In the Ancient Near East, the chariot core was dominated by the elite warriors of the age. Here, the chariot was as revolutionary to the military as the modern fighter plane.
The word chariot comes from the Latin ‘carrus’, which means wheeled vehicle. It had various uses, but in the Near East the chariot dominated the battlefield. These vehicles first appeared in Mesopotamia around 3,000-2,500 BCE. At first they were heavy and cumbersome, but as time passed they were designed with agility in mind, being made of light timber, plant fibres and leather. Design improvements were most noticeable during the Egyptian New Kingdom period, when the spoked wheel offered better control and turning.
The chariots of the Egyptians and Assyrians were designed to engage the enemy on wide, flat plains. They had semi-circular barriers that protected the driver while he controlled the vehicle, and were drawn by two horses attached to a central pole.
The basket, which rested on a beam connected to the wheels, carried the driver, a shield bearer and a warrior, and was equipped with archery equipment, swords and auxiliary weapons. From this elevated position, the bow became the soldier’s principal weapon. From this platform, the warrior could easily decapitate enemy soldiers with his sword.
The rocky terrain of Greece meant that the chariot was ineffective in battle. Therefore, the ancient Greeks employed the chariot mainly as a ceremonial vehicle. Chariots were also used in racing tournaments, and in Rome they were drawn by magnificent horses that could be placed two to five abreast.
The Circus Maximus was an arena that held chariot races; this enormous track was so wide, it could support 12 competing chariots. Essentially, the chariot played a significant role in the development of these ancient empires in a number of social spheres.