Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign II

During Sargon’s reign, the importance of cavalry increased a great deal due to the army’s growing need for mobility over the rough terrain north along the upper Tigris and in the Taurus regions, and east into the Zagros Mountains. Horse soldiers wore robes (hiked up in front for ease of movement), leggings, and boots, but no armor other than a standard conical Assyrian helmet of iron or bronze. At this time, riders carried lances, short swords, and bows. Although the Assyrians had neither saddles with girth straps nor stirrups, they developed a good bridle-and-rein system that allowed horsemen to fight at the gallop without losing control of their mounts. Before the invention of the rein holder, bareback riders lacked the ability to discharge a bow without dropping their reins. In the ninth century the Assyrians solved this problem by having cavalry operate in pairs, with one rider to hold the reins of both horses, while the other shot his bow. By the late eighth century, horsemen rode singly. Nevertheless, while Sargon’s cavalry are depicted on the reliefs carrying encased bows, they never appear shooting while galloping. It seems likely, therefore, that Sargon’s reign marked a period of transition for the cavalry.

Since the mounted divisions were essential to maintaining Assyria’s military edge, the acquisition and care of horses and mules were top priorities. The Assyrian army needed several different types of horses. Large and hardy, Kushite horses from Egypt made excellent chariot teams, whereas smaller horses from the Taurus and Zagros pasturage were especially desirable as cavalry mounts. Horses acquired through trade, tribute, and war fell under the purview of the chief eunuch, as did control of the system based on the regular tax collection scheme that assembled them for military use. In the off-season, the army distributed mounts to their riders, who would pasture and attend to them, while the recruitment officers (musarkisani) oversaw the process and made sure that the horses received fodder and the men remained battle-ready. At muster time in each province, two of these officers together with a subordinate team commander (rab urate) or cavalry prefect (saknu sa pethalli) organized both horses and soldiers for the mounted units of the standing army. Recruitment officers delegated horses to the cavalry and chariotry, put some out to pasture in reserve, or occasionally assigned them to work as draft horses in public building projects. Another class of high official, the stable overseers (saknute sa ma’assi), was in charge of horse care for all equestrian units on campaign. In addition to this system-perhaps for emergency needs-larger herds of horses were kept on estates in the provinces under the care of provincial governors and probably in special state-run pasturage in the heartland.

The central government put a lot of effort into making sure the army had an adequate supply of horses and pack animals (mules and sometimes camels), but the job was not an easy one. The royal correspondence attests that sometimes people had to be coerced into contributing their assigned allocation. For example, in answer to Sargon’s query about the availability of a particular kind of horse, one provincial official replied: “I sent the servants of the king, my lord, to the town, Kibatki. They became frightened and they put people to the iron sword. After terrorizing Kibatki, they got afraid and wrote to me, and I set a deadline for them.” In another case the palace instructed several officials assembling cavalry under emergency conditions: “Get together your officers plus the h[orses] of your cavalry contingents immediately! Whoever is late will be impaled in the middle of his own house, and whoever changes the [ . . . ] of the city will also be impaled in the middle of his house and his sons and daughters will be slaughtered by his order. Do not hold back; leave your work, come right away!” Given how rarely this type of threat appears in the royal correspondence, it is likely that Sargon included it to emphasize the urgency of the situation, though clearly the king expected immediate results and felt able to threaten his subordinates as necessary.

The availability of food and fodder for the equestrian divisions was also a frequent subject for complaint in letters to the king, as provincial governors had difficulty providing enough for the army without inflicting shortages on their own men. Lower-ranked officers met similar problems as they tried to supply their men and mounts. One letter, written to Sargon from the governor of Supat (in Syria), recounts a conflict over fodder:

The king, my lord, ordered [me to] give bread to the grooms. Now [PN] came (and) I told him [ . . . ] but he said: “The king has given orders to me and I will take two [ . . . ] of each (provision).” I did not agree; I did not give it to him, so he went into one of my villages, opened a silo, brought in his measurers and piled up (grain) for [x] healthy men. I went and spoke with him, saying: “Why did you by yourself, [with]out the deputy, open the king’s granaries?” He would not look me in the eye [but said]: “In the month of Nisan my fodder (supply) fell, and the horses are collapsing (before) me; I [can]not



Another official, while waiting for king’s men to muster in the northern Habur region, noted, “The horses of the king, my lord, had grown weak, so I let them go up the mountain and graze there.” In a world subject to every vicissitude of nature, the management of food and fodder for large numbers of people and animals presented a serious challenge. Facing similar obstacles, the regular infantry formed the backbone of the king’s army.

The Standing Army: Infantry

Armored spearmen and archers recruited from the home provinces and men recruited from the elite infantry of certain conquered states (e. g., Shinuhtu and Samaria), made up the Assyrian heavy infantry of the standing army. These soldiers wore the standard conical helmet and metal or leather scale armor over a knee-length tunic. Officers often carried a mace as a symbol of office and for coercive purposes, albeit probably not as a battlefield weapon. The reliefs do not show any Assyrian using a mace in battle. Additionally, archers and spearmen carried short swords or daggers, but for obvious reasons only the latter carried shields. There is no evidence for slingers during Sargon’s time, although they became prominent in the army later.

Auxiliaries made up the standing army’s light infantry divisions, each with its own distinctive costume and weaponry. The light archers, the Itu’, represented an Aramaean tribe that inhabited central Mesopotamia. After Tiglath-pileser III finally pacified them around 738, members of the tribe formed a permanent corps of the Assyrian army. Text references show that under Sargon other Aramaean tribes such as the Hallatu, Rihiqu, Litanu, and Iadaqu sometimes served as auxiliary archers as well, though only the Itu’ served continuously. On the palace reliefs, auxiliary archers always appear bare-chested and barefoot, dressed in short kilts, and wearing headbands to control their long hair. Though primarily serving as archers, they are occasionally shown using a dagger to dispatch an enemy in the aftermath of battle. Commanded by an Assyrian officer (saknu), the Itu’ean auxiliaries nonetheless retained some tribal organization under the subordinate leadership of chiefs and village headmen. The Gurrean auxiliaries fulfilled somewhat different tasks.

So far it has been impossible to identify the Gurreans’ place of origin, but based on their distinctive crested helmet and light armor it is generally agreed that they hailed from a wide area along the northern and northwestern frontier of Assyria; that is, northern Syria and central Anatolia. The term “Gurrean” seems to have been used broadly as an ethnonym and military designation rather than a specific tribal name, and texts suggest that these soldiers served under the sole command of Assyrian officers. In battle each wore a crested helmet, a small chest plate (sometimes referred to by the Greek term kardio-phylax), a knee-length tunic, and usually boots. They carried spears (their weapon of preference, judged to have been about eight to nine feet long), short swords, and round bucklers made of woven wicker or leather.

As part of the standing army, the auxiliaries owed loyalty only to the king, who often allocated them for duty in the provinces. Auxiliary troops-especially the Itu’ean archers-were in high demand as a kind of mobile military police to help with internal security and peacekeeping, border patrol, and intelligence gathering. The governor of Ashur, for example, once wrote to Sargon asking for Itu’eans to oversee some workers in his absence: “The governor of Arrapha has 100 Itu’eans standing guard in the town of Sibtu. Let them write to the delegate of Sibtu and let 50 (of those) troops come and stand with the carpenters until I return.” Both types of auxiliaries made up a significant portion of the army on campaign. On the Dur-Sharrukin reliefs, Itu’eans and Gurreans appear in nearly every combat or siege scene, and it is clear that they were an integral part of Sargon’s standing army.

 The Provincial Army: Levies

In Assyria all adult males were eligible for annual temporary service (ilku) in the army or to do work for the crown. If there were any formal criteria for eligibility, such as age and physical condition, they are not known, though texts reveal that even very young boys sometimes served, probably as substitutes for older family members or richer men who bought themselves out. Presumably, the local village headman along with the recruitment officer decided whether individuals were fit for duty, though how strict they were about it probably depended on the quota they had to fill. Levies served as infantry, cavalry, and possibly as chariot drivers and “third men.” Among those who apparently counted as king’s men and mustered for seasonal service was an ambiguous group called kallapu (plural kallapani) that appears to have formed in the eighth century after the adoption of a rein-holding device obviated the need for cavalry to ride in pairs, with one to fight and one to hold the reins. Having been made redundant, the former rein-holders became a new unit called kallapani that functioned as lancers or as a type of dragoon (mounted infantry). These troops performed a wide variety of duties, including serving as the army’s vanguard or rearguard (or both), reconnaissance men, foragers, sappers, MPs (to keep levies in line), and guards for royal messengers. As the lowest-ranking soldiers, seasonal levies receive relatively little attention in Sargon’s texts and sculptured reliefs.

Notes on Arms and Armor

Excavated examples of arms and armor dating to the late Assyrian period reveal a great variety in materials and construction and little uniformity, though certain trends emerge. As we have seen, the main weapons of the Assyrian army were spears and bows, and since both were made almost entirely of perishable materials, few traces of which have survived, analysis rests on the interpretation of blades and metal points. Despite being more expensive than bronze, harder to work, and requiring a long process of carburization, hammering, and quenching, iron was the preferred metal for swords and daggers, probably because it was strong and could be sharpened and re-sharpened easily. Iron did not entirely eclipse the use of bronze for the manufacture of military equipment, however. Lighter weight than iron, bronze was suitable as shield covering and for helmets, and, because it could be recast repeatedly, it proved particularly appropriate for the speedy production of arrowheads and spear points. Scale armor made of bronze, iron, or perhaps leather provided body protection.

Bows depicted on the reliefs appear to have been a composite, recurve type constructed of wood, bone, and sinew strips glued together. Estimations based on the length of surviving spear points suggest that shafts were about nine feet long and that both infantry and cavalry used them for close-quarter combat rather than for throwing. Judging from the reliefs and the size of the extant examples of swords and daggers, which are all quite short-no sword exceeds forty-five centimeters in length-the Assyrian soldiers used the double-edged blades should their primary weapon fail or to finish off defeated enemies in the aftermath of battle. Short swords, daggers, and spears, used for stabbing rather than slashing, delivered killing blows more effectively, penetrating stab wounds invariably being more deadly than most surface cuts. These blades also functioned as handy tools comparable to the modern marine’s KA-BAR knife or a Gurkha’s kukri, both of which are famous for their versatility as murderous weapons, entrenching tools, and path-breaking implements. Indeed, on Assyrian reliefs, sappers are often shown using their blades to undermine the walls of besieged towns, while on at least one occasion soldiers use their daggers to butcher animals.

Since few datable examples of shields have survived, most information comes from the reliefs, according to which Sargon’s army utilized a number of shield types fashioned from various materials: large, round shields made of bronze or possibly wood reinforced with bronze bands; smaller round and rectangular combat bucklers, probably made of densely woven wicker or leather; and full-length tower shields curved at the top and composed of the same woven material. All shields had one central handgrip. The material evidence, such as it is, suggests that Sargon’s army was as well-equipped as possible at the time. On campaign, accompanying craftsmen replaced or repaired the equipment that they could, while plundering soldiers carefully fieldstripped weapons and armor from dead enemies for reuse. The arms and armor plundered from captured cities that the king did not dedicate at a temple or award to the magnates filled the storerooms of a review palace (ekal masarti) for future use.

The Army on Campaign

The Assyrian army has often been portrayed as a mercilessly efficient fighting machine capable of overwhelming any obstacle, but the reality was much more commonplace and involved a great deal of human effort, effective planning, and strenuous physical labor. Warfare was seasonal, with the likelihood of good travel weather and the availability of food and water determining the duration of campaigns as well as campaign route. After careful planning throughout the winter, campaign season began in late spring or early summer with the annual muster, which could take a month or more to complete. A complicated process, the muster involved constant communication between governors, officials overseeing troop movements and logistical arrangements, and the king. A recruitment officer or cohort commander collected the enlisted men in the area assigned to him and then decided which recruits were fit to serve and which should stay in reserve. Once he had gathered his troops, he delivered them to his immediate superior, a prefect or a provincial governor, who marched them to a review palace (armory) or a destination closer to the area of operations. The Assyrians used the review palace “to maintain the camp (and) to keep thoroughbreds, mules, chariots, military equipment, implements of war, and the plunder of . . . enemies; . . . to have the horses show their mettle (and) to train with chariots.” These large, fortified complexes at Calah and Dur-Sharrukin could board three thousand or more horses. At the muster point, troops trained before being outfitted with such items as armor, packs or saddle bags, cloaks, tunics, water skins, sandals, and reserve food rations, according to the requirements of their specific units.

Much of the time, assembly went smoothly, as evidenced in a report from an official on the northeastern frontier, who calmly assured the king that “I will assign my king’s men, chariots and cavalry as the king wrote to me, and I will be in the [ki]ng my lord’s presence in Arbela with my king’s men and troops by the [dea]dline that the king, my lord, set.” Fulfillment of manpower obligations could be onerous for the officials involved, however. Several letters complain about the quality of recruits and indicate that the crown’s demands sometimes met with resistance at the local level. In a report to Sargon, for example, one official protested, “I wrote to the king, my lord, but only obtained [2]60 horses and [x number] of little boys. [2]67 horses and 28 men-I have 527 horses and 28 men altogether. I keep writing to where there are king’s men, but they have not come.” Other officers grumbled about men being late for a muster or avoiding duty completely. One frustrated official confessed, “My chariot fighter [cal]led Abu-[ . . . ]-for the second year [ . . . ] has not g[one on] campaign with me.” A similar dispatch, in which an official testified that “[120] king’s men who did not go on campaign with the king are in the presence of the governor of Arbela; he does not agree to give them to me,” suggests that high-ranking officers were sometimes loathe to turn their troops over to someone else, especially someone who might be regarded as a competitor.

The Assyrians obliged clients and allies to send men on campaign when required. Here too calls for troops were sometimes greeted with passive resistance. For example, Sharru-emurani, the governor of the Assyrian province Zamua, in the Zagros foothills, wrote to Sargon: “Last year the son of Bel-iddina did not go with me on campaign but kept the men at home and sent with me young boys only. Now may the king send me a deportation officer (literally “mule-stable man”) and make him come forth and go with me. Otherwise, he will (again) rebel, `fall sick,’ shirk, and not [go] with me, but will send only l[ittle] boys with me (and) hold back [the best men].” Foreign contingents or mercenaries could be difficult for Assyrian officers to control, and there are several letters regarding unruly soldiers. One officer, writing from Arbela, protested that “the Philistines whom the king, my lord, organized into a unit and gave me, do not agree to stay with me,” while another official indignantly reported troops “loitering in the center of Calah with their mounts like [ . . . ] common thugs and drunkards.” Unsurprisingly, most of the letters saved in the permanent archives were those that reported problems rather than those that merely confirmed positive results, and we should be cautious about reading too much into them. Nonetheless, complaints of shirking, delay, dereliction of duty, and occasionally overt resistance to imperial authority evince themselves with striking regularity.

Since muster lists are incomplete and no text explicitly states how many men went on a given campaign, it is impossible to determine the size of Sargon’s army accurately. Based on ration information given in a couple of letters, one scholar tentatively reckons that the Assyrians could have raised an army of thirty-five thousand to forty thousand for large operations. Muster lists dating to the period 710-708 tally more than twenty-five thousand men available for active duty or held in reserve, thus indicating the minimum size of the force during that time. Given the logistical constraints under which the army operated, it seems most likely that it seldom exceeded thirty-five thousand and more commonly amounted to fewer than twenty thousand men. Scattered epistolary evidence suggests that the Assyrians experienced chronic manpower shortages, especially when soldiers had to be removed from garrison duty to go on campaign. In one instance an unidentified author explained that he could not send two thousand men to the royal delegate at Der as requested, because “the men from here do not suffice (even) for the fortresses! Whence should I take the men to send to him?” Moreover, the construction of the new royal capital, Dur-Sharrukin, drained manpower and material resources from the provinces to the point that governors had a difficult time fulfilling work quotas while maintaining provincial security and military readiness. With mounting frustration the palace herald, Gabbu-ana-Ashur, wrote to Sargon protesting that “all the straw in my land is reserved for DurSharrukin (to make mud bricks) and my recruitment officers are now running after me; there is no straw for the pack animals.” He went on to demand irritably, “Now what does the king, my lord, say?” The conquest of new territories, while theoretically expanding the recruit pool, inevitably put additional stress on the standing army, though the real problems arose after the army left the muster area.

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