BMCR 2024.03.22

The ancient Assyrians: empire and army, 883-612 BC

, The ancient Assyrians: empire and army, 883-612 BC. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2023. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781472848093.



This book falls into two roughly equal parts. The first half offers a narrative of the military activities of the kings of Assyria from Assurnasirpal to Assurbanipal, while the second half addresses specific issues relating to warfare: the changing composition of the armed forces, principally infantry, cavalry and chariotry (Chapter 9), the manpower, animal power and equipment (Chapter 10), and accounts of specific events (Chapter 11).

Viewed generally, the first part gives a straightforward account of the territorial expansion of the Neo-Assyrian dynasty. Now, as in the past, the author has a particular interest in the Assyrian army and military history, and as explained in the Preface (p. 6), the narrative in the first Part (as with some components of the second Part) is written “to reflect the particular impact of Assyria on the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah”. Since the textual resources provided by the royal inscriptions have changed little over the last century or more, this is familiar ground and is broadly in agreement with earlier academic treatments such as are found in the Cambridge Ancient History. Yet there is undoubtedly a case for saying, with the author, that there is a gap in the market for a book about the army, and especially one which makes full use of the illustrations provided for us by the Assyrian sculptors. Some of the photographs from the British Museum are of excellent quality, and the coloured images derived by Angus McBride from the reliefs are very attractive and usually painstakingly faithful to the originals.

When it comes to the text there are two systematic drawbacks, which perversely may reduce its value for the non-specialist — the “interested lay public” (p. 6) — in particular. One is a troublesome dearth of information about some of the place names which occur in the narrative. When it comes to military campaigns, the geographical context is often very much of the essence: distances, political and ethnic nomenclature, and physical terrain are all significant. Hence readers really need to be told where a given place visited or ravaged by the armies was. Of course we do not need to be told where Lebanon, or Anatolia, are located, but when it comes to Kummuh (to take just one example) we cannot assume that this will be associated with classical Commagene (even if the reader knows where that is), and since the name does not occur in the Index, we are not guided to other mentions of this state (e.g. pp. 64, 98, 193), although it is marked on the maps on pp. 26 and 146. There are other examples, e.g. Zamua, pp. 30, 202, 222, which is not, pace p. 30, in the “Kashiari mountains” but is correctly positioned on the map. Many readers might have found it helpful to be told that Hilakku (p. 138, also on the maps) is later Cilicia. (The Taurus mountains are too far to the south-west on maps p. 26 and 146, and see below for a number of incorrectly normalized toponyms.)

More generally, when narrating events it is understandable that the author should offer his assumptions about, for example, the motivation of the Assyrians or indeed of their enemies, and these may often be perfectly plausible. There are, however, occasions where a statement is presented as an established fact but the reader is inclined to wonder what the supporting evidence could be, especially when it is something for which a textual basis is expected. Some such issues are sketched below. As the author well presents it, the great strength of our knowledge about the Assyrian army is that we have both the inscriptions and the sculptures. Many of the observations in the second part are able to refer the reader to visual examples (although they are unfortunately not sourced to primary publications so that the originals can be consulted; some of the drawings attributed to “author’s collection” e.g. p. 256, are perhaps taken from P.E. Botta. Monument de Ninive [Paris 1849]?), but we are usually unable to check whether any written evidence which might vindicate a statement exists. Where quotations from the texts are given it would be desirable to be told the source. Without a verbatim citation, one is often left wondering whether the original really says what is implied. This leads me to observe that the book does not mention (either in the text or in the Select Bibliography) the standard monumental editions of the Assyrian royal annals by the Toronto/Pennsylvania series edited principally by Grayson and Frame, nor the Helsinki editions of the Assyrian royal correspondence (founding editor Simo Parpola), which between them furnish the great majority of the textual data in an up-dated state, along with valuable commentary. Exploitation and acknowledgement of these two series would have conferred an added measure of authority.

While on the subject of the Bibliography it is worth commenting that it does not list a number of excellent studies which are referred to in the text. These include F. de Backer on shields (though on p. 269 we read that it “is listed in the Bibliography”), D. Noble on chariots (p. 214), D. Stronach on the excavation at Nineveh (p. 184), and others like S. Melville, E. Frahm, W. Mayer. If their contributions are worth acknowledging, it only makes sense to tell the readers where to find them.


Various issues

On p. 216 “On his Nimrud Prism, Sargon tells us that following the fall of Samaria…he incorporated 200 chariots into his ‘Royal Army’.” In his Annals (Sargon 1:15) he mentions just 50; this inconsistency, though not the author’s, could have provided an opportunity to comment on the well known unreliability of numbers claimed in the royal inscriptions. On p. 192 the Itu’aean Aramaeans are described as “archers”, and Gurraeans as “spearmen” (so also on p. 200), but on p. 195 we just meet “auxiliary forces comprising Itu’aean and Gurraean archers”. I am not aware of any grounds for identifying the Gurraeans as spearmen, although it is not implausible: here it would be helpful to have some justification.

On p. 143 “it was accepted by the Assyrians that no large-scale military campaign…could be undertaken without” the Arabs. That may be a reasonable deduction, and may have been the case, but it is can hardly be presented as a fact. Do we really have textual evidence that the Aramaean auxiliaries “also generated a reputation for ferocity among their enemies” (p. 200)? Is the assertion that “Assyrian soldiers always rode stallions” (p. 63) based on the evidence of the reliefs? May it not simply be that when on display in the palace they preferred to be shown so?

When it comes to the Palestine campaigns of Sargon, discussed on p. 117, a distinction is drawn between a blockade and a siege, but this seems a rather grey contrast. The Akkadian terminology hardly backs it up, because the verb esēru means “to enclose”, while the basic meaning of lamû, which is indeed often used for besieging a city, is “to surround” and it is hard to assign them more specific nuances.

It is certainly an exaggeration to say that the land of Katmuhu “lay many hundreds of miles to the north of Suru” (p. 25); Suru lay on the lower Habur, south of Sinjar (where the map on p. 26 correctly has Bit-Halupe), and Katmuhu was perhaps 200 miles or so to the north-east above Cizre on the Tigris. Likewise on p. 181 a shift of “several hundred kilometres” overstates, though this may not be down to the author of the book rather than the authors of the article cited.

As far as Mesopotamia is concerned, it is not usually thought that “the horse arrived in the Near East a few millennia before the first cavalry were ever employed” (p. 219), since it is first mentioned in the texts in the Ur III period. (Sargon does indeed mention his personal cavalry force of 1,000 horse, and if there are mentions of “this figure in other contexts in cuneiform documents” this is one of those instances where chapter and verse would have been very welcome.)


Fresh light

While the available corpus of textual and visual evidence today is little changed from the 19th century, it is good that some new shafts of light are mentioned. The index does list pages on which fresh data and two photos from the provincial site of Ziyaret Tepe can be found, and on pp. 181–3 a special panel is devoted to the possible implications of climate change research spearheaded by Ashish Sinha and others (A. Sinha, G. Kathayat, H. Weiss, H. Li, H. Cheng, J. Reuter, A. W. Schneider, M. Berkelhammer, S.F Adalı, L.D. Stott, and R. L. Edwards. “Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire”, Science Advances 5/11 (2019): DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax6656). If the data from the cave in the Shahrizor (Suleimaniyeh province) definitively attest a serious drought on the Assyrian plains in the later 7th century, the critical point is that Assyria would have suffered disproportionately more than lands to the south (reliant on irrigation agriculture) and to the north (with mountain precipitation) because it depended on adequate rainfall, and hence its Median and Babylonian rivals held an ecological advantage.



The preface describes the author’s intention as “to present to the general reader a more detailed account of the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its army” (sc. than was offered in his previous Osprey volume of 1991). The obvious hope is that readers of a general introduction of this kind may want, in the author’s words “to extend their knowledge” of the Assyrian army and they are referred to the three-volume work of T. Deszo (2012–2018), and advised that “the bibliography lists many other works as further reading” (p. 7). While the various inaccuracies in nomenclature etc. (some of which are listed below) are regrettable, it is more unfortunate that in the absence of chapter and verse referring to the textual sources or to some of the secondary studies it is often difficult to distinguish the author’s opinions and assumptions from more factual information from the primary sources.


Some Corrigenda

Minor corrigenda include “7th century” for “8th century” (p. 110) and “6th century” for “7th century” (e.g. pp. 116, 139, 174). Mis-spellings of toponyms and personal names may not seem very serious, but for those wishing to investigate further it is helpful to have the correct form (or a correct form, since admittedly there is scope for different normalizations) when consulting geographical or prosopographical reference works. Some are no doubt simple typos, but not all. Examples, not exhaustive, are:

Personal Names: Muttalu for Mutallu (p. 260), Saduri for Sarduri (p. 47), Ullalayu for Ululayu (p. 75), Ulusunnu for Ullusunu (p. 93). It is generally good practice to adopt the normalizations of the Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (Helsinki).

Toponyms: Elaya for Ulaya (p. 127), Habruiri (p. 24) and Habrirui (map on p. 26) for Habriuri (correct on p. 15), Halulue for Halule (map p. 146), Karbatallu for Karballatu (=Kerbela!, on p. 226), Lullabi for Lullubi (p. 262), Sideon for Sidon (p. 35), Ullaba for Ulluba (p. 63), Zanmani for Zamani (p. 220), Zikikirtu for Zikirtu (p. 54). It is generally good practice to adopt the normalizations of the Répertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes (Wiesbaden: L. Reichert).

Akkadian words: marsharti for masharti (p. 223); ninden for nindan (p. 97); musarkani for musarkisani (p. 243); petal for pethal (or strictly petḫal) (pp. 193, 195); rab shaq for rab shaqe (p. 193).