In 911 B.C., 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.
Ashurnasirpal II is credited for utilizing sound strategy in his wars of conquest. Whilst aiming to secure defensible frontiers, he would launch raids further inland against his opponents as a means of securing economic benefit, as he did when campaigning in the Levant. The result meant that the economic prosperity of the region would fuel the Assyrian war machine.
Ashurnasirpal II was succeeded by Shalmaneser III. Although he campaigned for 31 years of his 35 year reign, he failed to achieve or equal the conquests of his predecessor, and his death led to another period of weakness in Assyrian rule.
Assyria would later recover under Tiglath Pileser III whose reforms once again made Assyria the most powerful force in the Near East, 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, 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 B.C., Independent Political Assyrian records vanish from history and the Assyrians lose their independence forever.
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. Later on, his successor Shulgi introduced specialized units; grouping missile units and infantry into different smaller groups.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Before long, the weaknesses of the Assyrian army soon began to show itself. Battle after battle killed off important soldiers, whilst the seasons ensured that soldiers returned after a short time to their fields without achieving decisive conquests. By the mid-eighth century B.C., the Assyrian levy-army could not cope with the demands of an empire that often stretched from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.
All was to change when Tiglath Pileser III came to the throne in 745 B.C. After increasing the efficiency of the Assyrian administration, he went on to change the Assyrian army as well. 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. 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. Whilst 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. 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.
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. 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. Pony expresses with regular way stations for messengers to rest and/or exchange horses were established. Later, these would form the basis for the Persians to expand this system to their own empire.
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 B.C., wooden bridges were built across the Euphrates. By the 1st millennium B.C., Nineveh and Assur were blessed with bridges of stone, 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.
The core of the Assyrian army lay in her chariots. Originally these chariots were used as two-horse vehicles. 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 faired in battle. The Assyrians also used Chariots in reconnaissance, carrying messages to and from the frontlines as well as for battle. However, the rise of Cavalry in the 1st Millennia B.C. meant that by the 7th Century B.C., the Chariot was demoted to combat duties only; lighter chariots consisting of two to three horses were later upgraded under the reign of Ashurnasirpal II to heavy four horse chariots. 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. The Assyrian Cavalry and Infantry would then be able to exploit the gap and rout the enemy thereby taking the field.
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. By the 7th century B.C., mounted Assyrian warriors were well armed with a bow and a lance, 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:
Horses would be drawn from outlying provinces and brought in to be trained with new recruits for war.
Whilst 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. From the time of Ashurnasirpal, archers would be accompanied by a shield bearer whilst 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. Even in siege warfare, arrows were used to drive back defenders from the wall whilst engineers advanced against the fortifications. Many different types of bows are recorded by the Assyrians, including Akkadian, Cimmerian and their own "Assyrian" type. 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. 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. An Assyrian army without arrows was an army without the main capability to win.
Lancers were introduced to the infantry under Tiglath-pileser III. 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, whilst the rest of the army made do with shields and helmets.
Not much is recorded about Assyrian tactics in battle. However, Assyrian reliefs always depict their troops launching devastating chariot and cavalry charges, 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):
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:
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.
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 whilst Assur, whilst 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.:
This "strategy" is not dissimilar to genocide, and the Assyrians are often cited among the first offenders of genocide.
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.
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 B.C. 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 B.C. the Assyrians made it a habit of regularly deporting thousands of restless subjects to other lands. 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:
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.
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.
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. 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.
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:
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. 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:
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 - 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.
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. These archers in turn would be supported by shield bearers. 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. Whilst 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. These could be watered at any time in battle in case they dried.
Siege towers, even ones that could float were reported to have been in use whenever there was a wall facing a river.
Cavalry use first recorded by Tukulti Ninurta II
Collapse of Assyria