Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

The Wars of a Robber-Nation

Having found his excuse for making war on his neighbors, King Ashur-natsir-pal loses no time about his preparations. Indeed, this is the great advantage that Assyria has in warfare over her enemies, that, as she always means mischief, she is always prepared. Other nations make war, sometimes because they must, to defend themselves, sometimes because they have an ambitious king over them, who leads them into adventures which they would not have sought of their own free will; but Assyria makes war because war is her trade. She lives by war—her chief source of wealth is not her fertile land, nor her trade, it is the spoil which she wrings from her conquered enemies. Her existence depends upon the fact that she has always, at any given moment, a stronger hand than any power or combination of powers opposed to her; and when the time comes when that ceases to be the case, she will fall beyond hope of recovery, and no one will pity her. For she is the great robber-nation of the world, and while a successful robber may be feared and flattered, an unsuccessful robber has no friends.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


Therefore, Assyria is always on a war-footing. Her army is always ready; and whenever her king thinks a fresh robbery feasible and advisable, she generally manages to strike her blow before her opponents have gathered their scattered forces or settled upon a united plan of action. So now, though the North Syrian tribes have been provoked into giving the Assyrians an excuse to attack them (it is not difficult when you have had as much practice in provocation as Assyria has had), the king's army is quickly assembled, and is ready to march almost before the doomed peoples in the west realize the danger of what they have done.

The force destined for the war in Northern Syria is now mainly camped outside the walls of Kalah, and we shall see it march off with the king in command. Armies have grown somewhat in size within the last century or two, and where Thothmes or Ramses of Egypt found a force of from twenty to twenty-five thousand sufficient, Assyria will probably need double the number, even though her troops are very much better equipped and organized than the Egyptian forces ever were. Later she will need bigger armies still, and find 120,000 men none too many in her desperate struggles to maintain her supremacy. But to-day the army which King Ashur-natsir-pal is leading forth may number something like 50,000 or 60,000 men, and will probably be amply sufficient, at that figure, for all its work.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


The king himself marches at the head of the chariot brigade, which is the crack corps of the army. It has all the conceit and swagger of a crack corps, and its members, who are nearly all of the aristocracy, look down with great scorn on the new cavalry, and still more on the infantry. All the same, the more modern and scientific members of the Assyrian staff are well aware that the day of the chariot in war is drawing to a close. It is too cumbrous, requires top much room on the march through mountainous countries, is awkward to transport across rivers, and takes up far too many horses in proportion to its fighting strength. Even as it is, the infantry does far more real work; and when the cavalry has been developed properly the chariot will drop out of use as an arm of the service altogether. Here is the brigade, however, magnificent to look at, and as sure as ever that it is indispensable. The chariots have three horses yoked to them, and are occupied by a charioteer, a man of lower rank and plainer equipment than his companion, and a bowman.

The bowman wears a pointed bronze helmet and a quilted cuirass with metal scales. A bow case and a double quiver are fastened to the front and sides of the car, while a bucket behind holds a lance for work at close quarters. The royal chariot differs from the others only in its more gorgeous decoration, and in the fact that it is somewhat wider, the reason being that it has to hold three men instead of two, the charioteer, the king, and the king's shield bearer. A further distinction between it and the rest of the brigade is that on the march the striped umbrella already mentioned is fastened above the king's head. This, of course, is discarded in the day of battle. The royal horses are bred in the Cilician plains, and are superb creatures, full of fire, and wonderfully enduring as well as spirited.

So far, the cavalry, both lancers and bowmen, are rather by way of being an awkward squad. The riders have not yet learned completely how to control and guide their mounts by the pressure of the knees; and, accordingly, each soldier has a companion who rides on his left hand, and guides the horse of the fighting man by means of a leading rein. This is a great waste of power, and a great drawback to the efficiency of the brigade; but King Ashur-natsir-pal has complete faith in the future of the cavalry, and is steadily increasing their numbers. Already the mounted men only require two horses to a fighter, instead of three, as in the chariotry; they are swifter than their swaggering rivals, and can go where the chariots could never venture. When the riders are trained to do without their nursemaids, there will be no comparison possible between the efficiency of the two arms.

The backbone of the army, however, is the infantry. To see the regiments march past is to realize something of the power of the finest fighting instrument the world has yet seen. They are divided into heavy and light armed spearmen, archers, and slingers, and are supplemented by a corps of sappers for entrenching and siege work. The heavy infantry wear the usual conical helmet and cuirass quilted with metal, and are shod with heavy laced boots coming well up the leg. They carry a six-foot spear and a sword, with a big shield, round and dish-cover shaped, with a central boss. The light infantry have a crested helmet and a small wicker shield; while the bowmen and slingers have no shield at all. The sappers are the humblest branch of the service; but they are becoming of continually greater importance, for no army has carried the development of siege warfare so far as the Assyrian, and already many of the siege engines that will become famous in classical days are to be seen in operation with the Mesopotamian armies At last the omens have proved favorable, being exactly the same as when the great Sargon of Babylon, the typical hero of the race, marched out on his first campaign. Ninib, the patron god of Kalah; Ashur, the national god; and Ishtar, the goddess of war, as well as of love, have signified their approval of the king's plans, and the great host moves off across the plains.

Picking up contingents from the various provinces as it goes westward, and dropping reinforcements for the garrisons in the commanding frontier fortresses, it crosses the Euphrates almost in face of the famous city Carchemish, where a Hittite king still reigns over a fragment of that once great nation. Time was when the Hittites would have made a fair match for the greatest army that Assyria could bring against them; but they have dwindled and their rival has grown, and though Sangara, the King of Carchemish, had quite resolved to fight as long as the Assyrians were far away, he changed his mind when he saw the serried battalions crossing the great river and deploying under the walls of his town. He hastened to make his submission, and Carchemish was spared the horrors of a siege, though its inhabitants had to pay pretty sharply for the luxury of having plotted against Assyria.

Other tribes, and especially the kingdom of Patin, whose king, Lubarna, had been the moving spirit of the insurrection, hastened to follow the example of Carchemish, and the Assyrian army, greatly to its disgust, seemed likely to have nothing more than a military promenade through North Syria. But when the passes of the Lebanon had been reached, the prospect of a fight grew brighter. The chief of Aribua, a strong fortress town on the western slope of the Lebanon, more daring or more desperate than his neighbors, refused to come out and "smell the earth" before the conqueror. His gates were closed, his cattle driven in, and his walls manned, and when the Assyrian light infantry approached the town, a flight of arrows and stones made a good many gaps in their ranks, while a sudden charge from one of the gates actually broke and scattered one regiment with considerable loss before the daring Syrians were driven back into the town again. Ashur-natsir-pal, though he professed to be indignant, was really delighted. Now he would get his troops blooded, and have an opportunity for the exercise of all that cold-blooded cruelty which was even dearer to an Assyrian's heart than all the spoil of war. The siege began with a great parade of the whole Assyrian force, which marched right round the walls under the eyes of the wondering inhabitants. It was no mere piece of swagger, but a calculated attempt to impress the townsfolk with some idea of the mighty instrument whose blows were about to fall upon them.

Then the lines were drawn close, and the siege began. Under the cover of great wooden mantlets, huge shields which moved on wheels, detachments of archers, commanded by the king in person, took station near the walls, and poured a constant hail of arrows upon the battlements and against every loophole. While the attention of the besieged was thus engaged, the sappers swiftly cast up an earthen bank against the walls, so that the battering ram could be brought into play, and as soon as the bank was high and solid enough this great structure began to move forward. It was a little fortress of wood and wickerwork, mounted on wheels. In front were two light towers: one square-topped so that a few archers could fire from it over the town wall and so cover the party working the ram; the other round-topped and covered with raw hide. From the front of the latter, between two great mantlets of wood and raw hide, the ram swung on its pivot, a great wooden beam with a heavy bronze head, capable of delivering a tremendous blow. In the back part of the little fortress gathered the gang which swung the ram, and the spare archers who took the place of their companions on the tower as these were killed or wounded.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


The advance of the ram meant inevitable destruction to the city unless its attack could be foiled. Accordingly, every effort was made to destroy or cripple the dreaded instrument. As it drew near to the walls, the gate nearest to it was suddenly opened, and a cluster of desperate men, spear or sword in one hand, and burning torch or faggot in the other, rushed against the ram under cover of a shower of arrows and stones from the battlements. For a few moments it seemed as though they had succeeded, for the wicker-work on one side began to smoke and burn; but the forlorn hope was falling fast, and before the structure was well alight the arrival of fresh troops on the Assyrian side settled the business. The few Syrians who remained alive were speedily surrounded and captured, and the burning ram was rescued and extinguished.

And now followed one of the horrors of ancient warfare. The captured men were led before the king. He surveyed them with mingled satisfaction and contempt, and then made a sign to the officer in command of the guard. That worthy, with a grin of fierce delight, marched off the brave men who had not been fortunate enough to die to a point in full view of the city wall. Here lay a row of strong sharpened stakes, the same in number as the captives. A stake was thrust through the body of each prisoner, and then raised with its writhing burden and set into a deep hole in the ground, and the miserable sufferers were left to die in slow agony under the eyes of their friends in the city.

As the days dragged on, the state of the citizens grew more and more desperate. The wall began to crumble under the repeated blows of the ram, aided by the picks of the sappers, who stole up to the very base of the fortifications, and established themselves there almost out of arrow-shot, though every now and then one of their number would be crushed by a great stone. One of the gates was burned almost through; and at last a combined assault by all arms resulted in the weakened defense being swept from the walls. The town was carried, and then began all the horrors of Assyrian triumph. The unfortunate king who had not been able to find death at the head of his men was led before Ashur-natsir-pal. His nose had been pierced and a metal ring thrust through it, a cord attached to which was handed to the king. The captive was forced to his knees before his conqueror, and the Assyrian king, jerking up the poor wretch's head by the cord, slowly thrust his spear first into one eye and then into the other, and then delivered over the blinded and bleeding victim to the torturers. These began by plucking out his tongue; then driving four strong posts into the ground they spread-eagled the beaten chief by wrists and ankles to the posts, and slowly flayed him alive, leaving his ghastly body to writhe and twist in its bonds under the hot sun till merciful death put an end to suffering.

The women and children were sent back under guard into Assyria to serve as slaves; but for the fighting men there was no mercy. Death was the best fortune that could happen to them; but the Assyrians were masters in the art of making men die by inches, so that they should feel every agony to the last. The city was burned, the site of it dug over and sown with salt. Then for a last memorial of his triumph, the king reared before the spot where one of the gates had stood a pyramid of the severed heads of those whom he had slain. Even that was not brutal enough to satisfy his lust of cruelty. There remained a number of miserable prisoners not yet released by death; and of these, living as they were, he built another pyramid before the other gate; and waited till by slow suffocation, and sunstroke, and madness, the last quiver of life had gone out of all the tortured limbs. Then he struck his camp, and marched westwards towards the coast of the Mediterranean, having first sent an express home with a dispatch telling of his triumph, and with orders to his architect to carve on the walls of his palace the scenes of the siege, and the record of all the atrocities inflicted by his command.

Marching down to the sea-coast, he met with no further opposition. The dread of his name had fallen upon the land. Where they could, the inhabitants fled before his approach and left a solitude; where flight was impossible, they submitted and paid ruinous tribute. On the Mediterranean shore the army drew up. Solemn sacrifice was offered to Enki, the god of the deep, and picked representatives of each arm of the service waded into the water behind their king, and, following his example, washed their weapons, so lately reeking with blood, in the waves of the Great Sea. From all the little kinglets of the coast, from Tyre and Sidon, Byblos and Arvad, tribute came pouring in; and among the treasures were strange things that the Assyrians had never yet seen—dolphins and narwhal tusks, and great store of curious woods. Ashur-natsir-pal had reached his farthest; and now he led his army home again in triumph, only stopping for a while in the Lebanon to cut cedar wood for the further beautifying of his palace.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


Such was war, as made 850 years before Christ by the great robber-nation of the ancient world, the true ancestor in brutality of the modern robber-nation of Europe. Even Germany's frightfulness, however, must yield a little to that of the ancient Assyrian. Under the shadow of such horrors, the whole world of ancient days lived for something like 500 years, no nation sure for a year that the great freebooter of the Tigris might not cast envious eyes upon its territory or its treasures, and come down to slay and burn and torture. Can you wonder that when at last the very iniquity by which Assyria lived had drained her land of its manhood, and Nineveh fell, never to rise again, the whole civilized world sent up a unanimous shout of triumph? "All that hear the report of thee," said the Hebrew prophet Nahum, "clap the hands over thee; for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?" The world, with one voice, said "Amen!"