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All the King’s Horses: Chariotry in the Reign of Saul

To recap: According to Robert Drews‚ The End of the Bronze Age, the transition from chariot-heavy Bronze Age military tactics and infantry-heavy Iron Age tactics was rather quick. If this is so, then the evidence for one sort of warfare over the other in the biblical text might serve as a test case to confirm or dis-confirm the various revisions of the chronology of the ancient world proposed by certain “maverick” or “fringe” scholars of the Bible and the ancient Near East.

To get the lay of the land, here are some proposed dates for Ramesses III’s eighth regnal year. The “Sea Peoples” invasion of Egypt at that time is seen by Drews as a sort of watershed in the Bronze-Age-to-Iron-Age transition:

  • 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.

In a previous installment, I argued that the clear-cut evidence for Iron Age tactics in the biblical invasions of Judah by “Shishak” (c. 927 BC) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (c. 901 BC) rule out David Rohl’s chronology as impossibly short.

More recently, I noted the biblical evidence that places Solomon and his legendary chariots in a Bronze Age rather than an Iron Age setting. If I am reading this evidence correctly, it all but demolishes the conventional chronology because it would place the Bronze-Age-to-Iron-Age transition some time in the middle to late tenth century BC—long after the conventional date of c. 1200 BC.

The evidence from the reigns of Saul and David are more ambiguous, however, and suggest that Iron Age tactics were being employed long before the reign of Solomon.

Military Tactics during Saul’s Reign

Saul began to reign in the late eleventh century after the Israelites demanded the prophet Samuel provide them with a king. Samuel give in to their demand, although he warns the people that a king would conscript their sons “and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots” (1 Sam 8:11). As with Solomon, the king Samuel envisions will have a chariot force‚ something Israel did not have at the time. This at least implies that established, “civilized” kingdoms were expected to have chariots, a technology beyond that of early Israel’s citizen-militias.

Furthermore, the role of infantry in this coming regime would be to “run before [the king’s] chariots.” We have seen that chariot runners or skirmishers were a key component of Late Bronze Age armies, and indeed they were the only infantry component to actually engage the enemy on the battlefield.

If we were left with this prophetic warning, it would be easy to assume that Israel’s more affluent neighbors were situated squarely in the Late Bronze Age and that the Israelites longed to join the chariot-warfare “club.” Other data suggest, however, that even during the reign of Saul there were at least early traces of Iron Age infantry weapons and tactics.

The Philistines. In 1 Samuel 13:5, the Philistines come against Israel with “30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” Applying Kevin Edgecomb‘s proposed emendation to 300 chariots and 600 cavalry, we are still left with an early indication that the Philistine force included a significant number of infantry. Unfortunately, we have no way to know the precise ratio of horse troops to foot troops, much less the functions these foot soldiers performed on the campaign. Were they camp guards and chariot runners? Or were they the backbone of the Philistine army? Remember: even at the Battle of Kadesh, infantry outnumbered chariotry by 10:1 or even more.

Armored Infantry. Saul famously offered his armor, “a bronze helmet … and … a coat of mail” for David to use in his confrontation with Goliath, the Philistine champion (1 Sam 17:38). And of course, Goliath’s armor—bronze helmet, coat of mail, and bronze greaves (imported from the Aegean?)—is described in great detail (1 Sam 17:5-6). The greaves are of particular interest, having come “suddenly into vogue” around the end of the Bronze Age (Drews, 176). In the Bronze Age, foot soldiers wore little if any armor. This only changed during the tumultuous couple of generations during which the ancient world adopted the new Iron Age tactics. Drews writes,

Prior to ca. 1200, corslets were designed for the chariot crew. The mail-covered, leather sariam, a robe reaching to the calf or even the ankle, provided reasonable protection for a man in a chariot, and for him the fact that it was difficult to run in such a robe was not a serious liability. Apparently some infantrymen in the Late Bronze Age wore a simplified, much less expensive version of the charioteer’s corslet: the Luxor relief of the Battle of Kadesh [c. 1275 BC in conventional chronology—DJP] portrays a line of Hittite auxiliaries in full stride, and most of them wear wide-skirted and ankle-length “robes.” Possibly the robes were made of leather rather than of linen, but obviously they were not covered with metal scales. (The End of the Bronze Age, 175)

About 100 years later, in the time of Ramesses III, both the “Sea Peoples” and the Egyptians are depicted wearing “waist-length corslets and leather skirts” (175).

Did David find Saul’s armor cumbersome because he was much smaller than the king, as is commonly understood, or could it be because Saul’s armor was designed for a chariot fighter rather than an infantryman? (Even if Israel had no chariot force to speak of at this time, it is not unreasonable that the king would have ridden a chariot as a “prestige vehicle.”) Was Goliath an early adapter of the relatively new way of arming foot soldiers first attested at the Battle of Kadesh, or had the Philistines been so decked out for over two centuries by this time?

Even Goliath’s presumably telltale greaves are not conclusive. Metal greaves are known, albeit rarely, even 100 or more years before the Battle of Kadesh: “And Late Helladic smiths had occasionally made metal greaves: ca. 1400, the Dendra warrior whose corslet we have just discussed wore bronze greaves” (Drews, 176). Drews insists, however, that it is unlikely that foot soldiers wore greaves for another 200 years (Ibid.). Unlikely, but not impossible, and perhaps noteworthy if it ever happened.

It is possible to interpret 1 Samuel 17 as fitting perfectly within the Iron Age milieu, with armored infantrymen and impressively large units of foot soldiers. At the same time, there is no ironclad reason to rule out a setting in the last century or so of the Late Bronze Age setting. This was a period when foot soldiers first started wearing mail corslets and, I tend to think, the later “Iron Age” tactics were first introduced to the Levant by the Shardana mercenaries of Ramesses II some three generations before these tactics reached a tipping point during the reign of Ramesses III. In short, there is nothing in these texts that conclusively demand that the reign of Saul be more than a few generations removed from the Battle of Kadesh.

Next we’ll look at King David’s military.

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