Friday, January 30, 2015

The Army that Built the New Assyrian Empire

An Assyrian shield-bearer, spearmen, and archer
(by Braun and Scheider, 1861 - 1880)
The New Assyrian Empire – the zenith of Assyrian domination of the Mesopotamian region. A result of a highly large, organized, and innovative military force. They displayed high flexibility in the battlefield. They showed ingenious tactics during siege. And lastly, exemplified great ferocity in the open battle field. The New Assyrian Empire’s military force became one of the most successful military stories in history; and, brought greatness and glory to numerous Neo-Assyrian Kings.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the last of the three periods of the ancient history of the Assyrian people. It flourished between the 10th century BCE and 612 BCE. For four hundreds, its great kings exemplified strength and brutality during their own reigns. From the sadistic rule of King Adad-Nirari II (912 – 891 BCE) to the equally ruthless rule of the intellect Ashurbanipal (669 – 631 BCE), Assyrian Kings won victory after another thanks to their great military.

But what is the Assyrian Army looked like? What is it composed of? What are their secrets for over four hundred years of success? What were their tactics and capabilities? Why the Assyrian Army became one of the most highly regarded force in ancient history?

Based on the number of centuries that the New Assyrian Empire existed and the vast lands that it occupied, the Assyrian Army needed to be large in order to control the Empire. There were no exact numbers of the size of the whole Assyrian Army. However, estimates were established around a size of 150,000 to 200,000 men. Such a large army was not easy to muster or even maintain. The Assyrian Kings had to rely on military units from the provinces of the empire. Provincial governors were mandated to provide military units from their own provinces to the army of the king. These auxiliary units composed almost one-third of the entire Assyrian military. Other than that, Assyrian Kings usually employed foreign mercenaries and integrated them into the fighting force.

Within the Assyrian military, different types of units were made. There were infantry units, chariots, and cavalry teams. There were also special units like an engineering team and an elite fighting unit known as the Companions or the “Troops of the Feet” (Gabriel, 2007).

The Assyrian infantry were compose of spearmen, archers, shield-bearers, and sling men. The spearmen were heavy units of the army. They were armed with long double edge spears. They were also equipped with shields for protection and swords for close quarter combat. They were conical helmets and armor plates. The archers were the ranged units in the army. They provide powerful and long ranged attacks. They were armed with composite bows. Their arrows had the capability of firing incendiary arrows, which were useful during sieges because it could cause fire within the walled-cities. To protect their archers from counter-attack from enemy archers, the Assyrians also employed shield-bearers. They held huge shields. But starting the reign of King Tiglath-Pileser III (745 – 727 BCE), they began to use life-sized shields with a curved top. They were put into used during conventional open battlefield and sieges. Lastly, the sling men. Usually recruited from the provinces, like the archers, they provided effective ranged attacks against the enemy. They shot small projectiles sometimes a pointed tip stones.

The next crucial part of the Assyrian military was there chariots. Chariots had been used by other civilizations, like the New Egyptian Kingdom and the Hittites. The Assyrian chariots served like the modern day tanks. They served as moving platform for archers to fire shots against the enemy formation. But its chariots were heavy and very difficult to maneuver. Early Assyrian chariots were manned by two crews: a driver and an archer. The driver served as the close quarter unit who defended the archers from enemy soldiers. The drivers were armed with either an axe or a sword or both. But later on, the chariots became heavier and larger, the chariots started to be crewed by three to four men. The extra soldier was a shield-bearer that defended the crew from projectile fire from the enemies. Later on, the chariots would charge against enemy formation. After the initial strike, some of the crew would disembark and fight as heavy infantry. It worked similarly as the armored fighting vehicles of modern warfare. However, starting from the reign of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BCE), the chariot lose its importance to the Assyrian military. Shalmaneser III decreased the number of cavalry in favor of increasing the number of a new type of unit – cavalry.

The cavalry was a new addition to warfare introduced by the Assyrians. The first recorded cavalry use was during the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta II (890 – 884 BCE). The cavalry that was used by the Assyrians, however, was not the cavalry that operated as a single horse and single rider. The Assyrian cavalry was a team or a duo. One cavalry holds and drove another horse and on that other horse, an archer rode. Because there was another horse driving, the archer was free to concentrate to fire against the enemy. By the time of the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III, the cavalry became the spearhead of the army, replacing the chariots. It was also the same time that the cavalry began to be armed with spears for close quarter combat.

Other than fighting units, there were also engineers that worked during times of sieges. Besieging a city in the ancient time was hard and time consuming. Breaching walls and breaking gates were difficult especially doing it under tremendous enemy fire. The Assyrians then used engineers to capture cities. They built siege engines and develop ways to destroy walls. Much of it would be tackled later under tactics.

The Assyrian Army also organized their army well. Infantry were grouped into a squad made of ten and placed under a command of an officer. After a squad the next unit was a company composed of five to twenty squads under the leadership of a captain known as a kirsu. But showing flexibility. Some squads were not made of one type of unit. Sometimes a squad or a company was composed of spearmen, sling men, shield-bearers, and archers. With this type of organization, commanders and kings were able to command their soldiers effectively in battlefield.

Other than new types of warriors and an effective organization, the Assyrian also had technological advantage. One small innovation of the Assyrians was on their archers. Their archers had a higher rate of fire than enemies. It was thanks to an innovation called quivers. They were containers for arrows placed at the back of an archer. So instead of archers leaning forward to grab their bolts, they just needed to pull it from their backs. Hence, less time to grab and reload meant faster firing rate. But the greatest innovation that the Assyrian made was on the material they used in their weapons. The Assyrians acquired a resource that gave them advantage against all their adversaries – iron. Iron was stronger than the usual copper weapons of their enemies. They employed iron in many of their weapons and armors. Swords, spears, and armor plates were made of iron. For spearmen, their boots that was knee high had iron caps in the knees to protect it. The tips of the arrows of the archers were made of iron as well. With the composite, it was capable of piercing the enemy’s armor. Iron allowed the Assyrians to acquire better weapons, which meant greater advantage in the battlefield.

But better weapons was not enough to win a battle in a chaotic political situation of the Mesopotamia. The army needed good tactics and had multiple capabilities in order to succeed in building or maintain an empire. And the Assyrian Army delivered just that. The Assyrian Army could fight at any weather and any situation. It could launch guerilla tactics like hit and run, especially with mobile units like the cavalry and chariots. During marching, they were also flexible enough to change their formation. In narrow passages of forest areas where ambushes were highly likely, the Assyrian would march in scattered small formations. An advance party at the front and a rear guard would defend the back of the march.

But the full capability of the Assyrian Army was best employed in an open battlefield. The opening were fired by archers and sling men, softening the ranks of the enemy. It would then followed by the charged of heavy chariot units. After the opening assault of the chariots, some of its heavy units armed with axes, swords, and shields, would disembark and fought in close quarter combat. Then the main body of the army, the spearmen, would advance. The spearmen were organized into a phalanx formation. It was composed of ten men in the front and twenty men deep. Their iron tip spears would thrust the enemies and destroy their formation. Once the enemy was in chaos, only then the cavalry would strike and make the final blow against the disoriented enemy.

The Assyrian Army was also good in besieging cities as they fought in open battlefields. Reliefs depicted the machines and tactics Assyrians used during sieges. Much of the credit were given to the amazing engineers that Assyrian had. The engineering corps had sappers that dug tunnels underground towards the enemy city walls. Once they dug underneath the walls, it undermined the foundation of it and it would be crashing down. If that doesn't work, engineers built ramps made of earth until it reached the height of the enemy battlements. But the Assyrians also built mobile siege engines like battering rams, tipped with an iron head, that strike against the walls and the gates of the enemy. They also had the capability to build tall siege towers, made of wood, mounted in four wheels and covered with leather hind to prevent it from burning. Archers rode this siege tower and fire against enemy defenders in the wall. Once the siege tower was close enough to the wall, a ramp allowed troops to storm the battlements. These were some of the siege tactics that Assyrian employed to subdue rebelling or resisting cities. 

With their tactics and technology, the army of the New Assyrian Empire became a highly regarded force in military history. It was the Assyrian Army that first employed iron weapons in the battlefield. It also began to use cavalry in the battlefield, which would remain a vital part of any later armies until World War I. Their use of siege towers and battering rams reminded anyone with tactics employed in capturing castles in the Medieval Ages. The Assyrian Army allowed the Assyrian Empire to exist and, most importantly, introduced new ideas in warfare that would last for more than a millennium. 

See also:

Archer, C. World History of Warfare. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Duiker, W. & J. Spielvogel. World History v. 1. Massachusetts: Wadsworth, 2010.

Gabriel, R. The Ancient World. Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.

Smithsonian. Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to the Objects of Warfare. New York: DK Publishing, 2002. 

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