Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign I

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Assyria and its Army – Sargon IIs Reign I

Sargon II

Posterity has long recognized Sargon II as one of the chief
architects of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the man who transformed a burgeoning
power into the undisputed master of the Near East by continuously and
successfully waging war. Despite the popular image of the Assyrians raping and
pillaging their way to power and ruling through fear, the evidence reveals a
complex process that not only responded to contemporary imperatives but also
respected long-standing tradition. Sargon belonged to a culture more than a
thousand years old, one whose war fighting reflected a common Near Eastern
worldview that made the king responsible to the gods for everything that

In the ancient Near East, warfare had many functions and
meanings. Kings enacted political decisions through warfare, yet on another
level war was an “ordalic procedure” (a trial by combat) through
which rulers sought to impose order on the universe and defeat the agents of
chaos. It was also a masculine contest between individual leaders and a chance
for elites to prove their worth and gain status. The fortunes of war fed or
depleted economies and helped the ruling class maintain power over the common
people. Just as war ravaged the countryside and decimated populations, it led
to the intermingling of different ethnic groups, provided opportunities for
individual and group advancement, and promoted the exchange of ideas and
technologies across borders and geographic zones. Then, as now, it had
far-reaching consequences, not all of them negative. The ravages of war also
inspired literary works such as Erra and Ishum that explored the moral
implications of violence. Over time, nearly constant conflict among competing
states had a homogenizing effect so that historical enemies developed similar
cultures of war (rules and expectations) and methods of political discourse.
Conversely, when expansion took armies into distant foreign lands, whose
terrain often proved difficult and whose “barbarian” people did not
share the same cultural or military practices, violence tended to escalate. In
pursuing his interests, Sargon II utilized methods of warfare and imperialism
that were as well known to his contemporaries as the theater of war was
familiar to the Assyrians.

From the third millennium the Assyrian heartland comprised
the Ashur-Nineveh-Arbela triangle roughly demarcated by the Tigris, its tributary
the Lower Zab River, and the northern highlands. Over the following centuries,
Assyria’s territorial influence expanded and contracted according to its
political fortunes and the abilities of its kings. During the late second
millennium and then again at the beginning of the first, the Assyrians won
large but ephemeral empires that they ruled more through threat and armed
robbery than by law and commercial development. By the middle of the eighth
century, after a period of decline, they were ready to initiate a new type of
empire based on their permanent presence in fully administered provinces. In
the decades preceding Sargon, the Assyrians had extended undisputed control
west to the Euphrates, north into upper Tigris region and east to the Zagros piedmont.
By his first full regnal year, 721, the geographical area in which the Assyrian
army regularly campaigned stretched well over a thousand miles, from Anatolia
to the borders of Egypt, from Lake Urmia to the Persian Gulf, and from the
Mediterranean Sea to Iran. As complex as it was vast, the theater of operations
encompassed widely different types of terrain-rich agricultural land, rugged
mountain ranges, arid plains, marshland, and unpredictable waterways-filled
with a variety of flora, fauna, and natural resources. Joining Assyria in the
fierce competition for control of resources and trade routes were a few other
powerful states, myriad smaller polities, and various nomadic tribes, whose
loyalties shifted according to the dictates of survival and opportunity.

Over the course of centuries, a pattern of interstate
competition had developed. By the first millennium, much of the conflict
between great powers took place in the buffer zones that separated them.
Violence was not the first resort of conflict resolution, and kings often
preferred diplomacy, espionage, and armed threat to direct confrontation.
Nevertheless, war was endemic in all of its manifestations, including
everything from less-frequent, high-intensity sieges and pitched battles to
more common, low-intensity raids and skirmishes. Thus, Egypt vied with Assyria
for control of Palestine; Phrygia, Assyria, and Urartu struggled over the
Taurus polities and Syria; and Urartu challenged Assyria in Anatolia and
competed with Assyria, Elam, and occasionally Babylonia for suzerainty over the
Zagros piedmont and Median plateau. Occupying the dangerous central position in
the geopolitical arena of the Near East, Assyria was surrounded by enemies yet
managed through military, economic, and political prowess to extend its sphere
of influence over much of the contested territory.

The primary goals of Assyrian expansion were to supply the
core with vital resources that it lacked (e. g., metal, wood, and stone) and
prevent competitors (other kings) from gaining power. Although ideology
mandated that Assyrian kings strive to develop barren lands so that their
subjects could “graze in the meadows in plenty and abundance,” taxes
and a thriving textile trade provided insufficient capital for them to realize
this objective. Conquest of new territory seemed to offer a solution. Since the
army provided the means to this end, maintaining a military edge became a
central concern. As Assyria extended its territory through annexation and by
creating clients, its economic potential increased, but so did demands on its
military. In response, the state gradually developed a system of governance
that maximized both human and material resources. By reducing the need for
armed intervention, political spectacle and diplomacy further alleviated the
strain that territorial expansion put on the army.

Indeed, at the highest levels the Assyrians did not
distinguish between civil and military administrations but operated under a
unified system in which a handful of the king’s most trusted officials, the
magnates, were involved in the whole spectrum of government, from court
business, temple administration, and royal construction projects, to provincial
management, diplomatic endeavors, and military campaigns. If the system
encouraged the king to micromanage, it required his officials to become adept
multitaskers. The royal treasurer, for example, besides handling court
business, not only administered a province but oversaw the construction of
Sargon’s new capital city, Dur-Sharrukin. Nevertheless, the imperial
administrative structure functioned as a fully integrated, highly flexible
organization designed to move resources-animals, metals, stone, wood, and
people, especially craftsmen-from the provinces and distribute them among
public works projects and the army. This is not to say that the provinces were
bled dry. In fact, they retained much of what they produced. This way surpluses
could benefit the locals as well as supply the army when it marched through
their area. For the most part, it was in Assyria’s best interest to encourage
the economies of both territories and clients; the more these flourished, the
more they could contribute. Thus, Assyrian hegemony actually stimulated
production and improved the quality of life in some areas, at least for local

The number and size of imperial provinces fluctuated
periodically due to territorial gains and demographic shifts. Under Sargon,
there were three standard types: foreign lands annexed through new conquest and
governed by royal appointees (e. g., Arpad, Damascus, and Unqi); those
strategically vital territories on the northern and northeastern frontiers and
in the Syrian Jazirah that the king’s magnates governed; and the heartland
provinces managed by city governors. Historically the king’s magnates were the
treasurer (masennu), palace herald (nagir ekalli), chief cupbearer (rab saqe),
field marshal (turtanu), chief eunuch (rab sa resi), chief justice (sartennu),
and vizier (sukkallu). The first four of these-the treasurer, cupbearer, palace
herald, and field marshal-governed the strategically important border provinces
on the heartland’s frontier and thus were instrumental in managing adjacent
buffer principalities. The other three-chief eunuch, chief justice, and
vizier-did not govern provinces but remained closely tied to the royal court. Table 1 outlines the duties attested
for these officials as well as known office holders during Sargon’s reign. The
groups of magnates had different responsibilities as well as different power bases.
Those magnates who administered provinces were responsible for border security,
public order, management of resources and personnel, tax collection, gathering
and reporting of intelligence, building and garrisoning of forts, and
construction and maintenance of dams, levies, aqueducts, and roads, as well as
mustering troops and leading them on campaign. The magnates also had their own
household troops-in effect small, private armies-and thus the king had always
to keep these men in check.

Since land ownership paved the way to wealth and individual
power, the king had to be careful lest any of his governors gain control of
enough territory (and thereby resources) to challenge his authority. To this
end, he made sure that their estates were scattered among several provinces
rather than held as a single estate within their own provinces. For example,
letters demonstrate that the chief justice, the vizier, and the governor of
Calah all held land in Arzuhina province. This practice not only helped to curtail
elite ambitions but also, as Raija Mattila notes, “established a network
of interlocking economic interests within the provinces and tied the personal
interests of the major land owners to the fate and welfare of the entire
empire.” Landownership dispersal also went a long way toward solving one
of the weaknesses inherent in a system whose central administration competed
with an entrenched aristocracy, many of whose members had ties (and thus
claims) to the throne. A further function of widespread landholding was, in
effect, prebendary, as the magnates were under obligation to the crown to share
key materials such as wood and stone, precious metals, and horses. In return
for services and loyalty, the king bestowed grants of land and a portion of audience
gifts and campaign plunder. Together the magnates’ provinces and those of the
heartland comprised “Assyria proper,” and it was from these core
territories that the crown enlisted the main chariotry, cavalry, and heavy
infantry units of the standing army. All of the provinces provided levies for
temporary duty.

Individually and as a group the magnates were vital to
Assyria’s military effectiveness, but it was up to the king to direct their
activities toward the fulfillment of his strategic goals. In particular, war
and the conduct of war played a pivotal role in creating bonds between the king
and the Assyrian elite. All of Sargon’s top officials not only benefited
materially from Assyria’s wars but also were responsible for supplying and
leading portions of the army on campaign. Members of the nobility traditionally
formed part of the king’s chariotry and cavalry, and it is probably safe to
assume that many of the army’s highest-ranking officers-among them a large
number of eunuchs-belonged to the upper echelons as well. This system created a
symbiotic relationship between the king and the affluent classes on the one
hand and between the economy and the military on the other. Warfare played an
important role in sustaining the imperial system, but it was the standing army
that made it possible to rule a territorial empire of closely administered
provinces, as opposed to hegemonic empire, in which the king held sway over
semi-independent, tribute-paying clients. In fact, although the king managed a
vast provincial system, in some areas-where strategic considerations or rough
terrain made it expedient-he maintained the old hegemonic system.

During the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 b. c.), the
king’s personal guard transformed into a standing army, the royal cohort (kisir
sarruti), that consisted of chariot and cavalry units (including foreign
elements recruited into the army after being defeated), Assyrian infantry, and
auxiliary light infantry. Up until this point, economic and demographic
restrictions had generally limited military operations to yearly raids aimed at
collecting plunder and forcing targeted polities into paying tribute. In order
to annex new territory and incorporate it into the provincial system, the army
had to be capable both of extended campaigning far from the Assyrian heartland
and of occupying conquered territory. For this reason and to balance the power
of provincial governors, who levied and led troops for the crown, Assyria
needed a fairly large force under permanent royal control. By
institutionalizing the related practices of deportation and colonization,
Tiglath-pileser was able to populate areas selected for agricultural or trade
development and also control newly conquered peoples. Likewise, by
incorporating selected units from defeated armies into his standing army, he
could augment his own forces with experienced specialist units, while
simultaneously crippling the ability of defeated peoples to rebel. Finally, the
crown forged long-term agreements with a number of Aramaean tribes (Itu’eans
and Gurreans), who provided auxiliary infantry for the standing army. Since
auxiliaries and deportee troops depended on the crown for their livelihood and
security, and since they had no stake in Assyrian court politics, they tended to
be both reliable and loyal to the king. Thus, the allegiance of a large number
of non-Assyrian troops increased the king’s power over his own officials.

Sargon’s Army

Although Sargon mainly adhered to the model established by
his father, the size and organization of his army varied according to economic
and political circumstances, military objectives, and the will of the king.
Ancient Near Eastern societies produced no written corpus of military doctrine
but carried out military operations pragmatically in accord with tradition, to
meet necessity, and to exploit opportunity. What we know about the organization
of Sargon’s army inevitably depends on the available sources, which in this
case consist of horse inventories and personnel lists from Fort Shalmaneser
(the review palace at Calah) as well as letters and a few miscellaneous
administrative documents found at other sites. All of these texts lack the
context that could explain their purpose and shed light on the plethora of
ranks and administrative titles mentioned in them. Much of the terminology
seems to be used interchangeably, and it is often impossible to detect
distinctions between ranks or establish the full chain of command, hence the
finer nuances of the ranking system remain stubbornly unavailable. Another
oft-cited source, the sculptured palace reliefs, depicts arms and armor
realistically, but offers limited insight into military organization and
hierarchy. A detailed consideration of all the evidence is not within the scope
of this work, and even the most thorough studies fall short of definitive
answers; the sources are simply too ambiguous and fragmentary. Given the number
of unresolved questions involving the structure of the Assyrian army, much of
the following is necessarily provisional.

Under Sargon, the standing army consisted of the royal
guards, equestrian forces (cavalry and chariotry), heavy infantry, and some
units of auxiliary infantry comprised of Itu’ean archers, Gurrean spearmen, and
occasionally other tribal peoples. The Assyrians did not hire mercenaries,
although they did maintain a special relationship with certain tribal groups,
who served the military in an auxiliary capacity. How long and under what terms
permanent troops served we do not know. Nor is it clear whether these men
usually lived in barracks, with their own families, or sometimes billeted among
locals. The living situation probably depended on where the troops were
stationed. To augment the standing army, provincial governors could levy a
large temporary force, “king’s men” (sab sarri), from those liable
for compulsory state service (ilku). The Assyrians also required clients to
provide troops when called upon to do so. The king ultimately made all major
military decisions. Directly subordinate to him were the chief eunuch, who
administered the standing army, and the field marshal, who commanded a sizeable
force of his own and sometimes led the magnates on campaign on the king’s
behalf. As mentioned earlier, the magnates and provincial governors raised and
commanded troops-their own permanent household guards and temporary levies. A
precise chain of command cannot be reconstructed fully from the large number of
attested officer titles, but the basic infantry organization (using modern
terminology for unit types) went something like this:

Divisions of five thousand to ten thousand men commanded by
a high official (magnate or provincial governor)

Brigades of one thousand men commanded by a rab 1-lim

Battalions of five hundred men commanded by a rab 5-me-at
(commander of five hundred)

Companies of one hundred to two hundred men commanded by rab
2-me-at (commander of two hundred), rab 1-me-at (commander of one hundred), or
rab kisri (cohort commander)

Platoons of fifty men commanded by a rab hanse (commander of

Squad-level units of ten-essentially the number of men that
could fit around a campfire-are sometimes attested in later texts but not so
far in those of Sargon. The equestrian divisions used additional ranks such as
team commander (rab urate) and chariot or cavalry commander (rab mugi), whose
position in the chain of command eludes us. Some of the highest-ranking
Assyrian officials and officers were eunuchs, but otherwise eunuchs do not
appear to have been associated with any one particular military arm or unit. On
the sculptured palace reliefs eunuchs intermingle with bearded Assyrians at
sieges, and they never appear as a segregated corps. Specialized ranks and
offices are discussed below within their specific military branches.

The Standing Army’s
Equestrian Units

The chief eunuch was in charge of the core equestrian
divisions of the standing army, including the king’s military entourage, the
horse and chariot guards, foreigners recruited from conquered armies, and the
“city units” (cavalry and chariot troops raised from the Assyrian
heartland). There were at least two categories of royal bodyguards-the sa sepi
(literally meaning “at the feet”) and sa qurbuti (“close
by”)-both of which included chariotry and cavalry. These elite guards,
probably recruited from the nobility, worked closely together. Of Sargon’s
guards, the most prestigious corps was the one-thousand-strong cavalry troop (pethal
qurubti) that always accompanied Sargon and which his brother, the grand
vizier, Sin-ah-usur, commanded. That the king put his brother in charge of this
elite outfit was a signal honor and a public display of trust. From a political
standpoint it served to keep a potential rival at hand and content with his

The sa qurbuti guards were regularly seconded to other units
or sent on special-duty assignments. They occasionally oversaw the relocation
of troops or operated as the king’s plenipotentiaries in the provinces. These
troops acted with the full weight of royal authority, and there are several
letters from governors and other high-ranking officials requesting that the
king send one of these officers to resolve a dispute, evidently because a royal
representative could get better results than local administrators. Certainly
the presence of the king’s envoy would have helped speed up diplomatic and
administrative processes that might otherwise have foundered due to
communication delays. Aside from the guard units, which were something of a
special case, chariots represented the most prestigious combat arm.

Chariotry had been the dominant, elite force in Near Eastern
armies up until the introduction of cavalry in the ninth century. The fact that
chariot contingents are always listed before cavalry and infantry in
Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions and administrative documents provides further
evidence of the high status of this combat arm. Over time, war chariots became
steadily larger and heavier, and by the mid-eighth century Assyrian chariots
required teams of up to four horses and boasted eight-spoked wooden wheels
reinforced with iron hobnails. There were several distinct chariot units in the
army: the palace chariotry (gis. gigir é.gal); bodyguard chariotry (gis. gigir
qurbute), the sa sepi guard chariotry (gis. gigir sa sepi), the “city
units,” and some foreign contingents recruited after conquest. Each
chariot normally had a three-man team: the warrior/knight (mar damqi), the
driver (mukil appati), and a “third man” or shield bearer (taslisu). Chariot
teams were organized into units of fifty, each with its own commander (rab
hanse). Each contingent organized its men according to their function on the
chariot; hence we find officers of the rank “chief third man” (taslisu
dannu), “deputy third man” (taslisu saniu), and “cohort
commander of the knights” (rab kisir sa mar damqa). This arrangement
mirrored both social ranking and the specialized duties of the different
chariot personnel. Various other official titles get mentioned in letters and
administrative documents, but the context rarely (if ever) reveals the holder’s
position in the hierarchy. The offices of the commander of chariotry (rab mugi
sa gis. gigir. mes), chariot supervisor (sa pan gis. gigir), and overseer (?)
of chariots (sa gis. gigir) thus remain something of a mystery.

While chariots were still important during Sargon’s reign,
their prominence decreased as the army undertook more campaigns in mountainous
territory where the use of wheeled vehicles became problematic. Nonetheless,
chariots remained a valuable military asset in the more hospitable terrain of
Syria-Palestine and Babylonia. When conquest delivered competent chariot troops
into his hands, Sargon incorporated them into his own army. In his first regnal
year he recruited fifty chariot teams (150 men) from Samaria. After his
conquest of Hamath in 720, he took two hundred chariots (six hundred men), and
after the conquest of Carchemish in 716, he acquired fifty chariots (150
men).36 Presumably, these men, like their Assyrian counterparts, belonged to
the upper stratum of their respective city-states. By incorporating conquered
elites into his army, Sargon not only allowed them to save face after defeat,
but he also encouraged their assimilation into the empire. Sargon even
permitted some foreigners, such as the Samarians or Chaldeans, to retain their
national character and officers. Others were absorbed into the deportee
(saglute) units and commanded by Assyrian officers.

According to the sculptured reliefs from Sargon’s palace,
chariot personnel wore no armor other than the standard Assyrian pointed
helmet, and they sometimes eschewed protective gear altogether. Aside from a
whip, drivers did not wield weapons, and, although chariot fighters carried
swords, they are only depicted shooting bows in battle. The chariot’s
“third man” defended his compatriots with one or two shields. Some
chariots carried spears and extra shields hung across the back to provide
additional protection to those in the cab or to be detached for use in ground
combat. The slight variations between chariot teams depicted on the reliefs do
not allow us to distinguish between unit types (e. g., sa sepi or qurbute
chariotry) or national origins (Assyrians, Samarians, or Chaldeans). The same
may be said of the cavalry.

In addition to the horse guards already discussed, a regular
cavalry (pethallu) also served in the standing army. These troopers belonged in
the city units recruited from the main centers of the Assyrian heartland, including
Ashur, Arbela, Arzuhina, Arrapha, and “Aramaea” (a broader, regional
designator). As in the case of foreign chariotry, Sargon recruited conquered
horsemen into the deportee regiments on several occasions: six hundred from the
defeated army of Hamath, two hundred cavalrymen from Carchemish after that
city’s defeat, and another six hundred from Babylonia after 710. As mentioned
earlier, this policy allowed the king not only to augment his own cavalry force
but also to foster compliance among conquered peoples, who were simultaneously
prevented from fomenting rebellion in their home territories.

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“
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