Chapter 3 - The Military Revolution
Introduction
Previous Contents Next

The period from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 100 was a time during which there occurred a genuine revolution in most aspects of people's existence and organization. It was a period also characterized by a revolution in the manner of conducting warfare. This Iron Age was marked by almost constant war, a time in which states of all sizes came into existence only to be extinguished by the rise of still larger empires, which, in their turn, were destroyed by military force. During this time humankind refined the social structures that were essential to the functioning of genuinely large and complex social orders and, in doing so, brought into existence a new and more destructive form of warfare. The Iron Age also saw the practice of war firmly rooted in man's societies and experience and, perhaps more importantly, in his psychology. War, warriors, and weapons were now a normal part of human existence. Also at this time armies produced the prototype of every weapon that was developed for the next three thousand years. Only with the introduction of gunpowder would a new age of weaponry and warfare begin. A military revolution that eventually produced the age of modern warfare had begun.

One of the most important stimuli for this military revolution was the discovery and use of iron. Iron was first employed as a technology of war about 1300 B.C. by the Hittites. Within a hundred years the secret of iron making and cold forging had spread at least to Palestine and Egypt and, perhaps, to Mesopotamia as well. Iron weapons were heated and hammered into shape rather than cast, making them stronger, less brittle, and more reliable that bronze weapons. Within a few hundred years the secret of tempering was discovered, and iron became the basic weapons material for all ancient armies of the period. The importance of iron in the development of ancient warfare lay not in its strength or ability to hold a sharp edge. Iron's importance rested in the fact that unlike bronze, which required the use of relatively rare tin to manufacture, iron was commonly and widely available almost everywhere. It was also somewhat easier to extract from its carrier ore, and the plentiful supply of this new strategic material made it possible for states to produce enormous quantities of reliable weapons cheaply. This fact made the weapons explosion possible. No longer was it only the major powers that could afford enough weapons to equip a large military force. Now almost any state could do it. The result was a dramatic increase in the frequency of war.

The armies of the Iron Age were the first to practice conscription on a regular basis. While the Egyptian army had used conscription several hundred years earlier, the scale and regularity with which conscription was used by Iron Age armies dwarfed the Egyptian experience. Conscription used by earlier armies was almost always limited to service in time of war. During the Iron Age the obligations of citizenship were extended to enforced military service as a regular and legitimate price to be paid for membership in the larger social order. Military service was no longer limited to defense in times of threat but extended to the need to control far-flung military empires and to prevent domestic and foreign threats by being ready to conduct military operations. The Iron Age gave birth to the national standing army based on citizen service and preceded the same practice by Napoleon, itself perceived as a revolutionary development at the time, by almost three thousand years.

Paradoxically, the emergence of the standing conscript army also gave birth to the professionalization of military establishments. A constant flow of conscripts required a permanent cadre of professionals to train, lead, and integrate the citizen soldier into the force. While conscripts could be used to fill out the garrison forces within the empire, only the fighting ability and political loyalty of professionals could ultimately be relied upon by an imperial government. The Assyrian army as well as the Persians always retained a large corps of loyal professionals as the centerpiece of their military establishments and ensured that they remained in control of key logistics and supply functions of the various national units under imperial command. In the case of the Persians, for example, the professional army was responsible for training, directing, and ensuring the loyalty of an imperial force drawn from no fewer than 40 different national groups. For the first time on any scale, war and military service became a full-time profession, one that was highly valued by the political establishments of the day.

The military revolution made itself felt in a number of key areas of military development, all of which had the cumulative effect of changing the nature, scope, and scale of war. Among the more important military developments of the Iron Age were changes in (1) the size of armies, (2) logistics and transport, (3) strategic and tactical mobility, (4) siegecraft and artillery, (5) staff organization, and (6) military training. In almost every one of these military capabilities the armies of the Iron Age reached a level of development that was not surpassed until the Age of Napoleon. In still others, it required the invention of mechanical weapons and powerful machines of the present age to surpass the level of operational ability demonstrated by the ancients.

Previous Contents Next