Greek chariot
No one is sure exactly how the Greeks evolved. Most likely they were a Stone-Age people that began voyaging to Crete, Cyprus, the Aegean islands and the Greek mainland from southern Turkey around 3000 B.C. and mixed with the Stone Age cultures in these lands.

Around a 2500 B.C., during the early Bronze Age, an Indo-European people, speaking a prototypical Greek language, emerged from the north and began mixing with the mainland cultures who eventually adopted their language. These people were divided into fledgling city states from which the Mycenaeans evolved. These Indo European people are believed to have been relatives of the Aryans, who invaded India and Asia Minor. The Hittites, and later the Greeks, Romans, Celts and nearly all Europeans and North Americans descended from Indo-European people.

Greek speakers appeared in the Greek mainland about 1900 B.C. They eventually consolidated themselves into petty chiefdoms that grew into Mycenae. Some time later the mainland "Greeks" began mixing with the Bronze Age people of Asia Minor and island "Greeks" (Ionians) of which the Minoans were the most advanced.

The first Greek are sometimes referred to as the Hellenes, the tribal name of an early mainland Greek people who were initially mostly nomadic animal herders but over time established settled communities and interacted with the cultures around them..

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Bronze Age Site in Greece

Proto Greek area

In 2001, a team led by Greek archaeologist Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou that was excavating the Homeric-era town of Helike in the northern Peloponnesus, found a well-preserved 4500-year-old urban center, one of the few very old Bronze Age sites discovered in Greece. Among the the things they found were stone foundations, cobbled streets, gold and silver clothing ornaments, intact clay jars, cooking pots, tankards and kraters, wide bowls for mixing wine and water, and other pottery---all of a distinctive style---and tall, graceful cylindrical “depas” cups like those found in the same age strata in Troy.

The Bronze Age ruins were found on the Gulf of Corinth among orchards and vineyards 40 kilometers east of the modern port city of Patras. Ceramics enabled archaeologists to date the site to between 2600 and 2300 B.C. Dr. Katsonopoulou told the New York Times, “It was clear from the beginning that we had made a significant discovery.” The site was undisturbed, she said, which “offers the great and rare opportunity to us to study and reconstruct everyday life and economy of one of the most important periods of the Early Bronze Age.”

Dr. John E. Coleman, an archaeologist and professor of classics at Cornell who had visited the site several times, told the New York Times, “It’s not just a little farmstead. It has the look of a settlement that may be planned, with buildings aligned to a system of streets, which is pretty rare for that period. And the depas cup is very important because it suggests international contacts.” Dr. Helmut Bruckner, a geologist at the University of Marburg in Germany said the location of the town suggests it was a coastal town and “at the time had a strategic importance” in shipping. Geologic evidence indicates it was destroyed and partly submerged by a powerful earthquake.


David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “All of the languages spoken in prehistoric Italy, with the exception of Etruscan, are members of the Indo-European language family. Working backwards on the basis of similarities among words from different languages and dialects (the comparative method), scholars are able to reconstruct the bare bones of a language they call Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The people who spoke this language were on the move in the latter part of the third and the first half of the second millennia B.C. These people, these speakers of PIE, come to us loaded with ideological signification. They are wrapped in the now discredited racist efforts of the Nazis and other groups who sought to make them the archetypal civilizers, the so-called Aryan people from whose bloodline the pure stock of Germany was supposed to descend. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Hence, when we find that leading scholars such as Massimo Pallottino, the dean of Italic prehistory, are more than a little wary about admitting to a massive influx of more advanced PIE-speaking people across the Alps in the Early to Middle Italic Bronze Age, we may suspect that (even if unconsciously) there is more involved in the decision than an impartial assessment of the evidence. Whenever the evidence can bear it, in fact, Pallottino and his school tend to favor a hypothesis of native development to explain and account for major innovations traceable in the archaeological record, as opposed to the influx of new and ethnically different kinds of people. Of course, even Pallottino, with his nativist bent, admits that prior to the Early Bronze Age the people of Italy were in all probability not speaking a dialect of Indo-European, and that the Indo-European language must have come into Italy from outside. ^*^

The standard line posits a single large ingression of warlike Indo-European speakers, who both tamed and advanced the indigenous population, and whose language and cultural practices spread throughout the peninsula. Pallottino prefers a messier model. He argues that the various Italic dialects, Latin, Osco-Umbrian, and the rest, can not be direct descendants of a single Proto-Italic dialect of PIE. In other words, that Indo-European was introduced into Italy at various times and in various guises, by various different groups of people, who were not conquerors en masse but rather smaller groups who were peacefully absorbed into the existing culture. Burial practice is extremely important for deciding on this question.” *^*

Indo-European migrations
Indo-European migrations


Indo-European (Aryan) intrusions into Iran and Asia Minor (Anatolia, Turkey) began about 3000 B.C.. The Indo-European tribes originated in the great central Eurasian Plains and spread into the Danube River valley possibly as early as 4500 B.C., where they may have been the destroyers of the Vinca Culture. Iranian tribes entered the plateau which now bears their name in the middle around 2500 B.C. and reached the Zagros Mountains which border Mesopotamia to the east by about 2250 B.C.. The Guti may have been Indo-European.

Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India. Aryan tribes also gave birth to early civilizations in Greece, Europe and India and were master charioteers. The Aryans were a loosely federated, semi-nomadic herdsmen people who spread both east and west from Central Asia, taking their sky gods with them. The Aryans first settled in the Punjab and later moved on to the Ganges Valley. They are also ancestors of Persians, pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts.

Aryans are defined as early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that provided the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the majority those in Europe.

Based on linguistic evidence Aryans are believed to have originated from the steppes of Central Asia. They were led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in the Rig Veda. The term arya in Sanskrit means “noble.” The Aryans introduced the horse-drawn chariot, the Hindu religion and sacred books known as the Vedas to present-day India.

The term “Aryan” has been used by European writers since 1835 but fell into disfavor in the mid 20th century because of its association with Nazi propaganda, which described the people of northern and central Europe as being the purest representatives of an “Aryan race.” Today, historians and ethnologist who discuss Aryans make it very clear they are taking about speakers of Aryan languages and are not taking about Aryan blood, hair, eyes or other features.

Ancient Greek dialects and tribes

Charioteers and Aryan Invaders

Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. successive waves of Aryans migrated to India from Central Asia (as well as eastern Europe, western Russia and Persia) . The Aryans invaded India between 1500 and 1200 B.C., around the same time they moved into the Mediterranean and western Europe. At this time the Indus civilization had already been destroyed or was moribund.

The Aryans had advanced bronze weapons, later iron weapons and horse drawn chariots with light spoked wheels. The native people the conquered at best had oxcarts and often only stone-age weapons.

"Charioteers were the first great aggressors in human history," the historian Jack Keegan wrote. About 1700 BC, Semitic tribes known as the Hykos, invaded the Nile Valley, and mountain people infiltrated Mesopotamia. Both invaders had chariots. Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India and the founders of the Shang Dynasty (the first Chinese ruling authority) arrived in China on chariots and set up the world's first state. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In India, Aryan settlers cultivated some wheat and barely but they were primarily horsemen and cattle herders. They cleared small patches of forest and set up villages and small towns. They didn’t occupy large towns or cites and didn’t leave any great ruined cities behind.. They didn’t really establish any towns of any size or practice settled farming until the Indian Iron Age begining about 700 B.C.

In India, The Aryans were led by a hereditary king and were divided into five major tribes. They remained warriors. They fought against non-Aryans and fought one another. They even persuaded non-Aryans to help fight against other Aryan tribes. War itself was described as the “search for cows.”

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

Hittite Lion-hunt relief around 1200 BC
at Aslantepe
John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

New analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

"Scholarly caution tells me the matter is not resolved," said Dr. Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "But my gut feeling is, there's a good chance the chariot was invented first in the north." While praising Dr. Anthony's work, Mary Littauer, an independent archeologist and co-author of "Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East" (Brill, 1979), was not ready to concede the point. "It's still debatable," she said. "A spoked wheel is not necessarily a chariot, only a light cart on the way to becoming chariots."

Other archeologists and historians said they would not be surprised to learn that the chariot had originated in the steppes. After all, pastoralists there were probably the first to tame and ride horses; as Dr. Anthony determined in other research reported four years ago, this may have occurred at least 6,000 years ago. Then they developed wagons with solid disk wheels, and many centuries later learned to make the lighter spoked wheels, the breakthrough invention leading to the fast, maneuverable chariot. The results of Dr. Anthony's dating research was presented at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association and an interpretation of the results was published in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archeological Institute of America.

Sintashta-Petrovka Culture of the Russian and Kazakhstan Steppes

20120209-Harappan small figures.jpg
Indus Valley cart around 1300 BC
“The culture of the Russian and Kazakhstan steppes was virtually unknown until about 15 years ago,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “when Russian archeologists began systematic excavations at several sites east of the Ural Mountains. One of the first sites explored was at a place called Sintashta, southeast of the city of Magnitogorsk. Another was Petrovka, 400 miles to the east on the Ishym River in northern Kazakhstan. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“Archeologists thus refer to these ancient people as the Sintashta-Petrovka culture. Their widely scattered settlements were linked culturally, as seen in the many similarities of their ceramics, metal weapons and tools, architecture and burial rituals. Find in Ancient Cemetery

At Sintashta, archeologists uncovered a large settlement of about 50 rectangular structures arranged in a circle within a timber-reinforced earthen wall. They found slag deposits from copper metallurgy, bronze weapons and gold earrings and the remains of six chariots in a cemetery of elite graves covered by earth mounds, or kurgans. Similar artifacts, and more chariots, were discovered at several other sites.

Russian scientists estimated that the culture flourished between 1700 and 1500 B.C. This inspired Dr. Stuart Piggott, a retired archeologist at Edinburgh University in Scotland and a specialist on ancient wheeled transport, to propose several years ago that if these people had developed chariots, as preliminary reports from the graves suggested, they could be the earliest developed anywhere.

But it was not until the end of the cold war that Western scholars began to learn the details of these excavations and could test Dr. Piggott's hypothesis. Enter Dr. Anthony, who had been collaborating with Russian archeologists on other research involving prehistoric cultures. He went to Dr. Nikolai B. Vinogradov, an archeologist at Chelyabinsk State Pedagogical Institute, who directed excavations of the chariot burials, and got permission to apply new radiocarbon dating techniques on those materials.

Sintashta-Petrovka Grave with a Chariot

20120209-Chariot Hyksos.jpg
Hyksos chariot
“In a grave pit at Krivoe Ozero, 120 miles north of Sintashta, archeologists had found an assemblage of materials typical of these burials,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. “The heads of two ritually killed horses were deposited next to the body of a man and a chariot, much like later Aryan practices. Other grave goods included spear points, a bronze ax and a dagger, three pots and four disk-shaped cheekpieces from a horse harness. The bit used to control a horse passes through these cheekpieces, which were made of bone and antler. The rein is attached to the bit. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

For dating the burial, Dr. Anthony took four samples of bone from the skulls of two horses in a single grave. They were analyzed at the University of Arizona at Tucson by a highly accurate type of radiocarbon dating technology using an accelerator mass spectrometer. This yielded a range of age estimates, from 2136 to 1904 B.C., with an average of 2026 -- much earlier than the Russians had estimated. Similar ages were determined independently at Oxford University in England, using samples from other steppe sites.

The chariots in the graves had decayed to dust, but not without a trace. The wheels had been fitted into slots cut into the dirt floor of the burial chamber. The lower parts of each wheel left stains as they decayed. The stains preserved the shape and design of the wheels. Some parts of a chariot superstructure were also preserved in this way.

Early Chariots

“A chariot is usually defined as a lightweight vehicle with two spoked wheels and drawn by two horses,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. “The earliest ones in the steppes and the Middle East probably used a form of the ox yoke around the horses' necks. Yokes adapted especially for horses, allowing them more freedom of movement, do not appear in Middle East art until the middle of the second millennium B.C. This probably represented the fully developed chariot, but the earlier versions also qualify as chariots in the eyes of nearly all scholars. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

Egyptian chariot
Sintashta-Petrovka wheels had 8 to 12 spokes. Early chariots in the Middle East, as revealed in the Anatolian seal impressions, had only four spokes. The steppe chariots were also quite narrow. The distance between the two wheels was consistently less than four feet, probably suitable for only one person. Chariots widely used in Middle East warfare in later centuries were wider, capable of carrying two or three people.

Both the difference in numbers of spokes and in width, Dr. Anthony said, suggest that the steppe chariots probably evolved locally. He said it was improbable that the technology developed independently in both places; more likely, it arose in one place and was soon introduced in the other.

"It is likely that chariot designs and perhaps uses varied from region to region, even during the initial rapid diffusion of chariot technology," he said. For example, the steppe chariot might have been developed not for warfare, but for use in ritual races meant to settle disputes or win prizes, which was an Aryan practice.

Dr. James D. Muhly, a professor of ancient history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the findings were important because they revealed a moment in the transition from wagons and carts with solid wheels to lighter vehicles with the spoke wheel, which weighed a tenth as much as the solid versions. People in Mesopotamia and on the steppes had been hitching oxen, asses and horses to these heavy wagons and carts since before 3000 B.C. Mesopotamian art as early as 2600 shows warriors being transported to battle in carts with solid wheels. Major Gain in Mobility

With the light, two-wheeled chariot, said Dr. Robert Drews, a classics professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, people could fully exploit the horse as a draft animal. And while an ox cart traveled only 2 miles an hour, a team of chariot horses could cover 10.

Chariot’s Military Applications

Mycenaean chariot
“This led to many applications, the most flamboyant of which was the chariot as a terrifying and efficient instrument of war in the late Bronze Age,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. From about 1700 to 1200 B.C., military strategy centered on chariotry, setting off an arms race. Rulers from Anatolia to Egypt and Crete to Mesopotamia strained palace treasuries to build more and more chariots, which were expensive. In the Bible, King Solomon is said to have paid 600 shekels of silver for each chariot; it had cost David only 50 shekels to buy a team of oxen and a threshing floor. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

And then, as Dr. Drews pointed out in his book "The End of the Bronze Age," published last year by Princeton University Press, there was the expense of maintaining the chariot force with horse trainers and grooms, veterinarians and carpenters, charioteers to drive and warriors skilled in archery and a bureaucracy of clerks and quartermasters to keep track of all this.

Although "the general character of chariot warfare remains unexplored," Dr. Drews wrote, the vehicle was probably used as a mobile shooting platform for archers. With charioteers at the reins, a mass of chariots would race forward while archers standing behind the driver would send a rain of arrows into the enemy ranks. It is thought that the Hittites introduced a third man, someone to hold a shield.

One of the culminating battles of chariotry came early in the 13th century B.C., when armies of the Hittites and Egyptians clashed on the plains of northern Syria at Kadesh. Muwatallis II, the Hittite king, deployed a force of 3,500 chariots, and Ramses II is supposed to have countered in kind, but the battle seems to have ended in a stalemate. By the end of that century, as armies learned to blunt the attacks with swarming infantry and later cavalry, the age of the chariot as a weapon drew to a close. The high-speed vehicle was reduced to roles in sport and regal parades.

Chariots, Aryans and the Indo-European Language

Greek chariot
“Among the charioteers of the steppes, the pattern was much the same,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. Aryan-speaking charioteers, sweeping in from the north in about 1500 B.C., probably dealt the death-blow to the ancient Indus Valley civilization. But a few centuries later, by the time the Aryans compiled the Rig Veda, their collection of hymns and religious texts, the chariot had been transformed to a vehicle of ancient gods and heroes. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“Chariot technology, Dr. Muhly noted, seems to have left an imprint on Indo-European languages and could help solve the enduring puzzle of where they originated. All of the technical terms connected with wheels, spokes, chariots and horses are represented in the early Indo-European vocabulary, the common root of nearly all modern European languages as well as those of Iran and India.

In which case, Dr. Muhly said, chariotry may well have developed before the original Indo-European speakers scattered. And if chariotry came first in the steppes east of the Urals, that could be the long-sought homeland of Indo-European languages. Indeed, fast spoke-wheeled vehicles could have been used to begin the spread of their language not only to India but to Europe.

One reason Dr. Anthony has his "gut feeling" about the steppe origin of the chariot is that in this same period of widening mobility, harness cheekpieces like those from the Sintashta-Petrovka graves show up in archeological digs as far away as southeast Europe, possibly before 2000 B.C. The chariots of the steppes were getting around, possibly before anything like them in the Middle East.

Chariots and Early Conquerors

The development of the chariot had a profound impact on history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Indus Valley People and Chinese all had them. Chariots have been around much longer than many people think. They had been in use for almost 2,000 years when the sport of chariot racing was at its peak in ancient Rome.

20120217-Iliad  Achill_erschlaegt_Hektor.jpg
Achilles dragging Hector
from a chariot in the Iliad
According to Keegan, "Charioteers were the first great aggressors in human history."About 1700 BC, Semitic tribes known as the Hykos, invaded the Nile Valley, and mountain people infiltrated Mesopotamia. Both invaders had chariots. The Hykos introduced their technology to the ancient Egyptians. Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India and later moved on to Greece. Around the same time the founders of the Shang Dynasty (the first Chinese ruling authority) arrived in China on chariots and set up the world's first state. " [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Fighting chariots often accommodated two people---one rider and one archer. Early charioteers often swept down out of the mountains, encircled their flat-footed and unarmored foes, and picked them off from 100 or 200 yards away with arrows fired from sophisticated bows.

The ruthless, formidable and well organized Assyrians were perhaps the greatest charioteers of the ancient world. They dominated the ancient world from the 9th century to 7th century B.C. , when they were replaced by the Persians, a people that used chariots to create a huge empire that stretched from Greece to India.

Chariots ruled the world until foot soldiers in Alexander the Great's army learned to withstand chariot advances by aiming their weapons at the horses first: wearing arrow-proof armor and shields; and organizing themselves into tight chariot-proof ranks.

Early Greeks

Greek tribes came from northern Greece and conquered and absorbed the Mycenaeans around 1100 B.C. and gradually spread to the Greek islands and Asia Minor. Ancient Greece developed around 1200-1000 B.C. out of the remnants of Mycenae. After a period of decline during the Dorian Greek invasions (1200-1000 B.C.), Greece and the Aegean Sea area developed a unique civilization.

The early Greeks drew upon Mycenae traditions, Mesopotamian learning (weights and measures, lunar-solar calendar, astronomy, musical scales), the Phoenician alphabet (modified for Greek), and Egyptian art. They established city-states and planted the seeds for a rich intellectual life.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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