The first armies
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Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

The first armies
Almost nothing for certain is known about the organization and tactics of the first armies, and must continue to make educated guesses based on the limited information we have. The archaeological remains are important, including preserved weapons, accouterments, and fortifications. Also important are paintings, wall carvings, pottery decorations, and other artwork that have been preserved, although celebratory inscriptions and artwork often distort actual events in favor of the ruler being honored.
Ancient oral histories that survived to be recorded after the advent of writing are also helpful, such as the Iliad by Homer. Caution is required when consulting oral histories, however, because events of the past may be described in terms of a writer’s culture, much like medieval religious paintings that dress Biblical characters in clothing of the Middle Ages. Actual documents concerning military supplies, war booty, and equipment have been found, but only after the invention of writing.

The first armies were probably militias of townspeople who took up arms in emergencies. At first hunting weapons were probably used, but soon the new weapons designed specifically for combat were manufactured. Weapons for hunting wild animals are not always suited for fighting other humans. When towns grew sufficiently large, a permanent group of professional soldiers probably came into existence to guard the local ruler, preserve the peace, and be the nucleus of the militia when needed.
By 3000 BC, the first great palaces and kingdoms were growing up along the Nile River, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Indus River, the Yellow River, and along the eastern Mediterranean coast in Greece, Anatolia, and the Levant. These kingdoms prospered and jousted with each other for about 1800 years. Populations within the kingdoms rose along with their standard of living and wealth. Each was forced to raise and maintain substantial armies to preserve their autonomy from each other and from barbarians on their borders. Artwork from approximately 2500 BC shows a Sumerian army of spearmen wearing long cloaks and what appear to be leather hats or helmets.
The Egyptian army was forged in the struggle to unite the Nile basin under one leader and then defend the basin from barbarians in Libya and Palestine. The city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates fought with each other and with barbarians to the north and east. The Greek kingdoms faced barbarians to the north and west. The Anatolians faced barbarians to the northeast and north across the Black Sea, and along their south coast. The Indus and Yellow River valley kingdoms were surrounded by barbarians. In each of these areas the kingdoms built and equipped armies to respond to threats. They had the wealth and industrial power to make bronze weapons. Competition among them lead to technical and tactical innovations in war.

Chariot armies
For much of the second millennium BC the armies of the wealthy kingdoms and palaces appear to consist primarily of chariots bearing archers with powerful composite bows. Records, grave goods, and artwork all point to chariot-borne archers dominating the battlefields. Accounting records read of chariot parts, bows, arrows, and horses, but not swords or armor. Horses of the time were ridden bareback and thus were not suitable generally for lancing and shooting.
Chariot battles were possible in the open, relatively flat, developed farmland of the kingdoms. So long as enemies came to the kingdom, either from another kingdom or from barbarian lands, the chariots could decide the issue. If the kingdom had to venture into the hills and mountains of barbarian lands, however, then infantry were necessary.
Chariot crews, especially the archer, were probably noblemen or of the elite. The pharaohs of the period, for example, took special pride in their marksmanship and seem to have led their armies from the front.
Chariot armies did include other arms. Infantry was still useful for manning and attacking fortifications, and for fighting in rough terrain. There is also substantial evidence that skirmish troops accompanied the chariots onto the battlefield. Egyptian accounts speak of “runners” (skirmishers) accompanying chariot attacks to dispatch crews of disabled chariots. Skirmishers may have occupied ground on the battlefield unsuitable for chariots, from which they could have supported friendly units by firing missiles at the enemy.
Chariots of the period were primarily for two men and pulled by two horses. Earlier chariots had carried up to four men and were pulled by two to four onagers, a type of wild ass. Crews of these earlier chariots may have thrown javelins instead of shooting arrows. An alternative view is that they may have been used primarily as transports rather than as mobile platforms for missile attacks.