Features of Ancient Societies: Weapons and Warfare in Ancient Assyria

The development of weaponry and methods of warfare

The Assyrian empire is known for its success and prowess with warfare and military. Assyria was one of the most successful military superpowers in the Ancient Near East until they were conquered in 612 BC by the forces of the Medes and the Babylonians. As the Assyrian military moved to invade the land of Israel, they brought into the region new forms of warfare including siege tactics, innovative engineering, cavalry and fear propaganda.

These options are two very useful archaeological sources for studying Assyrian Warfare, . Information on each can be found below. For more information on Assyrian Warfare in general, check out this useful article from the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Assyrian Rider

Assyrian Horse and Rider Figures in the Lachish Relief
Wikimedia Commons

The 'Siege of Lachish' Reliefs

The best documented example of Assyrian Warfare can be found in the Lachish Reliefs in the palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh. They provide a great amount of detailed information on the military tactics of the Assyrians during their campaigns into Judea.

In 701 BCE, Sennacherib lay siege to the walls of Lachish, a Judean town in the southern Levant, as he travelled towards Jerusalem. Lachish is situated upon an important strategic pass leading to Jerusalem and therefore was an important stronghold and a fortified town. In order to conquer the formidable fortifications of the city, the Assyrians utilised their innovative tools and tactics of warfare. The Assyrian army surrounded the town and constructed a large ramp of earth leading upward unto the walls, allowing the army to climb over the fortress and into the city. Through this effort and use of innovative techniques, they were able to roll large wooden siege towers into Lachish and overwhelm the Judeans. The siege ramp of Lachish is so durable that is still standing today and can be viewed at the ancient site of Lachish in Israel.

To commemorate Sennacherib's victory, a relief illustrating the siege was carved upon the walls of the palace in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. The relief is of significant size, consisting of 13 panels continuing across all four of the walls of the room. They were placed within a central room in the palace of Nineveh. The relief is an important resource for historians, as it illustrates in remarkable detail the many features of the siege, including the unique forms of warfare utilised by the Assyrians.

For detailed images of the Assyrian Reliefs and an informative video, please view this website.

Warfare Innovations of Assyria represented in the Reliefs:

  • Iron: Assyria was one of the first empires to fully utilise iron in the craft of weaponry and military materials. This granted the Assyrian army a great advantage over their surrounding cultural superpowers, who still relied upon bronze and wooden technology. Assyrian armour was often crafted from iron, protecting their armies and making their ranks difficult to penetrate. Assyrian chariots and siege weaponry was also often plated with the metal. This use of iron war-gear can be observed within many details of the Lachish relief. An example is pictured below:

Lachish Iron Weapons

The Assyrian army with iron shields, armour and spears illustrated on the Lachish Relief.
Wikimedia Commons

  • Siege Towers: Siege towers were large wooden machines which were used to batter down walls or fortifications. The towers suspended large wooden beams that were tipped with a metal point. As well as forcefully pushing upon the walls, the metal points could also be used to loosen the brickwork by moving the beam in circular motions. The innovation of the siege tower, such as those used at Lachish represented in the relief below, was a major contributor to the success of the Assyrian army.

Siege TowerAn Assyrian siege tower attacked by Judean firebands on the Lachish Reliefs.
Wikimedia Commons

  • Psychological Warfare: The Assyrians used psychological warfare to arouse fear in their enemies. This included brutal methods of torturing their captives and exhibiting their bodies on poles and pikes. Parts of the Lachish reliefs even show Judean captives being publicly flayed by the Assyrian army. Depicting these warfare tactics in the Assyrian palace is itself a form of propaganda. Due to the reputation spread by Assyrian propaganda, many cities surrendered to the Assyrians during their campaigns without a battle.


Data mining:

  • Are the Lachish reliefs a primary or secondary source?
  • What elements of Assyrian warfare tactics can you see depicted in the reliefs?
  • What other archaeological or written evidence can you find that relates to the siege of Lachish?

Source evaluation:

  • How do the Lachish Reliefs compare to other sources available for the same event?
  • What might the limitations of the Lachish Reliefs be as source of information about the siege of Lachish?
  • How is the evidence provided by this source useful to an historian investigating the Late Bronze Age in the Levant?

Interrogate the evidence it provides. For example:

  • Is it revealing of anything previously unknown?
  • Does it help us understand the event(s) from the point of view of those involved?

'Horse and Rider' Figurines

As the Assyrian military moved to invade the land of Israel, they transported into the region a new form of warfare; the mounted cavalry. Assyrian cavalrymen rode directly atop their horses rather than in a horse-drawn chariot. They were very fast and often armed with bows. The widespread emergence of terracotta 'Horse and Rider' figurines during the Iron Age in the Near East is a reflection of this new, intimidating military innovation. Horse and Rider figurines often possess characteristics of Assyrian, Persian and Phoenician cultural dress and style.

Roughly-formed figurines such as the example held in Macquarie University's Museum of Ancient Cultures, may have been crafted as toys for children (like the action figures of today) and are especially common during the time of the Assyrian invasion in Israel. The use of cavalry by Assyria is documented in the Bible (2 Kings 18:23):

Now therefore, Please give pledges to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them.

The prevalence of ‘Horse and Rider’ figurines in Ancient Israel and throughout the wider Mediterranean represents the impact of the Assyrian military on daily life during the Iron Age, as their force continued southward conquering the settlements of Ancient Israel.

For more information on the Assyrian Cavalry, see:
D. Noble, "Assyrian Chariotry and Cavalry", State Archives of Assyria Bulletin, vol.4, no. 1 (1990), pp.61-68.

MU3185 is an example of a 'Horse and Rider' figurine from the collection at Macquarie University. You can view and manipulate a 3D model of this artefact here.


Data mining:

  • Is MU3185 ('Horse and Rider Figuring') a primary or secondary source?
  • What does MU3185 tell us about the perception of the Assyrian military throughout the Levant?

Source evaluation:

  • In comparison to a written source, what might the limitations of this artefact be as a source of evidence for Assyrian warfare?
  • How is the evidence provided by this source useful to an historian investigating the Late Bronze Age in the Levant?
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