Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, lies a land once known as Mesopotamia. It was here that humanity found suitable land to rip open and seed. Once the seeds took root, civilization was born.
With food slowly becoming abundant, the population increased and branched out. With prosperity, came external threats. Nomadic elements seeking further wealth encountered these communities and pillaged them. In doing so, they spread their parasitic-like sphere of influence, causing instability throughout the regions and cities of Mesopotamia. This instability gave rise to two things: the rise of the city-state and the professional soldier.
Creating a Civilization
Unlike pastoral societies that roam around looking for food, agriculturalists by teamed together, settling in one spot and growing their food. In doing so they created a village, a society of their own. However, it takes more than farming to create a state.
After a few generations, people slowly began to build upon their knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry, and writing. With all these skills and many more, villages gained a greater sense of the self. Such awareness allowed for the creation of law, trade, private property, social interest, internal order and a sense of self-identity. This allowed the Mesopotamian villages that dotted the landscape to evolve into a series of city-states.
Map showing the Tigris–Euphrates river system, which defines Mesopotamia. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Sumerians were the first to carve out a civilization in Mesopotamia. By the third millennium BCE, the land of Sumer consisted of a dozen or more city-states. These city-states were walled, and surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets.
Map with the locations of the main cities of Sumer and Elam. (Modern Iraq) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A reconstruction in the British Museum of headgear and necklaces worn by the women in some Sumerian graves. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The city-states of Sumer were centralized. Their centrally controlled society needed an administration to conduct the day-to-day redistribution of resources and to direct all social activity.
During the early period of Sumer history, there was a shared control over resources and social actives between the palace and temple. The temple controlled a great amount of land and exerted a powerful influence over the people. The palace authority controlled as much, if not more land than the temple.
This was fine until the palace was able to wield an even greater influence over the people. In doing so, the king was able to amalgamate the palace with the temple, in which the king saw himself as god’s own representative on earth. If god chooses the king, then the temple must obey. This placed the temple in a predicament. However, this does not mean there would never be strife again between the palace and temple authorities. So long as they existed side by side, the desire to control and hold a monopoly over the other’s institution was desirable, especially if one wished to control the masses.
Sumerian Military Structure
The earliest known evidence of a professional organized military comes from the Standard of Ur. The Sumerian military structure in terms of rank is unknown. However, it is obvious that the king headed the army as depicted on “The Stele of Vultures.” Others who rode in chariots were likely, princes, nobles, and wealthy landowners, while the main body was primarily infantry.
Detail from the Standard of Ur – Infantrymen and High ranking chariot riders (Public Domain)
The organization of the Sumerian forces is somewhat silent. The conscription of troops was comprised of corve’e (obligated) labor levied by the temple and palace to maintain the city-state. Not only was levied labor used for public works, it was also allocated for military service. The Shulgi inscription indicates that the allocation of levied labor for military service during times of war was common.
Tablet of Shulgi. This tablet glorifies king Shulgi and his victories on the Lullubi people and it mentions the modern-city of Erbil and the modern-district of Sulaymaniayh. 2111-2004 BCE. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
One inscription from the 21st/20th century BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur, also known as the Neo-Sumerian Empire, gives one a glimpse in the recruitment. A king named Shulgi recorded that ‘‘the year the citizens of Ur were conscripted as spearmen.’’ He continues and describes his ‘‘conscription with the bow and arrow; nobody evaded it – the levy being one man per family.’’ Even though this inscription came later in Sumer’s history, it does provide a glimpse in military recruitment.
A half-mina weight (248 g.), bearing the name of king Shulgi. (Public Domain)
The amount of men capable of being conscripted varied. A city-state, including the surrounding territory under the local king’s control, with a population roughly between 30,000 to 35,000 people could field an army between 4,000 and 5,000 men during an emergency. However, the men conscripted into service were not capable of fighting on a professional level, for training, organizing, and disciplining the men to enable them to fight as a cohesive unit would have taken far too long. The training of a conscript was very short and rudimentary in both arms and tactics.
Summary account of silver for the governor written in Sumerian Cuneiform on a clay tablet. From Shuruppak, Iraq, circa 2500 BCE. (Public Domain)
The professional fighting force consisted of infantry and chariots. The Tablets of Shuruppak (2600 BC) is a much earlier Sumerian text, which describes that the kings of the city-states provided for the full-time maintenance of 600 to 700 soldiers. Sumerian city-states were roughly 1,800 square miles (4660 sq km). Such space could sustain a population size between 30,000 to 35,000 people. A population this size could field a fighting force of 4,000 to 5,000. To gain a better picture of the Sumerian infantry, look no further than to “The Stele of the Vultures” from the Early Dynastic III period (2600–2350 BCE).
Fragment of the Stele of the Vultures showing marching warriors, Early Dynastic III period, 2600–2350 BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Stele of the Vultures shows a victory celebration of King Eannatum of Lagash over his neighbor Umma. This stele displays a well-organized, professional infantry in the phalanx-like formation. Notice that they wear helmets, have large shields that cover the body from chin to ankle, and they wear leather-armored cloaks with what appears to have copper or bronze disks attached. Notice that some of the infantry are carrying long spears while others carry axes. The king in front of the formation carries a throwing stick.
Stele of the Vultures detail.
The basic arms carried were maces, daggers, spears, javelins, throwing sticks and much more.
The mace is one of the oldest weapons in mankind’s arsenal and a direct descendent of the club. The Sumerian mace was made of stone and often had the shape of a pear. The mace was effective in crushing bone, particularly the skull of the enemy. However, the utilization of the mace would fall out of favor as a preferred weapon with the donning of the helmet.
“This is a variegated red stone, globular mace head. Similar to the piriform mace head, this style was commonly used in Mesopotamia around 2450-1900 BC. These type mace heads would have been attached to a wooden shaft and used as a weapon to strike an enemy.” (Aaron Newcomer/CC BY-ND 2.0)
The dagger was a double-edged blade weapon used for close combat. The length of the dagger was between eight to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm). This weapon was eventually replaced by the sword.
The spear was the same height or slightly smaller than a man. It had a socketed blade and the spearhead was made of either bronze or copper. Other spears had blunted ends. The purpose for this weapon was twofold. Its first purpose is not to inflict injury but to push back against the enemy’s shields, thus keeping distance between the two combatants. Its second purpose and most important, was the hook on the blunted spear was used to hook the rim of the enemy’s shield and dislodge it, thus leaving the combatant unprotected and as such he could be slain with the dagger or sword.
Javelins were much shorter than spears, and the points were made of either bronze or copper. Javelins could be thrown by hand while others had a leather throwing thong at the butt called a ankyle.
Axe heads were made of bronze, which slipped over the end of the shaft and was affixed with rivets. This innovation gave the axe a greater degree of strength. However, after 2500 BCE, the Sumerians developed another type of axe, which was heavier. The axe head had a much narrower blade attached to a much stronger socket, giving it the ability to penetrate bronze armor. Studies show that this new axe could generate 77.5 foot-pounds of impact energy. It only required 66 foot-pounds to penetrate the armor.
The throwing stick is a club which can be straight or curved and was designed to be thrown. One end of the stick was made heavier than the other, but both ends were shaved down into points. That gave the weapon a greater degree of momentum when thrown, and provided stability during trajectory. The reason for this is that when the stick made contact with the intended target, the energy upon impact was concentrated, and delivered through the point. An example of this can be found on the Stele of Vultures, which shows King Eannatum carrying an item in his hand that is in dispute.
Detail of the “battle” fragment. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One could say he is represented carrying a mace, scepter, or reins. Upon closer observation, it appears that Eannatum is carrying a throwing stick. Sumerians did use sickle swords but not until the Iron Age.
Sumerian Armor and Chariot
The Sumerian shield appears to be a rectangular body shield as demonstrated by the Stele of Vultures. Unfortunately, no surviving Sumerian shields exist. The closest resemblance to the Sumerian shield was the discovery of the Mari shield. The Mari shield was made of reeds covered in hide but had no boss in the center, unlike the Sumerian shields depicted in the Stele. The Sumerian shield depicted in the stele appears to have six bosses when in fact it only has one. Upon closer examination, each individual is holding the spear with two hands.
Stele of Vultures detail.
However, it is possible that a shield bearer is holding the shield. Another alternative, which appears more plausible, is that the spearman is using a neck strap to hold the shield in place.
Detail of Sumerian stele. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Sumerian helmet was a copper hat that was roughly two to three millimeters thick, fitting over a leather or wool cap, which provided another four millimeters of protection. In total, the helmet was a quarter of an inch thick. Some may speculate as to why the Sumerian soldier was fitted with a copper, rather than a bronze helmet. This may be due to the fact that the Sumerians had not developed the ability due to the difficulty in casting such a mold to fit the shape of a wearers head.
The Sumerian cloak depicted in the Stele of the Vultures appears to be ordinary. On closer inspection, the cloak seems to have been made of cloth or thin leather with metal disks, possibly bronze or copper, sewn into the fabric. The purpose for this is obvious— to thwart spear blows to torso. More importantly, this is the first depiction of body armor.
When it comes to the chariot, one must be careful when using the word ‘chariot’ when dealing with the Sumerians. What appears to be a chariot is not; it lacks the refinements of a true chariot. To the Sumerians, this vehicle was a “battle car.” Another vehicle brought to battle was a “straddle car.” This straddle car was a cabless platform in which the driver had to balance himself by straddling the car. Both vehicles were either four-wheeled or two and required four wild asses to pull them. Very different from their future replacements, but for the time, they did their job.
Detail, Relief of early war wagons on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BC (Public Domain)
The Sumerian chariot was crude but innovative for its day. In all likelihood its early use was for the king and nobles. There is indication later on that Lugalzagesi (or Lugal-Zage-Si), the last Sumerian king, boasted that his vassals could provide him 600 battle-cars for war. However, it is recorded that the king of city-state of Umma had an elite unit of 60 battle-cars at his beck and call. This is the only evidence which gives detail into the number of vehicles by any state for war.
The Sumerian battle-car, cumbersome and slow as it would have been, was used for shock troops. The arms of the charioteer were the javelin or axe. Moreover, the vehicle likely transported its heavy infantry to the battlefield. Overall, the Sumerian battle-car was indeed slow, but provided mobility for the infantry and delivered shock to the enemy.
Further information on the military organization of the Sumerian military is vague at best. However, understand that the idea of a Sumerian military organization is generic. In other words, the Sumerian civilization was just that—a civilization consisting of a series of independent city-states. Some Sumerian kings controlled just one city-state, while others held multiple city-states under their control. Therefore, the number of troops a single king could field varied. This also applies to the amount of professional troops under the command of the king. Some kings could afford many, while many more could not.
As for battlefield performance, it would not be unreasonable to think that the conscripted men, who made up the bulk of the Sumerian fighting force, were primarily used since the professional soldier was far costlier to lose and fewer in number. Not only was the professional crucial in determining the outcome of the battle, but he also was crucial in keeping the peace within the city and most importantly, needed to protect the king. While increasing the ranks of professionals sounds lucrative from a position of security, it was too expensive. The costs to pay, feed, and equip the professional soldier, especially increasing their numbers, were too much. It was far cheaper to rely on temporary conscription. However, this would not last, for Eannatum, King of Lagash (circa 2455-2425 BCE), established the first Mesopotamian empire in history through constant warring.
Battle scene with horsemen, Assyrian, about 728 BC, from Nimrud. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Eannatum’s conquest of Elam gave him the resources needed to provide an army on the march. The lands of Elam were rich in timber, precious metals, and stone. Such lucrative resources brought forth more wealth from which he could draw from to pay his soldiers and to expand the ranks to aid in his desires for further conquest. Eannatum would be the first of many in the history of warfare who conquered to confiscate the wealth of those subjugated to grease the wheels of their armies.
One fragment of the victory stele of the king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma. It depicts severed human heads in the beaks of vultures, and a fragment of cuneiform script. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “War” panel. (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea
“Weapons found in the Royal Tombs of Ur”. (2016) SumerianShakespeare.com [Online] Available at: http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/118301.html
Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation 3000 B.C. – 2000 A.D. Walnut Greek: AltaMira Press, 2001.