The Sumerian Military: Professionals of Weaponry and Warfare

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Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, lies a land once known as Mesopotamia. It was here that humanity found suitable land to rip open and seed. Once the seeds took root, civilization was born.

With food slowly becoming abundant, the population increased and branched out. With prosperity, came external threats. Nomadic elements seeking further wealth encountered these communities and pillaged them. In doing so, they spread their parasitic-like sphere of influence, causing instability throughout the regions and cities of Mesopotamia. This instability gave rise to two things: the rise of the city-state and the professional soldier.

Creating a Civilization

Unlike pastoral societies that roam around looking for food, agriculturalists by teamed together, settling in one spot and growing their food.  In doing so they created a village, a society of their own. However, it takes more than farming to create a state.

After a few generations, people slowly began to build upon their knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry, and writing. With all these skills and many more, villages gained a greater sense of the self. Such awareness allowed for the creation of law, trade, private property, social interest, internal order and a sense of self-identity. This allowed the Mesopotamian villages that dotted the landscape to evolve into a series of city-states.

Map showing the Tigris–Euphrates river system, which defines Mesopotamia. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The Sumerians are the first to carve out a civilization in Mesopotamia. By the third millennium BCE, the land of Sumer consisted of a dozen or more city-states. These city-states were walled, and surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets.

Power Quadrant

Map with the locations of the main cities of Sumer and Elam. (Modern Iraq)

Map with the locations of the main cities of Sumer and Elam. (Modern Iraq) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A reconstruction in the British Museum of headgear and necklaces worn by the women in some Sumerian graves.

A reconstruction in the British Museum of headgear and necklaces worn by the women in some Sumerian graves. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The city-states of Sumer were centralized. Their centrally controlled society needed an administration to conduct the day-to-day redistribution of resources and to direct all social activity.

During the early period of Sumer history, there was a shared control over resources and social actives between the palace and temple. The temple controlled a great amount of land and exerted a powerful influence over the people. The palace authority controlled as much, if not more land than the temple.

This was fine until the palace was able to wield an even greater influence over the people. In doing so, the king was able to amalgamate the palace with the temple, in which the king saw himself as god’s own representative on earth. If god chooses the king, then the temple must obey. This placed the temple in a predicament. However, this does not mean there would never be strife again between the palace and temple authorities. So long as they existed side by side, the desire to control and hold a monopoly over the other’s institution was desirable, especially if one wished to control the masses.

Sumerian Military Structure

The earliest known evidence of a professional organized military comes from the Standard of Ur.  The Sumerian military structure in terms of rank is unknown. However, it is obvious that the king headed the army as depicted on “The Stele of Vultures.” Others who rode in chariots were likely, princes, nobles, and wealthy landowners, while the main body was primarily infantry.

Detail from the Standard of Ur – Infantrymen and High ranking chariot riders

Detail from the Standard of Ur – Infantrymen and High ranking chariot riders (Public Domain)

Conscription

The organization of the Sumerian forces is somewhat silent. The conscription of troops was comprised of corve’e (obligated) labor levied by the temple and palace to maintain the city-state. Not only was levied labor used for public works, it was also allocated for military service. The Shulgi inscription indicates that the allocation of levied labor for military service during times of war was common.

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Top Image: Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “War” panel. ( Public Domain )



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