From siege warfare to battlefield warfare

In the Late Bronze Age, as is becoming increasingly clear, battlefield warfare between Near Eastern kingdoms was the clash of chariotries.13 We know this from the only Late Bronze Age battles about which we are reasonably informed: the battles at Megiddo in the twenty-second year of Thutmose III, and at Kadesh in the fifth year of Ramesses II. In these battles the opposing chariotries were numbered in the high hundreds or the low thousands. Although there is still some confusion on this point, most historians recognize that the basic chariot crew consisted of a driver (the charioteer) and an archer (the chariot warrior). Far less skilled, and always optional, was a shield bearer. Hittite chariots were apparently built to accommodate a shield bearer as a third man, but in Egypt and elsewhere the chariot carried only a driver and an archer.14 Men on foot seem to have played only a supporting role. Camps were guarded by lines of men, each with a shield and spear, and chariots in action were assisted by “runners,” men on foot who were armed with a spear and/or a short sword and whose duty it was to protect their own crewmen or to dispatch enemy crewmen whose vehicles had been disabled. Cities of course continued to be besieged, and the siege required large numbers of laborers, but now the siege of a city followed the defeat of its chariotry in the open country.

In essence, chariots seem to have brought about the progression from siege warfare to battlefield warfare. By 1750 bc horse-drawn chariots had been known for over 200 years, first on the steppe and then in the Near East, where royalty acquired them for sport and promenade. As a transport for an archer, the chariot opened up new possibilities for hunting not only swift prey but also dangerous predators. At least through the time of Hammurabi, however, in Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt it had not yet been used against men. Because the initial role of the military chariot in the Near East is not described, we will have to imagine it. When Hammurabi or one of his contemporaries decided to besiege a city that had rejected his ultimatum, he assembled an ERIN.MES and sent it out against the recalcitrant city. Proceeding some 15 miles a day, it would slowly have made its way toward the target city. The king of the threatened city could try to thwart or at least delay the long column by setting an ambush at a place where the terrain offered concealment. Once the concealed archers and slingers had exhausted their missiles, however, they were themselves in danger, as the spearmen included in the ERIN.MES rushed toward them. The ambushers would have been a long way from the safety of their city gate.

Chariots will have changed all of this. Instead of setting an ambush the king of a threatened city could send out his chariots, ordering the archers continually to harass the ERIN.MES as it lumbered along. Shooting their arrows from a distance of well over 100 m, the archers—in no danger themselves—would have killed some and injured many more of the men in the siege train. If the ERIN.MES nevertheless reached its destination and the siege commenced, the chariots would have continued to harass the besiegers encamped around the walls and would also have disrupted the supply trains bringing rations and material for the thousands of laborers erecting the siege tower and siege ramp.

In order to deal with the defenders’ chariots a king intent on conducting a siege would have needed chariots of his own. In addition to fending off enemy chariots en route, they would have been used—once the siege began—for patrolling the wall and chasing down messengers who escaped from postern gates or were let down from the wall. Because chariots were so useful both for the besieged and the besiegers, within a short time after their military introduction every king in the Near East must have acquired at least a small chariot force. When chariots clashed they necessarily did so out in the open, away from the wall of a city and the siege ramp raised against it. So began battlefield warfare between Near Eastern kingdoms.

The new kind of warfare was followed by improvement in weaponry and by employment of defensive armor. In the Age of Hammurabi the composite bow, which had twice the range of a self bow, had been known for at least a millennium. Because it was expensive, however, its manufacture was uncommon. That changed with chariot warfare. The cost of a chariot and a team of horses trained to pull the chariot, to say nothing of the value of the chariot’s two crewmen, persuaded some kings that provision of composite bows for their chariot archers was a prudent investment. Other kings necessarily followed suit. To protect themselves against the more lethal arrows, the chariot crews found it necessary to wear heavy armor: leather helmets and corselets, with hundreds of bronze scales sewn to the leather.15 The corselet (the sariam in Human) was typically a tunic reaching to the lower leg.

 
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