New research, conducted by Dr. Amy Barron of the University of Toronto, is shedding light on the weapons and battle tactics used by the Assyrians during the first millennium BC.
Assyria was a military powerhouse during this time. The empire they controlled stretched from modern day Iraq to the Mediterranean coast. They even managed to successfully invade Egypt, defeating the pharaoh Taharqa and installing rulers sympathetic to Assyria.
But how did they do this?
The Assyrian heartland was in central Iraq. Its not an area particularly rich in minerals or gold. There are few natural defensive pointsinthe area,making the task of holding onto territory all the more difficult.
According to Dr. Barrons research, Assyrias military strength derives not so muchfrom access to advanced weapons but from its tactical doctrine. They knew how to put soldiers on the battlefield and they knew how to fight. They also had many bases and knew how to wage psychological warfare.
Dr. Barron discussed her research at a lecture recently andI interviewedher afterwards.
A key ingredient to the Assyrians’ success was their use of psychological warfare. Museums today are full of Assyrian art and it takes only a cursory glance to see that military motifs pop up again and again.
Theres lots of impaling and flailing alive and lots of dramatic and scary stuff like that, said Dr. Barron.
Assyrian inscriptions are also full of gory bits, check out this translation from The Writing on the Wall: Studies in the Architectural Context of Late Assyrian Palace Inscriptions,by John Malcolm Russell.
[I] Assurbanipal, King of Assyria, entered joyfully into Ninevah with the severed head Teumman [king of] Elam, who I defeated with the help of Assur.
So why all the violence?
The real point of the reliefs was to send a message and a strong message to anyone coming to visit the palaces from someplace else, said Dr. Barron. If you know thats the consequences of not surrendering… a lot of people will surrender first, said Barron.
Before we get into military tactics its important to talk aboutwhatthe Assyrians were equipped with.
The weapons the Assyrians used tended to be made of iron the main material in the Near East at that time. Unfortunately it does not preserve well. Very few of these have survived, said Dr. Barron. 19th century excavations often couldnt preserve material made of iron.
Nevertheless there is a small corpus. Dr. Barron spends a great deal of time in the British Museum, looking at what they have. The Assyrian collections of the museum are vast, everyday a few more things appear on my table, she said.
Perhaps the most surprising find she has made is that swords do not seem to have played a major role in Assyrian combat.Strangely enough very, very little of what we would consider a sword has survived from ancient Assyria, she said.
“In fact”, she added, “the surviving examples rarely exceed 35 cm in size”.
There are depictions of swords in reliefs, but she believes that those were used for ceremonial occasions not actual battles. I think the long swords (are things) the officers carry and the kings carry, theyre sort of a sign of status. The swords we find are much smaller, she said. The short swords or daggers, which are in the British Museum, were likely”just your backup weapon if youve lost your spear in the heat of battle.
I asked her why the Assyrians would rely on spearmen, after all the Roman emphasized the use of swords and they were very successful. Barron says that it comes down to training.
To work as a large group with swords you need to have a serious amount of training, she said. They (the Romans) trained their men to work in close combat with swords so that you wont hit people around you.
The Assyrian standing army was very small… so youre always out there with local groups that youve drafted in for the short term.As such the bestthingwas togive them a spear, give them a little bit of training and send them on their way.
Shields, Armour and Footwear
Again we are at the mercy of the archaeological record when it comes to reconstructing the defensive equipment the Assyrians used. Wood (which likely was used for shields), iron and leather do not preserve particularly well. Archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries would have had a hard time conserving the samples they found.
Still, byanalyzing reliefs, and the few examples that have survived, Dr. Barron has an idea as to what the shields and armour, worn by the Assyrians, were like.
I think in combat the most common shields were the round shields in the early period, and then tower shaped ones, with a curve at the top and flat on the bottom, she said.
Rectangular shields also appear to have been used as an experiment for a short time. There were also palisade shields which would have been helpful when assaulting a fortified position. They were more than the height of a man, you would stand them up and one person holds them and several archers behind them.
Assyrians would have worn armour in battle. Reliefs depict the Assyrians wearing scales. Probably in bronze or iron, said Barron, although they may be in leather, we just dont know about leather. Archers likely had to make do with less. If youre an archer you probably wont have as good armour, you stand further away.
Protection for the head was important and Barrons research indicates that the Assyrians did have a helmet. It was a pointed helmet, she said, probably made out of armour.
But, while the Assyrians protected their head, they seem to have shown little regard for their feet. They wore very little footwear judging by their pictures, said Barron. They probably had light leather boots, sometimes just sandals.
This is interesting since Assyrian soldiers appear to have fought on mountainous terrain.
An inscription by Sennacheribtells offighting the king of “Ukku,”
The soldiers (who dwelt) therein who had flown to the summit of the mountains like birds, I followed after them and defeated them at the mountain top.
(John Malcolm Russell)
Ironically the Assyrian tactics that Barron has reconstructed sound a lot like the tactics used by militaries in the 20th and even 21st centuries.
Assyrians were very big on long distance combat, she said. They wanted to go with their archers archers were a huge part of their military strategy.
The arrows from them would break up the enemy formation (followed by) chariots and, in later periods, cavalry a little bit.
This makes things easier for the foot soldiers. By the time that spearman soldier actually gets to the enemy theyre supposed to be in disarray and already suffering, she said. They just need to go in there with a spear and clean up the rest of the mess.
If this sounds familiar it should. In World War II the Germans pioneered an attack called the Blitzkrieg. Bombers would attack the enemy formation first, leaving them in disarray. Fast mobile Panzer (tank) divisions would then be sent in. In theory, by the time the German infantry engaged a unit, it would be broken or in retreat. I pointed this out to Dr. Barron and she agreed that it was essentially the same idea as the tactics used more than 2,000 years earlier by the Assyrians.
In fact an argument can be made that Assyrian battle tactics were used in the early 21st century. The shock and awe tactics that the Americans, and their allies, used to invade Iraq within 2003, sound quite similar (read my alternative advice to Barack Obama here).
In that war the Americans used long distance planes and missiles, followed by armoured units and infantry. A paper on shock and awe, written by Harlan Ullman and James Wade Jr., for National Defence University, says that the enemy must be made to feel completely helpless and unable to consider a meaningful response. Furthermore, the enemys confusion must be complete, adding to a general impression of impotence.
This sounds like an idea that the ancient Assyrians would certainly agree with.