Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times

Natasha sheldon - July 12, 2017

10,000 years ago, a group of rival hunter-gatherers fought on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The event was the first known warlike encounter in human history. Since then, humanity has found increasingly innovative ways to solve disputes over territory and resources settle grudges or satisfy a need for power and pure greed. Between the fourth millennium BC and the fourth century AD, many cultures relied upon their military prowess. Their tactics and innovations in the ways of war built their empires and their reputation as fearsome warrior cultures. Here are just eight of them.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
The Akkadians. Google Images

The Akkadians

Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization. So it is no surprise that it was also the birthplace of organized warfare. The ancient Sumerians pioneered war and conquest, in the same way as they did city building, religion, and commerce. But it took a successive civilization to perfect it. In the third millennium BC, the Akkadians developed the first professional army, the first military dictatorship, and the world’s first real empire. It was an empire that lasted two centuries and stretched across the Middle East.

The Akkadian Empire began in the Mesopotamian region of Akkad, north of the established Sumerian city-states. The people of Akkad were Semitic, an emerging culture that was subservient to the culturally dominant Sumerians. However, one man was about to change this. His name was Sargon, the Semitic cupbearer of Ur Zababa, King of Kish, one of Sumeria’s pre-eminent cities. Sargon had achieved his position through merit. But he knew as a Semite he could not hope for further promotion. So he decided to help himself.

Sargon began by overthrowing his master and becoming King in his place. But he knew if he was to hold onto his power, he had to remove any potential opposition. So Sargon decided to move against the Sumerian’s first. He attacked successive Sumerian city-states, putting their leaders to death until he had united the whole of Mesopotamia under the rule of Akkad, his capital city. By the end of his 50-year reign, Sargon had fought 34 wars, adopted the epithet ‘the great’ and able to bequeath an empire to five generations of his family. So how did he achieve this feat?

The first step was a professional, standing army, something the Sumerian’s did not have. They only called citizens to arm at need. Sargon organized a core of 5400 men who formed his trusted forces. But he also implemented a clever recruitment technique. Each conquered city was required to contribute a certain number of soldiers to the Akkadian army. The men swelled the ranks of the military while ensuring the loyalty of the subdued states.

Rather than organize his forces by regions as the Sumerians did, Sargon mixed them up. He dispensed with single line combat and ordered each phalanx to fight six men deep. Chariots, which were drawn by donkeys, cumbersome and vulnerable to attack were relegated to transport only. But it was Sargon’s grandson Naram Sin who implemented a weapon that gave the Akkadian’s an added edge: the composite bow. The bow was constructed of wood, horn and animal sinew melded together for extra strength, the composite bow could fire arrows twice the distance of an ordinary bow- and pierce leather armor.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
A Hittite War Chariot. Google Images

The Hittites

The Hittites originated in the mountains of the modern Ukraine, near the Black Sea. By 1900BC they had established the Kingdom of Hatti in central Anatolia, part of modern day Turkey. From here, they built an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to Mesopotamia. This empire was to last nearly a thousand years.

Hittite Kings were also commanders in chief. But to become King, they needed to be experienced in battle. So the children of the aristocracy and royalty were trained to fight from childhood. Ordinary soldiers volunteered, enticed by the incentive of advancement. Hittite society was feudal, with fief holders working the land for their Lord. However, if they joined the army, they were awarded income and land for service. So soldiers could help expand the empire, take a share of it and advance themselves and their family.

In 1274BC, the Hittite’s cemented their reputation by their defeating the Egyptians. Threatened by Hittite incursions into the Lebanon and Palestine, the warrior pharaoh Ramses II went on the offensive. The two armies finally came face to face at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River. Although the 35,000 strong Egyptian armies vastly outnumbered the Hittite’s 20,000 men, the Hittite’s were victorious. This occurred for three main reasons: the organization of Hittite forces, their chariots, and iron.

The Hittite’s adapted their fighting style according to the terrain. Tactics and weapons were selected according to the conditions. But the organization of their army units was also crucial to their success. Infantry, archers, and chariots were organized into lines ten men wide and ten men deep. Squads of ten formed the lines, which in turn created companies of ten squads and battalions of ten companies. These small units were easy to deploy for the maximum shock during an attack.

Hittite chariots acted as heavy infantry. They were broad enough to accommodate not only a driver and a warrior, but also a shield bearer to protect both in battle. Dedicated protection meant that chariots could fight infantry at close quarters. It was this battle tactic that was crucial to the victory at Kadesh. But so was the Hittite use of iron. The use of iron was pioneered in the late bronze age- and the Hittite’s were familiar with the technique. So instead of soft, bronze weapons, they used iron instead- giving them the edge over their enemies.

The Hittites used one further technique to weaken their conquests: biological warfare. Accounts of their conquests record how they would drive diseased sheep into enemy territories to infect the population before attacking. The reports describe the symptoms of the disease as skin ulcers and respiratory failure, which Dr. Siro Trevisanato; a Canadian biochemist believes Tularemia or rabbit fever. But in the end, this tactic could have destroyed the Hittite’s themselves when they too fell prey to the disease.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
The Assyrian Army in action. Google Images

The Assyrians

The Assyrian empire began in what is now Iraq, as a small community of traders in the city of Ashur. But to protect themselves and their fertile lands from their jealous neighbors, they were forced to become warriors who could respond quickly to aggression and raids. As a result, between 1115-612 BC, the Assyrians became the aggressors, building the greatest ancient empire before that of Alexander the Great and the Romans, with their lands encompassing Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia.

Expansion began with King Tiglath Pileser III. Tiglath used many of the tactics pioneered by earlier warrior cultures. He formed a full-time, professional army consisting of infantry, cavalry and special units of slingers and archers. The iron pioneered by the Hittites was now commonly accepted as the metal of choice for weapons. But the Assyrian’s had the edge over their enemies as their trade networks ensured a plentiful supply. The Assyrians used Iron liberally, for swords, spears, and arrowheads, as well as for their helmets and armor.

Instead of sandals, Tiglath had Assyrian soldiers issued with knee length, thick-soled boots suitable for all terrains, hobnailed and metal coated on the shins: the first military boots. But the Assyrians also pioneered the use of engineering in the military. They developed siege engines- mobile multi-story towers with battering rams at the base. Assyrian engineers pioneered the use of ramps, siege ladders, and tunnels under city walls. The Assyrians even invented the ancient prototype of the tank: the mobile missile platform. These military machines could be used to weaken city defenses to allow infantry to take the city.

But the Assyrians were also masters of psychological warfare. The Assyrians used their reputation for terror as a first assault. It was a known fact that all who defied the Assyrians would die horribly. After the city of Suru, near the Euphrates was taken, the Assyrian King order a pillar built “at the city gate.” Here he “I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.” Many cities would capitulate before the fighting even began to avoid such a fate.

Once a territory was conquered, the Assyrian’s employed intelligent policy to preserve the peace. Those who left alive were either enslaved- or relocated. The Assyrians transferred former occupants of conquered lands to areas of the empire where their skills were in demand. This ensured that the empire was well serviced, conquered peoples integrated and deprived of their compatriots so no pockets of resistance could develop.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
Spartan Warriors on Greek Vase. Google Images

The Spartans

Although not empire builders as such, the Spartans were the elite warrior culture of ancient Greece between sixth and fourth centuries BC. Having conquered their neighbors the Messenians and Laconians, the Spartans incorporated the stolen lands into the Spartan territories. The Messenians and Laconians were forced to work the land for Sparta as slaves or helots. Spartan males could, therefore, concentrate on the business of being warriors. Indeed, it was the only job available to a Spartan man.

The whole of Spartan society was centered on military excellence and stretched from the cradle to the grave. Parents exposed weak or deformed Spartan babies on Mount Taygetos. Those boys who survived left their families at the age of seven to attend the Agoge, a type of military boarding school. The boys lived in barracks, were taught to read and write and dance so they could move nimbly in battle.

At 12, their training was upped a notch. Deprived of shoes and given only minimal clothes and food, the boys were driven to become self-sufficient and resourceful. Stealing- especially from helots -was encouraged and punishments were only meted out to those who were caught. The boys were also invited to practice their killing skills on helots. In a tradition called the krypteia, boys went on night raids with the sole goal of killing any helot discovered out alone.

At 20, Spartan males moved into adult barracks, where they lived even if married. This was their life until they were 40. Then, the Warriors moved into the reserves until they were 60. Any Spartan man deemed a coward became a social outcast, unable to marry, hold office and publicly branded with a half shaved beard and multicolored cloak. Most Spartan men killed themselves rather than live in such a state. After the battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans held off the 70,000 strong Persian armies for three days, of the two men who did not participate one hung himself, and the other redeemed himself at a later date by successfully dying in battle.

As with all of Greece, the phalanx of hoplites was the basis for the Spartan army. The Spartans adopted and adapted this form after the city of Argos defeated them in battle. The Spartan sword or xiphos was designed for close combat. But the Spartans did not just use swords and spears as weapons: they used their shields too. Spartan shields were covered in bronze and curved so it could be used to bash the enemy. To lose one’s shield was shameful as it was essential to “the common good of the whole line” not just a means to protect an individual.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
Scythian Warriors. Google Images

The Scythians

The Scythians or “horse lords” as they were known originated from the Eurasian steppes. They were primarily a nomadic horse tribe who ventured into Iron Age Mesopotamia to raid. According to The Bible, they were “always courageous, and their quivers are like open grave. They will eat your harvest and bread, they will eat your sons and daughters, they will eat your sheep and oxen, they will eat your grapes and figs.” They made war against Assyria, capturing its capital, Nineveh in 612BC. They reached as far as Palestine and would have invaded Egypt if the Pharaoh had not bribed them to stay away.

The Scythian’s greatest triumph was in thwarting an invasion by the Persian army of Darius I. Darius’s army was one of the largest in ancient times. But the Persian king underestimated his foe. As Darius’s army advanced across the steppes, Scythian horsemen harried it with unexpected ambushes. Worse still, the Scythians greeted the advancing army with poisoned wells and burnt fields. Finally, low on supplies and morale, it camped on the shores of the sea of Azoz, while Darius sent a message to the Scythian high king Idanthyrsus to ask why he wouldn’t engage in battle.

Idanthyrsus’s reply was to the point: This is my way, Persian. I never fear men or fly from them. I have not done so in times past, nor do I now fly from thee. There is nothing new or strange in what I do; I only follow my common mode of life in peaceful years. Now I will tell thee why I do not at once join battle with thee. We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in a hurry to fight with you.”

Accompanying the message were some unusual gifts: a mouse, a frog, a bird and five arrows. The Persian’s quickly understood: if they did not fly away like birds or hide like mice, or leap into a lake like frogs, they would die under Scythian arrows. After yet more harrying and raiding, the Persians gave up and went home. Guerilla tactics and the horseback skills of the Scythians nomadic lifestyle had defeated them.

But the Scythian use of the bow was also critical.So skilled were the Scythians with the weapon that their name was derived from Skeud, the indo-European word for ‘propel.’ Scythian burials are full of arrows, but no bows survive. But contemporary depictions show they were small, shaped like a Greek sigma and capable of firing 10-12 arrows a minute- on horseback.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
Celtic Warriors. Google Images

The Celts

The term ‘Celt’ is a generic one, applied to a group of northern European Indo-European tribes with a shared language and culture. Warfare was a large part of that culture, and the Celts were renown for their ferocity and bravery. They were regarded as a plague by the Romans until they finally subdued them. But even so, the army of Rome was not above using Celtic mercenaries and auxiliaries in the military.

The Celts first make their appearance in written history in 390BC when a group from Gaul attacked the Etruscans in the Po valley. The Romans were called in to negotiate between the two sides. During the talks, the Roman emissary killed one of the Gaulish leaders. Outraged, the Celts demanded the death of the murderer. When the Senate refused, the Celts besieged Rome. They invaded the city and besieged the Romans on the Capitoline Hill. They only left when the defeated Romans paid a high ransom.

Terror and intimidation seemed to be the key Celtic tactics. Polybius, writing of Celts in the second century AD, describes their enemies as: “terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn -blowers and trumpeters, and…the whole army were shouting their war-cries…Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torcs and armlets.”

So appearance and behavior played a part in Celtic tactics. The furor celtica as the Romans called it saw the Warriors’ race headlong into the fight, wild with battle rage. But it would be wrong to assume that Celtic battle tactics were haphazard. Chariots, in particular, were utilized skillfully in combat. The Celtic chariot was lightweight and had a flexible rope suspension that made it easy to steer and drive along rough terrain. These chariots could be driven skillfully into the midst of battle, allowing warriors to throw spears and intimidate the enemy infantry or else jump down and join the fray.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
The Roman Army. Google Images

The Romans

By the time of the death of Emperor Trajan in 117AD, the Roman empire was the largest in the ancient world, stretching from Spain to Syria, from the Adriatic to Britain. The empire had humble beginnings in a small settlement of herders and bandits living along the river Tiber. But its military had made it great.

Discipline, organization, and engineering were crucial to the Roman military as was the ability to adapt and amend and improve upon other people’s ideas. The Romans modeled their infantry on the Greek hoplites the Romans encountered amongst the Campanian Greeks. The Roman version was named legions, from legio, the levy or small allowance paid to each infantryman on active service. It was the legions who were the backbone of the short annual campaigns against neighboring Italian states which formed the germ of Rome’s empire.

But the real innovations to the army occurred after the Punic wars. Combat was now longer – and occurring away from Italian soil. By 201BC, after the final defeat of Carthage, it was evident the old army model would no longer serve Rome. So criteria for armed service was extended. All citizens between the age of 17-46 were eligible to serve in the army, regardless of property ownership. When they signed up, they agreed to serve in 6 consecutive campaigns and to enlist for 16 years- or 10 if they were in the cavalry.

Available manpower again increased after the Social Wars as the Romans extended citizenship to the conquered Italian states. The Roman’s continued with their policy of absorption as their territories expanded. Foreign units were added as auxiliaries, each bringing their unique fighting skills to serve the glory of Rome. For this was the Roman army’s key strength: teamwork. The achievement of the individual counted for nothing. Each soldier was a cog in the military machine. Discipline was tight, and soldiers fought in close formation rather than as individuals. This meant that Roman lines held in the face of fierce barbarian attacks.

Attacks were also very precisely planned. Battles began with a flight of javelins towards enemy lines. The intention here was to disable the enemies shields. A shield penetrated by a spear was useless defensively. So when the legions moved into close quarter combat, it was easier to cut down the enemy with their short sword, the gladius. Cavalry supported the legions by attacking from the rear and chasing down survivors. Siege weapons were also necessary. As well as battering rams and siege engines, the Romans developed the onager, an early form of a giant catapult which hurled huge boulders at stone walls or iron bolts into enemy lines.

Ancient Warfare: 8 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of Ancient Times
The Parthian Army. Google Images

The Parthians

Formed from the Achaemenid Persians and Scythian inspired nomads, the Parthian military bore a resemblance to the military societies of the Middle Ages. Dominated by heavy cavalry, who were accompanied by lightly armored horse archers, it only used infantry in times of protracted war. The Parthians adopted these tactics after their defeat at the hands of Alexander the great. They realized that only heavily armored cavalry stood a chance against the hoplite infantry. So they developed a system where the cavalry broke into the ranks of enemy infantry, causing them to scatter so they could be picked off by the lightly armored bowmen.

The Parthian archers were particularly renown for one particular skill: the Parthian shot. When in retreat- real or by design, the Parthian mounted archers s would send their horses into a full gallop. They would fully turn their bodies around in the saddle, so they faced the enemy and then fired upon them. This was achieved without stirrups for support, using just the knees pressed against the saddle to support the rider.

However, horses were themselves vulnerable in battle. So the Parthians took measures to protect them by providing the horses themselves with armor. Cassius Dio describes how the Parthians covered their horses with light metal armor that covered their “head, neck, chest and sides.” This light, flexible mail, made from overlapping leafs of metal was light and flexible enough not to impede the horse’s movement but still made it harder to bring the rider by injuring the horse.

Using these means, the Parthians were able to claim Iran back from the Seleucid Empire. Then came their encounters with the Romans. At the battle of Carrhea in 53BC, Parthian forces consisting of 1000 heavy cavalrymen and over 9000 horseback archers defeated the Roman general Crassus. Using their cavalry to scatter the Roman forces, the Parthians were able to defeat the Romans- despite the fact they were greatly outnumbered. The occasion marked the beginning of three centuries of conflict between Rome and the Parthians- until the Parthians themselves succumbed to another empire.