Chariots Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The chariot derived from the four-wheeled wagon, and was replaced by a two-wheeled vehicle after the original wagon was found to be too cumbersome for combat.

Nature and Use

The chariot derived from the four-wheeled wagon, and was replaced by a two-wheeled vehicle after the original wagon was found to be too cumbersome for combat. While the precise origin of the chariot remains unknown, it is known that the Hyksos peopleHyksos, of Semitic origin (c. 1700 b.c.e.), introduced the horse-drawn chariot during invasions of Egypt (c. 1674b.c.e.).HammurabiHammurabi (Babylonian king)Hammurabi, ruler of the AmoriteAmorite DynastyDynasty (c. 1750 b.c.e.) in MesopotamiaMesopotamia, was driven from the Near Eastern sphere of power when conquered by the Hittites;chariotsHittites, a people from the northern mountain regions of modern Iran and Iraq whose spearmen fought from chariots. In Asia Shang Shang DynastyDynasty (1384-1122 b.c.e.) armies introduced the chariot to northern China;chariotsChina in order to overrun the earlier Chou (Zhou) Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.).ChariotsChariots

The rapid development of the chariot, the breeding of Horses and horse ridinghorses, and the ability to control them with a bridle and bit allowed for efficient use of the chariot in battle. Chariots drawn by horses were yoked horizontally in pairs. Two wooden, Y-shaped forms attached to the yoke were fitted to the horses but limited the terrain over which they could be used effectively for battle. As chariot use increased, so did the need for professional charioteers and chariot-warrior teams, each consisting of a driver and an archer. The Hittites were credited with the expansion of the chariot crew to include a third man, the guard or shield bearer. The Hittites also used the chariot defensively against enemies. Reconstructions of early chariots found primarily in Egypt;chariotsEgyptian tombs of New Kingdom (c. 1550 b.c.e.) kings reveal a hard, dense wood used to prevent cracking of the hub, an inflexible wood for the spokes, and a flexible wood for the wheel rim, or segments of the wheel rim, called fellies.

Initially, the chariot provided Armies;and chariots[chariots]armies with speed and thus the potential for surprise attacks. This new form of attack forced military leaders to adopt new battle tactics. When integrated into the battlefield, the maneuverability of the chariot allowed the chariot-warrior to perform an outflanking maneuver. In early use, archers were able to use the chariot as a mobile platform from which to shoot. The mobility increased the damage inflicted on enemy troops and enabled chariot soldiers to chase down fleeing enemy soldiers.

In the Near Chariots;Near EastEast, the chariot became an effective offensive weapon. Often more disruptive than destructive, aggressively mobile chariot forces could gain control over the east-west and north-south trade routes to the sea, as well as inland access to natural resources, eliminating the need to mount an expensive army campaign.

Treaties formed with opposing enemies combining a large kingdom and vassal-states within one area of influence illustrate the important role chariots played in the history of the Near East. Even the show of force by aggressive chariot tactics helped to dissuade confederations in opposition.

Egyptian tomb paintings (c. 1700 b.c.e.) depicting the design and manufacture of early chariots show a vehicle with four-spoked wheels and a single axle centered under a single platform, on which the chariot driver stood directly over the axle. The light weight of wooden chariots provided Egyptians with needed mobility in battle. At approximately 1300 b.c.e., two changes in chariot design were made. The first innovation was an increase in the number of spokes, from four to six, in order to sustain a heavier weight on the wheels. The second was the relocation of the axle from the center of the chassis to the edge of the platform, which was open at the end of the chassis.

Early chariot tactics were immediate and intrusive; the charioteers would rapidly advance and encircle the enemy at a distance of approximately 100 yards and then use the chariot as a mobile platform from which the archer would shoot. This method permitted both speed and a greater ability to maneuver on the battlefield than had war wagons or troops on foot. The result left an enemy defenseless to form a counterattack.

In a two-wheeled, four-spoked Greek chariot, there was a chariot-warrior group of two: the driver and the archer. The two-wheeled Greek chariot did not provide an archer with protective cover, and no spear-throwing could be accommodated in the two-wheeled chassis, or in the battle strategy, without bringing the chariot to a stop. The open-framed chassis had bentwood rods with leather sheets stretched between them. These light chariots allowed for side screens but required the attachment of metal plates for protective purposes. The characteristically curved draught-pole, connecting the yoke to the chassis, was supported at the yoke end by a leather swathe and then continued back to the protective chassis screen.


The component parts of the chariot–wheels, draught-pole and yoke, chassis, and fittings for harnessing–developed independently in different regions. Wheels;spokeSpoke wheelsWheels were made either as a single unit or as segments of smaller pieces of wood, often fastened together with leather. The spoke wheel derived from the earlier three-part wheel. Implementation of the hub permitted a lighter-weight chariot with the spoke used to disperse the weight density. Spoke wheels were more expensive to produce than were the earlier three-part wheels, and their production demanded a higher level of technology, as well as a skilled work force. The finished wheel consisted of a hub to hold the axle, as well as sockets for each spoke end.

To lessen the stress of the chariot’s dispersed weight, spokes were of precisely equal lengths. The spoke was trimmed to fit, like a dowel, into the hub holes and wheel rims. Egyptian spokes were carved separately to fit the hub hold and were connected by mortise-and-tenon joints borrowed from Old Kingdom furniture-making techniques. Bent wood, in either single pieces or segments, heated to form the circular shape, was used for the wheels. In Bohemia, the Rhineland, and possibly India, the spoke was held together with overlapping metal strips wrapped to envelop the join. In Shang Dynasty China (1384-1122 b.c.e.), chariots utilized a spoke wheel. Both six- and eight-spoked wheels were used in the Near East (c. 1900 b.c.e.), and the six-spoked wheel was standard for Hittite- and Syrian-designed chariots (c. 1400 b.c.e.).

Unlike Egyptian chariots, the Greece;chariotsGreek light chariot rotated on a fixed axle held by a metal linchpin. Iron linchpins coated with bronze were used in the Celts;chariotsCeltic chariot. The Greeks used a four-horse chariot team, which continued to be employed by the Etruscans (c. 900 b.c.e.) and the Northern Europeans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, little is known about medieval chariots until the twelfth century. Apart from new technology evidenced by a lathe-turned and mortised hub, chariots of this period do not show much technical innovation. Instead, a series of wheeled vehicles served mainly as carting or farm vehicles and, in battle, moved men and weapons.

Iron Age wheelmakers often lined wheel hubs with bronze and then fitted them with an iron collar. Roman designs introduced a gear-like set of rods made of wood to form channels inside the hub or to turn between the hub and axles.

The harness remained unimproved beyond the yoke until the twelfth century introduction of the traction harness. In Han Han DynastyDynasty China (207 b.c.e.-222 c.e.) and in third century c.e. Persia;chariotsPersia, girth bands were developed to harness horses without choking them. The leather breast band fell horizontally to respond to the horizontal pull of the horse.

A two-wheeled, four-spoked Bronze Age chariot constructed with bent wood, showing the Y-shaped forms that fitted the pair of horses to the yoke.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

During the second millennium b.c.e., the horse-drawn light chariot provided armies with new mobility and speed. In early battles, chariots were used to create confusion in enemy ranks in preparation for coordinated chariot and Cavalry;chariotscavalry charges. In China (c. 1400 b.c.e.) the chariot was a mobile command post. Chariots and cavalry were used on flanks or sometimes in front with the objective of outflanking the enemy and gaining rear access to the enemy’s vulnerable infantry. At the Battle of Thymbra, Battle of (546 b.c.e.)Thymbra (546 b.c.e.), Persian king Cyrus the Cyrus the GreatCyrus the Great (king of Persia)Great used the chariot to take advantage of gaps in the Lydian chariot wings.

Once coordinated teams of chariots and cavalry organized, the role of the chariot diminished, especially in difficult terrain. Charioteers formed elite corps in Near Eastern and Egyptian armies for nearly a thousand years. In Greece, however, where the terrain varied, cavalry replaced the chariot. The Hellenic army consisted of a line of infantry, known as Hopliteshoplites, in a formation of eight-deep units. The hoplites advanced with the object of smashing through the enemy’s front line. Flanking the hoplites were armed spearmen with Javelinsjavelins and shields. The success of the Greek system depended on the hoplites’ ability to penetrate the enemy’s front line so that in retreat the enemy would be vulnerable to Greek missile weapons. Apart from the two classes of Greek infantrymen, hoplites and spearmen, there was no cavalry force, nor was the composite bow used extensively in conjunction with chariot attacks. With these battle tactics, the need for chariots disappeared.

The characteristics of the Greek fighting style were established in the decisive Battle of Cunaxa, Battle of (401 b.c.e.)Cunaxa (401 b.c.e.), in which Persian prince Cyrus the Cyrus the YoungerCyrus the Younger (king of Persia)Younger attempted to seize the throne from his brother Artaxerxes Artaxerxes IIArtaxerxes II[Artaxerxes 02]II (r. 404-359/358 b.c.e.). The hoplites easily dispersed the Persian infantry and drove Cyrus’s forces off the battlefield, killed him, and isolated the Greek infantry in Cyrus’s employ. Here the cavalry replaced the chariot because the cavalry could exploit tactical maneuvers on the battlefield and added a flexibility not possible with the chariot. The lesson was not lost on the Macedonian army led by Philip Philip II of MacedonPhilip II of Macedon[Philip 02 of Macedon]II (382-336 b.c.e.).

Philip’s Macedonian army formed a core around the “Companion cavalry.” This group numbered about two thousand, and Philip added about six thousand other armed cavalry from previously conquered Near Eastern groups. This cavalry was joined by an infantry of about twenty-five thousand men divided into three main groups: the Phalanx;Macedonianphalanx, a highly trained group twice as deep as the earlier hoplite formation that provided freedom of movement on the battlefield; the Hypaspists (Macedonian corps)hypaspistai, or hypaspists, a secondary shield-bearing corps of soldiers similar to those of the phalanx; and a group of lightly armed soldiers equipped with javelins and bows. Because these forces were effective against chariots and horses, the art of chariots soon disappeared from battle formations and became limited to observation posts or command posts.Chariots

Books and Articles
  • Bilson, Frank. Crossbows. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1975.
  • Bryce, Trevor. Hittite Warrior. Illustrated by Adam Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2007.
  • Cotterell, Arthur. Chariot: From Chariot to Tank, the Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2005.
  • Crouwel, J. H. Chariots and Other Means of Land Transport in Bronze Age Greece. Drawings by J. Morel. Amsterdam: Allard Pierson Museum, 1992.
  • Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Gabriel, Richard A. “Chariotry.” In The Ancient World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Harding, Stephen. “The Deadly Dozen.” Military History 26, no. 2 (June/July 2009): 58.
  • Littauer, M. A., and J. H. Crouwel. Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tut’ankhamen. Oxford, England: Griffith Institute, 1985.
  • _______. Selected Writings on Chariots and Other Early Vehicles, Riding and Harness. Edited by Peter Raulwing. Boston: Brill, 2002.
  • Shaw, Ian. Egyptian Warfare and Weapons. Risborough, Buckinghamshire, England: Shire, 1991.
  • Yadin, Yigeah. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Films and Other Media
  • Ben Hur. Feature film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959.
  • Modern Marvels: Barbarian Battle Tech. Documentary. History Channel, 2008.

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