear timeline, which means he has to dismiss the use of Chariots for practical military action once cavalry are introduced. He instead reduces it to ceremonial and sporting use.

This despite the fact that Chariots were active weapons of war in Celtic Europe for centuries after that date, despite the fact that the chariot was still used in great numbers, if not as the elite super weapon of days past, in the near east for a good 600 years after the introduction of horsemen.

It is also clear, despite his excellent points on the use of chariot archery, that Arthur is not a specialist in military history; for example he doesn’t appear to know about box saddles and therefore can’t conceive of effective heavy cavalry until the introduction of stirrups; so never mind what the Sarmatians were doing for example. Also he dismisses the idea of chariots as mobile transport, yet we know Julius Caesar himself fought against chariots used in just this way to great effect. There are other points too.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the scattergun approach of writing. Poor old Arthur has so much interesting material that he cannot seem to keep his mind on one topic for very long. Is the obsession with physical perfection in Indian kings really relevant to chariot warfare? Failing that you suddenly find yourself in the midst of another subject, probably mythical, when the paragraph started by discussion arrow heads.

This is a harsh review, because as a book on military history, 'Chariot' fails. Nonetheless, there is some interesting material here, but it is not nearly as revealing as I would have hoped.

1 comment:

  1. I have this book on my reading pile at the moment and was hurrying through "Captain Blood" to get to it. Perhaps I'll savour Savatini instead and delay Cottrell based on your review.