The Assyrians

Assyria was the ancient name of the area surrounding the upper Tigris River and its principal tributaries, the Greater Zab and the Lesser Zab, in northern Iraq.

Political Considerations

Assyria was the ancient name of the area surrounding the upper Tigris River and its principal tributaries, the Greater Zab and the Lesser Zab, in northern Iraq. From an early period the people living there, the Assyrians, adopted many cultural features of the more civilized Sumerians of the lower Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, including cuneiform writing and a “hydraulic Hydraulic civilizationcivilization,” which required irrigation to take advantage of the available fertile alluvial plain. Although food could be produced locally, virtually all metals, luxury goods, and horses had to be imported or seized from surrounding mountains to the north and east, in modern Turkey and Iran, where the Assyrians frequently faced invasion from hostile tribes. The Assyrians needed to secure defensible borders beyond their homeland, and thus became intimately linked to the material prosperity of their empire.AssyriansAssyrians

Assyrian history can be divided into three periods. The empire first rose to power during the Old Empire period (1950-1500 b.c.e.). After the death of Shamshi-Adad Shamshi-Adad IShamshi-Adad I[Shamshi Adad 01]I (r. c. 1813-1781 b.c.e.), Assyrian rule declined, leading to annexations by the Mitanni and to the revival of city-states, including Arrapha, Erbil, Ashur, and Ninevah. The Middle Empire period (c. 1500-900 b.c.e.) witnessed the rebirth of Assyrian domination. Ashur-uballit Ashur-uballit IAshur-uballit I (emperor of Assyria)[Ashuruballit]I (r. c. 1365-1330 b.c.e.) drove the Mitanni from Assyria and laid the foundations for further expansion. The Assyrians of the middle period reached their peak under Tiglath-pileser Tiglath-pileser ITiglath-pileser I (king of Assyria)[Tiglath Pileser 01]I (1115-1077 b.c.e.), who briefly expanded the empire as far as the Mediterranean Sea. After the death of Tiglath-pileser I, incursions of Aramaeans and dynastic struggles led to an alliance with Babylon and a retreat to the traditional Assyrian homeland.

Military Achievement

Assyria’s greatest era of military expansion came during the late imperial period (c. 900-600 b.c.e.). Ashur-dan Ashur-dan IIAshur-dan II (emperor of Assyria)[Ashurdan]II (934-912 b.c.e.) reestablished control of his kingdom, and his four successors all pushed forward Assyrian borders and expanded control of valuable trade routes. Under Ashurnasirpal Ashurnasirpal IIAshurnasirpal II (emperor of Assyria)II (r. 883-859 b.c.e.), the Assyrians crossed the Euphrates River, forcing most of the Aramaean, Phoenician, and neo-Hittite kings as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Taurus and Zagros Mountains, and the Armenian Highlands to pay tribute. Reflecting the importance of these new borders, Ashurnasirpal II moved the Assyrian capital to Calah, modern Nimrud, nearer to the front. Shalmaneser Shalmaneser IIIShalmaneser III (king of Assyria)[Shalmaneser 03]III (r. 858-824 b.c.e.) waged almost continual war during his reign. Although he maintained Assyrian dominance in northern Syria, he was defeated at Karkar in central Syria (853 b.c.e.) by a coalition of Syro-Palestinian kings that included AhabAhab (Syro-Palestinian king)Ahab (r. c. 874-c. 853 b.c.e.) of Israel. Shalmaneser III failed on five occasions to subdue Damascus and southern Syria but did manage to subdue Tyre, Sidon, and Israel.

After eighty years of domestic turmoil, Tiglath-pileser Tiglath-Pileser IIITiglath-Pileser III (king of Assyria)[Tiglath Pileser 03]III (r. 745-727 b.c.e.) reestablished control over the Assyrian homeland and initiated the campaigns that destroyed the independence of the kings of Syria and Israel. Between 743 and 732 he drove the Urartians back into the Taurus Mountains and captured Damascus. In 729 he conquered Babylon. Israel was finally subdued during the first year of the reign of Sargon Sargon IISargon II (king of Assyria)II (r. 721-705 b.c.e.), and Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, was unsuccessfully besieged by Sargon’s son SennacheribSennacherib (Neo-Assyrian king)Sennacherib (r. 704-681 b.c.e.). The last great Assyrian king, AshurbanipalAshurbanipal (emperor of Assyria)Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 b.c.e.), completed the conquest of Egypt that had been undertaken by his father. Continually harassed by the Elamites in the east (modern Iran), in 639 he led a massive campaign of extermination. The Assyrian Empire had never been greater, stretching from Thebes in southern Egypt to Tarsus in Asia Minor, to Babylonia in the south, and to Elam in the east. In less than thirty years, however, overextension, harsh treatment of subject peoples, and a disastrous struggle with the Medes led to the conquest of Nineveh (612 b.c.e.) by a combined army of Medes and Babylonians and to the final destruction of the Assyrian Empire. The Hebrew prophet NahumNahum (Hebrew prophet)Nahum (fl. seventh century b.c.e.) echoed the common sentiment of all Near Eastern peoples when he said, “All who hear the news of you clap their hands at your downfall, for who has not felt your unrelenting cruelty?”

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

An Assyrian battle scene at the palace of Ashurnasirpal.

(Library of Congress)

Assyria’s Armor;Assyrianoffensive power initially rested upon development and use of the war chariot. Their vehicles evolved from the more mobile two-man chariot, used for reconnaissance, communication, and combat, to the heavy, four-horse, four-man chariot common during Ashurbanipal’s reign. By the time the empire fell, cavalry units had taken over many of the duties of the chariots, which were then being used principally as firing platforms for archers and as shock vehicles in frontal attacks. Effective use of the chariot in combat was limited to flat or nearly flat terrain, making it less valuable as Assyria expanded into surrounding mountainous terrain.

The first record of Assyrian cavalry units is found in the ninth century b.c.e., when riders were deployed in pairs, with one man holding the reins of both mounts while the other fired a bow. As riders gained expertise, each horse and rider became an autonomous unit, with riders carrying long lances. By the seventh century b.c.e., the cavalry had largely displaced the chariot as the mobile force of the military, and horsemen were typically armed with both bows and lances. Riders covered their torsos with lamellar armor, consisting of bronze plates stitched to a leather underjacket, whereas fabric armor was used to protect their mounts.

Assyria and Babylonia, 600-500 b.c.e.

The bow and arrow and the lance were the most common weapons among infantry units, but slings, knives, and swords were also utilized. In the late imperial period, Archers and archery;AssyriansBows and arrows;Assyrianarchers were deployed in pairs, with one man serving as a shieldbearer. Shields made from plaited reeds were often taller than a man and curved at the top to deflect incoming arrows. Both simple and compound bows were used, with ranges of between 250 and 650 meters. The bow used by particular units was often linked to the ethnicity of the unit. Records indicate, for instance, that there were distinctive Akkadian, Assyrian, and Cimmerian bows. Tiglath-pileser III introduced both the Lance-spear[Lance spear]lance-spear, for close-order thrusting, and lamellar Armor;lamellararmor, known among elite infantry units as the Zuku sa sheppe (infantry unit)zuku sa sheppe. Ordinary units and native levies had only a helmet and shield for their personal protection.

In an age during which the art of fortification was highly developed, the Assyrians were innovators in siegecraft and siege Siege warfare;Assyrianorganization. They built movable wooden Siege towerstowers covered by dampened leather hides, which enabled expert archers to clear the parapets above while troops below worked to undermine the walls. They sometimes used a swinging Battering rams“ram” to batter the walls and sometimes a ram with a wide, iron blade that would be inserted between stones and rocked in order to pry the stones apart.

Military Organization

Assyrian military success owed much to superior preparation, which allowed large Armies;recruitment ofarmies to be quickly assembled. Shalmaneser Shalmaneser IIIShalmaneser III (king of Assyria)[Shalmaneser 03]III, for instance, reportedly invaded Syria in 845b.c.e. with 120,000 troops. Marshaling cities were kept in readiness to receive corn, oil, battle equipment, and troops in preparation for a new campaign, thus enabling forces to be quickly organized and provisioned. This led to the creation of Ashurnasirpal’s Greater Assyria, a large area of northern Mesopotamia that could be controlled by relatively short campaigns and raids. In keeping with the agricultural basis of society, campaigning was seasonal, with conscripts called to arms by July, shortly after harvest.

Despite successes, more extensive campaigns, attrition, and battle losses made campaigning under the old system difficult. Tiglath-pileser III initiated important military reforms that created the most efficient army of the ancient world until the rise of Rome, enabling emperors to vastly increase the size of the empire. Instead of calling up agricultural workers during the summer, he introduced a standing army and personal bodyguard that was augmented as necessary by contingents raised in the provinces and levies drawn from vassal states. The Assyrian army may have been the first in which ethnic units were integrated largely on a basis of equality, though they frequently performed functions for which they were already expertly prepared.

On campaign, the Assyrian king frequently led the army, but sometimes he delegated authority to senior field marshals, known as Turtan (Assyrian field marshal)turtans. Below these wing commanders, rank designations indicated control of 1,000, 500, or 100 troops. Although much remains unknown about Assyrian military organization, it is clear that it enabled the Assyrians to create the first army capable of sustained, long-distance campaigning. An efficient system of supply depots, transport columns, and bridging trains enabled the Assyrian army to advance as rapidly as any army before the modern industrial age, fighting effectively at distances of up to 300 miles from their base of operations.

Assyria’s unmatched striking capability was based upon its chariot force, which enabled it to wage lightning attacks across the plains of Mesopotamia and Syria, shocking enemy troops and paving the way for the lancers and archers of the infantry. From the ninth century onward, the cavalry became increasingly important, sometimes operating in units of 1,000 or more and eventually replacing the charioteers as the mobile arm of the military. This dependence upon cavalry forced the Assyrians to remain militarily aggressive in order to provide a continuous stream of remounts that could come only from capture, tribute payments, or taxation.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Given the lack of geographical barriers, Assyria’s grand strategy was to wage offensive wars that would push Assyrian boundaries far beyond the cities of the Tigris River Valley. As a part of this plan, terror was used as a deliberate tactic. The ultimate goal was to secureAdu (Assryian pact of loyalty)adu, or “pacts of loyalty,” which required payment of tribute. If enemies refused to submit, it was not uncommon for all men, women, and children in a resisting city to be killed. Assyrians commonly laid waste to enemy lands, destroying granaries and irrigation systems and cutting down orchards. Surrounding territories would then be annexed, with native populations deported to distant cities.

Although all the Assyrian commanders were undoubtedly ferocious, some were recorded as being far more so than others. Tiglath-pileser IIITiglath-pileser III (king of Assyria)[Tiglath pileser 03]Tiglath-pileser III, in 744 b.c.e., for instance, was involved in the deporting of 65,000 people from Iran. Two years later, he resettled 30,000 Syrians in the Zagros Mountains of Persia. The use of deportation, torture, and other forms of terror was designed both to convince enemies to surrender and to deter future rebellious activity among conquered peoples. Tributary (vassal) states were allowed to maintain considerable autonomy, especially in the area of religion, whereas annexed territories, with imported foreign populations, were forced to worship Ashur and treated in every way as Assyrians.

As the power of the state grew, Assyrian strategy involved building a series of Fortresses;Assyrianfortresses in annexed territories, and these would ensure control of trade routes. Control of roads enhanced trade and brought valuable commodities to a land that was not rich in natural resources, whereas fortresses were used as bases from which tribute raids could be launched into surrounding areas.

In terms of Tactics;Assyriantactics, Assyria deployed infantry, cavalry, and charioteers in combined operations. Skirmishers, archers, and slingshot specialists harassed and demoralized opponents in the opening rounds of conflict. Infantry;AssyrianInfantry, armed with their lances, swords, and daggers, followed with a frontal assault against enemy lines. Cavalry;AssyrianCavalry and Chariots;Assyrianchariots would ideally provide the decisive thrust from the flanks or from the center of the Assyrian army toward a weak point in the enemy line. After the horses and chariots charged, a rout of the enemy could often be expected. However, if the forces were evenly matched, the cavalry and chariot charges might well be indecisive and yield a chaotic melee rather than a decisive victory.

Ancient Sources

There are extensive written records on campaigns of the late imperial period. The most important Assyrian sources include the annals of the Assyrian kings, which provide campaigning records; and many inscribed carvings and palace reliefs uncovered principally in Nineveh, Lachish, and other cities of the Assyrian homeland. Outside Assyria, victorious kings erected Stelaestelae, or carved stone pillars, on which they recorded their victories and reminded subjugated peoples of their tributary status. Hayim Tadmor has edited The Inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III (2007), which contains much of military interest.

One of the most accessible sources of ancient information regarding the Assyrians is from the Old Testament of the Bible, principally in the books of 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, and Hosea. There are also scattered references to Assyrian warfare in Sumerian and Greek sources, including those of HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian)Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 b.c.e.) and Josephus, FlaviusJosephus, FlaviusFlavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100 c.e.).

However, the most important sources on the Assyrian armies are not written, but bas-reliefs from NinevehNineveh, many of which are held at the British Museum, London. These depict warriors, chariots, and even entire battle scenes such as that showing the siege of the city of Lachish by Sennacherib in 701 b.c.e.Assyrians

Books and Articles

  • Bradley, James Parker. The Mechanics of Empire: The Northern Frontier of Assyria as a Case Study in Imperial Dynamics. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2001.
  • Chapman, Cynthia R. The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2004.
  • Gallagher, William R. Sennacherib’s Campaign in Judah. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1999.
  • Gwaltney, William C., Jr. “Assyrians.” In Peoples of the Old Testament World, edited by Alfred J. Hoerth et al. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994.
  • Healy, Mark. The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey, 1991.
  • Postgate, Nicholas. The Land of Assur and the Yoke of Assur: Studies on Assyria, 1971-2005. Oxford: Oxbow, 2007.
  • Saggs, Harry W. F. The Might That Was Assyria. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1984.
  • Yamada, Shigeo. The Construction of the Assyrian Empire: A Historical Study of the Inscriptions of Shalmaneser II Relating to the Campaigns in the West. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2000.

Films and Other Media

  • Iraq: Stairway to the Gods. Documentary. Coronet Films and Video, 1973.

Violence in the Precivilized World

The Hittites

The Chaldeans

The Hebrews

The Egyptians

The Persians