Akkadian Military

Rear: Akkadian archer wielding a composite bow, from the time of Naram-Sin. Front: Babylonian foot-soldier from the time of Hammurabi. Ancient Warfare Magazine 2.5 by Karwansaray Publishing. Artwork by Johnny Shumate

If gods had transcendent powers, kings had armies, which they normally accompanied to the field in person. An important development in the Akkadian period was that Mesopotamian warfare was now waged much farther from the home base, whereas earlier hostilities were mostly between neighboring city-states. When Sargon listed his achievements in Enlil’s courtyard at Nippur, he singled out four: conquest, reform of administration, promotion of international trade, and the maintenance of a large, standing army. He alone, of all Mesopotamian rulers before or after him, states that he sustained 5400 fighting men every day in his service, so there was something new and important about this and the logistical support that made it possible. In the surviving art and commemorative inscriptions of the dynasty, military subjects prevail, though administrative documents dealing with military matters are rare or difficult to identify.

The armed forces consisted of several corps: archers, spearmen, and axe bearers, for distant, close, and hand-to-hand fighting respectively. Since spearmen could carry only one lance, to be thrown or thrust at close quarters, it seems likely that they also bore an axe or other hand weapon. They were backed up by soldiers bearing only axes. On his Victory Stele, Naram-Sin carries a bow, lance, and axe to symbolize the three main weapon types in his arsenal, but his men are armed more in keeping with reality. Immediately behind him march a spearman carrying an axe and two soldiers carrying a different type of axe and two standards. Next is an archer with an axe in one hand, then two men armed with what may be a throw-stick or a sling, carrying either short and long darts or a container of sling bullets. The soldiers at the head of columns are bearded, as was characteristic of the Akkadian elite; the men behind them appear to be clean-shaven.

The artist was at pains to differentiate the weapons. The Akkadian lances shown are of two types, one slightly longer than a man’s height and sometimes fitted with a knob at the butt end, the other shorter. The axes also vary: Naram-Sin’s has a narrow blade, an indented socket, and a point at the opposite end from the blade; the leading soldiers’ axes have blades more than twice as large as the king’s, set into a curved handle; other soldiers carry straight-handled axes. These distinctions perhaps represent specific contingents of the Akkadian army. The arms of the Lullubi foes are comparable, so the Akkadians were not shown as having superior weapons, unless the prominence of Naram-Sin’s bow is meant to suggest that Akkadian archery was superior. A general of archers appears among the Akkadian worthies for whom Manishtusu purchased land, and an entire team of arrow makers was maintained at Susa. The Akkadian soldiers have no body protection beyond their helmets, although in earlier depictions of soldiers they are shown wearing a heavy sash crossed over the chests. Their helmets are of two types, rounded and pointed. The former may be felt or leather, the latter copper.

The basic assault tactic may have been a triple shock: an initial barrage of arrows, darts, or sling bullets shot from a distance, then a charge of spearmen, who, once they had used their lances, wielded axes at close quarters, and finally a wave of reinforcements bearing axes. There is no evidence for the cumbersome battle wagons depicted in Sumerian art, although two and four-wheeled vehicles are known from Akkadian texts and from clay models. If in fact the Akkadian military did not rely on battle vehicles, this may account for the speed and mobility of the armed forces and their readiness to traverse rugged terrain, where no Sumerian army had ever gone. Enheduanna visualized an Akkadian assault in much the same terms:

I will aim a quivered shaft,

I will pour forth sling stones in a stream,

I will put some polish to my spear,

I will hold my shield and throw-stick ready.

Provisioning a field force of thousands in arid or mountainous territory presented a logistical challenge that the Akkadians met in two ways. First, they prepared for a campaign by acquiring detailed knowledge of the objective and its sources of water, as evidenced by a fragmentary itinerary carved on a stone monument, giving the precise marching distances between water-courses in the Khabur region. Second, they assembled adequate weaponry and food supplies, the latter in preference to foraging en route. Few records exist for this or tell where the arms were warehoused.26 A group of documents from Umma may record the provisioning of an Akkadian military force with large quantities of bread and beer, so Mesopotamian cities near troops on campaign may have been obliged to sustain them. At Girsu, 60 royal soldiers and a detachment of the “select” were issued five liters of fish and one liter of salt a month for three months, no doubt in addition to a basic food ration.

In the Umma records are a general (shakkanakkum), colonel or major (nubanda), captain (ugula), booty officer(?), the son of a governor in Syria (in training?), equerry, royal commissioner, door attendant, recruiter, courier, cupbearer, minister, quartermaster(?), šaperum with his clerk, quartermaster of garments(?), physician, porters, constable, an officer in charge of putting identification marks on (captured?) goods(? šaper ZAG.ŠUŠ), an ass herder, and an assortment of foreigners.

The Akkadian army was also accompanied by scribes, who kept the supply records (“scribe of the cupbearer”), counted the casualties, noted the names of high-ranking enemies, and perhaps sketched exotic landscapes, weaponry, military attire, and people for later commemorative purposes. A diviner consulted the gods for ongoing prognoses of tactical success or failure.

The king was supreme commander, the general the top field officer. Defeated kings and field commanders were recorded in victory inscriptions and depicted in reliefs. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, for instance, shows the enemy king in the top row, begging for mercy. Immediately below is probably his general of spearmen. Like the defeated king, he wears a special uniform, but carries a broken spear. Below him, the general of axe bearers also pleads for mercy, here from an advancing bowman.

The next command rank was the nu-banda, Akkadian laputtum, the officer in command of a battalion, likely of 600 men. At the town of Mugdan, near Kish, 90 iku of land (about 30 hectares), were set aside for a military force of unspecified size, commanded by a nu-banda. The leader of a smaller unit, such as a 60-man company or platoon, was the ugula, Akkadian waklum. The only reference to military organization is a comment by Sargon that he called up the nine “contingents” of Agade, implying that the military maintained muster lists of able-bodied men in the community who could be summoned to duty on short notice.

In the aftermath of a battle, it appears that defeated troops were stripped and executed or mutilated and enslaved. Beginning with the reign of Rimush, inscriptions specify how many enemies were killed in battle or captured. A relief, perhaps from the time of Rimush, shows the execution of unarmed, naked men begging for mercy. The enemy slain in battle were interred under a burial mound as a victory monument and a warning to the future. The Akkadian dead may have been included as well, or buried separately.36 Akkadian losses were never mentioned. A later poem about an Akkadian campaign refers to statues erected in honor of fallen warriors.

The king’s eyes and ears

If the divine warrior Shamash saw everything in the world, and all-wise Ea heard everything that was said, Akkadian kings needed the eyes and ears of others. Throughout the far-flung empire, a cadre of people loyal to the king watched over his political, economic, and strategic interests and reported on them regularly. Trusted officials traveled the realm to be shown resources, records, and livestock. When boats bound for the capital were loaded, for example, their cargoes were sometimes checked and sealed by a royal official who was not part of the local administrative hierarchy but an Akkadian notable. On one occasion a substantial stockpile of grain, silver, flour, and oil on an estate near Kish was shown to a royal inspector named GAL.ZU-sharrusin, who was likely an Akkadian notable. A royal inspector was also posted at the Akkadian center in Susa.

So important was inspection that it was sometimes carried out by a member of the royal family. Nabi-Ulmash, a son of Naram-Sin and governor of Tutub, made an inspection, as noted on a tablet from that city. An Akkadian seal may show a review of troops by a male kinsman of Manishtusu, labeled the “king’s brother,” although many other interpretations of this image have been offered. He is presumably the bearded figure in the center, with his hair dressed in the royal manner. Behind him stands the scribe Kalaki, owner of the seal, wearing a tasseled garment, while troops march by, eyes right and left. A chair-bearer accompanies the dignitaries.

There is no evidence for precisely how the king was kept informed, since no political or diplomatic archives exist from the Akkadian period comparable to the documents from Ebla. Naram-Sin states that he undertook a campaign after he heard of enemy activity, and he mentions that this enemy sent messages to “the lords of the Upper Lands,” but there is no indication as to how he learned of these matters. Letters were surely exchanged between courts, as known from the Ebla archives, but no Akkadian royal letter has survived or was copied into the later school curriculum. There are, however, later fabrications, some of humorous intent, such as a putative letter of Sargon, in which he summons an absurd array of court officials, but no soldiers, to accompany him on a campaign.

The sole extant letter addressed to a person at the highest level of authority is administrative, rather than political, in nature. Written in Sumerian, it concerns control of two parcels of land. evidently in dispute between two governors. Since an unpublished text records that Naram-Sin himself mediated a boundary dispute between two cities, this letter may have been sent to Sharkalisharri. The surviving manuscript is the file copy kept at Lagash, where the letter originated.

[Say to my lord]: This is what Puzur-Mama, governor of Lagash said: Sulum and E-apin, since the time of Sargon, belonged to the territory of Lagash. Ur-Utu, when he served as governor of Ur for Naram-Sin, paid 2 minas of gold for them. Ur-e, governor of Lagash, took them back. The consequence is that Puzur-Mama should [].

Of interest is the matter-of-fact tone. Like others of the Akkadian period, this letter offers none of the flowery salutations characteristic of later royal correspondence or even the blessings normative for private letters from the early second millennium on. Akkadian official written communication was apparently supposed to be a concise, factual, third-person statement, with a respectful request for authority or action. In rare instances, a letter of petition shifts to a more intimate second person, to add a note of urgency:

Thus says Iddin-Erra to Mesag: He has a remainder of 32, 425 liters of barley, plus 100,800 liters of barley that Ishar-beli gave him, total: 133,225 liters of barley. My barley is that very remainder, it is my barley he has. See here, my people are dying of hunger while even Gutians are receiving grain rations! My lord knows this. May he quickly do what is right. [So], my lord, do take (this matter) in hand!

But it may be that in oral communication artistry was more valued and expected. To judge from later asides to the scribes who were to read correspondence aloud, a letter such as Puzur-Mama’s may have served as an aide-mémoire for a fuller, more oratorical presentation of the message, the tablet itself proof that the speaker represented the petitioner. Support for this view may be provided by later scribal exercises in writing letters or prayers of petition. These often open with elaborate, carefully written salutations appealing to the specific aspects of the addressee’s powers that the writer wishes to call upon, and close with expressions of hope and blessing. Therefore one may wonder if Puzur-Mama’s letter was in fact presented more eloquently in oral form, with the speaker standing in a prayerful stance and embellishing the spare language of his brief in accordance with court etiquette.

In fact, the ideal spokesman for the king is described in the hymn about Nippur as a man who knows the royal will without a word being said:

His sublime courier, …, who relays his commands,

The command already spoken in his heart

He knows from it directly, he heeds it well.

He takes out with him his comprehensive will,

He seeks his blessing in reverent prayer, in solemn duty.

Transmission of commands was the task of a network of inter-city messengers, called riders or couriers, who could expect to receive food and lodging from local authorities along the way. What credentials they offered besides the documents they carried is unknown. A tablet with a seal impression or just a name on it may have served as a kind of introduction or passport; such tablets have turned up in administrative archives. On the community level criers or heralds were used.

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