While the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians were all good at war, they were pikers compared to the Assyrians who took warfare to new heights. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000 to 609 B.C.), the Assyrian army was the most powerful military force yet seen. The 300 year duration of this empire consisted of never-ending wars, as the Assyrians based their economy and wealth on conquering all of Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Egypt, Elam (or western Iran), Syria, parts of Anatolia (Turkey) and Urartu (Armenia).
Based in the Mesopotamian city of Ashur, the Assyrians moved to take over as much territory as possible. To do this, they built roads, placed food and war supplies in strategically-placed storage depots and set up a pony express relay system to carry messages throughout the empire. With armies constantly on the move, the Assyrians ensured they had the necessary administration and logistics ready at all times.
- The Hittites had learned to forge iron in the 18th century B.C. As Assyrians had at times been vassals to the Hittites, they learned to make iron tools themselves. The great Assyrian armies of the Neo-Assyrian empire used iron weapons, giving them a great advantage over their enemies. They also used metal to cover the wheels of their formidable chariots, starting with bronze but moving later to iron.
- Assyrians were not the first to use chariots in warfare, but they used both light and heavy chariots to break up their enemies’ infantry. The chariots had blades on the hub of their wheels, which effectively mowed down enemy infantry.
- The Assyrians were the first to have a permanent corps of engineers in their army who would make siege engines, ladders and battering rams for attacking cities. This corps included miners and sappers to go under the walls if they couldn’t knock them down.
- Besides charioteers, the Assyrians employed mounted cavalry in battle that carried both bows and arrows and lances. They were also the first to use camels for carrying heavy loads. Camels can carry far more weight than donkeys and didn’t need as much watering.
- They were as adept at siege warfare as they were on the battlefield. The Assyrians employed psychological warfare in the form of sheer terror. If a city didn’t surrender, they would impale captives on poles before the gates of the city, torturing and killing them in plain sight of the city’s defenders. The Assyrians had found that many cities would simply surrender if the people were terrified. They also used mass deportations to keep conquered enemies from developing resistance to Assyrian rule.
From their continual warfare, the Assyrians captured riches upon riches. They demanded tribute from each conquered city, which was paid in precious metals, gems, silk, ivory and slaves. With this wealth, the Assyrians built grand palaces of stone in Ashur and Nineveh. They also demanded contingents of military men from each conquered city and region, which would then be incorporated into the Assyrian army. The Assyrians were rightly feared as the most bloodthirsty, cruel empire of the time.
This article is part of our larger resource on Mesopotamian culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on ancient Mesopotamia.