Military history


STONE, BRONZE AND THE horse — the principal means through which war was waged in the era when states were being established and when they were being assaulted by warrior peoples living beyond the settled zone — were by nature limited resources, though in different ways. Stone is laborious to fashion. Bronze is a product of scarce metals. The horse can be kept, in the numbers necessary to mount a fighting army, on grazing lands that are found only in restricted areas of the world. Had stone, bronze and the horse remained the means by which war was fought, its scope and intensity might never have exceeded the levels experienced during the first millennium BC, and human societies, except in the confined and benevolent conditions that prevailed in the great river valleys, might never have evolved far beyond pastoralism and primitive husbandry. Man needed some other resource with which to attack the face of earth in the temperate, forested zones but also to contest possession of the lands already settled with the rich and strong minorities which had monopolised the expensive technology of warmaking in the Bronze Age.

Iron supplied the need. It is now a scholarly fashion to doubt the onset of an ‘Iron Age revolution’, in part because it was proposed by Marxist scholars whose vision of history was determinist and mechanistic. But one does not have to be a determinist to perceive that a sudden and very large increase in the supply of a material that could take and keep an edge, when previously such materials had been the perquisite of the few because of their cost and rarity, was bound to change social relationships. Not only sharp weapons but tools also became available to men who had laboured before with stone and wood to clear forests and break the surface of the soil. Iron tools not merely allowed but encouraged man to tackle soils that previously resisted him and in so doing to colonise regions distant from existing areas of settlement, to exploit more intensively those already brought into use or simply to colonise where the charioteers had conquered before them.

That iron is such a material does not need much demonstration. Bronze is an alloy of common copper and scarce tin; tin’s scarcity and very localised sources made it a substance on which it was easy to levy high market prices and heavy transport tolls and taxes at the point of delivery. In consequence, warriors readily monopolised bronze and thus usually made themselves rulers as well. Iron is not scarce; its ores form some 4.2 per cent of the earth’s mass, and it is widely distributed.1 But in pure form, which primitive man could recognise and use, it is even scarcer than tin, appearing only as meteoric iron or as certain very isolated so-called telluric deposits. Nevertheless, primitive man knew and worked with meteoric iron, and when — by what chapter of accidents we cannot guess — he discovered how iron might by heat be extracted from its earthy bed, civilised man knew what could be done with it. It has been suggested that iron was first smelted by Mesopotamian smiths of about 2300 BC who were seeking to extract pigments, such as ochre, from the associated ore.2 Smiths were a secretive lot, practising a mysterious craft and usually working under the direct protection of warriors whom they supplied with their precious products. The first smelted iron was almost surely monopolised, and it did not come into general use until about 1400 BC. At that time production seems to have been centred in Anatolia, where rich ores occur in profusion at surface sites, and it was through their consequent access to worked iron that the local Hittites were able to launch their aggressive campaigns against the valley kingdoms.

About 1200 BC, it has been suggested, the Hittites had ceased to be sole proprietors of the emergent iron industry when their kingdom was destroyed. The Anatolian iron-workers, scattered in the process, took their skills elsewhere to seek new purchasers and protectors. It may also be that iron-working itself had by this time reached a point of technical take-off. It had had to go through several stages. The first was to perfect a furnace in which ores could be smelted to produce ingots of economic size for an economic expenditure of fuel (the preferred fuel remained charcoal until early modern times, when first the Chinese and then the Europeans discovered how to transform coal into coke). Iron ores melt at a much higher temperature than copper or tin, requiring a forced draught; the first furnaces were sited on windy hilltops, until bellows were brought into use. They yielded about eight per cent iron for a given weight of ore, in a spongy mass known as a ‘bloom’, which could be made into tool- or weapons-grade ingots only by constant reheating and hammering; even then, unless the ore contained exceptionally large traces of nickel, its products were soft and quickly lost their edge. Cold-hammering to restore the edge, the bronzesmith’s technique, did not work with iron. It was only when it was discovered around 1200 BC that hot-hammering and quenching in water gave iron a durable and lasting edge that it at last emerged not merely as a competitor to bronze, but as its clear superior. That stage may have been reached at the moment when the Anatolian smiths were dispersed about the Near Eastern world.

The appearance of the skills of smelting and smithing had varied military effects. It better equipped warrior peoples to mount assaults on the rich and settled states and may therefore have contributed to the turmoil that engulfed the Middle and Near East at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Equally it eventually equipped the empires to strike back, since plentiful iron meant that larger numbers of men could be kept under arms, in states where revenues sufficed to support them. The Assyrian army was an iron army; even technologically backward Egypt embraced iron under the later pharaohs.

The most impressive weapons found in early Iron Age sites come not from the East but from Europe. They are the swords of the so-called Hallstatt culture, which date from as early as 950 BC.3 Modelled originally on bronze patterns, these swords rapidly assumed exaggerated lengths, evidence of how much more extravagantly the new, cheap and plentiful iron could be used than the old bronze. Though iron spearheads have been found in Hallstatt culture graves, as well as traces of shields bound and riveted with iron, it is swords that predominate. The Hallstatt people seem to have been aggressive swordsmen, who counted on a sharp edge and long point to overcome an opponent.

The Hallstatt culture — so called from the first excavated site in Czechoslovakia — belonged to the Celts, that mysterious people who came to occupy most of western Europe by 1000 BC; in the third century BC they also migrated eastward into Anatolia. In their heyday, the Celts were conquerors, or at least colonisers, and their iron weapons were eagerly adopted by neighbours living across the mountains from the great European plain, notably the Greeks.


The Greeks, like the Celts, are of mysterious origin, but they probably began to voyage from the southern shores of Asia Minor for Cyprus, Crete and the Aegean islands toward the end of the fourth millennium BC; at much the same time, mainland Greece began to be settled by other Stone Age people from the same regions. Then, in the middle of the third millennium, a northern people appeared in Macedonia, perhaps from the banks of the Danube, whose culture remained Neolithic when the first settlers had already entered the Bronze Age; it was they who brought the language that eventually all Greeks would speak.

It took time for the northerners and the settlers from Asia Minor to become one. Until the end of the second millennium BC, the islanders remained not merely a people apart; the Cretans in particular ascended to cultural heights the mainlanders could not match. At Knossos, in Crete, sheltered from invasion by the seas which also brought rich trade goods to the island, a sumptuous civilisation grew up. Then about 1450 BC catastrophe overwhelmed this Minoan world; archaeologists have long sought to explain why — without agreement, though the recent discovery of Minoan fortifications along Crete’s shores suggests that they had not been as isolated from attack as was previously thought. They may have been subjected to raids before; in a single great descent, perhaps by the piratical ‘Sea People’ of Asia Minor, perhaps by Greek mainlanders jealous of the Cretans’ dominance of Mediterranean trade, the great palaces, warehouses or workshops were destroyed.4

Meanwhile an advanced Bronze Age culture had taken root on the mainland, where a scattering of small kingdoms grew up along the eastern shore and particularly in the Peloponnese. One of the most important, Mycenae, has given its name to this civilisation, and by the end of the first millennium Mycenaean cities were also established on the shores of Asia Minor and as far away as Troy, on the straits that lead to the Black Sea. These cities were rich enough to support well-equipped chariot armies, if the Linear-B tablets, which are incised with the first traces of written Greek, may be taken as evidence; the accounts of the palace at Pylos record the presence of 200 pairs of chariot wheels in the royal arsenal.5 Whence the chariots came we cannot guess. They may have been brought by charioteers who made themselves masters of the coastal kingdoms; those kingdoms’ trading wealth may have allowed them to buy into the international market in advanced military technology. At any rate during the thirteenth century BC, chariots were important enough in the Greek world to play a significant part in an extended war between mainland Greece and Troy. So at least Homer describes in the Iliad when his heroes drive to battle behind their warhorses.

As is a commonplace now among ancient historians, however, Homer — composing his great poem in the eighth century about events 500 years earlier — seems to have misunderstood the role that chariots played in the heroic age. A modern scholar writes:

The real advantage of the war-chariot lay in massed attacks at speed. This is how it was used by the Mycenaeans and by the kingdoms of the Near and Middle East which maintained large forces of chariotry both in the Bronze Age and after the Mycenaean collapse. The Homeric picture could not be more different. There the warriors use the chariots merely as transport vehicles from which they dismount to fight on foot, and they are equipped either with the bow or the lance, the two weapons which made chariotry so formidable an arm after the invention of a light and fast spoke-wheeled chariot in the first half of the second millennium.6

Homer’s misunderstanding is currently explained by the distance in time at which he stood from the Trojan War, which, it is now accepted, indeed took place and was not simply the stuff of myth, and was probably fought to resolve disputes over trading-rights in the Aegean and surrounding waters. But distance in time may not be the only explanation for the difficulty Homer had in recreating the heroic past. He was separated from it, too, by a time of troubles in Greek life, a Dark Age that severed connections between the thirteenth and eighth centuries even more absolutely than the European Dark Ages obscured Rome from the Carolingians; it even appears that the knowledge of writing was lost on the Greek mainland during the 300 years after 1150 BC.7 The agents of this disastrous upheaval were a fresh wave of invaders from the north, known to later Greeks as the Dorians, who spoke Greek but were in every other way barbarian. The first wave may have come by sea; later arrivals seem to have brought the horse and iron weapons and so presumably arrived by land routes, perhaps pushed ahead of other horse-riding peoples who originated on the edge of the steppe.

Before these invaders a few Mycenaean Greeks, notably those living in Attica, around Athens, succeeded in holding their fortified places; their recolonisation of the islands (the Ionian migrations) later re-established Greek culture in the Aegean all the way to the shores of Asia Minor, where, during the tenth century BC, they built twelve strong fortified cities which looked to Athens as their place of origin and communicated with it and each other by sea. On the mainland, none of the Mycenaean kingdoms survived in independence. The Dorian invaders seized the best land, enslaved the inhabitants and worked them as serfs; however, they seem to have found little unity among themselves. ‘Village fought against village, and men went about their business wearing arms.’8

This typical pattern of warrior conquest and settlement laid the basis for the rise of that most distinctive and influential Greek institution, the city state. Its origins have been best traced to the Dorian settlements on Crete, where constitutions that granted political rights to those who bore arms, descendants of the conquerors, and denied them to the rest, came into force in the period 850–750 BC; ‘the remarkable feature of these Cretan constitutions was the orientation of the citizens not towards their family group but towards the state alone.’9 At the age of seventeen the sons of leading families were recruited into troops, and were disciplined and trained to athletics, hunting or mock warfare. The unfortunates who failed to be accepted were excluded from the franchise and enjoyed lesser rights at law. At nineteen the successful graduates were granted membership of a men’s mess, and thereafter fed and campaigned together. The messes were maintained at public expense and became effectively their members’ homes; though they were allowed to marry, the wives were kept segregated and family life was reduced to a minimum.

Those outside this warrior class were held in various degrees of subjection. The descendants of the original conquered population were serfs, tied to their owners’ estates or to public land; estate-owners also owned personal slaves whom they bought at market. People who had been conquered subsequent to the first invasions were allowed rights of property but paid tribute and were excluded from the franchise. As a Cretan drinking-song of the ninth century expressed it, ‘My wealth is spear and sword, and the stout shield which protects my flesh; with this I plough, with this I reap, with this I tread the sweet wine from the grape, with this I am entitled master of the serfs.’10

The origin of the polis (city-state) endowed it with pronounced characteristics. It inherited a strong sense of kinship from its constituent elements, the komai (village), so that citizenship was generally defined by hereditary descent on both sides. It perpetuated the distinction between master and serf and maintained the privilege of the citizen class in the community. It fostered the agricultural economy which was the source of self-sufficiency, and it ensured for its citizen class an adequate degree of leisure to practise the arts of peace and war.11

In the form nearest to its Cretan origins this polis and its constitution migrated to the Greek mainland and there took root most notably as Sparta, the greatest warring state in Greece. In Sparta the division between free warriors and disarmed and largely rightless serfs reached its most extreme, as did the disproportion between the two groups. The boys’ initiation into training troops began at the age of seven; girls, too, were segregated and followed a regime of training in athletics, dancing and music. Until marriage, however, the girls lived at home, while the boys were kept apart under the leadership of head boys and under the supervision of a state superintendent. Their life was designed to inure their bodies to hardship and they competed with other groups of their own age at sport and tests of endurance. At the age of eighteen they began their formal training for combat, and for a period were employed in secret service against the serfs. At twenty they took up residence in barracks — though they might marry at that age, they could not reside with their wives — and at thirty they proceeded to election to full citizenship. Only those candidates unanimously chosen became full citizens and embarked on the main duties of a Spartan ‘equal’: to hold the serf (helot) class in restraint and to stand in readiness for war. Each year the ‘equals’ actually waged an internal war against the helots, disposing of those the secret service had identified as unreliable.

Little wonder that Sparta rose to dominate its less warlike neighbours; perhaps no society known to historians has ever better perfected the warrior system. During the eighth century BC the Spartans first made themselves masters of the hundred villages that surrounded their own original five and then went on to conquer the neighbouring region of Messenia in a war that lasted twenty years (940–20 BC). Thereafter her rise to power in the Peloponnese ran less smoothly. The Spartans were challenged by the neighbouring state of Argos, and suffered defeat at Hysiae in 669, after a period in which subject cities had revolted against her rule. For nineteen years Sparta struggled for survival, but by the sixth century, after a battle with Argos which developed from a conflict between ‘Three Hundred Champions’ on each side, she had survived the ordeal to become the greatest military power in the Peloponnese.

Meanwhile the other leading cities of Greece were developing in a different way and in quite different directions, which carried their spheres of influence away from the mainland, into the islands and back to the shores of Asia Minor; eventually these Greek sea lanes stretched out to link the founding centres with colonies as far away as Sicily, the southern coast of France, the inland waters of the Black Sea and the shores of Libya. While Sparta was perfecting the weapons, tactics and military organisation that would dominate warmaking among Greeks on land, other states, notably Athens, were making themselves naval powers and building the ships with which they would contest for control of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean with the Persians and their subject sea peoples.

The Persian wars (499–448 BC) took time in the making, for not until the rise of Cyrus the Great did Persia succeed in establishing a unified kingdom. During the sixth century BC, war for the Greeks was largely war between Greeks, as the city states perpetuated their quarrels over land, power and control of trade. It became in the process a new form of warfare, fought with iron weapons, affordable by many more men than had composed the armies of the Mycenaean world, wielded by small farmers who were equal citizens, and used to wage battles of an intensity and ferocity perhaps never before seen. The battles of earlier and other peoples — even those of the Assyrians, though we lack exact details of their conduct on the battlefield — had continued to be marked by elements that had characterised warfare since its primitive beginnings — tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arm’s length until victory looked assured. The Greeks discarded these hesitations and created for themselves a new warfare that turned on the function of battle as a decisive act, fought within the dramatic unities of time, place and action and dedicated to securing victory, even at the risk of suffering bloody defeat, in a single test of skill and courage. So revolutionary was the effect of this new spirit in warmaking that the foremost historian of the tactics of the Greek city states has proposed the arresting, if much contested, thought that the Greeks were the inventors of ‘the Western way of war’, by which the Europeans were eventually to subdue every area of the world into which they carried their arms.12

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