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What is a Chariot?

By Brad Cole
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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A chariot is a type of simple carriage. It can be described as an open, wheeled platform that is pulled by animals. Two to four horses usually draw the platform, which is itself suspended on two to four wheels. Chariots usually hold between one and three people, one of which is the driver, or charioteer.

Chariots were an extremely important part of the ancient world. The earliest prototype chariots are believed to have been invented around 3000 BCE in Sumeria. Horse-pulled chariots appeared in roughly 2000 BCE, and were most likely developed by the Indo-Iranians. These vehicles allowed for the quick transport of small numbers of people in many different situations, but were primarily known for their military applications. The Armenians, Celts, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Hittites, Indians, Persians, Romans and many other cultures also used chariot in ancient warfare. The Egyptian-Hittite battle at Kadesh around 1300 BCE is considered the high point of chariot warfare, after which new technologies and tactics caused the importance of chariots to slowly decline.

Chariots were used in three primary ways in ancient warfare. The first way was as a troop transport. A chariot would bring a small number of heavily armed and armored troops to key locations in a battle, then quickly move them away when necessary.

The second way was as a direct melee vehicle. Warriors on the chariot would be armed with long-reaching weapons such as spears and polearms, then driven directly into the enemy lines. The armor, momentum, and occasional blades built into the chariot allowed the vehicle to break through many defensive positions, letting the warriors riding on it create devastation among the opposing force.

The third and most common way the chariot was used was as a ranged weapon transport. The chariot would move near the enemy, allowing an archer within to launch arrows from a bow. The chariot would then move before enemy melee weapons or javelins could reach the archer.

Chariots figure prominently into religions and religious works. The Greek god Hades was described as riding in a chariot when he traveled out of the underworld. The Hindu festival Rathotsava (car festival) uses chariots and other vehicles. In Hebrew, the word Merkabah refers to the chariot of God. The Old Testament of the Christian Bible also makes mention of chariots being used in warfare.

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