War heroes: royal recognition for Assyrian soldiers

Assyrian soldiers who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield could expect their king to reward them richly for their bravery. Whether it was the desire for immortal fame or for earthly prizes that motivated the individual warrior is impossible to know, but it is clear that contemporary society saw both as the deserved returns of a valiant fighter.

Merit and reward

Detail from the wall decoration of Sennacherib's Southwest Palace at Nineveh (slab 9 of room XXVIII [FF]) showing an Assyrian soldier being rewarded for his success in battle. British Museum, WA 124955; photo by Eleanor Robson. View large image.

A letter to an 8th century governor of Kalhu makes clear the link between performance in battle, material rewards and social status, as a military officer commanding the governor's troops during a campaign to Babylonia informs his master about the yields of his recent engagement at the city of Rapiqu and elsewhere:

"Out of (all) the captives who came out (of some enemy city) I have looked for and chosen 30 people; I applied to the commander-in-chief and he gave (them) to me. Out of (all) the captives who came out of the city of Rapiqu I have chosen ten people but as the commander-in-chief was not in a good mood I did not apply to him. May my lord speak to him when he comes to the palace" (CTN 2 194).

The most outspoken sources for the material rewards that a war hero might come to enjoy are a series of royal decrees issued by Aššur-etel-ilani (630-627 BC), one of the last Assyrian kings. To those military commanders who had aided him in securing the Assyrian throne in a bloody succession war he awarded not only honours and property but also tax privileges; the preamble to the documents commemorating these decrees reads: "I planned to do them good: I clothed them with multi-coloured robes and bound their wrists with golden bracelets... Fields, orchards, buildings and people I exempted from tax and gave to them" (SAA 11 35, SAA 11 36).

To kill or capture a prominent enemy was a conspicuous way for a soldier to distinguish himself and prove his loyalty to the king. In the palace reliefs from Kalhu (modern Nimrud), Dur-Šarruken (modern Khorsabad) and Nineveh, dating from the reigns of Assurnasirpal II (884-859 BC) to Assurbanipal (668-c.630 BC), Assyrian soldiers in the aftermath of a victorious battle are commonly portrayed with captives or head trophies. The Assyrian army did not practise a general "head-hunt" with soldiers rewarded for the number of enemies killed (reckoned by the number of heads brought in). Instead, there was very selective rewarding of those who brought in the heads of high-ranking enemy leaders. A scene from Sennacherib's (704-681 BC) palace decoration at Nineveh shows an Assyrian officer fastening a bracelet around the wrist of a soldier, quite clearly indicating a reward ceremony to honour the warrior for his success in battle; a heap of heads is shown right next to the two men, and we can assume that this warrior had managed to kill somebody who ranked prominently among Sennacherib's southern enemies.

Visible markers of royal recognition

Panel from the wall decoration of room 8 in Sargon II's royal palace at Dur-Šarruken (modern Khorsabad), showing an Assyrian soldier in arms at court, wearing heavy bracelets and a purple tunic (note the remainders of red colour just above his right hand); he carries a mace, another indicator of high social status. Louvre, AO 19877; photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

Jewellery (as in the Sennacherib relief), precious robes and "golden" swords (most likely to have been swords with lavishly decorated hilts and scabbards, as worn by the king and his courtiers) were used to honour those who had distinguished themselves in battle: Assyrian kings from Assurnasirpal II onwards are attested as awarding swords and bracelets of gold for outstanding service. The swords and bracelets with which Assyrian soldiers were rewarded for their heroic actions, all standardised to a high degree, constituted highly visible and readable indications of the bearer's achievements in battle and royal service, as did multicoloured robes - another royal reward. Administrative texts from the 8th and 7th centuries BC indicate that distinguished soldiers were "clothed" in a formal procedure which marked the acquisition of a special status which elevated them beyond other troops; the ensuing change in their dress (its exact nature not yet identified) indicated and reinforced this new status.

Distinctive jewellery, weaponry and garments were only the tip of the iceberg of rewards in kind, which could include material goods, slaves and land as well as tax breaks, and definitely signalled to the world the bearer's high standing at court and within the military hierarchy. Yet the existence of such visible, and commonly identifiable, indicators of military success provided a way of signalling achievement and recognition beyond the customs of the individual army division and doubtlessly served to foster and encourage a competitive spirit among all members of the Assyrian army. It created a climate in which individual success was noticed and honoured, and personal achievements openly advertised to the observer - a key incentive for each soldier to achieve his personal best.

Meeting the king in person

In a detail from the wall decoration of Tiglath-pileser III's Central Palace at Kalhu (modern Nimrud), a soldier with two head trophies and a captive shackled by the ear is being led before the seated king. Drawing from R. Barnett and M. Falkner, The Sculptures of Aššur-naṣir-apli II (883-859 BC), Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BC) and Esarhaddon (681-669 BC) from the Central and South-West Palaces at Nimrud, London 1962, pl. LIX. View large image.

The motif of the formal presentation of prominent enemies or their severed heads by the soldiers to the king was popular in Assyrian official art under Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II, and is depicted in the palaces of Kalhu, Dur-Šarruken and also Til-Barsip PGP  (modern Tell Ahmar in Syria). We may certainly assume that the ceremony in which soldiers presented captive enemies or enemy heads also included the official award of honours to the warriors in question, and the chance of a personal encounter with the king as a consequence of distinguishing oneself in battle was surely a key motivation which fuelled the competitiveness of Assyrian soldiers.

It is only in the reliefs of Sennacherib and, later, Assurbanipal that we find the presentation of captives and head trophies portrayed as a bureaucratic act, with scribes taking notes and processing information, as opposed to the king or high officers receiving warriors in a formalised ceremonial setting. The decoration of distinguished warriors with awards directly after battle, without the king's presence, indicates the ongoing process of professionalisation of the Assyrian army and warfare: it is worth stressing that the soldiers in question come in all sorts of military dress, representing the many different constituent parts of the Assyrian army.

However, this new format of recording and recognising soldiers' achievements also points towards a growing distance between the king and his soldiers. While Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II were proud to lead the troops into battle personally, such behaviour is increasingly rare for Sennacherib and his successors. Assurbanipal in particular was never active on the battlefield, usually staying behind in his palace at Nineveh; this is certainly linked to the fact that, towards the end of the Assyrian empire, the army commanders saw themselves eclipsed by the king's courtiers in the competition for royal favour.

Further reading:

Fuchs, 'War das Neuassyrische Reich ein Militärstaat?', 2005.
Postgate, 'The invisible hierarchy', 2007.
Radner, 'Fame and prizes', 2011.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'War heroes: royal recognition for Assyrian soldiers', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 [http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/essentials/soldiers/warheroes/]

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