The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armour in Mesopotamia around 1200 B.C. They effectively employed war chariots. They were not the first to do this but they were the first to organize them into a cavalry.
The Assyrians established the largest army up to that time in the Mediterranean. Their armies had professional soldiers, infantry, charioteers, mounted archers, fast horses, engineers and wagoners. The most important unit was the royal bodyguard, perhaps the first regular army. The other units were amassed as need arose. In battles the Assyrians used bows, slings, iron swords and lances, battering rams, oil firebombs, but relied on iron javelins.
To get across rivers they used boats made from inflated animals skins, and, while campaigning, they carried few supplies, living instead off of food captured in enemy territory. Artwork depicts Assyrian soldiers destroying buildings with pickaxes and crowbars and then, carrying off booty. [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Towns that refused to pay tribute were sacked. According to one tablet one town was “crushed like a clay pot” and the population and leaders were made prisoners “like a herd of sheep” as the Assyrian army carried away booty.
The Assyrians employed sophisticated siege tactics, and formed corps ancillary to the army’s main fighting force but they were primarily a chariot-based force.
Fighting chariots often accommodated two people—one rider and one archer.
Early charioteers often swept down out of the mountains, encircled their flat-footed and unarmored foes, and picked them off from 100 or 200 yards away with arrows fired from sophisticated bows.
Assyrian Attack on a Town
The ruthless, formidable and well organized Assyrians were perhaps the greatest charioteers of the ancient world. They dominated the ancient world from the 9th century to 7th century B.C. ,
Most of what is known about Assyrian chariots has been gleaned from alabaster reliefs now in the British Museum. Their chariots come in a lightweight two-horse model and a heavier four-horse version. They appear to have been made from wood and rawhide.
Lord Byron wrote that Assyrians went after their neighbors like a “wolf in the fold.” They forced captives to strip naked to show subservience to their captors and slaughtered those who dared to oppose them.
Bas-reliefs from the Chaldean campaign (7th century B.C.) show Assyrian victors making piles of heads of their victims, using battering rams and impaling captives.
Stone friezes at Nimrud and Ninevah show war chariots crushing enemy soldiers, women and children and an Assyrian king and queen enjoying drinks in a garden decorated with the head of an enemy leader dangling from a tree.
After one of his victories Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal bragged, “I cut off their heads; I burned them with fire; a pile of living men and of heads over against the city gate I set up; men I impaled on stakes; the city I destroyed…I turned it into mounds and ruin heaps; the young men and maidens I burned.
” Another Assyrian king boasted in 691 BC: “I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of battle chariots were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.”
The Assyrians reserved their wrath for the people who opposed them. Those that joined their empire were treated well. Among those that resisted the men were killed and the women and children was abducted and resettled in foreign land.
The women were encouraged to take new husbands. Cuneiform tables reveal that refugees were given food, shoes, oil and clothes.
The brutal images are found mostly in throne room of Ashurnasirpal’s palace and were intended to intimidate visiting dignitaries.
The rooms occupied by kings and queen had no such art. The adornments found there seemed to be there to ward off evil spirits.