Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, 911-539 B.C.

Steve Muhlberger

One reason that Israel was able to reach greatness in the time of David and Solomon (c. 1000 B.C.)  was because the traditional powers of the Middle East, Egypt, Hatti, and the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, were in disarray simultaneously. After the year 900, about the time that Israel split in two, the big powers made a comeback, which meant that small states like Israelwere doomed, for the next few centuries, to be slowly crushed, as if between great millstones.

The years after 900 ushered in an era of big empires, empires bigger than those we have seen before. By 500 B.C., all the continental countries we have been discussing had been unified in what ancient and modern historians have often called, with some exaggeration, a world-empire.

It makes most sense to talk about this new round of empire-building by beginning at the beginning, with the Assyrians. Over 300 years their wars welded the Middle East into one large political arena that could be practically dominated by a single power.

Assyria was a rather small country:a strip of fertile land along the upper Tigris river, 100 miles long by 50 miles wide, wedged between the hills to the northeast and the desert to the west. It was dominated by a easily fortified site, the city of Assur.The constant competition between the rulers of Assur and their agricultural population on one hand and the hill and desert people on the other, produced a tough, militarily capable population, and a monarchy that was more convinced than most of its right and duty to rule in the name of its patron deity, a deity who had the same name as both the capital city and the country that it created: Assur or Ashur.

It is a remarkable thing that, even though the king of Assyria was a warrior-monarch, he was also a priest-king with a heavy round of ritual obligations and a special role as intermediary with heaven and bringer with success.

Assyria was no new state -- it had been strong in the time of Hammurabi, before 1600 B.C., and it prided itself on the continuous descent of its kings from the same dynasty -- but it entered a new phase of activity after 911 B.C., when Adad-Nirari became king. He and his successors put the country on a permanent war-footing, taking their people on raids against their neighbors nearly every single year. This has been considered both an effort at defense against neighbors who were usually not very friendly, and purposeful, permanent aggression. In fact, both motivations must have been present near the beginning. There was a third one as well: the motive of crusade. The kings of Assyria thought it only right that other peoples, whom they assumed to be "wicked devils," or enemies of "the land of the god of Assur," should learn  obedience to the greatest of the gods.

As victory became more common than defeat, profit followed. The profit could be substantial.

A list of profits that King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) gained from one campaign in what Georges Roux calls "a small district of the mountainous north {265}:

Human booty taken away to Assyria: Annual tribute imposed: Enough to impoverish the defeated principality and fund the war-machine.

A near-contemporary source tells us what it was like to face Assyria at a somewhat later period (around 700 B.C.). The Second Book of Kings in the Bible recounts the story of how Hezekiah, king of Judah, defied the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, even though Israel had been destroyed by Assyria twenty years previously.

Assyria overran Judah, taking many cities and stripping the country. But Jerusalem,  was too strong to be assaulted easily, so the commanders of the army came below the walls to negotiate with the king.  They told Hezekiah that resistance was futile:

This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: 'On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have strategy and military strength -- but you speak only empty words...Look now, you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces a man's hand and wounds him if he leans on it. [They also promised to reward him if he submitted:] I will give you two thousand horses, if you can put riders on them.
This combination of threats and promises was seductive, and Hezekiah's ambassadors begged the Assyrian officers to speak Aramaic, the diplomatic language, and not Hebrew, which all the people on the walls would understand. The Assyrians, cunningly but sincerely, insisted that the people should hear, since they would suffer in any siege:
They, like you, will have to eat their own  filth and drink their own urine.
The people  were promised mercy:
Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then every one of you will eat from his own vine and fig tree and drink water from his own cistern...
An interesting aspect of this parley is the religious debate portrayed.  Hezekiah was one of the good kings of Judah, who had destroyed altars of Baal, and  might expect some favor from the Lord. The ambassadors of Assyria went to some lengths to rebut this expectation:
And if you say to me ['me' meaning the king of Assyria, whose message the ambassadors were relaying] "We are depending on the Lord our God" -- isn't he the one [Baal = Assur] whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, "You must worship before this altar in Jerusalem?" ...Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it... Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, "The Lord will deliver us." Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria?
This is a useful reminder that not only Israel believed itself to worship the one true God, and to be God's chosen people.

How did the episode come out? In the Assyrian chronicles, Sennacherib boasts of his victory.  The Second Book of Kings outlines Assyrian disaster. After prayers by Hezekiah: "That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning --- there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew."  Independent authorities confirm the plague, and certainly Jerusalem did not fall. But though Sennacherib lost much of his army, he kept his loot, including all the silver Hezekiah had stripped from the temple and sent to him before the army even reached Jerusalem.

Having seen this episode of ancient warfare close-up, let us now look at the rise and fall of the Assyrian empire.

Assyrian history in the three centuries following 911 B.C. were not all of a piece.

The first century was one of successful raiding and conquest, based on the military manpower of Assyria itself. Around 827 B.C. the peasantry and lesser nobility of Assyria had had enough.  The dissidents found a royal prince who was willing to lead them, and tried to overthrow their rulers. They did not succeed, but Assyria was much weakened and for the next century its monarchs were considerably less adventurous.

Around 745 B.C., Assyrian power revived under Tiglath-Pileser III. Thereafter, the Assyrian empire worked somewhat differently than before. Previously raiding and extorting tribute from native rulers had been the modus operandi. Now the kings attempted to build a permanent provincial structure with a hierarchy of governors and officials to administer it.  They ceased to rely on native Assyrian troops, and used mercenary troops from the frontiers. It seems likely that the natives of Assyria had been reduced to a stricter servitude, paying taxes to support the structure instead of fighting. A similar situation occurred in Rome much later.

The later Assyrians seem more ruthless than the earlier ones. They had always been cruel. The Assyrians were not alone in such cruelty, by the way, as a reading of the historical books of the Bible will show, but they were awfully proud of it. In the new empire, however, they became quite systematic in their ruthlessness.

A key strategy was the mass deportation of the defeated peoples. This was meant to break their spirit, by impoverishing them, and destroying their community ties and cultural identity all at once. This  method, comparable to Soviet deportations under Stalin or American deportations of Indians last century, was quite successful.

The most famous case, the deportation of the inhabitants of Israel in 722, eliminated that kingdom as an organized entity, and gave rise to the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes. These people were not lost; they simply blended into the population of the countries where they were relocated, which, according to Second Kings, {17:6} were Halah, Gozan on the Habor River, and the land of the Medes, which was in Iran. Their land was then given to other deportees from Babylonia and other places {17:24}. These people intermarried with Israelites and some adopted the religion of Israel, recreating the identity that Assyria had wished to destroy. But the purpose was served. The Israelites of Judah never considered these people to be real Israelites, calling them Samaritans after their capital city of Samaria. Dissension had successfully been cultivated in this corner of the empire.

The people of Jerusalem just barely escaped a similar fate in 701. The ambassadors of Sennacherib promised them during the parley with Hezekiah that each of them should "eat form his own vine and fig tree and drink water from his own cistern," but only until the king of Assyria could find them another good land to live in.

Throughout the 8th and 7th centuries A.D., wealth poured into Assyria. Some of the loot was spent on capital cities: Nineveh, Nimrud, and Sargon II's great folly, Dur-Sharrukin, which means "Sargon's Fortress." Because Assyria was a rockier land than Babylonia, many of these buildings and their decorations have survived reasonably well to our time, and show Assyrian ruthlessness and the power and luxury that were its fruit.

The Assyrian monarchs had cultural interests beyond self-promotion.  For instance it was Ashurbanipal, around 650 B.C., who collected the literature of ancient Sumer, Akkad, and Babylonia in the palace at Nineveh, where it was found by Sir Henry Layard in 1849. Before we get too impressed by this accomplishment, it should be said that this collection was done in a typically Assyrian manner -- they stole the books.

 One wonders if this royal book collecting perhaps impoverished the old culture. As we shall see, the old Mesopotamian literate culture was not as  healthy as it once was.

The great Assyrian empire of the 8th and 7th centuries, despite all efforts at organization remained  inherently unstable. Under Sargon II, (d. 705), it included the whole Fertile Crescent and important parts of Anatolia and Iran. Assyria had many subjects and tributaries, and control of the overland routes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Yet the empire never settled down.  The great wars of Sargon's successors were, even when they looked like new conquests, mainly efforts to defeat enemies who threatened their position in the provinces, and neighbors like Egypt and the Chaldeans (another Semitic group emerging from the desert south of Mesopotamia) who stirred up trouble in the provinces.

Assyria took on all of these groups, invading and looting Egypt, devastating Elam, and razing to the ground a rebellious city of Babylon, even though Assyrians had for centuries revered the city as the capital and home of their own civilization, and considered its temples to be holy places. Therefore the destruction of Babylon, which was soon rebuilt, is one indicator of the strain that the Assyrian system was undergoing.

The fall of Assyria was quick when it happened. In a generation, Nineveh, the main capital, went from mistress of the world to a deserted ruin. The Medes and the Persians, nomadic horsemen who had moved into Iran in recent decades, were partly responsible. It seems, though, that Babylonia, under Chaldaean leadership, masterminded an alliance with these Iranians to destroy Assyria, in the year 609 B.C.

Babylon, under the leadership of Nabopolassar, succeeded to imperial leadership, based on the domination of Mesopotamia; the Medes and Persians were alloted what, in an older world, had been the peripheral areas.

A few words should be said about this Babylonian empire before we end the lecture. To most contemporary observers, Babylonia must have seemed like a revitalized version of Assyria. Its power and wealth were astonishing: Nebuchadrezzar, Nabopolassar's successor, built the vast city of Babylonia that astonished visitors for centuries thereafter, and gave Babylon the place in literature and proverb.

The Babylonian monarchs played the role of grand patron of their ancient, prestigious culture perhaps better than the Assyrians.  The Babylonian empire, however, could be just as ferocious as the Assyrian. It was Babylon, not Assyria, that destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, and deported its population en masse to their famous Babylonian Captivity.

But Babylon, like Assyria, had problems controlling distant regions that it considered important for its security: especially Syria, its outlet to the now thriving Mediterranean commercial arena. In the second half of the fifth century, Babylon collided with its former allies and suddenly collapsed. This incident inspired one of the best-known parts of the Old Testament, the book of Daniel. According to this account, Belshazzar king of Babylon was feasting, and drinking with his wives and concubines form the gold goblets taken from the temple at Jerusalem when {Daniel 5:5-7} "suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall  MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN,"  words which prophesied his downfall.

The prophecy was borne out {5:30}: "That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom." The Book of Daniel is more of a historical novel than accurate history, but the Babylonian empire did fall almost as quickly as the Biblical writer said, in the year 539, with hardly a fight.

Nabonidus was the last ruler of Mesopotamia who could claim to represent the old native tradition. From henceforth, Mesopotamia would be ruled by outsiders, in the first instance the Persians. In retrospect, the Babylonian empire, while politically it helped clear the way for bigger empires in the future, was the Indian summer of Mesopotamian civilization. The culture founded by the Sumerians was now entering a slow decline. By A.D. 100, even cunieform would be forgotten.

 We have been examining the years 1000 to 500 B.C. in the Middle East as an era of empire building and of the fall of empires. To the west, the years 1000 to 500 were years of urban and commercial expansion in the Mediterranean, expansion that laid the basis for European civilization and supplied the ultimate heirs to the empires of Sumer, Akkad, and Assyria. That will be our subject next time.


Harry M. Orlinsky, Ancient Israel. (NU)
Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.