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Chariots were first used around 3000-2500 BCE, and they completely revolutionized warfare. Chariots served practical purposes, including transportation and hunting, but they also spawned an entire sport - chariot racing - and laid the foundation for the modern car.

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Development of the Chariot

The chariot, which is believed to have been invented around 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia, was likely first used in royal funeral processions, and then later for war, racing, and hunting. The earliest chariots had wheels that rotated on a fixed axle that was connected by a draft pole to the yoke of two oxen. Light wood was used for the superstructure, the wheels were not solid and were held in place by spokes.

There were different types and sizes of chariots; in ancient Rome and some Mediterranean regions, a biga required two horses, a triga required three, and a quadriga four. The two-wheeled chariot proved superior due to its maneuverability; a driver and an archer could quickly attack the enemy. The spoked wheel and the use of two or four donkeys allowed for higher speeds. The domestication of the horse was a critical development of the chariot as it increased the speed and maneuverability even further, revolutionizing warfare. Perhaps the most famous chariot battle was in Kadesh in 1294 BCE between Egypt and Hatti, in which 50 chariots per side were used. The Greeks did not typically use chariots in battle due to the rough and uneven terrain. They were commonly used in processions, funerals, festivals, and games.

Egypt started making chariots around 1435 BCE, and by the end of the century, four-wheeled chariots were being used in the Levant, Minoan Crete, and the southern European mainland. Chariots were introduced to the Chinese by the 14th century BCE, according to bronze chariot plaques and horse trappings found in graves from the Shang Dynasty. In a burial in China, chariots from approximately 300 BCE were found and appear similar to Celtic chariots, which might have been introduced by the Etruscans. The Celtic chariots featured metal bodies that were heavier than those of the Greeks and were sometimes inlaid with fine enamels.

After the invention had spread throughout Europe, China, India, and the Middle East, rulers of all ranks began depicting themselves in chariots as a sort of status symbol. They even started to have them, along with the horses, buried with them in their tombs. The most well-preserved Egyptian chariots were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Over time, the use of chariots in warfare became increasingly uncommon as horses started to be ridden. By around 500 BCE, even though some parts of Europe had not even adopted the technology, the chariot's use had declined significantly. It is believed that the Celts were some of the last to use chariots in warfare when they were fending off the invading Romans. The cavalry soon took over the role of chariots in warfare, though chariots had been used for a variety of activities by different civilizations. The most popular use for them became chariot racing, particularly in Greece and Rome.

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Examples of Effects of the Chariot

  • Chariots revolutionized ancient warfare.

  • Chariots made travel, labor, and hunting easier and more efficient.

  • Chariot racing became a popular sport among ancient civilizations, especially Greece and Rome.

  • The use of chariots in warfare acted, in part, as a catalyst in the expansion of the use of iron weapons and the advancement of technology that could defeat or destroy a chariot on the battlefield.

  • The development of chariots helped to advance transportation technology and the invention of better vehicles.

  • The Latin word for chariot is carrus, and a chariot of war used in military parades was called a car, (a wheeled vehicle), which gave us our English word for a modern motor vehicle.
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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