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 rush upon the city;
they run along the wall.
They climb into the houses;
like thieves they enter through the windows.”
Joel’s description is quite accurate. Besides reliance on battering rams to bring down the walls, they also looked to sappers.
Assyrian sappers (soldiers for building, demolitions, general construction) would approach the walls possibly under the cover of shield bears, the same type that protected the archers one could suspect. If they had no such protection, the Assyrian king made sure his specialized troop had the armor needed to get the job done. The sapper, particularly during the rule of Ashurnasirpal (883-859 BCE), were heavily armored and wore long padded mailed coverings along with a conical helmet with mail protecting the face and neck. Once at the walls, they would aid in helping the battering rams dislodge blocks from the wall with special flat-topped crowbars, pick axes, hoes, and drills. If the sappers could not get near the walls, they tunneled under them and prop it up with wooden supports until the hole was rather large and deep, after which they would set fire to the structure causing the foundation to weaken and collapse.
While the battering ram was effective, the Assyrians had a backup plan usually underway during the siege to aid the army if the rams failed to dislodge the walls, and that was siege towers. As these siege towers are pushed forward, archers would accompany them with the duty to pick off any enemy foe threatening to toss an incendiary weapon at the tower. Furthermore, the Assyrians placed hoses on the tower from which water poured over the leather sheets covering the wooden structure to prevent the tower from catching fire. If the water hoses failed and fire did catch, a man holding a large ladle with would extinguish the flames the best he could.
Siege Tower on the Lachish, Relief in the British Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
If the battering rams breached the walls, the Assyrian infantry behind the rams would pour through the hole under the cover of their archers and slingers. The Assyrian infantry were heavy spearmen armed with long, double-bladed spears, straight swords for close combat and they carried a small shield. The armor worn by the infantryman was a conical helmet, a knee-length coat of iron mail which was lined with wool to absorb the blows from weapons and allowed heat to dissipate. To protect his legs, he wore knee-high leather boots that had iron plates attached to the shins.
Heavy-armed archers in action. Assyrian, about 700-692 BC. From Nineveh, South-West Palace. These archers, the front one of whom is beardless, possibly an enuch, are each accompanied by a soldier whose duty it is to hold the tall shield in position and guard against any enemies who come too close. (Mike Peel www.mikepeel.net/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Plunder and Refugees
Inside the city, the Assyrian infantry would slash and plunder their way through. Once the slaughter and pillaging were over, those still alive (as at Samaria, which was sacked in 721 BCE), would feed the deported refugees during the journey back into Assyria, while also being treated by physicians to keep hygiene up and disease out. Furthermore, the Assyrians provided footwear if needed, along with carts for the longer journeys for women and children. Families were not separated for the most part. The Assyrians wanted to keep the families and communities together, as well as their national identity. Assyria was not a melting pot of nations. The Assyrians wanted to preserve the identity of the deportees for social and military strength and to lessen the possible acts of rebellion.
Judean people being deported into exile after the capture of Lachish. his relief depicts a man, 2 women, and 2 (male and female) children being deported with their household belongings. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
After the people had been gathered and exported, the Assyrians, like a swarm of army ants, took the captured fortified cities, or even a villages, and would destroy and take everything. Trees that were in or around the city or village were usually cut down and the timber taken back as spoils of war. Trees such as date palms were stripped naked and then cut down, leaving only the stump behind so they could not grow again. Other trees would be uprooted and replanted back in Assyria. Farmlands also did not escape Assyrian plunder, for they too were likely stripped bare leaving the farmland as it was before planting. When Tiglath-pileser conquered most of Syria and Lebanon, he took many of the trees for his palace and as tribute:
With the keen understanding and grasp of intellect with which the Master of the gods, the prince Nudimmut (Ea) endowed me, a palace of cedar… and a portico (bit hilanni) patterned after a Hittite (Syrian) palace, for my enjoyment, I built in Kalal (Kahi).”
A palace of cedar “Their (the palaces) doorways, of ivory, maple box-wood, mulberry, cedar… juniper, tribute of the Hittitte kings of the princes of the Aramaeans and of Chaldea, which I brought in submission to my feet through my valorous heroism. I made and I richly adorned them with tall cedar beams, whose fragrance is as good as that of the cypress tree, products of Amanus, Lebanon, and Ammanana (Anti – Lebanon) … The doorleaves of cedar and cypress, which give unbounded joy to the one entering them (and) whose odor penetrates to the heart, I bound with a sheathing of shining zahalu and (sariru) and hung (them) in the door-(ways).
People’s valuables were taken as well, apart from the things the captives needed in their day-to-day life. Even the temples’ valuables such as gold or silver were stripped. Idols in these temples were transported back to Assyria and paraded as weak gods of the conquered host; they could not compete with the gods that favored Assyria.
Once the refugees made it into the Assyrian homeland, they were sent to deportee camps before being sent to the region assigned to them. This was almost like a debriefing center. To give an example, one could look to Sargon II and the place of Dur-Sharrukin:
Peoples of the four quarters, of strange tongues and different speech, dwelling in mountains and plains…. I took as spoil at the word of Ashur my lord. I made of them one purpose, I made them take up abode therein [i.e., inside Dur-Sharrukin]. I sent natives of Assyria, competent in everything, as overseers and supervisors, to instruct them in custom and to serve the gods and the king.
After the Assyrians settled the captives in their assigned regions, the Assyrian monarch would make them feel welcome and comfortable. This was to keep any attempt of rebellion down. As the Assyrian monarch took the role as spokesman for the gods, it was his duty to accept all nations and to keep the peace within the Assyrian empire. Bustenay Oded writes well when referring to the role of the deported once they had been settled:
“..the exiled communities played a role very similar to that of the Assyrian garrisons stationed in all parts of the Assyrian empire, or to that of Assyrian citizens who were settled in conquered countries either as city dwellers, farmers, or officials. This explains the favorable treatment the deportees generally enjoyed, and the great concern shown by the Assyrian rulers for their welfare.”
After a long siege, the city of Lachish surrendered and the Assyrian army entered the city. King Sennacherib sits on his royal chair, surrounded by attendants and greets a high-ranking official. The king reviews Judean prisoners. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In conclusion, the Assyrians were indeed the first iron army but more important than that, was the fact that they were in many ways the first professionalized fighting force that integrated and effectively used command and control along with the combined arms (conventional and specialized) apparatus to their advantage long before anyone else. While this new professional army had its way with its neighbors, they too would succumb to those seeking to make a name in the wild near east. However, unlike those who would come after, only a few could match the Assyrian fighting force in name and merit when it came to war machine known as Assyria.
Top Image: Assyrian relief of a horseman from Nimrud, now in the British Museum (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Cam Rea
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