By Nigel Stillman
The “Biblical” or “Chariot” Age lasted from around 3000BC to 500BC. During this time many civilisations flourished and several great empires rose and fell. Much of the action took place in the Middle East; the “cradle of civilisation”. In ancient times, this region was the hub of the old world, where three continents met; Asia, Europe and Africa. The river valleys were very fertile and supported large populations. These were separated by vast tracts of desert from whence came waves of nomadic invaders. To the north and east the high mountain ranges were inhabited by fiercely independent tribes, and beyond these were vast steppes from whence came yet more invading nomads. To the west from over the Mediterranean and Aegean seas came sea raiders. To the south stretched the endless deserts of Arabia. With various tribes and cities struggling for the same pieces of precious fertile land, or regions rich in raw materials, warfare began here very early and has remained frequent ever since.
One of these groups of nomadic tribes was the ancient Hebrews. Through conquest they would carve out a kingdom of their own, only to be conquered themselves in turn. Their story is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible which mentions the enemies and empires against which they contended, such as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. It contains much information on the warfare of the period. Eventually scholars and archaeologists would track down the surviving records of the other civilisations revealing an entire lost world that existed long before Classical Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire. This era is therefore called the “Biblical” Age.
An Age of Chariot Warfare
In the 6th century BC, the conquering Persian Empire swallowed up the old Biblical nations and clashed with the rising civilisation of Classical Greece. At this time, the cavalryman was beginning to make his mark in warfare and would do so spectacularly in the battles of Alexander. Up to then, chariots had dominated the battlefield. The Persians were among the last nations to use them, and even then mainly as a command vehicle or scythed terror weapon. Throughout the Biblical Age, however, from the first battle wagons drawn by wild asses used by the Sumerians to the four-horsed, armoured chariots of Assyria, chariotry were the elite core of almost every army that could acquire them. This era’s other common name is therefore the “Chariot Age”. Indeed chariots were in use well beyond the Biblical world, in Ancient China, India and Europe. This reflects the origins of the chariot in the vast steppes of Eurasia which linked all these regions together with the Middle East.
The Biblical or Chariot Age also includes the whole of the Bronze Age, which the Greeks regarded as a “Heroic Age”. At first, weapons were made of copper. Then copper was alloyed with tin to make bronze which was a harder, sharper, better metal for weapons and armour. It was expensive, but gleamed in reddish gold and evoked in the memory of later generations the chariot-riding warrior aristocracy of the Heroic Age. With the fall of the great Bronze Age empires of Egypt, Mycenae and the Hittites - and the rise of Assyria - came a new age of iron.
One of the attractions of this period is that we are on the very frontiers of history. Even Napoleon was keen to learn the art of empire-building from the ancients and brought scholars to Egypt to study the monuments on his campaign of 1798. This led to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, unlocking forgotten historical records. Since then a completely lost world has steadily come to light and new discoveries are being made all the time.
All dates given in this article are according to the new chronology and so may differ from conventional chronological schemes in most other sources. Since the chronology of the Biblical Age remains unsettled and subject to ongoing revision it is worth looking at the problem as it has a bearing on military developments.
The custom of dating events as AD or BC was invented in the early Middle Ages. The idea of dating things from a fixed datum point in time was tried on various occasions before this, but did not catch on. The Greeks dated events according to the Olympics and the Romans counted years from the foundation of Rome or by consuls. Assyrians counted years by officials and Babylonians gave each year a name. None of these methods became significant for recording history. The principle method used everywhere was to record events by the regnal year of the reigning king or emperor. This meant that each nation had separate annals and there was no universal system. Scribes consulted these annals and kept detailed king lists, but they also became confused and political events might cause gaps or overlapping reigns in the records. Especially since a ruler might obliterate the records of his predecessor. However, the scribes also noted astronomical observations which is very useful to us because with modern technology we can calculate when an astronomical event, such as a comet, appeared in the past - assuming we interpret the record correctly!
Thanks to the Classical historians and the amount of historical evidence surviving from the Roman and Classical periods and the later Assyrian Empire, dating is fairly accurate back to the eighth century BC. Before this accuracy becomes more difficult the further back we go. A great variety of evidence, written, archaeological and scientific is used to establish dates. Anyone delving into this period will notice that few books seem to agree on dates. The chronological scheme widely adopted by researchers since the early 20th century is known as the “conventional chronology”. This is often re-adjusted and various scholars favour high, middle and low versions giving different dates. It is only to be expected that new discoveries and ongoing research will lead to rethinking of dates. More recently a group of researchers have put forward a radically revised chronological scheme known as the “new chronology”. Needless to say this has caused controversy and will itself be subject to further adjustment as research continues.
I like the new chronology and I think the research behind it is good. As a researcher into the military history of early periods, this new chronological scheme makes a lot of sense to me which is why I choose to use it. Even if I wanted to play safe and use the conventional chronology, then which version do I follow for which region? It is too incoherent for use in writing a military history embracing dozens of civilisations and perhaps that says it all about the validity of the conventional chronology! If you think it likely that the Neo-Hittites might restart chariot development (not to mention cavalry development and helmet design) exactly where they left off after a 300 year “Dark Age” in which they make no pottery, have few children, forget how to write and scuff about looking for iron, then stick with the conventional chronology!
Three Ages of Chariot warfare
The Biblical or Chariot Age is such a long period that it is easier to divide it into three sub-periods. These can be easily distinguished by the evolution of chariot technology. Over time, better horses were bred, better wheels were made, chariot vehicles became at first faster and then heavier with more crew and armour and finally became obsolete as true cavalry usurped their role on the battlefield. This long process encompasses a huge amount of tactical change as the chariot evolved.
From a wargaming point of view it is more realistic when armies belonging to the same phase meet on the wargames table, although within the whole period there is scope for considerable overlap between armies at different stages of development. The earliest armies from the next phase often did clash with the latest armies of the previous phase, but when this happened a great empire came crashing down, began to crumble or was taken over by a new ruling elite. Some tribes, remaining almost in the Stone Age, managed to hold out against “civilised” opponents because of the remote and difficult regions they inhabited or their sheer ferocity. Sometimes, like the Hebrews, they used inspired tactics and were led by charismatic leaders with imagination. Sometimes, chariot riding nobles were over-confident in their superiority. Often, despotic tyrants over-stretched the resources of their empires.
The three sub-periods of chariot warfare are:
The Age of the Battle Wagon: 3000BC to 1700BC
This was the age of great city states. It was a time of four-wheeled battlewagons drawn by wild asses trying to outflank sheepskin-clad spearmen in their proto-phalanx defended by big shields. Weapons were mainly of copper.
Armies: Sumerian, Akkadian, Old and Middle Kingdom Egyptian, Kurgan, Harappan.
The Age of the Two-horse Chariot: 1700BC to 800BC
This phase saw the rise of kingdoms and empires. It was a time of fast two-horse chariots racing about with aristocratic warriors shooting with composite bows at others clad in bronze trying to lance them at the gallop, while avoiding the massed ranks of archers or daring runners and mercenaries armed with bronze slashing swords.
Armies: Hammurabic, Hyksos, Canaanite, Hurri-Mitannian, New Kingdom Egyptian, Hittite, Early Hebrew, Kassite, Early Assyrian, Minoan, Mycenaean, Trojan, Sea-Peoples, Nordic Bronze Age, Vedic Indian, Shang Chinese.
The Age of the Four-horse Chariot and the Rise of Cavalry: 800BC to 550BC
This was the age of vast superpower empires engulfing the entire Biblical region. It was a time of armoured four-horse chariots, supported by cavalry, bearing down on armoured infantry, often in mixed units of spearmen and archers, while trying to avoid being caught in the flank by faster or better cavalry. Arab camel riders, Scythian horsemen and mercenary hoplites make their appearance. Weapons were usually made of iron, though much armour was still bronze.
Armies: Assyrian Empire, Chaldean-Babylonian, Later Hebrew, Urartian, Neo-Hittite, Late Elamite, Phrygian, Cimmerian, Median, Lydian, Later Egyptian, Aramaean Syrian, Midianite Arab.
Bashing the Myths
Myth 1: the Hittites owed their success to their mastery of iron.
Unlikely. This myth owes its origin to historical novels and the fact that the Iron Age begins at the end of the Hittite Empire, so in fact, they just missed it. The Greeks were right; the Iron Age begins after the fall of Troy, which was the last great event of the Bronze Age. Some iron daggers found in very early Anatolian sites, possibly meteoric iron, have influenced this myth. Such finds, probably exotic gifts, occur elsewhere. Tutankhamun had one, perhaps given to him by a Mitannian ruler. Experiments with iron smelting were being made in Central Asia and Europe resulting in prestige one-off objects travelling along trade routes from distant places.
Archaeological experiments indicate that bronze swords will damage early iron swords in combat and so are not inferior. Iron is useful because it can be beaten thinner and still be stronger than bronze for armour scales as the Assyrians discovered. This might also make chariots better armoured for less weight than bronze. Iron is common while copper and tin often had to be traded over long distances. Iron armour and weapons are thus cheaper and not dependant on limited sources of tin and so more troops can be better equipped. This is upsetting for aristocratic Bronze Age heroic warriors, but good news for relatively poor, landlocked up-and-coming nations with outnumbered populations like early Assyria. The Hittites controlled the ports of Phoenicia and cornered the tin and copper trade, much to the annoyance of Egypt. They also placed an embargo on export of tin to Assyria, apprehensive of the threat to their eastern front. This forced Assyria to develop iron technology. As for the Hittites, they were overthrown by iron-using Phrygian tribes from the north-west.
Myth 2: Chariots cannot charge into massed infantry.
It would certainly be reckless for chariots to charge into massed infantry unless the latter had become a bit shaky and their formation was not too deep. In the right circumstances infantry could be broken and scattered by a chariot charge, especially any in loose formation who were not determined to stand and fight. The method used by the chariotry would be to charge, gathering pace and trusting that the horse bard, chariot and shield would deflect most missiles shot by the infantry.
At the same time the chariot warrior shoots or hurls missiles as fast as he can. The chariot is equipped with plenty of ammunition and probably both bow and javelins if not also darts. The chariot warrior concentrates his shooting directly ahead at the infantry he is most likely to meet, shooting over the heads of his horses. Although the infantry ahead of him will use shields if they have them, the bronze-tipped arrows may often penetrate at close range. Some infantry will fall in the front rank, others will take up a defensive posture. When the chariot reaches them, it may find a gap appearing in the enemy front ranks and can force its way in or through using javelins and spears. Infantry runners, armed with javelins and swords or even two-handed weapons may be following close behind to widen the gap. Hittite chariots had mounted runners who jumped off to fight at this moment.
This will be happening all along the front, so only a determined infantry unit can be expected to stand. Even if a few chariots break through, the unit is disrupted opening yet further opportunities for the chariots and their supports to finish it off. Your best option as an infantryman is to try and drag charioteers from their chariots or roll under the horses and stab their bellies or hamstring them. Better still if the massed shooting of the infantry can force the charging chariots to veer away.
Myth 3: Early cavalry rode horses using the “donkey seat”.
Many early depictions of men riding horses show them sitting far back on the animal as one would ride a donkey. It is assumed that this was done because the early breeds of horse were not strong enough to bear a rider. This is unlikely since it is not possible to ride a horse in this way; the rider will slip forward into the normal riding position. Models of horsemen do depict the normal riding position. It was the ancient artists who, being more used to seeing donkeys ridden, drew horse riders this way as well. However, early breeds of horses were not strong enough or comfortable enough to be effective as cavalry mounts and so were harnessed to chariots. After several generations, stronger, larger horses were bred and the Assyrians for example, went to great efforts to acquire these from horse breeding regions. One of the earliest Egyptian uses of cavalry was by Pharaoh Merneptah at the battle of Per-Yer (884BC new chronology), where charioteers operating as cavalry pursued the fleeing Libyans for miles across the desert.
Nomadic Tribal Warriors
Vast areas of the ancient Middle East were and still are desert. This is a varied environment including oases, scrubby parched grassland and mountain as well as seas of sand. Nomadic tribes wandered with their herds in search of grazing and water, frequently trading with or raiding other tribes and settled peoples. Most men became hardened warriors, often skilful at skirmishing or, in other words, hit-and-run tactics with missile weapons. Tribes and clans within tribes were led by chieftains and formidable warriors. Usually they were too poor to own much armour or bother with chariots.
The three great river valleys of the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris were home to large populations of farmers, craftsmen, merchants, scribes, priests and nobles. Other regions had enough rain to support agriculture. Here villages grew into cities, which became small states ruling the surrounding land, and some conquered others to become kingdoms and empires. Even before cities fought each other for control of territory or trade routes, their wealth and land attracted tribal raiders from surrounding deserts, mountains and lands beyond the sea. The city rulers soon found out that they would have to use their wealth, inventive skills and organisational expertise to prepare their subjects for defence. Citizens and peasants were used to agricultural work and building monuments and so could form military units which worked as a team, obeying orders and shooting arrows at the same time at the same target. This would give them an edge over the tribesmen unless they became disorganised or were ambushed in the tribesmen’s own terrain. These troops were often well-equipped at the expense of the state and significant numbers could become professionals, available all the time, with no need to rush off to bring in the harvest.
Chariot Nobles (Maryannu)
The aristocratic chariot warrior was to the Biblical Age what the mounted knight was to the Middle Ages. The chariot warriors were known everywhere by the name maryannu which is an Indo-European word related to Sanskrit and means “young hero”.
The Sumerians were the first city dwellers to organise chariot forces. At this time the chariots were really battle wagons with four wheels, drawn by wild asses. The two-wheeled chariot drawn by horses was a later development in the evolution of chariots. The advantage of the chariot was that it allowed troops to move further and faster than men on foot. It meant that tribal raiders could be chased off, outrun and ridden down. In encounters between city state forces, each could attempt to outflank the other, leaving the units of infantry feeling very isolated and vulnerable out on the scorching plain.
The idea of the chariot, the technical skill involved in making it, and the horses to pull it all came from the steppes to the north of the Biblical world, beyond the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. Here the nomadic tribes of the Kurgan cultures (so named after their burial mounds) had domesticated horses and used wagons to carry their tents as they roamed with their herds. They also used chariots in their inter-tribal warfare which emphasised single combat between warrior heroes. Their craftsmen spent many days making splendid and ingenious weapons and armour. Why didn’t they just ride the horses into battle? After many generations of horse breeding, when horses were large enough for the job, that is indeed what they did! But that time was not yet.
With endless steppes, vast herds and frequent raiding, some warbands are bound to wander off the edge of their known world, probably deliberately looking for adventure and perhaps avoiding enemies at home. Some went west into Europe, others east towards China, most famously some burst into India and others from this last group turned west into Iran and the Middle East. Of those who went west into Europe, some turned south through the Balkans and into Anatolia. On the way, in a movement which spanned generations, these warbands dominated other tribes and merged into them, but everywhere the special Indo-European words explaining the art of horsemanship and charioteering were passed on and some of the warlords and their retinues were descendants of the original steppe tribes.
Just when the rulers of Mesopotamia were wondering whether battle wagons were really practical, on the outer fringes of their domains the warbands with the true chariots began turning up. Vulnerable city states were faced with two choices; either be conquered by them or hire them as mercenaries. If any kingdom decided to organise its own chariot force, then it had to trade for horses and hire the horse experts to train their force or fight in it as charioteers.
However, these proud chariot warriors were not the sort to remain subordinate for long, like the Goths who served the Roman Empire, they took over at the top as soon as the opportunity presented itself. They did this in Anatolia, creating the Hittite kingdom; in Syria, creating the Mitannian kingdom; in Babylonia, founding the Kassite dynasty; in Greece, beginning the Heroic Age and defying the Minoan sea kings; and finally in Egypt, carving out the Hyksos kingdom.
Commanding chariot horses depends a lot on the charioteer’s voice, and most horses coming into the region were bred by speakers of Indo-European languages such as Hittite. The Hurrians of the northern highlands (now Kurdistan), although not Indo-European speakers, who learned everything they could about chariots from their Indo-European overlords, also became chariot experts.
Tribes inhabiting the remote and wild mountains bordering the Fertile Crescent were usually tough warriors. They were not always backward or poorly-equipped since here were the sources of metal ores and breeding grounds for horses. These resources attracted the military expeditions of lowland kingdoms.
This name was given by the Egyptians to a group of nations inhabiting the Aegean islands and coastlands of Anatolia. Some were tribal, others organised in kingdoms. Their warriors were skilled seafarers involved in trade and piracy, renowned as coastal raiders. Trade meant that they were often well-equipped with metal weaponry and armour. They were fierce foot warriors with few chariots.
Outline of History:
Rise of City States
By 3000BC urban civilisation was already well developed in Mesopotamia. The influence of the Sumerian city states spread outwards to Syria and other regions. These cities, notably Ur, Lagash, Uruk, Mari and Ebla, warred against each other in fierce rivalry. They organised the earliest armies.
The First Nation State
Around 3000BC, early Egypt was unified under the rule of a single king. The land had been a number of chiefdoms until the most powerful of these began conquering the rest. This led to Egypt emerging as the first unified nation.
The First Empires
The Sumerian ruler Lugal Zagesi began empire-building by conquering other Sumerian city states, but he was in turn conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2100BC. Sargon was a remarkable character who went on to conquer a vast Empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to Anatolia, which was ruthlessly maintained by his successors. The proud, independent Sumerian city states resented Akkadian rule. Nevertheless, Akkadian influence began to replace Sumerian throughout the Near East. The Akkadian Empire eventually came crashing down amid invasions of wild Gutian tribes from the Iranian highlands. The Guti were finally defeated by the rulers of Ur who created a Sumerian Empire until that ultimately fell amid the invasions of the Amorite tribes from the Syrian Desert.
The Amorites settled throughout the Middle East, but were warded off by the Kings of Egypt. Elsewhere Amorite chiefs and their mercenary warbands took over in most city states, creating new kingdoms. These fought against each other and changed allegiance frequently. For a time, Shamsi-Adad of Ashur ruled a brief empire in northern Mesopotamia. Elamite efforts to subjugate Mesopotamia prompted Hammurabi, king of Babylon to organise a system of alliances and lead a series of campaigns initially to exclude Elam and ultimately to conquer and unite Babylonia around 1530BC. The Old Babylonian kingdom lasted until Mursilis I of the up-and-coming Hittite kingdom stormed down the Euphrates and sacked Babylon.
The Hyksos and the rise of the Heroic Age
Everyone has heard of the Hyksos: chariot warriors who stormed into Egypt conquering the country by virtue of their chariots, a new method of warfare that took the Egyptians by surprise, just like the Normans conquering Anglo-Saxon England with their mounted knights. It is an apocryphal tale about the decisive effect of new military technology. The Hyksos conquest of Egypt was the last stage in a series of conquests made by warbands of chariot warriors.
The maryannu warlords conquered the declining Harrapan civilisation in India around 1700BC. Other warlords who had already split off from this movement surged through Iran and into the highlands bordering Mesopotamia where there were good horse breeding pastures. Here they dominated and fused with the Hurrian tribes. Meanwhile, other warbands headed westwards across the steppes eventually establishing themselves in Greece and Anatolia. Yet other bands ventured far into Europe and to the borders of China.
Hammurabi’s successors had little control over northern Mesopotamia which had become a backwater after Hammurabi’s defeat of Mari. Indeed, the Amorite kingdoms of Syria were further weakened by the campaigns of early Hittite kings. Here the Hurrians and their maryannu overlords took over cities and established kingdoms. These combined into the chariot warrior superpower of Mitanni, straddling northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Enclaves of older kingdoms such as Assyria were engulfed and made into tributary vassal states. In Anatolia, the same process had already led to the creation of the Hittite kingdom. The Hittite efforts to conquer the Amorite kingdoms of Syria, who were supported by the Babylonians, led to the sack of Babylon by a Hittite army rampaging down the Euphrates. Babylonia then fell under the domination of the Kassites, a chariot warrior aristocracy from north-western Iran.
The chariot warlords were now getting closer to Egypt. The maryannu began to take over in one city state after another in Syria and Canaan. Also approaching were the Pelasgians, sea-faring versions of the same heroic warriors coming from Crete, the Aegean and coastal regions of Anatolia and establishing themselves in the coastal cities of Canaan (later called Philistia after them). The Amorite population of Canaan were now either subjects of the maryannu aristocracy, or if they were nomads or peasants, were chased into the hills and lived constantly in fear of the chariots. The Eastern frontier of Egypt was defended by a line of forts built by the Middle Kingdom rulers and Egypt had many soldiers, albeit at this time armed with ordinary bows not composite bows as used by the maryannu chariotry. Even so Egypt would have been a tough nut to crack if all had been well in Egypt, but the Middle Kingdom regime was breaking up. Lower Egypt, governed from the city Hut Waret, had fallen to Amelekite (Shaasu?) invaders. These were the so-called Lesser Hyksos; mercenaries of desert nomad origin who had set up their own Pharaoh. Now there was no longer a central authority to co-ordinate Egypt’s defence. Seizing their opportunity, the maryannu warlords in the strongholds of southern Canaan, who were by now a fairly mixed bunch of Pelasgians, Canaanites and Indo-European maryannu (“of obscure race” as the Egyptians described it), invaded Lower Egypt. Almost without fighting, these Greater Hyksos seized control as overlords of the Lesser Hyksos. Their leader Sharek became the first Hyksos Pharaoh around 1298BC (according to the new chronology). Only Upper Egypt remained under Egyptian rule. Hut Waret was turned into a massive chariot stronghold and is remembered in history as Avaris. Their other great stronghold for dominating Canaan was Sharuhen.
The Egyptian, Hittite and Mitannian Empires
In one of the most spectacular and remarkable comebacks in history, the impoverished and militarily disadvantaged Egyptians, bracketed between a hostile former colony in Kush and the Hyksos, liberated their country. This was accomplished by Pharaoh Ahmose around 1200BC who thus established the Egyptian New Kingdom. The Hyksos were chased into Canaan and their power broken, although the maryannu aristocracy remained in all the city states to cause trouble with occasional rebellions. At the Battle of Megiddo, Pharaoh Thutmose III smashed the last attempt by these cities to form a coalition to attack Egypt. Then the Pharaoh’s army carried the war into the heartland of the chariot warriors, crossing the Euphrates and beating the Mitanni on home ground. How did they do it? The Pharaohs formed their own chariot force, they rearmed their massed infantry with composite bows, they used naval power to land troops directly in Phoenicia and spared no expense in equipping professional soldiers with the best weapons and armour. Egypt set about organising a permanent empire.
Meanwhile the Hittites were empire-building in Anatolia, expanding outwards from their landlocked kingdom. Conquered principalities were bound by treaty to the Hittite king. Soon the Hittites, ruled by Suppilulima I, recaptured lost territory from Mitanni and the days of that empire were numbered. When Egypt, resting on its laurels, became absorbed by the religious reforms of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Syrians, Canaanites and Hittites began taking advantage of the opportunity, as did a confederation of bandits and rebels known as the Habiru. Egypt lost territory in Syria to the Hittites which began a long war between the two great empires. Regime change in Egypt raised up army commanders as Pharaohs and Egypt went on the offensive against the Hittites. This culminated in the Battle of Kadesh in 938BC and the eventual peace treaty between Egypt and Hatti. By this time Mitanni had disappeared, being partitioned between the Hittites and the rising power of Assyria.
Kassite Babylonia kept out of these wars, but was constantly engaged in border conflicts with Assyria and occasional Assyrian attempts at conquest. The dynasty was overthrown by the devastating invasion of the Elamite king Shutrukh Nakhunte. Later, the Elamites themselves were heavily defeated on their own borders by Nebuchadnezzar I in a great chariot battle on the river Ulai, securing Babylonian independence until the rising power of Assyria moved in.
The Israelite Kingdom
The chariot nobles who ruled the Canaanite city states had long been oppressing the nomads and peasants of the surrounding hills and deserts. Many ended up leading a bandit existence dodging the chariots. The politics of city states dominated by overbearing aristocrats being what it is, ousted nobles and rebels ran away to lead a fugitive life among the bandits. Together they formed bands of guerrilla fighters known as Habiru, who were readily hired as mercenaries. This became a widespread movement spreading through Canaan, Syria and Phoenicia. Israelites who had fled from Egypt formed their own tribal warbands. Akhenaten’s regime was unconcerned as to whether or not the Habiru managed to capture a city from the maryannu aristocrats as long as whoever was in charge recognised Pharaoh’s supremacy. Akhenaten may even have been sympathetic to the religious movement spreading among the Habiru: a belief in one supreme god.
Ultimately David, who began as a mercenary leader of a Habiru warband in service with the “Philistines” (Pelasgian cities of the coast), captured the Canaanite city of Jerusalem and established a new kingdom in Canaan. Egypt, locked in war with the Hittites had no need to interfere in the rise of this useful buffer state, indeed, the Pharaoh made an alliance with David’s successor, Solomon. It was not until the Israelite kingdom split up that the Pharaoh began to intervene in this region.
The Trojan War and the “Sea Peoples” War
Originally Minoan Crete ruled the eastern Mediterranean as a naval power, but the eruption of the Thera volcano (date still uncertain whatever they say) destroyed her naval base and the tsunami wrecked the fleet, while earthquakes toppled the Cretan palaces. The Achaean Greek kingdoms of the mainland, such as Mycenae, were now able to break free from Cretan domination and Crete itself was soon conquered by mainlanders. The kings of Mycenae began to create a loosely-organised empire and made forays into Anatolia to the annoyance of the Trojans and Hittites who formed an alliance against this new threat. How the mighty Hittite Empire was overthrown remains a mystery, but the Trojan War and the Sea Peoples War were indirect consequences of its sudden fall. Around this time the Achaean Greeks attacked Troy, an ancient and powerful city state and leader of a confederation of west Anatolian kingdoms.
Troy fell around 864BC (conventional chronology would date this much earlier) and the repercussions destabilised not only Anatolia but Greece as well. Muksas, chief of the Danuna, organised a confederation of seafaring and piratical tribes, known as the Sea Peoples and led them on a campaign of conquest. Their main target was Egypt, but they struck at Phoenicia, Cyprus and the Hittite Empire as well. The attempted invasions of Egypt were repulsed by the last great Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ramesses III. The Sea Peoples, moving in tribal contingents like fleets of proto-Vikings, headed into the west and took over various islands giving their names to Sardinia (Sherden) and Sicily (Sheklesh). While it is usually assumed that the Philistines (Peleset or Pelasgians) who had joined the confederation landed in Palestine (hence the name) at this time; according to a revised chronology it would have been from here that they launched their part of the assault on Egypt. Either way, Egypt lost control over the coast of Syria and Canaan at this time. New people, the Kaska, Mushki and Phrygians from Europe moved into Anatolia, passing the smouldering ruins of Troy and settling in the heartlands of the former Hittite Empire. Here they met Assyrian forces pushing forward from the other direction. Hittite successor states grimly held on where they could.
The Rise and Fall of Assyria
Assyria began as a landlocked kingdom in northern Mesopotamia, centred on the river Tigris and the city of Ashur. The Assyrians, however, were tough soldiers and resourceful. For a long time Assyria was tributary to the Mitannian Empire and engaged in border warfare with the Kassite Babylonians. When the Hittites broke the power of Mitanni, Assyria moved in to annex the eastern half of the former Mitannian heartland, known as Hanigalbat. Then the Hittites felt the pressure of Assyria on their eastern frontier and made peace with Egypt. Assyria had long been excluded from the Phoenician trade routes, but shortage of resources had made them innovative. The Assyrians began equipping their troops with iron armour and weapons and experimenting with cavalry to back up their smaller chariot forces. The army began to be organised on a semi-professional basis, with regular standing forces backed up by territorials. To the north and east, Assyria was in contact with horse breeding regions and as well as acquiring horses and recruiting good horsemen, learned new ways of building strong chariots. These highland regions were among the first areas to be forcibly put under tribute by the Assyrian kings. While the Sea Peoples ravaged the western lands, Assyria was beset by waves of Aramaean nomad invaders from the Syrian desert. Through constant warfare the Assyrian army was battle-hardened. Occasionally Assyrian armies pushed through as far as Phoenicia.
Shalmaneser III set about the determined conquest of the Aramaean and neo-Hittite successor states to the west, but was held off in several huge and bloody battles, notably Karkar in 853BC. Here Israelites and Syrians temporarily stopped fighting to join in the huge coalition opposing Assyria. After dynastic war within Assyria, the new king Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727BC) reformed the army and the empire. Henceforth conquered kingdoms would be ruled by governors as provinces. Surrendered forces would be incorporated into the Assyrian army which was transforming into a truly regular professional army, and rebellious populations would be deported elsewhere in the empire. Babylonia, being an old country with its own tradition of kingship bitterly resented Assyrian rule and was always in revolt. A long war against the rising power of Urartu was won, in part due to the sudden invasion of Urartu by Cimmerian nomad horsemen.
Revolts instigated by Babylonian rebels and supported by Egypt, now under the rule of Kushite Pharaohs, broke out regularly, leading to the conquest of Israel and Phoenicia and Sennacherib’s war in Judah. Ultimately Ashurbanipal invaded Egypt itself in 664BC. Babylonian revolts were crushed only after bloody battles with their Elamite allies, and Ashurbanipal was forced to invade Elam. Assyrian kings always used professionalism, rapid reaction, a spy network, siege engineering and a reputation for ruthlessness to help them crush rebellion and hold down their empire. By this time Assyrian forces were utterly overstretched. Eventually a new coalition of Babylonia, the Medes and Scythians overthrew Assyria and the capital Nineveh was sacked in 612BC.
The Rise and Fall of Babylon
The Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar II tried to occupy the vacuum left by the overthrow of Assyria. He was opposed by a resurgent Egypt under the 26th “Saite” dynasty who were allies of the remnant Assyrian forces. Necho II was defeated at Harran and Carchemish in 605BC and the war continued until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586BC. This war was notable in introducing the Greek hoplite onto Biblical battlefields, initially hired by Egypt as mercenaries. By this time chariotry had become heavy four-horse vehicles supported by numerous better quality cavalry. The Babylonian king was content to allow the Medes to rule over northern Mesopotamia. The Medes were themselves conquered by Cyrus of Persia, originally one of their own provinces. Cyrus advanced into Anatolia defeating the mighty and wealthy kingdom of Lydia, before turning on Babylon which fell in 539BC. In 525, Egypt fell to Cyrus’ successor Cambyses. Now the last great despotic empire of the ancient orient stood face-to-face with the rising power of Classical Greece and a new era dawned.
Seven Significant Battles:
Battle of Gu-Edina: Sumerian battle recorded on the Stela of the Vultures.
Fall of Avaris: siege of the Hyksos stronghold in Egypt.
Battle of Megiddo: Pharaoh’s daring plan routs Canaanite confederation.
Battle of Kadesh: Pharaoh ambushed by massed Hittite chariotry, but stays cool.
Fall of Troy: ten-year war of heroic chariot combats.
Battle of Karkar: massive alliance to hold off Shalmaneser’s Assyrian juggernaut.
Battle of Halule: Babylonians and Elamites fight Sennacherib’s Assyrians to a standstill.
Ten Top Biblical Age Wargame Armies:
Sumerian: war wagons and early spear phalanxes.
Hammurabic: early horse chariots, variety of troops, many ally contingents.
New Kingdom Egyptian: balance of effective chariots and effective infantry.
Hittite Empire: the ultimate massed chariot army.
Mycenaean Greek or Trojan: the heroes of legend with boar’s tusk helmets.
Israelite: infantry who know how to defeat chariot.
Sea Peoples: Bronze Age “Vikings” with horned helmets.
Assyrian Empire: heavyweight army with good cavalry and infantry.
Kushite Egyptian: exotic and fanatic with chariots and cavalry.
Babylonian Empire: overwhelming with many ally contingents.
Twelve Top Biblical Age Commanders:
Sargon of Akkad: won 37 battles.
Hammurabi of Babylon: defeated four rival kingdoms to unite Babylonia.
Kamose “The Mighty”: waged relentless war against the Hyksos.
Thutmose III: established the Egyptian Empire in 17 campaigns.
Suppilulima I: cunning strategist who conquered Mitanni.
King David of Israel: boy with a sling who became a mighty warlord and king.
Ramesses III: repulsed three invading hordes by land and sea.
Ahab of Israel: fought to the end while bleeding to death in his chariot.
Ashurbanipal: led his armies to the ends of the earth to hold his empire.
Tarharka the Kushite: took on the might of Assyria.
Pharaoh Necho II: created a modern Egyptian navy with a fleet of triremes.
Nebuchadnezzar II: completed the overthrow of Assyria.
Ideas for Further Reading
A Test of Time by D Rohl.
Lords of Avaris by D Rohl.
Ancient Iraq by G Roux.
Armies of the Ancient Near East by N R Stillman and N Tallis.
The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands by Y Yadin.
Chariot by A Cotterell.
Battles of the Bible by C Herzog and M Gichon.
Chariot Wars by N R Stillman.
The Legend of Odysseus by P Connolly.
Also consult the excellent Osprey books on Assyria, Egypt, The Hittites, Mycenaeans, etc.