The Art of Assyrian Siegecraft
As the earliest known professional standing army, the Assyrians made significant contributions to military tactics and technologies in the ancient world.
Known to be ingenious for their military tactics and infamous for the lack of mercy shown to their enemies, the Assyrian army was the most effective military force in antiquity until the empire’s demise in 612 BCE. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was unique as it was the first empire in Mesopotamia to develop iron weapons while expanding its territory. Their army was also revolutionary as it consisted of highly trained groups of charioteers as well as elite cavalrymen, archers, infantry, and siege masters. Additionally, the Assyrians were the first to have a permanent corps of engineers in their army that applied iron in new ways, such as inventing an iron-headed battering ram, which allowed the Assyrians to have a great advantage over the opposition.
Assyrian siege tactics seem to have set the foundations for siege warfare for the Macedonians and future armies, who merely developed on models created centuries before. Although sieges are no longer conducted today, this provides a sense of how innovative Assyrian military tactics were during that period of time. Here are the top offensive tactics the Assyrians used to besiege enemy cities:
Earthen ramps were built by Assyrian engineers leading to the weakest points in the walls of the enemy city. The besieging army would push the battering rams or siege towers up the ramp to attack the city. They also took scaling ladders up the ramps, setting them against the walls for the soldiers to ascend. If enough soldiers got over the wall, they’d fight to the gate and open it. Otherwise, they could breach a wall using the battering rams. The engineers building the ramps were likely under the protection of the Assyrian archers and slingers.
The Assyrians were the first to use battering rams to break down the gates of enemy cities, making them vulnerable. If the walls were breached, the Assyrian infantry behind the rams would pour into the enemy city, under cover of archers and slingers. Bows and arrows were the prime weapons used by the Assyrians as it allowed them to attack their enemies from a distance. The archers were accompanied by a shield-bearer who provided protection as the archer discharged his arrow.
Towers constructed out of wood allowed Assyrian infantrymen to get over the walls of enemy cities. Within the tower were archers whose duty was to pick off any enemy threats. On top of the tower, the Assyrians placed hoses that poured water over the entire wooden structure to prevent it from catching fire.
The ingenuity of the Assyrians gave them a definite upper hand on the battlefield. The Assyrians’ mastery of siege warfare, as well as their use of mixed military forces and military technologies, allowed the Assyrian army to become the most powerful and effective army of its time. Around 600 BCE, the empire became too large to sustain and fell. Even after its fall, the empire’s legacy lived on; its highly effective military tactics and innovations were used to shape professional armies for thousands of years afterward.
“Ancient Siege Warfare.” History on the Net, June 2017, www.historyonthenet.com/ancient
Haidar, Diana. Assyrian Iron Working Technology and Civilization. 12 May 2011.
Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Warfare: From Clubs to Catapults. Minneapolis, Runestone Press, 2000.