The Assyrian Cavalry’s Rise to Prominence, Part 1
Extensive investigation is required when writing an historical novel and we devoted countless hours striving to make our narration of the events taking place in The Black Angel of the Lord as accurate as possible. To save the story from becoming a history lesson, large portions of historical details had to be omitted from the final draft of the book. Too much information can also cause a drifting away from the story line and no one wants that.
However, we think our readers might find some of the investigation most interesting so we incorporated some of that research into informative blogs.
Assyrian dominated what we now call the Middle East during much of the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. One of the most important factors in their success was their understanding of how to maintain a superior cavalry. Such capabilities are comparable to the U.S.A. supremacy over the skies today. Around 708 B.C.E., the Assyrians found themselves in a situation where their cavalry’s superiority was seriously challenged.
The king of Babylonia, Merodach-baladan, was exiled due to his revolt against Assyrian control. Still, he continued his rebellious behavior from exile, rebutting Assyrian authority and demanding that his country should be second to no other. The hostility between the two nations escalated and led to war. Sargon II, King of Assyria, called for a council meeting with his military leaders. He selected his son, Prince Sennacherib, and his son’s high ranking officer companion, Holofernes, over all other military officers to march the Assyrian army into Babylonia and stamp out all civil unrest by whatever means necessary. Not every general at the meeting approved of the king’s decision; nevertheless, they supported his choice. King Sargon’s motivation in selecting Sennacherib and Holofernes to lead the army was to provide his favorite son an opportunity to gain the recognition needed for a future king, with a trusted and highly skilled new leader of military men at his side.
While the Assyrian army confidently prepared for war with Babylonia, the self-proclaimed Babylonian king, Merodach-baladan attempted to unite the Babylonian states against Assyria, but failed. He was at a huge disadvantage primarily because forty percent of the combined Babylonian states called for neutrality with Assyria. Merodach-baladan knew a strong cavalry could dictate the outcome of a battle and, through a valiant effort of negotiation, he was able to persuade the neutral states to relinquish their cavalry riders for a handsome payment. The neutral states left the decision to the horsemen: ride with Merodach-baladan for pay, or stay neutral. Overwhelmingly, the decision was to join the exiled king. Merodach-baladan, now convinced that he had the upper hand with his newly-rebuilt cavalry called ‘the men of iron,’ eagerly marched to meet their adversary.
When the two armies met, the Babylonia cavalry galloped forward across a muddy field with horses heavily protected by fabric armor. Upon seeing their approach, the Assyrians brought up their cavalry to meet their adversary. The two mighty cavalry forces clashed between the two armies. A vast majority of the Babylonian horsemen were armed with long iron spears while the weapon of choice for more than half of the Assyrian cavalry was the sword. The highly trained Babylonian ‘men of iron’ were able to take out many of the Assyrian horsemen before they could reach them with their swords. As a result, the Assyrian cavalry met defeat after a long and bloody battle.
The battle then turned into a clash between the two armies. In spite of Merodach-baladan’s cavalry victory, his forces were overwhelmed by Assyria’s larger forces with their sophisticated fighting techniques. In the end, Merodach-baladan fled to the hills; Prince Sennacherib and Holofernes returned to Nineveh as heroes and were honored with a parade.
The civilian population, mostly ignorant of the strategies of war, was blind to the fact that the entire Assyrian cavalry had been lost. They celebrated Prince Sennacherib’s and Holofernes’ victory while King Sargon held his anger in check. The king had received an initial summary of the battle upon the army’s return and it caused him great concern for it revealed serious flaws in his military.
As he did after every campaign, King Sargon II called an assembly of his generals and all officers involved in the Babylonian escapade for a debriefing of the battle. Sargon II had expected the victorious outcome and he knew mishaps occur in such a large undertaking, but he never expected the annihilation of his entire cavalry. Still, he would not place blame on any individual.
The meeting started with the most obvious and glaring question: What happened to the cavalry? The war revealed that the Assyrian command fell asleep; they did not do their homework which included an examination of the Babylonian cavalry advancements and improvements. These terrible blunders caused the lives of Assyria’s best riders and could have cost them the war.
Sargon II pointed out Assyria’s earlier achievements in warfare, specifically the extremely effective use of the chariot and men on horseback in battle. He emphasized how they took great pride in these achievements but now the Babylonians had outclassed them. He screamed in anger at such neglect and vowed it would never again be tolerated.
After the consultation with his generals, King Sargon II announced they would build a new cavalry, the finest cavalry the world had ever seen, and the work was to start immediately. He took charge and oversaw the entire operation, including an adequate horse supply.