Early Warfare in Mesopotamia

By MSW Add a Comment 11 Min Read


By 4000 BCE most researchers believe Sumerian polities had fully formed warfare replete with military systems including fortifications, logistics, armies, special weapons and armor production, and specialized military units such as infantry and heavy chariots with command and control by specialized leadership.

In the Early Dynastic (ED) period (2900-2350 BCE) armed conflict arose generally from competition between settled states for land and water or by nomad raiders. Expeditions abroad to obtain commodities not available locally might also need armed protection or aggressive “sales tactics”-hence, for example, the fortifications around the Uruk-period settlement at Habuba Kabira and the military threats uttered by Enmerkar of Uruk against the distant state of Aratta. Unequivocal evidence of armed conflict in Mesopotamia comes in the late fourth millennium BCE, with artwork on seals depicting fights between men armed with spears and bows, and bound prisoners. During the earlier third millennium (ED period) cities, often housing the bulk of their state’s population, began erecting walls for defense as well as for territorial demarcation and prestige. Excavation has confirmed the slightly later literary descriptions of Uruk’s city walls: a circuit 5.9 miles (9.5 kilometers) long and 13-16 feet (4-5 meters) thick built of typical ED plano-convex bricks enclosed an area of 2.12 square miles (550 hectares). At least two city gates with rectangular towers have been traced, and the wall may have had as many as 900 semicircular towers. Similar towers have been found in the strong walls around Tell Agrab on the Diyala.

The epic tale of conflict between Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his one-time benefactor and overlord, Agga, king of Kish, climaxes when Agga’s forces besiege Uruk and Gilgamesh defeats and captures Agga, possibly after a pitched battle. Sieges in the ED period were often decided by force of arms in attacks and sallies rather than by attrition during long investments. However, attempts might be made to break into a fortified settlement using scaling ladders, and defenses began to be enhanced with a glacis.

The walls of captured cities were broken down, partly to humiliate their citizens. Booty and prisoners were taken, and much of the city might be sacked. Some of the spoils of war went by custom to the king and some to the god of the victorious city in his temple. Stone bowls found in the Ekur temple in Nippur bear inscriptions showing they were booty from King Rimush’s Elamite wars. Such inscriptions were an important part of the offering, demonstrating to both the god and the people that the king had fulfilled the god’s intention in prosecuting war and benefiting his people. Inscriptions quickly grew in length and substance from their terse early-third-millennium beginnings, and by the first millennium, royal inscriptions gave a long and detailed, although often exaggerated and inaccurate, account of the campaign, serving both as justification to the god and propaganda to the people. The form, style, phraseology, and content of inscriptions were dictated by tradition.

In conflicts between Sumerian city-states the victor usually respected the integrity of a defeated city’s temples: outrage at King Lugalzagesi’s failure to do so is forcefully expressed in the inscriptions of his enemy, Uru-inim-gina of Lagash. In contrast, attacks by outsiders- nomads of the Syrian Desert and Zagros Mountains, such as the Amorites and Guti, and foreign states, particularly Elam-were ruthless and spared nothing and no one. Sumerian distress at the devastation wreaked by their attacks- the noble buildings destroyed or infested by the enemy, the Felds laid waste, the people slain or taken into captivity-is poured out in a series of lamentations describing the sack of great cities like Akkad, Ur, and Nippur.

ED art vividly captures the citizen armies of the period. “The Standard of Ur” and “The Stele of Vultures” depict foot soldiers armed with spears or pole-mounted axes, their heads protected by leather or felt helmets. A force of heavy infantry carrying large rectangular shields marches in a solid and impenetrable phalanx bristling with couched spears, behind a king armed with a dagger. Maces and throwing sticks were also used as weapons at this time. The leaders ride in ponderous war-carts with four solid wheels, drawn by donkeys or mules. These were used mainly for transport to the battlefield and in pursuit of retreating enemy forces, and as a vantage point from which the leader could see and be seen, to direct his forces and impress friend and foe. The dead of the opposing army lie beneath the wheels of the carts or are heaped up in a communal burial mound, while the living are marched off into slavery, their hands tied behind them, or are held in a net by the god whose approval of the victors’ just cause had precipitated the con? ict and ensured its successful outcome. Later wars by larger states enjoyed the support of the war goddess Ishtar (Inanna), Nergal (Erra), god of strife, and the storm god Adad (Ishkur). Defeat, and even more terribly, the loss of the king in battle, betokened the withdrawal of divine favor.

Troops also included archers and soldiers armed with slings and ovoid stones, probably mainly recruited among the hunters and fishermen of the south. An inscribed object from the ED period at the site of Mari shows a bowman shooting from behind a wicker screen held by a spearman: this combination of archer and shield-bearer continued down the ages in Mesopotamian armies. The later-third-millennium development of the composite bow revolutionized warfare. Constructed as a sandwich of three contrasting materials, wood glued between a horn inner layer (to resist compression) and a sinew outer layer (for elasticity), it had a far greater penetration and range (around 575 feet or 175 meters) than the conventional bow. The composite bow benefited both attackers and defenders, enabling a wider area to be covered from the walls and troops on the ground to shoot defenders with more success.


This text is best known from manuscripts dated almost 700 years after the end of the Early Dynastic period. The author assumes that there was only one legitimate divinely appointed ruler for any one period of time and that political hegemony was restricted to a limited number of city states. “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alalgar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. . .. Then the flood swept over. After the flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kish. In Kish, Gushur became king; he ruled for 1200 years. . .. Then Kish was defeated and the kingship was taken to E-ana. In E-ana, Mesh-kiag-gasher, the son of Utu, became lord and king; he ruled for 324 years. Mesh-ki-aj-gasher entered the sea and disappeared. Enmerkar, the son of Mesh-ki-ag-gasher, the king of Uruk, became king; he ruled for 420 years. 745 are the years of the dynasty of Mesh-ki-ag-gasher . . .; he ruled for 5 + x years. Lugalbanda, the shepherd, ruled for 1200 years. Dumuzid, the fsherman whose city was Kuara, ruled for 100 years. He captured Enme-barage-si single-handed. Gilgamesh, whose father was a phantom (?), the lord of Kulaba, ruled for 126 years. Ur-Nungal, the son of Gilgamesh, ruled for 30 years. Udul-kalama, the son of UrNungal, ruled for 15 years. La-ba’shum ruled for 9 years. En-nun-tarah-ana ruled for 8 years. Mesh-he, the smith, ruled for 36 years. Til-kug (?) . . . ruled for 6 years. Lugal-kitun (?) ruled for 36 (or 420) years. 12 kings; they ruled for 2310 years. Then Uruk was defeated and the kingship was taken to Ur.”

Bibliography Anglim, Simon, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World. 3000 BC-AD 500. Equipment, Combat Skills and Tactics. London: Greenhill Books, 2002. Chapman, Rupert. “Weapons and Warfare.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, edited by Eric M. Meyers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Dalley, Stephanie. “Ancient Mesopotamian Military Organization.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. Nissen, Hans J. “The City Wall of Uruk.” In Man, Settlement and Urbanism. edited by Peter Ucko, Ruth Tringham, and Geoffrey W. Dimbleby. London: Duckworth, 1972.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version