The chariot is the earliest and simplest type of carriage, used in both peace and war as the chief vehicle of many ancient peoples. Chariots were built in Mesopotamia by the Mesopotamians as early as 3000 BC and in China during the 2nd millennium BC. The original chariot was a fast, light, open, two- or four-wheeled conveyance drawn by two or more horses hitched side by side. The car was little else than a floor with a waist-high semicircular guard in front. The chariot, driven by a charioteer, was used for ancient warfare during the Bronze and Iron Ages, armor being provided by bronze shields. The vehicle continued to be used for travel, processions and in games and races after it had been superseded militarily.
The word "chariot" comes from Latin carrus, which itself was a loan from Gaulish. A chariot of war or of triumph was called a car. In ancient Rome and other ancient Mediterranean countries a biga was a two-horse chariot, a triga utilized three horses and a quadriga was drawn by four horses abreast. Obsolete terms for chariot include chair, charet and wain.
The critical invention that allowed the construction of light, horse-drawn chariots for use in battle was the spoked wheel. Most horses at the time could not support the weight of a man in battle. Cavalry had been in use in Central Asia since 3000 BC and eventually replaced chariotry (the part of a military force that fought from chariots).
The earliest spoke-wheeled chariots date to ca. 2000 BC and their usage peaked around 1300 BC (see Battle of Kadesh). Chariots ceased to have military importance in the 4th century BC, but chariot races continued to be popular in Constantinople until the 6th century.
The earliest fully developed chariots known are from the chariot burials of the Andronovo (Timber-Grave) sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka 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 a scale hitherto unprecedented and practiced complex burial rituals reminiscent of Aryan rituals known from the Rigveda. The Sintashta-Petrovka chariot burials yield spoke-wheeled chariots. The Andronovo culture over the next few centuries spread across the steppes from the Urals to the Tien Shan, likely corresponding to early Indo-Iranian cultures which eventually spread to Iran and India in the course of the 2nd millennium BC.
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 ratha, a collective to a Proto-Indo-European word for "wheel" that also resulted in Latin rota and is also known from Germanic, Celtic and Baltic.
There are a few 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 is shows a team of two horses, with the head of a single driver visible. The other one is drawn by four horses, has six-spoked wheels, and shows a driver standing up in a large chariot-box. This chariot is being attacked, with a figure wielding a shield and a mace standing at its path, and another figure armed with bow and arrow threatening its right flank. It has been suggested (Sparreboom 1985:87) that the drawings record a story, most probably dating to the early centuries BC, from some center in the area of the Ganges–Jamuna plain into the territory of still Neolithic hunting tribes. The drawings would then be a representation of foreign technology, comparable to the Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock paintings depicting Westerners. 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 chariot was a war chariot with a sharp, sickle-shaped blade or blades mounted on each end of the axle. The blades, used as weapons, extended horizontally for a meter on the sides of the chariot.
The Hittites were renowned charioteers. They developed a new chariot design, which had lighter wheels, with four spokes rather than eight, and which held three warriors instead of two. Hittite prosperity largely depended on their 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 1299 BC is likely to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving some five thousand chariots.
The earliest chariot burial site in China, discovered in 1933 at Hougang, Anyang of central China's Henan Province, dates to the rule of King Wu Ding of the late Shang Dynasty (ca. 1200 BC). But chariots may have been known before, from as early as the Xia Dynasty (17th century BC) During the Shang dynasty, members of the royalty were buried with a complete household and servants, including a chariot, horses, and a charioteer. Shang chariot was often drawn by two horses, but four are occasionally found in burials. The crew consisted of an archer, a driver, and sometimes a third armed with a spear or dagger-axe. During the 8th to 5th centuries, Chinese use of chariots reached its peak, they appeared in greater number, but infantry often defeated them in battle.
The chariot became obsolete during the Age of the Warring States; the main reasons were the invention of the crossbow and the adaptation of nomadic cavalry (mounted archery), which was more effective.
The Trundholm sun chariot is dated to ca. 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" consists solely of the solar disk, the axle, and the wheels, and it is unclear if the sun is imagined as being itself a chariot, or as riding in a chariot. The presence of a model of a horse-drawn vehicle on two spoked wheels in Northern Europe at such an early time is in any case astonishing.
In addition to the Trundholm chariot, there are a number of petroglyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age showing chariots, such as on one of the slabs of stone in a double bural from c. 1000 BC, showing a chariot with two four-spoked wheels drawn by a team of two horses.
The use of the composite bow from chariots is not attested in northern Europe.
The Celts were famous chariot-makers, and the English word car is believed to be derived, via Latin carrum, from Gaulish karros (English chariot itself is from 13th century French charriote, an augmentative of the same word). Some 20 Iron Age chariot burials have been excavated in Britain, dating roughly from between 500 BC and 100 BC, virtually all of them in East Yorkshire, with the exception of one find of 2001 from Newbridge, 10 km west of Edinburgh.
The Celtic chariot may have been called carpentom, was drawn by a team of two horses, and measures approximately 2 m (6.56 ft) in width and 4 m (13 ft) in length. The one-piece iron rims for chariot wheels were probably a Celtic invention. Apart from the iron wheel rims and iron fittings of the hub, it was constructed from wood and wicker-work. In some instances, iron rings reinforced the joints. Another Celtic innovation was the free-hanging axle, suspended from the platform with rope. This resulted in a much more comfortable ride on bumpy terrain. There is evidence from French coins of a leather 'suspension' system for the central box, and a complex system of knotted cords for its attachment; this has informed recent working reconstructions by archaeologists.
British chariots were open in front, had a curved wall behind, often had seats and sometimes had scythes on the wheels. Julius Caesar provides the only significant eyewitness report of British chariot warfare: "XXXIII.--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 play an important role in Irish mythology surrounding the hero Cu Chulainn. The Celts in the Bronze Age used an ancient four-spoked wheel design called a sun cross or wheel cross to represent the chariot of the sun.
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 61 AD:
The last mention of chariotry in battle seems to be at the Battle of Mons Graupius, somewhere in modern Scotland, in 84 AD. 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."
The only Etruscan chariot found intact dates to ca. 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 Possibly unique to Etruscan chariots, the Monteleone chariot's wheels have nine spokes. As part of a chariot burial, the Monteleone chariot may have been intended primarily for ceremonial use and may not be representative of Etruscan chariots in general.
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 central pole was probably attached to the middle of the axle, though it appears to spring from the front of the basket. At the end of the pole was the yoke, which consisted of two small saddles fitting the necks of the horses, and fastened by broad bands round the chest. Besides this the harness of each horse consisted of a bridle and a pair of reins.
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.
Most other nations of this time had chariots of similar design to the Greeks, the chief differences being the mountings.
According to Greek mythology the chariot was invented by Erichthonius of Athens to conceal his feet, which were those of a dragon.
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 Romans probably borrowed chariot racing from the Etruscans, who would themselves have borrowed it either from the Celts or from the Greeks, but the Romans were also influenced directly by the Greeks especially after they conquered mainland Greece in 146 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 factions, of charioteers, distinguished by the color 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 10 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.
An ancient Roman car or chariot drawn by four horses abreast together with the horses drawing it was called a quadriga, from the Latin quadrijugus (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 trijugus (of a team of three).
It might be said that the chariot was briefly revived during the Russian civil war of 1918–1920, when the "tachanka", a cart or wagon with a machine-gun mounted on it, enjoyed a limited tactical success in the Red Army. Since the gun had to be pointed away from the horses, it operated by firing in a direction opposite or lateral to the direction in which the tachanka was moving. One man drove the horses, while another, or a team of two, operated the gun.
This may have been done for the sake of a morale-boosting film but its practical effect when firing on the move, would be negligible as until its ordinary, non-artillery wheels collapsed or a horse was shot, it would be bouncing about too much to be of any use. Inspection of the photograph shows that the weapon shown in the taczanka article was designed in the same way as a horse artillery carriage. In other words it was designed to accompany or to just precede cavalry, to halt and to suppress enemy infantry fire while the cavalry approached.
It is interesting to note that, in the photograph, the gun carriage has an artillery wheel but the limber has not. In 1898, Vickers, Sons and Maxim were making a four-horse limber which towed a 37 mm naval machine gun on a carriage. At the same time they had a two-horse gun carriage which carried a limited supply of its own ammunition for artillery support and a one-horse carriage similarly with some of its own ammunition. These latter guns were Vickers-Maxim .303 inch weapons.