Celtic War Chariots – A Primer

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Lloyd Sabin, 14 February 2014

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Celtic chariot pulled by a team of two

Beginnings and Basics
I wish I could have met the guy who invented the spoked wheel. It’s one of the most vital inventions in the history of mankind. Invented about 4000 years ago, it immediately made all human pursuits easier, from travel to commerce to war. And once the spoked wheel took off, it led directly to the development of the war chariot.

The earliest vehicles built for war and considered chariots were built by the Sumerians, Hittites, and Persians, around 2500 BC. Looking back, we today would probably just call them ‘wagons carrying a spearman’…because that’s exactly what they were. Heavy and cumbersome, with solid wheels, they were not very fast and made for easy targets until the Sumerians developed a more modern two-wheeled version, with the brand new spoked wheels. Speed gave the Sumerians battlefield dominance, and the modern technology of the spoked wheel began to spread.

Simultaneously, wheeled, chariot-like vehicles were being developed all over the world at the time. In the 2000 years before 1AD, examples of chariots appeared, often in a military role, in Chinese, Indian, northern and central European civilizations. The domestication of the horse helped with the advance of chariot technology, especially in European warfare.


A spearman mounted on a chariot, doing what he does best.

Perfecting the War Chariot, Inspiring Fear
Of all European cultures of the ancient world, the Celts are probably the best known charioteers, with some of the most feared wheeled vehicles of the ancient era. Not content just scaring the crap out of their opponents with tattoos, woad and war cries, the Celts also tricked out their combat rides with a host of nasty countermeasures that left their opponents reeling. This included scythed wheels, extra noise to spook opposing horses, and skill to jump from the chariot, fight on foot, and jump back on the chariot again to move along without their opponent able to catch up to engage…hit and run tactics at their best.

Throughout the ancient world the Celts were renowned for their chariot building skill, and in recent years dozens of excellent Iron Age examples have been discovered throughout the British Isles, mostly in England and Scotland. These examples have lasted this long because the iron and wood bits have been preserved in bogs, and many of the specimens found recently have been whole and in almost working order. Also discovered by modern archaeologists are one piece spoked wheels and advanced suspensions with free hanging axles for a smoother ride. Who would have thought that ancient Celts were concerned with traveling comfort?

Use it or Lose It
So the Celts pimped their rides with the latest Iron Age technology and got to the battlefield in real style. What did they do with these vehicles once they got to the battle site? Anything they wanted, really. Matching well with Celtic warrior tradition, Celtic war chariots were used to sow chaos in enemy ranks. From internecine Celtic tribal warfare to resistance to Roman rule, the chariot could typically be found careening around the battlefield, pulled by teams of two, three or four horses, with its on board troops flinging spears and sowing general chaos among enemy troops: the more chaos sown, the more successful the mission.


War chariot from Irish folklore

The Celts included chariots in their battle order for hundreds of years and were as successful as the more ancient chariot-using civilizations of India, China and the Middle East. Boudicca the Celtic warrior queen rode a red chariot into battle against the Romans in the first century AD, and fast chariots are included in many stories in Irish folklore from the same era.

As the first century AD came to a close, however, cavalry technology around different areas of the Roman Empire and in the wilds of Great Britain improved. Stronger, faster, more powerful war horses would lead to the decline of the chariot as a stable, viable combat vehicle, and the war chariot would quickly evolve into heavier types of vehicles, reverting back to four wheels eventually.

By the 2nd century AD the chariot would be gone, replaced by what would become the war wagon in some civilizations.  Chariot racing, however, lasted for centuries beyond even the fall of Rome. The intoxication of flying around a track trying to beat your opponents was a difficult pursuit for ancient drivers to give up.

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