Ancient warfare

Ancient warfare is war as conducted from the beginnings of recorded history to the end of the ancient period. In Europe and the Near East, the end of antiquity is often equated with the Fall of Rome in 476 AD, the wars of the Eastern Roman Empire on its Southwestern Asian and North African borders, and the beginnings of the Muslim conquests in the 7th century. In China, it can also be seen as ending with the growing role of mounted warriors needed to counter the ever-growing threat from the north in the 5th century and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in 618. In India, the ancient period ends with the decline of the Gupta Empire (6th century) and the beginning of the Muslim conquests there from the 8th century. In Japan, the ancient period can be taken to end with the rise of feudalism in the Kamakura period in the 12–13th century.

The difference between prehistoric and ancient warfare is less one of technology than of organization. The development of first city-states, and then empires, allowed warfare to change dramatically. Beginning in Mesopotamia, states produced sufficient agricultural surplus so that full-time ruling elites and military commanders could emerge. While the bulk of military forces were still farmers, the society could support having them campaigning rather than working the land for a portion of each year. Thus, organized armies developed for the first time.

These new armies could help states grow in size and became increasingly centralized. Early ancient armies continued to primarily use bows and spears, the same weapons that had been developed in prehistoric times for hunting. The findings at the site of Nataruk in Turkana, Kenya, have been interpreted as evidence of inter-group conflict and warfare in antiquity,[1] but this interpretation has been challenged.[2] Early armies in Egypt and China followed a similar pattern of using massed infantry armed with bows and spears.Infantry were at this time the dominant form of war, partially because the camel saddle and the stirrup were not yet invented. This infantry would be divided into ranged and shock, with shock infantry either charging to cause penetration of the enemy line or holding their own. These forces would ideally be combined, thus presenting your opponent with a dilemma: group your forces and leave them vulnerable to ranged, or spread them out and make them vulnerable to shock. This balance would eventually change as technology allowed for chariots, cavalry, and artillery to play an active role on the field.

No clear line can be drawn between ancient and medieval warfare. The characteristic properties of medieval warfare, notably heavy cavalry and siege engines such as the trebuchet were first introduced in Late Antiquity. The main division within the ancient period is rather at the beginning Iron Age with the introduction of cavalry (resulting in the decline of chariot warfare), of naval warfare (Sea Peoples), and the development of an industry based on ferrous metallurgy which allowed for the mass production of metal weapons and thus the equipment of large standing armies.The first military power to profit from these innovations was the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which achieved a hitherto unseen extent of centralized control, the first "world power" to extend over the entire Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt).


As states grew in size, speed of movement became crucial because central power could not hold if rebellions could not be suppressed rapidly. The first solution to this was the chariot which became used in the Middle East from around 1800 BC. First pulled by oxen and donkeys, they allowed rapid traversing of the relatively flat lands of the Middle East. The chariots were light enough that they could easily be floated across rivers. Improvements in the ability to train horses soon allowed them to be used to pull chariots, possibly as early as 2100 BC,[3] and their greater speed and power made chariots even more efficient. The major limitation of the use of chariots is terrain; while very mobile on flat, hard, open ground, this is lost on any sort of rough ground, even sparse trees or bushes, small ravines or streams, or marsh, where they are surpassed in maneuverability by common foot soldiers, and later by cavalry.

The power of the chariot as a device both of transportation and of battle became the central weapon of the peoples of the Ancient Near East in the 2nd millennium BC. The typical chariot was worked by two men: one would be a bowman and fire at the enemy forces, while the other would control the vehicle. Over time, chariots carrying up to five warriors were developed. The effectiveness of these vehicles is still somewhat in doubt. In China, their chariots became the central weapon of the Shang dynasty, allowing them to unify a great area.

Although chariots have been compared to modern-day tanks in the role they played on the battlefield, i.e., shock attacks, this is disputed[4][5] with scholars pointing out that chariots were vulnerable and fragile, required a level terrain while tanks are all-terrain vehicles, and thus not suitable for use in the way modern tanks have been used as a physical shock force.[6][7] The chief advantage of the chariot was the tactical mobility they provided to bowmen. Because tightly packed infantry were the formation of choice, in order for ancient generals to maintain command and control during the battle as well as for mutual protection, a force of chariots could stand off at long range and rain arrows down on the infantrymen's heads. Because of their speed, any attempts to charge the chariots could be easily evaded. If, on the other hand, an infantry unit spread out to minimize the damage from arrows, they would lose the benefit of mutual protection and the charioteers could easily overrun them.

From a tactical standpoint this put any force facing chariots on the horns of dilemma, making chariots indispensable to armies of the day. Chariots, however, were complicated pieces of hardware that required specialized craftsmen to maintain them. Such services, therefore, made chariots expensive to own. When chariots were owned by individuals within a society, it tended to give rise to a warrior class of specialists and a feudal system (an example of which can be seen in Homer's The Iliad). Where chariots were publicly owned, they helped in the maintenance and establishment of a strong central government, e.g., the New Egyptian Kingdom. Chariot usage peaked in the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, which was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving perhaps 5,000 chariots.[8]