Warfare in the ancient world (Psalm 144)

Bilderesultat for battle of jericho

Illustration: The battle of Jericho

Modern readers may be shocked at the opening verse of Psalm 144, but warfare is a prominent theme in the Psalms. The earliest wars were conducted with crude weapons of wood and stone. Horses were limited value during heavy combat because the stirrup had not yet been invented and a rider could easily fall.

Chariots were not used extensively until the Late Bronze Age. An Egyptian chariot conveyed two men, a driver and an archer (chariots from the Levant – Syria – also accommodated a shield-bearer). Massed chariots used shock value and speed to demoralize and scatter an enemy. Chariots were prominent in New Kingdom Egypt.

A revolution in military technology occurred at the beginning of the Iron Age. Massed armies of heavy infantry with the discipline to hold their ranks appeared on the scene. They could withstand and rout a chariot charge, making the chariot obsolete except as a prestigious vehicle for commanders.

Battles were often short, lasting only as long as one side or the other had the stamina to maintain face-to-face combat. Frequently one side would break ranks and flee. Panic was common, exacerbated by the commander’s poor control, having to rely as they did on shouted voice commands or signals.

In keeping with the hilly terrain they inhabited, the Israelites relied primarily on infantry. Light infantry soldiers wore little or no armour and typically used projectile weapons, like stones and arrows. They moved in loose formations, relying on speed (see Judges 20:15-16, 2 Chronicles 14:8).

Heavy infantrymen wore full armour and often carried heavy swords and long spears. They moved in large, close formations, with spears lowered to form a wall of pikes, in effect creating an ancient version of a tank. The Greek hoplite (heavily armoured infantry soldier) marching in his phalanx was a classical example of heavy infantry in action. Normally a heavy infantry unit would rout a light infantry corps, but out in the open a single heavy infantryman could be at a disadvantage when pitted against a light infantryman, due to the latter’s mobility and ability to strike at a distance.

The greates armies combined heavy and light infantry with cavalry. Alexander the Great and Hannibal were masters at using their heavy infantry as a solid centre for their armies, employing cavalry to flank an opponent. The Roman legions rejected the long pike in favour of a short sword. These legions had the weight and impact of heavy infantry but were much more mobile.

In addition to fighting pitched battles in the open field, armies sometimes laid siege to walled cities that were often situated atop hills. How long a city could hold out depended on how much food it had in storage and upon whether it had direct access to underground springs. Plague could strike a besieged city, as happened to Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Often the besieging army would seek to bring down a city by building a siege ramp and attacking the walls with siege towers.

Ancient armies were often made up of citizen soldiers called up in times of emergency. These citizens could fight with dedication but were poorly trained and armed and often needed to return home on short order to tend their crops. Citizen-soldier armies served Israel during the judges period.

Ancient societies tried to give their armies a core of professional soldiers with long-term enlistments. Kings would also hire mercenaries. The Spartans had a novel solution to the recruitment problem: Every man served in the army full-time and lived in the barracks through most of his adult life (farming was handled by slaves called helots).

Ancient city-states often fought each other in “wars” that lasted a single day. Casualties could be light, and frequently nothing more was at stake than setting a property claim. Other wars could be catastrophic. The Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years, destroyed the Athenian empire and devastated the Greek world. Victorious armies might slaughter cities and take survivors as slaves, effecively destroying peoples and cultures with deliberate genocide.

Armed conflict was indeed a fact of life for the peoples of ancient times. Against this reality David had ample reason to thank God, who trained his hands for war.


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