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
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.
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.