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 in Ukraine) approximately 4000-3500 BC.
The invention of the wheel used in transportation most likely took place in Mesopotamia or the Eurasian steppes in modern-day Ukraine. 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 W. 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.
The oldest securely dated real wheel-axle combination in Eastern Europe is the Ljubljana Marshes Wheel (c. 3150 BC).
Later developments in Europe
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.
Herodotus (Histories, 5. 9) Reports that chariots were widely used in the Pontic–Caspian steppe by the Sigynnae.
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.
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 Greek word for chariot, ἅρμα, hárma, is also used nowadays to denote a tank, properly called άρμα μάχης, árma mákhēs, literally a "combat chariot".
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.
Western Europe and British Isles
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 - the exception was a find in 2001 in Newbridge, 10 km west of Edinburgh.
The Celtic chariot, which may have been called karbantos in Gaulish (compare Latin carpentum), was a biga that measured approximately 2 m (6 ft 6 3⁄4 in) in width and 4 m (13 ft 1 1⁄2 in) in length.
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 play an important role in Irish mythology surrounding the hero Cú Chulainn.
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:
- "Boudicca curru filias prae se vehens, ut quamque nationem accesserat, solitum quidem Britannis feminarum ductu bellare testabatur"
- Boudicca, with her daughters before her in a chariot, went up to tribe after tribe, protesting that it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women.
The last mention of chariot use 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."
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 on 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 used 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 quadriugi (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 triugi (of a team of three). A two-horse chariot, or the two-horse team drawing it, was a biga, from biugi.