The Bronze Age and Classical Era Technology


Early bronze age swords (Denmark, 1700-1500BC)

an achaean noble in the bronze age

The panoply of an Achaean noble in the bronze age.

As with much else in the history of technology, the discovery of metal and the coming of the Bronze Age in about 2000 BC had a dramatic impact on weapons. The development of the forced-draught furnace, in particular, enabled the known ores to be smelted and to be fashioned into shapes that could not be achieved, or at least only with much difficulty, by the stone craftsman. Furthermore, damaged metal weapons could be recycled. An added advantage was that much longer cutting and thrusting weapons could be made. Daggers had existed in stone, but, using bronze and copper, the sword could now be made. Both these metals are, however, relatively soft, and in order to make a more durable weapon, which would not bend easily, the metal was strengthened by hammering, then by the addition of lead at the smelting stage. Initially, the sword was merely a thrusting weapon, with a strong central rib running down the centre of the blade and smaller side ribs, but gradually a cutting capability was introduced, with double cutting edges. With the discovery of iron, around 1000 BC, weapons became much tougher, but it was a much more difficult metal to work than copper and bronze, and hence for a long time the three coexisted.

The growing effectiveness of weapons in their ability to kill and maim caused increasing attention to be paid to personal protection. The original form of armour, consisting of layers of linen wrapped round the body, was used by the Egyptians in the third millennium. Hide was also used and gradually metal strips were introduced; the Sumerians in Mesopotamia had long cloaks reinforced with metal discs during the first half of the third millennium BC. Two basic types of early armour were scaled and lamellar. The former consisted of a short tunic on which were sewn overlapping bronze scales, while lamellar armour had pliable metal plates, or lames, which were laced together in slightly overlapping horizontal rows. Later, in about the 5th century BC, chain mail was developed by interlinking metal rings, or sometimes wire. Like body armour, helmets were originally made of cloth, but this gave way to leather, metal, or a mixture of the two. Apart from the basic conical style, helmets with cheek pieces to protect the face from sword cuts became popular. Often they were elaborately decorated, including horns and crests, not merely from male vanity but more to make the wearer look imposing and formidable in the eyes of his enemies.

The third major item of personal protection was the shield, which was certainly in common use by the beginning of the second millennium BC. Shields existed in several different shapes-round, rectangular and oval-and were made of leather, leather-covered wood and wickerwork. They also often had overlaid thin strips of metal which were used both decoratively and to provide additional protection.

Before 1000 BC the main centre for both military and political development was bound by the three major rivers of the Middle East, the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris, with the two dominant countries being Mesopotamia and Egypt. From about 3500 BC the dominant weapon in Mesopotamia was the chariot, which gave warfare much greater momentum and punch than hitherto. Originally it was drawn by asses, until the horse arrived from the steppes of Mongolia around 2000 BC. Chariots were used to make frontal charges on the enemy in order to create panic, their crews being equipped with both javelins, to engage at medium range, and spears for hand-to-hand fighting. By 1500 BC, with the development of the spoked wheel, means were found to make the chariot lighter and hence more mobile, thus increasing its effectiveness as a weapon of shock action. Surprisingly, the Egyptians did not use the chariot until about 1600 BC, but it quickly became the basis of their military might. Armed also with the double convex shaped composite light bow, with a range of 275-365m (1200-1600ft), which they used both mounted in their chariots and on foot, they became a formidable force. Indeed, it was the arrow projected by the light composite bow, with its reed shaft and bronze head, which brought about the need to consider personal protection.

It was not until the rise of the Assyrians at the end of the second millennium BC that horse cavalry began to appear, and then in only a secondary role on the battlefield, being used to harry the enemy’s flanks, while the chariot remained the decisive weapon. Early cavalry were armed with both bows and spears, but their horses had merely a bridle, with no stirrups.

So formidable was the Assyrian army that opposing forces would not take to the field against it if they could avoid it. Instead they relied on the protection of the fortified city, a concept which had been in existence since the third millennium. An example is the fortress of Megiddo, which was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century BC. The base of its main wall was 2.13m (7ft) and it had 5.5m (18ft) salients and recesses, with a crenellated parapet on top. To counter these strong defences the Assyrians introduced battering rams designed to break down the main gates to the city. They were mounted in wooden towers, which were roofed and protected by metal plates, and were borne on six wheels. Under the roof was a platform used by archers to shoot at the defenders on the walls. Tunnelling and scaling ladders were also used.

By 500 BC, the Greeks had become the major military power and they made two significant contributions to the history of warfare. The first was the phalanx, a close order formation made up of hoplites, infantry equipped with 2.44m (8ft) spears and swords and dressed in horsehair-plumed helmets, breastplates and calf and shin plates known as greaves, with a 0.91m (3ft) diameter round shield held on the left arm. This tightly packed `mobile fortress’ was frequently more than a match for looser and less well-disciplined bodies of enemy. The other development engineered by the Greeks was the invention of torsion artillery, in the shape of the catapult. It was the Alexandrian mathematicians who developed the theory of the catapult, showing how there was a direct correlation between the proportions of the various parts and the diameter of the `straining hole’ through which the skeins which controlled the tension passed, and the Greeks who put it into practice. They had two types of catapult (or ballista, as the Romans were to call it). The katapeltes were used to project arrows, javelins and smaller stones-a 3.63kg (8lb) stone could be projected accurately to a range of 228m (750ft)-while the larger petrobolos could hurl stones of up to 25kg (55lb) in weight. The skeins themselves were made of twisted human hair and sinew. A further refinement was the use of fire arrows, either with their heads wrapped in inflammable material and ignited just before firing, or made red hot by heating in coal fires.

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were not innovators but very practical engineers, who applied the ideas of their predecessors. Perhaps their most outstanding feats of engineering were the numerous aqueducts which are still to be seen today. The Romans have been called `the greatest entrenching army in history’ and it was a constant principle that when legions halted after a day’s march they constructed a fortified camp, usually square in shape, with ramparts, palisades and ditches. Apart from the comfort afforded, it also meant that they always had a secure base from which to operate. Roman camps, especially those near rivers, are the foundation of many of today’s European towns and cities. As with the Greeks, the main element was the regular infantry of the legions, whose members were armed with a short stabbing sword, javelins and spears. The main shield used as the scutum, large and semi-cylindrical rectangular in shape, which when rested on the ground would come up to a man’s chest. With this shield they went one stage further than the mobile phalanx of the Greek hoplite by developing the testudo or tortoise, especially useful in sieges. While the outside ranks protected the front and flanks with their shields, those on the inside put theirs over their heads in order to provide protection from arrows and missiles fired from above. Cavalry still played a secondary role and, indeed, the Romans tended to rely on mercenaries or `auxiliaries’ to provide it as well as their archers and slingers. One new weapon of war introduced was the elephant. The Greeks had used it as heavy cavalry, but it was the Carthaginians who brought it to the fore at the end of the third century BC, and their celebrated general Hannibal took elephants on his march across the Alps which led to defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC. The Romans finally gained their revenge at Zama in 202 BC by using trumpets to panic and stampede the beasts.

Ancient Warfare is the only print magazine focused on the military history of the ancient world, ca. 3000 BC to AD 500. Each bi-monthly edition is centred on a specific theme and beautifully illustrated with custom artwork and photographs.

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