Horse drawn carriages in history

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The Celts | Mesopotamia | Greece | Rome | Middle Ages | The Renaissance

Horse drawn history: The wagon and the chariot in ancient times
The word carriage stems from the Old Northern French word cariage, meaning to carry in a vehicle.

Horse drawn vehicles have been around for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of wheeled vehicles dating to the end of the 4th millennium BCE. For instance, at a site in Poland, a pottery vessel was discovered, on which a Bronze-age artist had depicted wagons.

The Celts
The Celts, those mysterious denizens of the Iron Age, buried prominent people with wagons along with other goods. Wagons dating from about the 8th century BCE to 500 BCE have been found throughout Europe in places like France, Germany, Austria and the former Yugoslavia.
Artwork of the time also featured images of wagons, which the Celts outfited with iron tires and pivoted axles. This includes engravings on a couch found at the burial site of a Celtic chieftan, on which the dead reclined.

The couch, known as the Hochdorft kline, shows a four-wheeled wagon drawn by a pair of horses. Seated on the wagon is a man carrying a shield and a sword, which leads historians to believe that wagons were used during times of war. The Hochdorf kline is housed at the Hochdorf Celtic museum in Germany.

Along with proving helpful in warfare, wagons during the Iron Age of the Hallstatt period (8th to 6th centuries BCE) were used for transporting goods such as mined salt. Several carriages have also been found whose purpose appears to have been exclusively ceremonial. The carriages feature animals and symbolic objects rather than room for passengers.

Mesopotamia
The chariot is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia, some time around 3000 BC. Pulled by oxen or assess, the two-wheeled vehicles were used in funeral processions, for carrying baggage, and for transport and defense in times of war.

This latter use may be seen depicted in the Standard of Ur, a large wooden box dating from 2600 to 2400 BCE and later, which was discovered in modern-day Iraq in the 1920s. A battle scene is portrayed, comprised of inlaid shell and semi-precious stones, and includes Sumerian soldiers riding on chariots drawn by four horses.

Greece
In ancient Greece, chariots were used as street vehicles but they were not considered a practical form of transportation for longer journeys. The Greek terrain was just too rocky. What's more, these vehicles would have been pretty uncomfortable. Chariots of the classical Greek period (750 BC to 146 BCE) which featured wooden wheels with spokes as well as tires of bronze or iron lacked suspension, with the body resting directly on the axle.

Nonetheless, chariots were greatly admired. The wheels and basket of the chariot were usually made of wood, reinforced with bronze or iron spokes. They were used in the races regularly staged in Greek hippodromes as well as at special athletic events. Chariot racing was introduced into the Olympic games in 680 BCE, with competitors driving carriages pulled by two or four horses.

The ancient Greeks had quite a love affair with the chariot, with the vehicle finding its way into quite a few myths. (Add hyperlink here to a section I'll write later on the chariot/wagon/carriage in mythology)

While the chariot took center stage in Grecian sporting events, the more utilitarian wagon was rarely used due to the unpaved roads and challenging terrain. For the most part, people traveled on foot or rode mules. Oxen served to transport heavier goods, while sea travel was the preferred route for long journeys.

The ancient Greeks were clearly familiar with wagons, however. The Greek god of War, Ares, is often seen journeying across the sky in a four-wheeled wagon called a quadriga. Pulling the wagon are five fire-breathing stallions with golden bridles.

The Greeks did use wagons for heavy freight. The Diolkos wagonway, which dates from about 600 BCE, is considered the earliest evidence of a railroad. There, boats were transported on wheeled wagons, drawn by horses along a track consisting of grooves hewn into the limestone surface. These tracks ran for some eight kilometres.

Rome
The ancient Romans were masters of one-upmanship. They were highly influenced by the Greeks, particularly after they conquered the mainland in 146 BC, and heartily embraced the tradition of carriage racing. Their races, however, were filled with amped-up drama.
Unlike the ornate chariots of the Etruscans (hyperlink), Roman racing chariots were simple in design, manufactured to be as small and light as possible. The minimalism ended there.

A chariot race began with an elaborate procession, including musicians, dancers and priests and priestesses carrying statues of Roman deities. Roman spectators had an unquenchable thirst for novelty and so chariots were drawn by a veritable menagerie: dogs, ostriches, tigers and teams of up to ten horses.

Chariot races were so popular that the track at one point, 24 races were being held per day at the Circus Maximus, which was designed to hold up to 10 chariots.

Like the Greeks, Romans wove their beloved chariot into many of their myths. (Hyperlink-send to section on chariots/wagons/carriages in myths.)

Horse drawn wagons also played a part in daily Roman life. The Roman Empire was bound together by skillfully engineered roads and city streets were paved, making wagon travel quite convenient. It was not without its risks, however. Bandits frequented Roman roads, so it was safer to travel with a retinue of slaves and armed guard.

Wagons were also used in commerce. The streets of Rome and other big cities were often crowded, and too narrow to accommodate freight vehicles as well as a crush of pedestrians. In order to minimize congestion, wagons delivered goods by night, and were banned in city streets during the day.

City-dwellers generally traveled on foot for short journeys. People of wealth were often carried by slaves, either reclining on a litter or seated in a chair.

Women of the senatorial class and of the imperial family also the option of riding in a covered coach called a carpentum. This honor was generally reserved for festivals and other special occasions. The who-wheeled carpentum could be pulled by two or four horses, or by mules or oxen. The coach generally seated up to three people, plus the coachmen. A private carpentum was sometimes used for long journeys.

Middle Ages
After the decline of the Roman Empire, the technology involved in the sprung horse drawn wagon or carriage all but disappeared. During the Middle Ages (5th to 16th centuries), virtually everyone walked or rode a horse from commoner to king. It's certainly understandable. Unpaved roads and carriages with no suspension made an uneasy mix.

The Renaissance
By the 16th century, closed carriages returned as a method of travel. The trend began in Hungary with the return of suspension. It is said that it was King Matthias who first commissioned a cart with the body separated from the axles, hung with leather straps.

The carriage was made more commodious with the addition of leather cushions. Once more, traveling via carriage was a viable option. This wagon was named after the Hungarian town of Koczi, from which the term coach may be derived. From this time on, carriages of all sorts began to be perfected, and the vehicles came into use throughout all of Europe.

The horse drawn carriage again captured the public imagination. Thus, we see carriages figuring prominently fairy tales as Charles Perrault's 1697 compilation of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella, in which a downtrodden beauty is whisked away to a ball in a pumpkin that has been transformed into an elegant coach.