The rage of the Pharaoh Rameses II (1304–1237 BC), after his close encounter with death at the battle of Kadesh in 1275/4, is engraved in the stone walls of no fewer than five great temples. The Pharaohs regarded Palestine and Syria as important outposts against attack on their heartland from the east and north. But the Hittite Empire of Anatolia under Muwatalli II (1295–1272), with its access to rich mineral resources, made inroads into Syria. Rameses was determined to drive them back, and in particular to seize the important frontier city of Kadesh in the Orontes valley.

The Egyptians summoned an army perhaps 20,000 strong with some 2,000 war-chariots spread across its four divisions, each named after a god. Rameses commanded the forward division of Amun, followed by his sons in charge of Ra, Ptah and Set. A reconnaissance unit went ahead of the main host to seek out the enemy. As the Egyptians turned up the Orontes valley they encountered spies planted by the Hittites who assured them that the enemy’s main force was as far away as Aleppo, leading Rameses to think that he had an opportunity to seize Kadesh; he crossed the Orontes and pressed on hastily with the division of Amun to encamp to the west of the city. When Rameses realised that he had been duped and that Muwatalli had a huge Hittite army at Kadesh, he frantically summoned all his men. As the division of Ra rushed towards him a large force of Hittite chariots burst across the Orontes and destroyed them. They then charged down upon the partially completed camp of the division of Amun. The Pharaoh rallied his chariots:

His Majesty shone like his father Montu [the god of war] when he took the adornments of war. As he seized his coat of mail he was like Baal in his honour. His Majesty charged into the foe … when his Majesty looked behind him he found two thousand five hundred chariots surrounding him.

A desperate struggle followed. But the Hittite horses were presumably tiring, and the lighter and more manoeuvrable Egyptian chariots took their advantage. The Egyptian infantry of the Amun division rallied, and the balance was tipped by the chance reappearance of the Egyptian reconnaissance force which drove back the Hittite charioteers. More Hittite chariots then arrived, but too late to recover the initiative, so the crews abandoned their vehicles and swam back across the river.

Quite why the Egyptian divisions of Ptah and Set failed to help Rameses is not clear, but the Pharaoh’s rage at this abandonment is understandable. Nor do we know why the Hittite infantry stood aloof. But the next day the armies in their entirety confronted one another, inconclusively. In his magnificent inscriptions Rameses claimed victory, despite his narrow escape from death. But in essence this was a drawn battle, and Egyptian losses were such that Rameses was forced to withdraw and was never able to reassert his power in Syria. In 1258 BC the warring parties agreed to a peace recorded on a clay tablet, a copy of which is held at the United Nations as the earliest surviving peace agreement. Kadesh presents a sudden and exciting vision of war. Chariots charge and manoeuvre while infantry flee or fight desperately. Blood, mud, dust and confusion – the Pharaoh resplendent in his chariot of gold – the face of battle is suddenly vivid.

The armies which clashed at Kadesh were sophisticated and complex organisms, and very obviously they were the products of well organised states. But long before the state, human communities were fighting one another, sometimes on a substantial scale. For most of their existence humankind depended on a way of life usually called hunter-gathering. Small nomadic groups moved around living upon what they could find, scavenge or kill. This is sometimes thought of as a gentle and environmentally friendly way of life, but in reality it was marked by savage clashes between wandering groups. Hunter-gatherers were tied to a pattern of migration between known food resources which varied with the seasons. If this was interrupted by climatic or other variations, a group had to find a new range, or seize it from others. At Jebel Sahaba in Egypt about a quarter of the bodies dating from the hunter-gatherer period 13,000 years ago show clear signs of violent death. The gentleness of modern hunter-gatherers is the gentleness of the defeated, huddling in hostile environments into which they were driven by us, the successful hunter-gatherers who have long left behind that way of life. After about 12000 BC humans began to grow food plants and to domesticate animals. This gradually enabled them to break their dependence on the vagaries of nature because they could store food to tide them over fluctuations of climate and food supply. The farming life demanded that people live close together in villages where they could help one another to clear land and to keep it cultivated, but this produced no rural idyll.

We have a glimpse of how early farming communities may have waged war. The interior of Papua New Guinea was still a Stone Age society in 1961 when anthropologists made a film, Dead Birds, about two villages in strife so continual that the border between their lands was guarded by watchtowers to prevent attacks. The highlight of this remarkable film is a battle. It was a highly ritualised event. Announced beforehand, it took place on a ridge in no-man’s-land. The warriors, many of them in finery, bullied and jeered, with individuals rushing forward to throw spears or fire arrows then retreating hastily, never closing to fight hand-to-hand. Once a death was inflicted, both sides withdrew, the killers to rejoice and the others to mourn.

War before the state: a watchtower manned by a warrior against a neighbouring village. The Grand Valley Dani people of Papua New Guinea (Irian Barat Indonesia) were studied by the Harvard-Peabody Expedition of 1961–3. Despite such vigilance savage raiding was common, sometimes resulting in the extinction of whole settlements.

This individualised style of fighting is reminiscent of the battles in Homer’s epic, the Iliad, where the heroes confront one another while the masses on each side cheer them on. The appearance is of ritualised war with just a handful of casualties. But in New Guinea there was always another and darker side to this warfare – savage raiding. Individual attacks usually killed only a few of the enemy, but their sheer frequency took its toll of men, women and children to the extent that over time whole communities were annihilated and their villages abandoned. This kind of killing produced the high proportion of violent deaths found in ancient cemeteries, and it was interspersed with massacres. At Crow Creek, South Dakota, the entire population of nearly 500, of both sexes and all ages, was slaughtered about AD 1350. All that we know of mankind before the development of the state suggests that, although there were peaceful moments, violence was continual, killing men, women and children generation after generation. It is a myth, albeit an attractive one, that before the state there was no war.

It is therefore no surprise that archaeology reveals that early agricultural settlements were fortified. Banpo village near Xian in China dates from about 4500 BC, long before the rise of any organised state in this part of the world. This was a substantial village covering some 6 hectares but the site is surrounded by a carefully cut ditch some 6 metres deep and 5–6 metres wide. This is far greater than would be needed either to keep domestic animals in or wild ones out. Moreover, it is carefully subdivided by crossing walls to prevent concerted attack. Banpo is evidence of a violent and divided society in which farmers had to be ever ready to defend themselves. Some of the earliest settlements in Britain were the ‘Causeway Camps’ dating from about 4000 BC, which were surrounded by ditches and banks. Interestingly, in many cases massive concentrations of flint arrowheads have been found around the ramparts and gates: clear evidence of siege warfare.

These settlements of agricultural peoples were much larger and more complex than the transient communities which preceded them. Amongst hunter-gatherers, women had been responsible for gathering and men for hunting. Farming, however, demanded a much higher degree of specialisation. Groups of people had to work together over sustained periods of time following schedules determined by planting and harvesting crops and caring for animals. The villages of Papua New Guinea were guided by their richest members, the ‘Big Men’, and it was probably people like them who assumed control over the early agricultural settlements, judging quarrels over land and organising people to meet the challenges of sowing and reaping. Measuring time was crucial for the agricultural year, and may have been the preserve of the priesthood. Moreover, farming generated technological innovation: food had to be stored, transported and protected from rival communities by strong buildings and walls. And in many areas the complexities of irrigation and water-sharing could only be regulated by strong authorities. As a consequence, there arose hierarchical societies dominated by ‘kings’ and their ruling elites who increasingly monopolised power and lived on the labour of farmers. In these new and more complex societies war was the most important task of the rulers. Defending the land was a moral justification for their privileges, and controlling weapons and men of violence was essential to maintaining their dominance over the mass of the population.

In Mesopotamia, complex societies developed most rapidly. The fertile plains produced rich crops, which resulted in increased populations. Over time, the rulers and their retinues separated themselves from the farming communities, whose people actually produced food, by establishing centres of control, in the form of palaces or cities, of which the earliest known to us is Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) which dates from 5500 BC. At its height, this was a city of 50,000 centred on its great temples and palaces and ziggurat, defended by a huge mud-brick wall and governed by royal dynasties, one of whose rulers provided the inspiration for the Epic of Gilgamesh which dates from about 2700 BC. Kings usually controlled the cult of the city’s gods, so defending the city became a sacred task led by the royal personage who was, in a sense, the mediator between his people and the divine world. These rulers, and the elites around them, lived on the backs of the farmers, and the need to record the wealth they extracted from the mass of the population and the way in which it was spent produced the earliest written records: clay tablets recording taxes and the way in which they were spent. In effect account-books are the earliest known form of writing.

The same pattern of development appeared contemporaneously in the other fertile areas of the Middle East and Asia. In Egypt the Nile watered and enriched the land, providing a great highway along which a common culture developed in relative isolation because of the desert through which it flows. The Old Kingdom (2650–2134 BC), which created the Great Pyramids, united Upper (around modern Luxor) and Lower (the Nile delta) Egypt, and its Pharaohs, like Mesopotamian rulers, claimed to mediate between their subjects and the gods. In north-western India the remarkable Harappan civilisation (3000–1700 BC) built cities with huge populations, such as the 30,000–50,000 of Mohenjo-Daro.

In China the Shang state (1766–1122 BC) developed in the Yellow River valley in the northern part of what is now Henan province. Here on the central plains arose many of the characteristics of Han culture, notably its ideographic style of writing, the fondness for written record together with a tendency to bureaucratic government. The Shang state was built around important cities like Ao, near modern Zhengzhou, and Luoyang. The Shang emperor enjoyed a quasi-priestly authority, but presided over groups of officials, one responsible for royal ritual, another for administration and a third for military matters. These jobs were monopolised by aristocrats who were rewarded with land, while the rest of the population were virtually slaves, tied to the soil. As in the Mesopotamian cities, the royal household controlled virtually all economic activity. The cities of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China evolved their own distinctive civilisations, yet shared a common pattern of war.

The large populations of these city-states, supported by agriculture, provided fit young males to fight. Because farming is labour intensive only at certain times of the year, notably the sowing and harvesting seasons, in between large numbers of men are under-employed; and in any case much of the work on the land was undertaken by women. Rulers could employ surplus manpower to build the walls, towers and strong gates with which they defended their centres of power: cities and fortresses. Such strong fortified bases could be attacked only by numerous, well-organised and well-equipped infantry soldiers. At the core of the armies were the kings, supported by their aristocratic followers with armed retinues from amongst whom the commanders were drawn. The elite troops with their splendid armour and weapons were supported by lightly armed conscripts drawn from the ordinary population. Bureaucrats in the cities collected food and oversaw the purchase of weapons and equipment for the army. The city societies were innovative: in India the Harappan civilisation invented the spinning and weaving of cotton and the ox-drawn wagon. Such technological progress fed into military effectiveness.


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