Violent confrontations between groups of people usually arise from disputes over access to resources such as water, game, and exploitable territories. While there is little evidence from the prehistoric period for organized military action, the presence of walls around settlements (as in Jericho), caches of slingshots, and human skeletal remains with marks of wounds indicate that warlike practices were not uncommon. Seals from the Uruk period show naked captives with their arms tied behind their backs being prodded along, interpreted as prisoners of war. During the first half of the third millennium B.C., Mesopotamia was divided into competing city-states, and there is documentary and visual evidence for intercity warfare. The best-known conflict is that between Lagash and Umma, which fought for generations over some fields at their mutual borders. The texts describe that hostile actions were perceived as an insult to the local gods, who were said to lead the troops of their city to battle. The famous “Stele of Vultures” (now in the Louvre) depicts the god Ningirsu marching at the head of a tight formation of helmeted soldiers carrying spears and shields (see WEAPONS). They trample over the naked bodies of their dead enemies.
   The victorious party could inflict punishment on the defeated, setting fire to buildings and looting temples and palaces. They could also impose a treaty that stipulated, as in the case of Umma, the new boundaries and the financial and material reparations to be made. Spoils of war were deposited in the temple of the city god.
   When the country became unified under the rule of the Akkadian dynasty, this was first of all the result of superior military force against other Mesopotamian cities. The royal inscriptionsof Sargon of Akkad, for instance, enumerate the number of battles he won and the cities he forced to submit to his hegemony. He also emphasizes that “5,400 men” daily ate at his table, which may indicate a sizeable bodyguard if not a corps of soldiers.
   The Akkadian kingsalso initiated sorties and campaigns abroad, to Elam in the east, Syria in the northwest, and Upper Mesopotamia. Such raids were meant to inspire fear in the population, impressing upon them the superiority of the Akkadian power, and brought not only booty from sacked towns and villages but also more formal recognition of Akkadian rights over trade routes and tribute payments. Furthermore, conquered territories could be distributed to deserving individuals. The increased use of warfare since the mid-third millennium helped to strengthen the role of kings as leaders of the armed forces who had a special mandate from the gods (the Akkadian kings stressed the support of Ishtar) to defend their realm and to enrich it by aggressive sorties abroad. It appears, though, that most of the fighting was against other Mesopotamian cities keen to shake off the yoke of Akkad. In fact, the pacification of rebellious cities became a main theme in the royal inscriptions of Naram-Sin. Another threat against the stability of a unified country was the uncontrollable influx of tribal groups in search of land. This was met with organized resistance and the punishment of tribal leaders, although the evasive “guerilla tactics” employed by many tribal immigrants often proved undefeatable. In the mid-second millennium B.C., “international” conflicts arose between the “great powers” (e.g., Egypt, Mitanni, the Hittites, and Assyria), over the control of “colonial” territories, especially Syria and the Levant. Not only were these regions agriculturally productive and populous, they gave access to the flow of commodities to and from the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and the east. These intense rivalries were to lead to large armies marching across vast distances to do battle far away from their homeland. The local rulers became implicated as vassals, having to support garrisons of the occupying forces. Such wars continued to affect the Near East throughout the firstmillennium B.C., abated briefly during the Achaemenid period, and flared up again when the Seleucidsclashed with the Ptolemies and the Romans with the Parthians.
   The greatest military power in Mesopotamia was Assyria. The expansion of the Middle Assyrian and the Neo-Assyrian empires demanded constant campaigning to secure Assyria’s access to vital raw materials, especially metals, horses, and manpower. The Assyrian armywas recruited from subdued territories as well as the mainland, well equipped, and trained by experienced military personnel. The king was the overall commander, and the most successful Assyrian kings (such as Tiglath-pileserIII,Sargon II,and Adad-nirari I and II) were indefatigable campaigners who year after year led their troops to punish rebellious vassals, conquer new lands, and fight against troublesome tribal groups. They could also be represented by a chief commander who was not infrequently a eunuch.
   The technology of warfare underwent several important changes. In the third millennium B.C., the main body of the soldiers fought on foot, using spears and axes, although archery contingents also played a role. The king and other commanding officers rode in sturdy boxlike chariots driven by donkeys. In the second millennium, horses began to play an increasingly important part. Chariots became much lighter and easier to maneuver. Chariot teams could be driven into the serried ranks of foot soldiers; they provided a better view of the action and generally made an impressive and frightening impact. They were to become the elite troops of the mid-second millennium. The foot soldiers armed with spears were augmented by mounted archers and spear-men by the Assyrians in the first millennium. Their armies also included siege engines and battering rams to break down city walls. They used soldiers from subjugated areas for specialist tasks, such as fighting in mountainous terrain, the desert (on camels), the marshland, or on ships. There were also ritual specialists, diviners to be consulted about the right timing of attacks, priests, bureaucrats who counted prisoners and casualties, cooks, baggage trains, musicians, and female camp followers.
   Psychological warfare was not unknown, as the epic “Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish” and other Sumerian literary texts document. Exaggerated boasts about the strength of one’s troops, terrible threats, and intimidation were meant to secure the submission of the other party. Severe punishments meted out to rebellious subjects were another favored technique, much employed by the Assyrians. The walls of royal palaces were covered with propagandistic depictions of the might and invincibility of the Assyrian forces and dreadful fate waiting for potential traitors. Impaling, flaying, and gouging out of eyes were some of the more gruesome Assyrian punishments meant to dissuade subjects from insurrection.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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