Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
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Behold the horse - fast, agile, noble and beautiful. It's what every little girl wants for her tenth birthday.
Yet, up until around 4,000 BCE humans hadn't quite figured out what to do with horses (besides eat them). We'd been hunting horses for at least 100,000 years before anyone was crazy enough to try riding one. This may seem odd to those of you who have enjoyed a pleasant horse ride at some point in your life, but a few of you might know that before a horse can be ridden, it must first be broken.
Wild horses have some very firm ideas about things on their backs - they want them off their backs. They make this point abundantly clear. No one who leaps on the back of a horse for the first time would ever think that this creature could serve as a reliable form of transportation.
Nevertheless, around 3500 BCE, the steppe nomads of Eurasia seemed to have had the patience to break horses to ride them. Finding themselves blessed with super human speed, they began to make raids into civilization. Incursions of steppe raiders may have inspired the Greek myth of the centaur. This unfamiliarity emphasizes the fact that, to much of the Bronze Age civilization, men on horseback were something strange and unheard of - the stuff of legend. Nevertheless, it seems the Assyrians, at least, embraced horseback riding. Still, the practice would not become widespread in the civilized world until the development of the stirrup some 2,000 years later.
There is a very simple reason for this. Remember that amazingly useful but prohibitively, heavy bronze armor? Anyone who could afford to own such armor could afford to have a horse. The problem is that you could not possibly ride a horse wearing heavy, bronze armor. First of all, an armored soldier is so top heavy, without stirrups, he'd fall off. Second of all, the horses are too little - the size of modern ponies - and not suitable to carry 250 pounds over long distances.
Also, horses are actually quite delicate. Though they're fast, they're not particularly good at carrying things. Too heavy a load will break a horses' back. They're also not very good at pulling things. Unlike an ox, which can pull many times its own weight, an ancient horse could not pull more than a few hundred pounds without choking to death. It would take humanity 3,000 years of selective breeding, and the invention of the horse collar, to finally make the horse capable of doing an honest day's work.
The development of bronze offered a new option. So what if the horse could not pull much? It didn't have to, so long as it was fast. The horse was not meant for work. It was meant for war.
The same metal that had made the warrior so heavy would provide a lightweight vehicle to harness the power and speed of the horse. With bronze, wheels went from heavy clunky wooden affairs to streamlined beauties. The bronze wheels were lighter, stronger and rounder than their predecessors. They also offered less friction on the axle than their wooden counterparts.
The result was the chariot - a lightweight, maneuverable, horse-drawn vehicle with a wheel on each side of an armored platform. It had room for a driver and an armored fighter. The flat platform offered a good footing from which to fire a bow or hurl a javelin. But most importantly, chariots could carry armored soldiers for miles without killing the horses or even tiring their passengers. This allowed an empire to bring fresh troops wherever they were needed.
Indeed chariots are synonymous with empire. The very first empire, the Sumerians, made heavy use of the chariot. And, the Hittites seem to have built their entire empire upon their prowess as charioteers. Indeed, chariots would define warfare for the next millennium. Anyone who was anyone had themselves depicted in stone riding around in a chariot, hunting lions and slaying enemies.
The only limit to chariots is that wheels require a level surface to work effectively. This may have been one reason that empires began taking the building of roads seriously. Another might have been the need to establish lines of communication throughout an expanding empire. The obvious benefit of trade must have encouraged them as well.
Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians all exploited the roads of their predecessors during their conquests. They knew that roads would make them vulnerable. Yet, while in power, each expanded the networks of roads further. They knew that they would gain access to wealth and resources, facilitate communication and project their empire's power wherever they built roads.
Road building in the Near East reached its apex around 500 BCE with the ambitious highway system of Darius, who unified the roads of past empires into a network stretching 1,677 miles. Yet, by then, the true masters of road building, the Romans, had begun paving a path of conquest that soon would encompass the known world.
Let us return to Jericho. The city has done quite well for itself. It has withstood many assaults. Word comes of a new invasion.
'Primitive barbarians!' say the people of Jericho. 'We'll take them like we always have. Hide behind the walls and shoot arrows at the invaders until they get hungry and go away!'
But these aren't barbarians, and they're not primitive. In fact, they're quite the opposite. Before the people of Jericho have time to gather their livestock and take shelter behind the walls, the invaders are upon them. About half of the population doesn't make it inside.
Thanks to the speed of the horse, things already have not gone according to plan for the people of Jericho. Many people have died. Now the invaders have livestock to live off of, and the citizens must survive on what was already stored in the city.
Still, those stores are pretty full, and those walls are pretty high. Surely, the people of Jericho still have a chance. They just need to wait it out. The invaders surround the city and begin to loot the countryside. Surely, they're going to storm the city at any minute.
But no. They're going to wait.
This is a new phenomenon to the people of Jericho. Another thing has not gone according to plan. Jericho usually wins waiting games. Even with what they left outside, they can still outlast an invading army.
What the people of Jericho do not know, is that the charioteers were just storm troopers - a first assault. The rest of the army is traveling by the same network of roads that brought these charioteers within striking distance of Jericho. That network connects the army to the wagon-loads of supplies they will need for a sustained siege.
When it finally comes time to storm the city, the people of Jericho are dead or dying of starvation. Still they put up a fight. They fire arrows and throw stones at the advancing force. Again, things do not go according to plan for the people of Jericho. Their missiles bounce harmlessly from the invaders' armor. The enemy scales the walls, heedless of the barrage.
Just like that, a city that had withstood countless assaults had fallen without even much of a struggle. This does not mean the walls of Jericho were useless. If the people of Jericho had an empire of their own, their walls would have bought them time for reinforcements to arrive. Indeed, the invaders would fortify those walls for just such a purpose.
This story would be repeated in town after town throughout the Near East. Wherever chariots could travel freely, cities conquered their neighbors to build kingdoms. And, kingdoms conquered their neighbors to build empires.
That would continue to be the story of Western Civilization until the Persian emperor, Xerxes, decided to expand his empire into the mountainous lands of the Greeks. Unfortunately, for Xerxes, chariots are ill-suited for mountains. Though the Greeks fought bravely, it was not the Greeks, but Greece itself that cut short the ambitions of the last great chariot empire.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons