Armies of Sumer

The almost constant warfare among the Sumerian city-states for 2,000 years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond any similar development found elsewhere in the Near East at that time. The first Sumerian war for which there is detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Umma in 2525 b. c. e. In this conflict Eannatum of Lagash defeated the king of Umma. The importance of this war to the military historian lies in a commemorative stele that Eannatum erected to celebrate his victory. This stele is called the “Stele of Vultures” for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the flesh of the corpses as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial portrayal of war in the Sumerian period and portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears as they trample their enemies.

It is now clear that Sumerian cultural and political colonisation of the Near East in late prehistory was considerable, extending to Anatolia, Egypt, the Gulf, Syria, the Persian highlands and the Transcaucasus. However, by the start of our period most of the colonies had been abandoned and inter-city warfare was endemic. Some Sumerian armies were alliances of several city-states, hence the ally generals. Archaic proto-cuneiform texts of the late 4th millenium seem to list large bodies of archers under military officers, possibly the first regular army. By 2800 BC, the bulk of a Sumerian army was close order foot with long spears held in both hands. Initially these lacked shields, relying instead on a leather or thick felt cape, studded with copper discs and probably dyed red or green if leather, left buff or off-white if felt. Spearmen equipped thus are above. From about 2500 BC, large body shields were carried by separate shieldbearers armed only with a light axe, leaving the spearmen’s hands free. Such shields were in use until the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, when they were replaced by lighter, more manageable Amorite shields. In the “Vulture Stela” six rows of spearheads project in front of the shieldwall. In battle the spearmen were preceded by skirmishers with bows, slings and javelins. The long dominant northern state of Kish used heavier broader-headed axes. Umma and Apishal used substantial numbers of Martu mercenaries after 2500 BC. Four-wheeled battle cars, drawn by four onager-donkey crosses, came into use around 2800 BC, and were probably intended for shock effect, while the lighter platform-cars and straddle-cars may have been used as command and courier vehicles and for scouting. Recent research indicates that riding was more common in this early period than previously thought, though we assume that draught animals for battle-cars would have priority, with only a limited provision for mounted scouts. Riding techniques were primitive and asses, even expensive sterile onager-donkey crosses, are vastly inferior mounts to horses. Battle-car crews can always dismount. Nomadic levies are temporarily resident and subject semi-nomadic pastoralists from the western steppe fringes, such as the Amorite Martu, or Lullubi, Guti or Hurrian highlanders from the eastern and northeastern Zagros mountains. The “Great Revolt” against Akkad immediately entered into Near Eastern mythology following Naram-Suen’s astounding victory after 9 epic battles in a single year.


Sophisticated weaponry and tactics require some form of larger social organization and impetus to give them shape and direction if they are to be effective in war. We know very little about the military organization of Sumer in the third millennium b. c. e. We can judge from the Tablets of Shuruppak that the typical Sumerian city-state of this period comprised about 1,800 square miles in area, including its lands and fields. This area could sustain a population of between 30,000 and 35,000 people. The tablets record a force of between 600 and 700 soldiers serving as the king’s bodyguard, the corps of a professional army, but a population of this size could easily support an army of regular and reserve forces of between 4,000 and 5,000 men at full mobilization. It is highly likely that some form of military conscription existed, at least during times of emergency.

Two hundred years after Eannatum’s death, King Lugalzagasi of Umma succeeded in establishing his influence over all Sumer, although there is no evidence that he introduced any significant changes. Twenty-four years later, the empire of Lugalzagasi was destroyed by the armies of a Semitic prince from the northern city of Akkad, Sargon the Great (2325-? b. c. e.) All Sumer was now united under the control of the Akkadian king. Sargon bequeathed to the world the prototype of the military dictatorship. By force of arms Sargon conquered all the Sumerian city-states and the entire Tigris-Euphrates valley, bringing into being an empire that stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf and, perhaps, even to the Mediterranean. In his fifty-year reign Sargon fought no fewer than thirty-four wars. One account suggests that his army numbered 5,400 men, soldiers called gurush in Akkadian. If that account is correct, Sargon’s army would have been the largest standing army of the period.

That Sargon’s army would have been composed of professionals seems obvious in light of the almost constant state of war that characterized his reign. As in Sumer, military units appear to have been organized on the sexagesimal system. Sargon’s army comprised nine battalions of 600 men, each commanded by a gir.nita, or “colonel.” Other ranks of officer included the pa. pa/sha khattim, literally, “he of two staff s of office,” a title which indicated that this officer commanded two or more units of sixty. Below this rank were the nu.banda and ugala, ranks unchanged since Sumerian times. Even if they had begun as conscripts, within a short time Sargon’s soldiers would have become battle-experienced veterans. Equipping an army of this size required a high degree of military organization to run the weapons and logistics functions, to say nothing of the routine administration that was characteristic of a literate people who kept prodigious records. We know nothing definitive about these arrangements.

An Akkadian innovation introduced by Sargon was the niskum, a class of soldiers probably equivalent to the old aga-ush lugai, or “royal soldiers.” The niskum held plots of land by favor of the king and received allotments of fish and salt every three months. The idea was to create a corps of loyal military professionals along the later model of Republican Rome. Thutmose I of Egypt, too, introduced a similar system as a way of producing a caste of families who held their land as long as they continued to provide a son for the officer corps. The Akkadian system worked to provide significant numbers of loyal, trained soldiers who could be used in war or to suppress local revolts. Along with the professionals, militia, and these royal soldiers, the army of Sargon contained light troops or skirmishers called nim soldiers. Nim literally means “flies,” a name which suggests the employment of these troops in spread formation accompanied by rapid movement.

During the Sargon period the Sumerians/Akkadians contributed yet another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. The introduction of this lethal and revolutionary weapon may have occurred during the reign of Naram Sin (2254-2218 b. c. e.), Sargon’s grandson. Like his grandfather, Naram Sin fought continuous wars of conquest against foreign enemies. His victory over Lullubi is commemorated in a rock sculpture that shows Naram Sin armed with a composite bow. This sculpture marks the first appearance of the composite bow in history and strongly suggests that it was of Sumerian/Akkadian origin. The fact that the bow appears in the hand of the warrior king himself suggests that it was a major weapon of the time, even though there is no surviving evidence that the Sumerian army had previously used even the simple bow.

The composite bow was a major military innovation. While the simple bow could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it would not penetrate even simple leather armor at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of the simple bow, could easily penetrate leather armor and, perhaps, even the early prototypes of bronze armor that were emerging at this time. In the hands of even untrained peasant militia the composite bow could bring the enemy under a hail of arrows from twice the distance of the simple bow. So important was this weapon that it became a basic implement of war of all armies of the Near East for the next 1,500 years.

The use of battle cars seems to have declined considerably during the Akkadian period. Any number of reasons suggest themselves. Such vehicles were very expensive. In Sumer a powerful king could commandeer the cars of his vassals, which they maintained at their expense. But with the centralization of political authority under Sargon these vassals disappeared, making the cost of these cars a royal expense. The professionalization of the army resulted in an infantry-heavy force which under most circumstances would have required few battle cars beyond those needed to transport the king and his generals. Finally, the Akkadian kings fought wars far from home in the mountains of Elam and against the Guti farther north. These were lightly armed, highly mobile enemies fighting in mountains and heavily wooded glens. The chariot had come into being to fight wars between rival city-states on relatively even terrain. Their use in rough terrain at considerable distances from home probably revealed the battle car’s obvious deficiencies under these conditions, leading to a decline in its military usefulness. They seem to have remained in use by couriers and messengers at least within the imperial borders, where they traveled regular routes known as chariot roads.

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