Map of the Akkadian Empire (brown) and the directions in which military campaigns were conducted (yellow arrows).

Mesopotamia, 2334–2005 BC

The very first empire on record and, not coincidentally, the first standing army were built by Sargon, an early-day Saddam Hussein whose capital was Akkad, a city believed to have been located near modern-day Baghdad. According to legend, his was an early rags-to-riches tale. He was said to have begun life like Moses, an orphan who was sent floating in a wicker basket on the river and was found by a farmer. He rose from being cupbearer to the king of the city-state of Kish to being king of all he surveyed. Between 2334 and 2279 BC, he subdued what is now southern Iraq along with western Iran, northern Syria, and southern Turkey. Victorious in thirty-four battles, he called himself “king of the world.”

The secret of Akkad’s military success is unclear, but it may have been its possession of a powerful composite bow tipped with bronze arrowheads, whose impact has been called “as revolutionary, in its day . . . as the discovery of gunpowder thousands of years later.” Other weapons included the lance, spear, javelin, mace, and battle-ax. Just as important was the maintenance of an extensive bureaucracy to fund and sustain Akkad’s army, providing soldiers with such essentials as “bread and beer.”

This military machine was kept fully employed not only in seizing new domains but also in holding on to those already conquered. Defeated cities constantly rose up to resist imperial control. The Akkadians responded with what a modern scholar describes as “mass slaughter, enslavement, and deportation of defeated enemies, and the total annihilation of their cities.” Calling himself a “raging lion,” Sargon was faithful to the injunction of one of his gods, Enlil, who instructed him to show “mercy to no one.” One city after another was left, in the words of the ancient tablets, a “ruin heap.”

Sargon did not entirely neglect the need to win over his subjects, especially the Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia. He spread the Akkadian language and offered patronage to the arts. His daughter, Enheduanna, a princess, poet, and priestess who is often considered the world’s first author, wrote cuneiform verse celebrating the unity of Sumerian and Akkadian gods. This was intended to buttress Sargon’s legitimacy as a Semite to rule over Sumerians.

But after Sargon’s death, revolts rippled across the empire, and they were only temporarily suppressed by Sargon’s son Rimush, who “annihilated” rebellious cities. Rimush’s older brother, Manishtushu, who may have usurped his throne and murdered him, found that “all the lands . . . which my father Sargon left had in enmity revolted against me.”

Weakened by incessant uprisings, Akkad was finally brought down around 2190 BC by neighboring mountain peoples, including the Hurrians, Lullubi, Elamites, and Amorites. The most devastating were the Gutians from the Zagros Mountains of southwestern Iran, who have been described as “fierce and lawless barbarians.” Mesopotamian inscriptions described the highlanders, who may be said to have been the first successful guerrillas on record, in terms that would be instantly familiar to Europeans or Chinese of a later age as “the fanged serpent of the mountain, who acted with violence against the gods . . . who took away the wife from the one who had a wife, who took away the child from the one who had a child, who put wickedness and evil in the land of Sumer.” Such has ever been the reaction of settled farmers ravaged by rootless “barbarians.”

After the fall of Akkad, nomads who moved on foot, not on horseback (domestication of horses and camels was just beginning), swarmed all over Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine for two hundred years. Brigands and pirates came in their wake, there being no imperial authority to keep the peace. The city dwellers of Sumeria looked with fear and loathing upon these outsiders—so capable militarily, so uncouth culturally. They were described as a “ravaging people, with the instincts of a beast, like wolves,” and they were denigrated as “men who ate not fish, men who ate not onions,” men who “stunk of camelthorn and urine.” (Camelthorn is a noxious weed native to Asia.)

In 2059 BC, the empire of Ur in southern Iraq erected a “Wall Facing the Highland” to keep nomads out of central Mesopotamia. This construction project wound up running over time and over budget because its builders were constantly harassed by Amorite nomads (“tent dwellers . . . [who] from ancient times have known no cities”), and in the end it could not provide lasting security any more than could the Great Wall of China or the Morice Line erected by the French in Algeria in the 1950s. In 2005 BC the Elamites, “the enemy from the highlands,” sacked Ur, turning the great city into a “ruined mound.” They left “corpses floating in the Euphrates” and reduced the survivors to refugees who, according to Mesopotamian tablets, were “like stampeding goats, chased by dogs.

Most ancient empires responded to the threat of guerrilla warfare, whether waged by nomads from the outside or rebels from the inside, with the same strategy. It can be boiled down to one simple word: terror. Ancient monarchs sought to inflict as much suffering as possible to put down and deter armed challenges. Since, with a few exceptions such as Athens and the Roman Republic, ancient polities were monarchies or warrior states, rather than constitutional republics, they seldom felt bound by any moral scruples or by any need to appease public opinion—neither “public opinion” nor “human rights” being concepts that they would have understood. (The former phrase was not coined until the eighteenth century, the latter not until the twentieth, although the ideas they describe have been traced back to ancient Greece.)

The Assyrians, who starting in 1100 BC conquered a domain stretching a thousand miles from Persia to Egypt, were particularly grisly in their infliction of terror. King Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BC) had inscribed on his royal residence an account of what he did after recapturing the rebellious city of Suru:

I built a pillar over against [the] city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers, who had rebelled.

The Mongols would later become famous for equally grotesque displays designed to frighten adversaries into acquiescence. But even at a time when there were no human-rights lobbies and no free press, this strategy was far from invariably successful. Often it backfired by simply creating more enemies. Wracked by civil war, Assyria was helpless in the end to suppress a revolt by the Babylonians, inhabitants of a city previously sacked by the Assyrians, and the Medes, a tribe dwelling in modern-day Iran. They pooled their resources to fight their mutual oppressors. In 612 BC they managed to conquer the imperial capital and, as Herodotus put it, “to shake off the yoke of servitude, and to become a free people.”

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