FC6B: The Evolution of Early Civilized Warfare


Introduction: the roots of warfare

Probably one of the most unfortunate aspects of humans is their ability and willingness to kill others of their own species in wars, although some would argue that the crisis mode of warfare stimulates and accelerates new developments, especially in technology. However, with the exception of ants, we are the only species that devotes significant resources to large-scale organized efforts to kill each other. Ironically, warfare may be the most “civilized” of human activities, given the root of the word civilized is the Latin word for cities, and warfare, if not invented by cities and civilization, certainly is expressed in its most extreme form by civilizations. This is largely because of the conflict arising from the growing wealth resulting disparities between rich and poor that civilization created.

Stages of pre-civilized warfare

Even among hunting and gathering peoples, conflict would arise over hunting grounds. At first, when population densities were low, it was possible for the losers to move to another hunting ground. However, as population densities increased, the winners, having little or no surplus food or use for slaves, typically killed the losers, although they might spare the women. However, this changed with the higher population densities, greater surpluses and larger tribes and states that came with agriculture, because the conquerors could either enslave or tax the losers.

Warfare in the early Bronze Age (c.3000-1700 B.C.E.)

As cities and civilizations evolved with even greater wealth to defend or take from other civilizations, warfare intensified even more. However, armies consisted mainly of peasant levies that had to get back to their crops and cities still had limited resources for paying large-scale professional armies. Therefore, all defenders had to do was build fortifications of sun-baked mud bricks behind which they would retreat until the invaders had to leave. At worst, a city might have to acknowledge the invaders as overlords and pay them some tribute for them to leave, and then, when the opportunity arose, revolt.

Then sometime after 2400 B.C.E., a new siege weapon, the battering ram, was developed, which literally pulverized city walls. Now invaders could either directly occupy and tax subject cities or sack and destroy them. This made possible history’s first empires: the Akkadians (c. 2350-2250 B.C.E.) and the Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2100-2000 B.C.E.).

One factor that has affected the frequency of wars has been climate change, such as the drought, which hit Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C.E. As food and resources shrank, conflict over what was left intensified, both in terms of frequency and brutality. Warfare was also more widespread and destructive, leading to fewer resources as irrigation systems fell into disrepair, causing more wars and so on.

Around 1800 B.C.E. Indo-European nomads came down from the north with a deadly combination of two weapons: the composite bow and the horse-drawn chariot. Together these weapons gave them vastly increased mobility and firepower, as well as the initial terror inspired by horses, hitherto rarely if ever seen in the civilized world. One kingdom after another collapsed like a house of cards before the onslaught of these nomads with their terrifying beasts. People known as the Hyksos conquered Lower Egypt, while the Kassites overthrew Babylon, and the Aryans moved into the ruins of the Indus River Civilization.

The High Bronze Age (c.1700-1000 B.C.E.)

As usual, civilization revived with new and revived empires and kingdoms: The Kassites in Mesopotamia, the Hittites in Asia Minor, New Kingdom Egypt, and the Mycenaean Greeks. Since bronze, horses, and chariots were so expensive, each civilization had a strong autocratic king supported by a small elite nobility who could afford to arm themselves and keep the mass of peasants under control. In fact, although called the Bronze Age, most people at this time were still in the Stone Age because of the expense of metals. Thus the way these kingdoms fought their wars largely determined their political and social structure.

Sometime around 1200 B.C.E., everything came unraveled for these civilizations, once again because of how they, and their enemies, fought their wars. Much of the advantage chariots gave their owners in war was psychological. Thus battles were typically fought between two elite groups of charioteers while the mass of infantry stood by and watched. However, typically behind each chariot was a lightly armed runner who would rescue their downed charioteers and finish off those of the enemy. Such runners, oftentimes foreign mercenaries, came to realize the vulnerability of chariots to lightly armed infantry throwing javelins to bring down both charioteers and their horses. Armed with these tactics, these peoples either weakened or overthrew the big empires and kingdoms of the day. Although Egypt barely survived, the Hittite Empire, Mycenaeans and Kassites collapsed, allowing the victors to sack and plunder the riches of these civilizations. The Trojan War, immortalized by Homer, also took place at this time. A period of chaos prevailed for the next 200 years, when a new metal ushered in a new age in warfare and empire building.

The Early Iron Age (c.1000-500 B.C.E.)

Because it is so plentiful, iron, often called the democratic metal, probably ushered in the real age of metals for most people in the civilized world once they had mastered the techniques for smelting and shaping it into tools. Iron created and allowed the exploitation of new forms of wealth, which often led to more wars.

Iron also revolutionized warfare, since states could afford to field much larger armies. Two other factors helped in empire building. One was the phonetic alphabet, which allowed governments to keep much better records on such things as taxes, thus giving them much tighter control over their subjects. The other factor was mounted cavalry replacing the more cumbersome and fragile chariots that needed a much flatter surface on which to operate. Mounted messengers also kept rulers much better informed on news such as invasions, allowing them to defend and expand their empires by a factor of several times. Therefore, the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-609 B.C.E.) was three times the size of any previous empire. And the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.E.) was several times larger still. Besides helping build big empires, iron equipped armies would have a radically different political effect: namely, the rise of democracy among the Greeks.