The Iron Army: Assyria – Terrifying Military of the Ancient World – Part I



Before the famed Persian Empire, whose borders spanned from India to Thrace, there was another empire—the Assyrians. The Assyrian Empire, while much smaller than the future Persian Empire to come, made up for its lack of territorial mass with a well-greased, organized fighting machine.

In the book of Nahum 3:1, the prophet Nahum made it clear that Assyria was a “city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears!”

What made the Assyrian Empire one of the most terrifying militaries in the ancient world was that they were organized, well led, well fed, well supplied, and had the tools to crack into just about any city they so desired. When it comes to warfare, sieges dominate the vast array of Assyrian reliefs. The siege we will focus on is that of Lachish in 701 BCE.

In order to understand how the Neo-Assyrian military organization functioned one must first focus on the head of the army, the king. From there, we can gather the role of the nobility in military affairs and finally those who formed the bulk of the army.

King: Despotic Commander in Chief

Sargon II and dignitary. Palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), c. 716–713 BC. (Public Domain)

The Assyrian king wasn’t just directly involved with state affairs on all levels; he was the state. Every aspect of state affairs, whether international, political, military, and religious, was directly linked to him. The king was absolute, but even he had limitations. The Assyrian king, unlike the pharaoh of Egypt, was not divine but despotic. He was a mediator between the gods and his subjects through his ritual purification by both divine and human attendants. Besides the day-to-day domestic and foreign affairs dealt with by the king, he was commander and chief of the Assyrian army. Middle Assyrian inscriptions attest to this, as the Assyrian king on his coronation would swear an oath that they would lead their armies, in person, on annual campaigns of conquest to extend their borders. Even though he was the head of his army, he was a figurehead to a certain degree, for his military duties were diffused and delegated to lesser officials.

Turtānu: Leader of Armies

This lesser official, who would lead armies, was the turtanu. The turtanu was second in military command right under the king. While the king was in fact the commander in chief of the army, the real responsibility executing his majesty’s orders lay in the hands of the turtanu. Assyrian kings did participate in campaigns but when unable, the turtanu was firmly in charge. Eventually either Tiglath-Pileser III or Sargon II reorganized the office of the turtanu. In the past, one man held the position. However, this changed. Instead of having one man take charge of the military forces there was be two. One man was in charge “of the left” and the other “of the right.” While not definitive in all cases, the post of the turtanu were assigned to eunuchs. The reason for this was to limit power by ensuring that the man in charge could not pass his office down to his son through inheritance, which in turn limited the power of the office and avoided the possibility of a coup.

Army Organization and Officers

Information on the military organization of the Assyrian army is fragmented and murky. But a word of caution before proceeding: what is about to be presented is based on what is known and what can be considered from what information survives.

The Assyrians do provide some history concerning the framework of their military apparatus. During the eighth century BCE the Assyrian king could mobilize a force of between 150,000-200,000 men and in extreme cases, 1,000,000. This seems a bit farfetched but was not impossible. In times of war, the Assyrians could field between 20,000-50,000 troops, which would be the equivalent of two or five modern American divisions. Each division consisted of 120 officers. Therefore, two divisions would consist of 240 officers while five divisions consisted roughly of 416 officers. When further broken down, a squad of ten men was under the control of a noncommissioned officer. Five or twenty squads were formed into a “company” (kirsu) under the command of a “captain” (rab kisri or rab hanle). The amount of men in an Assyrian company probably was made up of five squads totaling 250 men and would take at least four of them to form a battalion. A regiment possibly consisted of and three battalions totaling 3,000 men, which seems possible based on the Urartian system, similar to that of Assyria, and it was under the command of a prefect, or what would be today the equivalent of a modern colonel. As for the size of an Assyrian division, it would seem possible that one division consisted of three if not more regiments.

By the time of Sargon, they had become a truly iron army. Sargon reorganized and integrated the fighting force, starting with the conventional units such as infantry, chariots, cavalry, and siege machinery. Next were specialized units to aid support to the conventional, such as scouts, engineers, intelligence officers, and sappers (soldiers for building, demolitions, general construction). To support and supply such an army with the amount of iron needed, Sargon constructed a single weapons room called Dur-Sharrukin (Fort Sargon) which contained 200 tons of weapons and body armor.

Plan of Dur-Sharrukin, 1867.  Victor Place excavated Khorsabad (Iraq) from 1852 to 1855. The Palace of Sargon is represented at North East. (Public Domain)

Reconstructed model of Palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, 1905. (Public Domain)

Soldiers and Engines of War

The Assyrian military consisted of four main units: cavalry, charioteers, infantry, and archers.

When it came to mobility, the Assyrians relied on charioteers like most Near Eastern nations. However, during the reign of Ashurbanipal II in the ninth century BCE, reliefs depict the Assyrians as already having cavalry but in small numbers; they were light by standard and their only function was to ward off other horse archer units during an engagement. What the Assyrians did to combat this was to take regular foot archers and place them on horseback. The Assyrians now had their own version of a horse archer, but the problem was they wore little or no armor. This made the Assyrian horse archer vulnerable to attacks from other horse archers better armored and trained in the rudiments of archery from horseback.

Ashurbanipal II meets a high official after a successful battle.

Ashurbanipal II meets a high official after a successful battle. (Public Domain)

Tiglath-pileser III took note of what is already in use pertaining to his own force and admired what could be adopted and improved upon into his own cavalry units. Tiglath-pileser invested in developing better cavalry units whereas their enemies later on (such as the Cimmerians and Scythians) continued to evolve into much better fighting forces that adapted to the natural conditions and to the conduct of their enemies— in other words, to improvise, adapt, overcome.

After conquering a portion of western Media, Tiglath-pileser incorporated Median cavalry into his own army and from then on, effectively changed the nature of the Assyrian cavalry from charioteer teams to mounted warriors armed with bow and spear. The days of the chariot as master of the battlefield were nearing an end but were not yet over. Over time, the Assyrian army had three types of cavalry. The first type was light cavalry, which consisted of Medes and other nomads who were quick and who primarily used the bow and javelin. Next were the Assyrian heavy archers. This unit consisted of men in heavy scale body armor. Finally, the heavy cavalrymen were fully armored and designed for fighting heavy infantry. However, the Assyrian use of heavy cavalry for shock is uncertain. Cavalry under Tiglath-pileser III on through to Sargon II seem to be primarily skirmishers. There is, however, cavalry depicted during the time of Sargon II on reliefs which are shown to be carrying spears and charging into battle, which may suggest the evolution of the Assyrian shock cavalry was well underway. Tiglath-pileser III and his successors loved the new cavalry so much that they replaced most of the chariot units with elite cavalry units over time. To put this into perspective, the king, his nobles, and the warrior elite were the only ones permitted to use the chariot.

Assyrian artwork from ninth century BC at British Museum. (CC BY 2.0)

Assyrian infantry can be divided into three types: spearmen, archers, and slingers. Spearmen were well armored and are the foundation of the Assyrian army. Their primary function was to provide defense and offense. When on the defensive it was the spearmen’s job to support the skirmishing and cavalry units, to maneuver around them and find targets that could be softened up, which would take pressure off the lines and allow the infantry to go on the offensive. These Spearmen were armed with a shield, spear, and a dagger or short sword.

Assyrian Soldier with Standing Shield, Soldier with Small Shield, Archer. (Public Domain)

Archers were also well armored and used a recurve bow. In some reliefs, Assyrian archers are accompanied by a shield bearer who provided protection as the archer discharged his arrow. Archers in battle were usually placed in front of the heavy infantry ranks to shower arrows down upon the enemy before retreating behind the spearmen once the enemy was too close for comfort. Assyrian archers in the reliefs also appear to be wearing short swords as well.

Another skirmishing unit utilized to harass the enemy was slingers. Slingers, as their name applies, slung well-rounded rocks at the enemy. While the distance was not as great as an archer, the power generated upon release caused tremendous damage as it was meant to crush, unlike the arrow, which was used to pierce. Slingers, like archers, would be out in front of the spearmen harassing the enemy infantry or, engaging the enemy skirmishing detachments.

Sling Stones, Tel Lachish, 701 BCE. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, Assyrian horse archers and those carrying javelins could and did act as skirmishing detachments who could, with the right covering fire from the archers, could quickly ride up on the enemy lines, whether infantry or skirmishers, and discharge their projectiles before riding off.

The Siege of Lachish will be our Example

Once they set up camp outside their intended target, the Assyrian military force, when arrayed, occupied roughly an area of 2,500 yards across and 100 yards deep. The supplies for such a force would have been massive. The number of calories and amount of water a single Assyrian soldier would need to function comes to 3,402 calories a day and nine quarts of water. This does not include the amount of food needed to feed the pack animals haul the equipment. Once the Assyrian army was finally in place before the walls of an enemy city, the consuming and waste began and the need to finish the job quickly set in.

Assyrian War Camp Relief.

Assyrian War Camp Relief. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So how did the Assyrians deploy for a siege? An Assyrian siege begins with a messenger. According to 2 Kings 18:17-37 they would send a messenger to deliver the ultimatum, which was ‘surrender or die’. However, it seems most cities chose to fight than give in to the attacker.

Once the Assyrian army had isolated the city, they would begin to construct siege works on the spot. At the siege of Lachish in 701 BCE, Sennacherib’s siege crew deployed prefabricated battering rams, which required assembly on the spot. While the construction of siege engines was underway, the Assyrian infantry would begin to build earthen ramps leading to the weakest point in the city walls. The men building the ramps were likely under the protection of Assyrian archers and slingers.

Assyrian archers during a siege would push forward, wearing a long coat of mail and carrying a man-sized reed shield with a bent back to protect him from enemy fire. The Archer would carry an Assyrian composite bow, which required two to string. These heavy bowmen could easily get into position and pelt the enemy on the walls, thus negating interference with the men below who were constructing the siege ramps.

The same goes for the Assyrian slingers, who also were good at harassing the enemy with projectiles as the ramp drew closer to the city walls as they could hit high-angled targets who hid behind the parapets.

Assyrian attack on a town with archers and a wheeled battering ram, 865–860 BC. (Public Domain)

Chariots were deployed as light mobile artillery that could aid in hitting targets on the walls. In one sense, they were a great addition to keeping the defenders from firing back too often, for each volley the archers and slingers could fire, the charioteer archers could deliver another volley and quickly get out of harm’s way.

After the earthen ramps were finished, teams of infantry, aided with the protection of archers to cover their approach, began to push the heavy siege machines forward into position. One such siege engine that was very effective against enemy fortification was the Assyrian battering ram. During the siege of Lachish, King Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) deployed several battering rams simultaneously towards the weakest points of the walls. One of the big differences when comparing these rams with those of the past is that Sennacherib had the battering pole extended. This allowed a greater degree of reach and leverage. When looking at the reliefs depicting the siege of Lachish, one will notice archers atop the device as it moves forward. There are two likely reasons for this. First, as the battering ram is moved forward, enemy along the wall could possibly throw an incendiary device, which could cause the ram to catch fire. Placing archers atop the vehicle allows them to pick off those wishing to set the ram a blaze. The second reason is to protect the infantry moving behind the ram.

Assyrian troops attacking a besieged city using a battering ram on a siege ramp. Enemy archers are returning fire. Headless corpses lie at the foot of the city walls. (Public Domain)

While the ram attempted to smash and loosen the rocky walls, Assyrian assault teams with scaling ladders would try to breach walls. The ram, while effective, was also vulnerable to enemy defenders dropping chains to pull the battering pole aside. Because of this issue, the Assyrians deployed men who counter this by hooking the chains with iron grapples. The prophet Joel gives a description of the Assyrian wall scaling:

 They charge like warriors;

    they scale walls like soldiers.

They all march in line,

    not swerving from their course.

They do not jostle each other;

    each marches straight ahead.

They plunge through defenses

    without breaking ranks.

They rush upon the city;

    they run along the wall.

They climb into the houses;

    like thieves they enter through the windows. – Joel 2:7-9.

Top Image: Assyrian relief of horsemen with spears. Bodies fly in their wake. From Nimrud, now in the British Museum (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


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