A chariot is a type of carriage driven by a charioteer using primarily horses[a] to provide rapid motive power. Chariots were used in militaries as transport or mobile archery platforms, for hunting or for racing, and as a conveniently fast way to travel for many ancient peoples.
The word "chariot" comes from the Latin carrus, itself a loanword from Gaulish. A chariot of war or one used in military parades was called a car. In ancient Rome and some other ancient Mediterranean civilizations a biga required two horses, a triga three, and a quadriga four.
The horse chariot was a fast, light, open, two-wheeled conveyance drawn by two or more horses that were hitched side by side, and was little more than a floor with a waist-high guard at the front and sides. It was initially used for ancient warfare during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but after its military capabilities had been superseded by cavalry as horses were gradually bred to be bigger, the chariot was used for travel, in processions, for games, and in races.
The critical invention that allowed the construction of light, horse-drawn chariots was the spoked wheel. The earliest spoke-wheeled chariots date to ca. 2000 BC. The use of chariots peaked around 1300 BC (see Battle of Kadesh). Chariots had lost their military importance by the 1st century AD, but chariot races continued to be popular in Constantinople until the 6th century.
The domestication of the horse was an important step toward civilization. An increasing amount of evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes (Dereivka centered in Ukraine) approximately 4000-3500 BC.
The invention of the wheel used in transportation most likely took place in Europe. Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium BC near-simultaneously in the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture), and in Central Europe. The earliest vehicles may have been ox carts.
Starokorsunskaya kurgan in the Kuban region of Russia contains a wagon grave (or chariot burial) of the Maikop Culture (which also had horses). The two solid wooden wheels from this kurgan have been dated to the second half of the fourth millennium. Soon thereafter the number of such burials in this Northern Caucasus region multiplied.
As David Anthony writes in his book The Horse, the Wheel and Language, in Eastern Europe, the earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle (a wagon with two axles and four wheels) is on the Bronocice pot (c. 3500 BC). It is a clay pot excavated in a Funnelbeaker settlement in Swietokrzyskie Voivodeship in Poland.
Horses were introduced to Transcaucasia at the time of Kura-Araxes culture, beginning about 3300 BCE. Prior to that, horse bones were not found. In Kura-Araxes period, horses seem to become rather widespread, with signs of domestication.
Due to its geographical position, being located between the northern steppes and the Near East, Caucasus region seems to have played an important role in the transmission of chariot-related technologies.
According to Christoph Baumer, the earliest discoveries of wheels in Mesopotamia come from the first half of the third millennium BC – more than half a millennium later than the first finds from the Kuban region. At the same time, in Mesopotamia, some intriguing early pictograms of a sled that rests on wooden rollers or wheels have been found. They date from about the same time as the early wheel discoveries in Europe and may indicate the knowledge of the wheel.
The earliest depiction of vehicles in the context of warfare is on the Standard of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, c. 2500 BC. These are more properly called wagons or carts and were double-axled and pulled by oxen or a hybrid of a donkey and a female onager, named Kunga in the city of Nagar which was famous for breeding them. The hybrids were used by the Eblaite, early Sumerian, Akkadian and Ur III armies. Although sometimes carrying a spearman with the charioteer (driver), such heavy wagons, borne on solid wooden wheels and covered with skins, may have been part of the baggage train (e.g., during royal funeral processions) rather than vehicles of battle in themselves.
The Sumerians had a lighter, two-wheeled type of cart, pulled by four asses, and with solid wheels. The spoked wheel did not appear in Mesopotamia until the mid-2000s BC.
The earliest fully developed spoke-wheeled horse chariots are from the chariot burials of the Andronovo (Timber-Grave) sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka Proto-Indo-Iranian culture in modern Russia and Kazakhstan from around 2000 BC. This culture is at least partially derived from the earlier Yamna culture. It built heavily fortified settlements, engaged in bronze metallurgy on an industrial scale and practiced complex burial rituals reminiscent of Hindu rituals known from the Rigveda and the Avesta.
Chariots figure prominently in Indo-Iranian mythology. Chariots are also an important part of both Hindu and Persian mythology, with most of the gods in their pantheon portrayed as riding them. The Sanskrit word for a chariot is rátha- (m.), which is cognate with Avestan raθa- (also m.), and in origin a substantiation of the adjective Proto-Indo-European *rot-h₂-ó- meaning "having wheels", with the characteristic accent shift found in Indo-Iranian substantivisations. This adjective is in turn derived from the collective noun *rot-eh₂- "wheels", continued in Latin rota, which belongs to the noun *rót-o- for "wheel" (from *ret- "to run") that is also found in Germanic, Celtic and Baltic (Old High German rad n., Old Irish roth m., Lithuanian rãtas m.).
Some scholars argue that the horse chariot was most likely a product of the ancient Near East early in the 2nd millennium BC. Archaeologist Joost Crouwel writes that "Chariots were not sudden inventions, but developed out of earlier vehicles that were mounted on disk or cross-bar wheels. This development can best be traced in the Near East, where spoke-wheeled and horse-drawn chariots are first attested in the earlier part of the second millennium BC..." and were illustrated on a Syrian cylinder seal dated to either the 18th or 17th century BC.
The oldest testimony of chariot warfare in the ancient Near East is the Old Hittite Anitta text (18th century BC), which mentions 40 teams of horses (in the original cuneiform spelling: 40 ṢÍ-IM-TI ANŠE.KUR.RAḪI.A) at the siege of Salatiwara. Since the text mentions teams rather than chariots, the existence of chariots in the 18th century BC is uncertain. The first certain attestation of chariots in the Hittite empire dates to the late 17th century BC (Hattusili I). A Hittite horse-training text is attributed to Kikkuli the Mitanni (15th century BC).
The Hittites were renowned charioteers. They developed a new chariot design that had lighter wheels, with four spokes rather than eight, and that held three rather than two warriors. It could hold three warriors because the wheel was placed in the middle of the chariot and not at the back as in the Egyptian chariots. Hittite prosperity largely depended on Hittite control of trade routes and natural resources, specifically metals. As the Hittites gained dominion over Mesopotamia, tensions flared among the neighboring Assyrians, Hurrians, and Egyptians. Under Suppiluliuma I, the Hittites conquered Kadesh and, eventually, the whole of Syria. The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC is likely to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving some over five thousand chariots.
The chariot and horse were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos invaders in the 16th century BC and undoubtedly contributed to the military success of the Egyptians. In the remains of Egyptian and Assyrian art, there are numerous representations of chariots, which display rich ornamentation. The chariots of the Egyptians and Assyrians, with whom the bow was the principal arm of attack, were richly mounted with quivers full of arrows. The Egyptians invented the yoke saddle for their chariot horses in c. 1500 BC. The best preserved examples of Egyptian chariots are the four specimens from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Chariots can be carried by two or more horses.
The Persians succeeded Elam in the mid 1st millennium. They may have been the first to yoke four horses to their chariots. They also used scythed chariots. Cyrus the Younger employed these chariots in large numbers.
Herodotus mentions that the Libyans and the Indus satrapy supplied cavalry and chariots to Xerxes the Great's army. However, by this time cavalry was far more effective and agile than the chariot, and the defeat of Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), where the army of Alexander simply opened their lines and let the chariots pass and attacked them from behind, marked the end of the era of chariot warfare (barring the Seleucid and Pontic powers, India, China, and the Celtic peoples).
Chariots are frequently mentioned in the Greek Old Testament and the Hebrew Tanach, respectively, particularly by the prophets, as instruments of war or as symbols of power or glory. First mentioned in the story of Joseph (Genesis 50:9), "Iron chariots" are mentioned also in Joshua (17:16,18) and Judges (1:19,4:3,13) as weapons of the Canaanites. 1 Samuel 13:5 mentions chariots of the Philistines, who are sometimes identified with the Sea Peoples or early Greeks.
Examples from the King James Version of Christian Bible include:
Chariots figure prominently in the Rigveda, evidencing their presence in India in the 2nd millennium BC. Among Rigvedic deities, notably Ushas (the dawn) rides in a chariot, as well as Agni in his function as a messenger between gods and men.
There are some depictions of chariots among the petroglyphs in the sandstone of the Vindhya range. Two depictions of chariots are found in Morhana Pahar, Mirzapur district. One depicts a biga and the head of the driver. The second depicts a quadriga, with six-spoked wheels, and a driver standing up in a large chariot box. This chariot is being attacked. One figure, who is armed with a shield and a mace, stands in the chariot's path; another figure, who is armed with bow and arrow, threatens the right flank. It has been suggested (speculated) that the drawings record a story, most probably dating to the early centuries BC, from some center in the area of the Ganges–Yamuna plain into the territory of still Neolithic hunting tribes. The very realistic chariots carved into the Sanchi stupas are dated to roughly the 1st century.
The scythed chariot was invented by the King of Magadha, Ajatashatru around 475 BC. He used these chariots against the Licchavis. A scythed war chariot had a sharp, sickle-shaped blade or blades mounted on each end of the axle. The blades, used as weapons, extended horizontally for a metre on the sides of the chariot.
The earliest archaeological evidence of chariots in China, a chariot burial site discovered in 1933 at Hougang, Anyang in Henan province, dates to the rule of King Wu Ding of the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1200 BC). Oracle bone inscriptions suggest that the western enemies of the Shang used limited numbers of chariots in battle, but the Shang themselves used them only as mobile command-vehicles and in royal hunts.
During the Shang Dynasty, members of the royal family were buried with a complete household and servants, including a chariot, horses, and a charioteer. A Shang chariot was often drawn by two horses, but four-horse variants are occasionally found in burials.
Jacques Gernet claims that the Zhou dynasty, which conquered the Shang ca. 1046 BC, made more use of the chariot than did the Shang and "invented a new kind of harness with four horses abreast". The crew consisted of an archer, a driver, and sometimes a third warrior who was armed with a spear or dagger-axe. From the 8th to 5th centuries BC the Chinese use of chariots reached its peak. Although chariots appeared in greater numbers, infantry often defeated charioteers in battle.
Massed-chariot warfare became all but obsolete after the Warring-States Period (476–221 BC). The main reasons were increased use of the crossbow, the adoption of standard cavalry units, and the adaptation of mounted archery from nomadic cavalry, which were more effective. Chariots would continue to serve as command posts for officers during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), while armored chariots were also used during the Han Dynasty against the Xiongnu Confederation in the Han–Xiongnu War (133 BC to 89 AD), specifically at the Battle of Mobei (119 BC).
Before the Han Dynasty, the power of Chinese states and dynasties was often measured by the number of chariots they were known to have. A country of a thousand chariots ranked as a medium country, and a country of ten thousand chariots ranked as a huge and powerful country.
The earliest records of chariots are the arsenal inventories of the palacial centres in Mycenaean Greece, as described in Linear B tablets from the 15th-14th centuries BC. The tablets distinguish between "assembled" and "dismantled" chariots.
The latter Greeks of the first millennium BC had a (still not very effective) cavalry arm, and the rocky terrain of the Greek mainland was unsuited for wheeled vehicles. Consequently, in historical Greece the chariot was never used to any extent in war. Nevertheless, the chariot retained a high status and memories of its era were handed down in epic poetry. Linear B tablets from Mycenaean palaces record large inventories of chariots, sometimes with specific details as to how many chariots were assembled or not (i.e. stored in modular form). Later the vehicles were used in games and processions, notably for races at the Olympic and Panathenaic Games and other public festivals in ancient Greece, in hippodromes and in contests called agons. They were also used in ceremonial functions, as when a paranymph, or friend of a bridegroom, went with him in a chariot to fetch the bride home.
Greek chariots were made to be drawn by two horses attached to a central pole. If two additional horses were added, they were attached on each side of the main pair by a single bar or trace fastened to the front or prow of the chariot, as may be seen on two prize vases in the British Museum from the Panathenaic Games at Athens, Greece, in which the driver is seated with feet resting on a board hanging down in front close to the legs of the horses. The biga itself consists of a seat resting on the axle, with a rail at each side to protect the driver from the wheels. Greek chariots appear to have lacked any other attachment for the horses, which would have made turning difficult.
The body or basket of the chariot rested directly on the axle (called beam) connecting the two wheels. There was no suspension, making this an uncomfortable form of transport. At the front and sides of the basket was a semicircular guard about 3 ft (1 m) high, to give some protection from enemy attack. At the back the basket was open, making it easy to mount and dismount. There was no seat, and generally only enough room for the driver and one passenger.
The reins were mostly the same as those in use in the 19th century, and were made of leather and ornamented with studs of ivory or metal. The reins were passed through rings attached to the collar bands or yoke, and were long enough to be tied round the waist of the charioteer to allow for defense.
The wheels and basket of the chariot were usually of wood, strengthened in places with bronze or iron. They had from four to eight spokes and tires of bronze or iron. Due to the widely spaced spokes, the rim of the chariot wheel was held in tension over comparatively large spans. Whilst this provided a small measure of shock absorption, it also necessitated the removal of the wheels when the chariot was not in use, to prevent warping from continued weight bearing. Most other nations of this time had chariots of similar design to the Greeks, the chief differences being the mountings.
The most notable appearance of the chariot in Greek mythology occurs when Phaëton, the son of Helios, in an attempt to drive the chariot of the sun, managed to set the earth on fire. This story led to the archaic meaning of a phaeton as one who drives a chariot or coach, especially at a reckless or dangerous speed. Plato, in his Chariot Allegory, depicted a chariot drawn by two horses, one well behaved and the other troublesome, representing opposite impulses of human nature; the task of the charioteer, representing reason, was to stop the horses from going different ways and to guide them towards enlightenment.
The Trundholm sun chariot is dated to c. 1400 BC (see Nordic Bronze Age). The horse drawing the solar disk runs on four wheels, and the Sun itself on two. All wheels have four spokes. The "chariot" comprises the solar disk, the axle, and the wheels, and it is unclear whether the sun is depicted as the chariot or as the passenger. Nevertheless, the presence of a model of a horse-drawn vehicle on two spoked wheels in Northern Europe at such an early time is astonishing.
In addition to the Trundholm chariot, there are numerous petroglyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age that depict chariots. One petroglyph, drawn on a stone slab in a double burial from c. 1000 BC, depicts a biga with two four-spoked wheels.
The use of the composite bow in chariot warfare is not attested in northern Europe.
The Celts were famous for their chariots and modern English words like car, carriage and carry are ultimately derived from the native Brythonic language (Modern Welsh: Cerbyd). The word chariot itself is derived from the Norman French charriote and shares a Celtic root (Gaulish: karros). Some 20 iron-aged chariot burials have been excavated in Britain, roughly dating from between 500 BC and 100 BC. Virtually all of them were found in East Yorkshire, with the exception of one find in 2001 in Newbridge, 10 km west of Edinburgh.
British chariots were open in front. Julius Caesar provides the only significant eyewitness report of British chariot warfare:
Their mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again.
Chariots could also be used for ceremonial purposes. According to Tacitus (Annals 14.35), Boudica, queen of the Iceni and a number of other tribes in a formidable uprising against the occupying Roman forces, addressed her troops from a chariot in AD 61:
The last mention of chariot use in battle seems to be at the Battle of Mons Graupius, somewhere in modern Scotland, in AD 84. From Tacitus (Agricola 1.35–36) "The plain between resounded with the noise and with the rapid movements of chariots and cavalry." The chariots did not win even their initial engagement with the Roman auxiliaries: "Meantime the enemy's cavalry had fled, and the charioteers had mingled in the engagement of the infantry."
Later through the centuries, the chariot, became commonly known as the "war wagon". The "war wagon" was a medieval development used to attack rebel or enemy forces in battle fields. The wagon was given slits for archers to shoot enemy targets, supported by infantry using pikes and flails and later for the invention of gunfire by hand-gunners; side walls were use for protection against archers, crossbowmen, the early use of gunpowder and cannon fire.
It was especially useful during the Hussite Wars, ca. 1420, by Hussite forces rebelling in Bohemia. Groups of them could form defensive works, but they also were used as hardpoints for Hussite formations or as firepower in pincer movements. This early use of gunpowder and innovative tactics helped a largely peasant infantry stave off attacks by the Holy Roman Empire's larger forces of mounted knights.
The only intact Etruscan chariot dates to c. 530 BC and was uncovered as part of a chariot burial at Monteleone di Spoleto. Currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is decorated with bronze plates decorated with detailed low-relief scenes, commonly interpreted as depicting episodes from the life of Achilles.
In Urartu (860–590 BC), the chariot was used by both the nobility and the military. In Erebuni (Yerevan), King Argishti of Urartu is depicted riding on a chariot which is dragged by two horses. The chariot has two wheels and each wheel has about eight spokes. This type of chariot was used around 800 BC.
In the Roman Empire, chariots were not used for warfare, but for chariot racing, especially in circuses, or for triumphal processions, when they could be drawn by as many as ten horses or even by dogs, tigers, or ostriches. There were four divisions, or factiones, of charioteers, distinguished by the colour of their costumes: the red, blue, green and white teams. The main centre of chariot racing was the Circus Maximus, situated in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills in Rome. The track could hold 12 chariots, and the two sides of the track were separated by a raised median termed the spina. Chariot races continued to enjoy great popularity in Byzantine times, in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, even after the Olympic Games had been disbanded, until their decline after the Nika riots in the 6th century. The starting gates were known as the Carceres.
An ancient Roman car or chariot drawn by four horses abreast together with the horses drawing it was called a Quadriga, from the Latin quadrijugi (of a team of four). The term sometimes meant instead the four horses without the chariot or the chariot alone. A three-horse chariot, or the three-horse team drawing it, was a triga, from trijugi (of a team of three).
A popular legend that has been around since at least 1937 traces the origin of the 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in standard railroad gauge to Roman times, suggesting that it was based on the distance between the ruts of rutted roads marked by chariot wheels dating from the Roman Empire.[b]