Chariots are probably the most famous and romanticized pieces of technology from the Ancient World. While primarily used as weapons of war, they were also used as a mode of transportation, a form of entertainment, and as religiously or ritualistically significant objects. Originating on the Eurasian Steppe, they spread far and wide across Asia, Europe, and Africa. Over the centuries they were adopted and adapted by numerous cultures. These ten cultures provide the best representations of how the chariot spread and evolved across the Ancient World
1. Eurasian Steppe Chariots
The chariot appears to have been developed by the Andronovo or Sintashta cultures on the Eurasian steppe sometime before 2,000 BCE. Wheeled carts pulled by humans, oxen, or horses, had been in use for centuries prior to this, but they were used for transportation. Eventually, horses were bred to be larger and stronger, making them able to pull carts faster. The key development in the creation of the chariot, however, was the invention of the spoked wheel. Spoked wheels were stronger and lighter so that carts could go faster and not sink so easily into the ground. This resulted in a cart capable of withstanding the rigors of combat. Whether these carts were true chariots or not is still debated by scholars. Regardless, however, the basis for the chariot was there.
After 2,000 BCE, the Andronovo culture began to spread across the Eurasian steppe from the Urals to the Tien Shan. This was part of the Indo-European migrations (c.4,000-1,000 BCE), a hypothesized migration of peoples belonging to a shared linguistic family across Eurasia. The chariot was very important to the Indo-Europeans, and they portrayed their gods as riding them. Chariots also gave the Indo-Europeans a great advantage over the various people that they encountered during their migrations. It enabled the Indo-Europeans to conquer new lands for themselves and subjugate or displace the local inhabitants.
2. Hittite Chariots
In the Ancient Near East, the oldest mention of the chariot as a weapon of war is found with the Hittites; one of many Indo-European groups. While there are possible earlier references, the earliest certain reference is from the 17th Century BCE. The Hittites were renowned charioteers who developed a new style of chariot. Hittite chariots had lighter wheels, with four rather than eight spokes. They placed the axle in the middle of the chariot which allowed them to have larger carriages. The combination of larger carriage and lighter wheels meant that Hittite chariots could hold three warriors. Hittite chariot crews, therefore, consisted of a driver, an archer, and a spearman/shield bearer.
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The Hittite empire came to dominate much of Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, while also controlling a number of important trade routes. As a result, the Hittites exerted an enormous influence over the introduction and development of chariots in Mesopotamia along with the Hurrians and Mitanni. The only great power capable of challenging Hittite chariot dominance was Egypt. In 1274 BCE the Hittite king Muwatali I faced off against the Egyptians at the battle of Kadesh in southern Syria. The Hittites brought between 2,500 and 10,500 chariots to the battle, making it the largest chariot battle in history. Though the Hittites caught the Egyptians in a devastating chariot ambush, they were eventually driven from the battlefield.
3. Indian Chariots
Although there is evidence of chariot-like carts in Late Harrapan India (c.2,000 BCE), it is generally believed that chariots were brought to the subcontinent by the Indo-Europeans. These ratha, or spoke wheel carts, are however, very similar in appearance to chariots. There were two groups that brought the chariot to India. The first were the Indo-Iranians, who spread the cult and associated rituals of the chariot as a religiously significant object. The second was the Indo-Aryans, who actually introduced the horse and chariot. As a result, chariots played an important role in both Vedic literature, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata and on the battlefields themselves. Elite warriors such as kings, princes, and heroes always fought from chariots and considered it disgraceful to fight as any other part of the army.
Indian chariots were in many ways similar in design to the chariots of the Hittites, except that they featured a large banner identifying the warrior. Early chariots consisted of a driver and archer, but over time they grew larger to accommodate a crew of three or even four. While early Indian chariots were pulled by a team of two horses, later chariots might have a team of four. A pair of chariot runners were also usually deployed to fight on foot alongside the chariot. Since the chariot was so important, Indian armies took great care to select level battlefields where the chariot could be deployed to maximum effect. By the 6th century BCE, the chariot was losing its significance on the battlefield to the elephant, a process that was accelerated by the invasion of Alexander the Great (327-325 BCE).
4. Mesopotamian Chariots
The earliest evidence for wheeled vehicles being used for war in Mesopotamia is found on the so-called Standard of Ur, which dates to 2,500 BCE. However, these vehicles appear to be wagons rather than chariots. They have four solid wheels and are pulled by kunga, a hybrid bred from a donkey and an onager, rather than a horse. While similar to the chariot, they are probably best understood as representing the type of earlier war cart that evolved into the chariot on the Eurasian steppe. These would have lacked the speed, stability, mobility, and durability that made the chariot such an effective weapon of war. Chariots were not sudden inventions but ones that emerged slowly over time from earlier vehicles.
The spoked wheel and, with it, the chariot only appeared in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BCE, likely introduced by the Indo-European Hittites or Mitanni. From that point on, the chariot became a staple of Mesopotamian warfare, until the Persian conquest. Mesopotamian chariots tended to be heavier or more solid than Egyptian ones. They appear to have been used more for shock combat than as mobile firing platforms, especially in later periods. Neo-Assyrian chariots were likely used to break up enemy infantry formations. That does not mean that Mesopotamian chariots were never used as mobile firing platforms, however. Only that their role on the battlefield evolved in a different direction than those of Egypt, likely as a result of Hittite influence.
5. Egyptian Chariots
While it has been suggested that the Egyptians made use of chariots earlier on, it is generally believed that the Hyksos brought the chariot to Egypt. The West Semitic people invaded Egypt around 1650 BCE and established a dynasty at Avaris from which they ruled much of the region. Eventually, the Egyptians were able to drive out the Hyksos and push into the Levant. These Egyptian conquests were aided by their impressive chariotry. The Egyptians invented the yoke saddle for their chariots, which they used as mobile firing platforms. Egyptian chariots were lightweight, fast, and mobile. They carried a crew of two, the driver and archer who was armed with a powerful composite bow which. This meant that in battle, Egyptian chariots possessed an impressive amount of firepower.
In battle, the Egyptian chariots delivered the initial blow to the enemy, which created gaps that the infantry could exploit. The chariots then withdrew to the periphery, where they could pick off enemy soldiers and pursue them once they were routed. It should be noted however, that the lightweight Egyptian chariots were also fragile and could not be driven across broken terrain. Nonetheless, the Egyptian chariots of Ramses II were able to hold their own during the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. Despite the fact that they were taken by surprise and were heavily outnumbered by the larger, heavier Hittite chariots.
6. Minoan, Mycenean, & Greek Chariots
Homer’s epic works, the Iliad and Odyssey, are perhaps the most famous depictions of chariots and chariot warfare. Whether or not these depictions are accurate continues to be hotly debated. The Minoans and Myceneans appear to have learned of the chariot through contact with the Hittites. While the Minoans do appear to have made use of the chariot, it was adopted at a very late date toward the end of their civilization. Minoan and Mycenean chariots were lightweight and drawn by a pair of horses. The Myceneans made extensive use of chariots, and many are listed in palace inventories. It is, however, unclear as to how they were employed. In the Iliad they were used as taxis to carry heroes and commanders around the battlefield. This is of course very different from contemporary chariot uses elsewhere.
After the end of the Bronze Age, chariots continued to be used in Dark Age and Classical Greece, though in more of a ceremonial role. They were often used in religious rituals, and it was common for the bridegroom to fetch the bride from her parent’s home in a chariot. Most famously, the Greeks continued to use chariots in the Panathenaic and Panhellenic Games. Chariot racing was a popular sport in Greece, with special venues called hippodromes being constructed to facilitate the contests. Skilled drivers became celebrities and the wealthy competed with each other to raise the best chariot horses.
7. Persian Chariots
Although the Indo-Iranians were possibly among the first to yoke horses together to create the chariot, it was not until the time of the Achaemenids that Persian chariots appeared. The Persians were another Indo-European people descended from the Indo-Iranians, whose Achaemenid kings created one of the largest empires of the Ancient Near East. By the time of the Achaemenids, however, cavalry had largely superseded chariotry in most armies. Yet the Persians still fielded some of the most famous and feared chariots of Antiquity, the legendary scythed chariots. These were likely inspired by the Mesopotamian chariots of the Neo-Assyrians and Neo-Babylonians. They used large chariots pulled by teams of four horses that crashed into the loose infantry formations of the Ancient Near East.
The Achaemenids took these earlier heavy chariots and added scythed blades, approximately 1 meter long, to them. Extending past the wheels from the axles, they were designed to cut large gaps in loose enemy formations. Unfortunately for the Persians, they were no match for the tight close order phalanx formations of the Greeks and Macedonians. Here the scythed chariots failed miserably. However, this was not the end of the scythed chariot. The idea remained in use in the Ancient Near East and scythed chariots were employed against the Romans by several different Successor Kingdoms; most notably by the Seleucids and Pontus.
8. Celtic Chariots
While chariots were used in Northern Europe since the Bronze Age, the lack of written source material makes it difficult to say anything about them. As a result, it is not until the Celts of the Iron Age that it becomes possible to say much about chariots in this region. Celtic chariots were very lightweight and were pulled by a pair of horses. They were crewed by a driver and a single warrior, who appears to have mostly fought on foot. The chariot would deliver the warrior to the fighting and driving off, circling back a little later to provide him with a method of escape. The warriors might also throw javelins from their chariots and there are reports of the Celts making use of scythed chariots as well. The last reported use of a Celtic chariot in battle was at Mons Graupius, Scotland in 84 CE.
However, most of what we know comes from Greco-Roman sources. In particular, we are forced to rely on the reports of Julius Caesar and Tacitus. So, it is possible that in describing the Celtic chariots they were not reporting on facts but making use of classical tropes. In the Iliad, chariots are used in a similar battle taxi manner, and Alexander the Great faced Persian scythed chariots. It is, therefore, possible that these reports were meant to draw comparisons to the conquerors of the past. The Celts undoubtedly used chariots, and chariots were very important to them culturally and religiously, which is something that should not be overlooked.
9. Chinese Chariots
The use of chariots in China began sometime around 1,200 BCE during the Shang Dynasty. They were used in limited numbers as an attack and pursuit vehicle on the open plains. Over time, the importance of the chariot as a mobile platform for archers, warriors, and commanders increased. In China, chariots were usually deployed as part of squadrons which consisted of ten infantrymen and a single chariot. In this way, some of the chariot’s inflexibility could be mitigated. The apogee of chariot warfare in China was reached during the Warring State Period (471-221 BCE), after which they were gradually superseded. However, chariots remained important through the Qin and Han Dynasties when they served as command posts. During the battle of Mobei in 119 CE, heavily armored chariots were deployed in a ring formation to create a mobile fortress.
Chinese chariots had several unique design features that set them apart from any of their counterparts. They made use of wheels that had anywhere from 18-28 spokes, far more than most other chariots. Later, they a double shaft and curved pole were adopted, which decreased the amount of effort required by the horses to pull the chariot and allowed them to achieve greater speeds. Interestingly, in China chariots were used as transport vehicles when not involved in a military campaign. Despite these advantages, the chariot was eventually phased out in China by the development of effective cavalry and larger infantry formations.
10. Roman/Byzantine Chariots
Although they were one of perhaps the most militaristic cultures of the ancient world, the Romans never appear to have used the chariot for war. Instead, they were used for religious rituals and races. During the famous Roman triumphal processions, victorious commanders and emperors were pulled through the city in chariots drawn by as many as ten horses. Far more common, however, were the chariot races. In Rome, a great racetrack capable of accommodating twelve chariots was constructed in the heart of the city in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Known as the Circus Maximus, its ruins are still visible today. There were four divisions, or factions of chariot drivers, distinguished by their different colored costumes: the red, blue, green, and white teams.
The popularity of chariot racing continued in the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the west. Constantinople had its own massive racetrack to rival the Circus Maximus, which was known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Here chariot races continued on after both the fall of Rome and the end of the Olympic games. Riots during or after the races were not unheard of as spectators vented their emotions. In 532 CE, the populace of Constantinople unhappy with the policies of the emperor Justinian, united under the Blues and Greens to launch a weeklong riot known as the Nika revolt. It is estimated that 30,000 rioters were killed before the revolt was eventually crushed. After this incident, the popularity of the chariot races declined, and eventually, they were halted altogether.