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All the King’s Horses: What an Iron Age Military Expedition Might Look Like

Now that we have gotten a glimpse of how the biblical writers might have described Late Bronze Age chariot warfare, we must see how an Iron Age confrontation is depicted. Once again, I’m relying on Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age as a guide. Drews argues that a momentous shift in military tactics marks the transition from the Bronze Age, when chariotry predominated, to the Iron Age, when infantry took center stage.

I’m attempting to flesh out this thesis with respect to Old Testament history in general and various schemes of revising the chronology of the ancient world in particular. For my purposes, I therefore want to find a biblical era where military operations are undoubtedly depicted in terms of an Iron-Age milieu. The beginning of the period of the Divided Monarchy, circa 900, is just such an era.

Assyria’s Infantry

Drews accepts the conventional chronology which proposes a lengthy Dark Age falling upon the entire Mediterranean world from around 1200 BC—the beginning of the Iron Age—until about 900 BC. (This 300-year lacuna is in fact one of the embarrassments of the conventional chronology which has led some scholars to propose alternative chronologies.) At any rate, by the early ninth century, infantry has become a central feature in the militaries of the ancient world:

The centrality of an offensive infantry is clear when our documentation resumes in the ninth century, with the inscriptions and reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II [884-859 BC] and Shalmaneser III [859-824 BC]. Although Shalmaneser’s horse troops were impressive, they were evidently secondary to his infantry, which in a major campaign numbered more than 100,000 men. Another inscription of the early ninth century describes an Assyrian army of 1,351 chariots and 50,000 footsoldiers. These enormous infantries were of course levied from the general population of Assyria, where the tradition of militia service seems to have been still flourishing in the ninth century. Although neither reliefs nor inscriptions and literary accounts give us a clear picture of a ninth-century battle, what can be pieced together indicates that in the armies of Assyria, Israel, and Judah an advancing infantry formed the center of the battle line, and horse troops operated on the wings “for pincer movements and efforts to overwhelm and turn the enemy flank.” In the ninth century, in other words, infantry units no longer served merely to escort chariotries on the march and, in battle, to provide a haven for chariots in trouble but were now at the center of the offensive action. The Assyrian infantry included companies of archers … and of spearmen, and all carried a straight sword as a secondary weapon. (Drews, 167)

Fifty thousand foot soldiers to only 1,351 chariots gives a ratio of approximately 37:1. This is a good deal more than the 10:1 (Egyptian) or 15:1 (Hittite) ratios at the Battle of Kadesh. Infantry had indeed become central by this time.

Shishak’s Campaign

Let us now look for evidence of Iron Age military operations in the Old Testament. First, there is the campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh “Shishak” in the 5th year of King Rehoboam of Judah, circa 927/6 BC. I have already blogged on the possibility that “Shishak” is someone other than Shoshenq I, founder of Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty. Whoever he was, he brought a massive infantry contingent with him:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, because they had been unfaithful to the LORD, King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem with twelve hundred chariots and sixty thousand cavalry. A countless army came with him from Egypt—Libyans, Sukkiim, and Ethiopians. (2 Chr 12:3-4)

Once again, I will follow Kevin Edgecomb’s lead in emending the text to refer to 1,200 chariots and 6,000 cavalry. That cavalry outnumbers chariotry is itself a strong indication that we have moved into the Iron Age, as the evidence for cavalry at all in the Late Bronze Age is scanty at best. We will return to this point in a later post. The most tantalizing clue, however, is the “countless army” of foreigners he brought with him. These foreigners, whether hired mercenaries or subjects of vassal states, seem to be what most captured the attention of the Chronicler.

It might be argued that the presence of foreign “barbarians” in the army of a civilized kingdom like Egypt is in fact more to be expected in the Late Bronze Age. We have already seen Ramesses II’s Shardana body guards at the Battle of Kadesh. At that same battle, the Hittite king Muwatalli assembled his infantry from his various subject districts. The presence of cavalry in much greater numbers than chariotry, however, suggests that this is an Iron-Age army.

The Campaign of Zerah the Ethiopian

The next important biblical benchmark is the campaign of Zerah the Ethiopian (or Nubian) in the 10th year of Asa of Judah, circa 901/0 BC:

Zerah the Ethiopian came out against [Judah] with an army of a million men and three hundred chariots, and came as far as Mareshah. (2 Chr 14:10)

Even accepting Edgecomb’s proposed emendation of the infantry figure from 1,000,000 to merely 10,000, we are left with infantry outnumbering chariotry by about 33:1: reasonably close to the 37:1 ratio in the Assyrian inscription Drews cites. There is no question we are in an Iron-Age milieu at this point.

Chronological Options

We have now established a broad time frame in which to locate the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age military tactics. This transition must have come after the exodus and at least the beginning of the period of the judges—eras with their own chronological conundrums—and before the reign of Asa (and most likely before that of Rehoboam). In absolute terms, we’re looking at the period between around 1200 BC (the traditional date of the end of the Bronze Age) and around 900 BC.

To put this in perspective, let me quickly run through some of the revised chronological models I’m hoping to test by this exercise. I’ll take the “Sea Peoples” invasion in Ramesses III’s 8th regnal year as a watershed date for the transition from the centrality of chariot forces (Bronze Age) to that of infantry (Iron Age). The older tactics may well have persisted after that, but probably not for more than another generation or so. So what date on our calendar corresponds to year 8 of Ramesses III?

  • In the conventional chronology, it is circa 1176 BC.
  • Graham Hagens proposes a (relatively) modest 100-year down-dating, or circa 1076 BC.
  • Pierce Furlong argues for a nearly 200-year down-dating, resulting in a date of circa 1001 BC.
  • Jeremy Goldberg‘s revision is slightly lower than Furlong’s, with a resultant date of circa 980 BC.
  • Peter James et al. propose a roughly 250-year down-dating (and believe that Ramesses III was in fact the biblical Shishak). I don’t know the “official” date for Ramesses III’s accession in this model, but the equation with Shishak would suggest his 8th year would not be too far off from circa 927 BC.
  • David Rohl et al. propose a 324-year down-dating at this point in their model, in which Ramesses III’s 8th year is circa 855 BC.

Now, take a look at that last date: 855 BC for the “Sea Peoples” invasion. Zerah the Ethiopian marched his Iron-Age army into Judah about 45 years earlier. Can it really be the case that Zerah had raised and deployed such a force not only before Ramesses III’s repulsion of the “Sea Peoples” but even more than a dozen years before Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their northern allies? This seems impressively unlikely. Furthermore, Rohl argues that the biblical Shishak (927/6 BC) was in fact Ramesses II—the epitome of Late Bronze Age chariot combat! Yet, as I have argued, the evidence favors interpreting Shishak’s campaign as an Iron-Age-style engagement as well. In other words, if Drews research is remotely credible, it scores a telling blow against the Rohl “New Chronology.”

James’ “Centuries of Darkness” model remains a possibility, but only by the slightest of margins. Depending on what we find in the prior biblical era, that of the United Monarchy, it will be the next revisionist model to fall (hint: it will). The remaining chronologies are untouched so far. In my next installment I’ll delve into the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon in an attempt to fine-tune the date of the “catastrophe” that precipitated the end of the Bronze Age and its distinctive style of warfighting.



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