The End of the War Chariot II

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The End of the War Chariot II

In reliefs cut at Abydos we can see how closely the ‘runners’ cooperated with chariots at the battle of Kadesh. Besides countering the activities of Hittite ‘runners’ during the assault on the Egyptian camp, the Shardana skirmished amongst the Hittite chariotry, finishing off immobilised enemy charioteers and chariot warriors. Their dispatch was clearly the job of the ‘runners’, who also severed enemy hands in order to number the dead. The presentation of hands to an Egyptian scribe after the battle was over may have been rewarded by a better share of the booty. From the account of Kadesh which Ramesses II had carved on various temple walls it can be deduced that Egyptian soldiers rarely acted as ‘runners’. The same conclusion may be drawn from Ramesses III’s record of the repulse of the Sea Peoples, not least because he deliberately chose to hire mercenaries rather than recruit men attached to Egyptian temples. Traditionally the pharaoh called up one in ten of the entire male population in time of war. The Egyptian infantry consisted of three main groups: conscripts, regulars and shock-troops. These were divided into formations of 200 men, and commanded by officers who bore a standard. Four junior officers, each responsible for fifty men, helped the commander of a formation in handling his troops. Many of Ramesses III’s shock-troops would have been mercenaries like the ‘runners’ who served with the chariotry.

The Hittite kings maintained a regular army larger than that of the Egyptian pharaohs, but they often had recourse to allies in order to supplement their forces. These were recruited from Ugarit and other Syrian states as well as from border areas settled with pacified rebels or tribesmen. The northern Kashka tribes were famous for their ferocity, a circumstance which caused the Hittites to employ the more amenable of them with care. Only in emergencies were the troops belonging to the great vassals inside Hatti required to join the royal army. Ugarit’s military capacity was slight, although the Hittites were grateful for its navy. It would appear the Ugaritian army numbered less than 4,000 men, which indicates that its strength lay in chariotry, not infantry. According to Egyptian records, Muwatalli II stripped his treasury bare in order to hire mercenaries for the showdown at Kadesh. That the battle ended in a draw, or a partial Egyptian victory, must have been a disappointment for him and his troops, as there was no booty to help to defray the heavy cost of the campaign.

The involvement of foreign mercenaries in regular campaigning was of course dangerous for Hatti, Ugarit and Egypt, not least when they were used almost exclusively to support chariotry. For these hired troops could be as threatening to their own side’s chariots as those of the enemy. But such an occurrence was unlikely as long as their numbers remained small, which seems to have been the situation down to the arrival of the Sea Peoples. Wandering bands of warriors were not a new phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean, for these men were one of the sources of mercenary recruitment. They turned into a serious threat only when their numbers were great, or when they made common cause with mercenaries already in the pay of the countries they entered. ‘Swarms’ and ‘hordes’ were how the Sea Peoples appeared to those they attacked, probably because the defence of cities had previously relied on a small body of professionals. Swarming over chariotry, however, was the method by which these invaders revealed its battlefield limitations. They literally overwhelmed chariot warriors through sheer numbers. Where they failed to make headway was on the border of Egypt and Palestine. In the battle there the Shardana ‘runners’ of Ramesses III did not waver in their loyalty to the pharaoh, whose commanders seem to have surprised the Peleset, Denyen and even Shardana warriors in this column of Sea Peoples. Egypt escaped invasion, as did Assyria: both countries had good traditions of infantry warfare, despite the growing dependence of the pharaohs on foreign recruitment, and this may have been enough to see them through the crisis.

Afterwards chariotry continued to play a key role in conventional warfare, but its days of glory were numbered in West Asia and Egypt. No more could an army afford to rely on its performance to open the way to victory, when infantrymen were becoming the arbiters of battle, albeit supported by chariots and horsemen. Indicative of the changing face of combat was the engagement at Qarqar, in 853 BC, between the Assyrians and a confederation of Syrian and Palestinian states. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III had commenced a campaign to subdue the lands west of the Euphrates, after those to the east had been subjugated. From military records the size of the Assyrian army at this period was still under 60,000 strong. A century later Tiglath-pileser III had at his disposal over 75,000 men, while under Sennacherib (704–681 BC) the number jumped to more than 200,000. But Shalmaneser III’s army already had a large contingent of cavalry to fight alongside its chariotry. Horsemen were often deployed in mixed units with foot soldiers, which skirmished prior to the action and pursued fugitives after a victory. Exact figures are unavailable for the composition of the Assyrian army at Qarqar, which makes the detailed breakdown of its opponents’ forces so interesting. Shalmaneser’s scribes enumerated the Syro-Palestinian army as follows:

Hadadezer: 1,200 chariots, 1,200 horsemen, 10,000 foot soldiers; Irhuleni of Hamath: 700 chariots, 700 horsemen, 10,000 foot soldiers; Ahab the Israelite: 2,000 chariots, 10,000 foot soldiers; Que: 500 foot soldiers; Musri: 1,000 foot soldiers; Arqad: 10 chariots, 10,000 foot soldiers; Arvad: 200 foot soldiers; Usanata: 200 foot soldiers; Shian: 30 chariots, 10,000 foot soldiers; Ammon: 1,000 foot soldiers; Gindibu the Arab: 1,000 camels.

In total, Shalmaneser faced 3,940 chariots, 1,900 horsemen, 1,000 camel troops and 52,900 infantrymen.

The prime movers of the coalition were Ben-hadad II, whom the Assyrians called Hadadezer, and Ahab, who was an uneasy ally of this Syrian king. Ben-hadad made demands on King Ahab of Israel that exceeded those considered acceptable in a relationship between dominant and subordinate powers. War ensued and the Israelites won, after which Ben-hadad promised to restore territory taken from Israel. Though he subsequently chose to hold on to a strategic strip of land along his southern border, the seriousness of the Assyrian threat obliged the two rulers to put their differences aside. The encounter with the Assyrians at Qarqar, on the Orontes river, was indecisive, but it was only a prelude to a series of attacks from Assyria, until in about 732 BC Tiglath-pileser III conquered Syria and installed pro-Assyrian rulers. The temporary withdrawal of the Assyrian army left Ben-hadad and Ahab free to pursue their feud. It ended in 841 BC at the battle of Ramoth-gilead, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Fearful of Ahab’s skill as a tactician, Ben-hadad ordered his best squadron of chariots to seek out the Israelite king and ‘fight him only’. The wily Ahab avoided its attention, fighting throughout the day in spite of an arrow wound. He feared that his men might mistake his absence from the battlefield in order to receive treatment, no matter how quickly he returned, as a sign of impending defeat and break ranks. ‘So the king of Israel,’ the Old Testament reports, ‘stayed himself up in his chariot until the evening: and about the time of the sun going down he died.’

Qarqar shows how chariotry still retained a major role on the battlefield. The 1,900 cavalrymen on the Syro-Palestinian side, however, were heavily outnumbered by the Assyrian host, perhaps by as much as three to one. Cavalry was already well developed by the Assyrians and, by the middle of the seventh century BC, it would take over completely the mobile role performed by chariotry in their army. Before the battle of Qarqar it was not unusual for the Assyrians to campaign without chariotry. King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) had ‘set off with cavalry and light troops’ when he conducted a series of raids in a region of the Zagros mountains called Zamua, because its rugged landscape was ‘unsuitable for chariots’.

The inscriptions of Ashurnasirpal are some of the most important in Mesopotamian history for their length and detail. They are indeed the first to describe individual campaigns. At Kalhu, the biblical Calah, which was some distance from the major Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh, Ashurnasirpal built a new administrative centre for the growing empire and in the temple dedicated to the war god Ninurta there he placed huge stone reliefs inscribed with his victories. Their justification of violence as an expression of the divine will remains chilling. After heaping praises on Ninurta, ‘the strong, the almighty, the foremost of the gods, the perfect warrior whose attack in battle is unequalled’, the royal texts tell of the treatment Ashurnasirpal meted out to his enemies. Not only did he ‘stand on the necks of his foes’ and ‘with their blood dye the mountains red like wool’, but more precisely he ‘cut off noses, ears and extremities’ of captives, ‘gouged out eyes’, ‘burnt prisoners’, ‘slashed the flesh of rebels’ or ‘flayed’ them alive. One disloyal ruler had his skin ‘draped over the wall of Nineveh’. Massacre, pillage, wholesale resettlement – these were the instruments of Assyrian domination, whose sovereignty was ‘made supreme by Ashur and Adad, the great gods’. Harshness was taken for granted by Ashurnasirpal: his campaign accounts readily report flaying ‘as many as rebelled’ and placing ‘their skins on stone monuments’ or ‘on stakes’.

What allowed this ruler to behave without apparent restraint was the power of the Assyrian army. Although he chose to describe himself as an ‘attentive prince, worshipper of the great gods’ and the ‘designate of the warrior god Ninurta, destructive weapon of the great gods’, Ashurnasirpal knew that his own position as a ‘strong king’ relied on the annual campaigns his soldiers waged against external and internal opponents. It was their efforts which provided the deportees to fill the city of Kalhu, modern Nimrud. Having rebuilt this dilapidated settlement, the king relates how he ‘took people … from conquered lands’, from cities over which he had dominion, and ‘settled them there’. During his reign the Assyrian army was more homogeneous than in later years, but it already contained allied troops as well as forcibly incorporated prisoners-of-war. Light is thrown on this practice of foreign recruitment by the ‘horse lists’ unearthed at a military building in Nimrud known as Fort Shalmaneser. Most of them date from the time of Sargon II (721–705 BC) and comprise among other things muster rolls, inventories of weapons and dockets for fodder. On one tablet there is information about a unit consisting of deported foreigners noted for their horsemanship. Some of its members were Israelites captured on the fall of Samaria in 721 BC.

Sargon II, who had just usurped the Assyrian throne, was keen to establish himself as an aggressive king, and so the reluctance of Hoshea to pay tribute provided a welcome opportunity for war. The Assyrian army captured the Israelite king and then laid siege to his capital Samaria. Once it was taken by storm, Israel ceased to exist and the country was annexed by Assyria. Where the old allied relationship was still feasible, Assyrian rulers seem to have stuck to this method of control but, wherever vassal kings proved consistently unreliable, they abolished local dynasties and, like the Romans, progressively annexed conquered territories, ruling them with an administration supported by strategically located garrisons. Opposition to Sargon’s usurpation in Assyria itself had encouraged King Hoshea to defy the new Assyrian ruler. He may have received support from Egypt, for the Old Testament says that Hoshea ‘had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria’. The prophet Isaiah took notice of Hoshea’s lack of faith in divine assistance, and denounced him for putting his trust in Egyptian arms. The identity of So is problematic, and different interpretations have been put forward. All that can be concluded is the possibility of an alliance between Israel and a petty Egyptian kingdom in the Nile delta. Perhaps troops were sent from Egypt because in 720 BC Sargon enjoyed a victory over an Egyptian general named Raia. But this success was not sufficient to place the Egyptian ruler under any tribute obligation to Assyria, which became a direct threat to Egypt during the reign of Esarhaddon (680–669 BC). In 671 BC this Assyrian king overran the Nile delta and advanced upriver to seize Memphis. A rebellion incited by the Nubians brought Esarhaddon back to Egypt in 669 BC. As the Assyrians were unable to administer the northern part of Egypt themselves, they left this task to local collaborators who soon asserted their independence. Esarhaddon’s son, Ashurbanipal, replaced these rulers with one pharaoh, Necho I, whose son Psamtik was to found the last Egyptian dynasty prior to the coming of the Persians in 525 BC. They were the inheritors of Assyrian dominion in Egypt and West Asia.

The inhabitants of Samaria who survived the siege were resettled in Assyria, where Sargon compelled enough of them to form a unit of 200 chariots which was added to the Assyrian army. There is disagreement over the composition of this unit: was it solely chariotry or did it include cavalry as well as chariots? The nub of the problem is the Assyrian use of the term ‘commander of teams’ for both chariot and cavalry officers. Its mention in connection with a unit largely, if not totally, recruited from Samarian deportees does nothing to clarify the situation. This means that Sargon could have created a mixed force of chariotry and cavalry. From records of his campaigns against the Medes, originally overlords of the Persians, it can be seen that he was pleased to capture horsemen as well as horses. On the eastern frontier of Assyria groups of Indo-European people including the Medes and the Persians had begun to occupy the mountainous terrain and impede Assyrian control of the region. Towards the end of the seventh century BC, increased pressure from these people helped to bring about the fall of the Assyrian empire. Its vulnerability was augmented by a weakening of royal authority over powerful nobles who seem to have been more concerned with their own estates than about national defence. Another factor was the restlessness of a forcibly resettled population, which dreamed of an escape from oppression. How foreign units in the Assyrian army responded to the general uncertainty can only be guessed. Assyrian cities fell one by one until Nineveh was taken and destroyed in 612 BC. As one Israelite commentator said, the jubilation at this event was inevitable because all had known Assyria’s ‘endless plunderings’ and ‘unrelenting cruelty’.

That a ‘commander of teams’ could be either a chariot or a cavalry officer is an indication of the profound change taking place in the Assyrian army. While larger horses from Urartu and Nubia permitted the Assyrian chariot to carry a four-man crew – a driver, two archers and a shield bearer – they facilitated too the expansion of cavalry. First evident in the mid-ninth century BC, horsemen had improved their battle skills sufficiently within 150 years to exploit their advantage over chariotry in all types of terrain. While cavalry replaced chariotry as a mobile striking force, for skirmishing, flank attacks or hot pursuit, the new heavy Assyrian chariot acted primarily as a firing-platform for archers, although it was less mobile than before. The bigger wheels gave its crew one notable advantage in compensation for the loss of speed: by raising the chariot’s floor they gave the archers a much better view. Assyrian kings were quick to see how this higher firing-platform could be used for hunting purposes. Huge stone reliefs from Nineveh record the pleasure Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC) discovered in the chase. He can be seen firing his bow from a heavy chariot during a lion hunt. One sculpture shows the king shooting ahead, while two guards ward off with spears a wounded lion attacking the chariot from the rear. This heroic encounter is somewhat undercut by another relief, which reveals a gamekeeper about to release from a cage a captured lion. As the monarch reserved to himself the right to kill lions, they were collected in the wild and taken to the palace for royal sport. Over the millennia kings have often chosen to restrict the hunting rights of their subjects, for prestige as much as the table. Yet there was at least an element of danger to Ashurbanipal’s hunting. Not so for Napoleon, who suffered the indignity of a rabbit shoot which went hilariously wrong. One thousand tame rather than wild rabbits were supplied and, when the emperor arrived, they mistook him for the man who fed them their daily lettuce. Instead of fleeing to be shot they mobbed him and he was forced to dash to the safety of the imperial carriage. Where Ashurbanipal really surpassed Napoleon was in hunting on horseback, since one stone relief has him shooting wild asses pursued by hounds.

Doubtless these hunts were as carefully prepared as the ones with lions. Herds would have to be found for him without wasting too much time. More fascinating for us is his use of a bow on horseback. Even though a squire rides next to the king with a supply of arrows, the confident archery of Ashurbanipal marks the arrival of the mounted archer as the supreme wielder of missiles. The presence of the squire could well illustrate how Assyrian cavalry developed. A squire may have held the reins of a mounted archer, like a charioteer, when he first galloped into battle. Better reining would explain Ashurbanipal’s ability to free both hands and fire a bow. With greater control over a horse, perhaps through a new type of bit, a mounted archer was thus able to spend more time in action and less worrying about falling off. To the Assyrians credit must be given for realising the potential of cavalry, and of the impact mobile archers could have on the outcome of infantry battle. They owed much to foreign horse breeders, but their readiness to concentrate on the development of cavalry altered methods of warfare and enabled Assyrian kings to remain masters of the battlefield until the close of the seventh century BC. In doing so they ended the career of the chariot as a war machine in West Asia and Egypt. Where it lingered on, its auxiliary function was no more decisive than the command vehicles employed for the direction of infantry formations during the Warring States period (481–221 BC) in China.

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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