Overview of the catastrophic event that occurred in the 12th century BCE
Destruction by fire was the fate of the cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean during the Catastrophe. Throughout the Aegean, Anatolia, Cyprus, and the Levant dozens of these places were burned. Although many small communities were not destroyed, having been simply abandoned in the early twelfth century B.C., the great centers went up in flames. In fact, in all the lands mentioned it is only in the interior of the southern Levant that one can find at least a few significant centers that were not destroyed by fire at least once during the Catastrophe. In the aftermath of destruction many centers were rebuilt, and a surprising number of them were on or within sight of the seacoast. Tiryns, Troy, Ialysos, Tarsus, Enkomi, Kition, Ashdod, and Ashkelon are the best-known of these twelfth-century coastal settlements, but there were many others. Another expedient, favored especially by the survivors of the Catastrophe in eastern Crete, was to locate new towns high in the mountains. Small, unfortified settlements were far less common in the middle of the twelfth century than they had been a century earlier. Egypt escaped the Catastrophe, inasmuch as no Egyptian cities or palaces are known to have been destroyed, although after Ramesses III pharaonic power and prestige entered a sharp decline. And in Mesopotamia the Catastrophe seems to have done little damage: the kings of Assur remained strong through the twelfth century, and Babylonia’s troubles were of a conventional kind. But in all other civilized lands, the Catastrophe was synonymous with the burning of rich palaces and famous cities.
The main argument
The present study makes the case that the Catastrophe was the result of a new style of warfare that appeared toward the end of the thirteenth century B.C. The new warfare, it is argued here, opened up new and frightening possibilities for various uncivilized populations that until that time had been no cause for concern to the cities and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Catastrophe can most easily be explained, I believe, as a result of a radical innovation in warfare, which suddenly gave to “barbarians” the military advantage over the long established and civilized kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean.
The thesis of the present study is that the Catastrophe came about when men in “barbarian” lands awoke to a truth that had been with them for some time: the chariot-based forces on which the Great Kingdoms relied could be overwhelmed by swarming infantries, the infantrymen being equipped with javelins, long swords, and a few essential pieces of defensive armor.
How warfare was conducted prior to the Catastrophe
To summarize: Insofar as our evidence illuminates such things, it appears that prior to the Catastrophe an eastern Mediterranean king might send infantrymen into the mountainous hinterland to punish barbarians who had misbehaved. Such combat was probably a melee rather than a conflict of close-order formations. When two civilized kingdoms went to war, the hand-to-hand fighting was subordinated to and integrated with the chariot battle. In chariot warfare there was no engagement of mass formations of infantry, and what hand-to-hand fighting was required was the responsibility of professional chariot runners, or skirmishers. In the thirteenth century these men were rarely natives of the kingdoms in which they fought and tended to come from barbarian lands such as Nubia, Libya, and Sardinia or from the more backward parts of Greece and the Levant. Their service as skirmishers was undoubtedly hazardous and demanding and must have required a great deal more stamina, skill, recklessness, and perhaps ferocity than could be found in the typical resident of Ugarit, Messenia, or Memphis.
The invention of reigns
The final obsolescence of chariotry came with the discovery, in the eighth century, of new techniques for reining a ridden horse. The new method, apparent in the reliefs of Tiglath-Pileser III, allowed cavalrymen to operate independently rather than in pairs, each rider now controlling his own mount. With every rider an archer, the “firepower” on the backs of a hundred cavalry horses was double the firepower drawn by a hundred chariot horses. Thus by ca. 750 B.C. the replacement of chariots by cavalry was more or less complete.
Changes in power post-Catastrophe
An index of how drastically warfare had changed in the Catastrophe is that thereafter the militiamen of Israel, without any horse troops at all, were able to maintain complete independence from the last Ramessids and the Twenty-First Dynasty kings of Egypt. Prior to the Catastrophe, the land of Israel had for almost four hundred years chafed under Egyptian hegemony, a condition so unthinkable in post-Catastrophe circumstances that tradition seems eventually to have transformed it into four hundred years of Israelite “bondage” in the land of Egypt.
What armor infantrymen wore
In the Catastrophe [...] we have pictorial evidence for infantrymen’s corslets. The Medinet Habu relief of the sea battle in 1179 shows that not only the Philistine and Shekelesh aggressors but also the Egyptian defenders were protected with waist-length corslets and leather skirts. The corslets were apparently strengthened with strips of metal sewn to the leather. In the Aegean, too, corslets for infantrymen appear only at the end of the IIIB or beginning of the IIIC period.
Perhaps the most important item of defensive armor that comes into use at the end of the thirteenth century is the round shield, with its conical surface running back from the boss to the rim. Held with a center-grip, this symmetrical shield (“balanced all-around” is a common Homeric epithet for the aspis) made up for its relatively small size by a superior design. Until the introduction of the round shield, footsoldiers of the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms carried large shields of various shapes. The Mycenaeans in the LH I and II periods (and possibly also in LH ΠΙΑ and B, although evidence is lacking) favored the huge “figure eight” shield, which enveloped the warrior on three sides from neck to ankles, while providing some freedom of movement for the arms at the indentations. An alternative for the Mycenaeans, in use also in Egypt, was the slightly smaller “half-cylinder” shield, with sides arching back. Although such a shield protected a man from neck to shins, the absence of arm indentations must have severely restricted his wielding of an offensive weapon. The Hittite shield seems to have been rectangular and relatively flat but had scalloped sides or “cutouts” for the arms. The standard Egyptian shield was oblong with a rounded top, thus offering some protection for the neck. All these Late Bronze Age shields, if held frontally and at the proper height, would have covered most of a footsoldier’s body, far more in fact than did a round shield. The Homeric sakos—the great shield—was evidently used with a long lance (the enchos), both items indicating an intention to keep one’s distance in dispatching an opponent. The size and design of these pre-Catastrophe shields are quite understandable if they were intended for defense primarily against missiles, and only occasionally against hand-to-hand weapons. The round shield, on the other hand, was certainly meant for a hand-to-hand fighter. For him, agility and mobility counted for much, and he sacrificed the security of a full-body shield in order to be fast on his feet and to have free use of his offensive arm. The round shields varied in size from less than two to more than three feet in diameter, but even the largest did not cover a man below midthigh. But because it was perfectly balanced, the round shield was unusually maneuverable. That quality, together with its uniformly sloping surfaces, gave the warrior good protection at the spot that he needed it.
The innovation of the infantryman’s corslet, greaves, and the round shield in the armies of the eastern Mediterranean reflects the importance that was suddenly attached, during the Catastrophe, to hand-to-hand fighting. The round shield had long been favored by Sardinian skirmishers but was now in general demand. The infantryman’s corslet was perhaps improvised by the defenders of the eastern kingdoms, in order to steel themselves for a type of combat that was unfamiliar and unnerving. The use of greaves may have begun among either the sackers or the defenders of the Aegean palaces (Homer associates greaves with the marauders at Troy, while the in corpore evidence shows them in use by defenders of the IIIC communities). Altogether, the armored infantryman was in large part a creation of the Catastrophe.
On the javelin
Strabo (4.4.3) described the Gauls’ skill in hunting birds with javelins, declaring that the Gallic hunters were able to throw their javelins farther (and apparently with no less accuracy) than they could shoot an arrow.
In the conventional view that Late Bronze Age warfare was characterized by dense formations of heavy infantry, the utility and the importance of the barbarians’ javelins would be difficult to see. But if it is conceded that prior to the Catastrophe the eastern kings depended for offense on their chariotries, one can imagine how much the javelin may have contributed to the raiders’ success. And on this matter, as on so many others in ancient military history, imagination is our only resource, since we have no relief, painting, or text that presents the raiders throwing javelins at chariot horses.
In a useful essay on ancient swordsmanship Col. D. H. Gordon provided a technical terminology that can clarify discussion of the weapons of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries. Stabbing weapons shorter than fourteen inches (35 cm.) are knives and daggers. A “sword” between fourteen and twenty inches long (35 to 50 cm.) is more correctly called a dirk, a “short sword” falls between twenty and twenty-eight inches (50 to 70 cm.), and a long sword has a length of at least twenty-eight inches. Although in a pinch a dirk or even a dagger could be used with a slashing (cutting) motion, these weapons were of course designed primarily for thrusting. Proper swords could be serviceable for either function, and the shape of the blade is the best indication of how one was in fact used. Blades that tapered continuously from hilt to tip were generally meant to be thrust. Contrarily, a blade whose edges ran roughly parallel—and that was at least an inch (26 cm.) wide—for most of its length was undoubtedly designed to keep from bending even when brought down in a hard slash. Thus “a cut-and-thrust sword is one that can be used as effectively as its form permits both for cutting and thrusting.”
The rising importance of the sword
Let us state this baldly and succinctly: for the thirteenth century we have no long swords at all from the Greek world, whereas for the twelfth we have at least thirty of a single type. The archaeological evidence indicates as clearly as one could ask that ca. 1200 warfare in the Greek world changed drastically. The sword, and the ability to use it, had suddenly become immensely important in the Aegean and in Cyprus.
The Bronze Age kingdoms were vulnerable for a long time before anyone exploited that fact
From our vantage point we can see that all through the Late Bronze Age the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms had been vulnerable to a concerted attack by barbarian neighbors. But for most of the period this arcanum imperii was not perceived, either by the kings at risk or by the barbarians themselves. Only toward the end of the thirteenth century did the latter begin to sense their opportunity and to seize it.
Military changes led to social changes
The solidarity of an Iron Age community, whether of a polis or of a nation, stemmed from the recognition that in war the fortunes of the community would depend on every man playing his part. Against mass formations of close-order infantry, the formations being controlled by an efficient chain of command, disorganized hordes of running skirmishers would have been outmatched. The kind of solidarity required in the Iron Age was, with rare exceptions, unnecessary and therefore unknown in the Late Bronze Age, since prior to the Catastrophe a king’s subjects were amply protected by the king’s chariots and chariot runners. The military revolution that occurred in the Catastrophe was thus a prerequisite for the social and political changes that made the world of the Iron Age so different from that of the Late Bronze Age.