Thursday, 10 April 2014

Chariots - Did They Really Come Before Horseback Riding?

Two chess pieces of a horse and a chariot
A chariot from a Chinese chess set
(photo by Daniel Go)


Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[Old & modern French, augmentative of char ultimately from Latin carrum, carrus: see CAR. Compare with CHAIR.]

A noun. A wheeled conveyance, usually horse-drawn, specifically:
(a) obsolete a cart, a wagon;
(b) poetical a stately or triumphal carriage;
(c) a two-wheeled vehicle used in ancient warfare and racing;
(d) (chiefly Historical) a light four-wheeled carriage with back seat seats only. LME

B1 verb intrans. Drive or ride in a chariot. M16

B2 verb trans. Carry or convey in or as a chariot. M16

Which came first, the chariot or horse riding? Bizarrely, it's the chariot, arriving into the historical record at around 2000 B.C.E, some 1500 years before horseback riding started to become widespread. Considering the added expense and hassle of building a chariot, you would assume we first learnt to ride on the backs of horses, and only later thought: "Hey! Let's try getting it to pull us along on these wheely yokes we just invented." But no - although there is evidence that humans had tried to ride horses, it seems it was chariots first, horse riding second.

What's more, the story behind the development of chariots and the reason it came before horse riding is steeped in mystery. One of the best theories suggested by historians is that ancient horses were smaller and weaker than those of today, and were thus unable to efficiently bear the weight of a rider until centuries of husbandry had developed breeds strong enough to do so. Other than that, historians are open to suggestions.

Of course, even long after the advent of horseback riding, chariots and specifically chariot-racing remained popular. The Circus Maximus hippodrome in Rome was one of the largest sporting venues ever built with a capacity of some 250,000 spectators. It's also thought that charioteering produced the wealthiest athlete ever in Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who retired at 42 with an estimated fortune of $15 billion in today's money (see the post on aurigation for more about him).

An Egyptian chariot
Egyptian chariots were notoriously rubbish at amphibious assaults
Any other suggestions as to why chariots came before cavalry?

Do please leave your most equine comments in the box below.


  1. Well, I'd rather go by chariot, especially if no one had got round to inventing stirrups. Well I would as long as someone had invented the road, anyway.

    1. A lot of standing on a chariot, or (I suspect) a lot of semi-half-crouched standing. That looks very uncomfortable to me. Had seats not been invented?

    2. Seats were invented but on a war chariot it was extra weight.

    3. The major reason is that the ancient horse was small. Much more comparable to the common pony than the standard bred horses of the modern world. As such, the average soldier with armor and weapons would be too great a weight to allow the horse full movement and speed.

      Horses were largely a beast of burden, that is they pulled plows and carts and moved heavy things around. The addition of a wheel and the leverage it supplied removed the weight from the horses back and put it onto the horses chest when it pulled forward against a harness; this being much easier for the horses frame to bear. The chariot arose as a natural extension the cart, merely transformed for war use as a quick way to move from one place to another. Particularly when used in combination with the driver and archer duo common to the early war chariot. This immensely increased the maneuverability and speed of the beforehand static archery unit or as a way to move a large group of men from one part of the battle to another.

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