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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
     Suits of armour
     The composite bow
     Men of steel
     Rams and towers

Greece and Rome
Ingenious devices
Middle Ages
The footsoldier
To be completed

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Suits of armour: from 1300 BC

Bronze can be used for protection, as well as for weapons of aggression.

In Mycenae, from about 1300 BC, a warrior will ride to war in his chariot. He may wear a bronze suit of armour, though leather almost certainly remains the normal form of protection. This is the period of warfare reflected in Homer's Iliad, but the gleaming suits of armour described there are the stuff of heroic fantasy. Reality, in so far as it survives, is altogether clumsier - closer to Ned Kelly than Achilles.


The earliest known suit of armour comes from a Mycenaean tomb, at Dendra. The helmet is a pointed cap, cunningly shaped from slices of boar's tusk. Bronze cheek flaps are suspended from it, reaching down to a complete circle of bronze around the neck. Curving sheets of bronze cover the shoulders. Beneath them there is a breast plate, and then three more circles of bronze plate, suspended one from the other, to form a semi-flexible skirt down to the thighs. Greaves, or shinpads of bronze, complete the armour.

The Mycenaean warrior's weapons are a bronze sword and a bronze-tipped spear. His shield is of stiff leather on a wooden frame. Similar weapons are used, several centuries later, by the Greek hoplites.


The composite bow: from 1500 BC

In about 1500 BC a much more efficient form of bow makes its appearance. It is the short curving bow, familiar in art as Cupid's bow. It is known, from its method of construction, as the composite bow.

Its secret, providing much greater power from a smaller and lighter weapon, is that it is built up from layers of materials which react differently under tension or compression. On the front side of the bow (away from the archer) lengths of animal tendon are glued; they will be stretched when the bow is bent. On the inner side are strips of animal horn, usually bison, which will be compressed.


The composite bow fires a light arrow (the archer can carry as many as fifty in his quiver) with accuracy up to 200 yards. It also has the enormous advantage of reaching only from the head of the archer down to his waist.

This makes it a very convenient weapon in two new forms of warfare which are developed in the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia and in neighbouring regions to the north and east - fighting from a chariot and fighting from horseback. The composite bow will have a long history in warfare, though associated more with Asia than with Europe. As late as the 19th century AD it is still the weapon of certain Manchu regiments in the Chinese army.


The range of weapons now available will not be much altered, apart from improvements in material or design, until the arrival on the battlefield of gunpowder. Some, such as the conventional bow and the sling, have descended straight from the armoury of Stone Age man. Other are still visibly his weapons except that their edges or points are now bronze rather than stone or wood; this is true of the mace (in essence a primitive club), the battleaxe, the spear and the arrow. But the bronze dagger is incomparably better than Stone Age weapons, and the bronze sword is an innovation. So is the composite bow.

These, for centuries to come, are the arms of both infantry and cavalry.


Men of steel: from 1100 BC

A major technological development extends the arms race, when bronze gives way to iron. Bronze is a relatively precious metal because one of its constituents, tin, is scarce. Iron, by contrast, is the most abundant metal in the earth's surface.

Once man has discovered how to harden iron into steel (in about 1100 BC), the technology is in place for a rapid escalation of warfare. Soon the armies of the world will be able to put into the field a far greater number of soldiers, armed to devastating effect and at relatively little cost.


The first iron army to make extensive use of iron weapons, and to devastating effect, is that of Assyria - notorious from the 9th century BC for its brutal successes in an unceasing campaign of aggression against its neighbours.

But more primitive societies can be heavily armed too in the age of iron. By the 8th century BC the people of the Hallstatt culture of central Europe (predecessors of the Celts, and great workers of iron) are providing themselves with superb swords, which they take with them to their graves. Of unprecedented length, these weapons are well adapted both for thrusting and slashing, with a sharp point and a keen cutting edge.


Battering rams and siege towers: from the 9th century BC

Fortified towns arrive with civilization, and sieges are as old as organized warfare. But siege implements are simple until the Assyrians.

They pay special attention to the battering ram. Soldiers in early sieges swing a heavy timber ram against a town gate. They are vulnerable to missiles or heated oil from above. Under the Assyrians the ram becomes an engine. It is suspended from the roof of a timber structure, which in turn is mounted on wheels so that it can be pushed into position. Protected within this contraption, soldiers can swing the ram relentlessly against the gate. Archers, in protected turrets on top of the engine, exchange shots on almost equal terms with the defenders on the walls.


A siege tower is trundled towards a besieged town on the same principle as the mobile battering ram, but with a different purpose - to provide a platform as high as the town or fortress walls, from which the invaders can launch an attack.

In the 4th century BC engineers in the armies of Philip of Macedon and of his son, Alexander the Great, build mobile siege towers which can be taken on campaign. They also develop the catapult which becomes the principal siege weapon of both Hellenistic and Roman armies.


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