Sunday 29 January 2012

The military of ancient Canaan

Today I would like the discuss the warriors of ancient Canaan.  Now, it is first important to note some things about Canaanite culture before we proceed.  The Canaanites were more of a merchant and trading people than a warrior people.  More often than not they were being conquered rather than doing the conquering.  There is one real exception to this, and this is Qart-Hadasht.  This kingdom (later a republic ruled by judges rather than a king), began as a colony of Tyre and was a powerful Canaanite city which essentially ruled the seas and had its own powerful empire.  They were mostly a merchant people, but were also famed for their aggression in war.

Now, with this in mind, we will look at the Canaanites and how their military was organized.  They never had a large unified empire like the Egyptians, the Hittites, or the Babylonians.  Their land was divided into smaller kingdoms and city-states.  The Canaanites lived in a class system.  At the head was the king and the royal family, then below them the council of judges, then the upper classes (which included the nobles, aristocrats, priests, scribes, and warriors), the middle classes (including labourers, shopkeepers, and people who worked in guilds and industry), the lower classes (including the farmers who lived in villages around the cities), and then the slaves at the bottom. 

Canaanite society in the cities was very much based around industry, while agriculture and rearing animals was left to villagers on the outside of the city.  With the army and navy, it was complicated.  The army was made up of the wealthy classes, who began their training at a very young age and were usually born into warrior families.  They served as officers and captains of a very high prestige, and were well armed for combat.  They were also highly skilled.  But the soldiers usually spent their time in the fort/citadel (hamet) which was a large, block-like building built on a hill with walls surrounding it.  They were only called upon in times of great need, and were primarily defensive rather than offensive. 

Instead, the bulk of the army and much of the lower ranks were made up of allies as well as paid mercenaries.  Mercenaries were well-used, and each of their individual talents were useful in creating a balanced army, which the general led into battle. 

The general was their leader, but he had a large responsibility.  If a Canaanite general failed to lead his army into victory, the punishment was severe.  They were usually executed. 

The navy, on the other hand, was a different story.  The Canaanite navy was one of the most powerful ever known, and their ships were among the finest ever seen.  Many empires which conquered Canaan used Canaanites in the navy.  The Persians relied heavily on their Canaanite navy.  Soldiers in the navy were not usually from among the upper classes.  Usually commoners could easily join. 

Now we will discuss the soldiers themselves.  I will talk mainly about Canaanite soldiers in the army, rather than allies or mercenaries or the Canaanite navy.

As already mentioned, they came from the upper classes.  They were taken and trained since a very young age in a number of tactics during their training.  Usually sons had fathers who were in the army too, and so they would often teach them in fighting styles.  They were very important, and names and ranks of soldiers frequently appear in palace archives.  The word for a soldier is 'mohar' or 'mahar'.  It more specifically means a hero or champion, and is used to describe these high-ranking officers within the military.  It features in several names (including Maharai and Maharbaal), and was actually borrowed by the Egyptians at one point.  A mahar would spend most of his time in the citadel of a city, either in the fort itself or in the barracks where he trained.  They didn't see war most of the time, and would only be used in times of defense, or fighting for an empire like Egypt.  But the king might call upon them to help keep the peace, and a successful military campaign meant that a kingdom acquired more land and conquered people.

The training for the mahar warriors was in fighting styles.  In particular, these men appear to have been armed primarily with spears and swords, as well as a shield.  They drank nothing, except when it was prepared in cups of gold and silver.  The officers had to pay their own troops.  Field commanders called muru-u took command of the infantry, cavalry, and chariots.  The cavalry and charioteers had a vital role, and were dressed in bronze armour, including breastplates; and they often carried javelins as well. 

With the infantry, they carried long spears and were less well-trained than the cavalry or the Sacred Band.  An old Canaanite tradition dating back to the pre-Bronze Age was that the infantry supplied themselves with their own equipment.  Elite heavy infantry called na'arum served in the royal palace and protected the king or lord.  They were hand-picked by him for their loyalty and bravery. 

Another class of individuals which some cities hand was a Sacred Band.  These were an elite group of warriors, some of them mounted while others were on foot, who were dedicated to the gods.  They often also served as standard-bearers, bearing symbols of the gods into battle.  They were well-armoured and highly trained, fearless themselves and feared by their enemies.   The Sacred Band were usually armed with long spears and with round shields.  It was extremely difficult for enemies to penetrate their heavy armour. 

The military uniform for Canaanite soldiers varied over time.  During the early days, it often consisted of a pointed helm, a bronze breastplate, a purple cloak (the whole uniform made heavy use of purple), a round shield, and a long spear and curved sword.  Later on, the curved sword was replaced by the straight sword.  In later times, several Greek elements were also incorporated.  The helmets often had cheek-plates, and a plume (though it was purple).  Greaves also became popular.  Fighting styles like the phalanx formation were incorporated into the Canaanite military.  Though the military uniform still retained most of the original elements, and the ornamental designs/symbols and heavy use of the colour purple made the Canaanite soldiers very different in appearance from Greek ones.  Chariot warfare also died out in favour of a regular cavalry.

Military tactics made use of the chariots and cavalry, telling them to attack first and ambush the enemy while they were still advancing.  This tactic would slow advancement towards the Canaanite city or its army.  Mercenaries would also be on the front-lines, most of them suffering the bulk of the enemy attack while the more experienced and elite Canaanite troops attacked from the flanks.  The spearmen and archers would attack from behind.  Phalanx formations of troops would hold their ground, forcing the enemy back, until the cavalry could cut them off from behind.  But every general had his own unique strategy.  Some of them were extremely successful, while others got the generals executed when they returned home.

Below trained mahar warriors, it appears as though the average citizens were not usually used as conscripts.  There are some mythical texts, such as the Epic of Keret, which mention kings conscripting large armies in which all men (even the newly-married etc.) had to serve.  But it is important to note that this is a mythical epic, and in the story, Keret is actually planning to scare another king into giving his daughter's hand in marriage; and so it can't be taken as representative of a real Canaanite army in times of war.  Now, I'm not denying that conscription may have happened, but it appears as though it was not favoured as most men worked in industry or agriculture, and to have a decline in either of these could prove dangerous for the whole kingdom (especially in times of war).  Instead, relying upon allies or recruiting mercenaries seems to have been preferred.

The army was made up of a variety of different soldiers.  There were light and heavy infantry, cavalry and chariots, archers, and generals who led the army below the kings and princes.  The kings themselves also sometimes appeared in battle.  Generals wielded quite a lot of power and authority, and they could form their own battle plans without the king's own input.  They could also sign treaties by themselves.  But it was the kings who rallied the army, and who gave the generals permission to begin military campaigns.  Canaanite kingdoms and clans frequently warred against one another.  Local lords could also be called upon by the king to provide some of their soldiers for a battle.  Skilled craftsmen and slaves might come along with the army to help with repairs etc., while diviners and soothsayers often helped work out the outcome of a battle strategy through contact with the deities, and physicians and doctors helped with healing the wounded after battle.  Craftsmen of various sorts would be important, as technology was far less advanced in pre-modern societies like ancient Canaan.

Learning to be a warrior required more than just studying weaponry and fighting skills.  Historical tactics made by famous generals (both Canaanite and foreign) were studied and replicated.  Honour and patriotism towards the king and the people was required, and often taught to the experienced soldiers.  It is remarkable that the Canaanite generals could inspire a level of loyalty and commitment even in the most disheartened of soldiers.  Endurance was taught, and learning to survive on rations and limited provisions.  Religion and religious ideas were also important to Canaanite warriors.  The goddess Anat is the patron goddess of warriors, and many soldiers were called the 'sons of Anat' to signify her protection.  Ideally, a soldier could hope for Anat's fury while in the heat of battle.  Before a battle, generals would offer grand sacrifices to the gods in order to appease them.  It was also not unknown for warriors to set themselves alight in order to appease the gods and show their devotion towards them.

Below, you can see some images of Canaanite warriors through varying points in time, some of them ancient and others modern:


  1. I was interested in the Sacred Bands for a while when i was studying ancient Near Eastern history, most of the famous battles in ancient Canaan involved these bands, especially the during the siege of Tyr by Alexander the great, and in HaniBaal's tactics. They were usually the second wave in the middle that concludes the battle or steer it in a different direction.

    From what i learned, it seems that the Sacred Bands were some sort of a religious quasi-esoteric order as well with an intense religious dedication and powerful patron gods like Anat, Melqart and Astarte of the Battle.
    It also seems that their methods survived after the decline of paganism in the Near East; it's mentioned that more than one Islamic Caliphate used trainers from Tyr and from other cities in Palestine to train their "shock troops"; from these attempts the order of the Ismailites was born in Egypt, which after few centuries was the driving force that helped Ahmad Sabah found the order of Assassins. The Ismailists trained the first Templars too because they wanted to fight the rising Umayyads in proxy.

    It's amazing to see how one of the most peaceful people of the ancient Near East inspired the most feared military orders of history.

    Sorry for the long comment.
    Keep up the good work mate!

  2. I first became interested in the ancient military and Hannibaal at the beginning of this Shanatu Qadishti.

    I decided to write a blog post on it after gathering several images, and I also was watching a documentary above another type of famous warriors: the Samurai of Japan. In particular, this documentary focused on Samurai traditions in *modern* Japan, stating that they have survived so long because they are not just a lot of outdated fighting techniques from the Medieval period, but are a sort of semi-religious, mystical, and philosophical order. Samurai teachings are heavily influenced by Buddhism, and their fighting style is heavily connected to the Shinto demigod Hachiman.

    So I went back to Canaan, and looked to see if anything on the Sacred Band could correspond to warriors of other nations. What I found was remarkable. I agree that they do seem to be a sort of religious order, and their training was long and hard. It's interesting to see what makes a warrior. Then I started looking at how armies were organized.

    I do wonder, though, if there are still any out there who follow the way of the ancient warriors, and if not, whether anyone would attempt to revive them or be interested in attempting to.

  3. Hi,

    I am a scholar working on Canaanite and Phoenician history and I am fascinated by the two seal stones you have depcited in the post above. Please could you provide me with some further information, for example where they were found and how I can locate them.

    Many thanks.

    Dr. Mark Woolmer

    1. There is a whole collection here, which is where I got the images from: