Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘Mesopotamia’


Ancient Fortifications Were Impervious

Neither Persians, Greeks, nor Chinese [circa 500 B.C.E.] achieved any marked improvement over the engineering techniques which had been employed by the Assyrians. Fortifications had, in fact, progressed about as far as available means would permit; the art of siegecraft had failed to keep pace. Save for a few exceptional instances of surprise, ruse, or betrayal, walled cities or fortresses were impervious to everything but starvation.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 18

Exorcism in Babylonia and Assyria

All down the ages good and evil have been in opposition as two contending forces in perpetual conflict, so that the ritual of expulsion has been an essential element in sanctification and the impulsion of spiritual power and insight. Consequently, in this dual task of getting rid of evil in order to secure good the exorcist has exercised a function complementary to that of the seer. Not infrequently, as we have seen, the medicine-man or shaman has been responsible both for riddance and induction, and at a higher cultural level in Babylonia and Assyria the soothsayer and exorcist originally were hardly distinguishable. In the process of time, however, the driving out of demons from human beings and buildings by incantations and ritual expulsions were separated from the interpretation of omens and astrological portents. This was necessitated by the development of an elaborate system of demonology entailing jinns, ghouls, vampires, malignant disembodied ghosts (edimmu), and vast hordes of hostile spirits (utukku, galla, labartu, labasu and ahhazu, lila, sûdu and lamassu) which lurked in graves and solitary places, on mountains and in dens of the earth, and in marshes. They roamed about the streets, sliding through the doors and walls of houses, and were borne on the wings of the mighty winds that swept the land. Wherever they occurred they brought misfortune, sickness and death in their train. Small wonder, then, that the exorcist was in constant demand. Thus, the cuneiform texts from the middle of the third millennium [B.C.E.] onwards bear witness to the numerous incantations employed to expel evil spirits and the ghosts of the dead. In the case of the latter the exorcist threatened that no rites would be performed on their behalf until they had departed:

(Whatever spirit thou may be), until thou art removed:
Until thou departest from the man, the son of his god,
Thou shalt have no food to eat,
Thou shalt have no drink to drink.

E. O. James, The Nature and Function of Priesthood, p. 49

Emphasis mine.

Assyrians Were Ancient Masters of the Siege

Siege warfare became a highly specialized technique in the Neo-Assyrian period and many of the skills developed by the Assyrians were subsequently adopted, improved upon, and expanded by later imperial powers including the Romans. Against the moats and ramparts of the well-fortified garrisons the Assyrian engineers brought a variety of engines and skills. There were the enclosed battering rams on wheels, in effect primitive tanks, with archers ensconced in turrets on top to pick off defenders on the wall who would attempt to burn the machine with torches or dislodge the battering rams with ‘wolves’, looped chains lowered from the walls. As for scaling techniques, in addition to using ladders, earthen ramps were sometimes heaped up against the wall for battering rams to roll up and demolish the upper defences and allow the infantry to rush up and over. The Assyrians also used sappers to burrow under or through the walls and fires were set with torches at wooden gates. Engineers engaged in these various activities were under constant threat from the defenders who shot arrows and spears at them, dropped rocks and scalding liquid. Cover was provided by the archers who took up strategic positions with their shield-bearers.

If the initial attempts at taking a city by siege failed, the Assyrians usually withdrew, but not before ravaging the surrounding countryside, burning and destroying crops, trees and houses. Only on occasion would they settle down for a long siege. When they did this, they stationed small groups of men in redoubts and siege towers near the wall, particularly near the gates, in order to prevent any traffic in or out of the city and to warn of any planned sortie from the gates. Once ensconced, the Assyrians were willing to wait many months or even a year or more, until the starved inhabitants capitulated.

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 220

A God of the State Not the People

Ashur was the king of gods, a reflection of the ancient beginnings of Assyria in the city-state of Ashur. He was the official god of the Assyrian nation, all of which belonged to him, and he appointed the Assyrian monarch as his vice-regent to rule on his behalf. The king attributed all his accomplishments, and especially his military victories, to the god Ashur, for not only his authority but his intelligence and resources were granted to him by divine favour. Ashur ruled the gods, mankind, and the universe as sovereign, lord, father, creator, sage, and warrior, these being the general categories into which his epithets fall. He was not a deity of the people at large and his presence was manifest only on state occasions and in official documents.

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 222

Emphasis mine.

Akkadian Conception of the Supernatural

The ancient Akkadian texts clearly show these people’s conception of the supernatural. For them, good and evil are caused by good or evil spirits sent forth by good and evil gods. Their world is dualistic, the stage of undecided combat between the forces of light and dark. No moral distinction is made in this perennial struggle, in the belief that it is only through fatality that these forces are either good or bad. Good may well engender evil, as illustrated by Mulge, who, although not belonging essentially to the evil principle, yet begot Namtar, the most cruel of all demons. Good and evil are not even necessarily encamped in separate abodes; beneficent powers dwell in the dark abyss of Mulge, and spiteful forces live side by side with charitable ones. In these beliefs, man would have been the prey of chaos had he not employed magical arts to protect himself against evil influences.

Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic and the Occult, p. 3

The Immense Wealth of the Persian Kings

[The Persian quisling] Tiridates led Alexander [the Great] into a large building behind the palace of Xerxes [at Persepolis] that served as both an armory for the royal bodyguard and a repository for the king’s wealth. Diffused light filtered through a series of openings in the roof above and washed gently over the tons of gold and silver bullion that had been neatly and methodically stored there. Within the treasury building were 120,000 talents of bullion, the largest single concentration of wealth to be found anywhere in the ancient world.

Darius I had imposed a tribute of precious metals in addition to a tribute of goods on his satraps and on the subject nations of the empire. Instead of converting that tribute into coins that could then have been put into circulation, Darius and his successors had it melted and then formed into ingots of gold and silver. The bars were stored in the palace treasury, and when the kings of Persia needed to finance particular projects, wars, or adventures, the precious metals were cast into coins. It was Darius who had introduced the coining of money into the empire; hence, the Persian coin became known as the Daric. Until that time, the empire had been administered largely on the basis of barter.

Successive generations of Persian kings had dipped into the treasury and spent vast sums on themselves. Over the years, they had spent great amounts on administering and expanding the empire and had dispensed large sums in fighting, hiring, and bribing the Greeks. Yet no matter how much money the kings spent, every year at the New Year ceremony more came in to replenish and add to the royal coffers. In the treasury building at Persepolis, Alexander was shown the full measure of how wealthy the Achaemenid kings of Persia had been and how wealthy he had now become.

John Prevas, Envy of the Gods, pp. 18-19

For comparision, Alexander started his invasion of the Persian Empire with a war chest of only 70 talents of gold.

Religious Rituals of War

What attitudes about warfare are suggested by the common features of primitive religion? The signals are mixed. The constant participation of the spirit world conveys a sense of “bellicism”—of warfare as part of the natural world. At the same time, warfare seems to be regarded, even by the most warlike, as a sort of interruption of normal life. Warriors must be dressed and painted so as to change their personalities. Special ceremonies signal their departure from normal life, and others, their return to it. Above all, warfare requires justification: The constant efforts to secure the favor of the spirit world imply that fighting and killing to avenge wrongs are required by the order of the world. …[T]he elaborate ritualization of primitive warfare both promotes war and limits it. It is possible to discern in primitive religion the germs of all later philosophical and theological interpretations of warfare, including both jus ad bellum (the right to make war) and jus in bello (rights in war).

Specific myths about the origins of war are difficult to find because the practice is so taken for granted. Most mythology seems to assume that conflict is simply part of the cosmos and has been so always, among spirits as well as men. Even if there was a primitive dreamtime inhabited by ancestors or gods, these beings fought with one another. Often the cosmos itself must be born in battle, as in the Babylonian creation myth, where the gods fight Tiamat the cosmic dragon and make the world out of her dismembered body.

In organized chiefdoms, the rituals of war take on a theocratic function: The chief is a deputy of the gods, sometimes divine himself, and all warfare has to be explained as an act of the gods, fought for their honor and glory and the honor and glory of their chiefly champion. All warfare must still be justified as an act of righteous vengeance. As shamans once brought down the spirits with magic to help the people avenge their wrongs, so priests petition the gods with sacrifice to avenge the wrongs of the chief.

In the early civilizations religion does not change much in the ideology of war. The rituals of war become more costly and ferocious, and the gods and their myths are more clearly defined by organized temple priesthoods. But all aspects of warfare are still interpreted in the terms of theocratic kingly militarism. The inscriptions of the Assyrian kings attribute all their victories and massacres to the power of Assur, a being far more reliable than the primitive spirits in that he had little use for chivalric conventions and none at all for purification rites.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, pp. 40-41

Emphasis mine.

Pervasiveness of Warfare In Early States

Whether or not warfare was essential to the rise of the state, the rise of the state certainly marked a decisive break in the history of warfare—the most important turning point until the gunpowder revolution in early modern Europe, which brought with it a still more potent form of political and military centralization. The cultural balance of power, in which most human societies had been trapped for thousands of years, was replaced by the political balance of power, which has endured to the present day. The cultural trap had loopholes: People could escape from it by “forgetting” about their grievances when “remembering” them would have been inconvenient, by ritualization, by arbitrating their disputes, by moving away. But there was no escape from the political trap, except in circumstances of unusual geographical isolation like those of Old Kingdom Egypt. The political type of warfare, heretofore an occasional and not particularly successful experiment in human history, now broke free of all constraints. War ceased to be an ancient ritual of earth and became a struggle for power and wealth between ruling groups claiming descent from the gods. They began the progressive elimination of primitive societies and primitive ways of war, a process that today is practically completed.

The sheer scale and pervasiveness of warfare in early states justifies these conclusions about its central importance. All early states had standing armies, all were expansionist, and all engaged in chronic interstate warfare that resulted in fewer and fewer states. In Egypt, with its extremely circumscribed geography, the process resulted almost at once in the unification of the Nile Valley under a single ruler, whose theocratic functions thereafter overshadowed his military functions. In Iraq, much less circumscribed and divided among many powerful city-states, the process of unification took longer and was never permanently successful, and the militaristic character of the state became much more pronounced. Not until the twenty-fourth century [B.C.E.] did Sargon of Akkad unite all the cities of the plain into the first hegemonic empire.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, pp. 37-38

Emphasis mine.

Birth of Cavalry

The large scope of military action forced the Assyrians to fight in all types of terrain, a condition to which the heavy chariot was ill-suited. A major Assyrian revolution in battlefield capability was the invention of cavalry. Assyrian cavalrymen used the saddle girth, crupper, and breast strap to stabilize the rider, and the horse was controlled by the leg and heel pressure of the boot. (The spur and the stirrup had not yet been invented.) These innovations made possible the first use of mounted archers, the famed ‘hurricanes on horseback’ mentioned in the Old Testament. In set-piece battle the cavalry was used to pin the enemy flanks and to take up blocking positions to prevent a retreat. Once in position behind the enemy, the cavalry acted as an anvil against which the chariot and infantry units could drive the enemy. The ability of the horse to traverse uneven terrain made the cavalry especially lethal in the pursuit. This same ability made cavalry forces highly flexible and valuable for reconnaissance in force and for providing flank security for the army on the march, two new tactical capabilities.

The Persians expanded the role of the cavalry in their fighting formations. By the time of Cyrus, the Persian army’s ratio of cavalry to infantry was 20 percent cavalry to 80 percent infantry. It was the largest cavalry force in the world. Although an elite force, Persian cavalry was used primarily to draw the enemy into infantry battle….

Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, From Sumer To Rome, p. 32

Holiness in the Ancient Middle East

The Akkadian word for holiness was ellu, “cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity.” It was related to the Hebrew elohim, which is often simply translated as “god” but originally summed up everything that the gods could mean to human beings. The “holy ones” of the Middle East were like devas, the “shining ones” of India. In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (“divinity”) in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. It was a fundamental reality and could not be tied to a single, distinct form. The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness. Anything that came into contact with the ilam of the cult became sacred too: a king, a priest, a temple, and even the ritual utensils became holy by association. It would have seemed odd to the early Israelites to confine the sacred to a single divine being.

Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, pp. 46-47

Babylonian Divination

Divination was undoubtedly the most important of the disciplines that a Mesopotamian would have categorized as “scientific,” and should be viewed not as some primitive magical or occult activity but as one of the most basic features of Babylonian life. Indeed its senior practitioners were men of influence, held in high esteem in the own society. They were consulted on all important occasions both by private individuals and officers of state. The army was always accompanied by a diviner who in the Old Babylonian period seems to have acted also as general….

Divination represented, basically, a technique of communication with the gods who, according to Babylonian religious thought, shaped the destinies of all mankind, individually and collectively. Its purpose was to ascertain the will of the gods, to the Babylonian synonymous with the prediction of future events. Its philosophy, of course, presupposes supernatural cause and effect in all perceived phenomena and assumes the cooperation of the gods in their willingness to reveal the future intentions. Evil portended was not inevitable; there existed a variety of purification rituals…and other means of averting unwelcome predictions…. A clear distinction was made between provoked and unprovoked or natural omens. Preference for these various techniques differed markedly from one period and area to another. Although there exists some literature pertaining to the interpretation of dreams, Mesopotamian philosophy was curiously reluctant to admit that the gods made use of man himself for the expression of divine intention—and indeed a dream was significant only when “interpreted” by an expert. Thus shamanistic concepts, often considered universal in primitive religion, are absent in Mesopotamia.

Joan Oates, Babylon, p. 178

Emphasis mine.

Persian Spirit, Skill, and Resourcefulness

The basis of the [Persian military and political] system [circa 500 B.C.E.] was the spirit, skill, and resourcefulness of the Persians. An important weapon was the bow, used effectively by both cavalry and infantry. Insofar as possible the Persians avoided close-quarters infantry combat until their foes had been thoroughly disorganized by swarms of foot archers from the front, and the daring onrushes of horse archers against flanks and rear. The Persians were versatile in adapting their methods of warfare to all conditions of terrain. They respected the shock action of the Lydian cavalry lancers, and incorporated this concept into their mounted tactics.

Subject peoples were required to render military service. The garrisons scattered throughout the empire were principally composed of unit from other regions…but always contained a Persian contingent. Imperial expeditionary forces were also multinational. The Persians received a surprisingly high standard of loyalty from these diverse peoples, due largely to their policies of leniency toward the conquered, and of carefully supervised but decentralized administration.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 22

Ancient People Were Deeply Religious

Ancient peoples were deeply religious. In the Bronze Age, for example, Hittite and Egyptian accounts regularly give the gods a role in military campaigns. No Hittite scribe would think of recording a victory without thanking the gods for having marched in front of the army and thereby having granted the king success. No ambassador would swear to abide by a treaty unless an assembly of the various gods had witnessed it. In his poem about the battle of Qadesh (1274 [B.C.E.]), Pharaoh Rameses II declares that the god Amun spoke to him and sent him forward.

Even in the rationalistic heyday of classical Greece—and later—gods and heroes were commonly seen in the heat of battle. Sometimes their mere presence provided encouragement to the soldiers. At other times, divinities gave specific military advice. And sometimes they even fought! At the decisive battles of Marathon (490 [B.C.E.]), Salamis (480 [B.C.E.]), Aegospotami (405 [B.C.E.]), and Leuctra (371 [B.C.E.]), for example, contemporaries thought the gods and heroes took part.

Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, pp. 74-75

Parthian Feudalism

The feudal system of the Parthians had a Scythian as well as an Achaemenid background, and roughly resembled feudalism as developed in Europe during the “Dark Ages.” Society was headed by seven powerful clans. This upper stratum supported a petty aristocracy of varied socio-economic status who, together with their retainers, enjoyed status well above the peasants and serfs who were native Persians. Loyalty was strongest between the great clan leaders and their small vassals. The king, as a member of one of the clans, could usually command complete loyalty from his own clan and its vassals, less from other Parthians.

Peter Wilcox and Angus McBride, Rome’s Enemies 3, p. 6

Assyrian Warfare: Iron, Organization, and Espionage

The army relied mainly upon archers and pikemen, some very lightly armored, some protected by a cuirass and a conical helmet, and carrying a short sword for close fighting. Coordinated with this infantry was the cavalry, which at first fought from chariots. Later on, when the warrior rode the horse (about 700 [B.C.E.]), he had the infantryman’s bow and spear. Still later came the most original Assyrian contribution to the art of warfare, siege artillery. No fortified city could withstand the assault of Assyrian engines. A choice body of troops fought beside the king, but it was the foot-bowmen who wrought havoc on the enemy.

The Assyrian army’s power cannot be entirely explained by the bravery of the individual soldier, the competence of the king-general, or the sheer numerical strength so easy to attain in a country where every able-bodied man was subject to military service. Perhaps it is better explained by the theory that the Assyrians used iron extensively. Indeed something like a revolution in the metal industry apparently took place under Sargon II (722-705 [B.C.E.]) when he invaded Urartu and exploited its iron mines. Cunning, too, aided Assyrian armies: an efficient espionage and intelligence service was conducted by the royal governors and bureaucrats in the provinces and centered in the king’s palace. Frequently when the troops entered a country they were aided by carefully organized fifth columns.

Vincent Scramuzza, The Ancient World, p. 89-90

Emphasis mine.

Assyrian Army of the Sargonid Period

The Assyrian army in the Sargonid period had a potential magnitude of several hundreds of thousands of troops, although a call-up of the entire force for a campaign was extremely rare. Supreme command of the army rested with the king and, immediately under him, the “field-marshal”…. The army was divided into units of various sizes and types; but the basic division was the “company”…of fifty men under a “captain”…and this unit was in turn broken down into files of ten men. An officer carried a mace as a symbol of his authority.

The levying of troops was the primary responsibility of the captains, each of whom had a certain number of villages under his command, and the captains were in turn responsible to the provincial governor. By the Sargonid age there was also a standing army which was under the direct authority of the king, no doubt created as a counter-balance to the potential misuse of military power by the provincial governors. The king also had his own bodyguard of infantry and cavalry. The troops recruited within Assyria proper were spread around the empire as much as possible, since they were the most loyal, and they constituted the chariotry and cavalry divisions. The infantry consisted largely of foreigners, mainly Aramaeans. Some foreign groups became specialized units. For example, the Ituaeans, an Aramaic people, were entrusted with special tasks such as escort duty throughout the empire.

Garrisons and barracks were scattered over the empire, but the military headquarters was a massive armoury in the Assyrian capital. Here was stationed a large portion of the troops, animals, and equipment of the standing army, and there were, in addition, royal apartments for the king to occupy when he wished. At each New Year there was a grand inspection at the armoury when the king reviewed his troops and their equipment….

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2

Archer-Pair in Assyrian and Persian Warfare

The Assyrians had made major and highly effective use of a tactical feature common in Near Eastern warfare for many centuries. This was the archer-pair, consisting of a spearman bearing a very large, light but sturdy shield made of leather and wicker, and an archer; the spearman faced the enemy and held up the shield, behind which the archer hid and fired off volleys of arrows. The Persians called such shields spara and so named these tactical units sparabara, or “shield-bearers.” Typically, the Assyrians had lined these units up side by side, forming a single row of shield carriers backed by a single row of archers. [The Persians] increased the depth of the formation and also the number of archers per shield, producing a heavier concentration of arrow shot.

Don Nardo, The Persian Empire, pp. 27-28

War Became an End in Itself: Assyria

Assyria paid a heavy and increasing price for its warlike ways. Although military expeditions were still undertaken for strategic reasons, after 800 [B.C.E.] they began to resemble gangsters collecting protection money. At times, through lax management, they even seemed to encourage revolt, enabling them to squeeze the perpetrators all the harder—Metenna of Tyre was forced to pay Tiglath-Pileser III 150 talents of gold, while Sargon II relieved the city of Musasir of in excess of five tons of silver and more than a ton of gold. Unquestionably Assyria’s lords of extortion profited handsomely; but the evidence also indicates that most of the take was consumed by the army and relentless combat—180 of the 250 years between 890 and 640 [B.C.E.] were devoted to war. Combined arms proved prodigally expensive—plainly exceeding the resources of an economy ultimately based on near-subsistence farming. So the army had to keep on fighting and sacking, and in the process war became an end in itself.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 78

Emphasis mine.

Assyria Was Unstrategically Located

Assyria was unstrategically located. Between it and Akkad to the south was a plain where no invader could possibly be stopped except by stronger forces. The precipitous Zagros range to the east and the formidable Armenian plateau to the north, both sloping towards Assyria, made attack from those dimensions easy but defense difficult. The western steppe was no effective barrier either, for it was easy for a foe to traverse as for Assyrians. In its early history, and intermittently afterwards, Assyria was therefore ruled by foreign invaders.

There was only one means to overcome these geographical handicaps: a strong army. Assyria therefore proceeded to build up the most powerful military machine the world had yet seen, and to use it not only for defense but for expansion abroad. But unlike the Roman legions, which were formidable even when led by mediocrities, the Assyrian army depended for victory on brilliant generals, so that Assyrian power depended on the prowess of the king.

Vincent Scramuzza, The Ancient World, p. 89-90

Emphasis mine.

Assyrians: the Pioneers with Iron

As it was for other contemporary armies of the region, the bow was at the center of the Assyrian arsenal. But theirs was a carefully crafted composite weapon of extraordinary power, ends characteristically curled forward to resemble the bill of a duck. These bows were primarily in the hands of foot archers, either deployed as skirmishers or in massed formations. But the Assyrians departed from their rivals in their protection and the care which was taken to integrate them with other functions. After the reign of Ashurnasir-pal (885-860 [B.C.E.]), ranks of archers were depicted as not only screened by shield bearers and heavily armed spearmen, but themselves dressed in long coats of mail and conical helmets. Such measures consumed metal on a grand scale, especially iron, which the Assyrians pioneered using in quantity. Yet ironcladding achieved an important result—sufficient stability in these formations to exploit other tactical possibilities.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 77

Emphasis mine.