Chariots

War may never change, but the technology of war is always being updated, adapted, and replaced with new inventions. Because of the powerful emotions invoked by our experience of war, outdated military technology is sometimes invested with cultural meaning and takes on a new symbolic life when its functional utility is past. Suits of armor designed to protect soldiers from spears and arrows in wars hundreds of years in the past have become decorative objects that convey a sense of antiquity and dignity to a stately home. Swords have been obsolete on the battlefield for a century, but they still exercise such a fascination for us that we give them to heroes in stories set in the present and future. The town where I live boasts of its possession of a disabled artillery piece from a war more than a hundred years past. In the ancient world, chariots went through a similar transition from practical military hardware to symbolic possession.

A chariot is a light cart, usually on two wheels, though four-wheeled examples exist, designed to be pulled by one or more animals, usually horses. Four-wheeled versions, using heavy solid wheels and pulled by onagers (a type of wild ass) are documented in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. These wagons would have been relatively slow and ponderous, but they allowed the transport of fighters across the battlefield faster than infantry on foot and provided a defensible fighting platform. Light, fast chariots became possible with the invention of the spoked wheel on the steppes of Central Asia around 2000 BCE.

Light, mobile chariots pulled by horses offered several advantages in war. They allowed swift movement around the battlefield, provided an elevated platform from which to observe the progress of battle, and, on open ground, could stage mass charges to intimidate opposing troops. Horses that were too small to carry a rider under the rigors of war could be used to pull chariots. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the use of chariots spread across a large swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, from China to Ireland, and from Egypt to the Baltic Sea.

Chariots also had some drawbacks, however. They required skilled construction and maintenance. To be effectively mobile, they had to be built light, but such light construction also made them relatively fragile. They required lots of space to operate and were of limited use on narrow, uneven, or muddy battlefields. Driving and fighting from a chariot solo was a virtuoso feat that few could manage, so the need to provide separate drivers in addition to the fighting troops was a drain on fighting power. In most places, chariots were retired from the battlefield as soon as horse breeds that were large and strong enough to carry an armored soldier became available.

In a few places, like the wide, open plains of Mesopotamia, where the terrain was favorable, chariots were used for fighting into the first century CE, but in most places they had vanished from military use centuries earlier. The glory of the chariot, though, kept its hold on people’s imaginations. In most places where they had been used in war, they were repurposed for symbolic and artistic purposes. In China, chariots were used to make impressive showpieces of engineering, like the famous South-Pointing Chariot, equipped with a figure that always pointed to the south no matter how the chariot turned. In India, chariots were reimagined to become vessels for carrying images of the Hind gods in ceremonial processions. In the Mediterranean, they were used for racing and military parades. In many of these places, chariots also entered mythology, remaining the conveyance of heroes and gods long after they had ceased to be used to carry soldiers around the battlefield.

Image: Model of a four-horse chariot, photograph by BabelStone via Wikimedia (found in Takht-i-Kuwad, Tajikistan, currently British Museum; 5th-4th c. BCE; gold)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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