The Assyrian Empire

  June 18, 2022   Read time 5 min
The Assyrian Empire
Since the days of Hammurabi, the peoples of the Mesopotamian valley had been squeezed in a vice of migratory peoples. For a long time its opposing jaws had been the Hittites and the Mitanni, but from time to time others had ruled in Assur and Babylon.

When, in due course, the Hittites also crumbled, ancient Mesopotamia was the seat of no great military power for a long time. A cluster of aggressive Semitic tribes whom scholars call Aramaeans, followers of the old tradition of expansion into the fertile lands from the desert, were the awkward and touchy neighbours of the reduced kings of Assyria for 200years or so – for about as long as the United States has existed. Though one of these Semitic peoples was called the Chaldees and therefore subsequently gave its name somewhat misleadingly to Babylonia, there is not much to be remarked in this story except further evidence of the fragility of the political constructions of the ancient world.

Shape only begins to reappear in the turmoil of events in the ninth century BCwhen Mesopotamia recovered. Then, the Old Testament tells us, Assyrian armies were once more on the move against the Syrian and Jewish kingdoms. After some successful resistance the Assyrians came back again and again, and they conquered. This was the beginning of a new, important and unpleasant phase of Middle Eastern history. A new Assyrian empire was in the making. In the eighth century it was moving to its apogee, and Nineveh, the capital high up the Tigris, which had replaced the ancient centre of Assur, became the focus of Mesopotamian history as Babylon had once been. The Assyrian empire was unifi ed in a way that other great empires were not; it did not rely on the vassalization of kings and the creation of tributaries. Instead, it swept native rulers away and installed Assyrian governors. Often, too, it swept away peoples. One of its characteristic techniques was mass deportation; the Ten Tribes of Israel are the best-remembered victims.

Assyrian expansion was carried forward by repeated and crushing victory. Its greatest successes followed 729 BC , when Babylon was seized. Soon after, Assyrian armies destroyed Israel; Egypt was invaded, its kings were confi ned to Upper Egypt and the delta was annexed. By then Cyprus had submitted, Cilicia and Syria had been conquered. Finally, in 646 BC , Assyria made its last important conquest, part of the land of Elam, whose kings dragged the Assyrian conqueror’s chariot through the streets of Nineveh. The consequences were of great importance for the whole Middle East. A standardized system of government and law spanned the whole area for the fi rst time. Conscript soldiers and deported populations were moved about within it, sapping its provincialism. Aramaic spread widely as a common language. A new cosmopolitanism was possible after the Assyrian age.

This great formative power is commemorated in monuments of undeniable impressiveness. Sargon II( 721 – 705 BC ) built a great palace at Khorsabad, near Nineveh, which covered half a square mile of land and was embellished with more than a mile of sculpted reliefs. The profi ts of conquest fi nanced a rich and splendid court. Ashurbanipal ( 668 – 626 BC ) also left his monuments (including obelisks carried off to Nineveh from Thebes), but he was a man with a taste for learning and antiquities and his fi nest relic is what survives of the great collection of tablets he made for his library. In it he accumulated copies of all that he could discover of the records and literature of ancient Mesopotamia. It is to these copies that we owe much of our knowledge of Mesopotamian literature, among them the Epic of Gilgamesh in its fullest edition, a translation made from Sumerian. The ideas that moved this civilization are thus fairly accessible from literature as well as from other sources. The frequent representation of Assyrian kings as hunters may be a part of the image of the warrior-king, but may also form part of a conscious identifi cation of the king with legendary conquerors of nature who had been the heroes of a remote Sumerian past.

The stone reliefs which commemorate the great deeds of Assyrian kings also repeat, monotonously, another tale – that of sacking, enslavement, impalement, torture and the fi nal solution of mass deportation. The Assyrian empire had a brutal foundation of conquest and intimidation. It was made possible by the creation of the best army up to this time. Fed by conscription of all males and armed with iron weapons, it also had siege artillery able to breach walls until this time impregnable, and even some mailed cavalry. It was a co-ordinated force of all arms. Perhaps, too, it had a special religious fervour. The god Assur is shown hovering over the armies as they go to battle and to him kings reported their victories over unbelievers.

The Assyrian empire peaked quickly, and then waned. In one of the first examples of what the British modern historian Paul Kennedy has called imperial overstretch, their kings put too great a strain on Assyrian numbers. The year after Ashurbanipal died, the empire began to crumble, the fi rst sign being a revolt in Babylon. The rebels were supported by the Chaldeans and also by a great new neighbour, the kingdom of the Medes, now the leading Iranian people. Their entrance as a major power on the stage of history marks an important change. The Medes had hitherto been distracted by having to deal with yet another wave of barbarian invaders from the north, the Scythians, who poured down into Iran from the Caucasus (and at the same time down the Black Sea coast towards Europe). These were light cavalrymen, fi ghting with the bow from horseback, and the fi rst major eruption into western Asia of a new force in world history, nomadic peoples straight from Central Asia. When Scyths and Medes joined forces, Assyria was pushed over the edge, giving the Babylonians independence again; Assyria passes from history with the sack of Nineveh by the Medes in 612 BC .

Write your comment