Warfare in the ancient Near East

In my previous blog post, I lamented the lack of sources on warfare outside of the Graeco-Roman world. Today, I want to devote some space to discuss a book that I think does a good job in dealing with Near-Eastern warfare: William J. Hamblin’s Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History (2006).

The book deals with warfare in the Near East, which includes Egypt, and covers a period of more a few thousand years. Coming in at around 500 pages, including notes, indices, and bibliography, that is no mean feat, and speaks to the limits of the available evidence. The book’s introduction deals with some basic matters: problems of chronology, the sources, definitions of warfare, and so forth. Then, there are eighteen numbered chapters: some of these discuss a particular period or culture, while others are more thematic.

The first chapter deals with the Neolithic ‘and the origin of warfare’, to about 3000 BC. In Hamblin’s view, the definition of ‘war’ depends on the person in question, and conflicts among Palaeolithic hunters must have been different from those familiar to Egyptian pharaohs. But he assumes that interhuman conflict must have existed from earliest times onwards, even if evidence for warfare ‘is quite sparse for periods before the late Neolithic’, and ‘there is no evidence to show it was endemic’ (p. 15). It’s an interesting topic, and one that I recently touched upon over on my personal website, and Hamblin does a good job in discussing some pertinent points.

Chapters 2 through 4 deal with major cultures in Mesopotamia of the third millennium BC in chronological order: Early Dynastic Mesopotamia (chapter 2), the Akkadian Empire (chapter 3), and the Neo-Sumerian period (chapter 4). Of these three, the chapter on Akkad is probably the most insightful, as Hamblin signals some developments that would have a lasting influence on warfare in the ancient Near East.

Chapter 5 is thematic and deals with ‘war-carts and chariots’. This chapter works quite well as an essay on the topic. Hamblin briefly discusses the role of animals in warfare, before turning to a discussion of Sumerian war-carts of the third millennium BC and the emergence of the light, two-wheeled chariot in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000 to 1600 BC). Hamblin’s treatment of the evidence here is as thorough as it is elsewhere in the book and it serves as an excellent introduction to the topic.

Chapter 6 introduces the reader to warfare in Mesopotamia during the Middle Bronze Age, while the following chapters each deal with particular cultures or themes. Chapter 7 focuses on ‘warfare in the age of Mari’, based on an ‘extraordinary archive from Mari’ (p. 185). Chapter 8 deals with Mesopotamian siege craft; this is another essay, like the chapter on war-carts and chariots, that offers a very readable summary on this particular topic, even if it perhaps doesn’t go into quite as much detail about fortifications as one would hope. Chapters 9 through 11 deal with warfare in Syria and Lebanon (chapter 9), Canaan (chapter 10), and finally Anatolia.

The last seven chapters (12 through 18) deal with warfare in ancient Egypt, starting with the Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic periods (chapter 12) and ending with the Early Second Intermediate Period (chapter 18). The final chapter is perhaps a bit unsatisfactory with regards to Hamblin’s treatment of the Hyksos (here treated unequivocally as invaders), but as a wide-ranging survey of warfare in Egypt down to the end of the Middle Kingdom these chapters are nevertheless quite exhaustive, and form a good prequel to, for example, Anthony J. Spalinger’s War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom (2005).

Aside from a dearth in illustrations, the book’s one major shortcoming is, in many ways, also its greatest strength: because the work as a whole is so thoughtfully put together, with great attention to detail, one wishes that Hamblin had continued his treatise down to ca. 1000 BC, instead of stopping just short of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600/1500 to 1200/1000 BC). And yet, there is no shortage of books on the latter period (the heyday of the big empires of the Near East, after all), while in comparison the Early and Middle Bronze Ages usually get short shrift. This book should therefore be required reading for anyone with an interest in warfare in the Near East.  

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