A relief sculpture of ancient Assyrian art depicting battle.
A relief sculpture of ancient Assyrian art depicting battle.

Ancient Assyria was originally a merchant kingdom, but began to expand through military conquest under King Shalmaneser I, who reigned from 1273 to 1244 B.C. Assyrian power waxed and waned, but at the height of their success in 671 B.C. they ruled the entire Middle East from Iraq to Egypt. The Assyrian military included charioteers, horse cavalry and both light and heavy infantry. The Assyrians also had sophisticated types of siege craft.

Assyrian Chariots

The early Assyrian military relied heavily on the use of chariots, each of which carried a driver, a shield bearer and a warrior with lance and bow. The Assyrian chariot was especially maneuverable because the axle was placed in the back of the chariot. Thanks to the shield bearer, the driver could concentrate exclusively on maneuver while the warrior used his lance or bow to attack the enemy. Early Assyrian armies may have used the chariot for frontal charges, but relief scenes of Assyrian battles from the palaces at Nineveh show the charioteers on the flanks.

Assyrian Cavalry

Under King Tukulti-Ninerta II, who reigned from 890 to 884 B.C., the Assyrian military created the first true cavalry units, according to "Philosophers of War" by Lee Eysturlid and Daniel Coetzee. At first, the Assyrians tried to pattern their cavalry units on their chariot units by pairing archers with drivers. The driver would control both his own horse and the archer's horse at the same time so the archer could concentrate on shooting. Under Shalmaneser III, who reigned from 858 to 824 B.C., the Assyrians abandoned this system and began arming each cavalryman with a spear, a powerful composite bow and a short sword. Because the stirrup hadn't been invented yet, Assyrian cavalrymen couldn't overrun infantry formations like medieval knights. Instead, they performed reconnaissance or waited on the flanks with the charioteers to pursue the enemy after the infantry broke their line.

Assyrian Infantry

The Assyrian infantry included two distinct types of soldier who worked closely together on the battlefield, according to Garrett G. Fagan in "New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare." Heavy infantry troops wore armor and carried large shields and spears, supported by light infantry soldiers armed with bows. Fagan suggests that the archers may have been paired up with the spear carriers so that each individual spear carrier was supported by his own archer. Alternatively, the archers might have formed the second rank behind the spear carriers. Either way, the combined use of heavy infantry and light infantry gave Assyrian forces flexibility on the battlefield, a huge advantage against their enemies. Once the infantry broke through the enemy lines, the chariots and cavalry could quickly envelop the fleeing foe, inflicting heavy casualties and spreading "awesome terror across the land," in the words of one ancient inscription.

Assyrian Siege Craft

The Assyrians had a number of tactics for taking enemy cities by siege, including the use of battering rams, siege towers, and teams of sappers digging under the enemy walls to make them collapse. Firefighting teams used hoses to keep the siege engines from being set afire by the defenders, and archers covered the Assyrian infantry so it could put up ladders and storm the city. Once the Assyrians captured an enemy city, they often deported the population to discourage future resistance. Between 900 and 612 B.C., the Assyrians deported up to five million people, according "Ground Warfare - An International Encyclopedia."