For one thousand years, chariots rolled through the Middle East, terrifying armies, destroying infantry lines and changing the face of war. Sumerians used heavy battlewagons with solid wheels drawn by wild asses around 2600 B.C. Until the innovation of spoked wheels, the weight of the battlewagons hindered their utility in war. The domestication of the horse inspired further chariot innovation as horses increased chariot mobility and speed. Drawn by horses, with lighter carts and spoked wheels, chariots gained their status as an elite weapon and transport. Two wheeled war chariots carrying an archer and a driver, combined with the use of the composite bow, fully revamped military tactics around 1700 B.C. Chariots spread to Greece, Asia Minor, Iran, India and China. Chariot use in war declined slowly, beginning around 1000 B.C. With the advent of mounted cavalry; however, chariot use ended in the Middle East circa 500 to 300 B.C.
The First Chariots: Battlewagons
The antecedent of the chariot was the ox cart in Mesopotamia, used to transport trade goods and agricultural products. Not long after, Mesopotamians created wagons to carry a ruler and his soldiers to the battlefield. These battlewagons with four solid wheels were heavy, but on the battlefield, they provided a platform from which archers and spearmen could shoot and throw missiles at the enemy. The Standard of Ur shows battlewagons in the War panel. Pulled by wild asses, these battlewagons carried two men, a spear man and a driver. Both dismounted to fight.
Scholars believe that people of the steppes—a wild grassy plain running from Hungary to China through Central Asia—domesticated the horse and created the first spoked-wheel chariot around 2000 B.C. North-south trade routes brought both horses and spoked wheels to the Near East cultures of Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Persia and Egypt. Spoked wheels were a major improvement on the heavier solid wheels, allowing a lighter, speedier vehicle.
Uses of Chariots on the Battlefield
Different armies used chariots in a variety of ways. The Hittites, for instance, built heavier chariots that were used to crash into infantry lines. More often, chariots were lighter, created to be a platform for archers. Masses of chariots were then used to get close to the enemy and decimate them with arrows. Egypt’s armies used chariots for speedy transport on the battlefield and as all-purpose war machines. The Persians added the innovation of scythed chariot wheels, long blades that stuck out from the hubs, killing enemy foot soldiers in the hundreds. Rome kept chariots for racing, hunting and ceremonies while India used them as platforms for archers.
The Composite Bow/Chariot Combination
The introduction of the composite bow around 2000 B.C. and its employment by charioteers (1700 B.C.) made the chariot an essential war machine. Composite bows were made by gluing wood, horn and sinew together, creating a vastly superior weapon over the self bow made of wood alone. Archers using composite bows could now fire much faster, with more striking power with at least twice the range of the self bow. Archers mounted on chariots could fire an arrow every six seconds with good accuracy. Formations of chariots carrying bowmen became an army’s deadliest weapon.
Chariots, however, were expensive to make and maintain. They required flat ground to be effective, needed constant maintenance and broke down often. Chariot repair teams traveled right with the army, ready to do maintenance when required. The Assyrian army had a special logistical branch just for chariots and cavalry. Men and horses had to be trained in its use, which gave rise to the first warrior elites, the charioteers. These men were the first warriors to be selected for their skills and not by birth.
While most armies used chariots as offensive weapons, the Egyptians employed chariots as defensive weapons—to protect their infantry by combating the enemies’ chariots. The Hittites and the Egyptians, the two superpowers of the time, came together at the Battle of Kadesh (1274 B.C.) Thousands of chariots were used by each side, which were manned by archers shooting composite bows. The Hittite chariots were heavier and thus slower and difficult to drive. The lighter Egyptian chariots were faster and far more agile. This manoeuvrability enabled Egypt to win the day, although the Hittites retained its Syrian territory, which was the root cause of the battle.
Use of chariots in warfare ended after the Battle of Gaugamela (331 B.C.) between the Persians and Alexander’s Macedonian forces. When the chariots of Darius III attacked the Macedonian infantry lines, Alexander’s tactic merely opened up the line and allowed the chariots to pass through, and re-closed the line. The Macedonians then surrounded the Persian chariots and destroyed them. More armies were employing trained cavalry by this time. As cavalry could go where chariots could not, the chariot’s heyday came to an end.