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Rise and Fall of Neo-Assyrian Empire

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The Assyrian Empire was a massive territory at its height that stretched “from the banks of the Nile in the west to the Iranian Plateau in the east, from the Arabian peninsula in the south to the mountains of the Caucasus in the north”[1]. It was a militaristic nation that was feared and admired throughout its empire and beyond. In order to examine the events of the Late Assyrian Period from Ashurbanipal onwards, which led to the demise of this once great empire, it is instructive to first examine the characteristics and origins of the Assyrian society.

The initial question when examining the origins of any empire is why did the initial state decide to conquer and expand? In addition, what were the motivations as the empire continued to expand? In the case of the city-state of Asshur, the central motivation seems to be that they found themselves in a situation of conquer or be conquered. Asshur started raiding the surrounding area as retaliation for threats of attack upon them[2]. A second equally important motivation was unsurprisingly the plunder that accompanied conquests. Additionally, rainfall was too little for Asshur to simply be an agricultural city and so it had to develop as a trading one early on[3]. Pillage and rape was considered as part of the income for troops. The King naturally reserved the best plunder for himself. Plunder never left but as the Assyrian Empire expanded tributes and taxes tended to feed the greed of the Assyrians more. Vassal states and provincial territories sent annual taxes and tributes. Territories under Assyria by treaty arrangements did likewise but the taxes tended to be lower. Certain taxes would never leave the provinces and might instead be diverted to pay for local garrisons of troops[4].

Historically, there has been a perception of the Assyrian empire as a “uniquely efficient and remorseless warmongering and bloodthirsty military machine, with quasi-Hitlerian connotations: an ‘evil empire’ of antiquity, such as to require, in the eyes of history, an overall moral judgement”[5]. This was a longstanding view of the Assyrian empire held by scholars. It is easy to see how this perception developed simply by examining some of Esarhaddon’s purported achievements. For example, a campaign by Esarhaddon against the city of Sidon, culminated in the heads of the kings of Sidon and his Cilician ally were tied to the necks of their ministers and carried in a march through Nineveh while people celebrated. When the city of Arza was conquered its King was displayed garishly in chains at the gates of Nineveh[6]. Also, one of the military’s main tactics was to use certain cities to set an example to others in the region. The city in question would have its houses “looted and set afire, the people were subjected to murder, rape, mutilation, or slavery”[7] amongst other acts of cruelty. Another tactic employed by the military was to transport rebellious populations to a completely different location as they saw fit.

Despite this perception, recent research has revealed a different story. One in which diplomacy was the preferred method of gaining territory and not extensive, prolonged violence. Grayson cites the fact that the area under control by treaty arrangements in the Assyrian Empire was far larger than the areas under the direct control of the King as evidence. The militaristic nature of Assyrian society would probably have led to less boasting of accomplishments through diplomacy. This is one of the reasons it is thought that such little evidence has survived of their diplomatic efforts. Putting down the rebellion of King Hezekiah is a good example. The Assyrian official is said to have given the populace of Judah in 701 a simple choice. Either remove Hezekiah yourself and submit again to Assyria or believe in Hezekiah’s calls to trust God and deal with the heavy military repercussions[8]. A heavy preference for diplomacy was clearly backed up with the threat of violence. Of course this constitutes effective diplomacy to this day.

Over time, religious and ideological factors became more important in terms of motivations for conquest. Although it is unlikely that economic motivations ever truly lost their appeal. Hayim Tadmor for example, argues that the main duty of an Assyrian king was to expand the borders of his land.  To illustrate this he uses the example of a Middle Assyrian text in which King Tukulti-Ninurta I was handed a scepter and was told by priest of Assur to extend his land! This was the solitary royal duty mentioned in the text, highlighting its importance. A similar text telling King Assurbanipal to do the same thing six hundred years later has also been found. Except in the latter case he was also handed a mace in addition to the scepter[9]. This was part of Assyrian royal and political ideology. An important component of this was the perception of the King as a hero. Almost ritually every King performed a heroic deed at the beginning of their reign. The concept of surpassing your predecessors was also clearly a very strong motivator for new Kings and Kings usually tried to do this through military accomplishments.  To make sure people, and no doubt their successors, would remember said accomplishments salmu’s or stele’s and monuments were erected at the territorial margins of their empires during their reign.  An example of this practice is Sargon II expanding the horizons of the empire to include Cypriot islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Before his reign no King had ever gone so far and he made sure to specifically mention this fact in a stele[10]. Another example is Sargon II’s grandson Esarhaddon expanding Assyria’s borders deeper into the Arabian Desert and into Northern Egypt. Allegations of embellishment are plentiful when it comes to these feats. However, this only confirms that Assyrian Kings were highly motivated to expand their borders and to be remembered to have done so. Religious concerns were closely linked to these motivations. Every King of Assyria was considered to be carrying out all of his acts on behalf of the god Asshurr[11].

It is in analyzing these motivations that we start to get an idea of how integral the Assyrian military was to the Assyrian way of life. The Assyrian military held pride of place in the empire’s machinations and this was reflected throughout Assyrian society. Naturally, the military was central to Assyria’s expansion plans. The King was an absolute ruler and this entailed also being commander in chief of the armies. This dual role of the King was replicated by many officials in the political structure of Assyria[12]. The size of the Assyrian armies grew to be in the hundreds of thousands in the seventh century. This number seems surprisingly large but the fact that all Assyrrian men had to serve in the military if called upon makes the number seem more reasonable. In addition, men from conquered regions were recruited into the army. This is an important point to note. The Assyrian Empire was not populated purely by Assyrians. Assyrians were speakers of the dialect of Akkadian called Assyrian[13].



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