In the Near East the chariot was a light, open vehicle with two spoked wheels, drawn by horses yoked on either side of a draught pole. It was used primarily in warfare, but also in hunting and processions. The first known examples with these features appear in Anatolian glyptics of the early second millennium BCE, followed by those depicted on Syrian seals of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries BCE.
In Mesopotamia the chariot had been preceded by disk-wheeled vehicles with both two and four wheels, pulled by asses or ass/hemione or ass/horse crosses. Five innovations gave the true chariot its superiority: the spoked wheel; the exclusive use of horse draft (with an adaptation of the yoke for this purpose); the replacement of the old nose-ring control by a proper horse bit; the use of the bow as a primary chariot weapon; and proportions permitting a crew of two to stand abreast.
Details of dimensions and construction before about 1000 BCE come from New Kingdom Egypt, where the chariot had been introduced from the Levant at some time during the Second Intermediate period. Large numbers of Egyptian and Asiatic chariots are illustrated in reliefs and paintings, and (all or parts of) eight actual chariots have survived, six of them from the tomb of Tutankhamun. These were constructed entirely of heat-bent wood and rawhide. Their D-shaped floors (about 1.00 m wide × 0.50 m deep) were made of interwoven thongs that not only helped to keep the bent-wood frame in tension, but also provided some springiness. The approximately hip-high siding, in profile shown as rounded or rectangular, extended around the sides and front, leaving the rear open for rapid mounting or dismounting. The siding was solid or fenestrated. Parade and royal chariots might have gilded and decorated sidings.
The light, fast vehicle was given stability by a rear axle and a wide wheel base (1.54–1.80 m). The long draft pole, which ran all the way under the body and helped to support it, was attached only at the front, by being lashed to the floor frame there. A pair of rods, dropped diagonally from the front railing to the draft pole, restricted the tendency of the floor frame and pole to pull apart in rough going and braced the front of the chariot. Two thongs (so-called yoke braces) extended from the pole to each arm of the yoke in order to keep the latter at right angles to the pole and to distribute tractive stress. The yoke, an element originally designed for bovids, was adapted to equine anatomy by means of yoke saddles. These wooden Y-shaped objects were fastened by their “handles” to the yoke, while their “legs,” secured at either end by a crescentic strap across the front of the neck, lay along the shoulders of the horse and took the pull in a manner similar to that of the later horse collar.
Chariotry was an important military arm in this period. Two-man Asiatic and Egyptian chariots carrying archers were used as mobile firing platforms to run along the face of infantry to soften it up or to play a flanking or pursuing role (figure 1). Bow cases and quivers of arrows attached outside the chariot body provided reserve arms. The three-man chariots of the Hittites and their allies at the battle of Qadesh, depicted in Egyptian temple reliefs, carry driver, shield bearer, and spearman (quivers are absent) and must have served essentially as transports.
Evidence is scarce in the late second and early first millennia BCE, but Assyrian palace reliefs of the ninth–seventhcenturies BCE furnish plentiful documentation. Cypriot chariot models and actual chariot remains of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE provide additional information. They illustrate solid-sided bodies strengthened by a central front-to-back partition. The partition was supported at its rear by a standing loop that could serve as a handhold for mounting as well as a fixture on which to hang a shield. Evidence persists for the woven-thong flooring of the body, which sometimes was large enough to accommodate a third or even a fourth man at the rear.
Ninth-century BCE Assyrian chariots (figure 2) appear to have had draft poles in the Y form documented by some later models from Cyprus and the Levant: two poles, one from each side of the chariot, come together in front to become a single pole to the yoke. The pole support/breastwork brace of the previous period was exchanged for a metal rod. A peapod-shaped, apparently rigid element, extending from the breastwork top to the yoke, further strengthened the traction system. By the ninth century BCE, draft teams appear to consist of three or four horses. Only two horses were under yoke, the third and fourth being outriggers.
The rear-axled chariot is still shown as a fast, mobile firing platform for flanking, pursuing, and harnessing. Because only two of the horses were under yoke, the vehicle remained quite maneuverable. Crossed quivers (containing bows and arrows and sometimes axes) were fixed outside the body, and a thrusting spear stood at the rear; the two last, being short-range weapons, were for use dismounted or from a standing vehicle. Protective armor was sometimes worn by both crew and horses.
Reliefs of Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BCE) and later Assyrian kings document a marked change in the chariot. The body evidently had a rectangular floor plan and was large enough to accommodate four men (two and two abreast). The iconographic evidence shows only a single pole with the then-prevailing four-horse team under one yoke; however, the fuller Cypriot documentation indicates that two poles might go to a single four-horse yoke or, more often, to two two-horse ones. The yoke saddles were then abandoned in favor of a shaped yoke, with bays for each horse's neck. A bow case was vertically attached at the chariot's front corners and a spear is still shown at the rear. The solid siding is often depicted as armored with small metal plates.
Assyrian chariots of the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE continue to be shown as firing platforms for archers, although they were less mobile, as a result of their greater size, heavier fabric, and the restrictions on maneuverability imposed by four horses under yoke. Under Ashurbanipal (668–627 BCE) archers are, for the first time, shown shooting from a stationary chariot.
Throughout the first half of the first millennium BCE, the chariots of other Near Eastern states (Urartian, Neo-Hittite, and Levantine) are usually shown resembling, in appearance and function, Assyrian models. By late in the first millennium BCE, military chariotry was largely replaced by mounted troops who had greater mobility, the ability to function in more rugged terrain, and economies of man- and animal power. The turreted and scythed chariots of the Achaemenids and others, mentioned by classical authors, are nowhere illustrated; it is known, however, that at the battles of Cunaxa (401 BCE) and Gaugamela (331 BCE) they proved useless against prepared and disciplined Greek infantry. The chariots remaining in use were either processional ones or ones used in the traditional hunt, in which beaters drove the game from cover and across terrain suitable for the chariot to negotiate.
- Crouwel, J. H. “Chariots in Iron Age Cyprus.” Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus (1987): 101–118.
- Littauer, M. A., and J. H. Crouwel. Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, 1979.
- Littauer, M. A., and J. H. Crouwel. Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamūn. Tut'ankhamūn Tomb Series, 3. Oxford, 1985.
- Nagel, Wolfram. Die mesopotamische Streitwagen und seine Entwicklung im ostmediterranen Bereich. Berlin, 1966.
- Piggott, Stuart. Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbol and Status in the History of Transport. New York, 1992. Includes a chapter on chariots and chariotry (pp. 337–368).
- Spruytte, J. Early Harness Systems. Translated by M. A. Littauer. London, 1983. Includes experiments with reconstructions of Egyptian New Kingdom chariots (pp. 23–51).
J. H. Crouwel and Mary Aiken Littauer