Assyrian History: The Assyrian Military

Much has been said of the terrific Assyrian Military & Army, and for good reason. The Assyrian Empire made great strides in terms of organizing their military and using it effectively, so much so that the two great empires which followed Assyria, Babylon and Persia, had militaries that were basically modeled upon that of the Assyrians.

The Assyrian Military & Army
The Assyrian Military & Army

It’s believed that by the time Sargon II came into power, the total size of the Assyrian military available to the kings of Assur was a force of approximately several hundred thousand troops. However, all of these troops were rarely, if ever, called into action at the same time.

In fact, the regular standing army would have been rather small, and its size would have grown depending on the needs of a campaign. Because of this, it can be said that by the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, there were three distinct classes within the military: professional soldiers, men fulfilling their ilku (meaning “duty”), and special soldiers called up for specific campaigns.

Before going into the differences between the three groups, it’s important to understand the structure of the entire military. At its head was, of course, the king. He was responsible for all campaigns, and in theory actually conducted them himself, with some exceptions. In the early days of Assyrian power, dating back to the Middle Assyrian Empire, campaigns were not much more than loosely organized raids of cities and towns.

However, by the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, attacks were coordinated, well-planned, and an integral part of an overall policy of expansion. Directly below the king was the field marshal, who can be thought of more as a grand general. He would have been responsible for working with regional governors to levy troops. The provincial governors were responsible for the military in their province, and they would delegate to captains, who were in charge of territories as small as just a few villages.

As should be expected, military rank and political power were directly connected. Professional soldiers were recruited from the population after having been identified by a leader as being exceptional. These individuals would lead their lives as full-time soldiers, usually stationed in far-away military camps.

The military camps were typically the remnants of conquered cities that had been repurposed so as to keep Assyria’s best soldiers closer to the theaters of war.

Those chosen to be professional soldiers would be sent off to these camps for training, and although their position was high in society, for being one of the king’s professional soldiers was a great honor, their lifestyle was hard. It was defined by constant warfare, and they would rarely return home, even in years without a campaign. Generally, the size of the regular Assyrian army was relatively small.

To swell its ranks in support of a campaign, the Assyrian kings would assert ilku. In exchange for the protection offered by the king, all landowners would be expected to give military service when called upon. If the king needed troops, he would work with his generals to find them, i.e. the field marshal would tell provincial governors how many troops were expected of him, and his captains would then find the men best fit to serve. When chosen to serve in a campaign, men would be sent to the capital where a great ceremony would take place.

Campaigns usually began in the spring, after the winter and the rains had passed, and were kicked off with an inspection of the troops. Priests and other diviners would accompany them, giving blessings and providing prognostications as they went. When returning victorious from a campaign, the king would parade around in his ceremonial chariot.

In cases where tribute attempts had failed, or where rebellion had broken out, conquered kings and princes would be forced to walk behind the chariot in chains. Troops that had been recruited from Assyria itself would be given higher positions, usually in the cavalry or chariotry, largely because they were believed to be more loyal. Others, such as those recruited from conquered territories, or from lands where loyalty was suspect, were subjugated to the infantry.

The most common weapons of the infantry were battle axes, spears, bows, swords, daggers, maces, and slings. Chariot and cavalry riders were usually equipped with a spear or a bow, and cavalrymen would ride accompanied by someone who would hold their shield while they fired arrows. Armor was distributed according to status, with higher ranking Assyrians receiving scale armor and the lower ranking ones getting leather.

In terms of tactics, the Assyrians relied on three major ones, and they would come to be what made their army so prolific: pitched battles, siege warfare, and psychological warfare. The Assyrians did not use guerrilla tactics, choosing instead to engage their enemy in open battlefields. However, they were known for using several clever yet new tactics for the time, such as damming rivers to flood the enemy camp, attacking at midnight, and positioning themselves between the enemy and their water supply. However, the defining characteristic of the Assyrian military was siege warfare. They were far from its inventors, but they were able to essentially perfect it given the technological capabilities of the time.

The brains behind Assyrian sieges were the engineers who would travel with the army. They designed and built what were essentially ancient tanks—battering devices on wheels—that had space where archers could hide and shoot at defending bowmen. They would use ladders to climb city walls, but they would also build earthen ramps which these “tanks” could climb and use to bombard the city from above. Furthermore, they would light fires and dig holes around the city walls to try and find ways to get in. When this didn’t work, the Assyrian army would set to work destroying the territory surrounding a city.

They would block any and all roads going into the city, and they would also destroy farmland and any other villages found outside the city walls. However, this type of warfare was costly and time consuming, so Assyrians frequently sought more expedient ways of conquering a city, one of which would be to terrorize its people.

After their first round of destruction, the leader, sometimes the king but perhaps a captain speaking on the king’s behalf, would stand in front of the city and make arguments to the people as to why they should disobey their leaders and open the city walls. If this didn’t work, then the Assyrians would find nearby villages and towns, ransack them, and then return with the dead bodies. These were horribly mutilated and usually flayed, and would subsequently be put on display for all to see.

The purpose of this was to show the subjects of the city what would eventually happen if they continued to resist. This would often prove effective in dealing with the city at hand, but it also made it much easier for the Assyrians to conquer other territories. Stories of their brutality would spread, and this would cause many places to simply open their gates before the Assyrian army would feel the need to engage in this cruelty.

This policy of terror practiced by the Assyrian military was a big reason why they were able to consistently conquer so much land over such a long period of time. These tactics, which proved to be so effective over time, would change the direction of ancient military traditions.

The types of siege and psychological warfare conducted by the Assyrians would be seen again in Babylon, Persia, and even Rome. By modern standards, they were brutal to say the least. But even to the Assyrians’ contemporaries, the tactics would have seemed cruel, which gives us an idea of just how shocking these methods were. Yet they were highly successful, and they helped Assyria build an army that would be the main driver of Neo-Assyrian imperial expansion.

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