The Assyrian king, like other Mesopotamian kings, was expected to glorify the god of the Assyrians—Ashur—by conquering for him as much territory as he could and by bringing back to his temple (and his kingdom) as much loot as he could. In the 300 years of the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries [B.C.E.], the Assyrian kings could pride themselves on how much they had pleased Ashur—they were the supreme power of the Near East.
The supreme, god-like position of the Assyrian monarch was promoted and enhanced in a variety of practical ways. Access to the king by individuals was, at best, extremely difficult, and the long walk through the gates and corridors flanked by bull and lion colossi and stone reliefs depicting the king slaying and mutilating his enemies would overwhelm the visitor, as it was intended to do, with ‘awesome splendour’…. The only mortal who could be regarded as an equal of the Assyrian king was a foreign king, whom the Assyrian monarch addressed as ‘my brother’, but even he was a potential subject of the ‘king of kings’….
The Assyrian king enjoyed absolute power over the state, there being only three checks to his autocratic rule, religion, legal precedent, and the temper of his nobles and officials. The monarch was subject to religious belief and practice, and examples of royal attempts to depart therefrom are extremely rare. As to legal precedent, the king had to respect the traditional rights of individuals, such as property ownership, and of groups or institutions, such as tax exemptions granted to privileged cities. Finally he had to respect the mood of the upper classes or run the risk, as a few kings did, of revolution and regicide. Apart from these considerations, however; the king’s will was supreme in all affairs of state. Indeed, in the legislative sphere he was not only the supreme but the sole legislator, his ‘law-making’ consisting of royal decrees. There was not even an assembly, as in Sumer, with which he might discuss a proposal, although he did seek advice from his various officials and sanction from the gods by means of omens. The king was presumably supreme judge, and he was definitely commander-in-chief of the army. In religion, although he was subject to commonly accepted beliefs and practices, as already mentioned, he was the high priest…of the god Ashur. This is in contrast to Babylonia where the high priest was not the same person as the king. Finally, even the economy was subject to his will, for in theory he owned all the land, and trade, both domestic and foreign, depended upon his sanction.
— The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 196
Assyrian bureaucracy can be viewed as a pyramid with the king at the pinnacle and the working population at the base with graduated layers of officials in between, the number of officials at each level increasing as one descends. It is convenient to keep this image in mind, although there are problems with such a neat schema, since the system was not theoretically thought out in advance but simply developed to meet demands as they arose. Particularly relevant to this point is the fact that the Assyrian state, including the administration, was essentially militaristic in organization and there was usually little distinction between military service and civil service. Another consideration is that the chain of command was not always from one level to that immediately adjacent; the crown gave direct orders to some officials far down the pyramid and the king had the right to intervene at any level in any matter. But for clarity it is useful to have the image of a pyramid in mind as one goes through the various levels of officials and describes their position, function, and responsibilities. Only the upper echelons will be discussed, since they are of most importance and our sources provide more information about them than about the lower orders.At the top of the pyramid sat the king and immediately under him was a trio of officials, the ‘major-domo’…, the ‘vice-chancellor’ …, and the ‘field-marshal’…. The major-domo was the only person who officially had direct access to the monarch, his position being comparable to the Black Eunuch of the sultan’s court in Ottoman Turkey. The power and influence of this individual was immense. Roughly on an equal footing with this officer was the vice-chancellor, whom the king consulted frequently on the various affairs of state and whose importance is illustrated by a legend…that surrounds one of them, Ahiqar, and the fact that their names are enshrined beside the names of their monarchs in ancient lists. The field-marshal completes the trio of officers directly under the king, his high status being confirmed by the lists of Assyrian eponyms…, wherein he appears immediately after the king.A second group of three which, if not equal in rank to the aforementioned trio, was a close second, consisted of the ‘palace herald’ …, the chief ‘cup-bearer’…, and the ‘steward’…. Although these officers bore titles related originally to domestic service in the court and they may have performed these services on ceremonial occasions, in practice they were entrusted with duties of state of a very high order. The palace herald was the chief administrative officer of the realm. The chief cup-bearer acted as the king’s plenipotentiary on great occasions such as, it will be remembered, at the siege of Jerusalem in the time of Sennacherib. The steward of the king (there was also a steward for each of the crown prince, the queen-mother and the chief wife) carried out special royal commissions, such as the direction of the transportation of precious items.The offices of most of the officials mentioned so far included ‘governorships’ over certain provinces, and the remaining provincial governors come immediately after them in rank. The governors…, including the governors of the chief Assyrian cities, were arranged in a hierarchy, as is evident from the eponym lists, with the governor of Assyria (i.e. the Assyrian heartland) first. Each governor had his own palace and court, located at the provincial capital, and there was a standing army at his disposal.
— The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, pp. 199-201
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
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.
— Soul of the Sword, p. 77
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
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….
— From Sumer To Rome, p. 32
The monarch was the supreme human being in Assyrian thought, since he was god’s anointed, but he was a mere mortal all the same, and this is in contrast again to Sumer and Babylonia where deification of the ruler was known. The Assyrians were, of course, aware of this southern phenomenon, and they flirted with the idea of the apotheosis of their own king, but it never achieved full official recognition in Assyria. It surfaces, nonetheless, in various forms. In the royal epithets there is sometimes ambiguity as to whether the king or the deity is described, and there were titles and adjectives (such as dandannu, ‘almighty’) which were applied only to god or monarch. The royal images (salmu), statues and reliefs of the king, are another case in point; in texts where these images are mentioned the word salmu is preceded by the divine determinative, and the personal name ‘The-Divine-Image-of-the-King-Has-Commanded’…is well attested. This last fact brings to mind the custom practised at Guzanu (Tell Halat) of concluding contracts before the images of gods including the ‘divine image of the king’. None of this evidence justifies a conclusion that official sanction was given to the worship of the Assyrian king or his images, but it does underline the fact that he was generally regarded as being on a plane closer to the gods than other mortals. In popular thought no doubt people went one step further and regarded the king as at least partially divine, and uneducated Assyrians probably believed that the offerings placed on a table before a royal image in a temple were offerings to the image itself rather than offerings to be presented by the king portrayed to the god.
— The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 195
The problems of the Assyrian kings were really insuperable. They had not only to contend with a writhing mass of subject peoples, ready to revolt at the slightest provocation and always under pressure from states outside the Assyrian empire to defect, but also the kings had to cope with their own bureaucracy where confusion reigned supreme. Every little bureaucrat had his own axe to grind, to curry favor with the king, to put down his rivals, and to do in a half-hearted way the job that his office demanded. In Assyria it was not like the situation in Egypt where centuries of organization had provided a complete job description for each office, and where the kings were dealing with a much more uniform population, well disciplined in its duties.But all this, as we shall see, was not the sum total of the difficulties. The king must somehow cope with unseen forces, control demons that were ever present, fend off evil portents, and try to keep things on an even keel. It was really too much, and the miracle of it all was that the empire lasted as long as it did.
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.
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.
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.
— The Persian Empire, pp. 27-28
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
As the size of armies and the scope of battles increased, ancient armies had to master the task of logistically supporting these armies in the field. The logistical feats of ancient armies were often more difficult and often achieved more proficiently than in armies of the nineteenth century [C.E.], when the railroad, mass production of weapons, standard packaging, and tinned and condensed food made the problem of supply considerably easier. The need to support armies in the field for months, sometimes years, was a function of the rise of the imperium. Armies now had to conduct combat operations over far wider areas for longer periods than ever before.
Changes in the composition of military forces also added to the logistics burden. The development of the chariot required that the Egyptian forces maintain repair depots and special mobile repair battalions to ensure that the machines remained functional on the march. The Assyrian invention of large cavalry squadrons brought into existence a special branch of the logistics train to ensure that the army could secure, breed, train, and deploy large numbers of horses to support these new forces. This special logistics branch, the musarkisus, was able to obtain and process 3,000 horses a month for the Assyrian army. It was not until the time of Napoleon that Western armies could once again equal this logistical feat. The integration of chariots with cavalry also forced the Assyrian army to become the first to learn how to sustain 2 types of transport. Advances in siegecraft required that armies transport siege towers and engines within their baggage train, and artillery, introduced under the Greeks and brought to perfection under the Romans, added yet another requirement to transport catapults and shot. The need to manufacture, issue, and repair the new iron weapons in unprecedented numbers required yet more innovations in logistics. In the Assyrian army the production and storage of weapons became a central feature of the army’s logistical structure. A single weapons room in Sargon’s palace at Dur-Sharrukin contained 200 tons of iron weapons, and similar weapons warehouses were scattered throughout the empire. Of all the achievements of the ancient armies, those in the area of logistics often remain the most unappreciated by modern military planners.
— From Sumer To Rome, pp. 22-23
The Assyrian chariot was a large and heavy vehicle that was pulled by 3 horses[, had 4 wheels,] and carried a crew of 4. The Assyrian chariot’s tactical role…maximized the role of shock. The idea was to attack enemy infantry formations from as many directions as possible to deliver maximum shock. Once engaged, the crews dismounted and fought as infantry. The Assyrians were the first to introduce the use of mounted infantry, and their use of the chariot strongly paralleled the use of armored personnel carriers in modern armies.
— From Sumer To Rome, p. 32
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.
— The Ancient World, p. 89-90
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.