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published on 02 September 2009
Boeotian Cavalryman Figurine (SquinchPix.com)

Warfare is generally understood to be the controlled and systematic waging of armed conflict between sovereign nations or states, using military might and strategy, until one opponent is defeated on the field or sues for peace in the face of inevitable destruction and greater loss of human life. The first recorded war in history is that between Sumer and Elam in Mesopotamia in 2700 BCE in which Sumer was victorious, and the first peace treaty ever signed ending hostilities between nations was between Rameses II (the Great) of the Empire of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire in 1280 BCE. In both of these cases, war was waged, and a treaty signed, to resolve political and cultural conflicts. Warfare has been a part of the human condition throughout recorded history and invariably results from the tribe mentality inherent in human communities and their fear or mistrust of another, different, `tribe' as manifested in the people of another region, culture, or religion.

Warfare & the Unification of China

One example of the tribe mentality resulting in warfare can be seen in China during the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) where seven tribal states fought for supreme control of the land. The Zhou Dynasty (1046-226 BCE) which had served as the seat of political authority in China (though not of a unified China) was in decline and each of the independent states recognized the opportunity to gain supremacy. As every state employed the same tactics and observed the same policies of war, none could gain a significant advantage over the others. The Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote that the people of China during this period knew no other life than that of warfare generation after generation.

The Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote that the people of China during this period knew no other life than that of warfare generation after generation. 

The first military conflicts in China are recorded with the rise of the Xia Dynasty (c.2070-1600 BCE) but, once political contentions were settled, peace prevailed. During the Warring States Period, however, the country  was in constant turmoil. This situation was resolved by the King of Qin, Ying Zheng, who implemented the concept of Total War in his campaigns so effectively that, between 230-221 BCE, he had conquered the other states completely. Ying Zheng unified China under the Qin Dynasty and claimed for himself the title of First Emperor or, Qin Shi Huangti, the title by which he is best known. His use of warfare to resolve long-standing political disputes serves as a paradigm for the use of war generally, whether on a larger or a smaller scale.

The Victors & the Vanquished

Warfare in ancient times was conducted differently than what would be deemed 'acceptable' by today’s standards, and the vanquished could be certain that slavery or summary execution awaited them. When Alexander the Great took the Phoenician city of Tyre in July of 332 BCE, he had most of the population killed and sold the rest into slavery. In September of 52 BCE, when Julius Caesar defeated Vercingetorix and his Gallic tribes at Alesia, the garrison was sold into slavery and each man in Caesar’s legions received, as a gift, one Gaul as a personal slave. Over 40,000 Gauls were taken as slaves by the legionnaires alone, not counting those others sold to tribes who made peace with Caesar and formed alliances after Alesia.  When Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE a similar fate awaited the conquered who were not fortunate enough to die in battle. This same model of warfare obtains as far back as Sargon the Great of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE) who united Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire and was perfected by the Assyrian Empire during the Iron Age (1000-500 BCE). The Assyrians were the first political force to employ large-scale deportations of the conquered populace to other regions and a re-settlement of the region by their own people. The citizens of the defeated city or state were either sold into slavery or forced to re-locate to an area or region dictated by their conquerors.

Battle of Pharsalus

Tactics & Formations

The armies who wage war on the field were initially made up of infantry units who engaged an enemy force and closed with them using spears, shields, and some form of body armor and helmet. In time, armies developed to include shock troops (infantry who engaged the opposing lines in tight formation) and peltasts (infantry in looser formations who fired long range missles at the enemy and were more mobile. The formation known as the phalanx was the standard in virtually every army from its origin in Sumer in 3000 BCE through the time of the Roman Empire. The phalanx was modified many times through initiatives by men such as Philip II of Macedon or his son Alexander the Great but the basic formation, and its effectiveness, remained constant. With the introduction of the horse to combat, cavalry units arose and the war chariot was frequently employed in battle. As armies grew in size, and as history established the precedent of empires, more and more resources were brought to bear in battle including the use of animals such as camels (which Cyrus the Great employed brilliantly at the Battle of Thymbra in 546 BCE) or elephants (famously used by Hannibal in the Second Punic War 218-201 BCE) or even cats, which were used by Cambyses II of Persia to defeat Egypt at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE. The Persian general was aware of the Egyptian veneration of cats and so had his army paint the image of the cat on their shields and, further, drove cats and other animals sacred to the Eyptians before the front lines. The Egyptians, unwilling to risk the wrath of their gods should they injure any of the animals, surrendered to the Persian army.

The first naval battle in recorded history was fought between the ships of the Hittite King Suppiluliuma II and an invading fleet from the island of Cyprus in c. 1210 BCE. Ships were no doubt used in battle before this date, however, and records indicate that Sargon of Akkad made use of boats in warfare which could be dismantled and carried over land. The peltast units with their ability to inflict severe damage on an enemy long-range eventually inspired the artillery unit who used large weapons for the same purpose. Examples of artillery from the Roman Army are the Scorpio (a large crossbow), the Ballista (similar to a catapult), the Onager (a small Ballista), and the Catapult. By the time the Roman army was conquering the world, all tactics and every resource available in the service of warfare was made use of by the legions.

Royal Lion Hunt on Chariot

Ancient Armies & Weaponry

Battle strategies and and methods of warfare differed by country, by ruler and by era. In ancient Egypt the army was equipped with a simple spear and a leather shield but, by 1600 BCE, when the Egyptians defeated the Hyksos of Lower Egypt, they artfully employed the horse and chariot, body armor and the composite bow as well as the sword. Ironically, it was the Hysos themselves who had given the Egyptians the technology (especially the composite bow and chariot) which led to their defeat. Prior to the arrival of the Hyksos in Egypt, the country had no standing army. The Persian Empire favored armored cavalry, heavy infantry (of whom the elite were known as the 10,000 Immortals) and archers who would rain down arrows on an opposing force to create 'awe and wonder’ in the ranks. The ancient Greeks relied on armored infantry (the Hoplites) and the phalanx formation, a dense grouping of soldiers with long spears and interlocking shields. In Greece the infantry did most of the fighting, no matter what city-states were involved, the notable exception being the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Philip II of Macedon introduced the sarissa (a long spear) to the phalanx which greatly enhanced the formation’s effectiveness on the field, and Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, made use of the sarissa in his infantry phalanxes in his own campaigns but also employed light and heavy cavalry and chariots to effect. The three-line legion of the Roman Empire, equipped with body armor, spear, shield and short sword replaced the phalanx formation and, supported by cavalry, proved itself the greatest fighting force in antiquity after Alexander the Great.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Visual Timeline
  • 2700 BCE - 1500 BCE
    The Minoan Civilization flourishes on Crete, Greece. King Minos establishes the first navy in the region.
  • 2400 BCE
    First use of war chariots in Mesopotamia.
  • c. 2240 BCE
    Naram-Sin of Akkad campaigns against the Amorites in northern Syria.
  • 2193 BCE
    Gutian invasion destroys Akkadian empire.
  • 1750 BCE
  • 1595 BCE
    Hittites under Mursilli I sack Babylon, ending Amorite rule.
  • c. 1457 BCE
    Battle of Megiddo: Thutmose III of Egypt defeats a coalition of Canaan, Kadesh, Mitanni, and Megiddo led by Durusha, king of Kadesh.
  • c. 1450 BCE
    Kadesh and Megiddo lead a Canaanite alliance against the Egyptian invasion by Thutmose III.
  • 1307 BCE - 1275 BCE
    Reign of Assyrian King Adad-Nirari I, Mitanni becomes vassal state.
  • 1258 BCE
    First recorded peace treaty between Ramesses II of Egypt and Muwatalli II of the Hittites, after the battle of Kadesh.
  • 1258 BCE
    The Treaty of Kadesh between Egyptians and Hittites. The world's first peace treaty.
  • c. 1250 BCE
    Trojan War, according to Herodotus.
  • c. 1200 BCE
    Sea Peoples invade the Levant.
  • c. 1187 BCE
    Kadesh is destroyed by the Sea Peoples and subsequently vanishes from history.
  • 1178 BCE
    Rameses III defends Egypt from the Sea Peoples on the shores at Xois, defeating them completely.
  • 1115 BCE - 1076 BCE
    Reign of Tiglath-Pileser I of Assyria who conquers Phoenicia and revitalizes the empire.
  • 721 BCE
    Israel is conquered by Assyria.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Iron Age begins in Scotland.
  • 671 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by Assyria.
  • 671 BCE
    Second Egyptian Campaign, Assyrian army successfully captures Memphis and conquers Egypt.
  • 667 BCE - 665 BCE
    Ashurbanipal wages war in Egypt to put down rebellions.
  • 653 BCE
    Egypt expels Assyrians.
  • c. 650 BCE - c. 350 BCE
    Hoplites are the major protagonists in Greek land warfare.
  • 648 BCE
    War between Assyria and the Elamites.
  • 585 BCE - 572 BCE
    Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon besieges Tyre, unsuccessfully.
  • 28 May 585 BCE
    A battle between Media and Lydia broke off immediately as a result a total eclipse of the sun and the two armies made peace. The eclipse was successfully predicted by Thales of Miletus.
  • 580 BCE - 376 BCE
    Carthage and Greece fight for dominance in Sicily.
  • 547 BCE - 546 BCE
  • 535 BCE
    Battle of Alalia. Carthaginian navy, in alliance with Etruscans, defeated Greek ships off the island of Corsica.
  • 525 BCE
    Cambyses II of Persia takes the city of Pelusium, conquers Egypt.
  • 525 BCE - 404 BCE
  • 512 BCE - 506 BCE
    The Wu Chu wars in China between the States of Wu and Chu.
  • 506 BCE
    The Battle of Boju at which the Wu forces under Sun-Tzu defeated the Chu.
  • 498 BCE - 493 BCE
    Rome defeats the Latins.
  • 11 Sep 490 BCE
    A combined force of Greek hoplites defeat the Persians at Marathon.
  • 485 BCE
    Babylon is destroyed by Xerxes, King of Persia.
  • Aug 480 BCE
    Battle of Thermopylae. 300 Spartans under King Leonidas and other Greek allies hold back the Persians led by Xerxes I for three days but are defeated.
  • Aug 480 BCE
    The indecisive battle of Artemision between the Greek and Persian fleets of Xerxes I. The Greeks withdraw to Salamis.
  • Sep 480 BCE
    Battle of Salamis where the Greek naval fleet defeats the invading armada of Xerxes I of Persia.
  • 479 BCE
    Xerxes' Persian forces are defeated by Greek forces at Plataea effectively ending Persia's imperial ambitions in Greece.
  • 476 BCE - 221 BCE
    The Warring States Period in China, suggested time-period for composition of The Art of War.
  • c. 475 BCE
    Celts defeat the Etruscans at the Ticino River.
  • 460 BCE - 445 BCE
    First Peloponnesian War.
  • 448 BCE
    Pericles leads the Athenian forces in the Battle of Delphi.
  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE
    The 2nd Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League) which involved all of Greece.
  • 425 BCE
    Pylos campaign, under Cleon and Demosthenes' command Athens defeats Sparta at Pylos.
  • c. 415 BCE
    The Histories of Herodotus is published. The work is divided into nine chapters, each dedicated to one of the Muses.
  • 414 BCE
    The Athenian expedition in Sicily ends in disastrous defeat and the Athenian generals Nikias and Demosthenes are executed.
  • 410 BCE
    Alcibiades leads the Athenian fleet to victory over Sparta at Cyzicus.
  • 406 BCE
    The Athenian fleet is defeated by Lysander of Sparta at Notium.
  • 404 BCE
    End of the Peloponnesian war, Athens defeated By Sparta at Aigospotamoi, Rule of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens.
  • 396 BCE
    Roman expansion begins with the capture of Veii from the Etruscans.
  • 396 BCE
    Celts defeat the Etruscan army at the battle of Melpum. Afterwards the Celts heavily settle all over the Po Valley.
  • 395 BCE - 386 BCE
    The Corinthian Wars between Sparta and an alliance of Athens, Corinth, Argos, Boeotia and Thebes.
  • 387 BCE
    "Gallic Catastrophe:" Duke Brennus of the Celts defeats the Romans at Allia, and subsequently sacks Rome. Celts move off after ransom is paid.
  • 343 BCE - 341 BCE
    First Samnite War (Rome vs. Samnites).
  • 342 BCE
    Philip II leads a military expedition against the Scythians.
  • 338 BCE
    The first battle of Chaeronea. Philip of Macedon defeated the Greek alliance directed against him, led by Athens and Thebes.
  • 334 BCE - 323 BCE
    Period of the conquests of Alexander the Great.
  • 5 Nov 333 BCE
    Battle of Issus. Alexander is victorious against Darius III of Persia.
  • 330 BCE
    Persepolis is burned and looted by Alexander the Great.
  • 326 BCE - 304 BCE
    Second Samnite War.
  • 323 BCE
    Death of Alexander the Great.
  • 300 BCE
    Sarmatians conquer the Scythians.
  • 298 BCE - 290 BCE
    Third Samnite War. Victory for Rome, peace with the Etruscans.
  • 297 BCE
    Celts and Samnites join forces and defeat the Romans at Camertium.
  • c. 295 BCE
    In a battle lasting all day, Romans narrowly defeat a force of Celts and Samnites at Sentinum.
  • 285 BCE - 282 BCE
    Rome defeats the Celts in Italy. Rome's dominance in central Italy is secured.
  • 284 BCE
    Gauls of the Insubres and Boii tribes defeat the Romans at Arretium.
  • 283 BCE
    Rome decisively defeats the Senones at Picenum.
  • 282 BCE - 272 BCE
    Roman war against Tarentum. Rome conquers Tarentum. Rome’s dominance in lower Italy is secured.
  • 264 BCE - 241 BCE
    First Punic War. Carthage cedes Sicily to Rome.
  • c. 250 BCE - c. 200 CE
    Originally a Celtiberian weapon, the Gladius Hispaniensis was commonly used by Roman soldiers for more than four centuries.
  • 229 BCE - 228 BCE
    Rome fights Illyrian pirates. Queen Teuta pays tribute to Rome.
  • 222 BCE
    Rome conquers Cisalpine Gaul (modern-day Provence, France).
  • 218 BCE - 201 BCE
    Second Punic War. Hannibal leads 50,000 foot soldiers, 9000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants over the Pyrennees and the Alps.
  • 216 BCE
    Battle of Cannae. Worst defeat in Roman history, against Carthage.
  • c. 2 Aug 216 BCE
    Hannibal defeats the Romans at the Battle of Cannae.
  • 214 BCE - 205 BCE
    First Macedonian War: Rome defeats Philip V of Macedon.
  • 207 BCE
    Battle of Metaurus. Carthage loses against Rome and loses control of Iberia (Spain).
  • 206 BCE
    Chinese Qin empire collapses following the death of emperor Shi Huangti. Civil War begins.
  • 204 BCE
    Scipio Africanus sails over to Africa.
  • 202 BCE
    Battle of Zama. The Carthaginian army is defeated, Hannibal flees to Hadrumentum.
  • 202 BCE
    The Battle of Gaixia in which the Han forces defeat the Chu.
  • c. 200 BCE
    Beginning of the Greco-Bactrian conquests in India.
  • 200 BCE - 196 BCE
    Second Macedonian War: Roman victory.
  • 193 BCE
    The Boii are defeated by the Romans, suffering, according to Livy, 14,000 dead.
  • 190 BCE
    Battle of Magnesia ad Sipylum, disastrous defeat for Antiochos III against Romans.
  • 172 BCE - 168 BCE
    Third Macedonian War: Perseus of Macedon challenges Rome and is defeated.
  • 168 BCE
    Rome defeats Macedon at Battle of Pydna.
  • 149 BCE - 146 BCE
    Third Punic War.
  • 146 BCE
    End of the Third Punic War. Carthage is destroyed and its lands become the Roman province Africa.
  • 133 BCE
    Rome captures Numantia. End of Iberian resistance.
  • 129 BCE
    Parthians conquer Mesopotamia. The Silk Road to China is now controlled by the Parthians.
  • 113 BCE
    Romans defeated at Noreia by the Cimbri.
  • 88 BCE - 63 BCE
    Mithridates of Pontus fights three wars to free Greece from Rome.
  • 86 BCE
    The Roman general Sulla sacks Athens and the port of Piraeus.
  • 64 BCE
    The Roman general Pompey defeats the Seleucid Antiochus XIII and incorporates Syria as a province of the Roman empire.
  • 58 BCE
    Caesar attacks the Helvetii while on migration and defeats them.
  • 58 BCE - 51 BCE
  • 57 BCE
    A Roman army under Caesar narrowly defeats an army of Nervii, Atrebates, and Viromandui.
  • 56 BCE
    The navies of Rome and the Veneti Gauls clash resulting in a Roman victory. This is the first recorded naval battle in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • 55 BCE - 54 BCE
    Julius Caesar's expeditions in Britain.
  • 52 BCE
    Caesar defeated at Gergovia by Vercingetorix.
  • 52 BCE
    After becoming trapped and besieged at Alesia Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar.
  • 32 BCE - 31 BCE
    Battle of Actium: Octavian (the later Emperor Augustus) defeats Cleopatra of Egypt.
  • 27 BCE - 19 BCE
    Cantabrian Wars: Roman conquest of the Iberian Penninsula.
  • 9 CE
    The Rhine River is established as the boundary between the Latin and German speaking worlds, following the defeat of the Roman army, under the command of Varus, at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
  • 43 CE
    Claudius commences the Roman conquest of Britain.
  • 43 CE - 47 CE
    Romans conquer South Britain and claim the territory as part of Roman Empire.
  • 60 CE - 61 CE
    Boudicca's Revolt in Britain.
  • 75 CE - 77 CE
    Romans defeat the last of the Northern tribes; Roman conquest of Britain complete.
  • 83 CE
    The Battle of Mons Graupius in which Agricola defeats Calgacus of the Picts.
  • 101 CE - 106 CE
    Trajan conquers Dacia.
  • 167 CE - 180 CE
    Marcomannic Wars.
  • 192 CE
    Emperor Commodus is murdered, civil war ensues (until 197 CE).
  • 195 CE
    First Parthian war.
  • 197 CE - 198 CE
    Second Parthian war.
  • 367 CE
    Picts, Scots, Saxons, and Franks attack the Roman Empire.
  • 408 CE
    Alaric I the Visigoth besieges Rome. As ransom, Rome pays 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper.
  • 455 CE
    Vandals sack Rome.
  • 486 CE
    Clovis of the Franks defeats the Romans in Gaul. Founding of the Frankish kingdom.
  • 488 CE - 493 CE
    Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths conquers Italy.
  • 507 CE
    Clovis defeats the Visigoths and drives them into the Iberian peninsula.
  • 534 CE
    Justinian of the Byzantine Empire conquers the Vandal kingdom in Africa.
  • 536 CE - 562 CE
    The Byzantine Empire conquers Italy.
  • 554 CE
    Byzantine Empire conquers southern Iberia.
  • 607 CE - 627 CE
    East Rome defeats Sasanian Persia.
  • 646 CE
    The Arab Muslims conquer Egypt under Caliph Umar.
  • 712 CE
    Muslim general Muhammed bin Quasim conquers northern India.


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