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.