Detail from the reliefs depicting the battle on the Ulai River from the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Assyrian infantry, consisting of spearmen and archers working in co-operation, push back the Elamites, who are mostly archers.

After the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser II the Assyrian military establishment consisted of several components. The most important of these was the Sab Sharri (Royal Army), the basic standing army, normally distributed about the empire under the command of the provincial governors. It included both ethnic Assyrians and auxiliaries recruited from the subject peoples. The chariotry, the cavalry and the heavy infantry were composed of native Assyrians, who in the ninth century had constituted practically the whole army: But after the expansion of the empire by Tiglath-Pileser the Assyrian troops were supplemented by large numbers of auxiliary infantry units, both heavy and light, which tended to be drawn from certain warlike tribes like the Gurkhas of British India. The light infantry, usually unarmoured, included archers and slingers. Particularly valued were the archers, called Ituaeans because they were recruited from the Aramaean tribe of that name on the Tigris (though ‘Ituaeans’ was possibly shorthand for ‘Ituaeans and other auxiliary archers’). The auxiliary spearmen were called Qurraeans; their origin is unknown, but their equipment suggests the Hittite cities of Syria. (Again, it is possible ‘Qurraeans’ meant ‘Qurraeans and other auxiliary spearmen similarly armed’.) They were more lightly armoured than the Assyrian infantry and wore a distinctive crested helmet instead of the pointed helmet of the Assyrians.

It has been estimated that the total forces available to Tiglath-Pileser and the Sargonids numbered half a million. We have seen that one provincial governor mustered 1,430 men, nor was this his entire command; we know that some governors sometimes had more than 20,000. Inscriptions sometimes speak of 100,000 troops mobilized for a battle. The history of ancient armies that are better documented – Persian, Greek, Roman – suggests we should reduce this number by half to get a maximum figure for an Assyrian field army, and halve it again to get the normal figure: perhaps a maximum force of 50,000 and an average one of 20,000. Armies larger than this were difficult to manage. Assyrian armies were not much larger than the biggest armies of the Bronze Age; the strict barriers that nature had placed on the size of armies would not be decisively broken until the nineteenth century AD. The real advances of the Assyrians lay in the little-known but clearly enormous logistical infrastructure that enabled huge armies to conduct long-distance campaigns the year round. A single statistic will suggest the magnitude of the supply problems: the archives of Nineveh reveal that the royal stables received an average of one hundred fresh horses every day, brought from all over the empire. There vvere five campaigns into Egypt within eleven years (673-663 BC), suggesting that logistical bases with horses, equipment and stores were stationed at intervals along that road and other well-travelled military routes. Armies carried rations with them, but the provincial governors and allied states were expected to provide food for men and horses, and it can be assumed this was high among their responsibilities. Armies also foraged in the countryside, especially during sieges, but the results must have been unreliable, as grain stores will have been brought inside the city before the siege commenced. The favoured campaigning season was still between the grain harvest (May-June) and the sowing (October), but campaigns in every month of the year are recorded, and in every type of terrain including mountain and desert. The king personally commanded whenever possible but there were two field marshals (Turtanu) and of course an elaborate but dimly viewed command structure lower down: commanders of cohorts (Rab Kisri) , commanders of fifty, commanders of ten.

Cavalry were the great innovation of this army. Cavalry are first mentioned at the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC, where the Assyrians had 5,542 cavalrymen and 2,002 chariots, or about an equal number, since chariots at this date still carried two or three men. There was still some use for them, because in the ninth century the art of managing a stirrupless horse in battle had not been fully mastered: cavalrymen rode in pairs, one holding the reins of his companion and leaving him free to draw his composite bow, like the traditional partnership of chariot warrior and chariot driver, but without the chariot. Cavalry were cheaper, less vulnerable and more useful in rough country than chariotry, but not as yet superior in firepower. But the cavalry of Tiglath-Pileser and the Sargonids consisted of single horsemen, each rider armed with bow or spear or both. Assyrians had learned how to handle a composite bow on horseback. The chariot was thus obsolete by about 750 BC, for every rider now had as much firepower as a two-horse, two-man chariot.

The rise of genuine cavalry made possible genuine tactics, which is to say the art of combined arms, a variety of distinct services performing different roles in battle and doing so in co-operation. The Assyrian army certainly had such a tactical system, but it is not easy to reconstruct. We are well informed about military equipment, for the reliefs of the Assyrian palaces have left us the richest pictorial record of warfare before classical Greece, but not so well informed about how this weaponry was used on the battlefield. Assyrian annals, like all other ancient Middle Eastern records, are nearly devoid of useful battle descriptions. Assyrian sculpture, so dramatically effective in the portrayal of individual human and animal figures, never attained the Egyptian level of narrative realism. Neither infantry nor cavalry are ever shown in formation. There is no Assyrian battle that can be reconstructed in the way we can attempt to reconstruct the battle of Kadesh. Even the relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh depicting the battle at the Ulai River in 653 BC, considered the finest large-scale composition in Assyrian art, is too broad and schematic, with too many chariots.

Nevertheless some things can be legitimately deduced from the tactics of the later Persian armies, which are believed to have been largely based on the Assyrian tradition, and are much better known to us through Greek sources. Persians put their infantry in the centre and their cavalry on the wings, which is such a common practice in all later warfare that we may assume the Assyrians did this too. The Persian army did not normally expect shock combat, but rather tried to break up enemy formations with missiles. The Medes, Persians and other Iranians who formed the core of their army were all lightly armoured bowmen, both infantry and cavalry. In battle the Persian infantry advanced and set up their large wicker shields as a hedge from behind which they fired their arrows; they closed in hand-to-hand combat with their short spears only when necessary. Their cavalry harassed the enemy before and during the battle by riding up and showering them with arrows and javelins, and after the enemy broke, cavalry were used in a mopping-up role.

Assyrian armies also consisted largely of missile arms and we suppose Assyrian tactics were similar, but there is reason to think that the Assyrians made rather more use of heavy infantry and hand-to-hand combat. The heavily armoured infantryman equipped with large shield and long spear, but no missile weapon, was the core of the native Assyrian army and figures prominently in Assyrian art. More than a century after Assyria fell Mesopotamian infantrymen of this type were still prominent in the Persian army Herodotus (7:61-99) preserved the Persian army list of about 480 Be, which specifies the equipment borne by all the provincial contingents of the Persian Empire. Practically all are missile fighters – Iranian and Arabian archers, Anatolian and Thracian javelinmen. Only two regional contingents are equipped as heavy infantry with shield and spear: the Lydians of western Anatolia, who are armed like their neighbours the Greeks, and the ‘Assyrians’ (inhabitants of the Persian satrapy of Mesopotamia).

Assyrian armies were basically infantry armies. That was already clear in the ninth century, when an inscription of Shalmaneser mentions an army of 50,000 foot soldiers and 1,351 chariots. In the eighth century the ratio of foot to horse in the forces of the governor of Zamua was eight to one. We may assume that after some skirmishing by the cavalry the real battle was normally opened by the advance of the infantry. What was the infantry expected to do? In Assyrian art we often see an archer accompanied by a spearman who protects him with his shield, and on the Ulai River reliefs groups of archers and spearmen appear to be co-operating in some fashion. Perhaps they supported one another like the musketeers and pikemen of European infantry armies in the seventeenth century AD: the missile fighters opened the battle under the protection of the heavy infantry, and retreated behind them when it came to close combat. It may not be a coincidence that the governor of Zamua commanded precisely equal numbers of spearmen and archers – 440 each. The Persians appear to have merged the Assyrian spearman and the Assyrian archer into a single all-purpose soldier, losing thereby the Assyrian capacity for shock combat. Assyrian battles, however, were probably won by archery. There would have been more scope for hand-to-hand fighting when Assyrians pursued an enemy already broken and fleeing, as portrayed on the Ulai River reliefs. Cavalry doubtless operated in support of the infantry, which was always the role of cavalry in later armies: providing a screen for the advancing infantry, harassing the enemy with arrows, trying to outflank and encircle and break up their formations, pursuing them after they broke. They often carried spears as well, but as they had no stirrups and wielded their weapons with an overhand thrust they probably did not charge like medieval knights. Spears would have been most useful in riding down fleeing infantrymen, as on the Ulai River reliefs.

A pitched battle seems to have been an uncommon experience for the mature Assyrian army, because they were so good at it: most enemies sensibly avoided pitched battle with them, so most wars were won by sieges. Hence the most feared component of the Assyrian army was its siege-train, whose elaborate engines and techniques are prominently featured in Assyrian art. The Assyrian reputation for invincibility rested not only on the ability of their armies to go anywhere, but to overcome any possible defences once they arrived.

The Ancient Assyrians


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