Ancient WarfareFor more details on this topic, see Ancient warfare.
Much of what we know of ancient history is the history of militaries: their conquests, their movements, and their technological innovations. There are many reasons for this. Kingdoms and empires, the central units of control in the ancient world, could only be maintained through military force. Due to limited agricultural ability, there were relatively few areas that could support large communities, so fighting was common.
Weapons and armor, designed to be sturdy, tended to last longer than other artifacts, and thus a great deal of surviving artifacts recovered tend to fall in this category as they are more likely to survive. Weapons and armor were also mass-produced to a scale that makes them quite plentiful throughout history, and thus more likely to be found in archaeological digs.
Such items were also considered signs of prosperity or virtue, and thus were likely to placed in tombs and monuments to prominent warriors. And writing, when it existed, was often used for kings to boast of military conquests or victories.
Writing, when used by the common man, also tended to record such events, as major battles and conquests constituted major events that many would have considered worthy of recording either in an epic such as the Homeric writings pertaining to the Trojan War, or even personal writings. Indeed the earliest stories center around warfare, as war was both a common and dramatic aspect of life; the witnessing of a major battle involving many thousands of soldiers would be quite a spectacle, even today, and thus considered worthy both of being recorded in song and art, but also in realistic histories, as well as being a central element in a fictional work.
Lastly, as nation states evolved and empires grew, the increased need for order and efficiency lead to an increase in the number of records and writings. Officials and armies would have good reason for keeping detailed records and accounts involving any and all things concerning a matter such as warfare that in the words of Sun Tzu was "a matter of vital importance to the state". For all these reasons, military history comprises a large part of ancient history.
Notable militaries in the ancient world included the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks (notably the Spartans and Macedonians), Indians (notably the Magadhas, Gangaridais, Gandharas and Cholas), Early Imperial Chinese (notably the Qin and Han Dynasties), Xiongnu Confederation, Ancient Romans, and Carthaginians.
The fertile crescent of Mesopotamia was the center of several prehistoric conquests. Mesopotamia was conquered by the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians. Iranians were the first nation to introduce cavalry into their army.
Egypt began growing as an ancient power, but eventually fell to the Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs.
The earliest recorded battle in India was the Battle of the Ten Kings. The Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are centered around conflicts and refer to military formations, theories of warfare and esoteric weaponry. Chanakya's Arthashastra contains a detailed study on ancient warfare, including topics on espionage and war elephants.
Alexander the Great invaded Northwestern India and defeated King Porus in the Battle of the Hydaspes River. The same region was soon re conquered by Chandragupta Maurya after defeating the Macedonians and Seleucids. He also went on to conquer the Nanda Empire and unify Northern India. Most of Southern Asia was unified under his grandson Ashoka the Great after the Kalinga War, though the empire collapsed not long after his reign.
In China, the Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty had risen and collapsed. This led to a Warring States Period, in which several states continued to fight with each other over territory. Philosopher-strategists such as Confucius and Sun Tzu wrote various manuscripts on ancient warfare (as well as international diplomacy).
The Warring States era philosopher Mozi (Micius) and his Mohist followers invented various siege weapons and siegecraft, including the Cloud Ladder (a four-wheeled, extendable ramp) to scale fortified walls during a siege of an enemy city. The warring states were first unified by Qin Shi Huang after a series of military conquests, creating the first empire in China.
His empire was succeeded by the Han Dynasty, which expanded into Central Asia, Northern China/Manchuria, Southern China, and present day Korea and Vietnam. The Han came into conflict with settled people such as the proto-Korean Gojoseons, and proto-Vietnamese Nanyue. They also came into conflict with the Xiongnu (Huns), Yuezhi, and other steppe civilizations.
The Han defeated and drove the Xiongnus west, securing the city-states along the silk route that continued into the Parthian Empire. After the decline of central imperial authority, the Han Dynasty collapsed into an era of civil war and continuous warfare during the Three Kingdoms period in the 3rd century CE.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great after conquering the Median Empire, Neo-Babylonian Empire, Lydia and Asia Minor. His successor Cambyses went onto conquer the Egyptian Empire, much of Central Asia, and parts of Greece, India and Libya. The empire later fell to Alexander the Great after defeating Darius III. After being ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, the Persian Empire was subsequently ruled by the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, which were the Roman Empire's greatest rivals during the Roman-Persian Wars.
In Greece, several city-states rose to power, including Athens and Sparta. The Greeks successfully stopped two Persian invasions, the first at the Battle of Marathon, where the Persians were led by Darius the Great, and the second at the Battle of Salamis, a naval battle where the Greek ships were deployed by orders of Themistocles and the Persians were under Xerxes I, and the land engagement of the Battle of Plataea.
The Peloponnesian War then erupted between the two Greek powers Athens and Sparta. Athens built a long wall to protect its inhabitants, but the wall helped to facilitate the spread of a plague that killed about 30,000 Athenians, including Pericles. After a disastrous campaign against Syracuse, the Athenian navy was decisively defeated by Lysander at the Battle of Aegospotami.
The Macedonians, underneath Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great, invaded Persia and won several major victories, establishing Macedonia as a major power. However, following Alexander's death at an early age, the empire quickly fell apart.
Meanwhile, Rome was gaining power, following a rebellion against the Etruscans. During the three Punic Wars, the Romans defeated the neighboring power of Carthage. The First Punic War centered around naval warfare. The Second Punic War started with Hannibal's invasion of Italy by crossing the Alps. He famously won the encirclement at the Battle of Cannae. However, after Scipio invaded Carthage, Hannibal was forced to follow and was defeated at the Battle of Zama, ending the role of Carthage as a power.
After defeating Carthage the Romans went on to become the Mediterranean's dominant power, successfully campaigning in Greece, (Aemilius Paulus decisive victory over Macedonia at the Battle of Pydna), in the Middle East (Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus), in Gaul (Gaius Julius Caesar) and defeating several Germanic tribes (Gaius Marius, Germanicus). While Roman armies suffered several major losses, their large population and ability (and will) to replace battlefield casualties, their training, organization, tactical and technical superiority enabled Rome to stay a predominant military force for several centuries, utilizing well trained and maneuverable armies to routinely overcome the much larger "tribal" armies of their foes (see Battles of Aquae Sextiae, Vercellae, Tigranocerta, Alesia).
In 54 BCE the Roman triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus took the offensive against the Parthian Empire in the east. In a decisive battle at Carrhae Romans were defeated and the golden Aquilae (legionary battle standards) were taken as trophies to Ctesiphon. The battle was one of the worst defeats suffered by the Roman Republic in its entire history.
While successfully dealing with foreign opponents, Rome experienced numerous civil wars, notably the power struggles of Roman generals such as Marius and Sulla during the end of the Republic. Caesar was also notable for his role in the civil war against the other member of the Triumvirate (Pompey) and against the Roman Senate.
The successors of Caesar — Octavian and Mark Anthony, also fought a civil war with Caesar's assassins (Senators Brutus, Cassius, etc.). Octavian and Mark Anthony eventually fought another civil war between themselves to determine the sole ruler of Rome. Octavian emerged victorious and Rome was turned into an empire with a huge standing army of professional soldiers.
By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the Romans had expanded to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and to Mesopotamia in the east and controlled Northern Africa and Central Europe up to the Black Sea. However, Aurelius marked the end of the Five Good Emperors, and Rome quickly fell into decline.
The Huns, Goths, and other barbaric groups invaded Rome, which continued to suffer from inflation and other internal strifes. Despite the attempts of Diocletian, Constantine I, and Theodosius I, western Rome collapsed and was eventually conquered in 476. The Byzantine empire continued to prosper, however.
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Those undreamt accidents that have made me
Seeing that Fame has perished this long while,
Being but a part of ancient ceremony
Notorious, till all my priceless things
Are but a post the passing dogs defile.”
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