The First Roman Chariot

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

...personal transportation for more than one...

The man credited with inventing the Roman chariot was named Mersaidas Benzicus, whose father owned a saddle and harness business. He reasoned that if a single horse could carry its rider to a distant location in a certain amount of time, then two horses should improve on that. Call it "two horse power".

The early experiments (300 BC) consisted of trying to fashion a saddle which would span the backs of two horses. There were problems with this in the early going. One was getting the horses to run side by side in sync, but the larger problem was finding a rider with legs long enough to grip that very wide saddle. Very wide.

The second problem was solved by having the rider stand in the center of a saddle which spanned both horses. This was novel but also funny - think of low-lying branches - and fortunately the early Romans managed to capture some of the original experiments on video tape. Follow this link to YouTube.

A solution rejected was to have the horses drag the saddle along the ground behind them. The rider would find this a more secure place to stand versus being up in the air, but the sudden collision with a fallen tree or large rocks (roads were not yet paved in those days) resulted in some severe injuries. Plus just one long trip would make a complete mess out of the saddle.

Mersaidas' father (Daimler) would look upon these efforts by his determined son, and shake his head.

At this point Mersaidas began to grasp a concept. What if the saddle being dragged behind two horses was supported on uneven ground by wheels? The first such design used wheels the size of roller skates, and four of them were needed to keep the saddle from pitching side to side, but as Mersaidas increased the size of the wheels, he discovered at a certain point that only two were required provided that they were at least 24 inches in diameter.

They didn't have "inches" in those days but I used this so that the reader would know what size we are talking about.

Other advances came quickly upon this discovery. Saddles are curved across the top but a person standing would be better off with a flat surface to place his feet. Plus the old man was getting pretty perturbed about the destruction of good leather. Mersaidas thought it best to switch to a wood platform, or perhaps some form of polyvinyl.

Well, you have seen pictures of the Roman chariots that would be used by future generals and emperors, with a curved hand rail across the front leading on to a "cage effect", elaborate decoration, a surface wide enough for two riders, stainless steel blades attached to the wheel axle which would cut infantry to ribbons. Usually enemy infantry.
The "Bel Aire" - a popular chariot model in 285 BC
Specifications: Disc brakes, Alloys, Posi-traction, 2 Airbags, MP3, Navigation.

And a natural transition of the use of the chariot would go through the steps of, first, fast transportation, then use in combat, then employment in sport. A natural transition in all cultures.

Each chariot was made by hand and often by one person from start to finish. Customized to the buyer's special wishes, such as a vertical container to hold arrows or extra spears, a rear-view mirror, perhaps a folding step at the back to make it easy for the girlfriend to ascend to the platform, special colors, fabrics, and the like. "Glow from Below." Whatever.

Such customization took time and was therefore expensive. Which leads into the next chapter in the evolution of the Roman chariot: the appearance of Fordas Maximus.

Fordas was a businessman and his wish was to bring the chariot to the common man by making chariots in a way which lowered the high cost. His method was to hire multiple workers with limited skills and teach each of them how to fashion just a small part of each chariot. These were people who came from farming families and had no mechanical knowledge, but a man could be taught to do the same task, over and over, while another man had a similar small task to perform, and so on.

One man would go get some wood, and pass it to another man who cut out the platform, who would pass it to another man who curved a rail for the front, then pass it to the next man for the next step, ad infinitum. But the system was not fast enough - it still took a lot of time for the parts to travel from man to man. Plus a Union had formed which demanded of management shorter work hours and certain "breaks" during the day, health coverage, and that kind of thing.

The solution was to suspend a heavy rope through the trees such that a chariot part could hang from it and the worker would stand in one spot and do his chore, then the rope would be pulled downhill to move the part to the next man. Fordas labeled this method the "assembly line" and that name has stuck ever since.

Soon a Roman home was not considered complete without a chariot, and within a few years, the two chariot household was common. When a young man came of age, all he wanted to mark the occasion was his own chariot, generally a used, and somewhat tired one, but he would "personalize" it with bull-nosing, racing stripes, and a whip antenna.

Desire for refurbished chariots among young Roman males inspired a new industry in Rome, the Latin words for which translate into "custom shop". One of the interesting "improvements" from such a shop - while driving slowly through Rome's streets - was to pull a lever which engaged certain springs so that the rear section of the chariot would "bounce" along even on a perfectly smooth surface. Quite a thing to see.

Young Roman females had no interest in chariots except to be taken by Marcus or Julius to a pizza place - another separate development appearing during the "rise of the chariots": We've got tomatoes, we've got cheese; what can we do with this?

No, females were more interested in wedging up the back of their sandals to hoist themselves higher into the air. Non-Romans never understood this passion. What does it mean when the circle-pin is on one side or the other? But I digress.

With the passage of time, there were innovations, particularly in pulling power. There was the three-horse chariot, and finally the four-horse chariot ("Amazing! Four horsepower!") which were not very useful on the battlefield but a sensation in the arena. Someone said the four horsepower chariot was the "Ferrari" of chariots and this was probably true.

Years went by and some of the citizens who could not afford even the assembly line chariots began to complain that "chariots are harmful to the environment", especially the heavier horsepower ones, and some Roman politicians called for their replacement with a cleaner form of transportation. These calls came at the same time that the Chariot Builders Union filed grievances against Fordas, and the chariot business seemed headed for bankruptcy.

At which point the Roman government stepped in and took over the Fordas Chariot Works in an effort to salvage the company and protect worker salaries and pension plans.

How well that worked out can be seen today. Are there any chariots on your street? But that was not all. The Roman government spent so much on salvaging the chariot business and other misguided adventures that The Vandals saw an opportunity and swept in to conquer the country. The Vandals had no chariot building skills at all, and frankly no other skill then plunder, pillage, and destruction. You can look it up.

They came from two areas North of Rome called Detroit and Chicago.

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