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6-08-2015, 00:17

Inventing War

The ancient Sumerians developed the first modern
civilization with permanent cities. Soon after cities
arose, people began to clash over the ownership of
territory and resources. Small-scale battles between
tribes had happened before, but ancient Mesopotamia
saw the birth of modern organized warfare.

The earliest known weapons of the Sumerians were the spear and
bow. However, enemy forces eventually developed defenses against these
armaments. This led to the creation of more effective weapons, which in turn
led to further defensive research. An ancient Mesopotamian arms race drove
the invention of new weapons of war. The innovations of ancient Sumer
included helmets, personal body armor, war axes, primitive chariots, and the
first professional warriors. An enormous amount of evidence for the early
history of warfare comes from a monument erected in 2525 BCE. It is known
as the Stela of the Vultures.


The clash in 2525 BCE was between the Sumerian cities of Lagash and
Umma. Lagash, the victorious side, built the Stela of the Vultures to
commemorate the conflict. The stela is the earliest record of a war in human
history. It features carvings of a battle scene, giving historians a glimpse into
the weapons, armor, and tactics of the ancient Sumerian world.
The weapons depicted on the stela include the socketed bronze axe
and the sickle sword. Earlier axe heads had been attached to handles
using leather straps. This made them prone to loosening or breaking apart.

Socketed axe heads were held in place with rivets inside sockets in the
wooden handle. This made them much tougher. Sickle swords were even
more durable, although they could not strike as hard a blow as the heavy
axes. The swords were designed primarily for slashing, and they proved
extremely effective. They were used in Mesopotamia for more than 1,000
years.1 On the Stela of the Vultures, the king of Lagash is depicted multiple
times, in one case holding a socketed axe and in another case holding a
sickle sword.
Defensive equipment seen on the stela includes helmets and armor.
Ancient Sumerian warriors wore helmets made of copper that shielded
their ears and the back of their necks. Soft leather caps were worn beneath
the helmets. Helmets have been discovered at archaeological sites, but the
evidence for Sumerian body armor comes largely from ancient artwork.
Many soldiers donned capes made of leather studded with circular bronze
or copper plates. Others were much more lightly armored, wearing only
helmets and sheepskin kilts.
Another invention of war found on the Stela of the Vultures is the battle
cart. This precursor to the chariot had four wheels and was drawn by four
onagers, animals related to horses and donkeys. Two soldiers rode on the
cart. One steered the vehicle while the other threw javelins at the enemy.
Historians disagree on the role of battle carts in ancient warfare. Some
believe the carts may have been used to smash through enemy lines of
infantry. Others think the primitive carts were more likely used to chase
down retreating enemy soldiers after the battle was over.


Although the Babylonian Empire never achieved the geographic scope of the
Assyrian Empire, it is the empire with which historians tend to first associate
ancient Mesopotamia. This is in part because of the cultural significance of
Babylon itself. It was the largest city of its time and a major cultural center.
It is also in part because the Babylonian Empire conquered ancient Israel,
destroying the central Jewish temple in Jerusalem, exiling its priests, and

securing an unflattering description in the Hebrew Bible. But even more than
that, it is perhaps because it was the Babylonians that produced the two
literary works by which most people remember ancient Mesopotamia: the
Code of Hammurabi and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Babylonian Empire is remembered for three great military triumphs.
The first led to the empire’s establishment. Although Hammurabi is more
often remembered as a lawgiver and administrator than a general, his
conquests of surrounding city-states in 1763 BCE created the Babylonian
Empire as a political entity, transforming Babylon from a city into the most
powerful nation of the region.
The second great triumph was the reclaiming of a large golden statue
of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god, from the Elamite capital of Susa in
1114 BCE. The Elamites were immensely powerful. When they raided Babylon
and carried off the statue 48 years earlier, in 1162 BCE, it would have been
impossible to predict that Babylon would actually be in a position to bring it
back by force.
The third military victory was the Babylonian defeat of the Assyrians
toward the end of the 600s BCE. The Assyrian Empire, the largest ever to
rise to power in Mesopotamia, seemed indestructible, particularly once it
aligned with Egypt. By allying themselves with other regional powers, the
Babylonians were able to decisively defeat the Assyrian Empire and put an
end to its regional dominance.
But more often than it is remembered for these triumphs, the Babylonian
Empire is remembered for one final, crushing defeat: its fall in 539 BCE to the
Persian army, led by Cyrus the Great, whose military legacy would go on to
overshadow that of any Mesopotamian ruler.


In the three centuries leading up to its final defeat in 605 BCE, Assyria
conquered Mesopotamia, Egypt, and much of the surrounding area. It
became by far the largest of the Mesopotamian empires. The dramatic speed
and scope of its conquests secured Assyria’s legacy as one of the most
feared and powerful empires of the ancient world. It achieved this distinction
through a mix of technology, efficiency, and intimidation.
Technologically, the Assyrians relied on iron weapons, composite bows,
large cavalries composed of lancers and horse archers, and chariots. These
were, by the standards of their time, state-of-the-art and deadly.
Finally, the Assyrian army was noted for its brutality. Its soldiers
gruesomely slaughtered, tortured, and humiliated those who challenged
their authority. Assyria’s well-established history of brutality against enemy
civilizations is perhaps best illustrated by its history with the Syrian city
of Arpad. At some point in approximately 750 BCE, King Ashurnirari V of
the Assyrians negotiated rather ominous treaty terms with the city’s ruler
Mati’ilu, using a lamb as illustration:
This spring lamb has been brought from its fold not for sacrifice, not for
a banquet, not for a purchase . . . it has been brought to sanction this
treaty between Ashurnirari and Mati’ilu. . . . This head is not the head of
a lamb, it is the head of Mati’ilu, it is the head of his sons, his officials,
and the people of his land. If Mati’ilu sins against this treaty, so may, just
as the head of this spring lamb is torn off . . . the head of Mati’ilu be torn
off, and [the heads of] his sons.2
When Ashurnirari died in 746 BCE, Mati’ilu saw an
opportunity to overthrow Assyrian rule and joined
with other cities to reach that goal. The Assyrians
reconquered Arpad in 740 BCE, destroyed the city,
and established a new Assyrian province in its place.
This sort of cruelty had the effect of suppressing
rebellions in the short term, but it also meant the
Assyrian leadership was easier to fear than it was to
love. After the brilliant but terrifying Ashurbanipal
died in 627 BCE, regions under Assyrian control
immediately, and for the most part successfully,
asserted their independence. The Assyrian army,
although massive, was not large enough to suppress
two significant rebellions at once. It was unable to
protect itself from multinational coalitions. Despite
assistance from the Egyptians, the Assyrian Empire
was definitively crushed by a Babylonian-Mede
alliance only 22 years later at the Battle of
Carchemish. It never became a global power again.