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Stone relief with soldiers with spears and shields running up ladders placed against a city while a wheeled battering ram with a tower attacks its walls and archers shoot from behind pavises

Assyrians storm a city in the reign of Tiglath-Pilser III (745-727 BCE). British Museum Catalogue number ME 115634; ME 118903. This photo is copyright of the British Museum and is used with permission.

One of the collections of texts which I have been working with is a collection of texts associated with an Assyrian governor in the first half of the eighth century BCE (about sixty years before the relief above was carved). Aaron Dornauer has published a luxurious edition with sketches, a specialized sign list with the readings used in these documents, and detailed commentaries. Many more documents were written on clay in Neo-Assyrian times than under the Achaemenids, and because of the burning and abandonment of many Assyrian cities, a higher proportion have survived. It is therefore very important to study earlier periods to see what traditions the Achaemenids inherited and compare what is known in Achaemenid times. This weekend I will discuss one of these texts which deals with one of my interests, arms and armour.

This text is No. 48 in Dornauer’s edition and comes from two fragments whose total size is 4.1 x 6.5 cm. Like many Assyriological collections it was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century. I have written words which are written as logograms in the original with CAPITAL LETTERS.

Upper Edge: One CHARIOT
Verso: 4 HORSES
2 DONKEYS
10 BOWS
10 BLADES (patrū)
10 spears (kutahatē)
10 helmets (qurpissī)
10 quivers (azanatē)
10 shields (aritū)
10 shirts
10 leather belts
Bottom Edge: 10 tunics
Recto: 1 OX
10 SHEEP

Assyrian chariots in this period were drawn by two or three equids and carried a driver, an archer, and a heavy load of weapons. I think that I can recall texts where donkeys help to pull a chariot on the road with the horses being saved for battle.

The bows would be what modern taxonomers call triangular composite bows. These look triangular when strung and only bend into a beautiful curve when drawn. Broadly similar bows remained popular with the Assyrians from the ninth century to the fall of their empire in the seventh, when a new short recurved type used with light arrows and a bowcase at the hip entered Mesopotamia from the north. Modern scholars call these Scythian bows, while the Babylonians called them Kimmerian.

The blades seem to be the slender two-edged weapons 30-60 cm long seen in Assyrian sculptures. Most infantry swords in most cultures are short, since short weapons are cheaper, add less weight and bulk, and are useful when the fighting becomes too close for musket, bow, spear, or bayonet. Still there are exceptions, from some Mycenaean swords in the second millennium BCE, to the very long and complex-hilted weapons which were fashionable in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth.

The kutahatē are an uncommon type of spear. One text calls them “light” and another lists them amongst booty from Urartu.

The qurpisu (or gurpisu or other spellings) was one of the usual Assyrian names for body armour. The Assyrians used several terms for body armour, and there may be no more difference between them than between a coat of mail with its French root and a hauberk with its Germanic one. Edit 2016-02-23: The qurpisu is a type of armour, probably a helmet and any attached protection for the cheeks and neck. In earlier periods they were often made of metal or rawhide scales, but in Assyrian art helmets are usually solid plate. (end edit) In a text from the same site one qurpisu is specified to be bronze and another iron. Unfortunately, no detailed descriptions of scale armours seem to survive from the first millennium BCE as are known from the Amarna age. In this period all Assyrian armour seems to have been of metal scales.

The quivers shown in Assyrian art are round or boxy and suspended across the back by a strap across the chest. Some of these quivers were fitted with soft covers to keep out rain and mud and keep the arrows from bouncing out. Azanatu is not a very common word, and no lists of their capacity survive, but other similar quivers have a capacity in the dozens of feathered arrows.

The shields are also named by a generic Assyrian term which used used for leather, bronze, and golden shields. Assyrian troops used a confusing assortment of shield types, from small round forms with a grip at the centre to tall pavises made from bundles of sticks or reeds with a folded-back top to protect the user from arrows descending at a steep angle. Since few images of soldiers contemporary with these texts survive, it is probably best not to assume too much, although the larger and more disposable kinds of shield often receive more specialized names.

The sheep and ox are best understood as rations. Dispensations in the ancient near east often included a certain number of sheep per year.

This text seems to describe equipment for a decade of ten soldiers. It can be compared to texts from Babylonia in the sixth and fifth centuries which describe equipment for temple servants or holders of fiefs. It confirms the vision of Assyrian hoplites (use another expression for “fully-armed man” if that word makes you uncomfortable) which we see in the palace reliefs, although it is certainly likely that just as in Roman armies some men were less well-equipped. It also invokes Herodotus’ description of the Median armament of scale armour, wicker shield, bow, shield, spear, and dagger. Assyrian texts often divide infantry into bowmen and lancers, but these soldiers are ready to fight as both.

It also raises some questions. Just what to the different terms mean? Assyriologists can do their best by comparing art and studying the etymology of different terms and their use in other texts, but they are limited by a shortage of stories of everyday life. Arming scenes and descriptions of combat, however fantastic, are very helpful in understanding the vocabulary of military equipment, but Assyrian arming scenes often involve kings or gods using mystic weapons to slaughter innumerable enemies amidst rivers of blood and a terrifying rain of metaphors. Is this a decade of infantry in addition to the chariot crew? Or would some of them ride the chariot? Just what period does this text describe? Are the donkeys to carry supplies for the infantry, or a spare team for the chariot? Are the horses two full teams, or a team of three horses and a spare horse? What equipment were the soldiers expected to supply themselves? Knowledge of how armies work and careful study of other texts can slowly resolve some of these.

Further Reading: Aron Dornauer, Das Archive des assyrischen Statthalters Manu-kī-Aššūr von Gūzāna/Tall Ḥalaf (Harrasowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2014); Tell Halaf Project (link); Tamas Dezso, The Assyrian Army (Eötvös University Press, Budapest 2012); and your self-citing correspondent, “The Meaning of Sariam.”