Assyria and Babylon – Empires Entwined

Vince Rospond takes a look at the Assyrian and Babylonian background and armies. Take it away, Vince…


The History in a nutshell
Assyria grew out of the city-states that developed in Mesopotamia starting about 2500 BC. In this area, also known as “The fertile crescent”, city-states developed and were eventually amalgamated into kingdoms. Running at roughly the parallel time Babylon rose in the south and Assyria in the north.

Babylon started its rise to power around 1850 BC under the Amorite dynasty. In 1750 BC Hammurabi ascended the throne of Babylon and started to unite city-states in the immediate vicinity of his city under his rule. Starting within fifty square miles, he conquered an area that today would encompass Iran, the Gulf of Turkey and Syria. Hammurabi was one of the first rulers to create an organized army, bureaucracy and written laws.

These changes allowed him to conquer and control areas not under his immediate command in order to build a modern state. On the death of Hammurabi in 1708 BC, however, his Empire quickly fell apart as there was no strong leader to succeed him. Shortly after his death Babylon was then conquered by the Kassites and they ruled the area for the next 450 years starting around 1600 BC.

The Babylonian King Burnaburiash and the Assyrian King Assuruballit were related contemporaries (about 1400 – 1350 BC) who sought to restore the fortunes of the two empires. They eventually restored independence of the kingdoms and established their boundaries by treaty. Around 1100 BC Nebuchadnezzar I established Babylon as an independent Kingdom again. His dynasty last only three generations before fading away.

At roughly the same time as Nebuchadnezzar I, Tiglath-Pileser I forged a new Assyrian Empire through the use of terror tactics but that territory did not survive long after his death in 1079 BC because, as with Hammurabi’s babylonian empire before it, it lacked a strong ruler to hold the Empire together.

Around 883 BC Assurnasipal II came to the throne and re-established Assyrian dominance. He reorganized and re-trained the army, establishing a corps of chariots, cavalry, bowmen and lancers. His army was equipped with specialist sappers that had iron-headed battering rams and siege towers. Warfare was based primarily around attacking and sacking cities.

Assurnasipal II’s son was Shalmaneser III who extended his father’s kingdom (859 BC – 824 BC). He was victorious in battle throughout the area yet only had a nominal hold over Babylon. Tiglath-Pileser III ruled what some historians have called the Neo-Assyrian Empire (745 BC -727 BC). He seized the throne during one of the many civil wars of the period by killing the royal family. He expanded the empire into Egypt and against of the Medes.

The King established a government and organized the army to consist of core Assyrians, mercenaries and vassal states. Sargon II (722 BC – 705 BC) continued the campaign to expand the Assyrian Empire. He defeated the King of Babylon Marduk-apla-iddina II and became King of both Empires.

Sargon’s son, Sennacherib (705 BC – 681 BC) destroyed Babylon in 689 BC before invading Judah and Egypt. His reign ended when he was killed by one of his sons. He was succeeded by his son Ashurbanipal (681 BC – 627 BC) in Assyria and Shamash-shum-ukin as King of Babylon. Ashurbanipal created a library in Nineveh and was, supposedly, the only King who knew how to read.

In 612 BC Medes under Cyaxares defeated the Assyrian King Sin-Shar-Ishkun and sacked Ninevah. The former empire was absorbed into Persia. By 612 BC Ninevah fell to a coalition of Babylonians, Medes and Scythians. As the Assyrian Kingdom was falling, the Babylonians were in assent. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled the neo-Babylonian Empire from 605 BC to 562 BC. By 539 BC the Medes, under Cyrus, took Babylon.

The Armies

The armies of Babylon and Assyria owed part of their success to the Sumerians who first raised chariot-based armies that rode to battle and then dismounted to fight. Archers allowed armies to fight over distances as javelins gave way to arrow. Spear-armed infantry were then used to chase or capture disorganised or retreating troops.

There are similarities in dress for early Assyria and Babylon in the form of robes and fold kilts. Though the armies of Babylon seem to have taken a back seat during most of this period to Assyrian influence.

The standing army was begun under Tiglath-Pileser I and refined under Ashurnasirpal. Sargon II (720s BC) standardized the forces and arms. The King’s Bodyguard was the core of the army, called Qurubuti, which numbered 1,000.

After the guard, the rest of the army was made-up of militia. They served for the campaign. The balance of troops would be auxiliaries and mercenaries of allied people or prisoners of war.

When the King led the army he was considered to be the embodiment of Ashur. His standard was the winged sun disk containing the bust of an archer. The sun disk was adopted by the Egyptian symbol of Re, the sun god.

The chief general was called the Turtan. The chief staff officer was known as Rab-Mugi. The chief civilian official was called the “Chief of the Heads of Dependents” – Rab-sha-Resli. The different wings of the army were known as the Kisri. The commanders of the Kisri were called the Rab-Kisri. Officer who commanded units of 10 and 50 men were known as “the commanders of the 10” and “of the 50” respectively.

Chariots were grouped into units of 50, with the commander’s chariot holding the standard. They were armed with arrows, axes and spears. On the march, the King’s Chariot was preceded by the royal guard (Qurubuti) and horse archers. Then came the main army followed by infantry, more cavalry, the chariots and siege engines.

The Assyrian army was one of the first to be issued uniform clothing and equipment. Early Assyrian infantry consisted of short tunics with broad belts and pointed helmets. Their shock troops wore long mail coats and neck guards.

The majority of troops were archers accompanied by shield bearers. Auxiliaries were armed with slings, clubs with no shields. Because of the way dyes were made and their costs light blue, medium blue, tan, red and green were prevalent. Fringe on clothing was in contrasting color. Many shirts and tunics hand a colored edging. Leather was in various shades of brown while the metal was iron or bronze. Reliefs of Assurbanipal show fringed robes with flower designs for horse archers (around 870 BC).

Tiglath-Pileser III (745 BC – 727 BC) introduced the gerrhon shield – huge, wicker and hooded sheltered platforms for archers. This allowed shock troops to get rid of the mail coats.

All troops were now armed with swords. Under Sargon II (722 BC – 705 BC) light and medium archers were introduced to the army organization. Light archers carried no shield and acted as skirmishers. Medium archers had a mail shirt, pointed helmet and a spearman attendant with a round or rectangular shield.

At Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad there are reliefs of battle which show the army drawn up with light archers in front, followed by two lines of medium archers with shield bearers. Another relief shows spearmen with round shields preceding rows of archers.

At the time of Sennacherib (705 BC – 681 BC) the battle lines consisted of three lines – infantry, chariots and cavalry. The infantry consists of three ranks of archers with spearmen and slingers in the last rank. Some medium units wear mail shirts and carry large metal convex shields. Light spearmen had crested helmets and leather straps that crossed the chest and supported a metal chest plate. They carried large circular wicker shields.

Conceivably, the archers would fire away at an enemy with spearmen as support. Cavalry and chariots would maneuver to attack troops on the flank, disorganized from arrows or in retreat. In a siege, archer would provide covering fire while engineers breeched walls and spear and sword armed infantry charged in.

Chariots started off as two-man vehicles with two horses. They became larger over time, moving to three and four-men chariots, each time adding an additional horse. Cavalry was added during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1120 BC). Originally they were used like mounted infantry – riding to a spot with a groom and dismounting to fight.

By the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III they fought as cavalry and were armed with bows or spears. Sennacherib (705 BC – 681 BC) equipped the cavalry with mail shirts. Archers used four foot long bows both mounted and dismounted. Sometimes cavalry was armed with both bows and spears. During Esarhaddon’s reign (681 BC – 669 BC) gave the cavalry horses protective barding. Cavalry archers operated on the flanks to harass the enemy. Lancers were held in reserve to follow-up a defeated enemy.

Babylonian troops were organized similar to Assyrians and were also primarily employed either as garrison troops or attacking cities. As copied later by the Persians, they wore split robes, tied in the front at the waste.

From what information we do have of the time and later references, it would seem that for nobles these would be ankle length and for ordinary soldiers they would be mid-thigh. Depending on the status and rank they would be plain, contain some embroidery / fringe or be highly decorated.