Poetry and war are joined in this; both are fame businesses. The same epithets are attached to these fame-seeking heroes across the whole enormous continent: he was "man-slaying" in Ireland and Iran, and "of the famous spear" in Greece and India. He stood as firm and immovable in battle as a mighty tree in Homer, Russian and Welsh. Like the Greeks, Irish heroes raged like a fire. In Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Vedic and Irish, that rage could emerge as a flame flaring from the hero’s head. Proto-Indo-Europeans saw the great man as a torch. Across the whole of Eurasia his weapons longed for blood, even while this blood-seeking vengeance wreaker was to his own family and clan, wherever they might be, the "herdsman of his people" and their protective enclosure. There were no city walls in this world; the hero himself was their protection and their strength.
From one end of Eurasia to another, men stand like trees, but enemies are also felled like trees, in the way a carpenter or woodsmen would fell them. When death arrives, a darkness comes on the hero. Life itself for the Proto-Indo-European consciousness is inseparable from light, especially the light of the sun, and that is the energy the heroes share with the universe. For all of them, courage is not something that appears casually in everyday life. Only when battle summons them, and when the noise of battle reaches up to heaven, as it does in all these daughter traditions, does courage appear and the hero find himself "clothed in valor."
Posts Tagged ‘Bronze Age’
[Bronze Age] weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight in the pommel counteracting the weight in the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death terror. A sword is only useful if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight. Some of the most beautiful decorated swords are found scarcely used, ceremonial objects to be carried in glory. But most of the rest show the marks of battle; the edges hacked and notched where another sword clashed onto them, worn where those edges were resharpened for the next time.
Agamemnon’s kingdom was typical of its times; it was less a state than an estate, that is, it was essentially a big household. The royal palace had grand staterooms but most of its space was devoted to workshops, storerooms, and armories. It was a manor that produced luxury goods for the wanax [an ancient word for king used by Homer] to trade or give as gifts. Raw materials for the workshops were siphoned off the king’s subjects as taxation.
More important, from the military point of view, the palace produced bronze breastplates and arrowheads, manufactured and maintained chariots, and stabled horses. The wanax controlled a corps of charioteers and bowmen and possibly one of infantrymen, too. In any case, as powerful as he was, the wanax probably had no monopoly on the kingdom’s military force.
The royal writ was strongest on the king’s landholdings, concentrated around the palace. The rest of the territory was run by local big men or basileis, each no doubt with his own armed followers. The wanax could muster an army and navy out of his own men, but for a really big campaign he would need the support of the basileis. In short, the wanax was only as strong as his ability to dominate the basileis, be it by persuasion or force.
The sword enjoyed another important advantage over bow or spear: it could and did become an item of regular dress. Scabbard, hilt and belt provided eye-catching fields for decorative display, connoting taste, wealth and above all the personal autonomy, courage, or sanction of higher authority openly to wear a lethal weapon. It was a warning, challenge or threat, symbolizing status, rank, or profession as a fighting man. Here we move beyond mere functional considerations to the symbolic value and meaning of the sword. Highly prized material objects of great physical and symbolic power, swords were widely selected for religious offerings in ancient Europe (a key reason we now have so many in our museums). In particular, they were deposited in watery places, inspiring the legend of Excalibur. It is hardly surprising, then, that the sword was also widely used as a metaphor in antiquity, not least by the warlike Romans themselves.
Swords were also prized because, of all elements of the pre-gunpowder panoply, with the possible exception of the composite bow, they were the most technically demanding to make, with consequent expense in materials, expertise and time. In thrusting or slashing, a blade must withstand huge mechanical stresses, flexing to a degree yet not bending or snapping, while retaining sharpness of edge. By comparison the spear, itself a fearsome weapon, was simple and cheap to produce.
Among pre-gunpowder weapons of offence, arms such as the axe, spear, javelin, bow or sling had origins or alternative uses as tools or hunting equipment. The sword was different. From its Bronze Age invention it was a specialized instrument for killing people. Further, while weapons such as the powerful composite bow, shooting iron-tipped arrows, rival it in lethality, the sword demands that its wielder approach a foe closely; it is a murderous extension of the fist, yet also puts the wielder in reach of a similarly armed opponent. Par excellence it connotes both aggression and courage, and an especially personalized source of terror quite distinct from the danger of a distant, semi-anonymous bowman. For, instead of the relatively small puncture wounds of arrows (lethal though they may be), it threatens cloven skulls, dismemberment or disembowelling, injuries more devastating and hideous to behold than those inflicted by most other hand-wielded weapons. Of all common arms, it offers the highest likelihood of instantly killing, or at least incapacitating, foe or victim.
The Bronze Age was an era that preferred to put things in personal terms rather than in abstractions. Instead of justice, security, or any of the other issues that would be part of a war debate today, the Bronze Age tended to speak of family and friendship, crime and punishment. Near Eastern kings proclaim in their inscriptions that they fought to take vengeance on their enemies and on rebels; they fought those who boasted or who transgressed their path or who violated the king’s boundaries or raised their bows against royal allies; they fought to widen their borders and bring gifts to their loyal friends. A Hittite king says that his enemies attacked him when he came to the throne because they judged him young and weak—their mistake! Allies are royal vassals, obliged to have the same friends and enemies as the king.
The shield is the earliest bit of defensive armor known. Just about everyone used the shield at one time or another. (The Japanese appear to be the only civilized society in which the shield was not in general use at one time or another.) Bronze swords were not designed to be both offensive and defensive weapons, so what happened when someone was caught without a shield is anyone’s guess. But the guy without the shield was in deep trouble. With the shield, the fighting techniques were pretty much the same as they were a thousand years later, though probably a little less refined. This would be due to the type of armor more than lack of knowledge or skill.
[Steel] armor was more protective than bronze. A steel sword striking a steel helmet was more likely to skip off or fail to bite, so more effort would be made to hit the enemy in the unprotected area, shoulders for instance, than on the head.
However, with bronze it’s different. Bronze helmets are not as thick and protective. A hard blow with a bronze sword could crack or crush the helmet. The sword would be only slightly damaged, especially if it was one with a thicker edge. Armor and helmets were designed for protection against glancing blows, and not for well aimed full force hits. I imagine in the heat of battle there would be a lot of glancing blows. Blows would be coming from all directions, even from those on your own side. Swords would be knocked aside, bounce off of shields, rebound right and left, and be thrown up in spasms as someone was hit and killed. We know that such combat took place from the Iliad and the Odyssey, not to mention pictorial representation on vases, and from other written sources. In short, armor was needed not only as protection from your enemies, but your friends as well. It could not give you complete protection, but it was a lot better to have some protection than none at all.
Siege warfare became a highly specialized technique in the Neo-Assyrian period and many of the skills developed by the Assyrians were subsequently adopted, improved upon, and expanded by later imperial powers including the Romans. Against the moats and ramparts of the well-fortified garrisons the Assyrian engineers brought a variety of engines and skills. There were the enclosed battering rams on wheels, in effect primitive tanks, with archers ensconced in turrets on top to pick off defenders on the wall who would attempt to burn the machine with torches or dislodge the battering rams with ‘wolves’, looped chains lowered from the walls. As for scaling techniques, in addition to using ladders, earthen ramps were sometimes heaped up against the wall for battering rams to roll up and demolish the upper defences and allow the infantry to rush up and over. The Assyrians also used sappers to burrow under or through the walls and fires were set with torches at wooden gates. Engineers engaged in these various activities were under constant threat from the defenders who shot arrows and spears at them, dropped rocks and scalding liquid. Cover was provided by the archers who took up strategic positions with their shield-bearers.
If the initial attempts at taking a city by siege failed, the Assyrians usually withdrew, but not before ravaging the surrounding countryside, burning and destroying crops, trees and houses. Only on occasion would they settle down for a long siege. When they did this, they stationed small groups of men in redoubts and siege towers near the wall, particularly near the gates, in order to prevent any traffic in or out of the city and to warn of any planned sortie from the gates. Once ensconced, the Assyrians were willing to wait many months or even a year or more, until the starved inhabitants capitulated.
— The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 220
Underlying all or any tactics of battle is one basic art which for nearly 3,000 years remained unchanged, in spite of chariot or warhorse, long-bow or cannon or musket—the art of hand-to-hand combat with sword and shield. The people of the late Bronze Age had large round shields and beautiful cut-and-thrust swords; how they fought with them the vase-painters of classical Greece show us—and in the same way the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands fought, right up to the [Jacobite Rising of 1745 C.E.], with broadsword and targe.
The shield is the most obvious, the simplest and therefore the most primitive item of defensive armour. It does not take much imagination to picture some Palaeolithic hunter grabbing up the first object that came to his hand to ward off the flint spear of an irritated fellow cave-dweller. From this to the fashioning of a wickerwork frame covered with hide is an easy and logical step. A shield is about the most effective piece of defensive equipment one can have, too—hence its early appearance, its universal usage and its survival in the Highlands until the eighteenth century [C.E.]; survival, too, until the present time in such parts of the world where men dwell sufficiently remote from the ballistic blessings of modern civilization. The round shields of the Western Bronze Age are generally flat, with a diameter of about 2 [feet]; they have a small central hollow boss across the inside of which is riveted a short bar for a hand grip. They are of fine workmanship, the most common type being embossed with concentric circular ridges, interspersed with small bosses. The metal is thin, and it would have been backed with layers of leather, put on wet, and pressed into the hollows of the embossed ridges. When dry and hard this would provide an excellent backing for the bronze. Such shields were probably only borne by chiefs and noblemen, but then we may assume that at this time all warriors who bore a sword and shield were noblemen.
…No one now alive has witnessed combat between organized forces using hand-to-hand weapons, for the last vestige of it disappeared one hundred fifty years ago when the bayonet charge became obsolete. We tend to think (assisted by the movies) that direct shock combat of the sort described above was much more common in premodern warfare than it was. In reality, it was always difficult to make foot soldiers seriously engage one another with edged weapons because of their natural tendency to keep out of one another’s way. We have already seen that the Persian and other Eastern armies put no faith in heavy infantry assault. The main function of their spearmen was to provide cover for their archers, and battles were won by cavalry and archers with a minimum of physical contact. Only the Greeks had developed a style of warfare that made shock combat inevitable, because their infantry formation was no loose huddle but a tight rectangle (phalanx) often eight ranks deep or more, its heavy shields a collective locking device, its sheer depth and weight propelling the men in the front ranks onto the spears of the enemy.
In folklore and saga, gifts from fairies or higher powers to a mortal prince are usually magical. A magic spear would return to its master when hurled; magic horses would convey him safely out of battle; and magic armor would make the hero invulnerable. Typically, Homer has suppressed all such outlandish protection; no hero fighting at Troy has any charm or power to escape death. Nonetheless, as will shortly be revealed, remnants of the original attributes of each of Peleus’ divine gifts are discernible in the Iliad, although transformed and turned by Homer to tragic effect….
Of the many deaths the Iliad records, no other resembles that of Patroklos. Nowhere is the pitiful vulnerability of a mortal so exploited as it is by the savage malevolence of Apollo‘s blow and the hounding of the wounded man as he tries to shun death among his companions. The horror of this extraordinary scene is reinforced by the resonance of two disparate, submerged traditions. One of these concerns that magic armor, worn by the folktale predecessors of Achilles, whose fairy-tale function had undoubtedly been to render its wearer invulnerable. As has been said, Homer severely repressed any hint that the armor given by the gods to Peleus had supernatural properties, yet he allows one aspect of this ancient motif to surface here, turning it to electrifying effect—Patroklos must be stripped of the armor before he can be killed. Thus Apollo’s savage blow strikes off his helmet and breaks the corselet upon him. Patroklos is killed—slaughtered—naked.
The Akkadian word for holiness was ellu, “cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity.” It was related to the Hebrew elohim, which is often simply translated as “god” but originally summed up everything that the gods could mean to human beings. The “holy ones” of the Middle East were like devas, the “shining ones” of India. In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (“divinity”) in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. It was a fundamental reality and could not be tied to a single, distinct form. The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness. Anything that came into contact with the ilam of the cult became sacred too: a king, a priest, a temple, and even the ritual utensils became holy by association. It would have seemed odd to the early Israelites to confine the sacred to a single divine being.
The subject of heroic poetry is the hero, and the hero is a man who behaves in certain ways, pursuing specified goals by his personal courage and bravery. However, the hero lives in, and is moulded by, a social system and a culture, and his actions are intelligible only by reference to them. That is true even when the poet’s narrative appears to ignore everything and everyone but the heroes.
No one who reads the Iliad can fail to be struck by the peculiar character of the fighting. There are tens of thousands of soldiers on hand, yet the poet has eyes only for Ajax or Achilles or Hector or Aeneas. In itself, such a literary device is commonplace; it is a very rare artist who has both reason and genius enough to re-create masses of men in battle. Nor is there historical objection to the individual combat between champions, as between Achilles and Hector, or, even more interesting in some ways, between Ajax and Hector, ending in a draw and an exchange of gifts. The false note comes in the full-scale fighting. There the confusion is indescribable. No one commands or gives orders. Men enter the battle and leave at their own pleasure; they select their individual opponents; they group and regroup for purely personal reasons. And the disorganization, unlike the chaotic movements in a war novel like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, does not stem from the breakdown of an original plan of action but from the poet’s concentration on his heroes as individuals. He must bring in the army as a whole to maintain the necessary realism of the war story, but he returns to the central figures as quickly as possible.
Hoplite technology was craftsmanship at its highest. The three-foot in diameter shield, sometimes known as either the aspis or hoplon, covered half the body. A unique combined arm- and hand-grip allowed its oppressive weight to be held by the left arm alone. Draw straps along the inside of the shield’s perimeter meant that it could be retained even should the hand be knocked from the primary grip, a common mishap given the shield weight and the constant blows of massed combat. The shield’s strange concave shape permitted the rear ranks to rest it on their shoulders. Anyone who has tried to hold up fifteen to twenty pounds with a single arm, even without the weight of other armor amid the rigor of battle, can attest to the exhaustion that sets in after only twenty minutes. Yet the hoplite shield was an engineering marvel: the round shape allowed it to be rotated in almost any direction even as the sloped surface provided more wood protection from the angled trajectory of incoming spear points.
‘Warrior’ and ‘hero’ are synonyms, and the main theme of a warrior culture is constructed on two notes—prowess and honour. The one is the hero’s essential attribute, the other his essential aim. Every value, every judgement, every action, all skills and talents have the function of either defining honour or realizing it. Life itself may not stand in the way. The Homeric heroes loved life fiercely, as they did and felt everything with passion, and no less martyr-like characters could be imagined; but even life must surrender to honour. The two central figures of the Iliad, Achilles and Hector, were both fated to live short lives, and both knew it. They were heroes not because at the call of duty they marched proudly to their deaths, singing hymns to God and country—on the contrary, they railed openly against their doom, and Achilles, at least, did not complain less after he reached Hades—but because at the call of honour they obeyed the code of the hero without flinching and without questioning.
The Bronze Age generally thought of war as a divine drama of law enforcement: war punished criminals who had offended the gods. The Hittites gave this conception a twist and imagined war as a lawsuit before the gods, who would favor one of the plaintiffs with victory. To the Greeks, Paris [of Troy] had twice violated the gods’ laws, first by committing adultery and second by abusing his host’s generosity. Menelaus’s fellow rulers had a clear responsibility to avenge the gods by going to war against Troy unless Helen and the treasures were returned. Anything less would expose themselves to divine punishment.
In the Iliad‘s heroic world, the attribute of being superior to one’s father is very dangerous, associated above all with usurpation. Zeus, the king of gods, came to power by overthrowing his father, Kronos—as Kronos had overthrown his father before him. Among gods, a son greater in strength than his father, then, can, and usually does, overturn the cosmic order.
Among men, a central tenet of the heroic code is that the younger generation is inferior to the elder, or to the generation of its fathers. Old Nestor’s authority among the Achaeans rests exclusively upon the fact, which he never tires of proclaiming, that he belongs to the age of heroes of old: “‘I fought single-handed, yet against such men no one of the mortals now alive upon earth could do battle.'” In heroic society, a hero is cajoled, bullied, or persuaded into line by being reminded of the illustrious deeds his father committed. Deference to the tenet that the fathers of old are greater than the heroes of today is part of the moral cement that holds heroic society together.
Ancient peoples were deeply religious. In the Bronze Age, for example, Hittite and Egyptian accounts regularly give the gods a role in military campaigns. No Hittite scribe would think of recording a victory without thanking the gods for having marched in front of the army and thereby having granted the king success. No ambassador would swear to abide by a treaty unless an assembly of the various gods had witnessed it. In his poem about the battle of Qadesh (1274 [B.C.E.]), Pharaoh Rameses II declares that the god Amun spoke to him and sent him forward.
Even in the rationalistic heyday of classical Greece—and later—gods and heroes were commonly seen in the heat of battle. Sometimes their mere presence provided encouragement to the soldiers. At other times, divinities gave specific military advice. And sometimes they even fought! At the decisive battles of Marathon (490 [B.C.E.]), Salamis (480 [B.C.E.]), Aegospotami (405 [B.C.E.]), and Leuctra (371 [B.C.E.]), for example, contemporaries thought the gods and heroes took part.
…As a group [the Greek hero-kings of the Iliad] represent the Bronze Age art of war. Their hands were battle-wise with blood and calloused from stealing cattle. They could trample the enemy like a carpet under their feet or calm the heart of a nervous army under attack. They knew horses like a stable hand and ships like a boatswain, but most of all they knew men and how to lead them. They could be as smooth as the ghee-and-honey paste with which Assyrians cemented rows of mud brick or as rough as the gnarled limbs of an old olive tree. They knew which soldiers to reward with silver rings and which to punish with prison or mutilation. They could inspire the men to follow on foot while they rode in their chariots and to compete for the honor of fighting bravely in their presence.
They could break an enemy’s lance or deceive him with words. They knew how much flour it took to feed an army and how much wood was needed to burn a corpse. They knew how to pitch camp or launch a fleet, how to debrief a spy or send out an informer. They could draw a bow and split a copper ingot like a reed or hurl a spear and pierce the seam in an enemy’s armor. They shrugged off mud and snow, towering waves or buckets of rain. They could appraise lapis lazuli with a jeweler’s eye or break a merchant’s neck with a hangman’s hands. They could court a milkmaid or rape a princess. They relished ambushes after dark and noontime charges. They feared the gods and liked the smell of death.
A very vivid description of a hands-on leader in a brutal era.
[Bronze Age] composite bows were also notoriously expensive. Such a bow was a very effective weapon, having double or triple the range of a self bow, but its manufacture was costly and difficult (the layering and lamination of wood, horn, and sinew was done at long intervals, and a properly aged bow would leave a bowyer’s shop five or ten years after he had brought in the raw materials from which it was made).
To rule, after all, is to have power, whether over things, over men (by other men or some god), or over men and gods together (by Zeus). But the bardic formulas sometimes add a little touch that is extremely revealing. In five instances anassein is qualified with the adverb iphi, ‘by might’, so that king’s rule (but never the householder’s) becomes rule by might. This must under no circumstances be taken to imply tyranny, forcible rule in the invidious sense. When Hector prayed for his son to ‘rule by might in Ilion’ ([The Iliad, Book] VI 478), he was asking the gods that the boy succeed to the throne, not that he be endowed with the qualities of a despot….
Iphi quietly directs attention to the limits upon the parallel between head of a household and king. One critical test lay in the succession. The kings, like Hector, were personally interested in pushing the family parallel to the point at which their sons could automatically follow them on the throne as they succeeded them in the oikos. ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ That proclamation is the final triumph of the dynastic principle in monarchy. But never in the world of Odysseus was it pronounced by the herald. Kingship had not come that far, and the other aristocrats often succeeded in forcing a substitute announcement: ‘The king is dead! The struggle for the throne is open!’ That is how the entire Ithacan theme of the Odyssey can be summed up. ‘Rule by might’, in other words, meant that a weak king was not a king, that a king either had the might to rule or he did not rule at all.
…Taken together the data [on ancient battles] suggest that seven of every ten soldiers of the defeated force would become casualties by day’s end. About one-third of the force would be killed and another third wounded severely enough to be left behind to die or shift for themselves on the battlefield. The victors could expect to lose to enemy arms approximately one in every ten men, either killed or wounded.
The few demigods, such as Aineias, who receive miraculous rescue [in the Iliad] are saved only by the direct intervention of a patron divinity, not by any special ingredient of their own semidivine nature. The flesh of the demigods is wholly vulnerable, the blood is the blood of mortals, the pain of injury that of ordinary mortal men, as is the inevitability of death. Nothing the men have inherited from their divine parents is itself protective; what saves them is the physical removal from the danger of the battlefield. The vividly evoked vulnerability of demigods such as Aineias will also have bearing upon the nature, and limitations, of the epic’s most outstanding demigod—Achilles.
The Olympians of the Iliad know everything about the mortals they look down upon; Zeus himself is eurúopa, “far-seeing,” a direct legacy of his origins as the all-seeing God of the Bright Sky, to whose celestial vantage the events on earth are laid bare. Rarely indolent, usually zestful and opinionated, the extended family of Zeus aggressively engages with the mortal world. In disguise, the Olympians move, speak, and act freely among men, partaking of the human experience. There is nothing about the men and women at Troy that the gods do not know, even to foreknowledge of their individual fates.
By contrast, despite the busy flow of divine activity that drums through their lives, the Homeric heroes and heroines know very little about their gods. Few could claim to know what a god looks like, as most encounters take place with the deity in disguise. There are exceptions: Helen famously recognizes Aphrodite, despite her masquerade as an old servant woman, by the “round, sweet throat of the goddess / and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining.” Likewise, Poseidon’s disguise as the seer Kalchas is betrayed by his footprints: “‘this is not Kalchas, the bird interpreter of the gods,'” Aias the son of Oïleus says to Telamonian Aias, “‘for I knew / easily as he went away the form of his feet, the legs’ form / from behind him. Gods, though gods, are conspicuous.'”
By and large, however, the men at Troy fight in a kind of fog of existential ignorance, never knowing where or who the gods are or what divine activities and plans already under way may affect their own actions. Nor do they know what they must do for their supplications and prayers to be received. A very few incidents appear to suggest that Zeus, at least, punishes the wicked, which, if true, would furnish some minimal guidance for gaining his favor and avoiding his wrath. Menelaos, for example, rants at the Trojans for taking Helen away: “‘wretched dogs, and your hearts knew no fear / at all of the hard anger of Zeus loud-thundering, / the guest’s god, who some day will utterly sack your steep city.'” On closer look, however, in this and other such cases, it is clear that punishment is to be meted out by Zeus only in his capacity as patron of a specific institution: he is Zeus Orkios, “Zeus who upholds oaths,” or Zeus Xenia, the god of guest friendship. Zeus’ loyalty, then, is in fact to himself in his particular cultic aspects, not to a principle of overarching justice.
Anthropologists commonly use the term “chiefdom” for a primitive culture that has developed a formal social hierarchy in which the war leader holds a unique and permanent rank above all his tribesmen, often with theocratic and redistributive functions as well…. They provided a transitional stage in social development between the tribe and the state. At the level of the chiefdom, the causes of war become more complicated and the motives for war become separable. We can now distinguish among ideological, economic, and political motives.
- The articulated motives for war are still revenge and prestige. The difference is that wars are now fought to avenge wrongs against the chief and for the honor and glory of the chief. Primitive militarism is being replaced by kingly or theocratic militarism, an ideology that continues without much change until the time of Louis XIV [of France].
- The economic causes of war become more compelling. Genuine conquests and occupations are now possible, so wars can be fought more openly and directly to gain territory. The values of honor and glory may become a pretext, masking a chief’s grab for land and wealth.
- Finally, war becomes an organizational source of power. It is now possible to fight wars simply for political reasons, and the martial values may become a pretext for a chief’s grab at power for its own sake.
The more advanced chiefdoms appear to practice what is today called warfare in every sense, except for the lack of an ideology that permits self-conscious strategic thinking. The history of political warfare should therefore begin with these chiefdoms, except that they have no history. In spite of their efficiency, chiefdoms do not seem to last. Only a bare handful of chiefdoms have ever made the full transition to bureaucratic state. The process of military escalation and political centralization is reversible, and normally, it is reversed. The disadvantages of losing freedom to the chief are as obvious as the advantages of military superiority, so the chiefdom rarely survives the death of the chief, which is likely to be premature. Countless societies may have come to the edge of statehood and drawn back from that brink. Chiefdoms do not last because of their efficiency.
Copper was the first metal regularly exploited by humans, smelted far back into the Neolithic. For use in large tools and weapons, it was characteristically cast as a substitute for stone in ax and mace heads along with dagger blades. Yet its softness precluded much more in the way of new types of arms.
This changed dramatically with the discovery that copper could be combined effectively with arsenic or tin to produce a far harder but still ductile alloy, bronze. Not only could it be cast into the most complex shapes, but after cold-working, yielded weapons of a hardness and tensile strength rivaling those of iron, until Roman times, when tempering came to be understood. The toughness and ductility of bronze made it possible for the dagger form to be stretched to generate a true sword by the middle of the third millennium [B.C.E.] Such an instrument, by virtue of its superior reach, maneuverability, and capacity to inflict both slashing and puncture wounds, was ideal for the kind of close combat that was the specialty of the elite warrior class. Bronze also substantially increased the penetration of holdovers like the spear, arrow, and battle-ax, which, in combination with the sword, rather quickly brought forth defensive reciprocals in bronze and bronze-reinforced helmets, shields, cuirasses, and greaves, to produce a metal-clad combatant largely immune to any but similarly accessorized adversaries.
War’s appetite for bronze fed on itself further encouraging political centralization and the dominance of military elites intent upon controlling the sources of supply: Deposits of tin, in particular, were scattered and relatively difficult to extract. Literary allusions and other records from the Bronze Age make it clear that the metal and its constituents remained valued, rare, and monopolized by those in control.
Iron changed things somewhat. Anatolian armorers had experimented with the metal, probably derived from meteoric deposits, to produce blades as far back as 2500 [B.C.E.]. Iron weapons were tough and held an edge, but were subject to rapid and continuous deterioration through rust. Rather than superiority, its large-scale use was driven more by the relative abundance of ferrous deposits. Once the higher heats required for extracting terrestrial iron were mastered, it could be produced in quantities necessary to begin to provide whole armies with at least some metallic implements.
But bronze had staying power. Because it was only minimally affected by corrosion, it could be used repeatedly and for different purposes simply by melting and recasting. Iron emerged as a red-hot pasty ball that had to be worked by hammering, rather than as a liquid that could be poured into molds. Shaping remained difficult and labor-consumptive. Gradually, a better understanding of metallurgy—basically tempering and the development of steel—led to an increased reliance on ferrous-based weapons, particularly during the [European] Middle Ages.
Yet in the age named for bronze there was no question who and what ruled the battlefield. Here there were two classes of opponents: a relative few wielding and protected by bronze, and the nonmetallic masses, essentially designated victims. Although armies ranged from the low thousands up to around 20,000, battles could be and were decided by several hundred elite fighters. A combat environment in the Bronze Age typically consisted of opposing lines of archers (often supplemented by slingers and javelin throwers) exchanging desultory fire, while champions on each side sought each other out to wage what amounted to individual combat. Yet prior to and particularly after the leadership fought each other, common soldiers were subject to promiscuous killing.
I came across this pair of blogposts on Tankards and Broadswords:
The first contains a clear imagining of what a Bronze Age setting could be like—would feel like. The second illustrates the cyclopean architecture found in the period.
Xenograg’s homeland is supposed to be Early Iron Age. Bronze armor
and weapons are still seen in some places, and the magical arms in tombs will likely be of bronze. I even have a house rule that says bronze is better than iron for enchantment.
My compliments, Badelaire.
Pure copper…is a soft metal and cannot be given an effective cutting edge. It is made up of layers of minute crystals; to hold the crystals together, one needs grit. Yet if one adds a particular, yet softer metal—tin—one obtains bronze; tin’s impurities combine with copper to make a far stronger alloy. Much stronger, in fact: about 5 percent tin to 95 percent copper makes bronze three times as hard as the copper alone. Bronze was discovered in the Middle East around 3800 [B.C.E.] and became…”a material for all purposes, the plastic of its age.”
…From the late seventeenth to the late thirteenth century [B.C.E.], for the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms warfare was a contest between opposing chariot forces, and the only offensive infantrymen who participated in battle were the ‘runners’—the skirmishers who ran among the chariots…. Although there is distressingly little information for the centuries following the Catastrophe [in the 12th century B.C.E.], what there is suggests that all over the eastern Mediterranean the principal role in battle was now borne by offensive infantrymen. Thus chariot warfare, which in the Late Bronze Age had distinguished cities and kingdoms from the barbarous hinterlands (where horses and a chariot were a luxury that few, if any, could afford), did not survive into the Iron Age, and even the wealthiest kings had now to depend primarily upon footsoldiers.
It is generally recognized that the chariot was less important in the Iron Age than in the Late Bronze Age. By the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III [of Assyria] (745-27 [B.C.E.]) the light, two-horse chariot rarely appeared on the battlefield, since by that time the tasks hitherto assigned to chariots were normally carried out by cavalry. As a result, the Neo-Assyrian chariot became an enormous and cumbersome vehicle, carrying a variety of passengers and drawn by three or four horses. Such vehicles had little in common with the war chariot of the Bronze Age and seem to have served as prestige conveyances for the king and lesser dignitaries. In classical times (if we except the dreadful but ineffective ‘scythed’ chariots of the Persians) the chariot was associated almost entirely with status, parades, and recreation. We may thus say that in the Iron Age cavalry ‘replaced’ chariotry as an effective military arm.
The earliest representations of archers shooting from the backs of galloping horses are ninth-century Assyrian reliefs. These reliefs show the cavalry archers operating in pairs: one cavalryman holds the reins of both his own and his partner’s horse, allowing the partner to use his hands for the bow and bowstring. The early cavalry teams thus parallel exactly the charioteer and chariot archer. The cavalry archer was undoubtedly less accurate than his counterpart on a chariot (bouncing on a horse’s back was less conducive to a good shot than standing—knees bent—on the leather-strap platform of a chariot). But in other respects the cavalry teams were surely superior. They were able, first of all, to operate in terrain too rough for wheeled vehicles. And their chances for flight, when things went wrong, were much better: when a chariot horse was injured, both crewmen were in immediate danger, but if a cavalryman’s horse was killed or injured the cavalryman could immediately leap on the back of his partner’s horse and so ride out of harm’s way. Yet another advantage of cavalry over chariotry was economic, since the cost of purchasing and maintaining a vehicle was considerable. The Chronicler claims…that in the tenth century [B.C.E.] the chariot itself cost twice as much as the team that pulled it.
How early in the Iron Age kings began to use cavalries in place of or alongside chariotries cannot be determined, since there is so little documentary and pictorial evidence for the period 1150-900 [B.C.E.]. By the middle of the ninth century cavalries were obviously well established, since at the Battle of Qarqar Shalmaneser III faced many men on horseback (and some on the backs of camels) and since he himself claimed to have 2,002 chariots and 5,542 cavalrymen. For earlier centuries all we have are Hebrew traditions, and although they are hardly trustworthy it must be noted that they routinely associate cavalries with the kings of the period. Solomon was said to have maintained twelve thousand parashim; David was believed to have defeated enormous horse troops consisting of both chariots and cavalrymen; and Saul was reported to have been slain on Mt. Gilboa by Philistine parashim.