Late Bronze Age Military Paradigms: Trial-by-Battle and Armed Combat David G.


Six Late Bronze Age (LBA) kingdoms were dominant in the western Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia between 1600 and 1200 B.C.: Mycenae, Hatti, Assyria, Babylon, Mitanni, and Egypt. The civilization they exemplified was an international, cross-fertilized one—with common trade, technological transfer, functional norms of diplomacy, a fair amount of immigration between nations, spheres of power based on suzerain/vassal covenants, peer-to-peer international agreements based on dynastic marriage, and war.1 Warfare carried out by these six great kingdoms was fought in accordance with two distinct paradigms: trial-by-battle and armed conflict. This essay will discuss each paradigm, the forces used in support of their execution; and the battlefield tactics exemplifying each paradigm. Trial-by-Battle The best documented paradigm of LBA warfare consisted of ritualized, glorified trials-by-battle, described as occurring between various gods and fought by their representatives, the kings. These royal demigods, assisted by their “knights” or “companions”, and organized into dedicated chariot divisions, fought these “duels” in response to perceived slights, insults, or international diplomatic failures, calling upon divine favor in their prosecution. It is important to understand that religion in this time and place consisted in large measure of the worship of various territorial gods, each being deemed the principal divine force for a particular locale. These gods were, in a real sense, tied to the land and mortals worshipped the gods of the land in which they resided. The ruler over the land was deemed blessed or sanctified by the local deities and, as their direct representative, spoke in their name—as long as the blessing of the gods rested upon him. The king, in his divine role was personally responsible for acting as commander-in-chief and champion in the field and as chief priest at home. Threats to the integrity of the land or insults directed against the person of the

Barry S Strauss, The Trojan War: A New History. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), xix, 5, 9.

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king were therefore an offense against deity, possibly attributable to the opposing king, and by association the opposing deity. Such offenses demanded satisfaction and trial-by-battle was “a divine drama of law enforcement”2 in which the king and his champions, aided by their god, could punish the offenders and while expanding the dominion of their gods and enlarging the prosperity of their people.3 As mentioned, trial-by-battle was the express domain of the king and his choice companions. The men in these elite forces were drawn from prominent, possibly ennobled family groups and were mounted on chariots for battle. These forces, organized into divisions, were capable of generating shock and concentrated combat power, much like modern armor.4 These chariots had a four-person crew, deployed as a single battlefield weapon system. Two members, mounting the chariot in battle were a spear- or bowequipped weaponeer/mission commander and a nominally-armed driver. The remaining crewmembers were lightly encumbered runners, armed with round shields, javelins and edged weapons. While they may have ridden on the rear of the chariot in transiting to and from the battlespace, they apparently entered battles on foot, in direct support of the chariot.5 Once the location and conditions of a trial-by-battle were agreed, the kings and their chariot divisions would deploy in one or more ranks, facing each other across the battlefield. Being a ritualized battle, both forces probably moved towards each other with deliberation, across the battlefield. As the forces closed, they probably did not exceed a horse trot, so as to allow the runners to easily keep pace and to provide the chariot with the smallest possible turning radius, and therefore greatest options for maneuver, until combat was engaged.

2 3

Strauss. 27. Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 158. Manual Robbins,Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt, and the Peoples of the Sea, (Lincoln, Nebraska: Authors Choice Press, 2001), 4,5 Strauss, 27. 4 Robbins, 74. 5 Drews, 161. Robbins, 75.

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Because of the emphasis on personal glory, it is doubtful that chariots on the same side fought in coordinated teams, even though there is evidence of 4-chariot and fifty-chariot administrative units. From the king down to his companions, the emphasis seemed upon encouraging multiple battles between individual champions, all vying for battle honors and there was likely little honor to be had in uneven contests. As chariots on opposing sides approached, the weaponeers/mission commanders probably visually selected their opponents. It is possible that foes would come to a mutual agreement to engage through gestures or other signal and then, with a signaled charge, the ranks would engage and the many individual duals for battle honors would begin. Considering individual tactics, it seems likely that each pair of foes would approach the other nearly head-on, in action reminiscent of later jousting. As the opponents would close, the runners would probably be dispatched ahead and to the sides of their chariot. (Figure 1)

Given the sense of honor involved, the runners might be charged with targeting their opposite numbers and would not diminish the champion’s honor by taking a direct role in the battle between chariots. (Figure 2) If however, one of the combatants demonstrated cowardice, declining combat by

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turning away, the runners, being so positioned, would be well-located to use their javelins and/or edged weapons against the horses and occupants of the turning chariot, which could then be disabled, boarded and its crew killed. (Figure 3)

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The opponents probably slowed and tightly turned after each pass, rather than making sweeping large-radius turns that fatigued the horses. If not disabled, the opponents reengaged, repeatedly attacking each other until wounds to the horses or crew effectively ended the combat. Reassembling, the victorious champion and his champions were then free to identify and engage additional opponents, or to retire. While the scores of individual battles were proceeding, security for the battlespace, or perhaps dueling ground, was provided by heavy infantry forces that accompanied the king to ensure his security and that the forms of trial-by-battle were observed. These troops provided a secure garrison for the marshaling of the elite chariot divisions and protection for chariots retiring from the battle. Armed Conflict The second LBA war paradigm was ugly, vicious armed conflict invoked upon the uncivilized, the dishonorable, and the invader, utilizing the full martial resources of the kingdom, including massed infantry and combined arms forces. This assessment differs slightly from Drews’ view. He disagrees with the commonly-held view that infantry was a major player in LBA warfare, citing the lack of records documenting large infantry battles during this period. However, in spite of Drews’ objections, infantryintensive armed conflict, as described above, does fall in line with his several admissions that there were times and circumstances when the chariot-intensive warfare he emphasizes was eschewed, implicitly admitting that large infantry forces existed and operated. He credibly demonstrates that “infantry battles occurred only in places that chariots could not go” (i.e. when the terrain was unfavorable), when the warfare was against barbarians or, by inference, when there was some violation against honor, such as the failure of a city to surrender in the aftermath of a defeat in trial-by-battle, or in the breaking of a covenant, such as that between a suzerain and vassal. 6 As to the absence of infantry battle documentary evidence, it is likely that only the more honorable forms of divine/kingly trial-by-battle, personally attended to by the king, was commemorated

Drews, 135, 137, 138, 140, 158.

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in detail, while the less-glorious efforts of common soldierly were overlooked. It is clear that the major kingdoms raised and maintained large infantry forces and were not finicky about using them against suitable foes.7 Interestingly, most of the kingdoms recruited much of their standing armies from the less-pacific areas beyond their frontiers and organized them in units by ethnicity, perhaps because of language differences. 8These armies had a variety of combatants (heavy and light infantry, charioteers providing battlefield transport and harassing attacks, foot archers, and slingers) and combat support personnel (specialists in siegecraft such as ladder men, sappers and those proficient in the building and use of battering rams and siege towers, scouts, and intelligence collectors). Additionally, some vassal kings provided forces under the provisions of treaty, while some kingdoms put defeated troops into service as a condition of their continued survival.9 Other personnel enlisted to support the standing military included the elite (priests, diviners, physicians who also doubled as veterinarians, scribes and heralds) and the more mundane (woodworkers; wheel- and wainwrights; handlers for draft and food animals; commissariat personnel; armorers; and, slaves to handle everything from farming to sewing to maintaining latrines).10 Additionally, Mycenae, having an essentially maritime kingdom, and Egypt, with its riverine character, produced naval forces that required the employment of ship’s pilots, shipbuilders, boatswains, and a variety of seamen and marines. The galley, developed during this period, was a dominant military technology. These oared, wooden ships built for speed could attack other vessels against the wind and tide and designed with narrow, straight and low lines could be easily beached for amphibious landings. The

7 8

Strauss, 27-28. Drews, 155-6. 9 Robbins, 25, 150. 10 Strauss, 36.

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ram bow was not invented until later and LBA sea battles were essentially boarding contests between crews wielding spears, bows and swords.11 These large infantry forces were armed with a variety of defensive and offensive weapons. Shields were varied in size and weight, depending on the need for protection and mobility. Personal armor, when available, usually consisted of leather or possibly copper and bronze breast plates and greaves; and some kingdoms adopted the use copper and bronze helmets for their elite warriors. Striking, thrusting and throwing weapons included rods, spears, dirks, rapier-like swords, and javelins. The only weapon seeming appropriate for slashing attacks was the sickle sword; however this sword was relatively short for effective use in combat and probably saw most use as a post-conflict tool used to “harvest” the hands or penises of the defeated for use in demonstrating body-counts to the king. The key to success in LBA armed conflict was strategic mobility—the ability to arrive at the point of battle first, having the most available combat power on hand at the start of battle.12 The ability to mobilize rapidly, such as the two weeks Merneptah required to move against the Sea Peoples or Ramses’ II movement of forces overland to the Battle of Kadesh, required detailed preparations: orders of march defined down to the positions of individual units; bivouacs planned; rendezvous arranged; intelligence gathered along the route of travel; and, each vassal king along the way knowing what food, forage and drink was required. 13 Quick movement of material by land required the building and maintenance of trunk roads and the use of large numbers of draft animals. Maritime movement required the construction and manning of ships capable of carrying sufficient numbers of persons or amounts of material to support the movement of large forces.14 This form of armed conflict was intent on the destruction of enemy forces or the capture and exploitation of territory. The battles involved large numbers of infantry, so as to provide the combat force
11 12

Strauss, 39. Strauss, 40. 13 Robbins, 24, 149. 14 Strauss, 42.

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necessary to overcome similar-size groups of opponents and to provide for the garrisoning of captured territory. In this type of conflict, chariots were likely used for the rapid battlefield transport of forces (battle taxis) and for harassing of the flanks of enemy infantry units. Where possible, as at Kadesh, commanders used deception to facilitate the ability to achieve tactical surprise and local superiority in numbers against an opponent. When used in attacks against walled cities, armies resorted to assault, siege and/or ruse to achieve victory. Assaults against fortifications used troops equipped with scaling ladders, supported by soldiers with overly large shields, and receiving covering fire from archers and perhaps slingers; efforts to breach the walls or gates using a ram, hammers or axes; and, undermining the walls. Besieging a fortified city by investing the city and starving the inhabitants was potentially a costly and lengthy affair. Ruses might involve the exploitation of sympathetic or disgruntled agents within the besieged city.15 The LBA was a time of complex interactions between semi-nomadic and urban populations; and also a time of struggle as smaller states worked to become great empires. These empires competed for limited areas of arable, irrigated land and scarce strategic materials. While diplomacy, in the peaceful sense, may have often worked, military force was called into play to achieve the will of the gods through divinely-inspired war. Between the “civilized” these wars were limited to extended duals, battles-at-arms, between gangs of warriors led by the king. To the uncivilized or dishonorable, no such consideration was extended and upon them, the king would unleash the entire might of the kingdom, including large infantry armies. David G. Terrell Herndon, VA


Strauss, 76.

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Works Cited
Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Robbins, Manual. Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt, and the Peoples of the Sea. Lincoln, Nebraska: Authors Choice Press, 2001. Strauss, Barry S. The Trojan War: A New History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

© David G. Terrell, 2009-2010, except where otherwise noted, content is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNoncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. For permission to reprint under terms outside the license, contact

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