Some opinions about warfare in the Bronze Age

The discussion about pre-state violence, and the prevalence of it, will continue to be intense, especially because the topic is an aspect of a larger debate about human nature and human potential. A topic much less controversial is the incidence of warfare in the period of the early civilizations in the ancient Near East. Assyriologists, Egyptologists, archaeologists and military historians are all agreed that with the appearance of the state, whether territorial kingdoms such as Egypt or city-states such as those of southern Mesopotamia, wars were an important part of human history.

How these wars were fought, however, is far from clear, despite the confidence with which they have often been described. Warfare in the ancient Near East was hardly a scholarly subject at all until 1963, when Yigael Yadin’s semi-popular The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study was published. As its title suggested, Yadin’s two-volume set was a merger of archaeology and the Bible, its chapters marked off by biblical signposts (“Before Abraham,” “The Patriarchs,” “Moses and the Exodus,” and so forth). Yadin presented a good picture of Iron Age battles in the Near East and also added his authority to several points that others had long recognized about the Late Bronze Age.

Yadin’s pioneering survey might have launched a critical history of Bronze Age warfare. Instead, because of the author’s distinction both as an archaeologist and as a general officer in the Israeli army, his Art of Warfare seemed definitive. For a long time deskbound scholars, including the present writer, saw no reason to question Yadin’s conclusions, several of which—especially on the third and second millennium bc—are now clearly wrong. Much of Yadin’s reconstruction of Early Bronze Age warfare was based on the visual evidence that was available in 1963, and not well understood. Especially influential were the Ur Standard and the Stela of the Vultures. When he looked at the representations on these artifacts Yadin, like other scholars at the time, saw well-ordered phalanxes of spearbearing infantrymen clashing with each other, while four-wheeled “chariots” sped across the Sumerian battlefield. Models of two-wheeled carts, although the wheels were solid and the draft equids were controlled by nose-rings, convinced Yadin that Mesopotamian chariot units were widely used in battle, and that “[w]ith all its shortcomings, the Mesopotamian chariot was assuredly a formidable and decisive instrument of warfare in this region. And it was used continuously in its basic original form throughout the whole of the third millennium.”6 Placing both phalanxes and chariots in the Early Dynastic period, Yadin saw “normal” warfare beginning almost as early as civilization itself:

During the second half of the fourth millennium, and more markedly during the third, the foundations were laid for the principles of warfare and the basic types of weapons and fortifications which prevailed during the succeeding 3,000 years—indeed, right up to the discovery of gunpowder in the 15th century A.D.7

This picture of highly developed warfare (with the onagers and “chariots” front and center) in the Near East during the third millennium BC still appears regularly in histories of ancient warfare.8 A stark alternative, however, is available. To the traditional view a trenchant paragraph in Doyne Dawson’s The First Armies offers a bold challenge that is incapable of proof but likely to be much closer to the truth:

[T]he wars of complex agrarian societies seem always to turn on the clash of masses of foot soldiers in more or less disciplined formations. It is hence commonly and not unreasonably assumed that state-level warfare of the Clausewitzian type must have arisen simultaneously with the rise of the state in about 3000 bc, and that infantry warfare arose at the same time. But it will be argued herein that in fact there was a startling time gap, two thousand years long, between the rise of the state and the rise of state-level warfare. Three stages can be discerned in that long transition. Clausewitzian warfare became technically possible with the development of city states in Mesopotamia by 3000 bc, but the evidence suggests that did not happen. Instead, the first states poured their resources into fortification, a purely defensive strategy which prohibited offensive warfare; insofar as offensive warfare existed, it was probably little different from that of the Stone Age, and no more effective as an instrument for achieving political objectives. In the second stage, after 1700 bc, offensive wars between well-organized states became common, but this was a type of warfare unlike any before or since, relying upon elite groups of horsed chariotry, with such infantry as there was in a passive and subsidiary role. Finally, after 1000 bc, the first true infantry formations appeared, as did the first true cavalry, and the art of war as we know it was born.9

In the same year (1963) that Yadin’s Art of Warfare appeared, a helpful discovery about Late Bronze Age warfare was published by Egyptologist Alan Schulman, in his study of chariotry in the New Kingdom.10 The “runner” (phrr) often shown in reliefs or mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions, Schulman concluded, was a man on foot who ran along with the chariots to engage the enemy (crewmen of disabled chariots, as well as enemy “runners”) with hand-to-hand weapons. Schulman’s publication in a low-circulation periodical was swamped in the wake of Yadin’s Art of Warfare and no more was done with the “runners” until 1984, when Nigel Stillman and Nigel Tallis included them in a little book that was barely noticed by Assyriologists, Egyptologists, or Near Eastern archaeologists.11 In 1988 I stressed the primacy of chariotry in the Late Bronze Age but made no mention of “runners,” because I had not noticed them either. And on warfare before the advent of chariotry I was as far off as everyone else.12

Five years later, I was still wrong about warfare in and before the Age of Hammurabi, but did shed some light on warfare in the Late Bronze Age. Having read what Schulman, Stillman and Tallis had written, and having looked through our documentary evidence, I argued that in Late Bronze Age battles “runners” were the only offensive infantry, chariots doing almost all of the offensive work, and that at the end of the Bronze Age large bands of renegade “runners”—armed with javelins as long-range weapons, and thrusting swords (not slashing swords) for hand-to-hand combat—gathered to defeat the chariot armies and to sack the cities that had depended on them.13 The other half of the argument was that by the reign of Ramesses III (and during the LH IIIC period in Greece) kingdoms began using close-order formations of offensive infantry on the battlefield, each man equipped with spear and shield, in order to corral and kill the swarming “runners.”

This view of Late Bronze Age warfare, needless to say, is not widely shared. Many and probably most scholars still believe that through the entire Bronze Age formations of infantry clashed on the battlefield, and that when chariots made their appearance in the Late Bronze Age they were only ancillary to the infantries.14 Nor is there even a consensus about the role of chariots in the Late Bronze Age. On Homer’s authority many specialists on the LH Aegean believe that the Mycenaean palaces kept several hundred chariots to serve as battle-taxis for several hundred infantrymen, each wearing something like the Dendra corselet of plate bronze (the weight of the corselet was at least 15 kg). In objecting to my reconstruction of Late Bronze Age warfare Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel argued that even in the Near East chariots were only of limited use, and in Greece merely “functioned as a means of transport for warriors who fought not from the vehicle but on the ground with close-range weapons.”15

As for warfare on the Eurasian steppe and in temperate Europe, many Indo- Europeanists still accept Marija Gimbutas’ thesis that in the fifth, fourth and early third millennia BC steppe warriors on horseback invaded Europe, took over large parts of it, and introduced militarism into what had until then been a peaceful society. In one of her last publications Gimbutas reiterated her belief that “the Kurgan peoples,” having learned to ride the horse ca. 4500 bc, exploited its military value in conquering Old Europe: “A well-equipped warrior on the ground is formidable enough, but on horseback he undoubtedly became a terrifying opponent.”16 The corollary of Gimbutas’ thesis, although seldom stated, is that through the rest of the Neolithic and through all of the Bronze Age men in temperate Europe fought from horseback.

These are profound misconceptions, I am quite certain, and much more about early warfare remains to be explored. The goal of this chapter is to separate what is assumed from what is known about warfare in western Eurasia before the introduction of chariots. At the outset it must be admitted that for most of western Eurasia few conclusions can be drawn, and even those few are tentative. Because for prehistoric Europe and the Eurasian steppe the subject of warfare is almost totally obscure, we must take a long and close look at the Near East. There our documentation is full enough—especially for Mesopotamia—to make at least a few pertinent observations. Recent surveys by Doyne Dawson and William Hamblin have helped to bring together much that is known about warfare in the ancient Near East. Aaron Burke’s study of early siege warfare is illuminating, and also valuable are a variety of other specialized studies, including the essays edited by Philippe Abrahami and Laura Battini in Les armees du Proche-Orient ancien.1 Those of us who are not Sumerologists or Assyriologists are fortunate that thousands of early cuneiform texts have now been translated into one of the modern languages: the ongoing translations in the Archives Royales de Mari, and the translations by Jerrold Cooper, Ignace Gelb, Burkhart Kienast, and Wolfgang Heimpel.

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