- weapons and warfare, land
- Mesopotamia was not only the site of the world's first cities, but also of humanity's first major land armies and wars. Archaeological evidence shows that small-scale fighting among tribes and villages was an inevitable phenomenon across the globe in the Stone Age. But in the fourth, third, and second millennia b.c., the Mesopota-mian city-states and empires were able to field armies consisting of thousands and at times tens of thousands of soldiers. They also introduced major new military innovations, which in turn spread to Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Anatolia, and the eastern Mediterranean sphere. Some of these innovations, such as the composite bow and the horse, had filtered into Mesopotamia from central Asia; but the Mesopotamian state war machines had the resources to improve on them and applied them on a much larger and more organized scale than ever before. New military weapons, ideas, and tactics continued to originate in or to enter Mesopotamia over the centuries. And each major new culture or imperial state, such as the Akkadian and Assyrian empires as well as the Persians, Greek Seleucids, and Parthians, developed its own specialized approaches to land warfare while maintaining many or most of the basic military ideas used in the region in the past.Modern scholars have been able to piece together a fairly reliable picture of Mesopotamian warfare from a variety of sources. These include stelae, including the famous Stele of the Vultures from the mid-third millennium b.c.; carvings on cylinder seals; paintings and mosaics, such as the Royal Standard of Ur, also from the third millennium b.c.; relief sculptures depicting military campaigns and battles, especially those from the Assyrian palaces; royal inscriptions, or annals, describing such campaigns and battles; and archaeological finds of weapons, armor, coins commemorating battles, and other items relating to warfare.Early Weapons These sources, especially archaeological finds, show that the first major military development in Mesopotamia and neighboring regions was the transition from stone to metal weapons. This was not a sudden development. Rather, even after the introduction of metal-smelting techniques, Stone Age versions of some weapons, particularly maces, or clubs, remained in use for a long time. Over the course of centuries, stone knife and ax blades, spearheads, and arrowheads were replaced by versions made of copper, bronze, and eventually iron. The rate at which this transition took place and the quality of the weapons produced depended on how effective the metalworking techniques were in a given region and era. The development of metal swords is a useful example. In Mesopotamia in the early fourth millennium b.c., swords had serious limitations. This was because copper was still the only metal widely used for weapons, but copper is relatively soft; if a long copper blade is swung in a slashing or hacking motion, it can easily break. Thus, at first swords were secondary weapons used only occasionally in battle.The main early Mesopotamian weapons remained maces, axes, spears, and bows. Many of the maces had stone heads made of the hardest kinds of rock available in a given region. Often the Mesopo-tamian city-states had to import hard stone, including diorite, from foreign lands. Over time some local armies switched to copper mace heads. For fighting at close quarters, the mace was used to break skulls and other bones, but soldiers also needed a weapon with a large blade that could chop off an enemy's hand or leg or slice through enemy shields. (Many soldiers now carried shields, usually made of wooden frames covered by animal hide.) Early sword blades were not only too soft but also too thin for the job. The battle-ax, in contrast, had a much wider and therefore stronger blade, even when it was made of copper. Metal battle-axes were employed all across Mesopotamia and the Near East for at least three thousand years.The early peoples of Mesopotamia also developed most of the basic missile weapons that appeared independently at various times in cultures around the world. These included the metal-tipped throwing spear, or javelin, which was in use on the Mesopotamian plains by the end of the fourth millennium b.c. It consisted of a long wooden staff topped by a leaf-shaped blade of copper or bronze tied to the shaft by cords. Another early missile weapon used in the region - the bow - was little different from Stone Age versions. The most common type, called the "self" or "simple" bow, was constructed of a wooden shaft ranging from 3.5 to 7 feet (1 to 2m) in length, strung with a cord made of tightly twisted animal gut. The only major innovation in the weapon during this period was the transition from stone- to metal-tipped arrowheads. For the moment, therefore, the bow remained the least revolutionary weapon in the region and did only minimal damage to enemies protected by shields.Early Battlefield Tactics and Military Customs The degree of damage these early weapons inflicted of course depended in large degree on how military leaders and their troops used them in battle. They could be employed either in single combat between two opponents or in larger battlefield formations involving clashing armies. The following passage from a surviving Near Eastern document describes a fight between an ancient Syrian warrior and a foreign opponent. Their use of bows, battle-axes, and javelins probably closely mirrors the manner in which these weapons were employed by individual Su-merian, Akkadian, and early Babylonian soldiers.A mighty man of Retenu [Syria] came, that he might challenge me in my own camp. He was a hero without peer, and he had [beaten all opponents in his land]. . . . During the night I strung my bow and shot my arrows [in a practice session] . . . and I polished my weapons. When day broke . . . he came to me as I was waiting. . . . Every heart burned for me; women and men groaned. . . . Then he took his shield and his battle ax and his armful of javelins. Now after I had let his weapons issue forth [without doing me any damage] . . . he charged me and I shot him, my arrow sticking in his neck. He cried out and fell on his nose. I [finished him off] with his own battle ax and raised my cry of victory . . . while every Asiatic roared. . . . Then I carried off his goods and plundered his cattle.These same weapons and some of the same hand-to-hand tactics were used by the soldiers of opposing armies in Mesopotamia during the third and second millennia b.c. The difference was that the individual fighters were organized by their generals into formations, mainly blocks, lines, and columns. These were intended to make both attack or defense more effective and thereby, if possible, achieve victory. Evidence suggests that the Sumerians pioneered many formations and tactics used later throughout the region and beyond. At least by 2500 b.c. they used both light and heavy infantry (foot soldiers), for example. The terms light and heavy refer to the use of armor. The soldiers making up light infantry wore little or no armor, and heavy infantry wore body armor and helmets. Surviving sculptures show, for instance, that Sumerian light infantry wore no protective armor and carried no shields. Each man held a javelin and a battle-ax. It appears that a line of these troops approached the enemy, at a given signal hurled their javelins, and then closed with the enemy lines and fought hand-to-hand with their axes.The heavy infantrymen, in contrast, had metal helmets; heavy leather cloaks, sometimes studded with metal disks; and wielded long spears and large shields stretching from shoulder to ankle. The Stele of the Vultures, dating from the 2500s b.c., shows a tightly packed formation of heavy infantry from the Sumerian city of Lagash marching over the bodies of enemy troops from the rival city of Umma. The soldiers in the formation's front rank hold up their shields, creating a protective barrier. Meanwhile, the men behind them project their spears forward through the spaces between the shields, making the unit even more formidable. Such a formation was designed either to mow down or to scare off enemy forces. To maneuver with any effectiveness, much less fight, in such a tight, organized formation requires a great deal of drill and practice. So at least some of the Mesopotamian soldiers of the third millennium b.c. must have made up a hard core of full-time professionals. The rest were called up for temporary service when needed.The use of heavy infantry in effective battlefield arrays was not the only military innovation introduced by the Sumerians. They also invented the war chariot - at first consisting of a heavy wagon drawn by donkeys or wild asses - which was destined later to revolutionize warfare in Mesopotamia and neighboring lands. Sumerian and early Babylonian generals increasingly designed the formations and tactics of ordinary foot soldiers around those of central strike forces made up of chariots. Still another important military innovation was the composite bow, used with devastating effect by chariot warriors but also employed by some foot archers. Rudimentary versions of the composite bow, which combines several different materials to produce a more powerful spring, had been known for centuries, especially in parts of central Asia. Some technical breakthrough that still eludes modern scholars occurred in Mesopotamia that made composite bows significantly more powerful and practical. What seems certain is that the four primary materials of this more advanced missile-firing weapon were wood, animal horn, sinew, and glue. Even the wooden portions were often made up of two to four kinds of wood, each having certain desired elastic properties. The weapon could fire an arrow up to 400 yards (364m) or more. However, even the best archers could not achieve effective accuracy beyond 150 yards (137m). Still, the new bow could fire arrows faster and at higher velocities than the traditional simple bow. Skilled archers standing in chariots could do more damage to enemy lines, even when the opposing troops had shields.Regarding the foot archers, some of whom wielded composite bows and others traditional simple bows, over time a new tactical field unit built around these fighters developed. Appropriately, it became known as the archer pair. The typical archer pair consisted of two men, one of whom held a large shield to protect against incoming arrows and other missiles. The other man, who carried the bow, hid with his companion behind the shield and fired off one arrow after another. Rows of hundreds or thousands of these pairs moved forward in unison during a battle, doing varying amounts of damage to enemy lines.Although chariots and archer pairs were often the centerpiece of an army on the attack in Mesopotamia in the second millennium b.c., these units were also frequently part of a larger, integrated military force. In other words, they acted in concert with large numbers of light infantrymen armed in various ways. Their weapons were a combination of old and new. By this time the mace had finally been phased out in most parts of the Near East, mainly because it could not penetrate the metal helmets now worn by a majority of soldiers. Battle-axes remained standard, however, as did spears, javelins, and daggers. Meanwhile, the increasing production of better-quality bronze made sword blades stronger, which in turn made swords more common on the battlefield. One particularly useful sword, the khopesh, was in wide use across the Near East by 1600 b.c. Its curved blade resembled those of sickles used to cut wheat, and like a sickle it was very effective for slashing in a horizontal or curving stroke.One military element that the Sumer-ians and other early Mesopotamian peoples lacked was units of effective cavalrymen - that is, warriors mounted on horses rather than chariots. Partly because horses were fairly scarce and very expensive to breed and train, they were used sparingly in warfare in the second millennium b.c., and cavalry units of any consequence did not come into use until the early years of the first millennium b.c.Evenwhen small groups of early cavalrymen were employed in warfare, their effectiveness remained only marginal due to a number of technical limitations. So most of the horsemen ended up dismounting in the midst of battle and joining the infantrymen. As historian Arthur Cotterell explains:Fighting on horseback in ancient [Mesopotamian] armies usually ended as fighting on foot. .. . Without stirrups [which were not invented until many centuries later], it was impossible for horsemen to fight man to man, as both riders would be knocked off their mounts. Cavalry engagements usually began with a gallop towards the enemy, which slowed at javelin range so that the missile could be safely hurled. This might occur several times before riders dismounted and fought like foot soldiers. . . . [As for mounted archers,] their accuracy of fire ... was less than an archer on the platform of a chariot. Apart from bouncing around on a horse's back, the mounted archer had to carry his quiver [arrow case] on his shoulder, and twist around whenever he needed another arrow. He also had to let go of the reins when shooting. (Chariot, pp. 254-55)It is not completely clear how these early, primitive cavalrymen, along with infantrymen and foot archers, worked in conjunction with chariots in the second millennium b.c. It is likely that the integration of these forces varied from one place, time, and military commander to another. The most common approach may have been for the foot archers to soften up the enemy and then retire toward the rear of their army to make way for the chariot charge. Right behind the chariots came groups of light infantry, called "runners." Their jobs were to clear the field of capsized chariots, capture or kill fallen enemy foot soldiers and archers, and rescue their own fallen infantrymen. An army's foot soldiers and any horsemen it had on hand also chased down escaping enemy troops.Ancient Mesopotamian military customs involving weapons, armor, chariots, horses, and battlefield tactics were well integrated into more general religious, political, and economic customs and practices of ancient warfare. For example, the Sumerians, and later the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and others, believed (or at least their rulers claimed) that the god of war or a city's patron god accompanied an army into battle. If that army won the day, it was seen as a confirmation that the deity continued to favor that city and its people. On the other hand, if the army lost the battle, the defeat was interpreted as a sign of the god's displeasure, perhaps a punishment for some offense by the city or its rulers. It was also customary for the victors of a battle or a siege to pillage the town and farms of the defeated people. The treatment of captured enemy soldiers by the Sumerians, the Akkadians, and especially the Assyrians in later centuries, was frequently harsh, as summarized by Yale University scholar Karen R. Nemet-Nejat:[Male prisoners] were often killed, tortured, or mutilated. . . . Official propaganda of the third millennium b.c. described piling up enemy corpses into heaps and burying them in large mounds, thereby ensuring that they would harass their descendents as restless ghosts. Sometimes women and children were included as part of the general massacre, but usually they became slaves. . . . Prisoners of war were often taken on long marches. Often naked, they were put in neck-stocks, their hands bound behind their backs. . . . [They] were often blinded [to make it hard for them to escape or cause trouble]. . . . At the end of a war, prisoners were brought to the victor's land. Some prisoners were incarcerated and used as bargaining chips in political negotiations. Other prisoners were held hostage for ransom. (Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, pp. 236-37)Sometimes treaties, a few of which have survived, were drawn up. These treaties redrew boundaries of the warring states and might call on the defeated state to pay the victors tribute. Large portions of the spoils of war and tribute were traditionally deposited in local temples to please the gods; however, some of this wealth almost surely ended up in the royal treasury and/or the pockets of local nobles. Both sides swore by the gods to obey the terms of a treaty, based on the belief that the side that broke the agreement would surely endure divine retribution.Assyrian Military Organization In the battles and wars waged by the city-states, kingdoms, and empires of ancient Mesopotamia, it was only natural that the opponent who had the largest number of trained soldiers and the superior battle plan and tactics possessed a clear advantage. To put large numbers of well-armed, well-trained troops in the field at one time, however, was (and remains even today) an expensive and difficult undertaking. Early commanders learned that they could reduce confusion, disorder, and cost, and at the same time increase speed and efficiency, by organizing their armies into manageable units of varying sizes.In this regard, the Assyrians, principally during the fourteenth through twelfth centuries b.c. and the early centuries of the first millennium b.c., are the most notable example. Their army was better organized and more lethal than the armies fielded by earlier Mesopotamian peoples. The breakdown of Assyrian army units was likely based to some degree on that of earlier military organizations in the region, harkening back to the Sumerians. But the Assyrians kept the best military ideas and customs, altered those that were less effective, and introduced a number of new ones, including the use of moderate-size cavalry units on the battlefield. The Assyrian king was the army's commander in chief, and his assistant, or field marshal, was in charge of moving the army from place to place and preparing it for battle. Under the field marshal were lesser officers, each in command of a unit of troops. The units were composed of one thousand, two hundred, one hundred, fifty, and ten men each. So, for each commander of one thousand there were five subcommanders of two hundred, ten of one hundred, twenty of fifty, and a hundred of ten. Scholar Norman B. Hunt provides detail about the types of troops and other personnel in these units:The bulk of the army consisted of bowmen, slingsmen [who used slingshots to hurl small stones great distances], swordsmen, pike-bearers, and light and heavy infantry, as well as permanent units of charioteers and cavalry. Ethic regiments [from the foreign lands Assyria had conquered] retained their traditional weapons and the dress of their own region; thus, there might be a contingent of bowmen from one specific area. There was also a section [of the army] which dealt exclusively with the logistics of transporting military equipment and basic provisions. (Historical Atlas of Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 104)Many of Assyria's best and full-time soldiers lived and trained on a large military base called the ekal masharti, located in Kalhu (Nimrud). It featured a large field for drilling and practicing maneuvers, several large barracks to house the troops, and vast storage areas for weapons and other war materials. Thus, when the king decided to initiate a military campaign, the personnel of this and other smaller military bases were prepared to enter action almost immediately. The traditional season for warfare, supposedly as ordained by the war god, Ninurta, was the summer, after the farmers had harvested their crops. Once the army had reached the target region, a typical tactic was to surround an enemy city and demand its surrender. The king and his officers, and perhaps many of the ordinary soldiers, would hurl insults and threats to intimidate their opponents and convince them that resistance was useless. If the enemy refused to surrender, the Assyrians attacked and, if necessary, laid siege to the town. Assyrian armies tried to avoid large pitched battles in the open, probably because such affairs were costly in lost lives and materials; but when necessary they did fight such battles and only rarely lost. Common customs following a victory included severing the hands of fallen enemies, skinning the bodies of rebel leaders, and deporting local populations to chosen remote spots in Mesopotamia.The Persians and the Seleucids The Assyrian military was so effective and feared that some of its customs and tactics were widely copied by other Near Eastern peoples. In Mesopotamia itself, the Persians, who came to power in the region not long after Assyria's fall, fashioned their own military in large degree around Assyrian models. Still, the Persians, especially under their first and greatest king, Cyrus II, modified and improved on the older system. Take the example of an Assyrian battlefield mainstay, the archer pair. The Persians called these tactical units spara-bara, or "shield bearers," after their term for a shield, spara. Usually, the Assyrians had lined up their archer pairs side by side, forming a single row of shield carriers backed by a single row of archers. Cyrus wisely increased the depth of the formation and also the number of archers per shield, producing a heavier concentration of arrow shot.As was the case in the Assyrian army, the organization of these and other early Persian infantrymen followed the decimal system. A Persian unit of a thousand men was called a hazarabam.Each hazarabam was commanded by an officer known as a hazarapatis and was subdivided into ten sataba, units of a hundred men each. Each satabam broke down into ten dathaba of ten men each. The use of the decimal system continued for units bigger than regiments because it was common for the Persians to field armies containing ten, twenty, or more hazaraba (i.e., ten thousand, twenty thousand, or more men). The Persian name for these larger groups has been lost, but the Greeks called them myriads. The most important of the Persian myriads was the elite group that formed the king's personal bodyguard. The best soldiers in the army, they became known as the Amrtaka, or "Immortals," a name based on their practice of immediately replacing any of their number who died. The Immortals were probably the finest troops in the Near East in Persia's heyday. But they were no match for Greek heavy infantrymen; during the famous Battle of Thermopylae, fought against the Greeks in 480 b.c., a unit containing thousands of Immortals was repulsed with heavy casualties by a mere few hundred Greek soldiers.Cyrus utilized other kinds of tactical units besides infantry. For his cavalry, at first he relied on regiments of Medians, the most highly skilled horsemen in theNear East in the early-to-mid first millennium b.c. As time went on, he developed an elite corps of mounted warriors drawn from the Persian nobility. He also employed war chariots, introducing several improvements in their construction to make them more formidable in direct frontal assaults on enemy lines. In general, members of the infantry, cavalry, and chariotry were drawn, to one degree or another, from both the nobility and the commoners, for military service was compulsory for all Persian men. Every male between the ages of twenty and twenty-four was expected to train and/or fight, and many stayed in the service longer, sometimes until they were as old as fifty.The Persian military system more often than not served the needs of the kings and the empire and was, at least at first, widely respected, even feared, in the ancient world. But in the long run, it was unable to stand up to the Greek system. The first indication of this fact was the impressive showing made by Greek infantry against the Persian armies that tried to invade Greece in the fifth century b.c. The final test between the two systems proved that these Greek successes were no mere fluke. When Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire in the 330s and 320s b.c., he utilized a much smaller army than the ones sent against him by the Persian monarch, Darius III. However, Alexander's combined Macedonian and allied Greek forces were superior in armor, training, discipline, and, most of all, in strategy and tactics. The core of these forces was the so-called Macedonian phalanx. A variant of the normal Greek phalanx, the Macedonian version had been developed by Alexander's father, Philip II. It consisted of a solid block of soldiers arranged in ranks (lines), one behind another. This was in some ways very similar to the tightly packed Sumerian formation shown in the Stele of the Vultures. The men in the front rank of the phalanx created a sturdy shield wall. And all the men in the formation brandished pikes (very long spears), many of which projected outward from the front of the phalanx. This created a veritable forest of spear points, an impenetrable barrier that struck terror into the hearts of opposing troops. As the phalanx marched forward, its members acting in disciplined unison, Greek cavalry units both supported it and acted on their own. Philip and Alexander had made significant improvements in battlefield cavalry that allowed units of horsemen to make devastating charges directly into enemy infantry. Once these riders had opened fatal holes in the opposing ranks, the mighty phalanx plowed into the openings and wreaked havoc. These and related weapons systems and tactics are what allowed Alexander to defeat the largest empire in the world so swiftly.In the post-Alexander age, when Mesopotamia was ruled by the Greek Seleucid monarchy, the Macedonian phalanx, supported by cavalry, remained the mainstay of armies in the region. These core units were supported by archers, slingers, and other "specialist" units drawn from the Seleucid Empire's subject peoples. Although some of the infantry and cavalry units were manned by local citizens, the Seleucids made increasing use of mercenaries, or hired troops from other lands. The rulers of the other great Greek kingdoms of the age - namely, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Macedonian kingdom - had similar armies, which frequently clashed with those of the Seleucids. A significant new tactic for the Greeks in this period was the use of war elephants, an idea borrowed from India. Siege warfare also underwent major developments and improvements.The Parthians and the Sassanians Eventually, however, the reign of the Greek phalanx in warfare ended in the Near East and elsewhere. Though highly effective in its heyday, this formation had some serious inherent limitations. First, it could operate with efficiency only in flat areas having few or no rocks, trees, and other obstacles; and it was not very good at scaling and descending hills. Also, the phalanx was very rigid. And its members were not trained to fight effectively on their own, either individually or in smaller units. The Romans were the first to defeat the Greek phalanxes by outmaneuvering them with smaller, more mobile and flexible battlefield units.Later the Parthians, who sought to oust the Seleucids from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions, also defeated Greek armies on a number of occasions. The Parthian Empire was at heart feudal in nature. So there was no national standing army; instead, soldiers were raised and maintained by local lords, vassals of the Parthian king who ruled from the capital, Ctesiphon. Also, the Parthian army had few foot soldiers, no chariots, and no siege devices. Most of the soldiers were cavalrymen who rode some of the finest horses in the ancient world. Parthian horses became so widely admired that even the Romans, longtime enemies of Parthia, tried, when possible, to acquire them for themselves.The Parthian horsemen were divided into two main groups - light and heavy cavalry. The light cavalrymen wore no armor and carried as little weight as possible while mounted. Their only weapon was a double-recurved composite bow about 3 feet (1m) long. Parthian generals used these horsemen for hit-and-run tactics to wear down an opposing army and for flanking maneuvers, or attempts to ride around the sides of an enemy formation and attack its rear. The Parthian light cavalrymen became world famous for their agility while in the saddle, particularly their execution of a difficult move in which they turned and shot toward the rear while riding forward; this maneuver became known, appropriately, as the Parthian shot. In contrast, Parthian heavy cavalrymen, called cataphracts,wore protective armor, usually consisting of small metal plates or disks sewn onto a leather jerkin. Even their horses were decked out in similar armor. These horsemen carried long lances, with which they stabbed at enemy soldiers.Typically, the lines of Parthian horsemen marched into battle to the sound of massed kettle drums, which at the least must have unsettled the opposing troops. As the battle commenced, the light cavalry struck first, harassing the enemy soldiers, trying to disrupt their lines, and in general wearing them down. Then, as the light cavalry retired, the heavy cavalry entered the fray and charged directly into the opposing ranks. Finally, as the battle raged on, the Parthian light cavalry returned and struck at the enemy's weak points.Mesopotamia and neighboring regions witnessed still another military revolution when the Sassanians wrested control of the area from the Parthians in the third century a.d. First, the Sassanian rulers eliminated the feudal system and took the control of horses and cavalry units away from local lords. The more centralized Sassanian state created a large standing army - called the spah - based in many ways on the old Assyrian-Persian model. Still, Parthian-style heavy cavalry, its members drawn from the nobility, remained the core of the army. These horsemen carried lances, swords, axes, and bows, and the most outstanding of their number joined an elite group of ten thousand called the Immortals. Like their earlier Persian counterparts who were foot soldiers rather than horsemen, they were expected never to retreat, no matter how difficult the circumstances. In some ways, the Sassanian Immortals resembled medieval European knights.Unlike the Parthians, the Sassanians also employed large units of infantrymen, both archers and men who carried spears and shields. These troops were drawn mainly from the peasantry, and it is questionable how much training they had. Nevertheless, when used in concert with the Sassanian cavalry, they helped the Sassanian kings win many battles. During a battle, the king typically sat atop an elephant so that he could get a better view of the battlefield, and he was surrounded and guarded by a large core of expert archers.The Sassanian armies were the last to maintain control of the Mesopotamian plains in ancient times, as the Arab Muslim conquests of the seventh century a.d. brought that long and eventful era to a close.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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