Urartu ñ the Kingdom of Van (I/39)

By Tony Wilson (aka Sarduri II)

> Army Notes > DBA Resources > Fanaticus

Originally appearing as one of a number of Hurrian tribes composing the people, or confederacy, of Nairi [I/4c] in the fertile lands around lake Van, Urartu (the Assyrian name), first comes to prominence in the mid 9th century BC.

The kingdom of Bianili (which was their own name) lasted some 300 years, for most of which time, it was a major rival and opponent to their better known neighbours, the Assyrians. Shalmenser III, Tiglath-Pilesar and Sargon II campaigned against Urartu with varying degrees of success; but while battles were lost, ransoms levied, and towns sacked, they never conquered the Kingdom, reduced it to vassalage, or took its capital or its king (though Ruasas I reputedly took his own life on hearing of the loss of a religious stronghold to Sargon's forces).

Less well known are the invasions of Assyria by Urarturian kings! The greatest of these being Argishti's I conquest of the provinces of Melitanuh and Komaguenuhin and invasion of Babylon (!) reaching as far as the river Diala, and levying an enormous ransom.

In the words of the Assyrian Turtan Shamsheluh - himself an otherwise undefeated general:

"(Argishti)...whose name is as terrible as a dreadful storm, whose might is immeasurable, who cannot be compared with any one of the previous kings..."


ARAMU (860-840) Recognised as founder of the kingdom. Around 856 B.C., the Assyrian king Shalmeneser III defeats Aramu.
SARDUR I (840-830) Tushpa becomes the capital of Urartu
ISHPUINIS (830-810) Continued war with Assyria and expanded into surrounding states.
MENUAS (810-780) He established the outlines of the empire, and organized the centralized administrative structure, fortified a number of cities and founded fortresses. The canal and irrigation system of the kingdom was heavily developed by Menua, one canal remaining in use to this day!
ARGISHTISH I (780-760) Victorious against Assyria, and expands the kingdom North to lake Sevan.
SARDUR II (760-730) Annexes northern Syria but ultimately loses it to a long campaign by Tiglath-Pileser III.
RUSAS I (730-713) Defeated by Sargon II, who first attacked and destroyed Mettati, Urartuís ally. Urartu had to pay a very heavy ransom.
ARGISHTISH II (713-685) This reign marks the beginning of the multiple attacks of Cimmerians on Urartu.
RUSAS II (685-645) Circa 680 B.C. builds a new capital at Rushahinli.
SARDUR III (645-625) During this and the next reign, Urartu and Assyria cease their warring in the face of the threat from the Medes.
ERIMENA (625-605)  
RUSAS III (605-590) Circa 590 B.C., The capital Rusahinili is decimated and completed destroyed by Medes.
SARDUR IV (590-585) In 585 B.C., Urartu is totally annihilated by the Scythians

This chronology follows academic convention, but there is currently some considerable debate about the ending of the Kingdom It is suggested that it may have been Babylonian forces, rather than the Medes, who destroyed Rusahinili, and that the remnant of the kingdom fell to Cyrusís Persians.

Urartu appears to have enjoyed a high level of cultural sophistication, with their metalwork exported as far as Greece and Italy. Recovered artifacts and sites (many of which have been wrongly ascribed to the Assyrians) show a high degree of engineering in both fortification and civil projects, with elements of their canal network surviving in use to date.

View of remains of the fortifications of the capitol Tushpa
(the thin tower is a mosque minaret from a later period)

In addition to ore for arms and armour, gold and silver were mined in Urartu, and the remarkable list of spoils taken by the Assyrians from one provincial capitol is indicative of a comfortably wealthy state. Much of the spoil may have been votive offerings, but that does not reduce the sheer quantity of precious metals involved.

Archaeological findings include elaborate personal jewelry, ceramic perfume pots, and a wide range of bronze domestic implements. Taken along with both Urartian and Assyrian written records, the picture is one of a settled, civilized state, not a mere confederation of ìmountain tribesmenî.

Detail from helmet ascribed to Sarduri II

The Army

The Urartian army in DBA is sadly not one to strike terror into the hearts of many foes. The preponderance of Auxilia (9!) in its earliest (a) incarnation restrict it to fighting in the bad going of its "Hilly" home terrain, however with Aggression 3, it will too often find itself on the attack in the flat.

Even the later (b) army - Argishti and on - is not too inspiring. (I/39b) consists of 1x Heavy Chariot General, 3x Cavalry (1x light Chariot), 1x Psiloi, 1x Horde, 5x Auxilia and 1x Spear/Auxilia.

I built the army because I liked the idea of fielding something unusual, that few others would be daft enough to try, and because the concept of a "forgotten kingdom" successfully defying the "evil" Empire of Assyria for three centuries has just too much appeal for me to resist. To this point Iíve only had a limited opportunity to try the army out, and a mad rush down one flank has worked twice, and come to grief twice.

I would tend to always use the Spear (even though itís slow) as 5 Auxilia are probably enough for any task.

The Psiloi needs to (usually) be kept for rear support for three of the Auxilia.

The Cavalry are the most flexible troops, and give the army some ability if the terrain is open, although I find the Heavy Chariot General both slows them down and has to be protected from the risk of impetuously blasting through the enemy line and finding himself surrounded and alone.

So far the best job I can find for the Horde is camp guards (a job they were rather better at under 2.0!).

I'm gradually attempting to put together a case for reviewing this army list, as I believe aspects of it are incorrect.  The General as a Heavy Chariot "in imitation of Assyrian practice" has always puzzled me. Firstly, when we read of the Assyrians leaving chariots behind, or only taking one single (kings) vehicle, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, it's Urartu that they are invading.

Secondly, though I canít claim to have seen every image, each engraving extant of a Chariot that could be from Urartu (whether Urartian or Assyrian) shows a two horse, two man vehicle. Note the image above (clearly LCh) is credited as being from the kings (Sarduri II 760-) own helmet! (see also Ancient Armies of the Near East published by WRG).

I'm also uncertain of the provenance of the Horde element. I can find no evidence of an Urartian army fielding, levy, raw recruits, home guard etc. There is the distinct impression that they were added to the DBM list (from which the DBA list is clearly drawn) to give a little variety. In an army list where you can choose, that is fine, but without other evidence their required presence in the army seems unsupported.

Finally, more than one source (see again AANE) speculates that Cimmerian/Skythians may have appeared as mercenaries in this army.

Taking these together, I would propose the following list, which allows for all possibilities.

Alternative I/39(b), 1x Hch or Lch (Gen), 2 x 3 Cv, 1 x Lch or LH (Cimmerians), 1 x 4Ax or 4Sp, 5 x 3Ax, 1 x 2Ps, 1 x 7Hd or 2Ps

I would welcome any correspondence from fellow Fanatici who have evidence (or arguments) to support or refute these suggestions.

Enemies and Tactics

The historical opponents afford the opportunity to lose in a range of painful ways.

  • Middle Assyrian (I/25b) - Assyrian blades should find little to stop them.
  • Neo Hittite (I/31b) - A rare chance to pick on someone weaker than ourselves!
  • Mannaian (I/37ab) - Our less civilized mountain neighbours, who come with Bows to shoot our horses
  • Medes (I/40abc) - Against "a" we stand about even, but "b"'s spears will overpower us in the open, while "c" can shoot us as well.
  • Phrygians (I/41) - Another chance to pick on someone weaker, and the one of the few times you might want the ìguardsî as an extra Auxilia.
  • Skythians (I/43a) - Should be beatable as they are more likely to invade so you should have the terrain to restrict them, and Cavalry to beat them, but in the openÖ.
  • Neo-Assyria (I/45) - Depends if we can persuade them to invade, with enough bad going itís probably a stalemate (we canít go out, they won't come in), if we wind up in the wide open plains of Assyria (?) there's not much hiding space.
  • Later Sargonid (I/51) - Less of a threat, essentially the same composition as us, but (unfortunately) with a much better balance of forces.

To which we may speculatively add:

  • Neo Babylonian (I/44b) - A golden opportunity to be ridden over and shot up.
  • Early Persian (I/60a/b?) - An outstanding chance to get shot to pieces.

I wouldnít be rushing to engage any a-historical Knights, Blades or Pikes with this army, but among its contemporaries, it has at least the merit of being an unexpected opponent and a challenge to use.

If you can set the terrain, you have a reasonable chance against anyone, but otherwise I would try to use the Auxilia's speed to outflank any heavy foot, and the Cavalry to buy time. Spears and Horde protect the camp.

Urartian Auxilia


No manufacturer makes specific "Urartian" figures. My own army is Essex 15mm using a mix of early Assyrian figures, conversions, and anonymous ìNear Eastern Biblicalsî. I suspect an early period army could use a dash of Hittites/ Hurrians/ Mitanni and maybe even the odd Gasgan (if anyone makes them).

Camps and BUAs

A mountain fortress could make quite a spectacular model for a BUA, and while thereís no special feature for a camp, the art of Urartu, constantly features a stylised "tree of life" with winged guardians, so this might be a theme for figure converters or fantasy enthusiasts.

Alternatively you could consider a section of citadel wall such as built by Sardur I, which carried the following inscription (in Urartian and Assyrian! -just to make the point),

"the magnificent king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of the land of Nairi, a king having none equal to him, a shepherd to be wondered at, fearing no battle, a king who humbled those who would not submit to his authority."

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Thanks to Tony Wilson for submitting this essay.
Comments, questions or suggested additions can be sent
to the author or to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: June 11, 2004