Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s 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 happened.

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 elites.

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 (chiliarch)

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 fifty)

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 lot.

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.

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