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The Horse and Chariot: Tools of Empire Creation

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  • 0:07 Domesticating the Horse
  • 2:57 Invention of the Chariot
  • 4:23 Building Roads
  • 5:35 Jericho
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
Horses were first used in warfare to pull chariots. Though horses were eventually ridden by cavalry, it was the chariot that first moved soldiers faster than man. In this lesson, you'll learn about the creation of the chariot, and its benefits during wartime.

Behold the horse - fast, agile, noble and beautiful. It's what every little girl wants for her tenth birthday.

Yet, up until around 4,000 BCE humans hadn't quite figured out what to do with horses (besides eat them). We'd been hunting horses for at least 100,000 years before anyone was crazy enough to try riding one. This may seem odd to those of you who have enjoyed a pleasant horse ride at some point in your life, but a few of you might know that before a horse can be ridden, it must first be broken.

Wild horses have some very firm ideas about things on their backs - they want them off their backs. They make this point abundantly clear. No one who leaps on the back of a horse for the first time would ever think that this creature could serve as a reliable form of transportation.

The steppe nomads were among the first to harness the power of the horse.
Steppe Nomads Break Horses

Nevertheless, around 3500 BCE, the steppe nomads of Eurasia seemed to have had the patience to break horses to ride them. Finding themselves blessed with super human speed, they began to make raids into civilization. Incursions of steppe raiders may have inspired the Greek myth of the centaur. This unfamiliarity emphasizes the fact that, to much of the Bronze Age civilization, men on horseback were something strange and unheard of - the stuff of legend. Nevertheless, it seems the Assyrians, at least, embraced horseback riding. Still, the practice would not become widespread in the civilized world until the development of the stirrup some 2,000 years later.

There is a very simple reason for this. Remember that amazingly useful but prohibitively, heavy bronze armor? Anyone who could afford to own such armor could afford to have a horse. The problem is that you could not possibly ride a horse wearing heavy, bronze armor. First of all, an armored soldier is so top heavy, without stirrups, he'd fall off. Second of all, the horses are too little - the size of modern ponies - and not suitable to carry 250 pounds over long distances.

Also, horses are actually quite delicate. Though they're fast, they're not particularly good at carrying things. Too heavy a load will break a horses' back. They're also not very good at pulling things. Unlike an ox, which can pull many times its own weight, an ancient horse could not pull more than a few hundred pounds without choking to death. It would take humanity 3,000 years of selective breeding, and the invention of the horse collar, to finally make the horse capable of doing an honest day's work.

The Invention of the Chariot

The development of bronze offered a new option. So what if the horse could not pull much? It didn't have to, so long as it was fast. The horse was not meant for work. It was meant for war.

The same metal that had made the warrior so heavy would provide a lightweight vehicle to harness the power and speed of the horse. With bronze, wheels went from heavy clunky wooden affairs to streamlined beauties. The bronze wheels were lighter, stronger and rounder than their predecessors. They also offered less friction on the axle than their wooden counterparts.

The result was the chariot - a lightweight, maneuverable, horse-drawn vehicle with a wheel on each side of an armored platform. It had room for a driver and an armored fighter. The flat platform offered a good footing from which to fire a bow or hurl a javelin. But most importantly, chariots could carry armored soldiers for miles without killing the horses or even tiring their passengers. This allowed an empire to bring fresh troops wherever they were needed.

Chariots became a status symbol for the rich and powerful.
Chariots Became Popular

Indeed chariots are synonymous with empire. The very first empire, the Sumerians, made heavy use of the chariot. And, the Hittites seem to have built their entire empire upon their prowess as charioteers. Indeed, chariots would define warfare for the next millennium. Anyone who was anyone had themselves depicted in stone riding around in a chariot, hunting lions and slaying enemies.

The Roads of the Ancient World

The only limit to chariots is that wheels require a level surface to work effectively. This may have been one reason that empires began taking the building of roads seriously. Another might have been the need to establish lines of communication throughout an expanding empire. The obvious benefit of trade must have encouraged them as well.

Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians all exploited the roads of their predecessors during their conquests. They knew that roads would make them vulnerable. Yet, while in power, each expanded the networks of roads further. They knew that they would gain access to wealth and resources, facilitate communication and project their empire's power wherever they built roads.

Road building in the Near East reached its apex around 500 BCE with the ambitious highway system of Darius, who unified the roads of past empires into a network stretching 1,677 miles. Yet, by then, the true masters of road building, the Romans, had begun paving a path of conquest that soon would encompass the known world.

Road building and maintenance grew in the ancient world.
Ancient World Road Building Map

The Fall of Jericho

Let us return to Jericho. The city has done quite well for itself. It has withstood many assaults. Word comes of a new invasion.

'Primitive barbarians!' say the people of Jericho. 'We'll take them like we always have. Hide behind the walls and shoot arrows at the invaders until they get hungry and go away!'

But these aren't barbarians, and they're not primitive. In fact, they're quite the opposite. Before the people of Jericho have time to gather their livestock and take shelter behind the walls, the invaders are upon them. About half of the population doesn't make it inside.

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