Akkadian Victory stelae
Mesopotamians are credited by some with developing state-sponsored warfare. The kingdoms of ancient Mesopotamia and the territory they occupied in present-day Iraq were vulnerable to attacks from invaders because the Tigris and Euphrates area has few natural boundaries.

Egypt flourished under the leadership of one ruler and was relatively peaceful while Mesopotamia was often divided into several kingdoms and city-states and was racked by wars. This is partly explained by geography. Mesopotamian kingdoms were spread out between two rivers and its many tributaries, and could be easily attacked from any direction, while ancient Egypt was located primarily within one river valley and was removed from the outside world by deserts. Attacks usually only came from the northeast---and to a lesser extent in the south---which meant defenses could be concentrated there. The fact that Mesopotamia was composed of many different kingdoms and city-states that rose, dominated, declined and battled each other also explains why it was never produced a single unified tradition of culture like Egypt.

Armed conflict occurred with some regularity in Mesopotamia. Warfare tended to be a spring time activity. Horse and horse-like animals were first used in battle there. Weapons included chariots (Assyrians), swords, maces and spears made from iron and bronze, and siegecraft.

Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.

Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site ; British Museum ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Early Bows and Arrows

Assyrian archers
The oldest indication for archery in Europe comes from the Stellmoor in the Ahrensburg valley north of Hamburg, Germany and date from the late Paleolithic about 9000-8000 BC. The arrows were made of pine and consisted of a mainshaft and a 15-20 centimetre (6-8 inches) long foreshaft with a flint point. There are no known definite earlier bows or arrows, but stone points which may have been arrowheads were made in Africa by about 60,000 years ago. By 16,000 B.C. flint points were being bound by sinews to split shafts. Fletching was being practiced, with feathers glued and bound to shafts. [Source: Wikipedia]

The first actual bow fragments are the Stellmoor bows from northern Germany. They were dated to about 8,000 B.C. but were destroyed in Hamburg during the Second World War. They were destroyed before Carbon 14 dating was invented and their age was attributed by archaeological association. [Ibid]

The second oldest bow fragments are the elm Holmegaard bows from Denmark which were dated to 6,000 B.C. In the 1940s, two bows were found in the Holmegård swamp in Denmark. The Holmegaard bows are made of elm and have flat arms and a D-shaped midsection. The center section is biconvex. The complete bow is 1.50 m (5 ft) long. Bows of Holmegaard-type were in use until the Bronze Age; the convexity of the midsection has decreased with time. High performance wooden bows are currently made following the Holmegaard design. [Ibid]

Around 3,300 B.C. Otzi was shot and killed by an arrow shot through the lung near the present-day border between Austria and Italy. Among his preserved possessions were bone and flint tipped arrows and an unfinished yew longbow 1.82 m (72 in) tall. See Otzi, the Iceman

Mesolithic pointed shafts have been found in England, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. They were often rather long (up to 120 cm 4 ft) and made of European hazel (Corylus avellana), wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) and other small woody shoots. Some still have flint arrow-heads preserved; others have blunt wooden ends for hunting birds and small game. The ends show traces of fletching, which was fastened on with birch-tar. [Ibid]

Bows and arrows have been present in Egyptian culture since its predynastic origins. The "Nine Bows" symbolize the various peoples that had been ruled over by the pharaoh since Egypt was united. In the Levant, artifacts which may be arrow-shaft straighteners are known from the Natufian culture, (10,800-8,300 B.C) onwards. Classical civilizations, notably the Persians, Parthians, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese fielded large numbers of archers in their armies. Arrows were destructive against massed formations, and the use of archers often proved decisive. The Sanskrit term for archery, dhanurveda, came to refer to martial arts in general. [Ibid]

Composite Bow

Akkadian victory stele
The composite bow has been a formidable weapon for over 4,000 years. Described by the Sumerians in the third millennia B.C. and favored by steppe horsemen, the early versions of these weapons were made of slender strips of wood with elastic animal tendons glued to the outside and compressible animal horn glued on the inside. [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Tendons are strongest when they are stretched, and bone and horn are strongest when compressed. Early glues were made from boiled cattle tendons and fish skin and were applied in very precise and controlled manner; and sometimes they took a year to dry properly. [Ibid]

Advanced bows that appeared centuries after the first composite bows appeared were made of pieces of wood laminated together and steamed into a curve, then bent into a circle opposite the direction it was going to be strung. Steamed animal horn was glued onto the "back," to make it hold its position. When the bow had "cured" a great amount of strength was required to bend it back to be strung. The finished product was nearly a hundred times stronger than a bow made from a sapling. [Ibid]

Long bows, used by medieval Europeans, employed the same principles of the composite bow but used heart and sap wood instead of tendons and horn. Long bows were just as powerful as composite bows but their large size and long arrows made them impractical to use from a horse. Both weapons could easily shoot an arrow over 300 years and piece armor at 100 yards. An advantage of the composite bow is that an archer could carry many more of the smaller arrows.

Copper Age and Bronze Age Weapons

Assyrian flaying of rebels
Some natural copper contains tin. During the forth millennium in present-day Turkey, Iran and Thailand man learned that these metals could be melted and fashioned into a metal---bronze---that was stronger than copper, which had limited use in warfare because copper armor was easily penetrated and copper blades dulled quickly. Bronze shared these limitations to a lesser degree, a problem that was rectified until the utilization of iron which is stronger and keeps a sharp edge better than bronze, but has a much higher melting point. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In Copper Age Middle East Period people living primarily in what is now southern Israel fashioned axes, adzes and mace heads, from coppers. In 1993, archaeologists found a skeleton of a Copper Age warrior in a cave near Jericho. The skeleton was found in a reed mat and linen ocher-died shroud (probably woven by several people with a ground loom) along with a wooden bowl, leather sandals, a long flint blade, a walking stick and a bow with tips shaped like a ram's horns. The warrior’s leg bone showed a healed fracture.

The Bronze Age lasted from about 4,000 B.C. to 1,200 B.C. During this period everything from weapons to agricultural tools to hairpins was made with bronze (a copper-tin alloy). Weapons and tools made from bronze replaced crude implements of stone, wood, bone, and copper. Bronze knives are considerable sharper than copper ones. Bronze is much stronger than copper. It is credited with making war as we know it today possible. Bronze sword, bronze shield and bronze armored chariots gave those who had it a military advantage over those who didn't have it.

Scientists believe, the heat required to melt copper and tin into bronze was created by fires in enclosed ovens outfitted with tubes that men blew into to stoke the fire. Before the metals were placed in the fire, they were crushed with stone pestles and then mixed with arsenic to lower the melting temperature. Bronze weapons were fashioned by pouring the molten mixture (approximately three parts copper and one part tin) into stone molds.

Oldest Example of Warfare at Tell Hamoukar?

Assyrian guardian spirits
The oldest known example of large scale warfare is from a fierce battle that took place at Tell Hamoukar around 3500 B.C. Evidence of intense fighting include collapsed mud walls that had undergone heavy bombardment; the presence of 1,200 oval-sapped “bullets” flung from slings and 120 large round balls. Graves held skeletons of likely battle victims. Reichel told the New York Times the clash appeared to have been a swift, rapid attack: “buildings collapse, burning out of control, burying everything in them under a vast pile of rubble.”

No one knows who the attacker of Tell Hamoukar was but circumstantial evidence points to Mesopotamia cultures to the south. The battle may have been between northern and southern Near Eastern cultures when the two cultures were relative equally, with the victory by the south giving them an edge and paving the way for them to dominate the region. Large amount of Uruk pottery was found on layers just above the battle. Reichel told the New York Times,”If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets, they certainly benefitted from it. They are all over this place right after its destruction.”

Discoveries at Tell Hamoukar have changed thinking about the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia. It was previously though that civilization developed in Sumerian cities like Ur and Uruk and radiated outward in the form of trade, conquest and colonization. But findings in Tell Hamoukar show that many indicators of civilization were present in northern places like Tell Hamoukar as well as in Mesopotamia and around 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. the two placed were pretty equal.

Early Defenses

Assyrian prisoners
Much is made about medieval castles as a defensive vehicle, but the technoloy they utilized---the moat, the fortress wall and observation towers---have been around since Jericho was established in 7000 BC. The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians used siege devises---battering rams, scaling ladders, siege towers, mineshafts) between 2500 and 2000 BC. Some of the battering rams were mounted on wheels and had roofs to shield soldiers from arrows. The difference between siege towers and scaling ladders in that former resembled a protected staircase; mineshafts were built under walls to undermine their foundation and makes the wall collapse. There were also siege ramps and siege engines. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Fortress were usually made with the materials at the hand. The walled city of Catalhoyuk Hakat (7500 B.C). in Turkey and early Chinese fortresses were made of packed earth. The main purpose of a moat was not to stop attackers from climbing the wall but rather to keep them collapsing the base of the wall by mining underneath it.

Pre-Biblical Jericho had an elaborate system of walls, towers and moats in 7,500 B.C. The circular wall that surrounded the settlement had a circumference of 700 feet and was10-feet-thick and 13-feet-high. The wall in turn was surrounded by 30-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep moat. Thirty-foot-high stone observation tower required thousands of man hours to build. The technology used to build them was virtually the same as those used in medieval castles. The original walls of Jericho appear to have been built for flood control rather defensive purposes. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The Greeks introduced catapults in the forth century BC. These primitive projectile throwers hurled stones and other object with torsion springs or counterweight (that operated a bit like a fat kid on one end of seesaw hurling another kid into the air). Catapults were generally ineffective as fortress breaking device because they were difficult to aim and didn't launch objects with much force. After gunpowder was introduced, cannons could blast walls in a particular place and the cannon balls traveled with a flat powerful trajectory. [Ibid]

20120208-Standard_of_Ur_-_War 1.jpg
Standard of Ur, War

Seizing a fortress was difficult. An army of hundreds inside a castle or strongholds could easily hold off thousands of attackers. The main assault strategy was to attack with a large number of men, hoping to spread the defenses thin and take advantage of a weak point. This strategy rarely worked and usually ended with a massive amount of casualties for the attackers. The most effective means of seizing a castle was bribing somebody on the inside to let you in, exploiting a forgotten latrine tunnel, making a surprise attack or setting up a position outside the castle and starving the defenders out. Most castles had huge stores of food (enough to last several hundred men at least a year) and often it was the attackers who ran out of food first. [Ibid]

Castles could be built relatively quickly. As time went on, fortification advances including the construction of inner and outer walls; towers outside the walls which gave defenders more positions to shoot from; maintain strongholds built outside the walls to defend vulnerable points like gates; elevated fighting platforms behind the walls which defenders could fire weapons from; battlements which were sort of like shields above walls. Advanced artillery fortifications of the 16th to 18th century had multi-level moats to trap attackers if they attempted to scale the walls, plus they were shaped like snowflakes or stars which gave the defenders all shorts of angles to shoot at their attackers. [Ibid]

20120208-Standard_of_Ur_-_War 3.jpg

Sumerian Warfare

There was virtually no evidence of warmaking in the early years of Sumer. Between 3100 B.C. and 2300 B.C. warfare started to play a bigger role in city-state relations as priest-kings were replaced by warlords with armies armed with lance and shields. Military tactics were developed, weapons started utilizing metals and the first "battles" begun taking place.

There is evidence that the king of Uruk went on military campaigns to bring back cedar wood from the mountains as early as early as 2700 B.C. and by 2284 B.C. Sumerian kings were fighting wars with neighboring cities and peoples like the Semites. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The earliest evidence of state-sponsored warfare is an inscribed stele, dated to 2500 B.C., found at Lagash (also known as Telloh or Ginsu). It described a conflict between Lagash and Umma for irrigation rights and was settled in a battle in which war wagons were used. The Standard of Ur, a Sumerian object dated to around 2500 B.C. included images of warfare with wheeled vehicles and warriors. The vehicles looked more like transport vehicles than a fighting ones.

20120208-Standard_of_Ur_-_War 4.jpg
Standard of Ur, War

Sumerian Warfare Tactics, Prisoners and Spies

Around 2500 B.C. soldiers started wearing metal helmets and organizing themselves into columns with a six man front. They wore cloaks and tunics that appeared to be strengthened with metal, and used four-wheeled carts driven by four horses (prototypes of armor and chariots). The even employed "death pits" in which enemies where lured into battlefield equivalents of holes with trapdoors where they picked off like proverbial sitting ducks. [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The primary weapons were lances and shields. By the middle of the second millennium the Sumerians had developed the sophisticated composite bow and utilized method of siege craft (breaching and scaling) to attack fortresses. The results could sometimes be quite bloody. A 4500-year-old inscription from Lagash describes piles of bodies with as many as a thousand enemy corpses. The Mesopotamians also used psychological warfare to defeat their enemies. [Ibid]

Prisoners of war were not used as slaves but were deported to differents part of the kingdom. Sometimes they were sacrificed in temples. It seems only men were killed in battles and sieges and in sacrificial rites not women or children. Historian Ignace Gelb has argued that this was so because it was "relatively easy to exert control over foreign women and children" and "the state apparatus was still not strong enough to control masses of unruly male captives." As the power of the state increased males prisoners were "marked and branded" and "freed and resettled" or used as mercenaries or bodyguards to the king.

20120208-Standard_of_Ur_-_War 5.jpg
Standard of Ur, War

Spies were called scouts, or eyes. They were often employed to check out what was going on in rival kingdoms. The following is an Akkadian text from one "brother" king to another, complaining he had released the scouts according to a deal that was made but had not been paid the ransom as promised: "To Til-abnu: thus says Jakun-Asar your "brother” previously about the scout's release you wrote to me. As for the scouts which came in my power I have released. That I have indeed released (them) you know, still you have not sent the money for ransom. Every since I began releasing your scouts, you have consistently not provided the money for ransom. I here---and you there---should (both) release!"

Assyrian Warfare

For the Assyrians war was almost a business and they profited mightily from the rewards of conquest. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around 1200 B.C. (After the Hittites but before the Egyptians) with deadly results. The also effectively employed war chariots. They were not the first to do this but they were the first to organize them into a cavalry.

The Assyrians established the largest army up to that time in the Mediterranean. Their armies had professional soldiers, infantry, charioteers, mounted archers, fast horses, engineers and wagoners. The most important unit was the royal bodyguard, perhaps the first regular army. The other units were amassed as need arose. In battles the Assyrians used bows, slings, iron swords and lances, battering rams, oil firebombs, but relied on iron javelins.


The Assyrians according to some scholars possessed the first long-range armies. They utilized supply depots, a sophisticated road network, transport columns, and bridging trains to campaigns as far away as 300 miles from their home base and moved as rapidly as armies during World War I (30 miles a day). To get across rivers they used boats made from inflated animals skins, and, while campaigning, they carried few supplies, living instead off of food captured in enemy territory. Artwork depicts Assyrian soldiers destroying buildings with pickaxes and crowbars and then, carrying off booty. [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Towns that refused to pay tribute were sacked. According to one tablet one town was “crushed like a clay pot” and the population and leaders were made prisoners “like a herd of sheep” as the Assyrian army carried away booty.

Assyrian Chariots

The Assyrians employed sophisticated siege tactics, and formed corps ancillary to the army's main fighting force but they were primarily a chariot-based force.

Fighting chariots often accommodated two people---one rider and one archer. Early charioteers often swept down out of the mountains, encircled their flat-footed and unarmored foes, and picked them off from 100 or 200 yards away with arrows fired from sophisticated bows.

Assyrian Attack on a Town

The ruthless, formidable and well organized Assyrians were perhaps the greatest charioteers of the ancient world. They dominated the ancient world from the 9th century to 7th century B.C. , when they were replaced by the Persians, a people that used chariots to create a huge empire that stretched from Greece to India.

Chariots ruled the world until foot soldiers in Alexander the Great's army learned to withstand chariot advances by aiming their weapons at the horses first: wearing arrow-proof armor and shields; and organizing themselves into tight chariot-proof ranks.

Most of what is known about Assyrian chariots has been gleaned from alabaster reliefs now in the British Museum. Their chariots come in a lightweight two-horse model and a heavier four-horse version. They appear to have been made from wood and rawhide.

Assyrian Brutality

Lord Byron wrote that Assyrians went after their neighbors like a “wolf in the fold.” They forced captives to strip naked to show subservience to their captors and slaughtered those who dared to oppose them. Bas-reliefs from the Chaldean campaign (7th century B.C.) show Assyrian victors making piles of heads of their victims, using battering rams and impaling captives.

Stone friezes at Nimrud and Ninevah show war chariots crushing enemy soldiers, women and children and an Assyrian king and queen enjoying drinks in a garden decorated with the head of an enemy leader dangling from a tree.

After one of his victories Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal bragged, "I cut off their heads; I burned them with fire; a pile of living men and of heads over against the city gate I set up; men I impaled on stakes; the city I destroyed...I turned it into mounds and ruin heaps; the young men and maidens I burned." Another Assyrian king boasted in 691 BC: "I cut their throats like sheep...My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of battle chariots were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.”


The Assyrians reserved their wrath for the people who opposed them. Those that joined their empire were treated well. Among those that resisted the men were killed and the women and children was abducted and resettled in foreign land. The women were encouraged to take new husbands. Cuneiform tables reveal that refugees were given food, shoes, oil and clothes.

The art historian John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art believes the Assyrian were no more warlike and brutal than other people of their time they were just better at it. He says that the brutal images are found mostly in throne room of Ashurnasirpal’s palace and were intended to intimidate visiting dignitaries. The rooms occupied by kings and queen had no such art. The adornments found there seemed to be there to ward off evil spirits.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.