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.

Click here for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.


Zimrilim regains the throne of Mari

Year 17 of King Hammurabi (1776 BC) Zimrilim leads his army out to recapture Mari.  The old warrior, Shamshi-Adad has recently died leaving his sons to co-operate in the defence of his empire.  Zimri is supported by troops of Yarimlim while his daughter Shibtu consults the omens and reports to her husband. She dictates to her scribe the latest omens. “Now write this – to the question – is my lord approaching battle?  The portents indicate that no battle will be fought.  As soon as you arrive, Ishmedagan’s allies will be scattered, and they will cut of Ishmedagan’s head and put it under my lord’s foot.  My lord also asked me – Ishmedagan’s army is large, but will his tribal auxiliaries desert him?  They have surrounded my own tribal auxiliaries.  The gods have spoken through entranced priestesses – Fear not! Dagan and Adad are marching by your side, and Adad is indeed the lord of decision.  I am not putting words in their mouths. They speak on their own and agree.  They say Ishmedagan’s auxiliaries are made up of captives.  They are treacherous.  His army will scatter before my lord!”

Rebels in Mari depose Yashmakhaddu opening the way for Zimrilim to retake his ancestral city.  He discusses the situation with his generals.  “Since I regained my throne there has been nothing but battles and skirmishes!  A general says, “my lord needs allies among the local kings.”  Zimri decides to invite them to a ceremony of sacrifice in honour of Ishtar. He says, “When they gather persuade them to follow me.  Tell them that no king is strong just by himself.  Behold; ten to fifteen kings follow Hammurabi the man of Babylon, so too Rimsin of Larsa, so too Ibalpiel of Eshnunna, and also Amutpiel of Qatanum, and twenty kings follow Yarimlim of Yamkhad!”  A general agrees and points out that Yarimlim’s power extends to the sea and even to cities allied to the king of Egypt.  Another general recalls the time Shamshi-Adad marched through Qatanum and reached the sea like the mighty Sargon.  Meanwhile Shibtu continues to report any ominous portents. Her latest despatch is read to Zimri.  She says; “in the temple of Annunitum, on the third day of the month, the priestess Shelebum went into a trance and uttered thus –  O Zimrilim they will test you with a revolt.  Be on your guard!  Put trusted henchmen by your side.  Do not go about on your own.  The god will deliver the rebels into your hand!”


Nabiyatum rides out to the Bazakhatum outposts and talks to soldiers on outpost duty watching the desert for tribal raiders.  “We have not been relieved for many days” they say.  “Recently we saw the tribes on this side of the river raise fire signals, then these were answered by fire signals from across the river.  We don’t know what it means.”  Nabi says; “Eshnunna is stirring up unrest among the Banuyamina tribe, be alert!”

War with Elam

While Shamshi-Adad’s empire crumbles and Zimrilim regains Mari, the mighty overlord of Elam known as the Sukkalmakh wants to seize his chance to subjugate Mesopotamia, especially Babylon.  The Amorites find it so difficult to pronounce his Elamite name that they call him Sheplarpak.  His first target is the kingdom of Eshnunna.  Since its king Ibalpiel II had supported tribal rebellions against Zimrilim, Sheplarpak makes allies of Mari and Babylon against Eshnunna, which is rapidly defeated and falls under Elamite rule.  He sends this imperious demand to Hammurabi of Babylon. “Those Eshnunnan cities that you hold – don’t they belong to me?  Hand them over or I will invade your country at the head of my army!” He regards Hammurabi as a vassal and demands his help in conquering the rest of Mesopotamia. “I am leading an expedition against Larsa.  Have your elite troops and siege engineers ready to join me when I arrive.”

Siege of Razama

Meanwhile, Sheplarpak’s allies are mopping up in Subartu.  The warlord Kunnam snatches Shubat-Enlil, formerly Shamshi-Adad’s capital while the warlord Atamrum governs Eshnunna for the Elamite ruler.  This Atamrum lays siege to the city of Razama.  We shall let a deserter from Atamrum’s army tell us what happened. “When we besieged Razama the defenders sallied out and killed 600 of Atamrum’s Eshnunnans and 700 of his Elamite allies.  After 10 days the Razamites tried to make a truce and get us to lift the siege, but Atamrum did not believe them, so they told him that this city belongs to Zimri-Lim and he is on his way here with his army.  Sharriya, ruler of the city, strengthened the defences and made more sallies out to slay Eshnunnans.  Atamrum began building a siege ramp towards the city wall.  When it was about to reach the glacis the defenders strengthened the wall either side of the point where the enemy were making a breach.  At night the defenders sallied through the breach and wiped out half the assault force, capturing their spears and shields.  So Atamrum came up with a cunning plan. He armed 30 ruffians to look like Mari troops and told the defenders not to hold out for Zimrilim, since -as you can see – he has allied with me!  They were not fooled and replied – in a few days you will see the real army of Zimrilim.  Rumours that he had arrived put the Elamite army on alert twice. They started to worry about water supplies, which had to be brought a long distance day and night.  The Razamite sallied out to kill the water-bearers, and the constant attacks were wearing down the army which was only 3000 strong.  Soon the besiegers were afraid.”  Atamrum asks for Elamite support but none is forthcoming and he lifts the siege, but feels betrayed and becomes anti-Elamite.

Approaching Razama, Zimrilim hears encouraging reports from Nabi and other messengers. “From Razama; Sharraya put lumps of pitch opposite a siege tower and set light to them.  The tower was consumed by flames and collapsed. I fear Atamrum and his army will abandon the siege before my lord arrives, and so my lord will not get the glory of rescuing the city! Try to get here soon.” From Shubat-Enlil – Shamsi-Adad’s former residence that also holds out against Atamrum – its governor says, “I guard the city for my lord.  I will not open the city to anyone.  If my lord’s relief force gets here I will have survived.  If not; I will have been killed, and if a hand strikes me down my lord will weep for me.”  Now that Atamrum had started a war between Mari and Elam, Hammurabi seized the chance to make an alliance with Zimrilim against Elam.  Especially urgent since his spies had found out that the Sukkalmakh was intriguing with Rimsin of Larsa to make war on Babylon while pretending to be friendly.  It was crude divide and rule so that Elam might conquer Mesopotamia.  Nabiyatum rides fast with draft copies of the treaty between the two rulers, and hears the scribe read Hammurabi’s words. “From this day on, for as long as I live, I will make war on Sheplarpak.  I will not make peace with him without the agreement of Zimrilim king of Mari.  We will only ever make peace with him together.”

As his part in the alliance, Zimrilim starts calling up troops from Mari and her allies, and sending large contingents and continuous reinforcements to Hammurabi.  These are commanded by the generals Ibalpiel and Zimri-Addu, and include many nomadic tribesmen.  Nabiyatum and other mounted messengers rush about with orders.  He recalls, “we went round the tribal camps with the head of an executed rebel in a bag to persuade reluctant tribes to send warriors or else!  When I was sent to distant Zalmaqum to raise troops, the local chiefs said that they don’t mind sending troops to Zimrilim but not to Babylon. We owe nothing to Babylon and none of our troops are to be sent there!” they said.  So my lord sent them to guard another frontier and relieve Marian troops to go to Babylon.  These troops didn’t mind, and I brought back this despatch from their commander. “The tribal auxiliaries assigned to the rearguard have turned up and the vanguard and rearguard are in good order.  So far no men lost and no sickness.  The army is alright.  How about this! On every campaign you always hear plenty of moaning, but so far there hasn’t been any.  The troops are laughing and singing, and all they want to do is get to grips with the enemy.  May my lord rejoice at that news!”  Nabi tells us; “When an ally contingent arrived, Hammurabi threw a feast for them.  General Ibalpiel told him that in Mari the king reviews the troops who parade with their standards. So we did it here in the king of Babylon’s park.  The general assigned 50 elite soldiers to parade the standards before Hammurabi.  He was so delighted he handed out gifts.  Each standard bearer got a silver ring worth about 5 shekels.  For the other 800 troops he gave a medal to each squad of 10 men.  Behold what the Zalmaqu guys missed out on!”

Sieges of Upi and Hiritum

To invade Mesopotamia, the Elamites have to secure a crossing of the Tigris at Upi.  Yarimaddu, a Mari general sends Nabi with this report. “The enemy besieging Upi have piled up earth ramps against the wall.  The levies, regulars and reinforcements of Hammurabi have now linked up and are ready to battle against the enemy assault troops.  The day I sent this tablet, 1000 Mutiabalite troops arrived in Babylon and pitched camp in the Tilmun palm grove.  Hammurabi came out and cheered them up with a rousing speech.”

Zimrilim holds a council of war to discuss the progress of the campaign against Elam.  Nabiyatum has just brought in despatches and reports, which scribes read out: “My lord; the Elamite army invaded Babylonia last season, and besieged Upi.  Hammurabi’s army evacuated Upi by boat, and the Elamites put in a garrison. Then the Elamite army went back to Eshnunna.  This season the Elamite army – maybe 30,000 strong – marched on Mankisum on the Tigris, and went on to besiege Hiritum.  They built siege ramps and assault towers, but the defenders breached the irrigation canals and the enemy siege works were swept away.”  General Yarimaddu sends this report. “The enemy are encamped at Upi and are not budging.  Hammurabi’s levy army is deployed for battle opposite them.  Brother stares at brother.  The day I sent despatch Hammurabi ordered a full call up throughout his realm, all the men including merchants, and he is even freeing slaves.  He sent to Rimsin for more troops, but none have come.  They’ve put the Elamite emissaries in fetters.”  General Ibalpiel commanding the Mari contingent reports. “For extra defence a moat was dug around the city.  The enemy tried to get over it several times but my lord’s troops repulsed him.  Since the enemy was not able to get across or over the water obstacles devised by Hammurabi’s men whom we opened in front of his assault, he tried to cross elsewhere.”

At the siege of Hiritum, Nabi waits while the commander of Zimrilim’s contingent dictates a despatch. “There was some action today.  Our troops and the Babylonians attacked and destroyed the enemy siege towers and wrecked the siege ramps.”  Hammurabi – in overall command – decides to strike at enemy rear zones to distract them.  He sends out Mari general Ibalpiel with 2000 Marians and 3000 Babylonians to raid Eshnunnan territory.  Forewarned, the enemy get all their cattle and grain out of the way and so the raiders return with nothing.  Hammurabi is exasperated, “how can 5000 men go out and come back with nothing!”  Yet the strategy is effective in that the Eshnunnan army decides to desert Elam.  This causes the Elamite army to retreat, and on their march back through Eshnunna they sack the city in vengeance for the betrayal.  Soon after, Sheplarpak becomes ill and negotiates peace with Hammurabi, who tells him, “the Eshnunnans have a reputation for treachery, but you can expect us to keep our word!”  Zimrilim and his generals feel that they helped win the war. “The Sukkalmakh of Elam wanted to conquer the whole region but then changed his mind and just concentrated on Babylon. If we had not got involved he would have crushed the Babylonians.  Now he wants peace.”  Meanwhile, the Eshnunnan army put their commander – a commoner Sillisin – on the throne, before Hammurabi realises he has the chance to take it himself.  Later Hammurabi claims victory over the alliance of Elam, Subartu, Marhashi, Gutium, Malgium and Eshnunna, effectively saving Sumer and Akkad.

Nabiyatum saw an interesting event around this time in Babylon.  Ishmedagan himself, battle-scarred and dishevelled, emerged from the temple gate only to be shouted at in the street by a crazy prophet – deranged by his god, Marduk.  He denounced Ishme for appropriating temple treasures to bribe his way out of captivity.  As he told Hammurabi, with whom he now seeks refuge; “when Elam was at war with you, Subartian kings denounced me to the king of Elam and took me off to Eshnunna, where the Elamite king interrogated me.”  How he persuaded the Elamites to let him go who knows?  Maybe the seer speaks truly and he bribed his way out.

Larsa attacks

In Larsa, capital city of the large southern kingdom of Yamutbal, old campaigner Rimsin views Hammurabi as a rising threat.  He asks his scribe, “who does Hammuabi think he is?  I captured Isin before he even ascended his throne! Write to him thus, about the troops you are always asking me to send, I have heard that the enemy attack is directed elsewhere, which is why I have not sent any.  If the enemy turns against you or me, then my troops will come to your aid and yours must come to my aid!”   Although he agrees to send troops in response to Hammurabi’s requests he sends none.  As if this is not enough to antagonise Hammurabi, Rimsin begins hostilities against Babylon by sending in raiders.  Holding on to all the ally contingents gathered in Babylonia for the Elamite war; Hammurabi now directs his forces against Larsa saying to the assembled troops, “Go and may the gods go before you. If the city opens its gates accept its surrender.  If not …!” The large army marches into Larsa and besieges Mashkanshapir, second city of the kingdom.  The Mari commander reports back to Zimrilim, “Rimsin’s brother Sinmuballit with three other commanders and several thousand troops are surrounded in Mashkanshapir.  It will fall in a few days time.”  Not long afterwards another despatch reports, “Our contingent is doing well.  When we reached Hammurabi he was ecstatic because he had just taken Mashkanshapir and all the people of Yamkhad are shouting out,  ‘Long live Hammurabi!’  The army of Yamutbal is laying down its arms and Hammurabi has led his army on to besiege Larsa.”

Zimrilim has battles to fight in Subartu against former allies of Elam who are still at war with him, and wants Hammurabi to let his ally contingent return to Mari rather than use it for another war of his own.  Hammurabi delays and procrastinates because he needs the Mari contingent.  Mari envoys are politely pressing their lord’s request as Hammurabi directs the siege of Larsa. “Soon I will send a well armed army to your master,” he tells them.  They reply; “Even before you capture Larsa and are able to send a strong army, you could spare 2000 or even only 1000 troops if only so that the other allies will see that the Babylonian army has arrived.”  Hammurabi replies; “In five days time I will know whether Larsa will fall.  If not I will send 1000 men, but if it falls I will send more.”  Hammurabi actually has 40,000 troops besieging Larsa and after 6 months the city falls, but Rimsin escapes.  Hammurabi decides to annex the kingdom and rule it directly himself.