At its height between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C., the Assyrian army was a ruthlessly efficient fighting machine. Located in the north of modern-day Iraq, Assyria was constantly at war, either with its great rival Babylon in the south, or with one of the smaller surrounding nations. Compared to their adversaries, the Assyrian soldiers were better trained, better organized and better equipped: Their weapons were among the deadliest the world had ever seen.
At a time when most cultures still made their weapons from bronze, even the lowliest Assyrian infantryman was armed with iron weapons that were sharper, stronger and lighter than their bronze counterparts. The basic infantry weapon was the spear, consisting of a wooden shaft tipped with a lethal iron spearhead. For close combat, the men also carried short iron swords and daggers. Protection was provided by a variety of shield types, including tall ones made from leather or plaited reeds, and smaller circular ones consisting of a wooden disk faced with a thin layer of bronze.
Slings and Arrows
Some Assyrian archers were armed with simple bows made of wood, while others used composite bows, reinforced with horn and animal sinew, that had a range of up to 700 yards. Both types of bow fired arrows tipped with iron. During sieges, flaming arrows were also used. Another simple but deadly weapon was the sling, capable of throwing stones the size of a billiard ball up to a quarter of a mile. Sling stones found among the ruins of Lachish, a Judean city destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 B.C., can be seen today in the British Museum in London.
Cavalry Weapons and Chariots
Horse-mounted cavalrymen were usually armed with long wooden lances, and sometimes also with a bow and arrow. Because the latter were difficult to fire from a moving horse, the men usually operated in pairs, with one firing while the other controlled both horses. Assyrian chariots had two metal-rimmed wheels, and were drawn by up to four horses. Each chariot carried two or three archers in addition to the driver. Chariots were a sign of power and prestige, and Assyrian kings are often depicted riding in them as they lead their troops into battle.
Assyrian reliefs of their sack of Lachish in the British Museum give a vivid picture of the way the Assyrians conducted a siege. The main offensive weapon was the battering ram. While not as sophisticated as the siege engines of the Roman and medieval periods, the Assyrian weapon was effective against the relatively weak defensive structures of the time. It consisted of a large wooden frame on four wheels, covered with damp leather to protect it from fire, and armed with a pair of huge "spears" -- essentially tree trunks tipped with iron points. In addition to the muscle power needed to operate it, each battering ram was supported by one or more defensive archers.
- The Ancient Assyrians: Mark Healy (Osprey Publishing, 1991)
- The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare: Trevor N. Dupuy (Jane's Publishing, 1982)
- Through the British Museum with the Bible: Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson (Day One Publications, 2008)
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images