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Basic Information

A Chariot is an animal-drawn vehicle that dominated warfare in the ancient world. At its simplest, it's a single-passenger cart with 2 spoked wheels, drawn by 2 horses… but exceptions and variations were common, so 4-horse and/or 4-wheeled, versions existed, and some chariots even had a crew of 4! Most chariots had no suspension or shock absorbtion, making them a bouncy, rough ride.

The function and mission of a chariot on the battlefield varied from culture to culture. For example:
In the early days of Mesopotamia, the chariots of Sumer where heavy and drawn by 4 sturdy Onagers (the animal also known as the Wild Ass, not the siege weapon later named after them). These heavy chariots had a horrible turning radius, but plenty of strength, and would build up a lot of momentum and then literally crash through the ranks of enemy infantry. The Sumerian crew would carry spears, used like lances to impale at a range and protect the onagers.

A bit later in Ancient Egypt, a lighter and more maneuverable chariot was favored. The main weapon used was the bow (actually the composite bow), making it a highly mobile archery platform. They could maneuver around the flanks of the enemy force, make the bronze-age equivalent of a strafing run, fire and fade back, etc. Being fast, they were also great at chasing down enemy troops that were fleeing the battle. The 2-person (1 driver, 1 archer) chariot had 4 quivers of arrows attached, 1 mounted in each corner. This meant they had enough arrows for a long fight, and quick access to ammo no matter in which direction they were shooting. The Pharoahs fielded huge units of nimble chariots to devastating effect. This tactical innovation was a huge improvement on the old brute-force chariot of the Sumerian's onagers.

And then, a few hundred years later, the pendulum of innovation swung the other way again. When it did so, it cut a bunch of people in half, because this time the proverbial pendulum was the scythed chariot of the achaemenid empire. This had a 3-foot-long (1-meter) scythed blades protruding from the axle of the chariot. Much like the early Sumerian version, this chariot would charge the enemy infantry, but instead of having to literally trample over the soldiers and risk harm to the animals, it could just pass by the edges of their battlelines, and mow them down as you zip by. Very quickly, the enemy would learn to break formation and try to stay well away from your chariots, which means chaos in their ranks and a big hit to their unit cohesion.

Regardless of kit and mission, the chariot was the premiere military technology of its era. They were a lot like a Knight of later eras, in that they were elite troops and very expensive to field. Each chariot is an expensive piece of machinery, and that's before you consider the maintenance of multiple animals, and a team of soldiers who had to train together extensively. So like the Knight, the Charioteer would be upper-class or nobility, as no one else could afford to put such a team together. They would have the best equipment and armor, and be treated with great respect, because their impact on the battlefield was well-known and celebrated. Their downfall seems to have resulted from two primary developments - cavalry and heavy infantry. Cavalry simply superseded the chariot wherever it developed, being able to do anything it could do and cope better with rough ground, whilst good order heavy infantry, especially with spears, provided a barrier against which a chariot was even less use than a horseman.

Despite this, chariots continued in military use into the Classical Era, with the Celtic tribes of northern Europe employing them, albeit primarily as battlefield transport rather than actual fighting vehicles (not that this was new - you can see the same phenomenon in Homer). Generally they were used to deposit elite infantry (typically nobles and their household troops) onto the battlefield and evacuate them as required - although there are some accounts of spears being thrown from passing chariots and Irish legends include heroes climbing up onto the chariot pole and fighting from there whilst the vehicle was in motion. Again, these tended to be in regions that lacked disciplined infantry or viable cavalry.

Civilian applications continued for far longer - the chariot remained a personal conveyance long after its battlefield use had expired, and chariot racing remained the premier sport of the Roman Empire into the Byzantine Period.

Supernatural or divine chariots are also a thing - many ancient religions had the sun and/or moon make their journey across the sky in a chariot and more specific appearances such as the vimana cloud chariots of the Hindus or the flaming chariot that was sent to translate the prophet Elijah.

See also:


2. Non-Fiction Book: Osprey Man-At-Arms Series: Ancient Armies Of The Middle East by Terence Wise and Angus McBride
3. Video: Smithsonian Channel on "Why the Two-Wheel Chariot Was So Effective in Ancient Battles"
4. Video: Lindy Beige on Light Chariots

Game and Story Use

  • These will be the defining military unit of most land battles in the ancient world. As much as we love to make a big deal about Hannibal's elephants, they're just not nearly as practical as the chariot. The chariot can go anywhere that an army can, as they have basically the same ability to handle terrain as the wagons of the army's baggage train.
    • Especially likely to be the personal conveyance of a big bad evil guy who just happens to be the leader of an evil empire. The chariot allows them to get out onto the battlefield and lead from the front, but also empowers their retreat should the fighting grow too fierce or the circumstances shift.
  • Much fun could be had by taking the tropes and themes of some other era and applying them to the chariot and its riders. As mentioned above, a charioteer is a bit like a Knight. One of those multi-rider archery chariots is a bit like a bomber, so you could riff on airforce tropes instead. Yet another possibility is the tropes associated with outlaw motorcycle gangs.
  • In fantasy, you could have chariots drawn by all sorts of mythological creatures: wyverns, monoceros, hippalectryons, centaurs, etc. Faster is generally better, but as the Sumerians demonstrated strength and resilience can also be a winning strategy.
  • In space opera, you could have hovercraft or antigravity chariots, or robot horses.
  • A key point about chariots is that they tend to underperform cavalry - so, in combat at least, you're only going to use them if you can't ride - either because your culture hasn't figured it out yet, because you personally cannot ride, or because the animals you use cannot be ridden. So you'll see them most commonly in ancient world cultures that haven't yet invented the stirrup, spurs, or a decent saddle.
    • As illustrated by the bit about types of chariots over time, in some sense the arms race has a lot of rock-paper-scissors relationships, where a new technology dominates the battlefield until something new comes along that can successfully challenge it. In our modern world those new things come along frequently, but prior to the Industrial Revolution a weapon tech could be dominant for many lifetimes. So it was with the chariot.
    • It may turn out that the chariot remains acceptable as a transport for elders and women after it becomes more appropriate for an adult man to ride.
  • The highest paid athlete in history was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a charioteer from Ancient Rome whose winnings were tens of thousands of pounds of gold.
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