The two-wheeled horse-drawn chariot was one of the most important inventions in history. It gave humanity its first concept of personal transport, and for two thousand years it was the key technology of war – for most of humanity’s recorded history, the number of chariots signified the strength of an army. It also became the world’s first mass spectator sport phenomenon and measured on a spectator per capita basis, achieved the most prodigious crowd-pulling feats of any sport in history. Remarkably, a set of chariot wheels from 2000BC is set to go under the auction hammer next month … read the remarkable history of the chariot.
The chariot has been one of the great enabling technologies of history. It came into being with the invention of the spoked wheel, which was largely enabled by the metallurgical advances of the bronze age, and it served as the primary means of transport for all civilizations from 2500BC until quite recently in historical terms. Until motorized transport came along 100 years ago, derivatives of the chariot were still very common.
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The chariot also gave us the word for its replacement - the word “car” is a derivative of the word chariot, and the chariot was just as prized 2000 years ago as the automobile is today – when important people died, burial with one’s chariot was common.
In terms of personal transport, the era of the motorcar has lasted around 100 years so far. The era of the chariot lasted nearly 4000 years, with a history as rich and global as the automobile.
This map shows the spread of the chariot historically over time – it is worth a ponder – apart from providing an interesting information graphic on how the chariot developed internationally, it also shows how much slower technology was adopted 4000 years ago.
The chariot was absolutely ideal for the battlefield, but its advantage is not as most people think. Many popular historical films have portrayed the chariot as a type of brute force tank, used for crushing the infantry of the opposition. Indeed, the chariot rarely engaged in direct combat, though its waist-high semi-circular shield was very useful in giving protection from axe- and sword-wielding adversaries.
The chariot’s real strength on the battlefield was the raised firing platform it offered to archers – it was the original “artillery platform.” Archers mounted on a chariot were raised above the battlespace and could see what they were firing at. The chariot-mounted, highly mobile and highly accurate archer was both a tactical weapon and one which could offer devastatingly accurate and quite considerable firepower. It doesn’t take many archers to create an unrelenting stream of arrows to defeat or contain an infantry force. Many of histories most famous battles were conceded with greater numbers of soldiers but lesser numbers of chariots.
Accordingly, the chariot became the principle battle strength of every military force from the Egyptians all the way through time to the Romans. Its military value was negated through the invention of the crossbow – smaller and not requiring the stable platform demanded by the longbow, the crossbow also outranged the composite longbow.
In battle, the chariot offered a fast, manoeuvrable mobile platform for archers. It was also safer for the highly trained and hence much more valuable archers than being on foot, and it brought royalty into the contest where they could play a relatively safe and somewhat distant role in the battle with skills honed through the practice opportunities which being royal afforded them. Historically, the spoked wheel and the chariot seem to have sprung up in several places within a short period of time, with accurate carbon dating yet to give us a definitive reading on which civilization was the first to develop the chariot. It is most likely that the first true chariots were developed on the Eurasian steppes, along the now border of Russia and Kazakhstan, though shortly thereafter, they were popular on the plains of Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
As previously mentioned, warriors and kings were buried with their chariot. Sadly, burial also required the lives of the horses that drew the chariot, and the driver too. One wonders at the toll of humans we have squandered through sacrifice over the ages. Getting back to the point though, the adulation humanity has lavished on the automobile in the 20th century clearly has some precedents. The chariot was a gift from the gods
The strength of an army was measured in bodies and chariots. In the Bible, the number of chariots is used numerous times to quantify “power” - Jabin, the king of Canaan, had 900 chariots (Judges 4:3), and the mighty King Saul commanded no less than 30,000 Philistine chariots. Solomon had 1,400 chariots (1 Kings 10:26) and chariot cities were established to store war chariots during peace time (2 Chronicles 1:14). Many were stored in Jerusalem.
As power could be demonstrated by amassing chariots, some impressive collections grew. By the 15th century BC, Pharaoh Tutmoses III had over a thousand chariots at his disposal; by 1400 BC the Great King of the Mitanni had amassed several times that number.
Despite being the vehicle of such notable civilizations as the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, the largest chariot fleet in history most likely belonged to the Chinese who had a standing army of 10,000 chariots before the cross-bow outranged the composite longbow, making chariots instantaneously obsolete around 500 BC. The Chinese even experimented with large cross-bows mounted on chariots but eventually recognized that the age of cavalry had arrived as horses had evolved and were now sufficiently strong enough to carry an armored human.
One particularly fearsome version of the chariot, the scythed chariot, where blades extend horizontally from the axle of the chariot. Introduced by the Persians as a response to fighting against the tight phalanx formations of the Greek heavy infantry sometime between 467 BC and 458 BC, the scythed chariot was pulled by a team of four horses and manned by a crew of up to three men - one driver and two warriors. Theoretically the scythed chariot would plow through infantry lines, cutting enemy combatants in half or at least opening gaps in the line which could be exploited.
The scythed chariot overcame may of the difficult in getting horses to charge into the phalanx formation of the Greek/Macedonian infantry. The scythed chariot avoided this inherent problem for cavalry, by the scythe cutting into the formation, even when the horses avoided the men. A disciplined army could diverge as the chariot approached, and then collapse quickly behind it, allowing the chariot to pass without causing many casualties. War chariots had limited military capabilities. They were strictly an offensive weapon and were best suited against infantry in open flat country where the charioteers had room to maneuver. At a time when cavalry were without stirrups, and probably had neither spurs nor an effective saddle, though they certainly had saddle blankets, scythed chariots added weight to a cavalry attack on infantry.
Like most aspects of military technology which the Chinese turned their hand to, the chariot reached its technological peak under that country’s continuous application of the latest scientific discovery. The balance of the Chinese chariot was much better than its European equivalent, with the harnessing better designed to enable the horses to pull with their shoulders and achieve both greater speed and better maneuverability. Throughout recorded history, the Chinese military generally had a significant technological advantage over all of their contemporaries. We recently wrote about the remarkable Chinese war fleets of the Ming Dynasty here.
The chariot too was unquestionably the vehicle of the conqueror.
The important home-coming of the victorious warrior-kings of history was almost always ceremonially performed by public parade in a chariot because it offered a mobile raised platform that could negotiate crowds and give everyone a chance to get close to the hero of the day.
The chariot was accorded a special place in history, having carried countless notable warriors in their triumph across the ages from Ramesses II to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar. Whether it was a returning hero or a famous general entering his newly claimed territory, the winner of the battle and the war arrived by chariot, so the chariot added some impressive brand values across two thousand years of bearing the victor – winning was one of them and it carried on to create the most potent spectator sport of all time.
Any cursory glance over historical writings will find many references to chariot racing. Homer’s The Iliad, written in the 8th century BC, refers to a race with five chieftains driving two-horse chariots as the first event in the funeral games in honor of the warrior Patroclus. Chariot races were often held at funeral games and on public holidays related to the relevant chariot-riding Gods.
In the ancient Olympic Games, which ran from 776 BC, the four-horse chariot race was the first and most important of all events.
Chariot racing had all the hallmarks of a perfect spectator sport, and the fans and competitors it drew helped it become the most notoriously corrupt sport in history as well as the most spectacular and highest crowd-pulling form of public entertainment ever known.
Colors throughout history have come to signify different “camps” – originally, racing was originally divided into four camps – signified by the four colors – red, blue, green and white. Quite soon people began barracking for a particular alliance and quite soon a rivalry developed between the factions which was not always healthy. Violence was never far away and as each team attracted enthusiast supporters from all walks of life, the sport readily networked all levels of society and afforded many like-minded but socially unlikely alliances, a goodly proportion of them of doubtful intent. Like modern day motorsport and horse racing events that come under the patronage of royalty, the events became one of the few places where the common man could attend the same place as society’s elite. These events became a social occasion for every member of society, where opposing factions from any walk of life could meet, do business and inevitably settle debts and disputes. Betting also became a massive part of the spectacle, and the Romans had organized public betting at Circus Maximus in biblical times.
Emperor Nero drove his own ten horse chariot in the roman games of 67 AD, falling out of the chariot in what must have been one of history’s most embarrassing moments.
The famous Hippodrome racetrack in Constantinople (now Instanbul) had a direct tunnel running from the adjacent royal palace directly to the Emperor’s private box from which he could watch the races and entertain.
The tunnel had the additional advantage of offering a safe escape from the crowds for the emperor if things should ever turn ugly. On a holiday weekend in January 532AD, they did, and Emperor Justinian used the tunnel to escape the baying mob, then turned a near-bloodless coup against him into a thwarted one, and the ensuing carnage lasted three days and cost 30,000 lives.
Byzantium, nee Constantinople nee Instanbul had been the de facto center of chariot racing for the best part of a thousand years, but nothing it witnessed in that time quite compared with the Nika riots where three days of violence saw more bloodshed than many wars.
Chariot racing’s heritage is alive and well on the horse race tracks of the world – it is part of what has become horse racing’s relationship with power and influence and royalty. In truth, harness racing is much closer to the original sport, but when chariot racing eventually fell from favor and gave way to horse racing as the sport of the socially elite. It remains a potent mix of commercial and political intrigue, influence and power all coming together around a race event.
Everyone in an entire city would attend, from the highest of society, to the lowest. Chariot racing was invariably a free public event as it occurred on public holidays and religious festivals and it no doubt looked very enticing compared to the daily fetch and carry of ancient existence for the common man.
Under the guise of religious festivals, chariot racing became a massive commercial enterprise. On display were the fastest chariots, the best teams, the most skilled charioteers, and with the money and glory came the inevitable betting and corruption.
The best riders were feted, and became incredibly wealthy. Apart from pulling attendances of hundreds of thousands of people, it appears that chariot racing was every bit as colorful as you might expect from the first regularly staged sporting event in history.
Gaius Appuleius Diocles was a famous charioteer of the second century and clearly there was a sophisticated record system of some sort at the time because his career is available in fine detail. He began driving for the Whites at the age of 18; after six years with the Whites, he switched to the Greens for three years, and then drove for a further 15 years for the Reds. Clearly, free agency was practiced in biblical times.
Four-horse races were the modern day equivalent of MotoGP or Formula One – the fastest of all the sport’s variations. Diocles won 1,462 of the 4,257 four-horse races in which he competed which calculates to a winning ratio of 34.34% over a remarkably long career of 24 years.
For the record, Valentino Rossi has a much better 47% win ratio (96 wins from 207 starts) as the best ever in MotoGP, Formula One’s best is Juan Manuel Fangio who won 24 of 51 starts (also 47%) and Michael Schumacher’s F1 career comes in at 91 wins from 248 starts for a win ratio of 36.7%.
Testimony to how good Diocles must have been at his craft, can be drawn from 4,257 races he started – nearly 20 times the number of F1 GPs that Michael Schumacher drove in a long and splendid career – despite all of modern technology’s wonders, Schumacher broke his legs in an accident. One wonders what injuries Diocles had to carry in racing what averages out to be one race every two days for a quarter of a century – a punishing schedule for such a brutal and dangerous sport where death was common, medical assistance was fundamentally primitive, and being trampled and maimed by the other horses and chariots was a daily event.
For those of less-than-noble birth, becoming a top charioteer was one of the only ways to significantly improve one’s lot in life. Just as the charioteer was one of the earliest examples of a warrior elite selected for skill rather than by birth, the sporting charioteer commanded pay commensurate with the best of today’s sporting elite.
Just how much money could a top chariot driver earn?
Diocles career earnings were a matter of public record when he retired - 36 million sesterces. We couldn’t do the math to compare it with Valentino Rossi’s US$34 million income last year. A sesterce had a nominal value of 2.5 asses (2.5 donkeys), so there are no ready conversions to 2008 dollars, but in rough terms, 90 million asses is a considerable fortune. By comparison, the hyper-wealthy general and politician of the late Roman Republic, Crassus (who fought in the war to defeat Spartacus), was said to have had estates worth 200 million sesterces. Diocles retired at 42 in reported ruddy heath having amassed a small fortune. He must have been equally as good as a Rossi or a Schumacher and then some because he performed at the highest level for 24 years and survived, when many famous drivers died very young - Aurelius Mollicius at 20, Fuscus at 24, Crescens at 22. Diocles retired at 42 years of age, unquestionably one of history’s forgotten superstars.
So in terms of career earnings, Diocles seems to have been equally well rewarded as the current master of sporting communication and commercial excellence Valentino Rossi.
In terms of safety, the charioteers would have been perpetually at dire risk. They wore minimal body protection and a light helmet but common agreement was that the most effective method of controlling the horses was wrapping the reins of the four horses around the charioteer’s waist, so he could use body movements to control the horses. This meant that if things did go pear-shaped and the chariot got turned over, the charioteer could easily be dragged behind a team of horses in the direct path of the following horses. Cutting oneself free of the reins in the case of accident was a key survival skill and whatever was required, Diocles seemingly had the lot.
Professional charioteers came from the lower classes, and the winning wreath (a motorsport tradition borrowed from chariot racing) was presented to the winning owner, not the driver. Chariot racing became a dominant theme in Greek art, sculpture, pottery and coins as it did in Roman times. Nearly a thousand years later, many Roman household items depicted famous chariot races of the day –chariot racing was the first and most popular regular sporting event and accumulated several thousand years of history. Most modern sports are less than 200 years old.
There are many references throughout history to elaborate viewing chariot-racing grandstands having been assembled, sometimes two and three tiers high, and often in the most unlikely places, but nothing comes near the purpose-built Circus Maximus in Rome. The building is 620 meters long (678 yards) and there was seating for 150,000 spectators. In biblical times, such crowds were common at chariot racing events – at Circus Maximus, everyone got to see.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of charioteering, as there is so much of its glory lost in history.
The event that catalyzed this story was our discovery that auctioneers Bonhams is selling a set of chariot wheels that last rolled around what is now Iran some 4,000 years ago. They rank among some of the oldest wheels in history and they are a pure reflection of the key technology that enabled them – the metallurgy of the bronze age.
Skewed by the laws of supply and demand, as we so often comment when we write about famous inventions in history, the value exchange for such historical importance always seems to come at a discount.
The 92cm diameter Elamite wheels are expected to fetch between UKP 7,000 and UKP 9,000 when they go under the hammer at Bonhams next Antiquities Sale on October 15.
For those interested in reading more about the chariot, might we suggest the book Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World's First War Machine
Mike HanlonView gallery - 38 images