Soldier's Lives - Sumer and Akkad 3500BC to 2200BCE



Modern Iraq is the site of ancient Sumer and Akkad, two city-states that produced the most sophisticated armies of the Early Bronze Age. The Greeks called the area Mesopotamia, literally, “the land between the two rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates valley. In the Bible the area is called Shumer, the original Sumerian word for the southern part of Iraq, the site of Sumer itself and its capital of Ur. It was in ancient Sumer that the first detailed records of military campaigns written on clay or carved in stone appeared. No society of the Early and Middle Bronze ages was more advanced in the design and application of military technology and technique than Sumer, a legacy it sustained for 2,000 years before bequeathing it to the rest of the Near East. The period of interest for the military historian seeking to understand the evolution of ancient armies is the period from 3000 to 2334 BCE, the date that Sargon the Great united all of Sumer into a single state and changed its governmental and military organization.

The almost constant warfare among the Sumerian city-states for 2,000 years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond any similar development found elsewhere in the Near East at that time. The first Sumerian war for which there is detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Ummain 2525 BCE. In this conflict Eannatum of Lagash defeated the king of Umma. The importance of this war to the military historian lies in a commemorative stele that Eannatum erected to celebrate his victory. This stele is called the “Stele of Vultures” for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the flesh of the corpses as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial portrayal of war in the Sumerian period and portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears as they trample their enemies underfoot. The king, with a socket axe in hand, rides in a chariot drawn by four onagers (wild asses). In a lower panel Eannatum holds a sickle sword.

Area of Sumerian Influence



The stele indicates that Sumerian troops fought in phalanx formation, organized six files deep with an eight-man front, a formation similar to that used later in Archaic Greece. The Sumerians used both the decimal and sexagesimal system based on multiples of six (they were the first to divide an hour into sixty minutes), and most probably, the organization of the army was based on multiples of 6, 60, 120, and so on. Fighting in phalanx required discipline and training, permitting the conclusion that the soldiers portrayed on the stele were probably professionals. Another indication is the presence of titles associated with military command.

Even in times of peace, temple estate employees we reorganized into groups commanded or supervised by ugula ( commanders), and nu.banda (captains). The Sumerians seemed to have kept the same organization used for corvée labor for use in the military. The word for both laborers and soldiers was erin, which originally meant yoke or neck stock, perhaps implying the nature of such service. Other explicitly military titles were shub.lugal, or “king’s retainer,” and aga.ush, which literally means “follower.” The aga.ush were really erin who regularly served as soldiers rather than as laborers in fulfilling their obligations as royal or temple tenants. Military units were of regular size and were designated by the rank of their commander with a numerical suffix indicating size. Thus ugala.nam10 meant a unit of ten run by a commander. The Stele of Vultures seems to provide evidence of the world’s first standing professional army.


The first evidence of soldiers wearing helmets is also provided on the stele. From the bodies of soldiers found in the Death Pits of Ur dating from 2500 BCE. we know that these helmets were made of copper and probably were worn with a leather cap underneath. Since bronze manufacturing technology was already known in Sumer at this time, the use of copper to make helmets remains a mystery. The appearance of the helmet marks the first defensive response to the killing power of an important offensive weapon: the mace. In Sumer the use of a well-crafted helmet indicates a major development in military technology which was so effective that it drove the mace from the battlefield. The first representation of the military application of the wheel is depicted on the stele and shows Eannatum riding in a chariot. The Sumerian invention of the chariot has to be ranked among the major military innovations in history, although its true exploitation as a vehicle of war had to await the Mitanni.

The Sumerian chariot was usually a four wheeled vehicle, although there are examples of the two-wheeled variety in other records. It carried a crew of two and required four onagers to pull it. The Sumerian “chariot” is more accurately called a “battle car” since it lacked many of the refinements that later made it an effective fighting vehicle. Sumerians also used the “straddle car,” a cabless platform pulled by onagers where the driver maintained his balance by straddling the car. One text indicates that the ruler of the state of Umma had an elite unit comprising sixty vehicles. This is the only evidence we have of the number of battle cars that could be mustered by one state. But even if each state could field only sixty such vehicles, a powerful ruler, such as Lugalzagesi, who controlled all southern Sumer, could field over 600 battle cars in a major engagement by drawing on his vassal states. The Sumerians can also be credited with inventing the rein ring for use with the chariot in order to provide the driver some control over the onagers. At this early stage of its development, however, the chariot probably would not have been a major offensive weapon because of its size, weight, instability, and lack of manoeuvrability. The placement of the axle in the middle or front of the carrying platform made the vehicle heavy and unstable at speed. In all likelihood it was not produced for war in quantity, and its use was limited to high-ranking nobles in the king’s household.

Sumerian charioteers were armed with javelins and axes, and the absence of the bow in early Sumerian warfare suggests that the chariot was used to deliver shock to opposing infantry formations. In this role the chariot was used as transport for mounted heavy infantry. The Sumerian chariot remained the prototype for Near Eastern armies for almost 1,000 years. In the eighteenth century BCE, various Mesopotamian states introduced the horse-drawn chariot, a development that greatly increased the vehicle’s military capability. At the same time the appearance of the bit improved manoeuvrability and control of the animal teams at higher speeds. Over time, the drivers, shield bearers, archers, and spearmen carried into battle by chariots became the elite fighting corps of the ancient world.

The lower palette of the Stele of Vultures shows the king holding a sickle sword, the weapon that became the primary infantry weapon of the Egyptian and biblical armies at a much later date. The version that appears on the stele was much shorter than the version that evolved later and appears very much like an agricultural sickle, which could well have been the prototype for the weapon. The sickle sword appears on two other independent renderings of the period, suggesting strongly that it was the Sumerians who invented this important weapon sometime around 2500 BCE.

The stele also shows Eannatum’s soldiers wearing armored cloaks. Each soldier’s cloak is secured around the neck and may have been made of wool cloth or, more probably, thin leather. At various places on the cloak were sewn metal disks with raised centres or spines, like the boss on a shield. It is not possible to determine if these disks were made from copper or bronze, but a spined plate of bronze was certainly within the capacity of Sumerian metal technology. Although somewhat primitive in application, the cloak on the stele is the first representation of body armor in history. Other surviving archaeological sources show portrayals of important military innovations appearing for the first time in ancient Sumer.

The king of Ur, for example, appears on a carved conch plate armed with a socket axe. The development of the bronze socket axe remains one of Sumer’s major military innovations. The use of the cast bronze axe socket that slipped over the end of the shaft and was affixed with rivets permitted a much stronger attachment of the blade to the shaft. It is likely that the need for a stronger axe arose in response to the development of body armor that made the cutting axe less effective. The portrayals of Sumerian axes by2500 BCE clearly show a change in design. The most significant change was a narrowing of the blade itself to reduce the impact area and to bring the blade to more of a point to concentrate the force of the blow. This development marks the appearance of the penetrating axe, whose narrow blade and strong socket made it capable of piercing bronze plate armor. The result was one of the most devastating weapons of the ancient world, a weapon that remained in use for 2,000 years.


Sophisticated weaponry and tactics require some form of larger social organization and impetus to give them shape and direction if they are to be effective in war. We know very little about the military organization of Sumer in the third millennium BCE. We can judge from the Tablets of Shuruppak that the typical Sumerian city-state of this period comprised about 1,800 square miles in area, including its lands and fields. This area could sustain a population of between 30,000 and 35,000 people. The tablets record a force of between 600 and 700 soldiers serving as the king’s bodyguard, the corps of a professional army, but a population of this size could easily support an army of regular and reserve forces of between 4,000 and 5,000 men at full mobilization. It is highly likely that some form of military conscription existed, at least during times of emergency. Two hundred years after Eannatum’s death, King Lugalzagasi of Umma succeeded in establishing his influence over all Sumer, although there is no evidence that he introduced any significant changes.

Twenty-four years later, the empire of Lugalzagasi was destroyed by the armies of a Semitic prince from the northern city of Akkad, Sargon the Great (2325–? BCE). All Sumer was now united under the control of the Akkadian king. Sargon bequeathed to the world the prototype of the military dictatorship. By force of arms Sargon conquered all the Sumerian city-states and the entire Tigris-Euphrates valley, bringing into being an empire that stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf and, perhaps, even to the Mediterranean. In his fifty-year reign Sargon fought no fewer than thirty-four wars. One account suggests that his army numbered 5,400 men, soldiers called gurush in Akkadian. If that account is correct, Sargon’s army would have been the largest standing army of the period. That Sargon’s army would have been composed of professionals seems obvious in light of the almost constant state of war that characterized his reign.

As in Sumer, military units appear to have been organized on the sexagesimal system. Sargon’s army comprised nine battalions of 600 men, each commanded by a gir.nita, or “colonel.”Other ranks of officer included the, literally, “he of two staffs of office,” a title which indicated that this officer commanded two or more units of sixty. Below this rank were the nu.banda and ugala, ranks unchanged since Sumerian times. Even if they had begun as conscripts, within a short time Sargon’s soldiers would have become battle-experienced veterans. Equipping an army of this size required a high degree of military organization to run the weapons and logistics functions, to say nothing of the routine administration that was characteristic of a literate people who kept prodigious records. We know nothing definitive about these arrangements.

An Akkadian innovation introduced by Sargon was the niskum, a class of soldiers probably equivalent to the old aga-ush lugai, or “royal soldiers.” The niskum held plots of land by favor of the king and received allotments of fish and salt every three months. The idea was to create a corps of loyal military professionals along the later model of Republican Rome. Thutmose I of Egypt, too, introduced a similar system as a way of producing a caste of families who held their land as long as they continued to provide a son for the officer corps. The Akkadian system worked to provide significant numbers of loyal, trained soldiers who could be used in war or to suppress local revolts. Along with the professionals, militia, and these royal soldiers, the army of Sargon contained light troops or skirmishers called nim soldiers. Nim literally means “flies,” a name which suggests the employment of these troops in spread formation accompanied by rapid movement.

During the Sargon period the Sumerians/Akkadians contributed yet another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. The introduction of this lethal and revolutionary weapon may have occurred during the reign of Naram Sin (2254–2218 BCE), Sargon’s grandson. Like his grandfather, Naram Sin fought continuous wars of conquest against foreign enemies. His victory over Lullubi is commemorated in a rock sculpture that shows Naram Sin armed with a composite bow. This sculpture marks the first appearance of the composite bow in history and strongly suggests that it was of Sumerian/Akkadian origin. The fact that the bow appears in the hand of the warrior king himself suggests that it was a major weapon of the time, even though there is no surviving evidence that the Sumerian army had previously used even the simple bow. The composite bow was a major military innovation. While the simple bow could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it would not penetrate even simple leather armor at these ranges.

The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of the simple bow, could easily penetrate leather armor and, perhaps, even the early prototypes of bronze armor that were emerging at this time. In the hands of even untrained peasant militia the composite bow could bring the enemy under a hail of arrows from twice the distance of the simple bow. So important was this weapon that it became a basic implement of war of all armies of the Near East for the next 1,500 years. The use of battle cars seems to have declined considerably during the Akkadian period. Any number of reasons suggest themselves. Such vehicles were very expensive. In Sumer a powerful king could commandeer the cars of his vassals, which they maintained at their expense. But with the centralization of political authority under Sargon these vassals disappeared, making the cost of these cars a royal expense.

The professionalization of the army resulted in an infantry-heavy force which under most circumstances would have required few battle cars beyond those needed to transport the king and his generals. Finally, the Akkadian kings fought wars far from home in the mountains of Elam and against the Guti farther north. These were lightly armed, highly mobile enemies fighting in mountains and heavily wooded glens. The chariot had come into being to fight wars between rival city-states on relatively even terrain. Their use in rough terrain at considerable distances from home probably revealed the battle car’s obvious deficiencies under these conditions, leading to a decline in its military usefulness. They seem to have remained in use by couriers and messengers at least within the imperial borders, where they travelled regular routes known as chariot roads.


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