Horrors of War in the Ancient Near East

By: Jordi Vidal

War in the Middle East seems ever-present. But the study of war has been neglected, no more so than in the ancient Near East, and especially its impact on non-combatant populations.

After the Second World War, military history became a marginal discipline within academia. From 1960 to 1990, devoting oneself to the study of war meant the risk of being described as right-wing, a war-gamer or, in the best cases, second-rate. Some military history specialists explained this marginalisation as the direct result of the trauma caused by the 20th century, the nuclear threat, the prospect of non-conventional wars, peace movements, or just greater interest in socio-economic rather than political history.

“Standard of Ur,” ‘War’ panel, from the Royal Cemetery, ca. 2600 BC.

Since the 1990s military history has resurged and there are an increasing number of books, journals, articles, conferences and scientific meetings on the subject. I believe that the main reason is very simple: the military history being written now is better than what was written before. Today’s military history is no longer devoted solely to military matters but adopts an overall approach to the phenomenon of war, paying particular attention to the interaction between war and the society, the economy, politics and culture. The result is higher quality history.

In the framework of the Ancient Near East, Davide Nadali and I felt it appropriate to research the impact of war on non-combatants. Very good initial studies have already been published, such as the 1999 essay by Marc Van de Mieroop  that argued for a change in the study of warfare in the ANE. Van de Mieroop proposed a shift from history based on the great kings and generals to one that analysed the consequences of war on everyday people. He also sought to show that this new kind of history was possible using available sources. Van de Mieroop’s example was a small private archive from the late 7th century BC, found in the city of Nippur and belonging to a local nobleman. This archive described in detail the devastating effects on the city’s inhabitants of the siege led by Nabopolassar of Babylonia: the price of cereals rose, the lower classes were drastically impoverished, and traders appeared, offering to buy the children of ruined families.

Assyrian attack on town, from the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, ca. 860 BC.

Assyrian soldiers piling war booty and prisoners, from the Southwest Palace at Nineveh, ca. 640-620 BC.

A convoy of prisoners being escorted by an Assyrian soldier, from the Southwest Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III at Nimrud, ca. 730-727 BC.

Recent episodes such as the massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda (1994), the massacre at Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia (1995), or the current civil war in Syria, to cite just a few examples, cruelly remind us that civilians are often the main victims of modern armed conflict. However, far from being an exclusively contemporary phenomenon, examples of violence against non-combatants are abundant even in the most ancient historical sources.

Following in the footsteps of Van de Mieroop, Nadali and I have edited a volume devoted to violence against non-combatants from the end of the third millennium BC (the Third Dynasty of Ur) to the middle of the first millennium BC (the Achaemenid period). The end result was The other face of the battle. The impact of war on civilians in the Ancient Near East, a set of seven contributions from Agnès Garcia, Jürgen Lorenz, John MacGinnis, Leticia Rovira, Ingo Schrakamp and Jeffrey Zorn.

Brass band from the Balawat gate of Shalmaneser III showing prisoners being tortured and dismembered, ca. 858-824 BC.

Prisoners being flayed during the siege of Lachish, from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, 701 BC.

The studies cover a wide range related to the impact of war on non-combatants: (1) the influence of military campaigns during the Ur III period on the economic structures of that state; (2) the mass deportations recorded in the Mari texts, describing the situation of the deportees, who, completely unwillingly, underwent a process of cultural inter-breeding during resettlement; (3) the Hittite military strategy against enemy populations, which included systematic destruction of economic resources, mass deportations, the depopulation of territories and complete destruction of enemy settlements; (4) the economic motives that explained the attack against the populations of Ugarit, Sumur, Giluni, and Magdalu in the Late Bronze Age; (5) the condition of the first millennium BC civilian populations in Israel and southern Levant during wartime, with examples of massacres of people, forced labour, slavery and deportations; (6) the systematic Assyrian policy of capturing and deporting people, and the efforts of the Assyrian governors and officials to deal with high numbers of prisoners/deportees; and (7) the situation of non-combatants in Babylonia during the military campaigns carried out by the Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Achaemenids.

Assyrian soldiers impaling prisoners after the siege of Lachish, from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, 701 BC.

Mass grave in cave Lachish showing skulls of some individuals buried after the Assyrian conquest of Lachish under Sennacherib in 701 BC (from Lachish III, Pl. 4).

The studies collected in The Other Face of the Battle have helped to establish that violence against non-combatants in the ancient Near East had very similar causes to those seen in contemporary times. If we arrange the case studies discussed in the book thematically, we may conclude that there were three main causes: (1) the desire to obtain economic or territorial gains, (2) an eliminationist mentality that led attackers to decide their enemy’s very existence was dangerous from a moral, material and/or intellectual standpoint and thus had to be eradicated, and (3) an attempt to terrorise the enemy by systematically exercising violence against non-combatants, thus reducing the enemy’s combat capacity.

The three causes mentioned, already existing in the ancient world, can explain many of the examples that are taking place at the moment. Sadly, we must conclude by stating that violence against civilians is one of the long term features of history.

Jordi Vidal is “Ramón y Cajal” researcher at theUniversitat Autònoma de Barcelona

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