Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘Iron Age’


Swords Were Items of Regular Dress

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.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Swords Were Prized Because They Were Expensive

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.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Swords are Specialized Instruments for Killing

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.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Armor Was Designed for Protection Against Glancing Blows

[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.

Hank Reinhardt, The Book of Swords, pp. 20-21

Emphasis mine.

Assyrians Were Ancient Masters of the Siege

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

3000 Years of Combat with Sword and Shield

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.

R. Ewart Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons, p. 24

Cavalry Replaces Chariots in Chinese Art of War

…[In the Warring States Period], the art of war in China was radically transformed in weaponry, strategy, and army size. Iron now provided stronger, more durable weapons…. It was also during this epoch that cavalry replaced chariots as the primary mobile arm. Threats from nomadic horse people just to the west and north of the Chinese states encouraged the turn to cavalry. In fact, the king of the Choa reformed his cavalry dramatically in 307 [B.C.E.], ordering his soldiers to wear barbarian-style trousers and tight-fitting sleeves in place of robes and to ride horses and learn mounted archery. These cavalrymen lacked stirrups until the end of the Han [Dynasty], and saddles were rudimentary; understandably, this hampered the effectiveness of men on horseback. Therefore, cavalry at first supplemented chariots rather than replacing them, but chariots eventually gave way….

John A. Lynn, Battle, p. 36

Cuirass Versus Lamellar Armor

There were two types of [Japanese] armor: the solid iron cuirass (tankō) and lamellar armor (keikō). The former may have been introduced from Southeast Asia and is seen on many clay figurines of sixth-century [C.E.] fighters. Although it was composed of separate pieces of metal fastened together by leather or bolts, the cuirass permitted little freedom of movement, and lost its popularity after the year 400 [C.E.].

Lamellar armor was of Northeast Asian origin and was the accepted battle wear after 500 [C.E.] because it was lighter than the cuirass and allowed greater mobility. It was especially well-suited for mounted warfare. About 800 pieces of iron went into each suit….

William Wayne Farris, Heavenly Warriors, pp. 19-22

Battle Casualties in the Ancient World

…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.

Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, From Sumer To Rome, p. 88

Assyrian Warfare: Iron, Organization, and Espionage

The army relied mainly upon archers and pikemen, some very lightly armored, some protected by a cuirass and a conical helmet, and carrying a short sword for close fighting. Coordinated with this infantry was the cavalry, which at first fought from chariots. Later on, when the warrior rode the horse (about 700 [B.C.E.]), he had the infantryman’s bow and spear. Still later came the most original Assyrian contribution to the art of warfare, siege artillery. No fortified city could withstand the assault of Assyrian engines. A choice body of troops fought beside the king, but it was the foot-bowmen who wrought havoc on the enemy.

The Assyrian army’s power cannot be entirely explained by the bravery of the individual soldier, the competence of the king-general, or the sheer numerical strength so easy to attain in a country where every able-bodied man was subject to military service. Perhaps it is better explained by the theory that the Assyrians used iron extensively. Indeed something like a revolution in the metal industry apparently took place under Sargon II (722-705 [B.C.E.]) when he invaded Urartu and exploited its iron mines. Cunning, too, aided Assyrian armies: an efficient espionage and intelligence service was conducted by the royal governors and bureaucrats in the provinces and centered in the king’s palace. Frequently when the troops entered a country they were aided by carefully organized fifth columns.

Vincent Scramuzza, The Ancient World, p. 89-90

Emphasis mine.

Assyrian Army of the Sargonid Period

The Assyrian army in the Sargonid period had a potential magnitude of several hundreds of thousands of troops, although a call-up of the entire force for a campaign was extremely rare. Supreme command of the army rested with the king and, immediately under him, the “field-marshal”…. The army was divided into units of various sizes and types; but the basic division was the “company”…of fifty men under a “captain”…and this unit was in turn broken down into files of ten men. An officer carried a mace as a symbol of his authority.

The levying of troops was the primary responsibility of the captains, each of whom had a certain number of villages under his command, and the captains were in turn responsible to the provincial governor. By the Sargonid age there was also a standing army which was under the direct authority of the king, no doubt created as a counter-balance to the potential misuse of military power by the provincial governors. The king also had his own bodyguard of infantry and cavalry. The troops recruited within Assyria proper were spread around the empire as much as possible, since they were the most loyal, and they constituted the chariotry and cavalry divisions. The infantry consisted largely of foreigners, mainly Aramaeans. Some foreign groups became specialized units. For example, the Ituaeans, an Aramaic people, were entrusted with special tasks such as escort duty throughout the empire.

Garrisons and barracks were scattered over the empire, but the military headquarters was a massive armoury in the Assyrian capital. Here was stationed a large portion of the troops, animals, and equipment of the standing army, and there were, in addition, royal apartments for the king to occupy when he wished. At each New Year there was a grand inspection at the armoury when the king reviewed his troops and their equipment….

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2

Archer-Pair in Assyrian and Persian Warfare

The Assyrians had made major and highly effective use of a tactical feature common in Near Eastern warfare for many centuries. This was the archer-pair, consisting of a spearman bearing a very large, light but sturdy shield made of leather and wicker, and an archer; the spearman faced the enemy and held up the shield, behind which the archer hid and fired off volleys of arrows. The Persians called such shields spara and so named these tactical units sparabara, or “shield-bearers.” Typically, the Assyrians had lined these units up side by side, forming a single row of shield carriers backed by a single row of archers. [The Persians] increased the depth of the formation and also the number of archers per shield, producing a heavier concentration of arrow shot.

Don Nardo, The Persian Empire, pp. 27-28

Early Iron Age Armies

…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.

Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age, pp. 164-65

Assyria Was Unstrategically Located

Assyria was unstrategically located. Between it and Akkad to the south was a plain where no invader could possibly be stopped except by stronger forces. The precipitous Zagros range to the east and the formidable Armenian plateau to the north, both sloping towards Assyria, made attack from those dimensions easy but defense difficult. The western steppe was no effective barrier either, for it was easy for a foe to traverse as for Assyrians. In its early history, and intermittently afterwards, Assyria was therefore ruled by foreign invaders.

There was only one means to overcome these geographical handicaps: a strong army. Assyria therefore proceeded to build up the most powerful military machine the world had yet seen, and to use it not only for defense but for expansion abroad. But unlike the Roman legions, which were formidable even when led by mediocrities, the Assyrian army depended for victory on brilliant generals, so that Assyrian power depended on the prowess of the king.

Vincent Scramuzza, The Ancient World, p. 89-90

Emphasis mine.

Assyrians: the Pioneers with Iron

As it was for other contemporary armies of the region, the bow was at the center of the Assyrian arsenal. But theirs was a carefully crafted composite weapon of extraordinary power, ends characteristically curled forward to resemble the bill of a duck. These bows were primarily in the hands of foot archers, either deployed as skirmishers or in massed formations. But the Assyrians departed from their rivals in their protection and the care which was taken to integrate them with other functions. After the reign of Ashurnasir-pal (885-860 [B.C.E.]), ranks of archers were depicted as not only screened by shield bearers and heavily armed spearmen, but themselves dressed in long coats of mail and conical helmets. Such measures consumed metal on a grand scale, especially iron, which the Assyrians pioneered using in quantity. Yet ironcladding achieved an important result—sufficient stability in these formations to exploit other tactical possibilities.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 77

Emphasis mine.