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Ancient Warfare

Unfortunately it is impossible to state, even approximately, when the first battle of the world was fought. In the early ages, of course, primitive man had all he could do to maintain a bare existence and preserve himself against the fury of the wild beasts so eager to attack him; but even tradition furnishes no clue to enable the student to discover at what period men first turned against other men to do battle with the crude instruments that had been devised only as a means of protecting themselves from the savage animals in the forests.

Probably the first wars originated in nomad life and these conflicts were undoubtedly occasioned by the disputes which arose between the various tribes in regard to their rights of possession in favorable pasturage. When all tribes devoted themselves to the flocks and herds there was little to discriminate between them, but, gradually, certain tribes began to assume different characteristics. One became attached to the art of agriculture; another devoted its time to hunting and fishing, while a third class still remained shepherds of the flocks. It was this difference of occupation which finally became the natural source of hostilities, for it established a series of classes, the stronger of which began to prey upon the weaker.

One characteristic of this period, distinguishing it from that which preceded it — the period of savage warfare — is the fact that men had learned to fight in a battle order, in close-knit lines and columns that gave to the individuals thus ranked together the advantage of mutual protection and support. In the primitive period—stretching back into the dim age of the flint arrow and the bronze axe, as in the warfare of the ruder races of later days, the only tactics were those of the hunter, and if large numbers were ever brought into action tactical methods, such as they were, disappeared in the confusion of a fighting mob. With the small forces brought into the field in the brief campaigns of primitive tribal warfare there is little of what can be called strategy, and in the actual conflict the result depends on the prowess and skill at arms of individuals.

Osymandyas of Egypt, supposed by some to be the Osiris of the priests, is the first warlike king mentioned by history. He passed into Asia and conquered Bactria, about the year 2100 BC. If Osymandyas was the first warlike king, however, he was not the last. Naturally, those who devoted themselves to the hunt became the victors in war. and, by reducing their victims to a condition of slavery, threw the manual labor, which they despised, upon the shoulders of others. In fact, there is a tradition in western Asia, that Nimrod, who is mentioned in the Bible as "a mighty hunter before the Lord," was the first person to engage upon an extensive system of warfare for the express purpose of obtaining slaves, and that it was he who introduced the practice of requiring conquered nations to pay an annual tribute, or, in other words, a ransom for their release. However true this may be, the ancient Old Testament days were full of such warfare, warfare in which the outcome was either tribute or slavery.

History began on the banks of the Nile, and along the Tigris and the Euphrates; for these valleys, like two great oases, were practically the only habitable spots in the great desert. Fitted with all known conveniences for travel, with roads suitable for the passage of vast armies, these two centers of habitation finally became great rivals. In fact, whenever any particularly energetic ruler appeared in either spot he at once set out, as if moved by an irresistible impulse, to conquer his rival and so control western Asia. It may truthfully be said, therefore, that the history of this time is little more than one continuous record of struggles between Egypt and Mesopotamia, a condition which existed until Europe entered the lists and became the conqueror.

As the Persians trusted for success mainly to numbers, war to them was little more than an exhibition of brute force. Sometimes [it is said] as many as 1,000,000 men were brought into service for one campaign. In battle the troops were massed in deep ranks, those which were supposed to be the bravest being in front, but, if the line of battle was once broken, defeat appears to have been inevitable, for the army lost heart, even if the commander himself did not set the example of flight, and the general stampede that followed usually cleared the battlefield.

Rawlinson's description of the appearance of the Persian forces in time of war is one of the most vivid word pictures painted by any historian: "The troops were drawn from the entire empire, and were marshalled in the field according to nations, each tribe accoutred in its own fashion. Here were seen the gilded breastplates and scarlet kilts of the Persians and Medes; there the woolen skirt of the Arab, the leathern jerkin of the Berber, or the cotton dress of the native of Hindustan. Swart savage Ethiops from the Upper Nile, adorned with a war paint of white and red, and scantily clad with the skins of leopards and lions, fought in one place with huge clubs, arrows tipped with stone, and spears terminating in the horn ol an antelope. In another, Scyths, with their loose spangled trousers and their tall pointed caps, dealt death around from their unerring blows; while near them Assyrians, helmeted, and wearing corselets of quilted linen, wielded the tough spear or the still more formidable iron mace. Rude weapons, like cane bows, unfeathered arrows, and stakes hardened at one end in the fire, were seen side by side with keen swords and daggers of the best steel, the finished productions of the workshops of Phcenicia and Greece. Here the bronze helmet was surmounted with the ears and horns of an ox; there it was superseded by a fox-skin, a leathern or wooden skull cap, or a head dress fashioned out of a horse's scalp. Besides horses and. mules, elephants, camels, and wild asses diversified the scene, and rendered it still more strange and wonderful."

Although the Persians fought and won battles in spite of their crude methods of fighting, Greece was the mother of the art of warfare. Of course, it must not be imagined, however, that the splendid body of perfectly trained soldiery comprising the armies of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, or Macedon was the product of a day, or of the genius of a single man, for nothing less than centuries were required for the perfection of this wonderful force. In the heroic days, the days of the Homeric battles, the Greek soldiers were no more to be commended than their Persian rivals. Loosely organized, poorly drilled, and badly equipped, the mass of the army was capable of doing little more than give the inspiration of numerical strength to the small bodies of heroes who did all the fighting.

At length, however, the idea of the phalanx evolved itself, and, in a remarkably brief period of time, the history of the world was changed. At no time prior to the invention of the modern instruments of war had man conceived such a formidable weapon as the attack of a charging phalanx. It was this powerful engine of war that accomplished the downfall of the Persian force at Marathon. It was a still more perfect phalanx that resulted in the defeat of Thebes and the victory of Macedon on the fields of Chaeronea. It was clearly the Greek phalanx — solid, erect and terrible in its effect — that enabled Alexander to inaugurate the campaign that had for its purpose the conquering of the entire known world. It was with the aid of the phalanx that Athens was preserved; that the Peloponnesian war was won by Sparta, and it was this same maneuver that saved the day for the Greek forces, until, at last, the Roman legions swept down upon a degenerate Macedon to declare the end of the Grecian empire.

The story of Rome's supremacy is not dissimilar to that of the rise and fall of the Grecian power. She scorned to make use of the phalanx, her legions fighting in such open formation that those in the front rank could fall back, when weary, and allow those in the second file to advance and take their places, and yet the discipline and generalship of the great army was so perfect that it succeeded in establishing a wider empire than that of Alexander's, an empire which, in 133 BC, included all of southern Europe from the Atlantic to the Bosporus, as well as a part of northern Africa. Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor were then Roman dependencies. Her army had made her practically mistress of the civilized world. Several centuries elapsed before Rome's glories began to fade.

Horses were harnessed and driven long before they were mounted. So the war chariot appears in warfare long before the cavalier. Homer's heroes never mount a horse. They go into battle in a chariot. Six centuries or so later the Greeks had given up their chariots but still had few horsemen. When Greek and Persian met in battle at Marathon (BC 490) the Persians had cavalry, but the Greeks brought only infantry into action. But even these were largely what we would call mounted infantry. The horse was used to bring an archer rapidly within range of his enemy, and to take him away safely after the attack. Horsemen were at first only the mounted leaders of infantry, the scouts, messengers, and skirmishers of an army. It took a long time to produce the ordered array of lance-armed horsemen, and still longer for men to discover that the horse was itself the best weapon of the cavalier, and that the shock of mounted men flinging the weight of horse and rider on an enemy could break through and ride down hostile infantry.

During the time Rome's power was still further extended, civil wars had been suppressed and revolutions crushed, for when the Roman army could fight according to the scientific rules of warfare it was practically an invincible force. When the destroyers of the great empire came, however, they brought with them no knowledge of the science of war which Rome knew so well. To Alaric the Goth, Attila the Hun, and Genseric the Vandal, war was simply a question of mere numerical human strength. They had no more idea of the advancement in military art than had the Saracen horde that swept across the country and that might have planted the standard of Islam in every nook and corner of Europe if Charles Martel had not won his great victory on the plain of Tours. Against these three great barbaric leaders Rome was almost powerless, and as they swept down upon her, as one wave of the sea follows another, Rome fell, never to rise again. City after city was spoiled and burned; Rome, even, opened her gates without a blow. The tiara and purple robes of the empire were sent to Constantinople, and Zeno appointed Odoacer to be Patrician of Italy.



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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:13 ZULU