The beginnings of militarism in temperate Europe

In the second quarter of the second millennium bc a military class appeared over much of western Eurasia. In the Near East, the only place for which we have written records for the period, this class was made up of chariot drivers and chariot archers. From the seventeenth century bc to the twelfth, they were the backbone of the Great Kingdoms: Kassite Babylon, New Kingdom Egypt, Mittani, and the Great Kingdom at Hattusha. The minor kingdoms in the region as well as the Mycenaean palaces in Greece and on Crete also equated their chariotries with military strength.

In temperate Europe too charioteers seem to have made their appearance in the period 1750-1500 bc. Indirect evidence for chariots at that time has been found in the Carpathian basin, northern Europe (northern Germany, Denmark and southern Sweden), and in northern Italy. Although large chariotries were maintained by the Mycenaean palaces until the end of the Bronze Age, in temperate Europe the chariot’s military usefulness must have been limited and brief. In the second half of the second millennium bc chariots in the Carpathian basin, southern Scandinavia and northern Italy seem to have served as status symbols, while the men who owned them were at the top of a warrior class that fought on foot with swords and spears.

Before and through most of the Bz A2 period the material record from temperate Europe includes no swords and no spearheads. Then, quite suddenly, swords and spearheads make their appearance, and eventually they are there by the thousands. They show up occasionally in settlement deposits, more often in graves, and still more often in hoards and votive deposits. Many of the weapons from Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe come from dedications made either in lakes and lagoons or more often in rivers. Running water, as Daniel Neumann has suggested, was throughout the European Bronze Age the preferred place for making a ritual offering of weapons.1 And swords, especially those that were skillfully decorated, were the offering of choice. The votive deposits show with special clarity how radically parts of Europe had changed in the Bronze Age, from a society in which battles seem to have been virtually unknown to the belligerence that was to characterize Europe for the next three and a half millennia.

The reality of warfare in Late Bronze Age Europe was illustrated recently by the discovery of a votive deposit made ca. 1200 bc in, or to, the Tartaro river at Pila del Brancon (near Verona).2 The deposit lowered into the Tartaro contained at least ten bronze swords and fifty-one bronze spearheads. The spearheads were blunted. The dedicators treated the swords with respect, keeping them intact but “killing” them by annealing, rapidly quenching, and then U-bending them.3 The swords and spears were evidently the weapons of a defeated force, and although still very serviceable were made into a precious sacrifice that the victors presented to the gods and buried forever in a flowing stream.

Even more recent is the discovery of a battlefield along the Tollense river in northeastern Germany, more than 500 airline miles from Pila del Brancon. In a two-mile stretch along the banks of the Tollense, and in the river bed itself, archaeologists from Mecklenburg have found bronze spearheads and bronze and flint arrowheads. In the small area thus far excavated they have also found the bones of more than 100 men, most of whom were in their twenties or thirties, and of five horses.4 This was a battleground, not a burial ground, and their bones lay where the men and horses fell. Carbon dates indicate that the battle was fought ca. 1250 bc. Skulls and bones were cracked by swords, axes and spears, and arrowheads were imbedded in the bones. On the basis of what has been found, and what remains to be dug, the archaeologists suggest that the Tollense battle may have involved several thousand men.

The battles at the Tartaro and the Tollense show how bellicose parts of Europe had become by its Late Bronze Age. But it had not always been so. Chapter 3 pointed out what little evidence there is for any military presence in Europe before the late stage of the Bz A2 period. This chapter will explore the evidence for a radical change toward the end of that period.

The advent of militarism in temperate Europe seems to have been a result of the chariot revolution, and it happened first in the Carpathian basin. The introduction of chariots into warfare obviously had enormous consequences in the Near East. The Shaft Graves at Mycenae and tholos burials elsewhere show that in Greece the advent of chariots coincided with the advent of militarism. In the Carpathian basin we have nothing like the Mycenaean Shaft Graves, but it is becoming clear that two or three generations before the end of the Bz A2 period (the Bz A2 period in central Europe is roughly contemporary with the MH and MM periods in the Aegean) there were innovations here of fundamental importance for military history. Here too the change came with chariots. In 1998 Nikolaus Boroffka published a catalogue and description of the many bone and antler cheekpieces found in Bronze Age Romania, and his meticulous work is essential for the argument of this chapter.5 For archaeologists focusing on continuity and evolution, the military innovations may not be of much interest. The decorative motifs on pottery in the Carpathian basin gradually evolve from zigzag to meander and the techniques of incision change slightly, but in many respects the pottery stays the same because that is what pottery does.6

Although chariots made their appearance in the Carpathian basin late in the Bz A2 period, along with swords and spears, the archaeological evidence alone does not connect those innovations to conquest or to any other event (no destruction levels in the Carpathian basin are dated to the second half of the Bz A2 period). Events in prehistory by definition remain beyond our ability to describe, but the archaeological evidence shows clearly enough the militarization of the Carpathian basin late in the Bz A2 period, and not long thereafter of two other parts of temperate Europe that were rich in natural resources. Circumstantial evidence suggests, although it cannot prove, that this militarization represents a takeover of these areas by intruders from the east. It has often been supposed that chariot warfare was “borrowed” by one population from another, in somewhat the same way that styles of pottery or methods of weaving were borrowed. But until it had become widely familiar chariot warfare could hardly have been borrowed without also “borrowing” not only the horses but also the men on whom it depended: grooms, veterinarians, trainers, drivers and archers.

Before plunging into the murk of prehistory, it will be helpful to recall that in historical times the replacement of one language by another has usually been a consequence of military domination. Until the early nineteenth century languages normally survived and evolved within natural topographical boundaries, such as rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, large bodies of water and other physical features.7 The remarkable survival of many Basque dialects in the Pyrenees, of various Nuristani dialects in the Hindu Kush, and of several dozen languages in the Caucasus is a result of the isolation of the mountain valleys in which they have been spoken.8 The displacement of one language by another, in contrast, has regularly been due to factors other than topography. A hundred years ago it was supposed that in prehistoric times language displacement was typically the result of a national migration, but such an explanation has lost its credibility. In historical times the displacement of one language by another was occasionally the result of inherent advantages of the triumphant language community. The spread of Aramaic in the Fertile Crescent during the first millennium bc, for example, seems to have been largely a consequence of the language’s utility in trading and of the alphabetic script in which it was written. And I have argued in Chapter 1 that Indo-Hittite languages spread across western Anatolia and into southeastern Europe in the agricultural “wave of advance” proposed by Renfrew, Mesolithic Europeans learning the language of their Neolithic neighbors and eventually forgetting their own. The spread of PIE far to the east and far to the west of the Volga apparently continued this wave of advance, with wagons and pastoralism instead of agriculture as its motivating force.

More often, the replacement of one language by another was the result of a military conquest or takeover. Such replacement was never immediate, but came about gradually because the language of the rulers enjoyed a much higher status than that of the subjects.9 From the fifteenth century through the eighteenth the Russian language spread as the tsars extended their rule from Muscovy to a Russian empire. Arabic is spoken throughout the Middle East and North Africa because Arabian armies conquered those lands in the seventh century: by the tenth century millions of the caliph’s Jewish and Christian subjects had learned to speak Arabic at least as a second language. The thousand languages spoken in the pre-Columbian Americas have given way to the languages of four European imperial powers: Spain, Portugal, England and France. Several hundred indigenous languages of Australia were likewise replaced by English, as British colonists extended British rule over the continent. The linguistic map of Europe itself is the result of military conquest. Most Europeans west of the Rhine speak a “Roman” language because the Romans conquered most of Europe west of the Rhine. And the Anglo-Saxons who took over southeastern Britain in the fifth century undoubtedly left their linguistic mark on the island.

This mechanism of language replacement is so familiar that historians can have little difficulty with a theory that the Indo-European languages came to Europe in the wake of military conquests. Much more difficult would be to come up with any other explanation of how and why Indo-European languages came to be adopted through most of Europe. Renfrew’s Archaeology and Language was an attempt to substitute an agricultural “wave of advance” for Gimbutas’ riders who Indo-Europeanize Europe as they conquer it. Renfrew’s wave of advance works well enough for the spread of Indo-Hittite into Europe and the spread of PIE along the Asian steppes, but if the Indo-European riders are driven from the field it probably will be by conquerors of another kind.

It is quite clear that in Europe militarism, with chariots, first appeared in the Carpathian basin and in Greece. This happened, on the chronology employed here, shortly before 1600 bc. By ca. 1500 bc a military class with ties to the Carpathian basin had also taken control of southern Scandinavia and of northern Italy. In these latter areas chariots were also present, but probably performed little or no military service. In Europe, unlike the Near East, the actual employment of military strength may have been unnecessary. For those who displayed it, the mere appearance of military strength may have been enough to take over the lands they coveted. I believe that the militarizing of the Carpathian basin and northern Italy was the occasion for their Indo-Europeanization, and I suspect that the militarizing of southern Scandinavia may have launched the Germanic subgroup of Indo- European.

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