Dawn of the Horse Warriors by Duncan Noble

Book Review by caldrail

What does the horse mean to you? A beast of burden? A cultural symbol? A faithful pet or companion? Or perhaps something to wager upon every weekend? The relationship between man and horse is a long one and for many, it's the romantic ideal of that relationship that is more important than the actual result. It does seem however that our concepts of that relationship date from much more recent times.

But Duncan Noble isn't talking about our modern experience. He goes right back to the very beginning of our relationship with the horse and in particular its place and function in military pursuits. And that is where Dawn Of The Horse Warriors is going to frustrate you. Romance and idealism have no place in this book. If you expect diagrams of cavalry tactics, think again. If you expect analyses of every ancient battle where the horse was significant, think again. Almost the very first thing that Duncan Noble tells us in his introduction to this book is that cavalry only emerged as a fighting force from around 700BC. Before that, the horse was pulling chariots as the preferred mobile arm of military doctrine.

Not surprisingly then the bulk of this work concerns the chariot. Having made this clear, his introduction then sets out to define exactly what a chariot is (or was). Make no mistake, we're entering a world that has been left behind, a world that in many ways is deeply unfamiliar to us. We're dealing with nation states and peoples who are largely forgotten, sometimes unheard of outside of history lectures.

The book delves first in the history of domestication. Where did the horse come from, and how it becomes part of human culture. From there the book is divided into regional focus as much as historical, describing the forms of chariot and their impact upon warfare. The similarity of design is notable; almost everywhere the same sort of vehicle emerges. Partly because ideas are being transmitted, partly because the chariot is a simple vehicle and the means of making one universal to every ancient culture.

In terms of tactics Duncan Noble is less forthcoming. Perhaps he is right to be reticent - there is scanty evidence for tactics in these far-off times and his work is not intended to be speculative. What does occur to the reader from the evidence is that the horse was seen as a means to make warriors more mobile. The warrior still essentially fought on foot, albeit standing on a vehicle that allowed him speed and weight on the battlefield. Note how Sun Tzu tells us that if you see a tall column of dust in the distance, expect chariots.

With this in mind there is a fascinating section in the book dealing with experimental history, where recreated chariots were used with modern day athletes posing as ancient warriors. The surprise is that although the athlete is trained to throw javelins for distance, the experiment showed how easy it was to utilize that experience against cardboard targets, even from a bone shaking chariot ride. That was however somewhat misleading since in that experiment the athlete was not coping with two or four horses. The workload of the ancient chariot crew must have been considerable and not surprisingly there was also a tendency toward specialization between driver and warrior. Although the author does not dwell on the point, it becomes obvious that parallels between chariots and modern military vehicles are not entirely useful in understanding how chariots were used.

Dawn Of The Horse Warriors follows the standard practice of the publisher in printing a set of illustrations and photographs in the middle of the book. Sometimes this seems superfluous, but in this book, I found it a very necessary addition. Clearly the chariot was not the bulky ceremonial wagon of Hollywood's Ben Hur. Chariots of ancient warfare were more likely to be skimpy little things of minimal weight and protection. It was utility that mattered. Whatever the origin of the illustration, the format was very much the same. A means of getting a warrior around the battlefield quickly.

Subtitled Chariot and cavalry warfare 3000-600BC one might be forgiven for thinking the coverage is much more extensive. Indeed the cover notes suggest that development of cavalry is detailed as much as that of the chariot - it isn't - but that isn't an emphasis that history allows us in the time frame of this book, deliberately to chart the age of the chariot.

The prose is educational rather than entertaining. Not a difficult read, but one that requires you to pay attention in class. The tendency to read more like a summary of archeological discovery than a detailed treatise of ancient warfare isn't such a bad thing. In fact the appendices are useful in their own right.

If I can be forgiven for using the analogy, in some ways Dawn Of The Horse Warrior is like cough medicine. Doesn't taste too good but you do feel better afterward. Definitely a cure for a certain lack of understanding. An understated but valuable volume.

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