We are quite used to the dramatic use of ancient cavalry and horses in both historical and fantasy novels. However, riding on the back of horses actually came quite late in history (roughly 700 BC), before then the chariot held sway. Horses were domesticated from around 3500 BC in the Eurasian steppes and used for farming and simple wagons with solid wheels. But we need to wait until the invention of the spoked wheel in 2000 BC before the first chariots started to appear in the Indo-Iranian cultures of modern day Russia and Kazakhstan. Quite quickly this light vehicle, with two wheels, drawn by one or more horses, spread throughout the ancient world and dominated the ancient battlefields between 1700 BC and 500 BC. Surely there is scope here for some fantastic historical and fantasy novels to exploit these wonders of the ancient world? Here are a few types.
The first references to chariot warfare came in the ancient Near East where forty chariots were used at the siege of Salatiwara. The Hitties’ chariots became feared throughout the region as they carved out a large Empire through Asia Minor and large parts of the Middle East. When conquering Kardesh a huge chariot battle is said to have taken place involving over five thousand chariots! The Hittite chariot was different from their neighbours as their chariots placed the wheel in the centre of the chariots, rather than at the rear. This meant they could hold up to three warriors – typically a driver, a shield man, and a spear man.
Introduced into Egypt by invaders, the Egyptians were quick to develop this new technology, and use it to further their own military success. Unlike the Hitties, the Egyptians preferred to use the bow from the back of the chariot. Much Egyptian art depicts great warrior kings such as Ramses II in this great pose. The reins of the chariot would be tied around the waist of the warrior to give him free use of both his arms to draw his bow. The Egyptians were also credited with inventing the yoke saddle, which further advanced the design of the chariot.
The last great use of the war chariot was found when the Celtic tribes of the British Isles fought the Romans. Julius Caesar describes the great skill of the British charioteers in battle, as they tried to disrupt the Romans lines. He describes them running down the yoke of the chariot, even at full speed, in a great display of skill. They were used once again by the warrior queen Boudicca, who paraded in front of her Iceni tribe in their great rebellion of AD 61. The final use of the chariot in warfare, was probably in AD 84, somewhere in modern Scotland at a battle called Mons Graupius. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the noise and rapid movement of chariots, but also makes clear that they were far less effective than the Roman auxiliaries, who were mounted on the back of their horses. This brought to an end over two thousand years of use on the battlefield.
The age of the battlefield chariot might now be over, but that doesn’t mean that the chariot disappeared from history. Julius Caesar had been so impressed by the sight of the Celtic chariot in his military campaigns, that he decided to rebuild and restore the Circus Maximus in Rome. This ancient building dated from the earliest days of the city, but after its rebuild, chariots could be watched by vast crowds of up to two hundred and fifty thousand people as they raced around a central plinth called a spina. The turning points at each end of the spina often caused spectacular crashes and the whole spectacle was immensely popular in the ancient Roman world. The Roman chariot used in these races, was a quadriga, so named by the four horses that drew it. The competing chariots would try and hinder each other’s progress, particularly at the turning points.