Assyria and its Army – Sargon II’s Reign III

Care and Feeding of the Army

Few studies of ancient military campaigns get into the nitty-gritty of logistics, partly because so little factual information has survived about how armies dealt with supply and partly because combat is generally considered more interesting. But those who confronted the reality of ancient warfare understood implicitly the principle that “supply is the basis of strategy and tactics” or their armies suffered the consequences. In the harsh and unpredictable climate of the ancient Near East, it had always been the case that logistical requirements-particularly the need for water-dictated routes of march as much as tactical considerations. For this reason, successful military operations depended on control of travel routes, river fords, and mountain passes. Accordingly, the Assyrian Empire spread not as a “stain” but along communication lines, which sometimes meant that Assyrian-held territory was not fully contiguous. When moving into a new area, the Assyrians first took over travel corridors and key cities that they secured with networks of forts. Rather than attempting to occupy entire conquered territories, the Assyrians left unproductive tracts of countryside alone and depopulated trouble zones.

Supplying troops and animals during the muster period posed a challenge, but provisioning a large army on the march over difficult terrain in hostile territory took months of careful preparation and organization. It is generally agreed that active duty soldiers require a minimum of three thousand calories a day plus two quarts or more of water, although the average Assyrian soldier, who was shorter, slighter, and more used to heavy labor than his modern counterpart, probably managed well on fewer calories. Horses and pack animals needed roughly eight gallons a day of water and ten pounds of straw or chaff plus another ten pounds of grain to be supplemented by pasturage when available. For an army of any size, carrying sufficient supplies for an entire campaign quickly became impossible, since sufficient food and fodder became too heavy for men and pack animals to carry. To mitigate this problem, the Assyrians created forward supply depots as part of their provincial system, while carefully choosing the route outside their territory to maximize client aid and the availability of forage. At the outset soldiers received small amounts of barley and oil to be held in reserve as “iron rations,” but the troops prepared their own victuals. There was neither a food service nor a central mess in the Assyrian army.

When traveling through the client states bordering Assyria’s outer provinces, the army could expect to be provided with necessities. In his Letter to Ashur, for example, Sargon reports approvingly of his Mannean client: “Like one of my own eunuch governors of the land of Assyria, he made provisions of grain and wine to feed my army.” The real test began when the army crossed into enemy territory, where it was sometimes impossible to find potable water and provisions. Under such circumstances, relief came only with the capture of enemy food sources. Thus, after Sargon swept through the district of Wishdish in northwestern Iran, he could celebrate only after he opened “their innumerable granaries and fe[d] my troops on immense quantities of grain.” As long as they timed things right, this type of warfare offered the Assyrians great benefit for minimal risk. Captured granaries fed Assyrian troops and deprived the enemy of food, while the application of overwhelming force terrorized locals into submission and served as an example to neighboring polities that often capitulated without a fight. From the Assyrian point of view, this sort of operation was the most cost-effective form of warfare. Hence, food became a weapon. If the king could control access to it, he could supply his own men and deprive his enemy, who might well face starvation as a result.

In addition to food, providing soldiers with clothes, equipment, weapons, and mounts was a tremendously difficult task, involving a high level of organization and numerous specialized support personnel: craftsmen to create replacement parts for arms, armor, and vehicles; engineers for bridges and siege engines; grooms; and mule drivers. The royal campaign retinue also included scribes, domestics (cupbearers, bakers, confectioners, body servants, and cooks for the king’s household), scouts, messengers, and scholars to read the omens and advise the king. The magnates and other high-ranking officers brought their own household personnel along with them. Except under extraordinary circumstances-even Sargon had to walk on occasion-the elites traveled in relative comfort, riding in chariots or on horseback during the day and spending nights in camps with large, fully outfitted tents where servants prepared meals and cared for equipment. 100 By contrast, the average Assyrian soldier walked all day and then constructed a fortified camp, erected a tent, built a campfire if that was possible, fed himself, and probably looked to his equipment before turning in for the night. The unlucky ones pulled guard duty.

Very little information has survived regarding the common soldier’s experience of war, but given the circumstances under which he served, it was sure to have been taxing. Assyrian soldiers faced many hazards in the course of their service: disease; the physical and mental stresses of campaigning; combat injuries; capture; and death. Close-quarter living, indifferent hygiene, and bad food and water almost certainly caused outbreaks of those epidemic diseases-typhus, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, influenza, and diphtheria-that plagued all premodern armies. There was not an official medical corps in the Assyrian army, though the king and other elites traveled with their own personal healers (asu and asipu), some of whom might have treated lower ranks when the need arose. The Assyrian medical literature deals with both disease and wound treatment, but it contains little (if any) specific reference to military personnel. Interestingly, the curse formula of a Neo-Assyrian treaty contains some hint of normal wound treatment: “When your enemy stabs you, may there be a dearth of honey, oil, ginger, and cedar resin to put on your stab wounds.” As honey and cedar resin are natural antiseptics, the wound victim would have stood some chance of recovery. Normally, regular soldiers probably had to treat each other with whatever medicaments they carried, without the aid of an expert.

Travel in the ancient Near East was grueling under the best of circumstances, and several letters attest to unforgiving road conditions even within Assyria. For example, the governor of Ashur, Tab-sil-esharra, warned Sargon to send his officer via an alternate route because “the


d through the province of Arrapha is very choked; there are gullies permanently filled with reed and it is getting (worse).” Another dispatch reported that a proposed campaign itinerary to the east was not feasible because “the ground is difficult; it lies between the mountains, the waters are high and the current is strong, not fit for launching either wineskins or keleks (to cross). The king, my lord, knows that the troops are unskilled (in swimming).” Similar messages spoke of travel hindered by swollen rivers, storms, and the devastating impact of snow. In order to explain his continued absence from court, the magnate Nabu-beluka”in wrote, “We are clearing the roads, but snow is filling them up. There is very much snow. . . . The year before last, there was snow like this, the rivers were frozen and the men and horses with me died in the snow.” By contrast, the Near East’s extremely hot summer temperatures proved no impediment to the hardy, well-acclimatized Assyrians, who apparently took it for granted. Debilitating heat did not get mentioned in letters or inscriptions, though the effects of drought figured periodically.

Sargon’s Letter to Ashur, the account of his campaign against Urartu in 714, offers one of the most eloquent descriptions of the rigors of mountain travel:

As for Mount Simirriu, a lofty peak that thrusts up sharp as a spear point and whose summit, the dwelling of the goddess, Belet-ili, rises over the mountains, whose topmost summits, indeed, reach to the very sky, whose roots below thrust down to the depths of the netherworld, and which, like the back of a fish, offers no way to pass on either flank, and the ascent of which, from front to back, is exceedingly difficult, on the sides of which yawn chasms and mountain ravines, a fearsome spectacle to behold, discouraging to the ascent of chariotry and to the high spirits of steeds, the worst possible going for the ascent of infantry . . . I provided my engineers with heavy copper picks, so they broke up the sharp peak of the mountain into fragments as if it was limestone, and made good going.

Even in modern times, the Zagros Mountains present a formidable challenge to nomads. For example, the documentary film People of the Wind records the annual Bakhtiari tribe’s migration to upland pasture during the 1960s. Of particular relevance are the sections that show the crossing of mountain rivers via inflated goat skins, the recutting of a path after a winter washout, and an enforced halt after rain has rendered waterlogged woolen tents too heavy for the pack mules to carry. Each of these problems-and indeed their solutions-would have been familiar to the Assyrians.

The Order of March and Battle

Those soldiers who survived the march had to face the rigors of combat. Campaign season usually began sometime in Nisan (March- April) after the celebration of the New Year’s festival and lasted until it was time for the fall planting or, more rarely, until the advent of winter precluded further action. Expeditions to the Zagros Mountains might start later, since snow could block passes as late as July. On campaign, the standing army marched in unit order under the chariot standards of prominent deities such as Nergal, Adad, Ashur, Ishtar, Sin, and Shamash. Tradition associated particular regiments with certain gods, as in the case of the royal cavalry guard and the Arbela city unit, whose patron was Ishtar of Arbela. In royal inscriptions when the king made statements such as “I prepared the yoke of Nergal and Adad, whose standards march ahead of me,” he not only referred literally to divine standards (urigallu) but tacitly indicated which divisions took the lead position. The order of march, although seldom mentioned in royal inscriptions, undoubtedly changed to meet the exigencies of war, weather, and terrain, but it was probably also contingent upon the presence of magnates, who had the right by privilege of birth, social status, or the king’s favor to travel and fight near him. While ascending a very steep mountain, for example, Sargon claimed, “I took the lead position before my army, I made the chariotry, cavalry, and my combat troops fly over it like valiant eagles, I brought after them the support troops and kallapani, the camels and pack mules frolicked over its peak, one after another, like mountain goats bred in the hills. I brought the surging flood of Assyrian troops easily over its arduous crest and made camp right on top of the mountain.” Recognizing the possibility of ambush and harassment attacks as they marched through enemy territory, the king placed himself with the best troops in the vanguard, put vulnerable baggage and noncombatants in the well-protected center of the column, and brought up the rear with the expendables.

Over the course of nearly constant campaigning, the Assyrians had developed a tripartite offensive strategy of devastation, battle, and siege. When they entered enemy territory, if an opposing army did not meet them in battle immediately, then the Assyrians would typically go for easy targets-small, poorly defended villages and towns-that they would wreck, ruin, and plunder with devastating efficiency. This technique served several purposes. First of all it was the easiest way to secure supplies, acquire plunder, and deny the enemy vital resources. Second, by terrorizing the countryside, the Assyrians could isolate and then bypass bigger settlements and cities that might otherwise prove too costly to besiege. Finally, devastation put pressure on the enemy leader(s) to fight or surrender. If opponents did not acquiesce quickly enough, then battle or siege would ensue. As we have seen, the Assyrian army typically consisted of chariot units, cavalry, archers, and heavy-armed spearmen, but just how they were deployed in battle is not well known. Sargon’s inscriptions emphasize sieges and mention only those battles that were particularly significant, omitting smaller or indecisive engagements. Moreover, the palace reliefs offer little insight into the experience of battle. They limit the scene to the moment of victory, when the elite chariots or cavalry trample fallen enemies and chase down those fleeing the field, as professional infantry dispatch the wounded and round up prisoners. There are good reasons to suppose that full-scale pitched battles were not a common occurrence and that most contests-even ones involving substantial forces-were generally of short duration.

The disposition of Assyrian troops on the battlefield and the tactics employed would naturally have depended on a number of circumstances: the morale and fitness of Assyrian troops; terrain and weather; the size of the enemy army and the unit types it employed; and the assessed quality of enemy troops and leadership, to name only the most obvious. The strict social hierarchy in Assyria probably also determined the battle array as the magnates and their troops claimed field positions by right of rank and tradition. The king in his chariot, accompanied by his brother’s elite cavalry, took the center, but just how the other magnates arranged themselves is not clear. The chariot’s function in battle is still much debated; however, by the late eighth century it had traded much of its mobility for the added security of heavier construction, and this in turn may have relegated it to a reserve or command position on the battlefield. There is no reason to doubt, however, that Sargon and his nobles actually fought. Recent attempts to reconstruct Neo-Assyrian battle tactics have had mixed results, although texts indicate that the army was capable of executing standard maneuvers such as flanking and envelopment.

Thanks to the detailed depiction of sieges on the palace reliefs and some fruitful archaeological excavations, we know a great deal more about how the Assyrians conducted siege operations than we know about how they fought battles. In the Near East all sizeable cities and towns boasted some sort of defensive system, though smaller settlements had only simple mud-brick curtain walls and perhaps a towered gateway. For large cities, however, defenses could include a sophisticated combination of double walls, moats, glacis, and towered gates from which defenders could provide enfilading fire. With stone foundations and mud-brick superstructure, city walls commonly achieved heights of thirty to forty feet and could be extremely thick-Calah’s wall was 120 feet (thirty-seven meters) deep in places. Fortification walls extended for miles in circumference, making full blockade or circumvallation highly problematic for a besieging army. In all regions of the Near East from at least the middle of the second millennium b. c., armies practiced standard siege tactics that included ruse, blockade, escalade, mining, sapping, and frontal assault using siege engines equipped with battering rams. Common counter-measures included sorties, the undermining of ramps with tunnels, and the construction of secondary walls. By the eighth century, the Assyrians had honed their siege craft to the highest standard, but because sieges could be time-consuming and result in high casualties, they did not undertake large-scale operations lightly. For attacking soldiers, a siege promised plenty of hard work, physical privation, danger, and the more attractive prospect of loot. Before committing to a siege, the Assyrians encouraged surrender or attempted to take the city by subterfuge; frontal assault was not usually the first course of action. In one letter, for example, an official writing from northeastern Babylonia reported being approached by a local faction plotting to betray their city to the Assyrians. Another letter writer suggested capturing a town by tunneling through the mud-brick wall of a house and bringing the soldiers through the breach secretly at night. One of Sargon’s siege reliefs depicts an official delivering surrender terms to the defenders from a siege tower. Sometimes, however, the army had to take a city the hard way.

Siege operations varied in scale and intensity from fast and dirty frontal assaults to protracted affairs that required ingenuity and a great deal of coordinated effort. Since most fortified cities were also located on heights, soldiers had to attack uphill over formidable obstacles. Typically, large contingents of Assyrian archers provided cover for smaller units-the Assyrian equivalent of the forlorn hope-who would leapfrog forward to attack the defenses at multiple points in preparation for a concerted assault. Assyrian spearmen with tower shields or lighter, more maneuverable bucklers protected long-range archers from counterfire and enemy sorties. Assault units operated in a variety of groupings: spearmen with shields to protect archers; spearmen together; sappers working alone or in pairs to dig through walls; and archers (usually Itu’eans) shooting without the benefit of cover. Equestrian forces probably patrolled, foraged, or acted as mobile units that could counter enemy attacks. The reliefs also depict dismounted officers and magnates-identifiable by their long robes-discharging arrows from behind covering shields. In the event that the defenses required siege engines, a ramp had to be built to bridge ditches and reach the walls. The construction of a siege ramp was not an easy task, although it did not require advanced engineering expertise or any mathematical calculations as has sometimes been asserted. Basically, soldiers got whatever dirt, rocks, wood, and other handy materials they could find, including building detritus, then piled it all up and tamped it down until they had a surface sufficient to carry the weight of siege engines. The key variables included the size of the ramp, the type and disposition of obstacles, the number of men that could be spared to work, and the abundance of available materials. All of this occurred under enemy fire, and it is likely that unburied corpses soon made the killing zone distinctly unpleasant and unhealthy. Disease posed one of the greatest risks of extended siege work.

If unfavorable circumstances (e. g., high casualties or lack of food) prevented the Assyrians from taking a city, they could choose the economical alternative, which was to ravage the countryside, cut down fruit trees, wreck irrigation canals, and destroy fields in order to cause the enemy to suffer hardship and prohibit his ability to wage war. Besides the collection of supplies, one of the main reasons to devastate small cities and towns within a target area was to reduce the enemy’s resources so that he could not field a retaliatory army for the foreseeable future. Without the means to rebel against the Assyrians, many polities had no choice but to submit. Nor did the Assyrians raze every city they besieged successfully. The fate of a captured city and its inhabitants depended on a variety of military, political, and strategic factors. Although looting was inevitable (even necessary), the Assyrians reserved burning buildings and dismantling defenses for certain circumstances. Strict attention to the wording of royal inscriptions and the details of relief sculpture reveals that a lot less violence occurred than is often assumed. Sometimes the appearance of the army inspired immediate capitulation, thus saving lives on both sides. As will become apparent in the following chapters, ancient warfare was not simply about killing as many of the enemy as possible. The Assyrians did not blindly rape, pillage, and obliterate but followed whichever course of action (including clemency) allowed them to achieve their objectives with the least cost to themselves. Whatever they did, however, they imbued with meaning expressed through religious observation.

Military Ritual

Ritual pervaded every aspect of life in Assyria (and indeed the ancient Near East in general), including military activities. Soldiers affirmed their loyalty to the king by swearing allegiance before the gods, while the king reassured his followers of divine support through constant public acts of piety (e. g., temple-building and religious festivals), and naturally everyone attempted to secure divine approval for risky undertakings such as war. Prognosticating and prophylactic rituals played a prominent part in all military endeavors. Several sculptured reliefs, for example, depict religious performance in army camps. Phrases such as “at the command of the god, Ashur, I mustered my chariots,” so common in royal inscriptions, testified to the king’s reliance on divination to secure divine approbation. Although all wars were fought in the name of the gods, they were not holy wars in the modern sense. The Assyrians did not attempt to eradicate the worship of foreign gods or impose their own gods on defeated people, though they did encourage assimilation by conflating local cults with some of their own.

Neo-Assyrian rituals dealt with every aspect of warfare. One rite called “so that in battle arrows do not come near a man” helped warriors prepare mentally for approaching combat. A cultic commentary for a ritual to be performed at the camp (madaktu) after a battle describes a ceremony in which the king symbolically defeated his enemy with the aid of the gods Nergal, Adad, and Belet-dunani (“lady of the strong,” the warrior aspect of Ishtar). During the course of this elaborate multipart ceremony, officials made sacrifices and rode the sacred chariot, the king carried out a procedure involving his bow and arrows while driving his own chariot, and officials performed a “ritual voodoo-like shooting of an enemy or his image” as onlookers and participants shouted, sang, and chanted the requisite liturgy. Subsequently the king symbolically captured his enemy, the group raised shields, and priests made more sacrifices, after which the entire party processed back to the camp to enjoy a celebratory meal in a portable sanctuary (qersu).

Religious observance informed everything from symbolic declarations of war, the surrender or execution of enemies, and the review of prisoners to the triumphant march home and ensuing celebratory banquet. Sacrifices carried out when armies mustered and before they crossed into enemy territory often alerted watchful enemies to impending attack and thus created the opportunity for legitimate war. The numerous Assyrian intelligence reports informing the king of enemy rituals almost certainly had significance beyond mere surveillance. Likewise, the akitu festivals of particular Assyrian gods have been associated with both pre-campaign ceremonies and post-campaign triumphs. It is likely that after particularly important wars, such as Sargon’s victory over Urartu in 714, the king’s representative read or recited publicly an account of the campaign in the form of a letter addressed to Ashur and the people of the city. Afterward he dedicated the text at the appropriate temple. Doubtlessly intended to secure victory as well as the king’s safety, military rituals served multiple secondary purposes: they promoted the king’s legitimacy, signaled political action, helped an ethnically diverse army establish a corporate identity, fostered good morale, and encouraged the public to view the army favorably.

On another level, all public ceremonies promoted the ideology of the Assyrian elite and helped that group maintain its hold on power. That the Assyrians were talented self-promoters is undeniable, but this should not lead us to dismiss them as cynical posturers. In Assyria, as in medieval Japan (and most early modern monarchies), pomp and ceremony were “a visual symbol of the social order and served an important function in vitalizing and renewing the polity. . . . [F]rom the very beginning, court ritual and ceremony were politics.” This principle also held true for international relations, in which every move a king or his representative made, from gift exchange, dining, and ritual to the mutilation of an enemy, sent a deliberate message to friend and foe alike. In this light, the bloodthirsty rhetoric and brutal visual imagery of Assyrian kings and warfare itself were all part of the political spectacle. Although Sargon wielded formidable military strength (as this chapter has demonstrated), he had to use it wisely. For each campaign that he undertook, he had to manage not only immediate military conditions, but also emerging threats outside the field of operations.

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