Iron and Empire: The Rise of Assyria

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Iron was first utilized as a technology of war around 1300 bce by the Hittites. By the beginning of the first millennium bce, the secret of iron metallurgy and cold forging had spread to Palestine and Egypt by way of the nomadic invasions, and perhaps to Mesopotamia as well. Iron weapons were superior to bronze weapons because they were heated and hammered into shape rather than cast, making them stronger, less brittle and more reliable than their bronze counterparts. Within a few centuries the secret of tempering was discovered and diffused, and iron became the basic weapon material for all the armies of the period.

The invention and diffusion of iron smelting, cold forging and tempering created no less than a military revolution in the classical world. The importance of iron in the development of classical warfare lay not only in its strength and ability to hold an edge, but also in the widespread availability of iron ore. No longer were civilizations dependent on copper and tin deposits to make their bronze weapons. Five hundred times more prevalent in the earth’s surface than copper, iron was commonly and widely available almost everywhere. The plentiful supply of this strategic material allowed states to produce enormous quantities of reliable weapons cheaply. In fact, a democratization of warfare took place, with most members of an army now being issued iron weapons. Now almost any state could equip large armies with reliable weapons, with the result being a dramatic increase in both the size of battles and the frequency of war. The first people to take full advantage of the potential of the Iron Age were the Assyrians.

Assyrian monarchs had long understood the precarious strategic position of their state. Centred on the three major cities of Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur on the upper Tigris River, in what is now north-western Iraq, Assyria was cursed with a dearth of natural resources and few natural barriers to keep out enemy invasions. Assyria lacked wood for constructing forts, temples and dams, stone for building walls and castles, and iron ore deposits to forge weapons. Assyria also lacked the large steppes necessary to support large horse herds, essential for chariotry and cavalry. If Assyria was to survive, it needed to expand at the expense of its more advantaged neighbours. Beginning in the fourteenth century bce, the Assyrians successfully resisted Mitannian, Hittite and Babylonian expansion and subjugation to finally emerge as a regional power under Tiglath-pileser I (c.1115–1077 bce). The empire created by Tiglath-pileser did not long survive his passing, and a new phase of expansion began in the ninth century under the reign of Shalmaneser III (858–824 bce). By Tiglath-pileser III’s reign (744–727 bce), the Assyrians had expanded into Syria and Babylonia, securing their western and eastern frontiers.

The Assyrians quickly mastered iron metallurgy and applied this new technology to military equipment and tactics. By the eighth century bce, the Assyrians had used their large, iron-equipped armies to conquer much of the Fertile Crescent, and, for a short time in the seventh century, Egypt as well. The general size, logistical capabilities, and strategic and tactical mobility of the Assyrian army were indeed impressive, even by modern standards, with the lessons learned by the Assyrians being passed on to the Persians.

As early as 854 bce at the battle of Karkara (modern Tel Qarqur), Shalmaneser III was able to field a multinational army of over 70,000 men, made up of 65,000 infantrymen, 1,200 cavalrymen and 4,000 chariots. By the eighth century bce, the entire Assyrian armed forces consisted of at least 150,000 to 200,000 men and were the largest standing military force the Near East had ever witnessed. An Assyrian field army numbered approximately 50,000 men and was a combined-arms force consisting of various mixes of infantry, cavalry and chariots which, when arrayed for battle, had a frontage of 2,500 yards and a depth of 100 yards. Still, the Assyrian army, as large as it was, seemed small when compared to armies that appeared some three centuries later. For instance, by 500 bce, a Persian Great King could raise an army of around 300,000 men from his vast territories, and Alexander may have faced a Persian army at the battle of Gaugamela of perhaps 250,000 men, including 20,000 cavalrymen, 250 chariots and 50 elephants.

The Assyrians also recognized the need for increased specialization in weapon systems. With the exception of an elite royal bodyguard and foreign mercenaries, Assyrian kings relied on a farmer-militia raised by a levée en masse. But as these mobilizations increased in frequency, the Assyrians began to supplement their militia muster with an ever-growing cadre of specialized troops. By Sargon II’s time (r. 721–705 bce), the Assyrian army was a combined-arms fighting force of heavy and light infantry, cavalry, chariots and siege machinery supported by specialized units of scouts, engineers, spies and sappers.

Assyrian heavy infantry were armed with a long, double-bladed spear and a straight sword for shock combat, and were protected by a conical iron helmet, knee-length coat of lamellar armour (a shirt of laminated layers of leather sown or glued together, then fitted with iron plates) and a small iron shield. There is some evidence that can be gathered from the panoply depicted on stone bas-reliefs that the Assyrian royal guard was a professional corps of articulated heavy infantry who fought in a phalanx. In battle, these Assyrian heavy infantrymen were organized in a battle square with a ten-man front and files twenty men deep. But even if these troops were capable of offensive articulation, the financial resources, drill, discipline and esprit de corps necessary to field large numbers of these specialized troops was not a dominant part of the Near Eastern art of war, so if present, it was not the decisive tactical system that it would become under the Greeks. Instead, light infantry archers were probably the main offensive arm of the Assyrian army.

Assyrian archers wore a slightly shorter coat of mail armour and the same conical helm as their heavy infantry counterparts, and are often depicted with a shield-bearer carrying a large, rectangular shield made of densely matted reeds covered with oiled skins or metal, similar to a pavise of the medieval period. The shield was curved backward along its top edge to provide extra cover from long-distance arrow or stone attacks and against missiles fired from enemy walls. Archers came from many regions within the empire, so bow types differed, with the simpler self-bow in use as much as the composite bow. The Assyrians invented a quiver that could hold as many as fifty arrows, with some arrows fitted with special heads capable of launching combustible materials. Referred to as ‘the messengers of death’, these flame arrows were targeted at enemy homes or crops. Slingers constitute another type of light infantry employed by the Assyrians. They are often depicted on stone bas-reliefs standing behind archers.

Changes in technology also enabled Assyrian ironsmiths to design a stronger chariot, with builders emulating earlier Egyptian designs by moving the wheel axis from the centre to the rear of the carriage. The result was a highly manoeuvrable vehicle that reduced traction effort. Still, the chariot suffered from terrain restrictions, unable to exploit its impressive shock capabilities on anything but level ground. Perhaps the chariot remained the dominant weapon system into the early Iron Age because of the sociology and psychology of the forces the chariot led and faced. In the Bronze Age the chariot was the weapon of the aristocracy, ridden into parade and battle by a social class culturally ordained as superior to the common soldiers who gazed upon these often excessively decorated weapons. It is possible that the utility of cavalry was not fully tested by the Assyrians because of a carry-over preoccupation with the Bronze Age domination of the battlefield by chariots. For over 2,000 years chariots were free to scatter formations of poorly equipped and weakly motivated infantry. This preoccupation with a battlefield anachronism would continue with the Persians as well, until their final defeat in 331 bce at Gaugamela by a Macedonian army unburdened by chariots.

Most significantly, Assyria was the first civilization in the west to exploit the potential of the horse as a mount. The introduction of larger, sturdier horses from the Eurasian steppes gave the Assyrians a new weapon system, the cavalryman. The first Assyrian cavalry were probably nomadic cavalry, perhaps Median mercenaries from tributary states across the Zagros Mountains on the Eurasian steppes. But not wanting to rely on foreign horsemen, the Assyrians began to develop their own cavalry corps, specializing in both light and heavy tactical systems. Assyrian light infantry emulated their nomadic neighbours, riding smaller, faster steeds and firing arrows from composite bows on the fly. It is notable that writers of the Old Testament called these Assyrian cavalrymen ‘hurricanes on horseback’. Assyrian light cavalry faced all kinds of opponents, including camels used as platforms for Arab missiles, with mounted archers sitting behind the beasts’ jockeys back-to-back and firing at pursuing Assyrian infantry and cavalry.

Assyrian heavy cavalry was in a state of continuous evolution. The original mounted lancer modified the equipment of foot soldiers to meet the needs of shock combat. The armoured coat was reduced to waist length and the shield was made smaller. Heavy cavalry were armed with both sword and lance, but the absence of a stabilizing stirrup meant Assyrian lancers, like their other classical-age counterparts, thrust out and loosened their spear at their enemy as they passed instead of riding through their target using the synergy of horse and rider.

Over time, the Assyrians developed their own cavalry corps and their own horse recruitment, acquiring specialized ‘yoke’ horses for chariots and riding horses for cavalry from as far away as Nubia and Iran. It remains a mystery why this weapon system, far superior to the chariot in both strategic and tactical mobility, was never fully exploited by the Assyrians. Possibly the lack of the horseshoe made the use of cavalry in rough terrain too expensive in animals, or the Assyrians’ preoccupation with chariots precluded them from sustaining large forces of both chariots and cavalry.

The Ancient Assyrians

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