Bronze Age, Hail Caesar, Uniforms & History


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Bronze Age expert Nigel Stillman continues his series of articles on King Hammurabi of Babylon, his wars against neighbouring city-states including the Elamites and his final defeat at the hands of the Hittites.

Don’t miss the bit with the vulture!


Click here for Part 1 – The Rise of Babylon and Part 2 – Amorite Armies.


Hammurabi was a conqueror, a lawmaker, a state builder and also crafty and ruthless.  The Hammurabic wars raged on several fronts for several years, with frequent shifting of alliances and stabbings in the back.  Because of the thousands of records; we have detailed history, but often confusing.  This story tells of the rise and fall of Zimrilim, king of Mari, being also the story of Shamsi-Adad I and Hammurabi as told through the eyes and ears of the mounted messenger Nabiyatum who carried despatches as well as various scribes, commanders and others (although my narrator is fictional; there really was a mounted messenger of Hammurabi’s called Nabiyatum.)  Most of the dialogue and anecdotes are directly from Mari texts or similar archives.

We disturb Nabiyatum as he makes ready his horse.  “Let me introduce myself; I am a messenger in the retinue of Zimrilim, rightful king of Mari.  I am a Hurrian and a good horse rider, not like these amateurs who sit too far back – a horse is not an ass you know.  So he always sends me to ride fast with a leather bag full of clay tablets, which are important dispatches, drafts for treaties and even reports of omens.  I take them from where he is to his generals, spies, ambassadors and allies in other cities.  I hear it when enemy spies are interrogated.  I join scouts to intercept enemy messengers.  I wait in attendance while great ones dictate hastily to their scribes, who then entrust the tablets to me.  I wait just outside the door enjoying a beer and listening to what is said and dictated.  This means that I can still make a report if something happens to the tablet.  They know I can be trusted.  We tried using the wax tablets that scribes use for rough drafts, but they might melt in the heat on the journey.  I can’t read the signs myself , nor can all of the lords either especially the tribal chiefs – few can.  There’s always a squad of scribes around the lords.  You wouldn’t believe how fast they dab the clay with their reeds when someone is on a rant.”

A vulture squawks as the courier rides by. It was only the single long squawk of a well fed vulture resting on a gnarled tree to inform his mate, but what follows is a rough translation.  “I was over-flying Upper Mesopotamia today, at a high altitude when I picked up the stench of death rising up with the dust over that big nest of men.  These big termites are always swarming out from one of their nests to raid another.  I dipped wings to my wingman and we dropped down but had to circle for ages because of the smoke.  Anyway it was a good feast because when they surged across the ditch that encircles the nest, the ones inside shot out flaming arrows into the ditch, which seemed to be dry.  Then it erupted in flames just when they were rushing over it.  It was full of black pitch instead of water!  Then they rushed back and ran off.  The aroma was rather interesting so I braved the great column of thick black smoke rising above the steppe and tucked in.  Had to get there before the jackals.  Really good; roasted Elamite!”

Zimrilim of Mari

1796 BC.  The Amorite prince of Mari; young Zimrilim seeks refuge at the court of king Yarimlim of Yamkhad at the city of Khaleb, now known as Aleppo.  The army of Shamshi-Adad had captured his own city and his father, the king, was deposed.  Not long before, this descendant of Amorite chieftains captured the old city of Ashur and in later times will be regarded as founder of the kingdom of Assyria.  He is a mighty warlord and expert strategist and tactician.  His sons, Ishmedagan and Yasmakhaddu are his sub-commanders.  The elder Ishmedagan takes after his father, while the younger Yashmakh, is inexperienced and lackadaisical.  The former is set up as viceroy of Ekallatum a front line city facing Hammurabi of Babylon, the might of Elam and the treacherous and ambitious kings of Eshnunna.  Yashmakh becomes viceroy of Mari, occupying the throne that Zimri-Lim sees as rightfully his as does Yarimlim of Yamkhad, one of the more powerful kings of the age.  His reach extends to the Mediterranean, the borders of Egypt and the Hattic kingdoms of Anatolia, and he has a warfleet of 500 river boats on the Euphrates.  So Yashmakh is therefore watching the western front of the mighty kingdom of Subartu; the region of Upper Mesopotamia now ruled by his father.  Mari is seething with rebellion and various warlike, treacherous and devious Amorite nomadic tribes are encamped in the surrounding deserts, ready to rebel or change sides at any moment.

In the palace of Mari, Yashmakhaddu, has emerged from his harim to hear reports from his scribes and advisors.  First a letter from Shamshi-Adad.  “Read it out” said the youth and the hesitant scribe went on; “your father says you have the beard of a man but you prefer to lounge about in the palace among the women while you brother is leading mighty armies into battle!  How long can you keep on relying on our advice?  You must start taking control yourself!’  Yashmakh shrugs; “well that’s not fair; father would not have set me to govern Mari if he really thought that.  He must have been misled by some devious advisor!  I shall go to him and put the matter straight.”

Next the scribe reads a message from Ishmedagan, Yashmakh’s brother and a man of action. His face lights up as he hears, “All’s well with me and the troops that march with me.  Don’t worry about my marches, even though I worry about yours. The men who march with me are of the highest quality, what more can I say?  Just do what you need to protect yourself.” Yashmakh grins, there you see – my brother understands me!

Ishmedagan at this moment is in his city of Ekallatum, discussing the war between Ashur and Eshnunna with his generals. He tells them; “my brother in Mari has the boats we need for this plan.”  Then calls over a scribe; ‘jot this down and send it to my brother. “The city of Harbu has rebelled and changed sides to Eshnunna, so I am despatching the army but there are no boats to take it over the river at Yabliya.  Send 20 boats each big enough to carry 100 troops, but don’t send unladen boats or enemy spies will guess what we are doing.  Instead load them with grain and beer and say nothing about troops in the orders.  Just say that it is a supply convoy for Yabliya.  That’s it; make sure he understands the need for secrecy! Its just as my father always says, you may devise stratagies to defeat the enemy and to manoeuvre for position against him, but at the same time, the enemy will also make strategies and manoeuvre for position against you – just like two wrestlers using tricks on each other!”

The aforementioned vulture returns from another feast and flies over a scribe reporting to Shamshi-Adad in his campaign camp.  “My lord, they have finished the rock carving of you stamping on the enemy in this raid, or rather I mean victorious campaign, what shall they inscribe beside it?”  Shamshi replies; “how about; I crossed the river Zab and raided the land of Qabra, reaped the harvest and captured all the strongholds of the land of Arbela?  If my descendants are to be great kings in their time they need to see how far out I reached in my time.”  The scribe grins, short and to the point.  Then the king decides to send word of Ishmedagan’s recent victory to his younger brother to encourage him to achieve similar efforts; “Ishmedagan led the army into the land of Ahazum (Zagros Mountains) but the enemy were ready and gathered all of their warriors and allied with the Turukku tribe in the stronghold of Ikkallum to oppose him.  Ishmedagan advanced on their position and when he was within 300 cubits of it the enemy they all came forth and deployed for battle.  Indeed, Ishmedagan did give them battle and defeated them!  Then he surrounded them so that not a single man escaped and that day he conquered the entire land of Ahazum!”

Nabiyatum has been sent to Mari disguised as a caravan guard escorting merchants, but really to take messages to Zimri’s supporters:  “I always listen when horses or chariots are mentioned because like me my lord is interested in new technology.  In fact, everyone keeps telling him not to ride about on a horse rather than a donkey or chariot because it is ‘beneath his royal dignity’.  Anyway while I was in Mari I heard about this message to Yashmakhaddu from his father in law the king of Qatna, he tells us; “From Ishi-Addu of Qatna, to Ishmedagan.  I write to express my feelings and I just have to mention a matter that should not have to be spoken of at all.  You are a great king and when you asked me for two horses I sent them to you, but you sent me only 20 minas of tin.  You got what you wanted but you sent me scraps of tin!  Had you not sent me anything my feelings would not have been so hurt.  The price of these horses here in Qatna was 600 shekels of silver, yet you sent me 20 minas of tin!  What will anyone who hears of this say?  Are you really a great king?”  He tells us that Yashmakh decided not to send this on to his brother so as to prevent a quarrel.  Nabi goes on; “These lords write to each other on anything, forgetting the risks taken by us couriers! While in Mari an official took an interest in my horse. His name was Ilasalim a chariot rider. He said; “The king gave me a chariot but it broke in the middle as a result of going constantly back and forth from the plains up into the highlands.  So now I do not have a chariot to ride in to go anywhere. I have asked my lord to give me a new chariot.  I shall certainly put the land in good order for him if he does not deny me a chariot.”  And now a word of advice from Nabi the messenger; “you can harness a chariot to 4 onagers as in the old days or you can yoke a lighter, faster one to a pair of horses if you can get them from the north.  My Lord Zimrilim recently asked for white chariot horses from Aplakhanda, king of Carchemish.  He replied that white horses could not be had so he is sending bays or chestnuts instead.  Would that I was sent up there on such a mission instead of these dusty desert roads cluttered by peasants with donkey carts!”

In the palace Yashmakh is making campaign plans and considering the advice from his father in recent messages.  The scribe reads out; “Your father says you asked him about your route with the army to Qatna.  He replies; “Marching with the army is not easy and you are still young and have not gained experience of campaigning.  Be advised by your generals!  Mutubisir knows these routes.  Find out where there are water supplies on these routes.  Then report to me as to which route is best.  Is the upper route of the middle route or the lower route best? The diviners who are going with you should consult the omens.”  The next tablet was another ticking-off though, the scribe reads it out while Yashmakh nonchalantly stuffs dates into his mouth; “I ordered your brother Ishme to call up his brigade of Hunters (Bahiru) and pass on the message to you so that you will call up the Hunters in Mari.  Meanwhile I called up the Trackers of Shubat-Enlil and Tuttal.  Ishme forgot to send on the message to you.  Fair enough! Your brother forgot, but why didn’t you think for yourself? Why should the Hunters be left behind when a campaign is being planned? Why did you not think of this?  Now send all of them, and make sure that they bring their axes and other equipment.”  Yashmakh orders an officer to see to it.  “A campaign into the highlands.  They will need to hack a route through the forest.” Finally there is a request for 10,000 bronze arrowheads to be made in the workshops of Mari to be sent on as a soon a possible. “If bronze is scarce make them of copper,” says Shamshi-Adad.

Shamshi-Adad – the great warlord – is rather exasperated by some of his so-called allies, and decides to warn his loyal vassal Kuwari of Shemshara about a treacherous character.  He dictates to the scribe, ranting on a bit to vent his rage while brandishing his sceptre. His words are dutifully noted down.  He says; “no doubt you have heard that Yashubaddu the Ahzaean has changed sides again! He becomes an ally of a king and swears an oath, then he becomes the ally of another king and swears an oath thus becoming an enemy of the first king he allied with!  Within two months he makes an alliance with a king and then becomes his enemy!  He was allied with me for only a few months and now he is being hostile and didn’t give me any assistance.  So when he goes off to war you will soon hear about what I am doing in his land!”

We catch up with Nabiyatum, or Nabi as known to his drinking companions. “Right now I am in Aleppo in the temple courtyard waiting for an important message from my lady Shibtu for her lord Zimrilim.  Shibtu is the daughter of the mighty Yarimlim, king of Yamkhad, and she has married Zimrilim, so now her father supports him.  Shibtu is very interested in all things to do with the gods: dreams, oracles, portents and omens.  She thinks that if great events are unfolding in the world it will spill out somewhere and be revealed, whether in the ranting of a priestess in a trance, someone who has a vision, or marks on the liver of a sacrificial goat.  Whatever might be useful she sends on to her husband, so I am often summoned here for further despatches.  Some of these temple types cannot possibly know much of war or politics, so it does make you think that they have got wind of something with what they come out with.  Maybe the gods are desperate to speak to us by any means, or perhaps this is just a cover for espionage.  All the lords are into this, but Zimri relies on it a bit too much. It might be his undoing one day!”  The queen’s shrill voice pierces the darkness of the temple. Shibtu is dictating to her female scribes. She says, “Kakkalidi had a vision in the temple of Iturmer.  She saw two big ships blocking the river, and the king was already aboard amid his soldiers.  Those on the right and left were acclaiming him, saying kingship, sceptre and throne – the upper and lower region – have been given to Zimrilim. The rest of the soldiers to a man answered – only to Zimrilim are they given”.  Nabi thinks to himself; “The gods will make it easy for Zimri to regain his throne and the army of Mari will see to it!  Better make sure this message gets through to him so that he can take note of it in his plan of campaign.  Between you and me, I think someone has got word out of Mari that he will be well received there.  The gods work in mysterious ways”.


Nigel’s account will continue next week, while you can find more information on wargaming with an Amorite army of this period here. To pick your army, check out our Amorite Kingdoms range.