Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We have no intention here to inquire at what time Baruch was chief of the Jewish people; why, being chief, he allowed his army to be commanded by a woman; whether this woman, named Deborah, had married Lapidoth; whether she was the friend or relative of Baruch, or perhaps his daughter or his mother; nor on what day the battle of Tabor, in Galilee, was fought between this Deborah and Sisera, captain-general of the armies of King Jabin — which Sisera commanded in Galilee an army of three hundred thousand foot, ten thousand horse, and three thousand chariots of war, according to the historian Josephus.

We shall at present leave out of the question this Jabin, king of a village called Azor, who had more troops than the Grand Turk. We very much pity the fate of his grand-vizier Sisera, who, having lost the battle in Galilee, leaped from his chariot and four that he might fly more swiftly on foot. He went and begged the hospitality of a holy Jewish woman, who gave him some milk and drove a great cart-nail through his head while he was asleep. We are very sorry for it, but this is not the matter to be discussed. We wish to speak of chariots of war.

The battle was fought at the foot of Mount Tabor, near the river Kishon. Mount Tabor is a steep mountain, the branches of which, somewhat less in height, extend over a great part of Galilee. Between this mountain and the neighboring rocks there is a small plain, covered with great flint-stones and impracticable for cavalry. The extent of this plain is four or five hundred paces. We may venture to believe that Sisera did not here draw up his three hundred thousand men in order of battle; his three thousand chariots would have found it difficult to manœuvre on such a field.

We may believe that the Hebrews had no chariots of war in a country renowned only for asses, but the Asiatics made use of them in the great plains. Confucius, or rather Confutze, says positively that, from time immemorial, each of the viceroys of the provinces was expected to furnish to the emperor a thousand war-chariots, each drawn by four horses.

Chariots must have been in use long before the Trojan war, for Homer does not speak of them as a new invention, but these chariots were not armed like those of Babylon, neither the wheels nor the axles were furnished with steel blades.

At first this invention must have been very formidable on large plains, especially when the chariots were numerous, driven with impetuosity, and armed with long pikes and scythes, but when they became familiar it seemed so easy to avoid their shock that they fell into general disuse.

In the war of 1741 it was proposed to renew and reform this ancient invention. A minister of state had one of these chariots constructed and it was tried. It was asserted that in large plains, like that of Lützen, they might be used with advantage by concealing them behind the cavalry, the squadrons of which would open to let them pass and then follow them, but the generals judged that this manœuvre would be useless, and even dangerous, now that battles are gained by cannon only. It was replied that there would be as many cannon in the army using the chariots of war to defend them as in the enemy’s army to destroy them. It was added that these chariots would, in the first instance, be sheltered from the cannon behind the battalions or squadrons, that the latter would open and let the chariots run with impetuosity and that this unexpected attack might have a prodigious effect. The generals advanced nothing in opposition to these arguments, but they would not revive this game of the ancient Persians.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25