Legend states that the Assyrians were often, if not always, ruled by cruel kings. Their empire grew out of a state of unrest in Mesopotamia in around 2000 BC. In the tenth century BC, Assyria was a small kingdom that ruled over the flood plains of the Tigris river in northern Mesopotamia. A succession of tyrannical ruler, who often led their armies in battle, made Assyria the most dominant force in the Middle East by the eighth century BC. A great standing army was a feature of Assyrian military might, often made up of foreign soldiers (from vassal states) and mixed in amongst Assyrian soldiers. However, the elite of any fighting force in ancient Mesopotamia was always going to be the charioteer and under the Assyrians things were no different. Though, the Assyrians did have a secret new weapon- the cavalry.
Assyrian war-chariot and cavalryman
The Egyptians were brilliant charioteers in their glory days, but to their detriment they never really learnt to fight on horseback. Whereas the Assyrians were the first people of the Near East to master riding the horse. They were brave men who sat on nothing but a saddle cloth. The Assyrian horse had a bridle and bits, but no saddle with stirrups, which obviously made fighting difficult and dangerous for centuries to come. Though the sight of these horseback warriors brought fear and devastation to the enemy.
As part of one of the most formidable war machines in Mesopotamia, the cavalry wielding both a bow and lance was used to great effect in battle . Numbers of riders consisted of hundreds, even swelling close to a thousand at times. Though to continue to fight in this fashion, the upkeep of the supply of horses and riders was always of utmost important. Horses were often captured in raids (horse stealing) and acquired through tribute bearers from vassal states and defeat enemies. Assyrians also relied upon horse breeders in vassal cities and towns within the Assyrian empire. Many of these centres were often forbidden to sell horses to the enemies of the Assyrians.
With the Assyrians rise owed much to the power of their cavalry units, Assyrian kings were equally motivation to keep up conquests through raids and battles. Without these conquests, the supply of horses and men would dry up, in effect spelling the end of its empire. This is true to some extent, but the eventual collapse of the Assyrian empire came about because of revolt, civil war and invasion. The war horses history though, didn’t end here with the Assyrians, it found a new home amongst the Persians.
Ashurbanipal on a chariot during an Assyrian royal lion hunt from the North Palace Nineveh 645-35 BC.
Photo Credit: The header image is a war horse being ridden by a cavalry archer, most likely to be an Assyrian warrior king. All images are in the public domain expect the Assyrian royal lion hunt which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.