The restoration of infantry
The catastrophe of 1200 BC was traditionally attributed to a
large influx of barbarians from Asia into the Mediterranean and Near East. The
barbarians were thought to have overrun much of the area, displacing the locals,
who in turn invaded more southerly areas. Where the displaced groups invaded by
sea, they were referred to as the mysterious Sea Peoples.
An alternative view refutes the Asian influx and attributes the catastrophe to
hordes of local barbarians who had always been near at hand, in the mountains
and marginal lands that surrounded the more fertile areas. The barbarians
included the Libyans to the west of Egypt, the northern Greeks, tribes along the
south coast of Anatolia, and the Philistines and Israelites of Palestine. Sea
raiders from Sardinia, Sicily, and what is now modern Italy had a long history
of piracy and serving as mercenaries, especially for Libya versus Egypt. They
may have been the Sea Peoples.
Prior to 1200 BC these barbarians had been defeated consistently by the chariot
armies when they ventured down from their hills and mountains, or across the
seas. Around 1200 BC, however, evidence indicates that the barbarians made
several changes in their weaponry and tactics that quickly ended the dominance
Military historians have noted the existence over time of a competitive cycle in
the improvements and innovations concerning the three ingredients of warfare:
firepower, security, and mobility. Changes in any of the three—such as an
improved bow, better armor, or chariots or horses—could temporarily upset a
pre-achieved general equilibrium that determined tactics, giving the innovator
an advantage until changes in the other ingredients restored the equilibrium
through new tactics. Around 1200 BC, the barbarians on the fringes of the
civilized world made too many changes to the ingredients of warfare too rapidly.
Before a new equilibrium of new tactics could be achieved, most of the civilized
world was lost.
The important technical innovations of this time were the cut-and-thrust
sword, the small round shield, and improved armor. A sword that could both
cut and thrust made individual soldiers more dangerous in hand-to-hand
fighting. Such a sword was easier to wield than a long spear. Many more
blows, and more powerful blows, could be struck. The smaller shield was
easier to manage than the tall and cumbersome shields used by the
spearmen. Bronze greaves and other pieces of body armor also appeared at
this time, as evidenced by artwork and archaeological remains. These
advances in armor helped protect infantry from archery.
The most important innovation of the period was probably in tactics.
Barbarian infantry finally learned how to defeat chariots after fighting
them for 500 or so years. Better armor, mobility, and tactics must have
allowed infantry to get close enough to the chariots to kill the horses
with missiles, especially javelins. Once the chariots were disabled, the
crews were quickly overcome. One after another, the chariot armies of
Greece, Anatolia, and the Levant were beaten and the cities they protected
Egypt withstood several assaults by fielding armies of the new infantry to
support their chariots. These new Egyptian infantry armies were primarily
barbarian mercenaries who employed the new weapons and tactics in support
of their chariots. In 1208 BC the Pharaoh Merneptah claimed to have killed
nearly 10,000 invaders. In 1179 BC Rameses III stopped another Libyan
invasion at Djahi, claiming 12,235 enemy dead.
Assyria, dominant over most of Mesopotamia, avoided destruction also. It
was on the frontier and threatened by enemies in the Zagros Mountains to
the east and in other mountainous areas to the north. Assyrian armies had
much experience fighting barbarians in the rough terrain where chariots
could not go and kept their enemies in check through punitive expeditions
into the hinterlands. By 1200 BC the Assyrians had adapted to the new
military innovations themselves and were not overly dependent on chariots.
Following the catastrophe of 1200 BC, the previously advanced areas fell
into a Dark Age. Trade and production fell, and the expensive and now
ineffective chariot armies became a luxury few could afford. Out of the
waste and destruction, however, new strongholds and kingdoms eventually
began to appear, and from the east came the next important innovation of
war: the cavalry.