The Armies of Sumer and Akkad, 3500 to 2200 BC

The area of present-day Iraq is the site of ancient Sumer and Akkad, two city-states that produced the most sophisticated armies of the Bronze Age. The Greeks called the area Mesopotamia, literally the "land between the two rivers," a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates basin. In the Bible, the area is called Shumer , the original Sumerian word for the southern part of Iraq, the site of Sumer with its capital at the city of Ur. If the river is followed northward from Sumer for about 200 miles, the site of ancient Akkad can be found. From here, in 2300 B.C., Sargon the Great launched a campaign of military conquest that united all of Mesopotamia. Within a decade Sargon had extended his conquests from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea and northeastward to the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. Sargon the Great provided the world with its first example of a military dictatorship.

Sumerian civilization was among the oldest urban civilizations on the planet. In Sumer the first attempts at writing emerged to produce ancient cuneiform, a form of administrative language written as wedged strokes on clay tablets. And in ancient Sumer thefirst detailed records, written or carved in stone, of military battles appeared. No society of the Bronze Age was more advanced in the design and application of military weaponry and technique than was ancient Sumer, a legacy it sustained for two thousand years before bequeathing it to the rest of the Middle East.

The cities of Sumer, first evident in 4000 B.C., provide the world's first examples of genuine urban centers of considerable size. In these early cities, especially in Eridu and Urak, people first manifested the high degree of cooperative effort necessary to make urban life possible. Both cities reflected the evidence of this cooperation in the dikes, walls, irrigation canals, and temples which date from the fourth millennium. An efficient agricultural system made it possible to free large numbers of people from the land, and the cities of ancient Sumer produced social structures comprised largely of freemen who met in concert to govern themselves. The early Sumerian cities were characterized by a high degree of social and economic diversity, which gave rise to artisans, merchants, priests, bureaucrats and, for the first time in history, professional soldiers. The ancient Sumerians were a polyglot of ethnic peoples, much like in the United States.

The period of interest for the student of military history is that from 3000 to 2316 B.C., the date that Sargon the Great united all of Sumer into a single state. This period was marked by almost constant wars among the major city-states and against foreign enemies. Among the more common foreign enemies of the southern city-states were the Elamites, the peoples of northern Iran. The conflict between Sumerians and Elamites probably extended back to Neolithic times, but the first recorded instance of war between them appeared in 2700 B.C., when Mebaragesi, the first king on the Sumerian King List, undertook a war against the Elamites, and "carried away as spoil the weapons of Elam." This first "Iran-Iraq war" was fought in the same area around Basra and the salt marshes that have witnessed the modern conflict of the last decade between the same two states.

The almost constant occurrence of war among the city-states of Sumer for two thousand years spurred the development of military technology and technique far beyond that found elsewhere at the time. The first war for which there is any detailed evidence occurred between the states of Lagash and Umma in 2525 B.C. In this war 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. It is called the Stele of Vultures for its portrayal of birds of prey and lions tearing at the corpses of the defeated dead as they lay on the desert plain. The stele represents the first important pictorial of war in the Sumerian period. The Stele of Vultures portrays the king of Lagash leading an infantry phalanx of armored, helmeted warriors, armed with spears, trampling their enemies. The king, with a socket axe, rides a chariot drawn by four onagers (wild asses.) In a lower panel, Eannatum holds a sickle-sword. The information and implications of this stele are priceless.

The stele demonstrates that the Sumerian troops fought in phalanx formation, organized six files deep, with an eight-man front, somewhat similar to the formation used in Archaic Greece. Fighting in phalanx requires training and discipline, and the stele thus suggests that the men in this battle were professional soldiers. The typical neolithic army of men brought together to meet a temporary crisis found in Egypt throughout the Old Dynasty period had been clearly superseded in Sumer by the professional standing army. We know from the Tablets of Shuruppak (2600 B.C.) that even at this early date the kings of the city-states provided for the maintenance of 600-700 hundred soldiers on a full-time basis. This provision of military equipment for the soldiers was a royal expense. Gone was the practice of each warrior fashioning his own equipment. The stele provides the first evidence in human history of a standing professional army.

The first historical 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 B.C., we know that these helmets were made of copper and probably had a leather liner or cap underneath. The appearance of the helmet marks the first defensive response to the killing power of an important offensive weapon, the mace, probably the oldest effective weapon of war. It was an extremely effective weapon against a soldier with no protection for the head. But in Sumer, the presence of a well-crafted helmet indicated a major development in military technology that was so effective that it drove the mace from the battlefield.

The first military application of the wheel is depicted on the stele which shows Eannatum riding in a chariot. Interestingly, the Sumerians also invented the wheeled cart, which became the standard vehicle for logistical transport in the Middle East until the time of Alexander the Great. The Sumerian invention of the chariot ranks among the major military innovations in history. The Sumerian chariot was usually a four-wheeled vehicle (although there are examples of the two-wheeled variety in other records) and required four onagers to pull it. The Sumerians are also credited with inventing the rein ring for use with the chariot in order to give the driver some control over the onagers . At this early stage of development the chariot probably was not a major offensive weapon because of its size, weight, and instability. In all probability it was not produced in quantity. Later, however, in the hands of the Hyksos, Hittites, Cannanites, Egyptians, and Assyrians, the chariot became the primary striking vehicle of the later Bronze and early Iron Age armies. Chariot drivers, archers, and spearmen became the elite fighting corps of the ancient world. In some countries of the area, the tradition continues to this day. It is not accidental that the Israeli army named its first tank the Merkava . In Hebrew, Merkava means chariot.

The lower palette of the Stele of Vultures shows the king holding a sickle-sword. The sickle-sword became the primary infantry weapon of the Egyptian and Biblical armies at a much later date. When the Bible speaks of peoples being "smoted," the reference is precisely to the sickle-sword. The fact that the sickle-sword appears on two independent renderings of the same period suggests strongly that the Sumerians invented this important weapon sometime around 2500 B.C.

The stele shows Eannatum's soldiers wearing what appears to be armored cloaks. Each cloak was secured around the neck and was made either of cloth or, more probably, thin leather. Metal disks with raised centers or spines like the boss on a shield were sown on the cloak. Although somewhat primitive in application, the cloak was the first representation of body armor, and would have afforded relatively good protection against the weapons of the day. Later, of course, the Sumerians introduced the use of overlapping plate body armor.
Other ancient Sumerian archaeological sources portray additional examples of important military innovations. A carved conch plate shows the king of Ur armed with a socket axe. The development of the bronze socket axe remains one of Sumer's major military innovations, one that conferred a significant military advantage. Ancient axe makers had difficulty in affixing the axeblade to the shaft with sufficient strength so as to allow it to remain attached when striking a heavy blow. The use of the cast bronze socket, which slipped over the head of the shaft and could be secured with rivets, allowed 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 some type of body armor that made the cutting axe less effective as a killing instrument.

Further, Sumerian axes by 2500 B.C. clearly show a change in design. The most significant change was a narrowing of the blade so as to reduce the impact area and bring the blade to more of a point. The development marks the beginning of the penetrating axe, whose narrow blade and strong socket made it capable of piercing bronze plate armor. The result was the introduction of one of the most devastating weapons of the ancient world, a weapon that remained in use for two thousand years.

The military technology of the ancient world did not, as in modern times, develop independent of need. There were, after all, no research and development establishments to invent new weapons. In the ancient world military technology arose in response to perceived practical needs arising from battlefield experience. And in Sumer, two thousand years of war among the city-states provided the opportunity for constant military innovation. In other countries, such as Egypt, that were sealed off from major enemies by geography and culture, there was little need to change military technologies. The weapons of Egypt, as a result, remained far behind developments in Sumer because they were adequate to the task at hand. There was no need to develop body armor, the helmet, or the penetrating axe when one's enemies did not possess this technology. But sophisticated weaponry and tactics required some form of larger social organization to give them impetus and direction.

We know very little about the military organization of Sumer in the third millennium. We can judge from the Tablets of Shuruppak (2600 B.C.) that the typical city-state comprised about 1800 square miles, including all its fields and lands. This area could sustain a population of between 30 and 35 thousand people. The tablets record a force of between 600-700 hundred soldiers serving as the king's bodyguard, the corps of the professional army. But a population of this size could easily support an army of regular and reserve forces numbering between four and five thousand men at full mobilization. Surely some form of conscription must have existed since theirs was a common tradition of corve'e labor to maintain the dikes and temples. Yet the military confrontations of the time may not have required very large armies. Conscript troops would not usually be capable of the training and discipline required of an infantry phalanx. If they were used, they were likely armed with some other weapons, like the sickle-sword or the bow, whose application could be taught to an average conscript or reservist in a few days.

One fact contributing strongly to the possibility of some sort of military organization was that by 2400 B.C. the Sumerian kings had largely abandoned their religious functions to the priesthoods while increasing their civil functions and control. The kings became the undisputed controllers of civic resources. Moreover, it is simply not reasonable to expect that a people who could organize themselves to tame the Tigris and Euphrates with an elaborate system of dikes, canals, and bridges and who could sustain a sophisticated system of irrigation would, at the same time, have simply left to chance the organization of their military arm, among the most important roles of the king.

The period following Eannatum's death was characterized by more war, a situation that led to a relatively even development of weapons technology throughout the city-states of Sumer. Two hundred years after Eannatum, King Lugalzagesi of Umma succeeded in establishing his influence over all of Sumer, although there is no evidence that he introduced any significant changes. Twenty-four years later, the empire of Lugalzagesi was destroyed by the forces of a Semitic prince from the northern city of Akkad, Sargon the Great. By force of arms he conquered all the Sumerian states, the entire Tigris-Euphrates basin, and brought into being an empire that stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf. Sargon united both halves of Mesopotamia for the first time since 4000 B.C.

As with most early Sumerian kings, we know little about Sargon the Great. Cuneiform records indicate that in his 50-year reignhe fought no fewer than 34 wars. One account suggests that his core military force numbered 5,400 men; if that account is accurate, then Sargon's standing army at full mobilization would have constituted the largest army of the time by far. Even for this time a standing army of this size is not as outrageous as it may seem. Unlike leaders of the previous wars between the rival city-states, Sargon created a national empire and would have required a much larger force than usual to sustain it, as he and his heirs did for 300 years. In this sense, Sargon faced the same problem as Alexander. Like Alexander, once the city-states were brought to heel, Sargon would have required them to place at his disposal some of their military forces. As we have noted, each of the 14 major city-states could have sustained an army of between four and five thousand men, not counting the small states that would also have been forced to contribute. Yet another source of military manpower would have been available from the conquered non-Sumerian provinces. It was common practice through Greek and Roman times to enlist soldiers of the conquered into the imperial armies of the time. The armies of imperial Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and Rome all had large contingents of former enemies within their ranks.

That Sargon's army would have been comprised of professionals seems obvious in light of the constant state of war that characterized his reign. Even if they had begun as conscripts, within a short time Sargon's soldiers would have become battle-hardened veterans. Equipping an army of this size would have necessitated a high degree of military organization to run the weapons and logistics functions, to say nothing of routine administration likely attendant to a people who, by Sargon's time, had been keeping written records for more than a millennium.

During the Sargonid period, the Summerians/Akkadians contributed yet another major innovation in weaponry, the composite bow. The innovation may have come during the reign of Naram Sin (2254-2218), Sargon's grandson. Like his grandfather, Naram Sin fought continuous wars of suppression and conquest. His victory over the Lullubi is commemorated in a rock sculpture that shows Naram Sin armed with a composite bow. This rendering marks the first appearance of the composite bow in history and strongly suggests it was of Sumerian/Akkadian origin.

This bow was a major military innovation. While the simple bow could kill at ranges from 50-100 yards, it would not penetrate even simple armor at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of 2-3 times that of the simple bow, would easily have penetrated leather armor, and perhaps even the early prototypes of bronze armor that were emerging at this time. Even in the hands of untrained conscript archers, the composite bow could bring the enemy under a hail of arrows from twice the distance as the simple bow. So important was this new weapon that it became a basic implement of war in all armies of the region for the next fifteen hundred years.

The armies of Sumer and Akkad represented the pinnacle of military development in the Bronze Age. No army of the same period could match the Sumerians in military effectiveness and weaponry. The Sumerian civilization produced no fewer than six major new weapons and defensive systems, all of which set the standard for other armies of the Bronze Age and Iron Ages. Few armies in history have been so innovative.

The armies of Egypt, on the other hand, although already a thousand years old by the time of Sargon, were technologically inferior to the Sumerians and would remain so until, in a remarkable example of technological transfer, the Egyptians themselves obtained the weapons of the Sumerians and used them to forge the world's next great military empire.


The evolution of sophisticated armies and the conduct of war in Sumer and Egypt, while truly a major development in human history, by no means represented the ultimate development of warfare in the ancient world. Much to the contrary. As sophisticated as the armies were in these societies, they represented only the beginning of a period of military development, the Iron Age, that continued for another two thousand years. In this later period it is fair to say that with only a few exceptions, most notably the classical Greeks, the world witnessed a period of fifteen hundred years in which the conduct of war increased in scope, scale, lethality, and sophistication in an unbroken, upward trend that finally ended with the collapse of the Roman imperium in the 5th century A.D. And when that period finally did come to an end, it took the armies of Europe more than a thousand years to reach the level of sophistication in war that the armies of the Iron Age had so consistently demonstrated for more than a millennium.

During the Iron Age almost every aspect of war was developed to modern scale. Armies increased in size with a corollary increase in their destructive power, which further produced larger and larger battles resulting in higher and higher casualty rates. The integration of military structures with their host societies increased greatly, in some instances (Assyria) producing the ancient equivalent of the modern military state. This permitted armies for the first time to suffer major defeats while the state retained the power to continue military operations for years on end (Second Punic War). The productive power of the state to generate ever larger populations and more sophisticated economies for use in war also increased, culminating in the ability of some states to give birth to an even larger form of sociomilitary organization, the imperium.

At the same time there was a genuine revolution in military technology that increased the range and rates of fire of weapons, providing armies with an ever increasing killing capability. When this ability joined with the ability to logistically support and maneuver larger armies over greater and greater distances, the ability to conduct war increased almost exponentially over the level of the Egyptians and Sumerians fifteen hundred years earlier. Indeed, it seems likely that the period between the collapse of Sumer and the fall of Rome can legitimately be viewed as the most dynamic period of military development ever witnessed by man until the 20th century. Modern warfare and its corollary, the destruction of whole societies, were already facts of life in the ancient world. Seen in this context, the invention and use of mechanized weapons in the modern era represents more of a variation on a very old theme than a qualitative change in the evolution of warfare.

Sumerian straddle car

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