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Taliban Bibles and Evil Empires: The Story of Assyria (Part II)
What you're about to read is part II of a series, "Taliban Bibles and Evil Empires: The Story of Assyria". If you haven't read part I, you might want to go read it so you don't miss the beginning. If you have read it, or if you don't mind starting here, then welcome to part II!
Assyria's Epic War Machine
Of course, empire-building requires an army, and, much as you might expect, Assyria had an amazing one. In fact, there was a very close relationship between the state and the army: the government of Assyria was pretty much run like the army, and in practice there wasn’t too much distinction between government service and serving in the army. Put it this way, Assyria was its army!
There were essentially two phases of the Assyrian army, at least in the period we’re looking at here. Originally the Assyrian army was much like other armies in the Near East: most of the soldiers were peasant farmers, and they were called up by the state to serve in the army in summer, after the harvest in May (Healy). These peasants would have served in the Assyrian infantry, the foot soldiers, kind of like in Medieval Europe.
The nobles, however, used chariots. Now, the chariot is one of the most history-making war weapons ever: long before the Neo-Assyrian Empire, chariots allowed armies to pursue fleeing enemies, making retreats deadly for basically the first time in military history! The key thing to understand about chariots is that they were mobile platforms for chariot warriors to fight from, mostly with bow and arrow, though they could use other weapons. They were beyond doubt the tanks of the ‘very ancient world’, if you will.
One of the many things that makes the Assyrian army so interesting is that it was the last Near Eastern army to really use chariotry in a big way. There were a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, chariots were really expensive: they required ancient states to maintain teams of specialists to build them and repair them, and the different kinds of wood that they had to use to build chariots sometimes had to be imported. In fact, both Assyria and Egypt had to import wood for their chariots, and both of them depended very heavily on the same place, Lebanon, which became insanely strategic! (Gabriel & Metz). I don’t know about you, but that sort of reminds me of our current dependence on Middle Eastern oil!
Now, by the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the chariots that the Assyrians used had gotten really big and heavy. Unlike the Egyptian New Kingdom chariots you might have seen, the chariots the Assyrians were using followed a design introduced by the Hittites: big, heavy, and with the axle in the middle of the cart instead of the very back. They lost a lot of the speed and agility of those really beautiful, light Egyptian chariots, but what they gained was sturdiness, and the ability to carry more weight.
This allowed the Assyrians, like the Hittites before them, to have three men in the chariot instead of just two: the third guy’s position had formerly been that of a “runner”, a kind of foot soldier who went into battle beside a chariot to help protect it from other chariots and their runners. But with a bigger chariot, he could ride shotgun and carry the shield so that the driver didn’t have to. Still later, the Assyrians would actually up the ante again, adding a fourth guy to serve as a second shield-bearer!
But besides being really expensive, the real reason that the chariot was starting to lose its place in warfare was that folks were breeding bigger horses, and starting to ride them into battle. In other words, the Assyrians and some of the folks they fought were starting to bring in cavalry for the very first time.
Now, much like any new art, much like chariotry itself back when it had been introduced, riding horseback had to go through some really awkward phases. My dad, a pretty smart guy in his own right, once told me that he thinks all new inventions have to be introduced as new versions of something old. Is he right? Well, take a gander at this pic of two early Assyrian cavalry.
Notice how you have those two guys together? Yeah, right down through much of the 8th century the Assyrian cavalry rode into battle in pairs, by which I mean that one guy would take the reins for both horses and hold a shield to protect ‘em both, while the other guy fired a bow—kind of like a chariot. That’s how cavalry got its start: they nixed the chariot for some troops, and had ‘em ride like this, all while having other guys carry on using chariots.
Later on, the Assyrians got a lot better at riding, and in the second half of the 8th century (700s BCE) they began to switch to single cavalry, during the reign of a very remarkable Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE). From this time on, cavalry would start to edge out chariotry.
So if you’ll notice, even as the Assyrians were moving towards heavier chariots on the one hand, they were nixing the chariot on the other! What was going on, you might ask? Something amazing: the Assyrians were introducing, in the words of author Richard Gabriel, “the new combat arm of horse cavalry.”
Now, the Assyrians weren’t the only people experimenting with cavalry at this point: some of the folks they were fighting over there in the Levant had cavalry too. What was distinct was how organized the Assyrian cavalry were, and their role as a combat arm of the Assyrian army.
In fact, it’s even more interesting than that, because the Assyrians were actually influenced pretty substantially by a couple of peoples who would go on to play a much bigger role in the later history of the region: the Median and Persian peoples. These folks lived beyond the great Zagros mountain range, in what is today western Iran. Back then, the Zagros more or less formed the frontier between the Assyrians and their Mesopotamian world, and these Median and Persian tribes. Here’s author Mark Healy:
“In their attempt to extend their control into and beyond the rough country of the Zagros the Assyrians were forced to adapt to the conditions of warfare imposed upon them by the Median and Persian horseman. Indeed, later Assyrian incursions into this region took the form of large raids on towns carried out solely by cavalry in order to capture, pillage, and burn Iranian settlements and carry of booty.”
Remember those Medes and Persians, because they’re going to become important near the very end of our story, and beyond.
Now, something else was going on with the Assyrian army, and it was another great watershed in the history of armies: the Assyrians were creating what was probably the world’s first true standing army. Above I said that there were two phases of the Assyrian army, and the first involved mostly peasant conscripts. But under Tiglath-Pileser III, one of the most remarkable and charismatic Assyrian emperors, Assyria moved decisively towards a standing army.
Author Richard Gabriel actually claims that this army had to have been between 150,000 and 200,000 men. In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s huge. Now, they didn’t have all of it everywhere at once: probably something like a third of it was stationed off in the provinces at any given time.
But what about on the field? I’ll let Richard Gabriel take this one:
“An Assyrian combat field army numbered 50,000 men, with various mixes of infantry, chariots, and cavalry. When arrayed for battle, an Assyrian field army took up an area 2,500 yards across and 100 yards deep. Under Sargon II [r. 721-705 BCE], the professional praetorian corps of the army was expanded to several thousand, and an inner elite, known as ‘the companions’ or ‘troops of the feet,’ formed the spine of the army. Provincial governors were required to raise and support local forces for use in time of war.”
The true heyday of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was dawning. This amazing army was the work of first, Tiglath-Pileser III, who pulled the empire out of a period of about fifty years of weakness, and then some of his successors. Around this time Assyria had been having some really major problems with the kingdom of Urartu in the north, in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and Tiglath-Pileser III came to power after a revolt in the capital city of Calah. Tiglath-Pileser III reformed the army as we’ve seen, and he did something similar in the provinces, too: he made the administration more efficient, and reduced the power that the governors were allowed to wield.
You’ll recall that back near the beginning, I raised the question about whether or not there’s anything good about empires, and I mentioned trade as one thing that a lot of historians have picked up on. On that note, it’s certainly worth looking at why the Assyrians were so intent on building their empire. The answer turned out to have pretty much everything to do with trade: the Assyrians wanted to get their hands on basically all the trade routes in West Asia (basically, the Middle East).
Here’s Bedford again:
“Assyria sought a stranglehold on all the trade routes in western Asia. It wanted to divert to the center the luxury goods and as much as possible of the surplus produced in the subjugated territories, which were then largely devoted to the building of palaces and new royal cities… Driving westward to the Mediterranean, it gained access to the Phoenician seaports, with their exotic wares, and to Lebanese cedar, while by pushing north into eastern Anatolia [modern-day Turkey] and east into the Zagros it obtained control over mineral deposits” (44).
But it wasn’t just goods that the Assyrians were after: it was also people. Let’s turn back to our Bibles again for a moment. The setting is the year 701 BCE, and the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib has sent an army under the command of the Rabshakeh, basically the Assyrian vizier, against the kingdom of Judah, ruled by King Hezekiah. This is the Rabshakeh speaking, quoting the words of Sennacherib:
“’Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: “Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive groves and honey, that you may live and not die”’” (2 Kings 18:31-32, NKJV).
Wait, did you catch that? It sounds like the Rabshakeh is giving the people of Jerusalem a sales pitch—and he is. What he’s trying to sell them on is the Pax Assyriaca, the Assyrian Peace. Now, did you notice how he was talking about Sennacherib basically relocating everyone? That’s the meaning of the message: surrender, pay tribute, and in time I will relocate you to a new place.
So where was this land? Believe it or not, but Sennacherib was probably intending to relocate them to the Assyrian homeland, or one of the provinces nearby. That’s right: one of the major aspects, even objectives, of Assyrian imperialism was to relocate conquered populations from far-flung lands to the Assyrians’ own heartland.
The basic idea was that by deporting people from all over the place and relocating them to their own homeland, the Assyrians could rule them more effectively. In fact, the idea was that this strategy would do two things: one, it would weaken the conquered territories by depriving them of people, and two, it would integrate some of the conquered populations into Assyrian society (Danzig). In fact, the deportations were apparently one of the major reasons why the Assyrians built extensive road systems.
The Will of God
Like pretty much every empire before or since, it wasn’t enough for Assyria to conquer people and take their shit: no, they had to find some way to justify the whole thing. The Assyrians came up with a real doozie. Their national god, Ashur, was the head of their pantheon (surprise, surprise), and that meant that all the gods acknowledged his supremacy. Because of this, and because they were his chosen people, the Assyrians were clearly only fulfilling the will of Ashur by conquering the lands of these other gods.
Here’s Bedford again:
“The superior military power on which Assyrian hegemony was founded was thus a reflection of the will of Ashur and the divine mandate to bring territories under his control… Assyrian expansion was construed in theological and moral terms: it was right and proper that neighboring peoples submit to Assyrian sovereignty, a circumstance sanctioned by the gods. The Assyrian Empire was bringing into earthly political reality the order that obtained in the heavenly realm where the gods of all the peoples and polities of western Asia acknowledged Ashur as their lord.”
Believe it or not, but there’s a really exciting example of this right in the Bible, in 2 Kings 18! Here’s the Rabshakeh again, quoting Sennacherib:
“’”Have I now come up without the LORD against this place to destroy it? The LORD said to me, ‘Go up against this land, and destroy it’”’” (2 Kings 18:25, NKJV).
Did you catch that? Through his mouthpiece the Rabshakeh, Sennacherib is saying that the Hebrew god, Yahweh, commanded him to destroy the kingdom of Judah! Some of you are probably thinking, ‘I never learned that in Sunday school!’
Basically, the Assyrians’ idea that they were the chosen people (of Ashur) conflicted with the Hebrews’ idea that they were the chosen people (of Yahweh). But we’re already getting ahead of our story a bit, because if you look at the broader picture, there was a lot of this sort of thing going around.
Empire and its Challenges
From the time of Tiglath-Pileser III on, the Assyrians were invading everybody: the Urartians in the north, the Madai or Medes in the northeast, the Elamites in the southeast, and a whole assemblage of different tribal groups in southern Mesopotamia. In 722 Shalmaneser V took Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and destroyed it. As podcaster Dan Carlin points out, and as any ancient historian could tell you, that’s how the ten Lost Tribes of Israel became ‘lost’: they were conquered by the Assyrians and deported. At some point, they pretty much lost their identity and became, presumably, Assyrians.
Another thing that Tiglath-Pileser III did that would end up having huge consequences for the Assyrians was taking the throne of Babylon. Now, this wasn’t standard procedure: remember, from what we’ve learned so far, the Assyrians were all about taking over foreign kingdoms and either reducing them to vassals or making them provinces. But Babylon was different: from this point on, the usual pattern would be for the Assyrian kings to actually take the throne of Babylon whenever they could, something they did with literally no other subject nation. It kind of reminds me, a little bit, of all those dual monarchies that medieval to modern European kingdoms were always creating, like Poland and Lithuania, England and Scotland (later the United Kingdom), and Austria-Hungary.
Assyria’s last dynasty is known as the Sargonid dynasty, after Sargon II, who came to power in about 721 BCE. In this period the Assyrians kicked the maximum amount of ass that they had ever kicked, in fact that any empire had ever kicked up to then.
Take the career of Sennacherib (r. 704-681 BCE), for example: here was an Assyrian king who actually invaded Babylon and destroyed it. This was really shocking, because the Assyrians had always kind of had a special relationship with the Babylonians: sure, they fought each other sometimes, but the Assyrians looked to Babylon as a source of culture, kind of like the Romans would do centuries later with the Greeks. Think of it like the U.S. destroying Paris or something: it wasn’t the kind of thing you did if you were a civilized power!
Actually, the story of Sennacherib’s sack of Babylon is really interesting, because it touches on some of the problems that the Assyrians encountered in Babylonia pretty much constantly: dealing with the Aramaeans and the Chaldeans, both groups who had become pretty much local to the area by this point. Basically these groups were tribal, and they lived in the hinterlands of Mesopotamia, around and beyond the great cities like Babylon, Nippur, and so on. They were always trying to horn in on things in Babylon, and as we’ll see, they would ultimately succeed. Sennacherib dealt with them for the time, but they were one of those “problem” peoples for the Assyrians that never really went away.
The other thing Sennacherib is known for is attacking the kingdom of Judah. The Bible has this whole really great story about how God intervened and slew 185,000 men in Sennacherib’s army, thereby saving Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35). Now, modern historians generally try to take a sort of hands-off approach when it comes to claims of divine intervention, but the truth of the matter is we simply don’t know exactly what happened in 701 BCE. Still, we do have Sennacherib’s words on what happened, and you simply have to read them.
“As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: I besieged and took 46 of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number… 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. [Hezekiah] himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him—the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery” (qtd. in Rocca).
Take those numbers with a grain of salt, but wow, right?? And at Lachish, in typical Assyrian fashion, they actually flayed some of their prisoners alive.
And it didn’t stop there: Sennacherib’s son and successor Esarhaddon invaded Egypt in 680 BCE. Egypt at the time had fallen very far from her golden days as a superpower: in fact, she wasn’t even ruled by Egyptians anymore, but rather by a really fascinating group of people called the Kushites or Nubians. These folks, basically from what is today Sudan, had long been influenced by Egyptian civilization, and back in 728 BCE they had invaded under their great king Piankhi. Seriously, go look into Piankhi and his Kushite dynasty if you want some interesting reading, because they’re a really interesting group of folks!
Unfortunately for these Kushite rulers, their kingdom of Egypt plus Kush was no match for Assyria, and Esarhaddon launched two brutal invasions, and his son and successor, Ashurbanipal, launched two more. These four invasions completely shattered Egypt and netted the Assyrians massive train-loads of booty—and they also set the Assyrians up for their own downfall.
End of Empire
Ashurbanipal was the last great king of Assyria, the last king to amount to much. His reign from 668 to 631 accounts for Assyria’s last burst of greatness, the very end of its golden age, and by the time of his death the Assyrians were having some real problems. The Assyrians had wrested control of Egypt by brute force, but they basically found themselves overextended.
Way out on the western edge of Egypt’s Nile Delta, in the frontier city of Sais, a local petty dynast called Psamtek recruited a whole bunch of mercenaries from different parts of the Greek world, and used this army—and navy too, actually—to build up his power in Egypt. This Saite Dynasty would go on to replace the Assyrian power, not by actually fighting the Assyrians but by building up his forces and engaging in some really interesting political wrangling.
The thing of it was, the Assyrians didn’t have the time or troops to bring Egypt back in line, because they had much bigger problems elsewhere. In the east, in modern-day Iran, the Medes were becoming a huge problem again. If you’ll recall, back in the day the Assyrians learnt the art of cavalry fighting some of these same groups, and burning their villages.
Well, now those birds were coming home to roost: under all that Assyrian pressure, the Medes were changing from a collection of tribes to a strong kingdom. I like to think of it like tectonic forces: the Assyrian ‘plate’ ground into the Median ‘plate’ across the Zagros, and in the process forced the Medes to start to unify into the kind of nation that could better respond to the Assyrian Empire.
Now, the last years of Ashurbanipal’s reign aren’t too well-documented, but what we do know isn’t good: from about 639 to his death, Ashurbanipal faced an increasingly difficult situation, mostly with the Medes, but also with a wave of nomadic invaders from the Eurasian Steppe. These were the Scythians, fierce horsemen who swept across the Caucasus and annihilated Assyria’s one-time great rival, Urartu, and then began to pressure Assyria in the north.
After Ashurbanipal died, Assyria came under pressure from a third direction: in addition to Medes in the east and Scythians in the north, they now had to contend with Babylonians in the south. That’s right: the Babylonians had found themselves a new king, Nabopolassar, backed by the Chaldean, or ‘Kaldu’ (Chaldean is actually the Greek) tribes. If you think about it, the interesting thing is that all of these folks the Assyrians were fighting were more-or-less tribal peoples, with strong warrior traditions.
Near the very end, in a really ironic twist of history, Egypt came to Assyria’s aid. Egypt was trying to stop a strong Babylon from replacing an increasingly weak Assyria, but alas for both Egypt and Assyria, it was much too little, much too late. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, fell to a combined force of Medes and Babylonians in 612 BCE. A remnant of Assyrian forces, however, held out with Egyptian support until 605 BCE, when they were defeated at Carchemish. The power of Assyria was broken forever.
The Ashes of Nineveh: The Legacy of the Assyrian Empire
So what are we to make of the Assyrian Empire? Was it an evil empire, and if so, can we really say that any empire is not an evil empire? And then there’s the Pax Assyriaca to consider: the imperial peace, with all the cities and the trade that it protected and controlled.
Or maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree altogether if we get hung up on “evil empires” versus “imperial peace”—or at least, maybe there’s another way of looking at things. In his chapter on the Neo-Assyrian Empire, author Peter Bedford draws on another author, who notes that there are four main strategies for doing empire:
“rule through clients; direct army rule; ‘compulsory cooperation’ (indicating ‘that economic development and repression could go together,’…) and the development of a common ruling-class culture…”
Okay, rule through clients, rule through occupation by the army, forcing conquered peoples to cooperate (plus side: economic benefits. down side: repression), and then developing a common culture for the ruling elite. Great, got it. Now, want to guess where the Assyrians fit in this scheme? They leaned increasingly towards the latter three strategies, moving away from rule through clients as we’ve seen. We’ve already seen that their army was a watershed in history. Well, the same was true of their ruling elite culture: there was a certain sense of national belonging that was shared by at least the upper crust of Assyrian provincial society.
The Assyrians, in other words, occupied an important place in history. As a great power, they were born into the cosmopolitan world of the Late Bronze Age, a fascinating time of superpower rivalries and a great powers club. Later, from about the late 10th-mid 8th centuries, they matured and increasingly came to dominate a very changed world in the early Iron Age, a time when they were one of the few peoples to really persist in a big way from that other, older world. And still later, from about the mid-8th century to mid-late 7th century, they created a new kind of empire, a new way of doing empire.
All that said, there’s a certain irony, to my mind, that the epitaph of the Assyrian Empire was written by the prophets of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. From the Biblical book of Nahum, who is only the most obscure prophet ever (except for maybe Habakkuk):
“Your shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria;
Your nobles rest in the dust.
Your people are scattered on the mountains,
And no one gathers them.
Your injury has no healing,
Your wound is severe.
All who hear news of you
Will clap their hands over you,
For upon whom has not your wickedness passed continually?” ~Nahum 3:18-19, NKJV.
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