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Warfare in the Bronze Age


Although Bronze Age and (later) Assyrian and Persian military forces constituted ferocious killing systems - usually unmatched in lethality throughout Greek, Roman, and even modern times - there were inherent limitations to the organization of these military societies.


The reliance on the bow and the sling, the horse and the chariot, for example, required some expertise and so the creation of specialized military castes. The Near Eastern propensity for the construction - and destruction - of extensive fortifications also depleted resources to an astonishing degree. The familiar Biblical account of Joshua's destruction of Jericho provides some idea of the potential for carnage:


...the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.


Most important, Bronze-Age societies were authoritarian and very narrowly hierarchical: the power to initiate, to manage, and to terminate wars lay in the hands of only the very privileged few. Often a single ruler might claim to have enslaved thousands.


The death of a strong-man, subsequent fights over his royal succession, feuds between rival dynasts, could all provoke the mobilization - and annihilation or enslavement - of thousands, even when few economic or social advantages resulted for the majority of the combatants.


In similar fashion, the loss or removal of those select few with the expertise and authority to conduct wars, often necessary wars, might severely curtail the military potential of an entire society and thus call into question its survival. No wonder that the capture, torture, or execution of a rival potentate, followed by the subsequent destruction of his fortress, appear so frequently in the dynastic annals, hieroglyphs, and stone reliefs of the Near East.


There were no military rules, no common protocols of war in the ancient Near East that might have limited war to the combatants themselves and so moderated the destructive tendencies of these regimes.