Mesopotamian Warfare: Weapons & Tactics

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Have you ever wondered what kinds of weapons the ancient Mesopotamians had? Did they ever engage in psychological warfare? Find out in this lesson on ancient Mesopotamian weapons and warfare tactics.

Ancient Mesopotamian Warfare

If you were an ancient Mesopotamian warrior, what would you be? If you were a general or king, how would you conduct warfare? Like modern armies have various types of soldiers and numerous tactics to try and win a war, the ancient Mesopotamians were no different. Sure they didn't have drones and aircraft carriers, but they had their own kinds of cool weapons and military tactics.

Let's go over some of them in this lesson.

Weapons

The weapons ancient Mesopotamians used were highly varied. For instance, some soldiers used equipment they used for their work as weapons of war. A good example of this would be men who used slings to hunt as part of their job and then use those slings to kill when conscripted into the military.

Foot soldiers could use all sorts of different weapons other than slings. They used spears, maces, axes, adzes, and bows and arrows. They would carry daggers and swords, including sickle-shaped swords. To protect themselves, these foot soldiers would have body armor, round helmets and small round shields.

Charioteers were employed by ancient Mesopotamians as well. The horses that pulled the chariots were highly trained racehorses. The team of people on the chariot consisted of a driver, a bowman, and a shield-bearer. Some chariots had two wheels while others were more like wagons, with four wheels. Like the foot soldiers, the charioteers also wore body armor. Their armor could weigh over 50 pounds!

Tactics

Timing & Conduct

War itself in ancient Mesopotamia was largely a seasonal event. That's because you could get more men to go fight a war during non-agricultural periods than when they had to stay home and cultivate the crops.

The way the armies conducted warfare in ancient Mesopotamia differed from nation to nation. Some had strict rules about when they could engage an enemy, such as when they were ready to fight. Others lauded the ability to launch a surprise attack as a great military tactic.

Psychology

What's really interesting is that part of a military's tactics, so to speak, relied on divination as well. All sorts of diviners may have accompanied troops in order to answer questions like ''will King X and his troops capture city Y''. The diviners would 'read' organs of sacrificed animals in order to get their answers.

As well, propaganda was as much an important tactic in military operations in ancient Mesopotamia as it is today. Armies would publicize the atrocities they committed in order to instill fear in their current or potential enemies. People were impaled on stakes and placed around the city to serve as a warning.

Now if you think all ancient Mesopotamian peoples always turned to large scale war to decide a conflict, you'd be wrong. In fact, some ancient Mesopotamians, like the Assyrians, preferred psychological warfare over any other form of large scale warfare, like siege warfare or battles on a field.

Why? Siege warfare and battles on a field consumed massive resources in terms of money, man, supplies, and time. So the Assyrians first tried to persuade their targets into submitting into a fight. If that didn't work, the Assyrians would attack a smaller feeble city next to the one they wanted to conquer and commit atrocities to scare the larger city into submission. Only if that failed, did they commit mass warfare.

Assyrian troops return after a battle.
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Military Organization

The military units usually consisted of ten, fifty, or one hundred men. Larger units could be formed if need be. The entire military itself could be divided into large contingents of troops, often headed by members of the royal family. The king himself had important officers in charge of the military as well. For example, the field marshal would execute the king's order and even lead the troops into battle if the king did not. He had lots of different types of troops he could lead into battle, including numerous different kinds of foot soldiers, charioteers, cavalry, engineers, and supply personnel.

Military tactics of the day also relied on spies that gathered intelligence about a foreign army, leader, or general environmental conditions so that the King's army knew how best to navigate a land.

Assyrian horsemen chasing defeated Arabs.
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