Warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt: The World’s First Armies

The almost constant warfare among the Sumerian city-states for 2,000 years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond any similar development found elsewhere in the Near East at that time. The first Sumerian war for which there is detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Umma in 2525 b. c. e. In this conflict Eannatum of Lagash defeated the king of Umma. The importance of this war to the military historian lies in a commemorative stele that Eannatum erected to celebrate his victory. This stele is called the “Stele of Vultures” for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the flesh of the corpses as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial portrayal of war in the Sumerian period and portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears as they trample their enemies.

The rise of the world’s first civilizations in southern Mesopotamia and Egypt in the late fourth millennium bce also begins the history of organized warfare in western civilization. The creators of the first Mesopotamian civilization were the Sumerians, a people whose origins still remain unclear. By 3000 bce they had established a number of independent walled city-states in southern Mesopotamia, including the cities of Eridu, Ur, Uruk and Lagash. As the number of Sumerian city-states grew and expanded in the third millennium bce, new conflicts arose as city-states fought each other for control of local natural resources or united against the persistent threat of barbarian raiding and invasion.

With the rise of civilization and organized violence came the experimentation with metal alloys in a search for harder, more lethal materials to make weapons. As early as 6000 bce in Anatolia, Neolithic man experimented with copper tools and weapons. But it was not until the fourth millennium bce that tin was added to copper to produce a superior alloy, beginning the Bronze Age. Roughly contemporary to the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia, the Bronze Age made warfare a much more dangerous activity than it had been before in the neolithic period. From the back of their bronze-gilded war chariots, Mesopotamian kings and, later, Egyptian pharaohs made war and carved empires, bringing civilization to newly conquered regions.

The Sumerians are credited with inventing numerous military technologies, including the war chariot, bronze maces, sickle-swords, socket spears and axes, and the defensive technologies of copper and bronze helmets, armoured cloaks and bronze armour. Many of these weapons, such as the mace, spear and axe, were present in the pre-neolithic and neolithic periods as stone weapons, but the Sumerians improved their lethality by making them out of copper and, later, bronze. In response to the increased lethality of metal weapons, personal body armour was developed, made first out of leather, then copper and, later, bronze. By 2100 bce, bronze scale-armour had been developed, and by 1700 bce was widely used by Mesopotamian and, later, Egyptian armies.

The standard shock weapons in Sumerian armies were the long heavy spear, battleaxe and the dagger. The effectiveness of the heavy thrusting spear on the battlefields of Mesopotamia affected the tactical development of ancient armies more than any other weapon. If soldiers armed with the spear were to fight effectively in groups, they had to arrange themselves in close-order formation, giving rise to the first heavy-infantry battle-square in western civilization. Unfortunately, historians know very little about ancient Mesopotamian military formations and tactics because kings used writing to commemorate significant military victories, not the manner in which the battle was fought. Occasionally, the same events were recorded in pictorial form. The most impressive of these early illustrations of the Sumerian army at war is provided by the Stele of Vultures from the city-state of Lagash, dating from around 2500 bce.

The Stele of Vultures commemorates a victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over the king of Umma and takes its name from a section of the stele depicting a defeated enemy whose abandoned bodies are shown being picked at by vultures and lions. The battle scene shows the army at the moment of victory, marching over the bodies of their defeated and slain enemies. In the upper register the king leads a troop of heavy infantry, while in the lower register the king is shown riding in a four-wheeled battle chariot pulled by four onagers in the van of a troop of light infantry.

The Sumerian light infantryman is depicted without protective equipment and armed with a long spear in the left hand and a battleaxe in the right. It is not known whether these unarmoured light infantry used their spears for shock combat or as throwing weapons. The Sumerian heavy infantry are portrayed in formation, with the unnamed sculptor carving helmeted spearmen, organized six files deep with an eight-man front, with the front rank bearing large rectangular shields. What is interesting is the apparent standardized equipment and number of spears projecting between the shields. The common panoply and close order suggests that these soldiers were well trained, uniformed and equipped to fight as a corps, anticipating later Greek, Macedonian and Roman heavy infantry formations. Still, without corroborating textual evidence it is unknown whether this early battle square was a common battlefield formation, if it was capable of offensive articulation, or if it served primarily as a defensive formation.

Eventually, the Sumerian civilization would fall to the inventor of imperium, Sargon the Great, around 2340 bce (Map 1.1). During his fifty-year rule, the Akkadian king would fight no fewer than thirty-four military campaigns and carve out an empire that would include all of Mesopotamia, as well as lands westward to the Mediterranean, inspiring generations of Near Eastern rulers to emulate his accomplishment.

During the Sargonid period (c.2340–c.2100 bce) the Akkadians contributed another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. Although it is likely that the Sumerians utilized the simple bow in warfare, no textual or pictorial evidence exists to support this claim. The first evidence of the bow being used in collective warfare is found during the reign of Sargon’s grandson Naram Sin (2254–2218 bce), though it is possible that Sargon himself utilized the weapons in his own campaigns.

The impact of the composite bow on the battlefields of the Near East was significant. While the simple self-bow (a bow made of a single piece of wood) could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it could not penetrate even simple leather armour at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of a self-bow, could easily penetrate leather armour, and perhaps the bronze armour of the day. The reason for this increased performance was the unique construction of the bow. The composite bow was a recurve bow made of wood, horn and tendons from oxen, carefully laminated together to create a bow of superior strength, range and impact power.

Possibly invented on the Eurasian steppes and brought to the Akkadians by mercenary nomads, the composite bow quickly became an important asset on the battlefields of ancient Mesopotamia. Aiming against packed heavy-infantry formations, light infantry archers could fire withering barrages of arrows, causing gaps and tears and eroding the morale of the foot soldiers. Although we have no descriptions of Mesopotamian battles from the Bronze Age, it is safe to assume that the co-ordination of heavy infantry and light infantry archers working together on the battlefield represents a combined-arms tactical synthesis, perhaps the first in the history of western civilization.

Once created, the composite bow spread quickly to other armies over the next 500 years, appearing in Palestine around 1800 bce and introduced to Egypt and the Aegean region by 1600 bce. In New Kingdom Egypt (1567–1085 bce), the improved archer was placed in an improved war chariot, combining for the first time a powerful weapon with increased tactical mobility. Composite bow-wielding light infantry and cavalry would remain a persistent adversary to the heavy-infantry-based armies of western civilization for the next two-and-a half millennia (c.1000 bce–c.1500 ce).

Perhaps no other single military invention is as closely associated with the ancient period as the war chariot. The military application of the wheel came quite early in the development of civilization, with the first chariot integrated into Sumerian battle tactics around 3000 bce. These early chariots were either of the two- or four-wheeled variety, were manned by a crew of two, and were pulled by a team of four onagers. The wheels were constructed of solid wood sections held together by pegs, while the placement of the axle either in front or in the middle of the chariot itself made the Sumerian war chariot heavy and unstable at speed. The absence of a mouth bit made controlling the wild asses very difficult, and it is unlikely that these machines could have moved at more than 10 miles per hour.

Armed with javelins and axes, Sumerian charioteers used their weapons to deliver a shock attack, driving into opposing heavy infantry formations and scattering enemy footmen. The Sumerian machine, pulled by wild asses, was too heavy and cumbersome to offer effective pursuit. Still, the Sumerian chariot served as the prototype for wheeled shock combat for the next thousand years. In the early centuries of the second millennium bce, two different innovations appeared in significant conjuncture to create a superior chariot: the widespread use of the domesticated horse and the new technology of lightweight, bentwood construction.

Although horses were raised as food in central Asia as early as the fourth millennium bce, it was only in the second millennium bce that domesticated equines spread throughout Europe and the Near East. At first too small to be ridden as a cavalry mount, the even-tempered horse was originally used as a replacement for the onager, harnessed to chariots, usually in teams of four. The development of bentwood techniques allowed for the construction of the spoked wheel with a rim of curved felloes and the manufacture of lightweight chariot bodies. At the same time, the appearance of the horse bit improved the control of the animal teams at higher speeds. This lightweight chariot with spoked wheels drawn by teams of horses provided for the first time a fast, manoeuvrable chariot, one that could be used as a firing platform for composite-bow-wielding archers.

By the fifteenth century bce, the Egyptians had modified the chariot into the finest machine in the world. The Egyptian chariot was made entirely of wood and leather and was so light that two men could carry the body over rough terrain. The Egyptians improved the control, manoeuvrability and speed of the chariot by moving the axle to the very rear of the carrying platform. But manufacturing and maintaining a chariot corps was a very expensive endeavour, the prerogative of rich and powerful kingdoms. The chariots’ presence on the battlefield was supported by the complex logistics of horse breeding and training, a small army of wheelwrights and chariot builders, bowyers, metalsmiths and armourers, and the support teams on campaign who managed spare horses and repaired damaged vehicles. Moreover, the chariots’ position as the pre-eminent weapon system in ancient warfare required continued access to strategic materials, specifically the light and heavy woods required for bentwood construction. In the case of Egypt in the late Bronze Age and Assyria in the early Iron Age, this meant access to the famous cedars of Lebanon. It is no wonder why both of these empires expended so much effort maintaining their presence in Lebanon, the chief source of wood for the armies of the Near East.

How chariots were employed in battle in the late Bronze Age (c.1600–c.1100 bce) is a matter of some debate. One view holds that the Bronze Age kingdoms used war chariots as a thin screen for massed infantry formations, with chariots moving laterally across the front of their own infantry and the chariot archers shooting – at a right angle – their arrows against the enemy infantry. A second view suggests that chariots were held in reserve until the infantry engagement reached a decisive point. At this moment, commanders would commit their chariots and win the day.

A more recent interpretation has opposing chariot forces lining up in long, shallow formations, then hurtling toward each other as archers fired over their teams and into enemy chariot formations. As enemy horses were killed and wounded, chariots veered, slowed and eventually stopped. At this time, friendly infantry ‘runners’ would finish off enemy chariot crews whose machines had been immobilized. Infantry may have also served as a cordon, a haven for damaged chariots to return to after battle. Because there is no evidence for a clash of close-order infantry formations in late Bronze Age warfare, it is believed the infantry of the period was lightly armoured and unarticulated, and was most probably used in direct support of chariot charges, to fight in terrain unfavourable to chariot warfare and to garrison cities. During the Egyptian New Kingdom period these new chariots would help pharaohs carve an empire stretching from the Libyan Desert across the Sinai to the Orontes River in Syria.

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