City-States and Empires Through Old Babylon

The evolution of warfare in ancient Mesopotamia led to the creation of large and powerful empires in the Near East, the weapons and formations of which influenced classical civilization.

Military Achievement

The evolution of warfare in ancient Mesopotamia led to the creation of large and powerful empires in the Near East, the weapons and formations of which influenced classical civilization. Historians believe that the beginnings of organized warfare coincided with the dawn of written history in both Mesopotamia and Egypt;ancientEgypt, probably independently of each other. Around 4000 b.c.e. the SumeriansSumerians, a people of unknown ethnic origin, settled in southern Mesopotamia, building their cities and fortifications from mud bricks. They failed to create a stable, unified kingdom and lived in a cluster of independent city-states, such as Ur, Kish, Lagash, Erech, Suruppack, Larsa, and Umma, and constantly warred with each other for supremacy over the region.City-states[city states];ancientMesopotamiaCity-states[city states];ancientMesopotamia

The first steps toward unity were taken in southern Mesopotamia when King LugalzaggesiLugalzaggesi (Sumerian king)Lugalzaggesi (r. c. 2375-2350 b.c.e.) of Uruk created a temporary Sumerian Empire by subduing his rivals and ultimately establishing nominal control over all of Mesopotamia, as well as parts of Syria and Asia Minor. He was defeated by the Akkadian king, Sargon the Sargon the GreatSargon the Great (Akkadian king)Great (c. 2334-2279 b.c.e.), who led a Semitic band of warriors in conquest of Sumer, unifying upper and lower Mesopotamia and creating the first real empire in history, which lasted nearly three hundred years. In thirty-four major battles, Sargon used new technology to establish a domain that stretched eventually from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Akkadian EmpireAkkadian civilization eventually succumbed to an invasion of barbarous mountain dwellers from the east called the GutiansGutians, who were victorious not because of their superior technology but because of their intensity in combat. Some time after 2100b.c.e., the Sumerians reasserted their supremacy over southern Mesopotamia, which precipitated a renaissance of Sumerian culture and control in the area that lasted for approximately two hundred years.

Sumer and Akkad, c. 4000-2000 b.c.e.

After the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e. a new Semitic race of people, the BabyloniansBabylonians, perhaps from the area of modern Syria, rose to prominence in Mesopotamia. With its capital established at the city-state of BabylonBabylon, the whole region once again became unified under the rule of the powerful Babylonian leaderHammurabiHammurabi (Babylonian king)Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750b.c.e.), the famous lawgiver, warrior, and strategist.

Hammurabi’s death was followed by a number of revolts that led to the rapid disintegration of his kingdom. In the late seventeenth century b.c.e. the HittitesHittite Empire, centered in Asia Minor, began expanding with the aid of early iron technology. In 1595 b.c.e. Mesopotamia fell to the KassitesKassites and entered into a long period of lethargy.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Ancient Uniforms;MesopotamianArmor;Mesopotamianweapons in Mesopotamia can be divided into two categories: shock weapons, for striking the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, and missile weapons, for shooting or throwing at the enemy. The earliest weapons were crafted from stone and included the Macesmace and the Axes;stonestone ax. The inauguration in Mesopotamia of the Bronze Bronze AgeAge (c. 3200 b.c.e.), so called for the introduction of new metal technology, was roughly contemporaneous with the beginnings of city-state civilization and ushered in the use of metal Metal weaponsweapons, making warfare much more lethal than it had been previously. The use of metal transformed shock weapons. Brittle stones were unsuited to producing lasting sharp edges used for striking opposing combatants. The introduction of metal helmets, shields, and body armor with bronze scales eliminated the effectiveness of the mace in favor of the battle-ax and metal-tipped spear. A Helmets;Mesopotamianhelmet excavated from one of the richly adorned graves at the Royal Cemetery of Ur and dating from 2600 to 2400 b.c.e. was made of electrum, a gold and silver alloy, and hammered into shape from the inside.

A relief of Hammurabi, the powerful Babylonian leader who united the Babylonian kingdom and codified its laws.

(Library of Congress)

The Chariotschariot appeared much earlier in Mesopotamia than elsewhere. Although it was in wide use as early as 3000 b.c.e., it was not the highly mobile, two-man, two-wheeled vehicle that appeared only after centuries of development. The war chariot of Sumer was a large, heavy, rather clumsy four-wheeled vehicle that carried a driver, a warrior, and two shield-bearers commissioned to protect the warrior. The chariot warrior was armed with a spear, sometimes a battle-ax, but not a bow, which was used earlier and more regularly in other Near Eastern cultures, particularly in Egypt, and arrived in Sumer only much later. Akkadian Akkadianswarriors under Sargon introduced Mesopotamia to the use of the composite Bows and arrows;Mesopotamianbow, which provided this force with the necessary margin of superiority over the Sumerians. The bow fell into disuse until it began to be employed again during the reunification of Mesopotamia under Hammurabi.

Military Organization

The Sumerian Stela of the Stela of the VulturesVultures, an artifact of singular importance dating from approximately 2500 b.c.e., supplies information about the organization and formation of combatants into fighting units in Mesopotamia. This limestone victory monument depicts King Eannatum of Eannatum of LagashEannatum of Lagash (Sumerian king)Lagash leading his troops into battle. The warrior-hero stands at the head of his advancing army, which is composed of a cadre of infantrymen packed shoulder to shoulder behind a barrier of interlocking, handheld rectangular shields, wearing matching helmets and presenting a hedgehog formation of protruding spears. In other words, the infantry forms a genuine, full-fledged Phalanx;Sumerianphalanx. This depiction is significant because it constitutes evidence that the phalanx was used two thousand years before it was implemented by the Greeks, and it emphasizes the importance of Sumerian military developments, which are often overlooked in the history of weapons and warfare. The Sumerian phalanx seems to have been a full-blown innovation rather than a product of an evolutionary technological process.

A mounted Babylonian warrior carrying a sword, spear, and bow and arrow.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Additionally, the Stela of the Vultures depicts all of the phalangite infantrymen as outfitted and protected in the same fashion but distinct in dress from the single warrior-leader placed in front to direct the shock troops. Although the egalitarian outfitting of troops is certainly predicated on the practical demands of the type of close-arm combat tactics employed in Mesopotamia, it also suggests to scholars that regalia determined one’s standing and social status as well as the expectations and presumed responsibilities of office.

The campaign of Sargon the GreatSargon the Great (Akkadian king)Sargon the Great, empowered by the new technology used by his Akkadian bowmen against the Sumerian leader LugalzaggesiLugalzaggesi (Sumerian king)Lugalzaggesi of Uruk, is regarded as the factor responsible for the disappearance of the Sumerian phalanx. Sargon’s empire consisted of a small warrior class living off the work of a few artisans and craftsmen and a large peasantry.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Very little is known about the roles played by individual kings or commanders. The first organized battles in Mesopotamia occurred before 3500 b.c.e., when smaller groups armed only with crude stone weapons and without protective armor clashed with one another for control of food sources and land. Although cultures coalesced and armies increased in size, any cogent doctrine of warfare or sophisticated strategies seem to have been lacking. The key to effective combat was to find and kill the enemy’s leader. If the king and his retainers were destroyed, so would be their army’s chances for victory. With the development of city-states and walled towns in early Mesopotamia, siege Siege warfare;Mesopotamiawarfare became increasingly important. The subjugation of all city-states and towns became the common goal of every competing army seeking to control the entire area. Warfare in early Mesopotamia was more frequent and less decisive strategically than in other parts of the ancient world precisely because of the constant intramural wars of the competing city-states. With the establishment of the first empires in Mesopotamia, warfare became directed outward, toward the conquest of neighboring peoples and adjacent lands. For the most part Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian styles of war remained confrontational, geared toward the frontal assault. This type of warfare, along with the types of weapons associated with such fighting, tended to emphasize the need for, and the prestige attached to, the attributes of bravery and physical prowess.

Because Chariotschariots in early Mesopotamia were not very mobile, they probably were not used in the same tactical way as were later two-man chariots. Later chariots could be deployed in quick shock attacks against an enemy’s flank and in fighting against other chariots. However, the early four-man chariots had to be drawn by asses because they were so cumbersome and, consequently, had to be maneuvered very close to enemy fortifications and forces in order to deliver any kind of effective firepower. Sources seem to agree that the early Mesopotamian chariots had little effective use as tools of destruction. They did, however, serve as instruments of intimidation, or for bringing a leader to a battlefield.

Ancient Sources

The Sumerians kept records on clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform. One of the most famous stories from this culture, the Gilgamesh Gilgamesh epicepic (c. 2000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1917), describes the life of Gilgamesh of Uruk, an actual person around whom legends formed and who may be regarded as the first military hero in Near Eastern literature, serving as a model for warriors who followed. Gilgamesh was armed with a battle-ax bearing an actual name, “Might of Heroism,” the first in a long line of titled weapons in the ancient world. The Gilgamesh epic also indicates that before the Mesopotamian warrior-leader decided to go into battle, he put the question before an assembly of the warrior class.

For the most part, however, information on warfare during the Sumerian period has come from images recovered by archaeologists. The Ur (Sumerian city-state)Standard of UrStandard of Ur, found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur and now in the British Museum, has clear images of a variety of soldiers, demonstrating their armor and weaponry, as well as of five chariots. Indeed it is from this one find that much knowledge of warfare involving Ur comes. Some old weapons have also been recovered, and there are also surviving stelae.

Various artifacts, including the Stela of the VulturesStela of the Vultures, uncovered by the work of archaeologists, present visual images of ancient weapons and methods of war. Although physical evidence from the Akkadian period is slim, two cuneiform fragments depict the use of the Bows and arrows;composite bowsComposite bowcomposite bow, which scholars have hypothesized was made by carefully laminating bone, sinew, and keratin to a wooden core to create a weapon with tremendously magnified power.City-states[city states];ancientMesopotamia

Books and Articles

  • Crawford, Harriet. Sumer and the Sumerians. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Ferrill, Arthur. The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
  • Gabriel, Richard A., and Karen S. Metz. From Sumer to Rome: the Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
  • Humble, Richard. Warfare in the Ancient World. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1980.
  • Laffont, Robert. The Ancient Art of Warfare. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1966.
  • O’Connell, Robert L. Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Wise, Terence. Ancient Armies of the Middle East. New York: Osprey, 1981.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. Vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Films and Other Media

  • The Kings: From Babylon to Baghdad. Docudrama. History Channel, 2004.

Violence in the Precivilized World

The Hittites

The Assyrians

The Chaldeans

The Hebrews

The Egyptians

The Persians