Ancient cultures didn't have cavalry as we know it. The stirrup, that stupid little strip of leather that hangs down from the saddle that you put your foot in, is a far more recent invention than you might have thought. And it makes a huge difference. Once you have it, your legs are no longer devoted to clinging to the horse, you have better control over the animal, and you can stand up and Do Stuff, like, say, carry a lance or fire a bow. It also took a long time to figure out the right way to do reins, too. Without any of that, it's a struggle just to stay on for any length of time and get the animal to move in the direction you want.
Which is why, if we're talking about any time prior to, say, 500 B.C., horses are for pulling things, period. But that's okay. If you can come up with something useful for them to pull, that, too, can have an impact.
All you need is the right idea at the right time and you change the world.
Somewhere around 2000 B.C., someone in central Asia gets such an idea: a spoked wheel. Among other things, this allows for construction of a small, lightweight chariot that fits two people. One guy drives, the other guy has a bow, leaving just enough room for a reasonable supply of arrows. Lightweight means it can move really fast if you need it to.
To the peoples of the Bronze Age, this is basically a humvee with machine gun mounted on it.
If you're on foot, having to fight this thing, you've got a problem. Maybe you can get close enough to it to get a spear thrust in, but then the driver fires up the horses, it moves, sets up shop fifty yards away, and continues shooting at you until you're dead.
Sucks to be you.
By 1700 BC, the idea works its way south through the mountains of the Caucuses and Persia. This takes a while since chariots don't work so well in mountains, so their utility isn't immediately obvious. But once it reaches the flat-lands of Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean, it spreads like wildfire. The Hittites pick up the idea and run with it, building an empire that covers most of Anatolia (modern Turkey). Farther down the Euphrates, to keep from being overrun, the Assyrians have to learn it too, as do the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Minoans that ruled Crete, and, basically, everybody else.
Because that's the way of military technology; you either learn it or you get conquered.
And for the next 500 years, chariots are the standard for how you fight wars. Maintain a small, elite chariot corps. You don't actually need that many: Egypt's army was the biggest and they got by with a few thousand. Most of the smaller city-states had numbers in the hundreds (we have the Linear-B archives from the palaces at Knossos, Mycenae, Pylos and a dozen other, archives strangely devoted to inventories of chariot parts and horses, because apparently that was what mattered).
Granted, every so often you'll have to deal with barbarians living in the hills where the chariots can't go. But that's no problem: You hire infantry mercenaries, generally Other Barbarians from Elsewhere, who you can send to deliver your local hill people a bloody nose so that they think twice about messing with you again any time soon -- and, of course, if said hill people dare to come out onto the plains, you can have chariots ready and waiting to deal with them more directly.
The neat thing about small, professional armies is they free up the rest of your civilization to do Other Stuff. Not having to expend huge resources on defense means civilization flourishes in the late Bronze Age. Yes, your ships are going to get attacked by pirates every so often, or maybe the big empires will occasionally come up with some reason to go at each other, but apart from that times are relatively peaceful. At Pylos (southern Greece) and Knossos (Crete) the palace people feel so secure, they don't even bother to build walls.
And then we get to 1200 BC. Otherwise known in archaeological circles as The Bronze Age Collapse, or more simply, The Catastrophe.
In the space of about 50 years, pretty much every
city in southern Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Anatolia, and the Levant, is destroyed by fire.
The Hittite Empire is erased from the map and nothing replaces them. Anatolia doesn't again see that standard of living until the 2nd century A.D. when the Roman emperors finally get their act together and decide maybe they ought to try governing the provinces properly.
Mycenaean Greece likewise disappears; the citadels of Mycenae and Pylos themselves, the homes of Agamemnon and Nestor according to Homer's Iliad
, are buried and don't see the light of day until 19th century archaeologists find them again.
Egypt gets lucky. A change of dynasty at just the right time produces a young, energetic pharoah, Ramesses III, who can think out of the box. And so they survive by the skin of their teeth.
For different reasons, Assyria also manages to survive, and thus the Catastrophe, whatever it was, doesn't reach beyond them to Babylon or India.
But everywhere else in the eastern Mediterranean, the lights go out and stay out for centuries. It's a dark age every bit as deep and as long as what happened in Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire 1500 years later.
Except that for the post-Roman dark age in Europe, you still have the odd monastery here and there where, in between copyings of the Bible, some monk manages to jot down a sentence or two about what was happening around them in the present day, and occasionally those particular pages of his diary would manage to survive when the place later got torched by Vikings.
And so it is that, in the century or two after the Romans leave Britain, we can have the writings of Gildas and Nennius, containing tantalizing hints of a post-Roman duke who rallies the Roman and Celtic refugees of south Britain to take a stand against the invading Saxons. It's very unlikely that this man styled himself High King of all Britain. It's also a fair bet there was no Round Table in his castle, assuming he even had
a castle, since this was Before Castles (though it's a fair bet he had a home base of some
kind, since there was no shortage of abandoned Roman forts to occupy or steal building materials from). His name probably wasn't Arthur.
But you can get a sense of where the legend might have originated, even if the tale-spinners centuries later, be it Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Malory, never let the facts get in the way of a good story -- never mind that they probably knew even less of the facts than we do now, given that archaeology hadn't been invented yet. And so they anachronistically imposed concepts from their own time (plate mail, castles, chivalry, and jousting tournaments) and adding other embellishments (e.g., everything having to do with Merlin) without even thinking about it.
For the Greek Dark age, 1500 years earlier, there is no Gildas. Whether the palace scribes trained in Linear-B (the written version of Mycenaean Greek) were killed immediately or sold off as slaves doesn't matter a whole lot. What matters is they didn't pass on their knowledge. There is nobody
to keep records; the very idea of Writing Stuff Down just ENDS.
The last written records we have of the Catastrophe outside of Egypt are the tablets recovered from palace rubble whether in Linear-B or Hittite script. At the palace of Urgarit in Syria, tablets were still baking in the furnace at the time of the attack and never retrieved, various bits of correspondence that never made it out the door:
- So, um, this place is getting kind of hard to defend,
what with most of our chariots being away defending Hattusas.
- Um, hello again.
100 ships would be REALLY FUCKING USEFUL right about now.
There are no clues as to who was attacking; they themselves apparently had no idea. And, suffice it to say, help never arrived.
Beyond that, we have only
the oral tradition, the huge mass of Greek myths we learned about in grade school: The Trojan War, Jason and the Argonauts, Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and the Minotaur playing tag in the Labyrinth underneath the palace of Minos, King of Crete.
Somewhere around 400 years after the Catastrophe, someone in Greece, inspired by the Phoenecians, comes up with a new 24-letter alphabet, and written history picks up again. Homer's Iliad
is finally committed to papyrus, thence becoming THE oldest piece of Western literature we have. Over the next few hundred years we have the Greeks of the Classical period (Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, etc...) trying to piece some kind of history together out of all of the random scraps that have been handed down to them, undoubtedly having to do no small amount of Making Shit Up to fill in the gaps just as Geoffrey of Monmouth ended up doing for the early history of England 1500 years later (wherein we get Uther Pendragon and Arthur listed at the beginning of an unbroken line of English Kings).
And while we could dismiss all of the Greek myths as bullshit, there are random threads that appear to pan out, scraps of knowledge that really do seem to have been preserved from 1200 BC. The palace at Knossos on Crete really does have a Rather Complicated Basement. The city unearthed at Mycenae may not actually have been ruled by anyone named Agamemnon, but, if you squint, the gate does look kind of like it has a lion on it.
And on a site that the Romans called Ilium, there's a mound with evidence of a city destroyed by fire at about the right time. In Hittite correspondence, it's called Willusa and was evidently part of a confederation of allied cities, guarding the northwest frontier of their Empire, ruled by a prince named Alaksandu (Alexander/Paris being the son of Priam in the Iliad
). It sat on the Bosporus, guarding the passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea; any ships passing between Egypt and Hattusas, the Hittite capital, would have to go through there.
There are any number of scenarios in which one could imagine the Mycenaean Greeks having a motive for taking it down.
In any case, this city, now widely believed to be Troy, was one of the first to burn, probably around 1225 BC.
As for the actual causes of the Catastrophe, there have been lots of theories and Robert Drewes in The End of the Bronze Age
(yes, I read a book; try not to faint), demolishes them one by one in the course of advancing his own (that I'm vaguely regurgitating here, ... surprise), which historians and archaeologists are allowed to do:
- Volcanic eruption (Thera is usually blamed), earthquakes, drought, or some other natural disaster, never mind that whole region is fairly geologically active and other civilizations always managed to survive the wiping of an odd city or two (Rome went on just fine after Pompeii was buried), never mind that whatever THIS natural disaster was, it somehow specifically targets every major settlement in the eastern Mediterranean and in nearly all cases left time for the inhabitants to get out leaving very few skeletons behind in the ruins (slightly unlike Pompeii). Natural disaster. Sure.
- The advent of iron weapons was a popular explanation, until it was noticed that there weren't any to be found in the destruction layers and better dating revealed that iron didn't really come into use until a couple centuries later.
- Mysterious "Sea Peoples" embarking on massive journeys turn out, under closer examination, to be fantasies of a 19th-century archeologist giving a really strange reading to Egyptian texts in order to get them to reconcile with accounts in Herodotus and the Bible (which, of course, HAD to be correct). Same goes for the "Dorian Invasion". The main problem is you'd expect migrating peoples to conquer and move in rather than just burn the place. And when you try to figure out where they came from and it turns out they're actually from fairly close by, perhaps none other than the barbarian hill people who'd already been there for hundreds of years, that the palace folks dismissed because they were never a threat...
... until they were.
Something changed, but what?
At this point you're probably guessing it has something to do with the chariots.
In short, somebody got Another Idea to change the world. But this idea was completely insane
Chariots can be defeated.
Never mind that they've reigned supreme on the battlefield for the last 500 years. Never mind that nobody you know who's gone up against them lived to tell about it. Never mind that you'd have to be a complete idiot to send infantry against them. It can be done.
All you need is slightly better armor, so that the bowman doesn't get you right away. Something that protects your torso while leaving the legs free so that you can still run quickly.
That plus your very own lightweight round shield; doesn't have to be very big because you'll have two guys standing on either side of you and they'll ALSO have shields. Just stay in formation and you'll be fine.
And that stupid three-foot lance that you thought was only good for hunting rabbits actually makes a damn fine projectile weapon. Having a projectile weapon means you don't actually have to get that close to what you're fighting.
Granted, you certainly can't throw the lance as hard as a bow can fire an arrow. And it's small so it's not going to do anywhere near as much damage as a proper lance would. And it's also true that you'll only get one shot, at least until you can manage to retrieve it from wherever you threw it.
Well, all right, I'll admit, the short lance IS a pretty stupid weapon. But, if nothing else, it's at least easy to make, never mind that everybody in your tribe already has one. Give me that much.
And, here's the thing:
You're fighting a chariot. All you have to do is wound one of the horses and it's Game Over.
No, really. What happens to a chariot with a wounded, screaming horse? It just spins around in a circle for a bit and then falls over. At which point it's just Two Guys on the Ground, both wearing armor that's not very well designed for running away.
Sucks to be them, you might say.
If there are 10,000 of you and only 500 of them, I'm going to guess at least one of these stupid lances will get through. Call it a hunch.
Oh, and bonus! We've got a new kind of sword, too. It has an edge that cuts things, so that you can slash from side to side as well as thrust.
Somebody in northern Greece -- for lack of an actual name, we'll just call him "Odysseus" -- puts all of the pieces together:
"Hey, let's go knock over Troy."
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Seriously. I did a mercenary gig there a few years back. I've been inside the palace. Metric craploads of gold. And the women! They've got maybe 200 chariot crews, tops. We can take them."
And they did.
It's hard to imagine the Mycenaean Greeks in the south having much to contribute to this enterprise. If they'd known at the time, they'd probably have been VERY disturbed by the details of just how it was done.
But there was no Internet back then. Any survivors escaping from Troy would flee eastward to Hattusas. It was probably enough to the south-Greeks to know that Troy had fallen. They could still celebrate, even if details were sketchy as to who actually pulled it off and how. It would have been an easy assumption that one of the palaces, probably Mycenae itself, had their hand in it, even if nobody was talking.
Or maybe Agamemnon just outright took credit for it. (We *know* Ramesses III had no problem taking credit for stuff HE didn't do; historical integrity clearly takes a back seat to maintaining the prestige of your throne and kingdom). And he's believed because of course there's no fucking way those stupid hill people did this by themselves.
Fifty years later, after all of the palaces in south Greece have been destroyed and the older generation is pushing up daisies, the fall of Troy is remembered as the Last Great Victory, and, over time, all of Greece comes to identify with it. The aftermath is also remembered; the heroes don't make it home because their homes have been destroyed. The conclusion in the south that they'd all been cursed by the gods would have been inescapable.
Over the next 400 years, the story mutates. Unless Priam or Alaksandu kept a diary and we can find it, the details are likely gone forever. Homer tries to fill them in using what he knows of warfare in his day, where now everything is conducted on foot, massed infantry being the new standard of warfare.
But we'll throw in lots of duelling heroes from all parts of Greece, because the crowd eats that stuff up. Especially when one of the heroes is from their own town; they cheer when the troubador gets to that part. The more places you can tell the story and get cheers (and extra coins and extra wine and whatever else), the better. Hence the Iliad
's all-important catalogue of ships naming practically every town in Greece.
There is a memory that chariots were involved, but no idea how they were actually used. Achilles leaves his tent, hops into the chariot, rides the half-mile to get to the front, hops out, and *then* picks up his sword. Almost like that scene in L.A. Story where Steve Martin gets into his car and drives 50 feet to get to the house next door. Makes no damn sense.
There is also a memory that the Trojans had a huge city wall, so obviously there must have been a siege. Over time, the wall gets bigger and the siege gets longer. It's telling that there are no
stories from the first nine years of the war (the Iliad
itself picks up partway into Year Ten); they're all just sitting there sieging, or something. Anyway, that part's boring, so who cares?
That Troy's only defense might have been a small chariot force that was eliminated in single afternoon would have seemed patently absurd. But the cleverness is remembered. They knew it wasn't simply about wearing them down in a siege. There was
some trick involved. And it had something to do with horses.
With respect to how the legend developed, we'll probably never have any real information, so the possibilities for speculation are endless.
What we do know is that, sometime after the fall of Troy, Meryre, the king of Libya, sets his eye on some choice real-estate in the Nile delta. The great pharoah Ramesses II of Egypt is dead after ruling for 70-some-odd years, and his untried son Merenptah is in charge, and so it's time to invade.
One small problem: Meryre doesn't have very many chariots.
But somehow he has a sense that this isn't necessarily a problem. Somehow, he knows to recruit mercenaries from all over the Mediterranean: Sicily, Sardinia, south Italy, northern Greece. Somehow, he knows that if he assembles an army of barbarians who know how to use the hunting lance and the new swords, and makes it big enough, those chariots won't matter anymore.
It might have been a coincidence that fully half of Meryre's recruits were from northern Greece (we know this because we have the casualty figures from Merenptah's victory inscription).
Perhaps the Greeks who sacked Troy indeed took their time about going home, NOT because Poseidon hated them, but because there's not much point to going home when "home" is just a pile of rocks on a hillside in northern Greece and there's much bigger game to be had out there.
Why work for Pharoah for a few coins when you can take home Pharoah's entire treasury?
But whether or not Odysseus himself actually makes it to Libya to plant a bug in Meryre's ear doesn't matter. The idea gets there somehow. Once it's known to work, as was demonstrated at Troy, it spreads, and anybody can use it,
. . . there being nobody to enforce business-method patents in the Late Bronze Age.
Meryre's assault fails, whether because he doesn't hit on quite the right combination of tactics, or he doesn't listen fully to what his north-Greek friends were telling him, or his army just isn't quite big enough, who knows?
But he evidently comes awfully damn close, and the mercenaries who survive know it. Meaning when they finally do go home, it's with further experience that they can apply against much smaller, easier targets in southern Greece, and Anatolia, or wherever else they feel like going.
20 years later, once the rest of the eastern Mediterranean had been finished off, the Egyptians are the only ones left standing, the Libyans decide it's time to try again. Meanwhile over on their eastern front, the Caananite palaces at Hazor, etc... have all been burned by yet more annoying hill people, who themselves decide it's time to take down the Big Bad.
Fortunately for Egypt, Ramesses III is the start of a new dynasty. In other words, he's had to actually work his way up, probably leaving behind a long trail of bodies.
And he's been paying attention, or at least is awake enough to notice that all of Egypt's trading partners to the north have gone radio silent and that Egypt itself is likely to have a huge target painted on its back. And at least one of his advisors reads up on what happened with his predecessor Merenptah, so he knows he had better NOT rely on the chariots to save his ass this time.
Luckily, here in Egypt, we have lots and lots of people. So if it's a question of training foot-soldiers, we could actually think about doing
just that. And even if the chariots are now useless, there are still lots of trained bowmen left over, there ought to be something we can use them for.
Hmm. Ships coming in. Hey, here's an idea: let's pump those bastards full of arrows BEFORE they can reach the shore; then we don't have to fight them on land. Genius.
Ultimately, Ramesses III wins two great victories, one in the east and one in the west. The Libyans don't bother them again for a very long time. Likewise for the Phillistines and the Israelite hill people to the east,...
... except that, for some reason, the eastern battle is followed by a strategic withdrawal. The royal road through Palestine, the key land route that used to link Egypt with the Hittites and Mesopotamia, an area that had been under Egyptian rule for centuries, is now abandoned and left to fend for itself, apparently now too hot to handle. Never again does Egypt reach this far. There's no further attempt to retaliate for, let alone take back, the palaces of Caanan and Syria that have burned.
It's almost as if those annoying Israelite hill people actually won
this one and Ramesses just doesn't want to admit it.
Also interesting to me is how Exodus
apparently gets things backwards. We have yet to find any
evidence at all that the Israelites were ever
in Egypt proper in that era, whereas the evidence that the Egyptians ruled Palestine in the centuries leading up to 1200 B.C. is pretty much irrefutable. Apparently, the Israelites didn't so much escape from Egypt as Egypt escaped from them.
As with the Iliad or the stories of King Arthur, trying to extract the actual history of that long ago from the Hebrew Tanakh — what the Christians call the Old Testament — is something of a fool's game. Oral tradition sucks, sometimes.
And yet, the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible (Exodus
, etc.) are chock full of tales of Israelite bands massing and defeating chariot armies. Combined with the archeological evidence that, at least in this part of the world, chariots mostly fall out of military use once we get past 1200 B.C. — which, I suppose, shouldn't be much of a surprise at this point — you get a rather strong sense that these tales, which could not have been written down any earlier than the seventh century B.C are pretty damned old
, and, like the Iliad
, contain scraps of truth.
(... and for those of you who want to claim "literal" Biblical inerrancy, sorry, but you've got huge
problems, long before
you even get to Darwin. For starters, you can try explaining why the story of Abraham in Genesis
includes domesticated camels….)
So, you might ask, what happened with the Assyrians? Good question.
The short version appears to be that the Assyrians were on the front lines dealing with all of the random crap coming out of central Asia -- that millions of square miles of steppe that's nothing but a huge tribal mixmaster, i.e., where nomads wander around, split up, recombine, and fight each other, until once every couple of centuries a new bad-ass group (e.g. the Celts, the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks) gets tossed out to plague the more civilized lands.
All during the period where the chariots reigned supreme, the Assyrians never actually got around to outsourcing their infantry; they didn't dare because they needed it. And it served them in good stead when they finally started getting invaded from the west.
A sensible historian would stop here and not try to derive some lame moral. History is what it is, and no situation will ever be repeated in exactly the same way, assuming we're even getting right what happened the first time around, which is no small stretch given that these are events of three thousand years ago.
But I still can't shake the image of the Mycenaean palace scribes on the eve of their destruction, diligently planning a re-fight of the previous war, assuming their technology will carry them through as it always has, having no inkling that the rules are about to change.
Or the idea that, in a world where less than 1% of the population sit in their palaces controlling an insane percentage of the resources, that the other 7 billion "hill people" won't eventually have something to say about that (if they aren't saying it already). Maybe this time they'll find a way to keep civilization going, if only so that they'll have a place to spend the gold that they're about to redistribute, but if their situation is sufficiently dire (or they're sufficiently pissed off), they may not have any reason to care about that.
I also have reason to suspect that firing drones at them is not going to improve their disposition.
Things are different now, of course. We have an internet. Both the 1% and
the hill people could conceivably be reading this right now. (Hello, 1%! No regime lasts forever; please stop being idiots. Hello, Hill People! Please don't burn all
of our stuff. kthnxbye.)
One might suppose that more knowledge will be preserved this time around, but then I think about how volatile our digital media is. It's something of a miracle that I can still read my email from 30 years ago; what's going to survive 3000 years from now?
And finally, there's remains the Small Matter of what the next big idea is going to be.