Sumerian Phalanx

Sumerian Phalanx

In southern Iraq, between Euphrates and Tigris, lived Indoeuropean peoples of white skin – Sumerians. Between 4th and 3rd centuries BC, they reached a level of civilization which still confuses today’s scientists, advancing from tribal organization to a highly developed state in very short time. They developed a highly advanced irrigation system, turning a swamp into a fertile land. Sumerians also built advanced cities, of which the best known are Ur, Uruk, Eridu, Lagash, Teloh, Isim, Urma, Kish… Uruk was the oldest and the best known city, founded in 4000 BC. At its height in 2800 BC, Uruk had 20 000 inhabitants and controlled 146 villages.

Each city with its adjacent villages formed a city-state, ruled by a king. Sumerian cities were trade and manufacture centres, and developed trade, manufacture, architecture, culture and sciences. Their religion, law, alphabet, measurements and other advances were used for over a thousand years from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

In order for this civilization to exist, it had to defend itself. Advanced agriculture enabled complex social organization, and which allowed Sumerians to, for the first time in history, field truly professional armies. These armies were constantly employed, as Sumerian cities vied for control and dominance against each other. These wars lasted until 2316 BC, when Sargon united whole of Sumer into a single state, and also led to a hitherto unprecedented development of the military organization and science. Sumerians first produced bronze weapons and war chariots. The oldest war recorded in history also happened in Sumer, between the cities of Laqash and Umma in 2525 BC. In this war, prince Eannatum of Laqash defeated the king of Umma, and left the oldest recorded presentation of Sumerian warfare.

Sumerian army was clearly very capable, as it enabled them military dominance. Sumerian battles often led to very significant casualties, numering in thousands, and victors would typically slaughter the captured enemies. Armies of city-states could be raised quickly, and were capable of complex military operations.

When it comes to Sumerian tactics, the primary source is the stele of prince Eannatum, also known as the Stele of the Vultures.

Stele of Eannatum

The stele shows Sumerian soldiers, with helmets, protected by massive shields, and holding spears in both hands. The formation is easily recognized as a phalanx – dense formation where soldiers stand next to each other, presenting a solid front against the enemy. With variations, this type of formation was used all the way until repeating rifles and machine guns appeared on the battlefield. Ancient phalanx was powerful as a result of its depth and density, allowing it to stop any enemy attack. But this type of warfare required training and discipline.

Stele shows nine soldiers, with the leftmost soldier missing due to damage, as well as an officer holding an axe. Six spears protrude between each two of the shields. This would indicate a unit of 70 men, organized in ten files of seven soldiers each. This is similar to a much later Roman centuria (which started as 100 men, but then got reduced to 80 and then 60). Such a number is likely, especially since Sumerians used base-60 numerical system. For comparison, Greek phalanx used a basic unit of 8 files of 8 men each (64 men total), while Macedonian syntagma had 16 files of 16 men each, for a total of 256 men.

The relief shows each spear being held in two hands, which indicates either a long spear, or soldiers armed with a spear only. Sumerian royal grave near Kish showed two types of spear point: large spear point for a short stabbing spear, and a small spear point for a long pike. Pikes were thus almost certainly used in the phalanx. Fact that the spears are arranged one above another also indicates their arrangement in depth. Issue is usage of large shields: historically, pikemen wore either no shields, or very small shields. Macedonian phalangites used a shield which originated from Greek hoplon, but its diameter was reduced by a third – from 75 cm to 50 cm – so that a soldier could have his fist beyond shield’s edge, allowing him to hold the pike in both hands. Soldiers using large shields, such as Greek hoplites or Roman legionaries, used weapons for one hand.

Sumerian shields are definitely very large, potentially even larger than most variants of the Roman legionary scutum. This would suggest that Sumerian phalanx was protected by specialized shield bearers, much like the pavise-bearers in the 15th century armies of Central Europe and Italy, as such large shields would not allow effective usage of two-handed weapons. Shield bearers themselves would be armed with weapons for one hand: pavise-bearers of Matthias Corvinus were armed with spears which they held planted in the ground as they surrouned and defended the offensive portion of the army (skirmishers and cavalry). This specific approach is the exact opposite of the offensive tactics of the Sumerian phalanx, which approached the enemy at a walking pace much like a hoplite phalanx would. Thus, shield bearers would use their weapons – spears, axes or swords – actively, in an offensive manner, while providing cover for the advancing phalanx. Majority of soldiers were spearmen, armed with a spear and war axe, and protected by bronze helmets and hide cloaks, as can be seen from depiction of the army below.

While this scene is typically presented as depicting an army on the march, closer look reveals that the soldiers are in fact holding spears – and holding them in two hands, pointed forward. This is a combat formation, not a marching order. Leveled spears mean that soldiers are in an attack formation.

It is possible that the Sumeran phalanx was defensive in nature. Chariots and skirmishers are also prominent in depictions, so it is possible that, at times at least, infantry played a defensive role much like described above for the pavesarii. But as the stele clearly shows soldiers stepping over the bodies of fallen enemies, it is clear that such a defensive role was not the primary use of the formation.

The stele also provides the first evidence of soldiers wearing helmets. From bodies of soldiers found in the Death Pits of Ur we know that the soldiers wore copper helmets. Why helmets were copper is not known, since actual weapons were made of bronze at this time. Usage of helmets by Sumerans was again the first such development, and metal helmet was far better protection against weapons such as maces than felt or leather caps were. Helmets themselves were slightly tapered in design, covering in full the ears and neck of the individual. The edges framing the face had a series of holes, used to tie the cloth padding to the inside of the helmet.

Eannatum’s stele also shows soldiers wearing armored cloaks. Each soldier’s cloak is secured around the neck, and likely made of wool cloth or else thin leather. At various places on the cloak were sewn metal disks with raised centers or spines, possibly made of bronze. Sumerians also had other weapons innovation: the King of Ur appears on a carved conch plate armed with a socket axe, which was one of major Sumerian military innovations. Socket axe allowed the axehead to be attached much more securely, and thus was less likely to break during use as well as allowing more powerful blows. The need for a stronger axe likely arose out of development of body armour which made the cutting axe much less effective. This is supported by the changes in design of Sumerian axes. The portrayals of axes by 2500 BC show narrowing of the blade to reduce the impact area and to bring the blade to more of a point to concentrate the force of the blow. Such an axe was capable of piercing bronze plate armour, and axes of similar characteristics – if improved materials – remained in use well into the Middle Ages. Sumerian design itself remained in use for 2000 years.

Little is known about the military organization, beyond what can be gleamed from the stelle itself. But Tables of Shippurak indicate that the typical Sumerian city-state comprised 1800 square miles, with population of maybe 30 000 – 35 000 people. The tablets record a force of between 600 and 700 soldiers serving as the king’s bodyguard, which at 2% of population is about the maximum size of the premodern standing armies. At full mobilization, population could likely mobilize around 6,5 – 12% of total population, which would lead to an army of 2 000 – 4 000 soldiers. Soldiers depicted on the stele are uniformly armed and equipped, indicating that they are professional soldiers with equipment either provided or else prescribed by the state.

Two centuries after Eannatum’s death, King Lugalzagasi of Umma succeeded in establishing his influence over all Sumer, though there is no evidence he changed anything. Twenty four years later, his empire was destroyed by the armies of Sargon the Great of Akkad, who conquered the entirety of Sumer. During his life he fought 34 wars, and had an army possibly numbering 5400 men – the largest standing army at the time.

Sargon’s army consisted almost certainly of professional soldiers. As in Sumer, it was based on the hexadecimal system, consisting of nine battalions of 600 men. Equipping and supplying such an army required developed administration and bureocracy. A specifically Akkadian innovation introduced by Sargon were the niksum, soldiers who received plots of land from the king as well as allotments of fish and salt every three months. The idea was to create a corps of loyal military professionals, and it succeeded, complementing well the paid troops and the militia.

During this time, Akkadians / Sumerians also introduced another innovation – the composite bow. Introduced likely during the reign of Naram Sin, Sargon’s grandson, it was a major weapon of the time, as seen from the fact that Naram Sin was himself portrayed with a bow. Unlike a simple short bow that could not penetrate even leather armour and way lethal out to 50 – 100 meters, composite bow could penetrate armour made of leather or bronze, and also had twice the range of the simple bow.

The professionalization of the army resulted in an infantry-dominated force that had few battle cars. It also fought in the mountains of Gelam and the wooded homelands of the Guti, relegating chariots to use by royal couriers.

2 thoughts on “Sumerian Phalanx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s