Military history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Military history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire
Assyrian Army
Participant in Assyrian wars of conquest
Assurbanipal op jacht.jpg PLATE3BX.jpg
Assyrian soldiers, from a plate in THE HISTORY OF COSTUME by Braun & Schneider (ca. 1860).
Active 911 BC - 605 BC[1]
Leaders King of Assyria
Headquarters Kalhu (Nimrud), Assur, Nineveh, Harran, Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad)
Area of
Mesopotamia, parts of the Levant, Anatolia, Egypt and western Persia
Strength capable of 120,000+ men[2]
Part of Assyrian Empire
Opponents Babylon, Elam, Media, Egypt, Urartu
Adad Nirari II brought Assyria out of servitude and waged war upon her enemies, succeeded in driving foreigners out of Assyria's heartland.[3]

The Assyrian Empire originated in the early 2nd millennium BC,[3][4] succeeding the Akkadian Kingdom of the late 3rd millennium BC.[5] Assyria did not become a powerful military state until the early 1st millennium BC, when Ashurnasirpal II's conquests reasserted Assyria's hegemony in the Near East,[3] nor was it a true empire until the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III in the mid-8th century BC. The Assyrian empire has at times been described as the first military power in history.[6] This article deals with the forces of the Assyrians in the above described times.

In 911 BC, the Assyrian state was ruled by Adad-nirari II and was in a poor state - trade routes were under foreign control and her territories in Babylon and other former vassal states were out of their hands. Adad nirari II changed all of this with aggressive campaigning against his opponents. His son was later succeeded by one of the most successful military Kings of Assyria, Ashurnasirpal II.[7]

Ashurnasirpal II is credited for utilizing sound strategy in his wars of conquest. While aiming to secure defensible frontiers, he would launch raids further inland against his opponents as a means of securing economic benefit,[8] as he did when campaigning in the Levant. The result meant that the economic prosperity of the region would fuel the Assyrian war machine.[9]

Ashurnasirpal II was succeeded by Shalmaneser III. Although he campaigned for 31 years of his 35 year reign,[9] he failed to achieve or equal the conquests of his predecessor,[10] and his death led to another period of weakness in Assyrian rule.[10]

Assyria would later recover under Tiglath Pileser III whose reforms once again made Assyria the most powerful force in the Near East,[11] and transformed her into a fully fledged empire - the first of its kind. Later Kings under Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Sennacherib would see further Assyrian offensives, although these were designed not so much for conquest but to destroy the enemies ability to undermine Assyrian power. As such, costly battles raged taking tolls on Assyrian manpower. Esarhaddon succeeded in taking lower Egypt and his successor, Ashurbanipal, took the southern upper half of Egypt.

However, by the end of the Ashurbanipal's reign it appears that the Assyrian Empire was falling into another period of weakness,[12] one from which she would not escape. It appears that years of costly battles followed by constant (and almost unstoppable) rebellions meant that it was a matter of time before Assyria ran out of troops. The loss of the outer regions meant that foreign troops were gone too. By 605 BC, independent political Assyrian records vanish from history and the Assyrians lost their independence forever.[13]



Mesopotamia was the site of some of the earliest recorded battles in history.[14][15] In fact, the first recorded battle was between the forces of Lagash and Umma c.2450 BC.[15] Like many Mesopotamian records, it contains elements of fiction. The ruler of Lagash, Eanatum, was inspired by the god Ningirsu to attack the rival kingdom of Umma; the two were involved in minor skirmishes and raids along their respective borders.[15] Eanatum, although the attacker, triumphed, even though he was struck in the eye by an arrow. After the battle, he proudly documented the behavior of the vultures.

Akkadian and Old Assyrian

According to legend, Sargon, the first king of the Akkadian Kingdom, was discovered by a gardener in Mesopotamia in a basket.[15] In time, he would found the city of Agade and raise an army of 5,400 men,[15] and then conquer much of modern-day Iraq. His inscriptions boasts of 34 victories and "5,400 men eating bread before Sargon", exemplifying both the vast manpower and the obedience of his troops (and possibly a standing army as well). Though small by even the standards of later kings, Sargon's army was larger and more sophisticated than others of the time, utilizing a combination of spears and missile weapons. Bronze swords[15] and four wheeled chariots[15] brushed aside any resistance as he carved out his empire, which may well have included (at least briefly) parts of the Mediterranean, Anatolia and western Iran.[14] Siege warfare was not a problem; most of the cities that were walled at the time of Sargon were made of mud and his inscriptions further boast of the destruction he brought on the walls of captured cities.[15] Though he utilized simple tactics that would be later emulated in many states, his dynasty survived for another 125 years.[5] Assyrian, Babylonian and even Persian conquerors would claim to be Sargon's successors and attempted to emulate his great military success.[citation needed]

Middle Assyrian

Information on the Assyrian army during this time is difficult to make out - the Assyrians were able to establish their independence on two occasions, during the Old Assyrian Kingdom and the Middle Assyrian Kingdom, with the latter reaching as far as Babylon in their pursuit of conquest. However, military tactics mainly involved using troops raised from farmers who had finished planting their fields and so could campaign for the king until harvest time called for their attention again. The result was that military campaigning was limited to a few months of the year. As a result, armies could not conquer vast amounts of land without having to rest (and hence allow their enemy to recover) and even if they did they would not be able to garrison conquered lands with troops for long.

Organization of the Military

The Assyrian army's hierarchy was typical of the Mesopotamian armies at the time. The King whose rule was sanctioned by the gods, would be the commander of the entire army of the Empire. He would appoint senior officers on certain occasions to campaign in his place if his presence on the battlefield could or had to be spared.[16]

Sargon of Akkad

A helmet believed to represent Sargon of Akkad, first great conqueror of Mesopotamia and creator of the first standing army.[17]

Sargon of Akkad is believed to have created the first standing army. Such feats required food and weapons to be supplied to the army at all times. He is also credited for introducing the composite bow to Mesopotamia as he defeated his Sumerian adversaries.[18] Later on, his successor Shulgi introduced specialized units; grouping missile units and infantry into different smaller groups.[19]


Assyria's greatest pre-reform military commander, Ashurnasirpal II

Before the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian army was also very much similar to the other Mesopotamian armies of the time. Soldiers were mostly raised farmers, who had to return to their fields to collect the harvest. Professional soldiers were limited to a few bodyguards that protected the King and or other nobles and officials but these would not have been deployed or wasted in battle unless the situation became urgent, as it later did.

Assyrian armies could be very large; Shalmaneser III once boasted a force of 120,000 men in his campaigns against Syria.[2] Such a force required men to be extracted from conquered peoples. A large army also needed more food and supplies and for this the Assyrians organized what they needed for a campaign before they set out.

Preparations for a new campaign

Preparations for a new campaign required first and foremost the assembly of troops at a designated base.[2] In Assyria, the designated locations included Nineveh, Kalhu or Khorsabad.[2] On some occasions the designated meeting points would change depending upon the campaign. Governors were instructed to accumulate supplies of corn, oil and war material.[2] Other requirements of the Governors included calling up the needed man power. Vassal states were in particular required to present troops as part of their tribute to the Assyrian King and in good time - failure to do so, would have almost certainly been seen as an act of rebellion.[2]

The arrival of the King and his bodyguard ended the preliminary stage and the army would move on to the target of their campaign. The army would march in good order; in the vanguard came the standard of the Gods, signifying the servitude of the Assyrian Kings to their primary God Assur.[2] Following this was the King, the humble servant of Assur surrounded by his bodyguard with the support of the main chariot divisions and cavalry, the elite of the army. In the rear was the infantry; the Assyrian troops followed by the conquered peoples. Following this would be the siege train, supply wagons and then the camp followers. Such a formation would have been very vulnerable to a rear attack. Some columns of troops could travel 30 miles a day and such speed would have been used to surprise and frighten an opponent into submission.[2]

Reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III

An image of Tiglath Pileser III's troops (not II). In the background can be seen a siege engine - therefore they are at siege.

Before long, the weaknesses of the Assyrian army soon began to show itself. Battle after battle killed off important soldiers, while the seasons ensured that soldiers returned after a short time to their fields without achieving decisive conquests. By the mid-eighth century BC, the Assyrian levy-army could not cope with the demands of an empire that often stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.[20]

All was to change when Tiglath Pileser III came to the throne in 745 BC. After increasing the efficiency of the Assyrian administration,[11] he went on to change the Assyrian army as well.[20] The most important aspect of his reform was the introduction of a standing army. This included a larger number of foreign soldiers but mixed in with other Assyrian soldiers.[16][20] These men could be supplied by vassal states as tribute or when demanded by the Assyrian King. They were given Assyrian equipment and uniform which made them indistinguishable from one another, possibly to increase their integration.[20] While the infantry in the standing army contained a large number of foreigners (including Aramaeans and even Greeks), the Assyrian cavalry and charioteers continued to be dominated by Assyrians.[16] There were exceptions however, and as casualties mounted additional troops would not be unwelcome; Sargon II reports that he managed to incorporate 60 Israelite Chariot teams into his army.[20]

Transportation and communication

Assyrians using inflated sheep skins to transport Chariots across the Euphrates (or Tigris).[21]

With the rise of the Assyrian Empire, new demands were placed on transport and communication. Governing such a vast Empire required the attention of the Assyrian king and his administrators. Prior to the Neo-Assyrian Empire, roads in Mesopotamia were little more than well-trodden pathways used by the locals - over time a clear path could be made out.[22] However, this was inadequate for an empire whose armies were constantly on the move, repressing one revolt after another. The Assyrians were the first to institute, control and maintain a system of roads throughout their empire.[22] Pony expresses with regular way stations for messengers to rest and/or exchange horses were established.[22] Later, these would form the basis for the Persians to expand this system to their own empire.[22]

Rugged mountains were cut through thus greatly decreasing travel time. Engineers built fine stone pavements leading up to the grand cities of Assur and Nineveh, so as to impress foreigners with the wealth of Assyria. By the 2nd millennium BC, wooden bridges were built across the Euphrates. By the 1st millennium BC, Nineveh and Assur had stone bridges,[22] testament to the wealth of the kingdom of Ashur. The construction of roads and increased transport meant that goods would flow through the empire with greater ease, thus feeding the Assyrian war effort further. Of course, roads that sped up Assyrian troops would not discriminate and would also speed up enemy troops as well.

Use of camels

The Assyrians were the first to use Camels as beasts of burden for their military campaigns.[23] Camels were of greater use than Donkeys because they can carry five times the load and yet require less watering. Camels were not domesticated until shortly before 1000 BC, on the eve of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.[23]

Wheeled vehicles

Although the Sumerians are credited for inventing the wheel sometime before 3000 BC,[23] the Assyrians were the first to manufacture tires of metal, made from copper, bronze and later iron.[23] Metal-covered wheels have the obvious advantage of being more durable and when overrunning an opponent in battle, will have a greater effect.



Assyrian king Ashurbanipal on a chariot during a royal lion hunt, during which only the King was permitted to kill lions, and only his chariot was permitted a parasol.

The core of the Assyrian army lay in her chariots.[24] Originally these chariots were used as two-horse vehicles.[24] The Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians used war chariots in this fashion as firing mobile platforms or as mobile command platforms; the elevated view would give the general some ability to see how the troops fared in battle. The Assyrians also used Chariots in reconnaissance,[24] carrying messages to and from the frontlines as well as for battle. However, the rise of cavalry in the 1st millennium BC meant that by the 7th century BC, the chariot was demoted to combat duties only;[24] lighter chariots consisting of two to three horses were later upgraded under the reign of Ashurnasirpal II to heavy four horse chariots.[24] Such chariots could contain more men (four in total). Heavier chariots also found new roles; smashing into enemy formations and dispersing the infantry in the process.[24] The Assyrian cavalry and infantry would then be able to exploit the gap and rout the enemy there by taking the battlefield.


Cavalry were rarely used by the Assyrians or many other Mesopotamians until the 9th century BC when their use is mentioned during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta II.[24] Before then, many nomads or steppe warriors relied on cavalry, who raided Assyrian lands. The Assyrians had to counter this mobile form of warfare and so beat their opponents (notably the Iranians) at their own game.[25] Perhaps the greatest outside influence is that of the Iranian Medes. It is ironic that the raiding by that people assisted Assyrian attempts in building a cavalry army with which to destroy the Kingdom of Elam. However, Assyrian attempts were not without difficulties; horse archers were utilized but could not use their bows and the reins of their horses at the same time. As a result, Cavalry under Ashurnasirpal are depicted in pairs, with one rider holding both reins and the other shooting with a bow.[24]

An Assyrian Cavalry Archer, most likely a King; the robes and the perfect handling of his horse testify to his supreme position.

The Assyrians would experience fewer problems with Cavalry when they were deployed as Lancers; under Tiglath Pileser III, the Assyrian Cavalry continued to be paired of but this time each warrior holds his own lance and controls their own horse.[24] By the 7th century BC, mounted Assyrian warriors were well armed with a bow and a lance,[24] armored with lamellar armor and their mounts equipped with fabric armor, providing limited yet useful protection in close combat and against missiles. Cavalry would form the core of the later Assyrian armies.

Large units of cavalry were required to be deployed by the Assyrians; some units would consist of hundreds or even a thousand horsemen. There is little doubt that without a continuous supply of horses, the Assyrian war machine would have collapsed. As the empire suffered horrendous casualties under Ashurbanipal's campaigns of conquest, the rebellions following his death may have contributed significantly to the downfall of the empire as fewer vassals were available to pay tribute horses and other war material needed. Horses were an incredibly important war resource and the Assyrian king himself took a personal interest to oversee adequate horse supply.
Three main sources of horses were:

  • Raids designed to steal horses from opponents, albeit from Scythians or other steppe peoples.
  • Tribute paid by vassal states.
  • High-ranking state officers would oversee horse production and report to the King.[25]

Horses would be drawn from outlying provinces and brought in to be trained with new recruits for war.[25]


Assyrian archers taking aim, under the protection of a shield bearer.

While cavalry provided the most expensive and effective arm of the Assyrian Empire, Infantry are cheaper and more numerous. In the right circumstances, they were also more effective, for example in siege warfare whereby the mobility provided by Horsemen would be of no advantage in such encounters. Assyrian Infantry were composed of both native Assyrians and foreigners employed as auxiliaries, spearmen, slingers, shield bearers or archers. The latter type was the most dominant in Assyrian armies.[25] From the time of Ashurnasirpal, archers would be accompanied by a shield bearer while slingers would aim to distract the enemy into lowering their shield to protect against the stones, thereby allowing the archers to shoot above their shield walls and slay their enemies.[26] Even in siege warfare, arrows were used to drive back defenders from the wall while engineers advanced against the fortifications. Many different types of bows are recorded by the Assyrians, including Akkadian, Cimmerian and their own "Assyrian" type.[26] However, it is most likely that these were simply different variants of the powerful composite bow. Depending upon the bow, an archer would have a range of anything between 250 to 650 meters.[26] Vast amounts of arrows could be expended in battle so in preparation for war many arrows would be made. Facilities also existed that would travel with the army's supply train that could manufacture more arrows.[26] An Assyrian army without arrows was an army without the main capability to win.

Lancers were introduced to the infantry under Tiglath-pileser III.[26] The idea was that a long spear would be able to penetrate and attack the enemy's ranks at longer range than a sword or a dagger could. Armour (lamellar) amongst the melee troops was limited to elite soldiers only, while the rest of the army made do with shields and helmets.

Strategy and Tactics


From The Historians' History of the World : "The spear of the Assyrian footman was short, scarcely exceeding the height of a man; that of the horseman appears to have been considerably longer… The shaft was probably of some strong wood, and did not consist of a reed, like that of the modern Arab lance."[27]

Not much is recorded about Assyrian tactics in battle. However, Assyrian reliefs always depict their troops launching devastating chariot and cavalry charges,[28] smashing the enemy lines and allowing their foot soldiers to exploit the divided enemy. It is likely that the chariots would head in first. A preliminary barrage of arrows would soften up the enemy for a chariot attack. To keep up the momentum, cavalry would follow up. Lagging behind would be the infantry whose job was to destroy the now scattered enemy. Despite the extensive use of missile weapons, the Assyrians still preferred a bloody frontal assault as Sennacherib describes his pyrrhic victory (in which he claims total victory):

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane...I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles...I cut their throats like sheep...My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage


Assyrian frontal offensives were designed to shock the enemy and surprise them. However, they were also a strategy employed when time was not on their side:

The harassed troops of Ashur, who had come a long way, very weary slow to respond, who had crossed and re-crossed sheer mountains innumerable, of great trouble for ascent and descent, their morale turned mutinous. I could give no ease to their weariness, no water to quench their thirst; I could set up no camp, nor fix defences

—Sargon II[30]

Despite the above, Sargon II's instinct saved the day; leading his exhausted troops, he launched a surprise attack against his Urartian opponents who broke at the speed and surprise of the attack. So vicious was the battle that the Urartian King abandoned his state officials, governors, 230 members of the Royal family, many cavalry and infantry and even the capital itself was abandoned.

Overall war strategy

Assyrian warships. The Assyrians would have used these to transport horses, chariots and supplies across rivers. Although they reached the Mediterranean on numerous occasions,[31] problems (in the shape of rebellions) in the Fertile Crescent would have made such sea ventures into the Mediterranean unlikely.

The nature of Mesopotamia; plain and fertile with few natural defenses meant that defensive operations were out of the question; only a decisive attack could defend such vulnerable yet valuable locations. The cities of Assur and Nineveh were both "sandwiched" between rivers, Nineveh being more so enclosed and protected by the Tigris while Assur, while being close to the Tigris, was a fair distance away from the Euphrates. The result was that both cities had a measure of natural protection. However, rivers would not stop a determined army so attacking and destroying the enemies' ability to wage war was the best method of ensuring survival. To this end the Assyrians sought a decisive encounter that would destroy the enemies' army.

Colonization: The Assyrians, in conjunction with their deportation (see below) would also send some of their own into foreign lands and settle them as colonists. The primary aim was to establish a loyal power base; taxes, food and troops could be raised here as reliably as at their homeland, or at least it must have been hoped. Furthermore, their presence would bring innumerable benefits; resistance to other conquerors, a counter to any rebellions by the natives and assist the provincial Assyrian governors in ensuring that the vassal state was loyal to Assyria.

Total Destruction: One must be careful before assuming that the Assyrians utilized total war. However, it is known that the Assyrians, as part of their overall strategy of weakening their opponents and of exacting revenge would violently destroy what they could not take back or could not consolidate.:

For a distance of a month and twenty-five days' journey I devastated the provinces of Elam. Salt and sihlu I scattered over them... The dust of Susa, Madaktu, Haltemash and the rest of the cities I gathered together and took to Assyria... The noise of people, the tread of cattle and sheep, the glad shouts of rejoicing, I banished from its fields. Wild asses, gazelles and all kinds of beasts of the plain I caused to lie down among them, as if at home.


Psychological warfare

The Assyrians fully appreciated the use of terrorizing their enemies. To conserve manpower and rapidly move on to solve Assyria's multiple problems, the Assyrians preferred to accept the surrender of their opponents or else destroy their ability to resist a surrender. This in part explains their offensive strategy and tactics.


The Jews were one of the many peoples deported by the Assyrians.

It is not known if the Assyrians were the first to deport people, although since none before had ruled the Fertile Crescent as they did it is likely that they were the first to practice it on a large scale. The Assyrians began to utilize mass-deportation as a punishment for rebellions since the 13th century BC.[32] The purposes of deportation included, but were not limited to:

1) Psychological warfare: the possibility of deportation would have terrorized the people;
2) Integration: a multiethnic population base in each region would have curbed nationalist sentiment, making the running of the Empire smoother;
3) Preservation of human resources: rather than being butchered, the people could serve as slave labor or as conscripts in the army.

By the 9th century BC the Assyrians made it a habit of regularly deporting thousands of restless subjects to other lands.[33] Re-settling these people in the Assyrian homeland would have undermined the powerbase of the Assyrian Empire if they would rebel again. As a result, Assyrian deportation involved removing one enemy population and settling them into another. Below is a list of deportations carried out by Assyrian Kings:[31]

  • 744 BC Tiglath Pileser III deports 65,000 people from Iran to the Assyrian-Babylonian border at the Diyala river
  • 742 BC Tiglath Pileser III deports 30,000 people from Hamath, Syria and into the Zagros mountains in the east.
  • 721 BC Sargon II (claimed) deports 27,290 people from Samaria, Israel and disperses them throughout the Empire. However, it is likely that his ousted predecessor, Shalmaneser V ordered the deportation
  • 707 BC Sargon II deports 108,000 Chaldeans and Babylonians from the Babylonian region
  • 703 BC Sennacherib deports 208,000 people from Babylon

Tiglath Pileser III re-introduced deportation on a grand scale, deporting tens, even hundreds of thousands of people. Deportations were also coupled with Colonization, see above for more details.

Dealing with rebels

When rebellion inevitably broke out in the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian Kings would often brutally crush the rebellion (as an alternative to deportation) and inflict great punishments on her rebellious vassals. Ashurnasirpal II ensured that the rebellions he suffered would be crushed with the same ruthlessness so that his opponents would never wish to do so again; in this way he was utilizing psychological warfare:

To the city of Suru of Bit Halupe I drew near, and the terror and spleandour of Ashur, my Lord, overwhelmed them. The chief and the elders of the city, to save their lives came forth into my presence and embraced my feet, saying: 'If it is thy pleasure, slay! If it is thy pleasure, let live! That which thy heart desireth, do!'...In the valour of my heart and with the fury of my weapons I stormed the city. All the rebels they seized and delivered them up

—Ashurnasirpal II[34]

Ashurnasirpal II paints a descriptive picture when he later describes how he dealt with the rebels; they were flayed, impaled, beheaded (first if they were lucky), burnt alive, eyes ripped out, fingers, noses and ears cut off.

Ashurnasirpal II's brutal treatment succeeded in pacifying the rebels. As he campaigned into Syria, he was able to take a large body of soldiers out of Mesopotamia without fear of a rebellion cutting his supply lines. So successful were his brutal sieges of the cities of northern Syria that many other smaller settlements immediately surrendered to his army as it marched south parallel to the Mediterranean.

The Assyrians viewed their Kings as governing with the gods' (or the god Ashur) sanction. To rebel against this most humble servant of Ashur would be to rebel against Ashur himself, something that could only bring divine destruction; hence the glorification of such brutality.[citation needed]

Other acts of brutality include: rape, mutilating men until death, placing heads, arms, hands and even lower lips on the conquered city's walls, skulls and noses atop stakes.[32] Alternatively these could also be piled up or even their corpses cut up and fed to the dogs. On some occasions, people were blinded so that as they wandered throughout the land they would speak of Assyrian terrors and demoralize the local population.

Siege warfare

Susa, sacked by the Assyrians. Ashurbanipal's brutal campaign against Susa in 647 BCE is triumphantly recorded in this relief. Here, flames rise from the city as Assyrian soldiers topple it with pickaxes and crowbars and carry off the spoils.

In 647 BCE, the Assyrian king Assurbanipal leveled the city during a war in which the people of Susa apparently participated on the other side. A tablet unearthed in 1854 by Austen Henry Layard in Nineveh reveals Ashurbanipal as an "avenger", seeking retribution for the humiliations the Elamites had inflicted on the Mesopotamians over the centuries. Ashurbanipal dictates Assyrian retribution after his successful siege of Susa:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed... I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.


The plains and fertile lands of Mesopotamia were not only ideal for warfare: they actually attracted war. Raiders from all nations coveted the lands of the Assyrians - Scythians to the north, Syrians, Arameans and Cimmerians to the West, Elamites to the East and Babylonians to the south. In fact, the latter never tired of rebelling against Assyrian rule.[10] As a result, in order to prevent chariots and cavalry from completely overwhelming these settlements, walls were constructed though often from mud or clay since stone was neither cheap, nor readily available. In order to destroy the opponents, these cities had to be taken as well and so the Assyrians soon mastered Siege warfare - Esarhaddon claims to have taken Memphis, the capital of Egypt in less than a day, demonstrating the ferocity and skill of Assyrian siege tactics at this point in time:

I fought daily, without interruption against Taharqa, King of Egypt and Ethiopia, the one accursed by all the great gods. Five times I hit him with the point of my arrows inflicting wounds from which he should not recover, and then I laid siege to Memphis his royal residence, and conquered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches and assault ladders


Sieges were costly in terms of manpower and more so if an assault was launched to take the city by force - the siege of Lachish cost the Assyrians at least 1,500 men[2] - found at a mass grave near Lachish. Before the advent of standing armies, a city's best hope would be that the harvest would force the enemy to return to their fields and therefore abandon the city. However, with the reforms of Tiglath Pileser III Assyria's first standing army was forged and could therefore blockade a city until it surrendered instead. Nonetheless it is known that Assyrians always preferred to take a city by assault then to settle down for a blockade - the former method would be followed by extermination or deportation of the inhabitants and would therefore frighten the opponents of Assyria into surrendering as well.[17]

Siege weapons

The Assyrians were not naturals at siege warfare and this can be seen by their attempts to experiment with numerous methods for taking a city.

The most common siege weapon and by far the cheapest was the ladder. However, ladders are easy to topple over and so the Assyrians would shower their opponents with arrows to provide cover fire .[37] These archers in turn would be supported by shield bearers.[26] Other ways of undermining the enemies' defences included mining. A 9th century Assyrian relief depicts soldiers using ladders to scale walls, while others use their spears to scrape the mud and clay from the walls. A soldier is also depicted beneath a wall, suggesting that mining was used to undermine the foundations and bring the walls down on their opponents.

The Battering ram appears to be one of the best Assyrian contributions to siege warfare. Although looking nothing like the tougher weapons used by the Greeks and Romans many centuries later, they nonetheless served their purpose. They consisted of a tank-like wooden frame on four wheels. There was a small tower on top for archers to provide covering fire as the engine moved forward. When it had reached its destination, its primary weapon, a large spear, was used to batter away and chip pieces of the enemy wall. While this would have been almost useless against stone walls, one must keep in mind that mud and not stone was used to build walls. Even when dried, these mud walls could be attacked with such engines. Walls were strengthened with time and the Assyrians responded by building larger engines with bigger "spears". In time, they closely resembled a large and long log with a metal tip at the end. Even stone would not withstand pounding by a larger weapon. Larger engines accommodated greater numbers of archers. To protect against fire (which was used by both sides at the Siege of Lachish) the battering ram would be covered in wet skins.[38] These could be watered at any time in battle in case they dried.

I captured 46 towns... by consolidating ramps to bring up battering rams, by infantry attacks, mines, breaches and siege engines


Siege towers, even ones that could float were reported to have been in use whenever there was a wall facing a river.[2]

Timeline of Assyrian Military

3rd and 2nd Millennia BC

  • 2340–2284 BC Sargon of Akkad conquers much of Mesopotamia
  • 1230 BC Battle of Nairi
  • 1170 BC Nineveh is stronger than ever with more power than ever

9th century BC

Cavalry use first recorded by Tukulti Ninurta II

  • 883 BC Ashurnasirpal II takes power and begins expansion of Assyria beyond Mesopotamia
  • 877 BC Ashurnasirpal II takes Assyrian troops to the Mediterranean and Mount Lebanon for the first time.
  • 858 BC Shalmaneser III subjugates Bit Adini to vassal status
  • 853 BC After taking Aleppo, Shalmaneser III is stopped at the Battle of Qarqar
  • 851 BC Shalmaneser III defeats Chaldean revolt in Babylon
  • 849, 845 and 841 BC Shalmaneser III makes three unsuccessful attempts to take Syria
  • 840 BC Shalmaneser III fails to defeat Urartu
  • 832 BC Shalmaneser III fails to take Damascus in a siege
  • 824 BC Shalmaneser III dies, Assyria enters into period of weakness

8th century BC

  • 780 - 756 BC Argistis I reigns over Assyria, lake Urmia lost by Assyria to Urartu
  • 745 BC Tiglath Pileser III seizes power in a coup; Assyrian Army reformed
  • 744 BC Mass deportation of Iranians by Tiglath Pileser III
  • Unknown date: Tiglath Pileser III defeats Babylon
  • 743 BC Tiglath Pileser III decisively defeats Urartu, besieges Arpad
  • 741 BC Arpad falls to Tiglath Pileser III
  • 734 - 732 BC Syro-Ephraimite War: Rebellions in Syria and Palestine are crushed. Damascus falls in 732.
  • 732 BC Babylon is conquered by Assyria following an usurpation of the throne by a Chaldean. Lands around Babylon are devastated during three years of fighting
  • 724 - 722 BC Shalmaneser V besieges and then captures Samaria
  • 721 BC Coup of Sargon II results in Samaria revolt; it is quickly crushed.
  • 721 BC Sargon II defeats Babylonian rebellion
  • 717 - 716 BC Sargon II takes Carchemish to secure trade routes in the north.
  • 714 BC A major military disaster befalls Urartu; Sargon II destroys Urartu's ability to fight forever
  • 713 BC Rumours of an anti-Assyrian alliance leads Sargon II to take Tabal.
  • 710 - 707 BC Another Babylonian revolt is crushed by Sargon II
  • 709 BC Assyrian expeditionary forces sent by Sargon II force Midas to seek peace terms.
  • 703 BC Another Chaldean-backed Babylon revolt is crushed by Sennacherib, only one year after his succession
  • 701 BC Sennacherib moves down Mediterranean coast to subdue Syria and Israel. Lachish is taken after bloody fighting, while Egyptian aid is driven back. Siege of Jerusalem fails.

7th century BC

  • 694 BC Sennacherib attacks Elam. Elam attacks Babylon, which is now unoccupied by Assyrian army
  • 693 BC Battle of Diyala River: Assyrian assault to Elam through Der is called back due to Babylonian revolt
  • 692 BC Battle of Halule: The alliance of Elamites, Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Aramaic and Zagros tribes fight off the Assyrians.
  • 691 BC Sennacherib wins a Pyrrhic victory against Elam. However he is able to crush the Babylon revolt
  • 681 BC Sennacherib is murdered by two of his sons; another son Esarhaddon avenges his death and rules Assyria
  • 679 BC An alliance of Cimmerians and Scythians is defeated by Esarhaddon's forces.
  • 679 BC Esarhaddon's troops take Arzani and reach the Egyptian border.
  • 676 BC Esarhaddon launches an offensive to counter increasing Iranian power.
  • 675 BC An assault on Egypt is thrown back.
  • 671 BC Another Assyrian offensive into Egypt is a success;
  • 669 BC Memphis is sacked by Assyrian troops
  • 668 BC Ashurbanipal succeeds Esarhhadon, last King of Assyria to expand her borders beyond Mesopotamia
  • 663 BC Ashurbanipal relieves an Egyptian siege of Memphis and destroys Thebes in the south.
  • 665 BC A ten year campaign against Media is launched.
  • 665 BC Elam attacks Babylon, but fails.
  • 655 BC Elam attacks Babylon. At the same time, Egypt launches another offensive. Elamite attack repelled by large Assyrian army assembled by Ashurbanipal.
  • Unknown date (possibly 655 BC) Ashurbanipal drives Elmite forces across the River Ulai in the plain of Susa.
  • 653 BC Median invasion stopped by Scythian attack
  • 652 BC Babylon once more revolts
  • 651 BC Ashurbanipal abandons Egypt to focus on Elamite attacks; Assyrian army shows signs of overstretching itself.[39]
  • 648 BC Babylon is utterly destroyed by Assyria; Elamite civil war ensures no help from Elam.
  • 647 BC Battle of Susa: Susa is destroyed completely by Ashurbanipal.[35]
  • 639 BC Ashurbanipal decimates the lands of Elam. Elamite kingdom does not recover.

Collapse of Assyria

  • 635 BC Egypt, unchecked since 651 BC, storms Ashdod.
  • 627 BC Ashurbanipal dies. Collapse of Assyria accelerates.
  • 622 BC An Assyrian expedition may have been launched west of the Euphrates; lack of Assyrian records points to a likely Assyrian defeat.
  • 616 BC Nabopolassar, King of Babylon since 626 BC, drives out Assyrian troops from Babylonia.
  • 615 BC Median invasion of Assyria results in capture of Arrapha.
  • 614 BC Assur, first Capital of Assyria is sacked by the Medes under King Cyaxares.
  • 612 BC Battle of Nineveh (612 BC): Nineveh is destroyed by an alliance of Medians and Babylonians after a mere 3 month siege.
  • 609 BC Battle of Megiddo (609 BC): Egyptians unsuccessfully tried to help the Assyrians.
  • 608 BC Newly established Assyrian capital at Harran is destroyed by pursuing Babylonian forces.
  • 605 BC Battle of Carchemish: Egypt, fearing the power of Babylon, assists Assyria. An Assyrian-Egyptian alliance is crushed by a Babylonian army. Assyria ceases to exist as an independent nation.

See also



  1. ^ Until final Egyptian aid at Megiddo was beaten
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 23
  3. ^ a b c Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 6
  4. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 10–11. 
  5. ^ a b Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. p. 56. 
  6. ^ Burenhult, Göran (in Swedish). Bra böckers encyklopedi om människans historia. 5, Civilisationens vaggor: tidiga högkulturer i esopotamien, Egypten och Asien. pp. 37. ISBN 9171331719. OCLC 186397556. "Assyrien har med rätta kallats världens första militärmakt." 
  7. ^ Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 6,10
  8. ^ Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 7
  9. ^ a b Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 10
  10. ^ a b c Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 13
  11. ^ a b Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 17
  12. ^ a b Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 54
  13. ^ Grant, R.G. (2005). Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 16. 
  14. ^ a b Grant, R.G. (2005). Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 12. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Grant, R.G. (2005). Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 13. 
  16. ^ a b c Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 19
  17. ^ a b c Grant, R.G. (2005). Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley. pp. 17. 
  18. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 264. 
  19. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 265. 
  20. ^ a b c d e Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 18
  21. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 253. 
  22. ^ a b c d e Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 254. 
  23. ^ a b c d Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 255. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 20
  25. ^ a b c d Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 21
  26. ^ a b c d e f Healy, The Ancient Assyrians, p. 22
  27. ^ "Manners and Customs of Babylonia-Assyria". The Historians' History of the World. I. The Outlook Company. 1904. pp. 470. 
  28. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 24.  Texts describe attacking as a preferred method of war
  29. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 47. 
  30. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 32. 
  31. ^ a b Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. Various pages. 
  32. ^ a b Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 268. 
  33. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. 
  34. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 7. 
  35. ^ a b Persians: Masters of Empire" ISBN 0-8094-9104-4 p. 7-8
  36. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 50. 
  37. ^ Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 267. 
  38. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. 30. 
  39. ^ Healy, Mark (1991). The Ancient Assyrians. New York: Osprey. pp. .. "Whilst he did indeed give up the "kingdom of the two lands" (upper and lower Egypt, shows the frontline in 639 BC as including the Nile River)" [unreliable source?]

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