The End of the War Chariot I

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The End of the War Chariot I

He advanced against me intent on combat. I defeated him, I shattered his warriors, 3,000 of whom I slew. With their blood I filled the wide plain. His arms, his royal treasure, his cavalry, I took away from him. To save his life he climbed a steep mountain … Over the plain I thundered like Adad, the storm god. Now my harsh rule is established over Urartu.

Assyrian inscription

The first blow to the chariot’s supremacy as a war machine fell in the eastern Mediterranean during the twelfth century BC. This setback was inextricably bound up with the widespread destruction then visited upon cities throughout the region, a catastrophe usually blamed on the so-called Sea Peoples. The name was coined in the late nineteenth century to refer to the invaders from across the sea described by Ramesses III (1198–1166 BC) in his account of their repulse from Egypt. Yet it is a misleading name, for not all the perpetrators of violence came from islands or even coastlines. One of these peoples, for instance, the Teresh, whom the ancient Greeks called the Tyrsenoi, were inhabitants of Lydia, a land-locked state in the western part of Asia Minor. The Teresh have been linked to the Etruscans, Rome’s northern neighbours. In 1200 BC, according to Herodotus, there

was a great famine in Lydia. King Atys tried to distract the minds of the Lydians from the famine but after eighteen years divided the population in two. One half, under his son, Tyrsenos, emigrated. They went first to the sea where they built ships which they filled with provisions. They then sailed in search of new lands and eventually settled in Italy, founding cities they still live in. They called themselves Tyrsenoi after their leader.

Unreliable though Herodotus’ date is, the tradition of migration he records is worth attention. Scarcity at home sent the Tyrsenoi abroad, so that by the eighth century BC their Italian settlements had coalesced into a league of city states capable of dominating early Rome. Another migration could have seen the Teresh seeking land in Egypt, just as it propelled the Peleset in the same direction from southwestern Asia Minor. But famine was not the only cause of instability and population movement. The Hittite practice of resettling large groups of rebellious vassals in new locations had an adverse influence on border areas, since they offered sanctuary to disaffected subjects. It was a problem that would later confront Assyria in its own heartland: there the policy of enforced resettlement came close to threatening the Assyrian way of life. In the Hittite empire, however, it always seems to have been the outlying territories that were the source of danger. This was particularly true in the western part of Asia Minor, where rivalry between Hatti and Ahhiyawa, the Hittite name for ancient Greece, had long been a feature of local politics. Hittite records note how, in the fifteenth century BC, a ‘man of Ahhiya’ campaigned alongside rebellious vassals with a force of infantry and 100 chariots. At this stage there was as yet still little Ahhiyawan settlement on the Aegean shore of Asia Minor – Greek colonisation really got started in the eighth century BC – but the city of Miletos certainly had Greek inhabitants. Cretan legend claims that Miletos was a colony of present-day Mallia, whose ancient name may have been Milatos. King Sarpedon of Mallia quarrelled with King Minos of Knossos and had to flee the island of Crete in order to escape his brother’s wrath. Either Sarpedon or one of his followers took over an existing settlement on the site of Miletos and turned it into a major trading port.

Documents from the reign of Mursili II (1321–1295 BC) mention the defection of Millawanda, a Hittite subject state, and its alliance with Ahhiyawa. If Miletos and Millawanda are the same, then we possess a rare insight into ancient Greek–Hittite relations as well as the increasingly unstable condition of Hatti’s western frontier. Trouble started when a local ruler named Uhhaziti endeavoured to persuade other Hittite vassals to join him in a revolt which had the support of Ahhiyawa. Against the rebels Mursili sent ‘troops and chariots’ with some success, but his commanders proved unable to stop Uhhaziti interfering with Hatti’s affairs as the rebel king continued to provide asylum for refugees from Mursili’s authority. So at the head of a large army, supplemented with levies from Syrian allies, Mursili marched against Uhhaziti confident in the outcome of battle, for the reason that his troops saw a thunderbolt, a sign that ‘the mighty storm god … and all other gods were well disposed’ towards the campaign. Illness prevented Uhhaziti taking the field himself, leaving Mursili to defeat his son instead. Afterwards Uhhaziti sought refuge on ‘the islands’, the Hittite records state, ‘and there he remained’. What this actually means is shelter being provided for the deposed king on an Aegean island belonging to an Ahhiyawan ruler. About the fate of Millawanda we are uncertain and it is quite possible that Mursili ceded the city as a diplomatic move intended to satisfy Ahhiyawa and insure against future aggression in western Asia Minor. When Mursili’s successor, Muwatalli II, drew up a list of potential troublemakers as he prepared for his confrontation with the Egyptians in 1274 BC at Kadesh, neither Millawanda nor Ahhiyawa were on that list. If this interpretation is correct, the diplomatic strategy failed, as Ahhiyawa did nothing to deter raids on Hittite territory. But Hattusili III (1267–1237 BC), the Hittite king who concluded peace with Ramesses II, sent a letter to a king of Ahhiyawa, whose sovereignty over Millawanda he recognised, to ask for the surrender of Piyamaradu, a Hittite renegade who was launching raids from the city. This approach worked: Piyamaradu left Millawanda, although he avoided Hittite custody through an escape by sea.

The disaster which struck Hatti around 1200 BC gave no advantage to Ahhiyawa, because the ancient Greeks were faced with calamity as well. Palaces and cities on mainland Greece were destroyed and abandoned. At first Miletos and the Aegean islands escaped the spreading destruction and remained prosperous. Then in the 1050s BC Miletos suffered assault, its eventual revival occurring when the Ionian Greeks migrated across the Aegean after the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation. The Athenians never doubted that their kinsmen were responsible for this second settlement of Miletos. Revolt in Ionia, between 499 and 493 BC, put this belief to the test, because Persia, then the dominant Asian power, crushed the rebel Greek cities with extreme force and installed compliant governments against the wishes of their inhabitants. Athens’ Ionian policy vacillated dramatically. An Athenian squadron was withdrawn from the rebel fleet at the end of the first campaigning season. And in 494 BC a playwright was fined for writing about the Persian sack of Miletos. Although the fine was supposed to have been imposed because the Athenians were deeply distressed at the reminder of Ionia’s misfortune, the actual reason was most likely a wish to avoid annoying the Persians any further. What this conflict represents is a repeat of the frontier difficulties faced by Hatti, which struggled less and less effectively at controlling the Aegean seaboard as well as the hill peoples who lived immediately behind it. Added to all this was the long-standing threat from the Kashka in the north, not far distant from Hattusha, the Hittite capital. These troublesome peoples were not in themselves the cause of Hatti’s overthrow, any more than others like them were solely responsible for the end of city states such as Ugarit in Syria, but rather they brought pressure to bear on an empire already in the process of disintegration and accelerated its downfall. The strength of Hatti was a great source of stability in the eastern Mediterranean: its sudden fall reduced many places to a pre-civilized level of existence.

The idea of some kind of coalition bringing about the general destruction derives from Ramesses III’s depiction of his defence of Egypt against peoples moving south from Syria by sea and by land. On the walls of his memorial temple at Medinet Habu, the pharaoh records how in 1182 BC foreigners

made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were on the move, scattered in war. No country could stand before their arms, from Hatti … to Alashiya … They were advancing on Egypt … the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, united lands … Against them I readied my troops and made the mouth of the Nile into a strong wall of ships … manned with picked man. The chariotry comprised the best runners and every accomplished chariot warrior.

Most of these attackers were new enemies. When in 1218 BC the Libyans had raided the Nile delta, their northern allies were the Shardana, some of whom had served as a bodyguard for Ramesses II, but whose homeland is unknown. The Teresh came from Lydia while the Shekelesh were most probably the Sicels who gave their name to Sicily. The Tjeker in Ramesses III’s inscription seem to have hailed from the Troad and worn their hair in the distinctive upright fashion favoured by the Peleset. The Denyen were no strangers to the Egyptians, since letters in the Amarna archive refer to the ‘land of Danuna’. It was situated to the north of Ugarit. Like the Shardana who also wore pointed helmets, the homeland of the Weshesh remains a mystery. Even though we can dismiss any notion of co-ordination amongst these peoples, the evidence suggests that Asia Minor was the epicentre of a storm of destruction which then swept across Syria and Palestine, before coming to a halt on the Egyptian frontier. A variety of peoples were attracted by the opportunities for plunder and land this great disturbance offered, once Hatti had collapsed.

The Hittites were in difficulties before the onslaught of the Sea Peoples. Their last ruler, Suppiluliuma II, had to deal with serious unrest in Hatti itself, as a result of intrigue over the succession. Suppiluliuma was the brother of Arnuwanda III, who in 1207 BC died after a very brief reign without descendants. Disunity at home did not assist the new king who found himself opposed by rebellious vassals as well. A letter addressed by him to the ruler of Ugarit complains about his lukewarm attitude to Suppiluliuma’s succession. So weak had the Hittite crown become in Syria that it appears the viceroy in Carchemish was now virtually autonomous. But it was not the eastern vassals who worried Suppiluliuma most; his campaigns were directed against rebels and raiders in the western and southern parts of Asia Minor. The southern province of Tarhuntassa, opposite Alashiya or Cyprus, was vital, because its port of Ura handled imported grain from Egypt and Ugarit. Tarhuntassa may have ceased to acknowledge royal authority, because not only did Suppiluliuma restore control over the strategically important territory but he also conducted sea operations from Ura against Alashiya, previously a vassal of Hatti. It is possible in the three sea battles, and the one land battle, fought during this campaign that the defeated enemy was not Cypriot. Raiders could have been using harbours on the island as temporary bases in an early phase of the movement of the Sea Peoples.

Whoever the enemy, the Hittites prevailed with the assistance of the Urgaritian fleet. Correspondence between Ugarit and Cyprus at this time reflects a growing concern over a threat from the sea. The king of Ugarit is advised to ‘fortify your towns, bring troops and chariots into them, and wait for the enemy with firm feet’. In reply the king had to admit the weakness of his military position, with both his army and navy on active service with the Hittites in southwestern Asia Minor. Neither Hatti nor Ugarit managed to weather the storm of the Sea Peoples. The sacking of Hattusha destroyed Hittite power, leaving only vestiges of its influence in Syria, where a number of small states continued to use the hieroglyphic script developed by the Hittites. One by one they succumbed to the powerful Assyrian army and by 700 BC they had all been incorporated into the Assyrian empire. Ugarit was abandoned like Hattusha, a joy for modern archaeologists but a nightmare for its inhabitants caught in the devastating sudden attack.

On Cyprus there were also sacking and burning at Kition and Enkomi, but on this densely settled island the lesser scale of destruction made it a refuge for those who fled from Ugarit. In Palestine the Sea Peoples’ progress south along the route from Syria to Egypt took a heavy toll. The coastal city of Ashdod was destroyed along with a host of towns. For the Israelites Ashdod was one of the five great cities of the Philistines. The others were Ashkalon, Ekron, Gath and Gaza, the pillars of whose chief temple a sightless Samson pulled down and crushed his Philistine captors. After failing in their assault on Egypt, the retreating Sea Peoples split up, some entering the Jordan valley where the Denyen could well have become the biblical tribe of Dan, others like the Peleset settling on the coast. So close are the words Peleset and Philistine linguistically that there can be little doubt that the descendants of the Peleset were the Philistines, the formidable enemies of the Israelites. At first the Philistines probably formed no more than a ruling warrior-class, but by the time of King David (1000–960 BC) they had become indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Prior to David’s success against the Philistines, they had almost destroyed Israel. At this moment of crisis the prophet Samuel had chosen Saul as the liberator from the Philistine yoke. Saul’s election as king, ‘as all other peoples have’, steadied the Israelites, although it was his successor David who founded a strong kingdom. Relations between the two war leaders were bad enough for David to hire out his personal following to the Philistines. They excused him from taking part in the battle of Aphek, which was fought beneath Mount Gilboa, a dozen kilometres south east of Megiddo. Taking advantage of the broad valley at the foot of the mountain, the Philistine chariotry tore through the Israelites,

who fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinabab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them … So Saul and his three sons and his armour-bearer and all his men died together on the same day. When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook their towns and fled; and the Philistines came and occupied them.

After this devastating victory, the Philistines captured the symbol of Israel’s faith, the Ark of the Covenant, and razed to the ground the sanctuary at Shiloh. Hearing of Saul’s death, David seized control of the southern part of Israel, and following the assassination of Ishbaal, the surviving son of Saul, he united all the Israelites in a single kingdom. Under David, and his son Solomon, Israel became, for nearly a century, a militarily powerful state. As the young David had told Goliath before their famous duel, he had killed lions and bears and the Philistine champion would die like them for having dared to taunt the ranks of an army under divine protection. Along with the Philistine dead Goliath’s giant corpse would be devoured by birds and beasts.

When in 1182 BC the Peleset advanced on Egypt in the company of other Sea Peoples their identity was less clear. To the Egyptians they were nothing more than barbarous invaders. The first encounter between the Sea Peoples and the Egyptians was a land battle on the borders of Egypt and Palestine. Ramesses III’s depiction of the action shows a confused mass of infantrymen and chariot warriors: the Egyptian troops and chariots and their Shardana auxiliaries struggle with an enemy also equipped with chariots. Yet it is not the fact that some of the Sea Peoples rode in chariots which is surprising, rather it is the presence of ox-carts loaded with women and children which seems so out of place on the battlefield. Either the Egyptian attack fell suddenly on a camp of the Sea Peoples, or caught the invaders on the march, thereby preventing them from deploying separately from their families. In the inevitable mêlée the Egyptians were at a considerable advantage. That there were two-wheeled carts drawn by oxen present reveals that this southerly movement of people comprised uprooted farmers seeking new land. They were not raiders, nor were they rootless nomads passing through areas of settled agriculture on the lookout for loot. The design of ox-cart and the humped oxen point to Asia Minor as these displaced farmers’ homeland. After turning them back into Palestine, the Egyptians had to deal with another group of Sea Peoples moving south on water. In the sea battle, which took place in the Nile delta, the invaders were routed again. At Medinet Habu this victory is vividly depicted with Egyptian boats sinking enemy craft or driving them ashore where bowmen wait to finish off any survivors. These Sea Peoples are depicted sporting upright hairstyles as well as horned helmets, and carrying swords, javelins and large round shields.

So complete was the Egyptian repulse of the Sea Peoples that Ramesses III could boast how he ‘overthrew those who invaded’ Egypt’s boundaries, and ‘slew the Denyen, while making ashes of the Tjeker and the Peleset’. As Mesopotamia was spared an all-out assault, probably because the strength of Assyrian arms acted as a deterrent, there has been a tendency to give ancient Egypt undue credit for its defeat of the Sea Peoples. For in some ways the two victories marked the final glory of its power. The successors of Ramesses III were hard-pressed in maintaining Egyptian influence outside the country, and inside its borders there was a sharp reduction in the number of monuments erected by pharaohs. One reason for Egyptian weakness was dependence on foreign mercenaries, which was quite as damaging as the Hittite reliance on the forces belonging to powerful vassals and allies. At Kadesh in 1274 BC King Muwattali II of Hatti had needed to hire many mercenaries too. Ugarit seems to have heavily supplemented its forces with mercenaries, a practice fraught with danger.

Some of the best foot soldiers in the Egyptian army were the Shardana, who participated in 1218 BC in the Libyan attack on the Nile delta. Described in an Egyptian inscription as ‘rebellious at heart’, Shardana warriors were enlisted by Ramesses II, who even let some of them serve as his personal bodyguard. He had problems with certain mercenaries, but the Shardana are not mentioned as being among them. There is no reason to suppose, however, that Shardana warriors-turned-Egyptian-auxiliaries could not tire of their role in a regular army and turn into raiders again. A group of them migrated to Sardinia to which island they gave the name. Bronzes unearthed there reveal people with an appearance similar to Ramesses II’s mercenary recruits. It does seem likely that integration of mercenaries like the Shardana into the armies of the great powers of the eastern Mediterranean, and especially as fast-moving foot soldiers who fought alongside chariotry, opened up new and terrifying possibilities for various semi-civilised peoples who previously had no connection at all with cities. Chariotry was discovered to be vulnerable to assault by the so-called ‘runners’ armed with javelins and swords. For at Kadesh Ramesses II had sent his Shardana ‘runners’ with success against Hittite chariots which came close to his besieged camp. These hillsmen fought with cunning and dash, as they avoided arrows fired from the composite bows of chariot warriors and disabled chariots through the injuries they inflicted on charioteers or chariot teams. Apart from this infantry intervention at a moment of crisis for the Egyptians, the battle of Kadesh was decided by chariotry alone. As in the battles recorded by the Mahabharata and the Zuo zhuan, the outcome was determined by two chariot forces charging against and past each other and then circling back to charge each other again. In ancient India the accuracy of the archers was decisive, whereas in China passing chariots could deploy the halberd as well as the composite bow. No infantry engagement occurred at Kadesh, once the Hittite king realised the extent of his chariot losses. Neither is there any mention of infantry action at the battle of Megiddo until Thutmose III was obliged to besiege the city itself. The implication is obvious: chariotry always started a battle, and then the advancing infantry behind exploited whatever tactical advantage had been gained. Otherwise the infantry halted and endeavoured to hold back an enemy advance, if its own chariotry had been worsted in the initial action.

Assyria was unusual in placing its trust in infantrymen. Mountainous terrain along its northern and eastern frontiers encouraged the development of a sizeable Assyrian infantry unmixed with mercenary levies. When enemies descended from these mountains and hills on to the plain though, the Assyrian king would use chariotry to defeat them. Thus Shalmaneser I (1273–1244 BC) dealt with the Gutians, a people inhabiting the Zagros range. The Gutians were frequent raiders. In the late third millennium BC they briefly overran southern Mesopotamia, but their stronghold was in the north opposite Assyria. Shalmaneser’s chariot victory over the Gutians is a reminder of the continued deployment of chariotry in the Assyrian army wherever the terrain was suitable. From records discovered at present-day Nimrud in Iraq, it is evident that chariotry remained in the seventh century BC an important element in Assyria’s armed forces, notwithstanding the development of a corps of mounted archers. Innovation in the breeding of horses had produced larger mounts in Urartu, whose core was the Lake Van area to the north of Assyria, and in Nubia, Egypt’s southern neighbour. Horses were first imported from the latter by Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC).

Egyptian weakness ensured by this Assyrian king’s reign that Nubia had been an independent kingdom for several centuries with its capital at Napata, well to the south of Kerma. There the Egyptian god Amun was still worshipped on the lines established by Thutmose III, the recon-queror of Nubia. It was fortuitous for the Nubians, as their king Pianky dominated Thebes, the site of Amun’s great temple. In fact Pianky tolerated a number of petty Egyptian kings as his subordinates, terming them ‘governors’. He had come to the Nubian throne in 747 BC, and his sway in southern Egypt led him to revive the pyramid as a tomb for the Nubian royal family on his return to Napata. Although he boldly stated in his inscriptions that Amun had appointed him as ruler of Egypt, Pianky preferred to spend most of the time at Napata, from which he played one petty Egyptian king off against another. Not that this worried the Assyrians, whose chief concern was the regular supply of Nubian horses. Their trade enriched the Nubians and allowed the Assyrian army to develop its cavalry. The successor of Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II was guarded on the battlefield by 1,000 cavalrymen.

Another factor in the rise of mounted soldiers was the bronze bit, which gave early riders a certain degree of control. Once the more sophisticated snaffle-bit came into general use, there existed an effective means of communicating a rider’s intentions to his mount, although the absence of stirrups left the mounted archer or javelin thrower vulnerable in the event of a collision. This shift from chariotry to cavalry began shortly after the catastrophe brought about by the Sea Peoples. Then the vulnerability of the chariot to infantry assault seems to have become transparent. Fast-moving infantry, whom the Egyptians called ‘runners’, had always accompanied chariotry for a number of purposes. They gave chariots moving in column a degree of protection from enemy skirmishers, stood guard over an encampment in which chariot horses were unyoked and fed, and on the battlefield their presence ensured that support was available for disabled chariots and wounded crews. The Zuo zhuan does not dwell on the lesser duties of the ‘runners’ in comparison with the heroic actions of charioteers and chariot warriors, but there is no suggestion in its narrative of ancient Chinese battles that they could have been fought without the services of these infantrymen. Each Chinese chariot relied on the back-up provided by seventy-two foot soldiers, whose speed of movement ensured timely assistance to a stranded vehicle. The politeness displayed by chariot warriors to their opponents may have had something to do with the presence of such infantry support. They could afford to be magnanimous in situations where an adequate degree of protection was available, for themselves as well as their opponents. But this early Chinese approach to chariot battle did not preclude hand-to-hand combat between foot soldiers from each side, nor did it stop them attacking enemy chariots in a mêlée. As warfare intensified towards the end of the Spring and Autumn period (770–481 BC), the old courtesies were replaced with a code of discipline which underlined a growing professionalism on the battlefield. In the eastern Mediterranean there never appears to have been an equivalent of the mannered chariot encounters so beloved by Chinese chroniclers. Chariot battle there was always more intense, with ‘runners’ expected to be in the thick of the fighting. Possibly the foreign recruitment of the ‘runners’, either as mercenaries or prisoners-of-war, led to this more pugnacious role, since they were used to irregular tactics. Ramesses II’s Shardana recruits had a fearful reputation for hand-to-hand combat.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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