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The Chariot

Updated on November 24, 2009

The Chariot

The chariot is most commonly a two-wheeled light vehicle that was drawn by two horses. Chariots were used in war, hunting, travel, and racing.

The earliest known chariot was used in war by the Sumerians in the 2000's B.C. and was a heavy, four-wheeled wagon drawn slowly, usually by four oxen or asses. The wheels were made of solid wood, bound together by crosspieces and banded with leather or copper. These chariots were designed to hold a driver and a chariot-warrior, armed with javelin, ax, and spear. By 1500 B.C. the light horse-drawn chariot had made its appearance as a decisive element in warfare. The Hyksos presumably used it in conquering and controlling Egypt and it was certainly the primary weapon in the successful expulsion of the Hyksos by the Egyptians.

The Egyptian chariot, whether used for war, travel, or state appearances, was essentially of the same construction: two wheels (usually with six spokes, though there are some with four or eight), an axle, a pole springing from the axle, and a body mounted on the axle and pole. A yoke, to which the span was harnessed with a wide breast strap and wooden collar for pulling, was attached to the end of the pole. Chariot bodies were often decorated, sometimes with very elaborate silver and gold patterns. Though Pharaoh was portrayed alone in his chariot, it is probable that when the vehicle was used in war there was always a chariot-warrior, who carried a shield and weapons, with the driver. Chariots seldom attacked directly but swept the flanks and the rear.

Essentially similar chariots were in use in ancient China and all over the ancient Middle East, especially in Syria, Palestine, and Assyria, and they spread through Greece and Rome as far west as Britain and Ireland. The Greeks and Romans, however, soon abandoned them as an instrument of war and limited their use to processions and racing. Roman emperors rode in triumph in chariots drawn by as many as ten horses. The Greek Olympic games in the 7th century B.C. began with chariot races. Rome had professional drivers grouped in factions. They raced up to twenty times a day with four to twelve competing teams of usually four horses. Betting was organized and extensive, and rioting by disgruntled partisans of one faction or the other was not infrequent.

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