The Assyrian Cavalry’s Rise to Prominence, Part 2
As cream rises to the top, the Assyrian cavalry rose to the top of their military echelon in battle. The horsemen’s esteem soared as they trampled triumphantly over all who opposed them; they became the pride of Assyria and the nation gloated over their continued success.
However, after a surprising, humiliating defeat at the hands of the Babylonian cavalry, the Assyrians feared their stranglehold over the entire territory was now in jeopardy. King Sargon II was furious and during the battle debriefing he vowed to assemble a new and magnificent cavalry, one that would never know defeat. Trusting no one with the challenge, he personally took on the task to build his new cavalry.
Upon the conclusion of the debriefing meeting, Sargon II immediately began organizing a regiment devoted to rounding up herds of wild horses. The finest horses were sought after and the search did not end at the Assyrian borders. Raids were designed to steal horses from outlying provinces such as Urartu, Phrygia, and Northern Babylonia. The tribute paid by vassal countries now included their finest horses; all area nations became victims of the Assyrian roundups.
King Sargon II reasoned that the cavalry had always been at the core of the army; their history went back to Assyria’s first rise to power. To recapture that status, Sargon demanded that his men and horses train from sunup to sundown in an effort to become the best. The long spears received new designs and renamed lances. Some were made from hard wood with a sharp metal head embedded at the end and could easily be dislodged from its victim. Other spears, made totally of metal, penetrated most body armor when thrust from a high speeding horse. In addition to improved weaponry, new light-weight fabric armor now covered the horses. As the cavalry training continued and the new designs of weapons and protection passed expectations, the king grew increasingly pleased with his new cavalry.
Assyria had other pressing matters beside their cavalry. The Northern provinces fought continuously against each other over border disputes. As overseer of the entire region, Assyrian duties included keeping peace between rival provinces. Urartu agreed to give 500 timbers and many men for labor to Emperor Sargon II to help build his new palace at Dur Sharrukin. When their neighbors, the Cimmerians, raided the Urartuan countryside and King Midas of Urartu could not force them out, he sent a request to Assyria for support, in accordance with the treaty between Assyria and its many provinces. The treaty promised Assyrian aid to the provinces against invaders.
For an unknown reason, King Sargon II never gave assistance to Urartu and that failure utterly outraged King Midas, especially after learning of Sargon’s raids into Urartu to round up hundreds of horses within his borders without negotiation. So, when a report came to the Assyrian king that Urartu went about assembling a large army, he assumed the worst and thought that King Midas might be planning an attack on Assyria.
Sargon II looked at the situation developing in the north as an opportunity to test his hand-made prized cavalry in battle, with himself leading the match. The fact of the matter was that Urartu prepared for military action against the Cimmerians, not Assyria. The Urartuans held a bitter hatred for the Cimmerians tyrants.
In the spring of 707B.C.E. the armies of Urartu engaged the Cimmerians in war. After a hellish confrontation that lasted nearly a year, Urartu met defeat. The Cimmerians suffered great losses in the conflict and did not have the strength to press deeper into Urartu territory. On their slow return home, they decided to shorten the route by passing through part of Assyria.
King Sargon II, awaiting the outcome of that war with his army on alert standby, received word from his border watch towers that the Cimmerian army had crossed the Assyrian border. He immediately commanded his army to intercept the Cimmerian advance, and upon reaching the Cimmerian forces, Sargon ordered an attack. He found a mound from which he could view the battle, and he watched his cavalry literally slaughter the war weary Cimmerian cavalry and infantry.
However, his advisors had made another serious blunder─ they did not continue scouting for additional Cimmerians in the area. Unknown to the Assyrians, while the battle raged, a second force of Cimmerians marched up to the location of the king’s elite military personnel, a small but loyal group of those whose mandate was to keep him safe. A second battle ensued as more and more Cimmerians charged into the fight, encircling King Sargon II and vastly outnumbering his upscale fighters.
By the time the Assyrian cavalry realized the shift in battle and rushed to help their king, it was too late; Sargon II’s observation headquarters had been overrun. His body was never recovered; it was said a few Cimmerians escaped into the hills and fed the king’s mutilated body to the vultures.
Sargon II became the first Assyrian king to die in battle, ending the once seemingly invincible kings of Assyria. Perhaps Sargon II’s greatest legacy to the Assyrian Empire was his emphasis on the importance of maintaining a superior cavalry in the military.