Military history


At the height of its powers, say in the eighth century BC, the Assyrian army revealed features on which many of those of successor armies in other empires were to be modelled; some of them have come down to our own day. Foremost among them were its logistic arrangements: supply depots, transport columns, bridging-trains. The Assyrian was the first true long-range army, able to campaign as far as 300 miles from base and to move at speeds of advance that would not be exceeded until the coming of the internal combustion engine.

Assyrian resources did not extend to the paving of roads — of little point, in any case, in a climate which is excessively dry but, when wet, washes away untarred road metal — but the kingdom had an extensive network of royal highways, often mentioned as boundaries to fields in the land registration documents that cuneiform scribes wrote in vast numbers on the clay tablets which provide archaeologists with their information.22 Along these roads the horsed elements of an army might move as fast as thirty miles a day — a good march even for a modern force. Of course, the roads deteriorated in quality beyond the central plain and inside enemy territory, where military engineers would have to improve the going up hillsides and through mountain passes. The army also made use of water transport where appropriate, though both the Tigris and Euphrates are difficult to navigate, because of shoals and uneven seasonal water-flows. In the early seventh century, Sennacherib brought Syrian shipbuilders to construct ships at Nineveh for a campaign against the Elamites, in what is now southern Iran. He apparently wanted sea-going craft, as used in the Mediterranean, which were beyond the skills of the riverside boat-builders of Mesopotamia. Once launched, they were sailed by Phoenician seamen as far down the Tigris as it was navigable, manhandled to a canal leading to the Euphrates and then sailed into the Persian Gulf, where they loaded troops and horses for a landing in Elamite territory.23

Stores, war material of all sorts, chariots and horses were held at central depots, called the ekal masharti, ‘palace of the place for marshalling forces’. That at Nineveh was described by Esarhaddon in the seventh century BC as made by ‘the kings who preceded me … to provide proper arrangements for the camp, to look after the steeds, the mules, the chariots, the battle equipment and enemy booty’; it had ‘become too small for horse training and chariot exercises’. It is not known how much prepared food the army took with it on the warpath; the Assyrians seem to have expected largely to live off the country in enemy territory.24 In his campaign against the powerful northern state of Urartu in 714 BC, Sargon II records that he sent to one captured fortress ‘corn, oil and wine’ but his son Sennacherib, when fighting the Chaldaeans in southern Mesopotamia in 703 ‘let [the] troops eat up the grain and dates in their palm groves, and their harvest in the plain’. Laying waste the enemy’s land, after the army had eaten its fill and taken what it could carry, was then as later a standard practice. In his final campaign against Urartu, Sargon destroyed irrigation systems, broke open granaries and cut down fruit trees.

Sargon’s ire may have been aroused by the difficulty of the campaign: his troops ‘had crossed and re-crossed mountains innumerable’ and had ‘turned mutinous. I could give no ease to their weariness, no water to quench their thirst.’ He was campaigning north of the Zagros range, in the broken lands between Lakes Van and Urmia, a region still regarded today as almost impenetrable by formed units. It was in such difficult country that the Assyrian engineering arm came into its own. Sargon recorded that during the Urartu campaign ‘I equipped my sappers with strong copper [probably bronze] picks, and they shivered the crags of steep mountains to fragments as though limestone, and made a good way’. The army was even better at negotiating waterways: Ashur-nasir-pal, campaigning against the always troublesome southern power of Babylon centuries before, ‘crossed the Euphrates at the town of Haridi … by means of the boats I had made — boats of skins that had moved along the roads with me’. These skin boats, used in Iraq into modern times, may have been one-man inflated sheepskins or, more probably, kelek rafts, a wooden platform supported by a number of such skins. The army also made use of reed boats, still in use by the Marsh Arabs who live in the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Assyrian bas-relief representations show disassembled chariots being conveyed in them across waterways.

Assyrian military organisation also foreshadowed that of later imperial armies. For one, Assyria appears to have been the first power to recruit troops without ethnic discrimination. Ruthless in its population policy — it resettled dissidents far from their homelands in order to assure internal security, as the Ottomans and Stalin were later to do — it was at the same time quite prepared to integrate into the army both subject peoples and prisoners of war, as long as it was sure it could count on their loyalty. Language and a common religion were the adhesives: Assyria propagated a primitive monotheism, through the cult of Assur, and opened its official language to loan words from others, which it allowed to be used in tandem in the interests of intercomprehensibility. For another, subject peoples often entered the army, as Rome’s were later to do, with their own distinctive weapons — slings or bows — and formed corps ancillary to the army’s main fighting-force. They may also have provided the siege engineers, whom Assyrian artists portray attacking the foundations of walls, digging mineshafts, building siege-ramps or working siege-engines. The Syrians were great besiegers. Sennacherib described his siege of Hezekiah in Jerusalem — and it is recorded in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 18 — as follows: ‘[he did] not submit to my yoke. I besieged and captured forty-six of his strong walled towns with innumerable surrounding villages, by consolidating ramps to bring up battering rams, by infantry attacks, mines, breaches and siege engines … He himself I shut up inside Jerusalem, his royal city, like a caged bird.’ Hezekiah, rather than face the consequences, capitulated and paid tribute.25

For all its imperial accretions, the Assyrian army remained at heart a charioteering force. Sennacherib, fighting the Elamites in 691 BC, had his court historiographer describe how he ‘transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows’.

The commander-in-chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles … I cut their throats like sheep … My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariots were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with the corpses of their warriors like herbage … [There were] chariots with their horses, whose riders had been slain as they came into the fierce battle, so that they were loose by themselves; those horses kept going back and forth all over [the battlefield] … As to the sheikhs of the Chaldaeans [Elamite allies], panic from my onslaught overwhelmed them like a demon. They abandoned their tents and fled for their lives, crushing the corpses of their troops as they went … [In their terror] they passed scalding urine and voided their excrement in their chariots.26

This was a battle to the death, as the highly realistic details convey, brought only perhaps because the Elamites had positioned themselves so as to deny Sennacherib’s army access to the Tigris and thus, as his scribe points out, to drinking-water also; as was to prove so often the case in the future, battle in these circumstances was a matter of necessity, not choice. Sargon’s final battle against Urartu, however, had revealed a trace of chivalry: Rusa, the king, had sent a message to challenge the Assyrians to meet him.

Chariot grandees, like later cavaliers, thus may have already begun to reckon that quarrels between them were best settled by chivalric encounter, leaving the footmen and other hangers-on to form a rough line of battle in their rear, heap up the spoils if victory came, or suffer the consequences if it did not. Chinese charioteers of the Chou period were clearly infected by chivalry, as is recorded also in the succeeding Spring and Autumn period. In a battle between the rival states of Ch’u and Sung in 638 BC, the Duke of Sung’s minister of war twice asked permission to attack the enemy before they had formed ranks, making the perfectly reasonable point that ‘they are many but we are few’; he was refused. After the Sung had been defeated and the Duke wounded, he justified himself as follows: ‘The gentleman does not inflict a second wound, or take the grey-haired prisoner … Though I am but the unworthy remnant of a fallen dynasty, I would not sound my drums to attack an enemy who had not completed the formation of his ranks.’ Other practices deemed unchivalrous among Chinese chariot aristocrats were taking advantage of a fleeing enemy who was having trouble with his chariot (he might even be assisted), injuring a ruler, or attacking an enemy state when it was mourning a ruler or was divided by internal troubles.27

Exemplary behaviour between charioteers is typified by an incident from a later Sung war, when the then duke’s son found himself opposite a warrior with an arrow already notched to his bow. He shot, missed and notched another arrow before the duke’s son was ready to shoot. The duke’s son then called out, ‘If you don’t give me my turn, you are a base fellow’ (literally, not a gentleman). His opponent gave him his chance and was shot dead.28

These are the manners of the duel, or of the ceremonial encounter of champions, encounters that require arrangement. And arrangement seems to have been accepted in chariot warfare. Not only did Urartu challenge Assyria to fight; the Chinese of the Spring and Autumn period disdained those who launched surprise attacks while they themselves normally sent messengers to arrange a time and place for battle; they also asked for fields to be ploughed in such a way as to allow chariots easy movement, and there are repeated inscriptions about the need to fill in wells and cooking-pits before a battle so that the chariots should have free passage. Even in modern warfare battlefields need preparation if there is to be a test of arms, and there are legal prohibitions against, for example, laying unmarked minefields. In the ancient world, where logistic difficulties — the labour of getting an army into proximity with another, the near impossibility of keeping it fed in one place for more than a day or two — were paramount, it made sense to remove obstacles to the manoeuvre of the leading warriors’ principal weapons. At Gaugamela, the battlefield near the Tigris where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 331 BC, his opponent Darius not only levelled the area thoroughly before the encounter but also built three ‘runways’ for his chariots. Alexander, it might be added, had earlier dismissed entreaties by his subordinates to make a night attack, on the grounds that if he lost it would mean obloquy but that, even if he won, victory would carry the taint of unfairness.

Chariot fighting was an activity nearly 1500 years old when Alexander — riding his legendary horse Bucephalus — defeated Darius. It was by then fading into obsolescence: only peoples at the margin of the civilised world — like the Britons who opposed the Roman invasion — continued to think it a useful way of making war. Despite all the years it had been practised, however, we lack any clear idea of its nature; historians of the ancient world differ sharply over how the chariot was used. Professor Creel, for example, thinks that it provided a ‘mobile point of vantage’ in Chinese battle and he quotes Professors Oppenheim, Wilson and Gertrude Smith to the effect that it was used in Egypt as a command post and in Mesopotamia and Greece as battlefield transport; Professor M.I. Finley, on the other hand, thinks that Homer’s descriptions of the chariot as a ‘taxi’ to battle represented practice in Homer’s time only, and that the heroes of the Iliad had fought otherwise.29

It would be odd if Finley were wrong. Court art may triumphalise; it may also perpetuate as symbolic the purely antique; it must not, of its nature, ridicule. Thus it was just possible, at a time when the idea and trappings of chivalry had come back into fashion, to depict the Prince Consort in armour without provoking Victorians to laughter; the representation of Hitler, mounted and armoured, was an absurdity.30 Pharaohs, Assyrian kings and Persian emperors clearly did not think it absurd that they should be shown shooting the composite bow from a chariot. Their court artists may have exaggerated their masters’ prominence in the battle line; but if it was as chariot archers that these great men wished to have themselves depicted, we must therefore infer that chariot archery was a dominant means of winning battle over a considerable period of time, from the first appearance of the chariot about 1700 BC to its supersession by horsed cavalry about a thousand years later.

It has already been suggested that the initial advantage of the charioteer lay in the suddenly and very greatly increased speed of movement he enjoyed on the battlefield, on the long-range lethality of his composite bow and on a cultural readiness to kill. All these advantages would have eroded with time. Familiarity with a novel weapons system ought not to breed contempt, but it does stimulate counter-measures. Those attacked by charioteers acquired chariots; non-charioteers learnt to target the horses of the enemy’s chariots, to form chariot-proof ranks, to carry arrow-proof shields, to make use of broken ground on which charioteers could not manoeuvre. Nevertheless, while the great men of opposed armies reckoned charioteering glamorous, there must have been a complicity between friend and foe to see that battles were so fought that chariots got their chance. Ritualism or ceremonialism are, as we have seen, deep-rooted in man’s conception of how combat should be conducted and are suppressed only by the necessities of battle to the death — not something that war is always about.

The first chariot battle of which we have an account, the battle of Megiddo in northern Palestine, fought in 1469 BC between the pharaoh Tuthmosis III and a confederation of Egypt’s enemies under Hyskos leadership, was concluded with almost no bloodshed on either side. Megiddo is also generally counted as the first battle of history, in that we can date it, locate its site, identify the contestants and follow its course. Tuthmosis, who had just come to the throne, was pursuing the new Egyptian strategy of vigorous offensive against the outsiders who had violated the immunity of the river kingdom. Collecting an army, he marched in stages of ten or fifteen miles a day — an impressive speed of advance — along the Mediterranean coast, through Gaza and then up to the mountains on the Syrian border. The enemy seems to have counted on the difficult terrain forming a barrier against his attack. There were three routes through the mountains to the town of Megiddo; the pharaoh chose the most difficult, against advice, on the ground that he might thereby surprise them. The approach march took three days, the last spent negotiating a pass of less than two chariots’ width. Late in the evening he camped on the plain in front of Megiddo and next morning deployed his army for battle. The enemy had also come forward, but, when they saw the extent of the Egyptian line, with one wing on each flank of the valley and the pharaoh commanding from his chariot in the centre, their morale collapsed and they fled in panic to the protection of the walls of Megiddo in their rear. Tuthmosis ordered a pursuit, but his soldiers stopped to plunder the enemy’s abandoned camp on the way and two of the principals in the opposing army managed to get inside Megiddo. Since the city had an ample water supply within its massive walls, it managed to hold out against the Egyptians — who constructed a line of circumvallation around it against any relief operation — for seven months. Only eighty-three of the enemy had been killed in the battle and 340 taken prisoner; the fugitives, however, did not rally and the besieged kings eventually surrendered, sending their children out as hostages and begging the pharaoh that ‘the Breath of Life be given to their nostrils’.31

The most valuable booty of the victory came in the form of horses, of which the Egyptians captured 2041; as they were perhaps still importers of bloodstock, such numbers would have been an important addition to their chariot arm. We have no indication of how many chariots were committed by either side at Megiddo. When, however, 200 years later in 1294 BC Rameses II defeated a Hittite army at Qadesh on the River Orontes in southern Syria — sustaining the New Kingdom’s policy of aggressive warmaking at the far limit of strategic outreach from the Nile delta — the Egyptian army appears to have had fifty chariots and 5000 soldiers. It is said that the much larger Hittite army had 2500 chariots, which must be an exaggeration — its front of attack would have been 8000 yards wide — but an Egyptian bas-relief of the battle depicting fifty-two chariots indicates that the numbers committed were very considerable.32

There is some doubt whether the Hittites used the composite bow. Their chariot crews are usually represented as spearmen, which may explain why the Egyptians were able at Qadesh to extricate themselves from potential defeat. In any case, both at Megiddo and Qadesh chariot fighting had not yet reached the developed form it did at the height of Assyria’s imperial power in the eighth century BC. Weapons systems take long periods to be assimilated, the more complex the longer, and the chariot system, which comprised not only the chariot itself, but also the composite bow, the horse, and all its trappings — all foreign to the lands where the chariot kings ruled — was a very complex system indeed. It is not surprising if both the Egyptians and the Hittites were as yet clumsy charioteers and that the system had to wait until comparatively late in the development of Assyrian battlecraft before it achieved its full potential. By then it may well have become, as the scribes of Sargon and Sennacherib describe, a weapon of shock and terror, manipulated by the driver to charge at breakneck speed behind a team of perfectly schooled horses and used by the archer as a platform from which to launch a hail of arrows; squadrons of chariots, their drivers trained to act in mutual support, might have clashed much as armoured vehicles have done in our time, success going to the side that could disable the larger opposing number, while the footmen unlucky or foolhardy enough to stand in their way would have been scattered like chaff.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!