In the spring of the year 1285 B.C. the royal army of Egypt marched northward into Syria to engage a powerful Hittite force in a battle that was to settle for several generations the long and bloody contest between the two empires for control of southern Syria.
The Egyptians, advancing on the city of Kadesh, some 16 miles southwest of modern Homs, had somehow permitted their four regiments to spread out so far along the line of march that when the lead regiment was making camp before the walls of Kadesh, the second regiment was still crossing the Orontes River seven miles away. The other two regiments were even further behind. Suddenly—as the Egyptians began to ford the river—the Hittites launched one of the great chariot attacks of ancient history. It demoralized the panic-stricken Egyptians and gave their enemies a swift, easy victory. For a few moments the power of mighty Egypt tottered perilously. But then the Hittites made a mistake. They paused to plunder the goods and weapons of the defeated army instead of pressing on. That gave the regiment at Kadesh time to march back to the river where, in company with some newly arrived allies, they saved the day.
In itself the Battle of Kadesh settled nothing. Neither side could claim a total victory. But the battle did result in a peace treaty that remained in effect for several generations and defined the boundaries of the Egyptian and Hittite spheres of influence in Syria and marks the establishment—probably for the first time in military history—of a balance of terror more than 3,000 years before anyone got around to coining a phrase to describe it. It also suggests an unsettling fact: that the survival of man and his empires has depended for a disturbingly long time on the efficiency of military strategy and the technology of weaponry.
In this modern age people suppose that with nuclear missiles man has achieved the ultimate in military weapons. But a careful examination of reliefs and paintings on the walls of ancient temples or of written documents of the past suggests that as early as the third millennium, men were certain that they had the ultimate weapon only to find that each time "the other side" was able to develop, first, a defense, and then a new weapon.
Military history actually begins with the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people who inhabited southern Iraq and who left the first detailed records of their armies. As early as the first part of the third millennium B.C. the Sumerians had forged strong city-states and could field armies of great power and versatility. As was true of most ancient armies, the backbone of the Sumerians was the infantry. The Sumerian infantry was divided into light infantry companies, lightly clad mobile troops who fought with clubs, javelins and daggers, and heavy infantry companies, whose troops wore bulky clothing—as armor—and copper helmets and fought with a heavy short spear. But the Sumerians had developed some surprises for their enemies, too. One was a method of attack: they marched into battle behind a solid row of shields—thus anticipating Alexander's Macedonian Phalanx, by more than 2,000 years. The other surprise was a war chariot, the first known in history.
The Sumerian chariot was not the horse-drawn chariot that was to become so important later—the horse had not yet made its appearance in the Middle East—but a heavy cumbersome vehicle drawn by a team of four asses. It had two or four solid wheels made of three slabs of wood held together by cross-tenons on either side of the axle, and for "tires" had strips of leather or copper nailed in place with copper studs. Although it could not have been capable of swift maneuvers, it carried, besides the driver, a warrior who fought with spear, javelin and axe, and must have been for its day a formidable weapon.
It was fortunate that the contemporary Egyptians never met the Sumerians in battle. For although Egypt had created a brilliant civilization in the early third millennium B.C., her military forces would have been no match for the Sumerian phalanxes and chariots. The Egyptian army of this period consisted entirely of light infantry which wore no armor and fought with short-handled axes, throw-sticks and—the only weapon that might have given the Sumerians pause—bows and arrows. But the two empires never did clash and if the Egyptian military standards seemed primitive by Sumerian standards, Egyptian troops still managed to defend Egypt and to embark on limited conquests in Nubia, Libya and Palestine.
With those exceptions, however, warfare changed little in the next 1,000 years. Then, during the first half of the second millennium B.C., there occurred a revolution in warfare in which the armies of the ancient Middle East developed such advanced weapons, tactics and defences that they were not substantially altered until the introduction of firearms in the late Middle Ages. And the beginning of the revolution was the appearance of the horse-drawn chariot.
The horse-drawn chariot was as different from the Sumerian chariot as a pistol is from a muzzle-loader. It had spoked wheels and a light wooden frame construction and was drawn by two swift horses. It could charge quickly, maneuver easily and provide a mobile base of firepower which could be moved swiftly from one point on the battle-field to another—rather like the helicopters of Vietnam. Chariots were rarely used in either direct frontal attacb on advancing infantry formations or on other chariots. They galloped around the flanks and rear, disrupting these formations from a distance with javelins and arrows. They attacked directly only when the enemy troops had become disorganized or when it was time to deliver a final crushing blow to an array already in retreat.
The horse-drawn chariot came from the North. In the early centuries of the second millennium B.C., Indo-Aryan peoples speaking strange dialects akin to those of India, moved into northern Iraq and Syria, and—with the chariot giving them an edge over the local people—established themselves as a ruling warrior-caste. The nations around them were quick to copy this marvelous new war-engine so that by the 16th century B.C. it was a component in all armies—with the result that military tactics had to be radically revised, sometimes' in a most amusing way. One Egyptian general, faced with a huge mass of enemy chariots, broke it up by turning a mare loose among the stallions. Instead of charging the Egyptians the stallions went galloping off the field in pursuit of the mare and Egypt won another battle.
Other developments of this period affected siege tactics. While chariotry was invaluable in open battle, armies were more often engaged in tedious and costly siege warfare in which heavily fortified cities had to be taken by storm. Up to the first half of the second millennium B.C., tactics for breaching fortifications were straightforward and simple: under cover of concentrated archery fire, warriors raised scaling ladders against the walls, climbed them and tried to overpower the defenders at the top. Such tactics are shown in Egyptian reliefs of the third millennium. But at the beginning of the second millennium the whole concept of siege warfare changed with the appearance of the battering ram.
This first battering ram was a long metal-tipped pole operated by three or four soldiers from inside a movable structure which offered an overhead shield from arrows and other missiles. Since walls were generally built of mud bricks, this was an effective means of poking a hole big enough to admit troops. Then, according to documents from eastern Syria, dating back to the 18th century B.C., there was still another development: siege-towers. These were movable towers from which archers, raised to the level of the city walls, could rake the defenders with arrows. In combination with scaling-ladders and battering-rams, siege-towers soon destroyed the advantage that defenders had always held over attackers.
Army engineers were not long, however, in developing answers to the siege-machines. Since the battering ram could breach the strongest walls, they developed a new type of fortification that made it virtually impossible for such machines to get near the walls in the first place. They sharpened the natural slopes of the mounds on which the fortifications stood, covered the slopes with packed earth and stone and coated them with plaster. At the bottom they dug a moat. The result was a smooth sloping surface surrounding the town, and ending in a deep ditch, sometimes filled with water. Since attacking forces first had to cross the moat, then move up a slippery plastered hill-side before they could reach the city walls, battering-rams and siege-towers were rendered almost useless.
For a time, these defenses restored the advantage of the defenders. Some commanders, in fact, did not bother to attack strong cities directly any more, preferring to try and starve them into submission. One Egyptian general turned to trickery to take the powerful town of Joppa. Promising favorable peace terms, he withdrew his attacking army from the walls and sent a long train of basket-laden donkies into the town. Since the train supposedly bore gifts and supplies, it was allowed to enter the gates. In an action reminiscent of the Trojan Horse and Ali Baba, armed troops sprang from the baskets and Joppa was quickly added to the Egyptian empire.
But if the new tactics reduced the value of siege-machines for the Egyptians, they only stimulated the armies of Mesopotamia to invent even more ingenious methods. When confronted by moats, for example, the Mesopotamians simply filled them with earth and rubble. Then they constructed ramps of wood or brick right up to the walls and pushed the siege-machines up the ramps into position. By the time the Assyrian Empire had arisen in the eighth century B.C., such techniques were so perfected that the Assyrians rarely failed to take a city.
From the 16th to the 12th centuries B.C., when the Egyptians of the Nile Valley, the Hittites of central Turkey and the Mitannians of northern Syria and Iraq struggled almost continually for possession of Syria, warfare changed significantly again. Under the stress of such unremitting demands armies had to organize more efficiently—nowhere more effectively than in Egypt.
Prior to the 16th century B.C., Egypt had no permanent standing army. Much as levies of peasant-soldiers were raised in medieval Europe, the earlier Egyptian kings relied on their district governors to provide companies of part-time troops when the need arose. But after the 16th century, a whole new concept was introduced—the permanent standing army made up of professional soldiers, led by seasoned and experienced officers. Many of these professionals received specialized training and were then formed into special units: marines who fought at sea, garrison troops to man border stations or fortresses in the provinces, or shock troops who led infantry charges. There were even companies that specialized in the use of a particular weapon, such as the throwing axe.
The rise of professional soldiers resulted in an organizational structure as complex as that of many modern armies. The main tactical combat unit was the infantry company of 250 men. This was subdivided into platoons of 50 with each platoon divided into squads of 10. Companies, in turn, formed regiments—some as large as 5,000 men—and several regiments formed an army. Attached to the infantry units were squadrons of chariots, the number depending on the circumstances of the moment, and contingents of mercenaries, drawn largely from the Nubian and Libyan provinces.
To administer, supply, train and lead a professional army of this kind also required a large corps of non-combatants—to keep records, arrange and transport enormous quantities of supplies and manufacture and repair weapons.
In this same period, weaponry and equipment were steadily developing too. The Hittites, for instance, had developed a much more effective chariot. Where the Egyptians assigned just two men—driver and warrior—to their chariot, the Hittites assigned three, the third being a shield-bearer who could also fight. With three men and a large chariot they could thus use it for frontal assaults.
Other weapons developed in the second millennium, included the sword, in its many varieties, of which the most popular was the sickle-sword. With a sickle-shaped blade that gave a long curved cutting and chopping edge, and a hilt and blade that was stronger than an axe, because it was cast in one piece, the sickle-sword became a standard hand weapon in every army.
One of the most decisive new hand-weapons was the composite bow, Made from several materials glued together—wood, animal horn, tendons and sinews—this new type of bow had a range of three to four hundred yards. Its impact on warfare was equal to that of the English longbow and the crossbow of medieval times.
Another innovation was scaled body armor. Although in earlier times, helmets and heavy clothing offered some protection, the extensive use of more powerful bows and swords made more adequate covering necessary. Chariot warriors were especially vulnerable since they were more exposed and could not easily carry shields—which is why body armor of bronze scales sewn on cloth is commonly associated with charioteers. The bulk of an army went without armor; indeed it would not have been practical. Ancient armor coats were quite heavy and a foot soldier would have found it more of a drawback than a help. Charioteers rode into battle, so the excessive weight of armor added little discomfort while providing protection. The infantry-man, whose life often depended on quick reactions, was usually better off without it.
In the first millennium B.C. these centuries of development came to a head along the Tigris River with the rise of the fierce, wholly militaristic Assyrian Empire whose soldiers, in Byron's words, "came down like the wolf on the fold," and swept through the Middle East in a swath of blood. The Assyrian armies of the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C. were probably the most efficient fighting force of ancient days. Rigorous training and yearly maneuvers, whether there was to be an actual campaign or not, kept these troops in constant fighting trim. And in the field, the Assyrians brought the integrated use of the various combat elements to a level never reached before. Cavalry units rode in support of the chariots and attacked the enemy flanks. Infantry regiments, now as liberally equipped with helmets and armor as their mounted comrades, attacked in concert: assault troops, archers (protected by shield bearers with shields taller than men) and slingers, who could hurl stones with stunning force. In addition, the Assyrians marshaled the war machines of earlier times into squadrons to demolish whole sections of a fortification at one time. The combined knowledge gained in centuries of testing and improvement were thus concentrated in one army that was for a time invincible—until Assyria's own vassal states, having learned well the methods of their mistress, turned and destroyed her.
Thus did ancient man wage war, and thus did he learn, as have all his descendants, that for every weapon there is a defense and for every defense another weapon. From the graves of countless unknown soldiers and the battered remains of ancient cities, we of the modern age can learn that there is nothing new in the basic art of warfare, only improvements.
William A. Ward teaches ancient history at the American University of Beirut, is an expert on Egyptology and the author of one book and several articles. This is his second article for Aramco World.