The one thing war stories always forgot was the dust. Khârn learned that early, and the lesson stayed with him through the years. Even two men kicking up sand in the gladiator pits was a distraction. Two armies of a few thousand souls on an open plain would turn the air thick enough to choke on. Scale it up again, and a few hundred thousand warriors locked in conflict would darken the sun for a day after the battle was done.
But the realities of pitched warfare rarely made it into the sagas. In all the stories he’d heard, especially those woeful diatribes from the remembrancers, battle was reduced to a handful of heroes going blade-to-blade in the sunlight, while their nameless lessers looked on in stupefied awe.
It took a great deal to make Khârn cringe, but war poetry never failed.
…Visibility was a myth. It simply didn’t exist.
In ages past, when bronze swords had formed the pinnacle of humanity’s capacity to wage war against itself, mounted scouts tore through a battlefield’s dust clouds to relay information and orders between officers whose regiments were blinded in the thick of it. That was another truth that rarely survived to make into the archives.
— Betrayer, Chapter 3
Tag: Bronze Age
The Greeks were the Vikings of the Bronze Age. They built some of history’s first warships. Whether on large expeditions or smaller sorties, whether in the king’s call-up or on freebooting forays, whether as formal soldiers and sailors or as traders who turned into raiders at a moment’s notice, whether as mercenaries, ambassadors, or hereditary guest-friends, the Greeks fanned out across the Aegean and into the eastern and central Mediterranean, with one hand on the rudder and the other on the hilt of a sword. What the sight of a dragon’s head on the stem post of a Viking ship was to an Anglo-Saxon, the sight of a bird’s beak on the stem post of a Greek galley was to a Mediterranean islander or Anatolian mainlander. In the 1400s [B.C.E.], the Greeks conquered Crete, the southwestern Aegean islands, and the city of Miletus on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, before driving eastward into Lycia and across the sea to Cyprus. In the 1300s they stirred up rebels against the Hittite overlords of western Anatolia. In the 1200s they began muscling their way into the islands of the northeastern Aegean, which presented a big threat to Troy….
— The Trojan War, pp. 2-3
In the Minoan days of Crete an unprecedented flowering of learning and the arts was cultivated by Athena. Dynamic architecture rose to four stories, pillared and finely detailed, yet always infused with the serenity of the Goddess. Patiently Her mortals charted the heavens, devised a calendar, kept written archives. In the palaces they painted striking frescoes of Her Priestesses and sculpted Her owl and ever-renewing serpent in the shrine rooms. Goddess figures and their rituals were deftly engraved on seals and amulets. Graceful scenes were cast in relief for gold vessels and jewelry. Athena nurtured all the arts, but Her favorites were weaving and pottery.
Long before there were palaces, the Goddess had appeared to a group of women gathering plants in a field. She broke open the stems of blue-flowered flax and showed them how the threadlike fibers could be spun and then woven. The woof and warp danced in Her fingers until a length of cloth was bom before them. She told them which plants and roots would color the cloth, and then She led the mortals from the field to a pit of clay. There they watched Athena form a long serpent and coil it, much like the serpents coiled around Her arms. She formed a vessel and smoothed the sides, then deftly applied a paste made from another clay and water. When it was baked in a hollow in the earth, a spiral pattern emerged clearly. The image of circles that repeat and repeat yet move forward was kept by the women for centuries.
As the mortals moved forward, Athena guided the impulse of the arts. She knew they would never flourish in an air of strife, so She protected households from divisive forces and guarded towns against aggression. So invincible was the aura of Her protection that the Minoans lived in unfortified coastal towns. Their shipping trade prospered and they enjoyed a peace that spanned a thousand years. To Athena each family held the olive bough sacred, each worshipped Her in their home. Then quite suddenly the flowering of the Minoans was slashed. Northern barbarians, more fierce than the Aegean Goddess had ever known, invaded the island and carried Athena away to Attica. There they made her a soldier.
— Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, pp. 99-101
Because Homer’s subject is a siege five centuries old, his battlefield is full of military incongruities. He and his audience remembered, for instance, that the chieftains fought in chariots; but because men of the late eighth century [B.C.E.] had no idea how such warfare might have been conducted, Homer has his charioteers drop the heroes off on the battlefield where they dismount and then fight, often in close formation. The chariots, dimly recalled as essential equipage for aristocratic warfare, have little use in Homer beyond the aura of antiquity they lend to the proceedings. Once the heroes have dismounted, they appear to be much closer in technique and dress to the hoplite infantrymen of Homer’s own day, who wore heavy armor—helmet, shield, breastplate, greaves, sword, spear, and other bodily defenses that may have come to seventy pounds—fought in tight formation, and engaged the enemy at close quarters. They did not fling javelins from chariots as their ancestors had once done in a less populous world where warfare more closely resembled a game of chicken or a gang rumble than the massing of two trained armies on a field.
“Beware the toils of war,” Sarpedon the Lycian hero says to Hector, “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world.” Buried inside that terrifying image of war trawling for the lives of men, its net stretched from one horizon to the other, ushering the mortals into the cod end, is the Greek word for flax, the thread that the Fates use at the beginning of each of our lives to spin our destinies. And so the metaphor makes an assumption: war is part of destiny. It is not an aberration or a strangeness. It is, for Homer, a theater in which the structure of reality is revealed.
Simone Weil and many others have read the Iliad as an antiwar poem. But to see it as a polemic in that sense is to reduce it. Homer knows about the reality of suffering but never thinks of a world without conflict. On the shield of Achilles, the smith god Hephaestus creates dazzlingly opposed images of the good world and the bad, set against each other. But even in the good world of justice there is still murder and violence. We might long for peace, but we live in war, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it.
All of that lies behind the Iliad‘s massive oversupply of suffering. The poet’s conception that the Greeks have been on this beach for nine long, dreadful years—a historical absurdity—stands in for eternity. This is how things are. This is how things have always been. This is how things are going to continue to be. War is the air a warrior society must breathe. And alongside that everlastingness of grief, its repetitive return, is a deeply absorbed knowledge that suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only the intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow can ever be good enough for the enlightenment that is Homer’s purpose.
Scholars have worked out that 264 people die in the course of the Iliad. It doesn’t seem enough. One atrocity in some villages on the northern borders of Syria, one nighttime drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, one week of car bombs in Baghdad—any of them can outdo it. Only the epic engagement with Atē, the blind goddess of ruin, whose name means both “wrongness” and “wickedness,” can tell what those figures conceal. People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail….
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."
[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.
— The Book of Swords, p. 20
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 War That Killed Achilles, pp. 132, 140-41
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.
— The War That Killed Achilles, p. 27
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).
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 War That Killed Achilles, p. 68