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All the King’s Horses: Chariotry as a Test Case for Chronological Revisionism

In The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995), Robert Drews builds a strong case that the turmoil that marked the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age in the eastern Mediterranean (conventionally, around 1200 BC) was due in large part to the rise of new military tactics. In the Late Bronze Age, warfare was a contest of opposing chariot forces, with only a small number of infantry participants. By the Iron Age, however, advances in infantry tactics and equipment spelled the end of this kind of massed chariotry in favor of large infantries with chariots (and, increasingly, cavalry) in a supporting role. Furthermore, texts from the Late Bronze Age indicate that kings paid great attention to their chariot forces and the costs involved in providing and maintaining horses, skilled chariot troops, and the vehicles themselves. Infantry, when mentioned at all, is largely as an afterthought.

If Drews is right, it should theoretically be possible to find evidence of the end of the Bronze Age in the Old Testament by paying attention to how the biblical historians describe military tactics and military spending. In turn, this would serve either to confirm or challenge the various proposals for revising the chronology of the ancient world (i.e., Rohl, James, Goldberg, Furlong, etc.)

In the remainder of this post, I’ll simply make three general statements based on Drews’ research. Next, I’ll start digging into the biblical materials.

First, large infantries were not absent from Late Bronze Age battles. At the Battle of Kadesh (conventionally c. 1274 BC), considered the pinnacle of Bronze Age chariot battles, infantry is estimated to have outnumbered chariotry by at least 10:1. The point is that these foot soldiers did not take a large part in the battle itself. Drews suggests the sort of work these infantrymen would have done (141-42):

  1. Escorting chariots on the march.
  2. Guarding the camp (a chariot army with its horses unyoked and tethered would have been especially vulnerable).
  3. Pursuing enemies who flee to uneven ground.
  4. Besieging and assaulting cities.
  5. Defending an army’s position (in addition to defending cities, infantrymen seem to have provided a stationary defensive cordon or “resort” to which an individual chariot could retire if a member of its crew were wounded or killed, or to which the entire army could flee in the event of a rout).
  6. Accompanying the chariot force itself as “runners” or skirmishers, responsible for finishing off an enemy chariot crew whose vehicle has been immobilized.

Second, infantry was the special purview of “barbarians.” Chariot warfare as Drews describes it was the business of kings who controlled the vast alluvial plains of the ancient world. On hilly or uneven terrain, chariots were not as effective and infantry came into its own. Among poorer or less “civilized” peoples, foot soldiers were a necessity. At the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses II’s body guard was composed of barbarian Shardana foot soldiers. When Merneptah turned back an invasion of Libyans with their barbarian allies from southern Europe (conventionally c. 1208 BC), he boasted of 9724 kills and the capture of 9,111 swords—principally an infantryman’s weapon—but only twelve chariots.

Furthermore, it was often necessary for a king to send his foot soldiers into these out-of-the-way places to strike back at the relatively backward tribes who lived there. (Assyria in particular seems to have maintained a strong infantry throughout the Late Bronze Age precisely because they were constantly campaigning against the “barbarians” on their northern and eastern borders.) Drews contends these barbarian troops eventually figured out a way to defeat chariots by putting large masses of infantry on the battlefield, and eventually the “civilized” nations were forced to do the same just to keep up.

Third, Drews contends that this paradigm shift happened very quickly. The transition from Bronze Age to Iron Age tactics took place in a matter of decades, not centuries. It was largely complete by the time of the “Sea Peoples” invasion of Egypt in year 8 of Ramesses III (conventionally, c. 1179 BC), about a hundred years after the Battle of Kadesh, and it had barely begun with the Libyan invasion in year 5 of Merneptah. Thus, according to Drews, the transition took place over one or at most two generations. Others would argue for a more gradual transition. Frederik Woudhuizen (“The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples,” dissertation, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 2006), for example, argues,

In the first place, especially the Egyptian pharaohs from the time of Ramesses II onwards were quick to adapt to the military innovations by hiring Sherden mercenaries from (as we will argue) Sardinia, who were specialists in the new style of fighting. Secondly, certain groups that overran the Late Bronze Age states during the catastrophe, like the Kaskans of Anatolia and the Philistines of Palestine, still used chariots in their army during the Early Iron Age. (41)

It should be noted, however, that Drews never denies that chariots continued to be used in the Iron Age. His point is that they were used differently: Iron Age chariotry operated in smaller numbers and in support of the infantry, whereas in the Bronze Age it was the other way around. Still, perhaps we should imagine a gradual development of this new style of fighting beginning early in the reign of Ramesses II and continuing into the early years of Ramesses III: a span of approximately 100 years.

Next time we’ll begin by looking at Bronze Age chariot warfare in the Bible.

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