Babylonia: Enemy of Assyria

By the seventh century B.C., the technology of the Iron Age was making inroads in Babylonia. In addition to iron tools found at Nippur, there is an increasing number of references in account texts to iron objects: nails, daggers, razors, bedsteads, and pot-stands. There is also the first specific mention in a Babylonian document of an ironsmith, which seems to be a new occupation in the land. At least some of the iron used in Babylonia was imported from Cilicia.

Another topic about which we should like to be better informed for this period is the Babylonian military. The conquering armies of Nabopolassar, which in the two decades after 625 B. C. put an end to the Assyrian empire and then pushed west to win Carchemish and Syria, were not without their Babylonian forerunners, despite the relative silence of the texts. Nor should the heavy reliance of the Chaldaeans on Elamite generals, officers, and soldiery (especially archers) obscure the fact that the Chaldaeans, Aramaeans, and older Babylonians had troops of their own and occasionally fought battles without substantial foreign aid. At Dur-Atkhara in 710, Merodach-baladan’s forces are said to have included 600 cavalrymen (pethallu) and 4,000 garrison soldiers (sabe suluti). In the following year, at the Assyrian siege of Dur-Yakin, Merodach-baladan’s capital in the south, Chaldaean forces included a central contingent under the king (kisjr sarruti) and horses trained for chariot use. Ashurbanipal claimed that he had given Shamash-shumaukin infantry, cavalry, and chariotry, the three major components of contemporary armed forces. Babylonian armies by themselves proved capable of capturing major cities such as Nippur (693) and Cutha (651). Southern Mesopotamians were apparently not devoid of military skills, since the Assyrian army in the time of Ashurbanipal included troops recruited from among Babylonians, Chaldaeans, and Aramaeans; but we have as yet discovered practically no documentation concerning the Babylonian army itself. Although the army in the eighth and seventh centuries was generally not a match for the Assyrian forces and their more advanced techniques, it was able to face the Assyrians in the field and on several occasions to check Assyrian moves.

Very little is known about the tactics employed during the Neo-Babylonian Empire, but they were probably similar to those used by the Assyrians. We know more about the period immediately preceding this due to the Assyrian records concerning the wars fought against Babylonian rebels. The Babylonians used the difficulties and natural obstacles of their countryside to good effect. Large parts of Southern Babylonia were marshland in which fugitives could hide with their retinues, emerging when Assyrian forces had gone home, or proceeding to exile in Elam. Merodach-Baladan was once hunted for five days in these marshes and there are Assyrian reliefs depicting their troops weeding out resistance in these regions by means of reed boats. Further north, the countryside was scored by numerous irrigation ditches and canals. Skillful choice of defensive positions was thus a feature of Babylonian tactics at this time. At Dur-Papsukal, the Babylonian rebel Marduk-balatsu-ikbi, supported by Elamites and Chaldeans, took up a position surrounded by an ‘expanse of waters’ which the Assyrians described as difficult to approach. A similar tactic was used by Merodach-Baladan at Our-Yakin. The Babylonians cut a channel from the Euphrates 200 cubits wide and broke down irrigation ditches in order to flood the fields with water. They then pitched their camp in the middle of this swamped area and awaited the Assyrian army. However, the Assyrians were undaunted and sent elite troops across the defences, while archers shot over the waters into the Babylonian camp.

The Babylonians may have found it difficult to muster their troops quickly, for there are two occasions when Babylonian armies turned up late for a battle, their allies having fought and won it on their own. This happened at Der, where the Elamites forced an Assyrian retreat, and when Nineveh fell to the Medes alone. If intentional, this must rank among the most astute of military tactics!

The period following the reign of Nebuchadrezzar I (1126-1105 B.C.), who inflicted a major military defeat on the Elamites, is rather dark and disordered. Several dynasties passed, but few great kings. Border wars with Assyria continued, and sometimes Assyrian kings, such as Tukulti-Ninuna II, Sbalmaneser III and Shamshi-Adad V, mounted major campaigns into Babylonia, extending Assyrian political influence over Babylon, but not conquering it. During the 11th century B.C. large numbers of Aramaeans settled in Babylonia, forming tribal districts and becoming a constant source of disorder in the following centuries. In 728 B.C. the unstable situation in Babylonia led to Tiglath-Pileser III making himself King of Babylon. Henceforth, Assyrian kings ruled Babylonia themselves or, as a son of protector, through a native ruler who met their approval. There were, of course, numerous revolts, usually involving the anti-Assyrian Aramaean and Chaldean tribes, supported by Elam. Esarhaddon’s attempt to form a son of dual monarchy of Assyria and Babylon, ruled by his two sons, Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin, failed when the latter also rose in rebellion against Assyria.

The Chaldeans

The Chaldeans had been in Babylonia at least since the reign of Shalmaneser III. Like the Aramaeans, they were also organised into tribal ‘houses’ (bitu), each under a sheikh. These were located in the marshy regions of Southern Babylonia, near the border with Elam, and comprised the Bil-Dakuri, Bit-Yakin and Bit-Amukani. The Chaldean sheikhs were powerful enough to seize the throne of Babylon and rebel against Assyria. One of the most serious rebellions was that of Metodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina, 721-710 B.C., and again in 703 B.C., of the Bit-Yakin tribe. He was a dangerous and persistent enemy of Assyria. Ashurbanipal became King of Babylon himself (as Kandelanu) following the revolt of his brother, but in the confusion that followed his death, another Chaldean, NabopoJassar (Nabu-aplu-usur, 625-605 B.C.) look the throne of Babylon. The Assyrian Empire collapsed in the face of the combined attacks of Nabopolassar and his allies, the Medes under Cyaxares.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest extent of power.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire

Under Nebucbadrezzar II (604-562 B.C.) the Babylonians created an empire that encompassed nearly all of the previous Assyrian empire. The Egyptians, who had attempted to prevent this and had assisted Assyria, were pushed back from the Euphrates and as far as their own borders, but attempts to conquer Egypt were not successful. The Medes had pressed as far as Lydia, and the Babylonians constructed a wall near Sippar, where the Tigris and Euphrates flow close to each other, as a defensive measure against them. Nebuchadrezzar was followed by three kings who ruled amid internal disorder, until Nabonidus was placed on the throne by a coup d’état. He failed to save his kingdom from an easy conquest by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, in 539 B.C.

Military organisation during this period was probably very similar to that of Neo-Assyria and had probably been extended into Babylonia by the Assyrians. The ilku obligation existed in some form as it did in Assyria. Babylonian forces included chariotry, cavalry and infantry, including 5000 quruburi on the Assyrian model, supplemented with light troops, especially archers, provided by the Aramaeans and Chaldeans. These were available in large numbers and the Babylonian kings seem to have attempted to improve their effectiveness by issuing them with shields and spears. The basic unit was the kisri commanded by the shaknu.

The Assyrians, though greatly respecting Babylonian culture, seem to have had a low opinion of the general competence of the urbanised Babylonians; but of course arrogance was an Assyrian national pastime! Assyrian military supremacy ensured that Babylonian military developments generally followed those of Assyria, though with some delay. This list covers the armies of Babylon from the accession of Nabu-nasir, through the creation of the neo-Babylonian empire under Nabopolassar and Nebuchadrezzar II, to the fall of the city to the Persians in 539 B.C., and the ephemeral but fiercely-fought revolts of 522-521 B.C. and 482 B.C.. Babylonian armies of this period were usually fragile coalitions of the numerous socio-political and ethnic groups, some strongly pro-Assyrian or, later, pro-Persian, resident in Babylonia – but based principally around the resources of the powerful Chaldean and Aramaean tribes. The Chaldeans, whose individual tribes were larger and more urbanised than the Aramaeans, eventually gained political dominance. Their ambitious and talented ruling elite probably provided the final dynasty of independent Babylonia, though it is not certain that Nabopolassar actually was a Chaldean of the Bit-Yakin tribe as is usually supposed.

These then are some of the factors in the transformation of Babylonia between 747 and 626 B. C. To what at the beginning of this period had been a sparsely populated, impoverished, and unstable land with rival tribal and traditional groups, Assyrian military intervention and governance meant oppression and limited economic exploitation. But the Assyrian presence aroused local resistance, helped to heal political fragmentation, and led Babylonia to develop regional alliances with Elam and the Arabs. A series of political leaders, mostly Chaldaean but culminating in the disaffected Assyrian prince Shamash-shuma-ukin, organized a series of national and international coalitions to oppose Assyrian encroachment. Although Babylonian forces inevitably succumbed in each protracted encounter, their perennial struggles revealed Assyrian vulnerability at the height of the Late Assyrian empire. The Babylonian metamorphosis under Assyrian stress was not simply political and military; its social and economic dimensions were also impressive. With the eventual stabilization of the Babylonian monarchy under Assyrian domination, the Babylonian economy showed signs of increasing growth, even after diversion of goods and services for Assyrian use. Babylonian cities prospered financially and, under royal or gubernatorial patronage, also architecturally. The older Babylonian settled population increased in size and, in order to survive in a world dominated by Assyrians and tribesmen, developed broader kinship-based groups with a more effective voice than the isolated family unit. The great families of the urban north west – the Gakhal, the Egibi, the Arka(t)-ilani-damqa – rose to prominence. Babylonia’s pluralist population with its long – standing capacity to absorb heterogeneous newcomers, at length, found its language and, to a lesser extent, its culture giving way under growing Aramaean influence. In these decades, the shadow of the Assyrian empire meant compromised independence and a muted political career for Babylonia; but it also meant relative stability, prosperity, and protection from outside foes. In the words of Sargon, subject peoples were advised to enjoy the protective benefits of the pax assyriaca: ‘Eat your bread [and] drink your water [under] the shadow of the king my lord, [and] be glad.’ Under these conditions, political and social institutions underwent substantial transformation, and Babylonia expanded its international horizons. Although thwarted in its attempts to assert its freedom, Babylonia in the course of its struggle created new mechanisms that would – in the two decades after 625 B.C. – not only dispel the Assyrian shadow but eradicate the empire that cast it.


The Elamites are usually credited in contemporary sources with possessing very large armies, probably numbering tens of thousands, most of which would be infantry archers. Such forces could be: quite effective in themselves, but by the 7th century B.C. at the latest, their effectiveness had been greatly enhanced by means of large, four-horse or mule, chariots, capable of carrying up to three archers in addition to the driver. The effect of the missiles discharged by a unit of such chariotry would certainly improve their shock effect against most opposition. These vehicles dispense: with the elaboration of other types of chariotry and yet would be capable of taking on such opponents on equal terms, if their increased shooting capability did not actually give them superiority. These chariots may be partly accountable for the great mobility displayed by Elamite armies. Even if these vehicles were only used to transport the numerous archers, it would be possible to outmaneuver an enemy army with the Elamite infantry alone. The Elamites also possessed cavalry, which would have made a good tactical combination with the chariotry, especially as such heavy, un-maneuverability chariots would benefit from cavalry protection or their flanks and rear.

The Elamites often fought as allies of Babylonian rebels against Assyria, and their support could usually be relied upon. If the main Elamite army itself was not present, there might be forces positioned in Babylonia under Elamite commanders (in one case, 7,500 men). The Elamites were quite prepared to meet the Assyrians in pitched set-piece battles (understandable if they had a superiority in archers, chariots and possibly cavalry), and the Babylonian chronicle tells us that this strategy often brought results. Alternatively, forces, such as light troops and cavalry, could be detached in order to hold up an enemy army, perhaps to create time for a combined Elamite and Babylonian army to assemble.

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