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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The chariot - the first war machine

Brief summary
The chariot was first and foremost a war machine, which changed the way war was waged. It was used in Mesopotamia, then in Asia Minor and Egypt and was the most powerful weapon of war. The horse at this stage was without the accoutrements that made it a winner - horseshoes and saddles, the equipment to make riding easy.

Rameses II of Egypt sent 5,000 chariots to overcome the Hittites in 1286 BC. Greeks in chariots attacked Troy, and there are accounts of its use in China and India. It had a long history as a battlefield shock machine - an early primitive tank from which arrows were shot as it raced through opposing ranks of foot soldiers.

Chariot racing only really came in when the chariot's time on the battlefield was over. It became part of the Greek Olympic Games, and in Roman times chariot racing - as re-enacted in the film Ben Hur - was very popular, attracting huge crowds. The first recorded chariot race in the ancient Olympics was in about 680 BC. There were races with two and four horses. The Olympia hippodrome was of a size to allow 60 chariots to race at once.

When the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC they adopted the sport. The main venue for it in Rome was the Circus Maximus, which could hold 150,000 people. The Emperor Nero drove a ten-horse chariot in the Games. He is said to have fallen out but, being Nero, he was declared the winner.

The Roman charioteers wore helmets and other protective clothing and they wrapped the reins around their arms, which meant that they were liable to be dragged around the circuit. What with crashes, blood spilt and gambling, the Romans regarded a day at the chariot races as time enjoyably spent. Feelings often ran high - in Constantinople in AD 352 there was rioting that went on for three days and 30,000 were killed when the troops were called in.

Further reading
Arthur Cotterell, The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World's First War Machine (Pimlico, 2004)
John Humphrey, Roman Circuses - Arenas for Chariot Racing (Batsford, 1986)
Bridget McDermott, Warfare in Ancient Egypt (Sutton Publishing, 2004)
Tim Everson, Warfare in Ancient Greece (Sutton Publishing, 2004)
Anthony John Spalinger, War in Ancient Egypt (Blackwell Publishing, 2004)
Brian Williams, Ancient Roman War and Weapons (Heinemann, 2003)
John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995)
Nigel Spivey, The Ancient Olympics: War Minus the Shooting (Oxford University Press, 2004)


The Circus: Roman Chariot Racing

Roman Hippodrome

From a listener, Hadrian Jeffs:

My great-grandfather appeared in the London stage production of Ben-Hur, for which he was the horse-master, as well as the stand-in (one might say stuntman) who drove the hero's chariot in the climactic chariot race.

They really did mount the life-or-death gladiatorial contest in the theatre, in this case (and appropriately enough) the London Coliseum, a venue possessing a technical feature that was vital to the production: Britain's (and, in those days, Europe's) largest revolving stage. The trick was to use half-size chariots pulled by ponies, which were cantered in the opposite direction to which the stage revolved. To the audience in the auditorium, whose sense of scale was distorted by seeing such a novel (and ostensibly outdoor) event taking place in an enclosed (albeit very large) space, it really seemed as if they were watching full-sized horses galloping at high speed.

It should be remembered that at that time, just after the Great War, people were unfamiliar with the kind of spectacular visual effects that we're used to from watching Hollywood blockbusters. Even so, apparently people who saw both claimed that the race in the 1928 Cecil B. de Mille Ben-Hur wasn't on a par with the Coliseum production's.

One way in which the Coliseum production was rather less dramatic than either film version was that nobody was killed or injured during the race (even though people in the stalls were effectively part of the crowd of race spectators in the play itself), but it wasn't without danger for my great-grandfather. He contracted an infection, believed to be anthrax, while handling the dead meat of one of the ponies which had to be put down during the stage run, yet despite coming very close to death, survived to race again.

Further follow-up
From Simon Mulholland, who makes chariots:

The chariot is a one-man, high speed, all terrain vehicle which allows the driver to go faster than he can run, behind a pony that can't carry his weight at speed.

Horses are the ultimate fast food. For the first 50,000 years of man's enduring relationship with horses he ate them. From 3000 BC to 1000 BC the horse pulled chariots and held the land speed record. From 1000 BC to approximately AD 1830 the horse and rider held the land speed record.

Chariots were invented because horses couldn't carry people at speed. They were too small and too spindly. If horses weren't too small and spindly, men would have ridden them.

Early harness, as every carriage driver will agree, was deeply flawed and seriously inefficient for pulling heavy loads. The chariot is not, when driven solo, a heavy load. If you make a two-seater, you are making an early carriage, and the flaws in the harness make it inefficient, which coupled with the poor materials and techniques available gave a very unsatisfactory vehicle.

Chariots and carriages differ in one simple respect. A chariot is designed to allow an animal that can't carry a rider to move that person at speed. A carriage was developed to enable a rideable horse to carry more than one person at speed. Simple physics shows that the chariot is vastly more efficient cross country. My estimate is that a two-person "chariot" can do eight times as much work as a true chariot, ie a single-seater.

A chariot with two small ponies and a man weighs at least a fifth of a ton and can move at 20-plus miles an hour. If it hits you it will hurt. It is therefore by definition a weapon. It provides high-speed battlefield communications. Assuming the charioteer can fire a bow, the chariot is highly mobile artillery, galloping to vantage points to shoot into the flank of columns. I assume the charioteer at least stops the chariot, and very probably gets out to fire. The significance is that you can move a bowman at 15 miles an hour and he will arrive not even out of breath. Make him run that distance at 4-minute-mile speed carrying 100 arrows and see how soon he can fire accurately.

Simon Mulholland

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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