How Were the Assyrians able to Conquer the Ancient Near East

Relief of King Ashurbanipal on a Lion Hunt

The ancient Near East could be a brutal place and among the most efficiently brutal of all Near Eastern peoples were the Assyrians. From their stronghold in the city of Ashur, high on a cliff above the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia, the Assyrians embarked on an odyssey of violence that eventually resulted in them conquering some of the oldest and most venerable kingdoms of the region including: Babylon, Mitanni, Israel, and Egypt. An examination of Assyrian military campaigns reveals that they were able to conquer their neighbors by using a combination of new military tactics and technologies, following a religion that promoted warfare, and employing a level of brutality that would have made Genghis Khan wince, yet was totally efficient and effective.

A Brief Background of the Assyrians

Although the Assyrians were later known for their military endeavors, the early focus of their culture centered on trade and merchant activities. Modern scholars generally divide Assyrian history into three periods known as the Old, Middle, and Neo-Assyrian periods or dynasties. Assyrian culture first developed on the banks of the Tigris River, in northern Mesopotamia, around the year 2000 BC. The first major Assyrian settlement was the city of Ashur, which was named for the primary god of their pantheon. The Old Assyrian period was marked by extensive trade routes that the Assyrians developed, which stretched from Anatolia in the north to Babylon in the south. [1] The industrious Assyrians were able to parlay their trade profits into a burgeoning empire by the late second millennium BC.

The Middle Assyrian period, which lasted from about 1400 until 1050 BC, was marked by a gradual expansion from the Assyrian homeland north and south. During this period, the Assyrians traded in their leger books for swords and went to war against their most powerful neighbor – the kingdom of Mitanni. By the reign of the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (ruled ca. 1243-1207 BC), the Assyrians had consumed the Mitanni kingdom east of the Euphrates River and were well on their way to wiping out the last remnants of that state. Once they had totally destroyed Mitanni, the Assyrians then took their spot in the “Great Powers Club” of the ancient Near East along with the Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians. [2]

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

When the eastern Mediterranean region transitioned from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age around 1200 BC, it was a violent and chaotic process. It was during this period that a group of disparate war bands known collectively as the “Sea Peoples” ravaged and ultimately brought down kingdoms such as Hatti, Troy, and Ugarit and twice tried to invade Egypt. Because the Assyrians were located further inland, they were able to not only escape the ravages wrought by the Sea Peoples, but also to take advantage of the geo-political changes in the region. As the Assyrians gradually expanded from their ancestral homeland, they also learned the art of writing and how to record their conquests for posterity. It was during the reign of King Tiglath-pileser I (ruled ca. 1114-1076) when the Assyrians began to write royal annals, which were chronologically detailed accounts of military expeditions and royal hunts. [3] It is because of these historical annals, combined with the remains of pictorial reliefs from the Assyrian royal palaces, that modern scholars know so much about Assyrian warfare tactics and technology.

A number of the Assyrian texts, which were written in the Akkadian language using the cuneiform style of writing, relate the brutal yet fantastic details of some of their more notable conquests. For instance, the siege and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel – referred to in the Assyrian texts as Samaria and referenced in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings – is given considerable attention. The same goes for the Assyrians’ battle against a combined army of Judeans and Egyptians at Eltekh in 702 BC and King Ashurbanipal’s (ruled 668-627 BC) sacking of the Egyptian city of Thebes in 664 BC. All of the texts demonstrate that the Assyrians combined their superb tactics and training with advanced weaponry, while their belief in martially orientated gods drove them to conquer the entire Near East by the middle of the seventh century BC.

Assyrian Military Culture

Relief of Assyrians Using a Siege Weapon from the Palace at Nimrud

In order to understand the success of the Assyrian military machine, one must first understand how the concept of warfare pervaded Assyrian culture, on both a secular and religious level. All Assyrian adult males were subject to conscription into the army, which became a permanent, standing army during the Neo-Assyrian period. At the front of the army as commander-in-chief was the Assyrian king who fought side by side at the front lines with his troops, possibly to the death as is believed to have happened to Sargon II (ruled 721-705 BC).[4] It was Sargon II who restructured the Assyrian state internally, campaigned almost every year, and incorporated the conquered territories into provinces;[5] but even before his rule all state offices were also military posts, which placed military officers alongside the nobility as the most important class in Assyrian society.[6] The martial foundations of Assyrian society can be traced clearly to Assyrian religion.

Warfare and the Assyrian Religion

The Assyrians followed a polytheistic religion much like other people in the ancient Near East. Although the Assyrians did not believe that their king was a god, they did think that he was appointed by the gods as “King of the Universe.” [7] The king was expected to fulfill the duties of a high-priest by conducting proper purification rituals and making sure that the omens were right. The king would then base his decision to go to war on the interpretation of the omens. [8]

Although the Assyrians worshipped many deities, there were three who received most of their attention: Ashur, Shamash, and Ishtar. All three deities contained martial aspects in their personalities; but Ashur was the patron of their capital city and Shamash was a sun god, while it was Ishtar who was the primary Assyrian war deity. To the modern mind, Ishtar at first seems to be a bit of an enigma. Ishtar was actually the female consort of Shamash whose primary attributes were as the goddess of love, fertility, and war. The Assyrians believed that in order for their lands to be productive they had to conduct warfare relentlessly for Ishtar. An Assyrian omen text reveals just how important Ishtar was and what she desired to be happy.

"During the night in which I appeared before her, a seer reclined and saw a dream. When he awoke Ishtar showed him a night vision . . . ‘Eat food, drink wine, supply music, praise my divinity, while I go and do that work in order that you attain your heart’s desire. Your face (need) not become pale, nor your feet become exhausted, nor your strength come to nought in the onslaught of battle.’ In her loving bosom she embraced you and protected your whole figure. Before here a fire was then burning.To the conquest of [your] enemies [she will march forth] at (your) side." [9]

With Ishtar at their side, the Assyrians fearlessly overcame incredible odds, but they were also aided by some technological advances.

New Military Innovations and Techniques

Relief of Assyrian Cavalry Archers

Several extant reliefs excavated from Assyrian palaces depict detailed scenes of warfare. Among the more interesting, such as one dated to the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 744-727 BC), shows a wheeled siege weapon at the walls of a fortified city being used to “lever away at the fortification of the town.” [10] The weapon, and others like it, were covered by leather to protect it from attacks. Unfortunately, since these and other similar weapons were primarily made of wood, none have survived the test of time.

Besides introducing new siege weapons to the battlefield, the Assyrians were also some of the first people to employ cavalry. Before the Iron Age, chariots were the standard means of using horses in combat, primarily because the horse breeds of the time were too small to be used effectively as cavalry. The first depictions of horseback archers was in Assyrian reliefs of the mid ninth century BC and by the reign of Tiglath-pilser III the chariot had all but disappeared from the battlefield. [11] Cavalry allowed the Assyrian armies to move much quicker and to be more maneuverable than they would have been with chariots. Since the Assyrians were at the vanguard of the transition from chariots to cavalry, they were able to use that advantage over their neighbors who were lagging behind them in warfare technology.

Perhaps the aspect of the Assyrian military machine that is best remembered today, and possibly the feature that gave them the greatest advantage over their foes, was their extreme levels of brutality. To say that the Assyrians were brutal would be an understatement, but it must be stressed that they employed their brutality in a rather systematic and clinical fashion. They combined their brutality with their battlefield strategies quite effectively, which often caused their enemies to surrender before the battle even began. Assyrian strategy usually followed a course whereby the army would approach enemy territory with an overwhelming force. The Assyrian king, or commander if the king was not present on the campaign, would approach the enemy leader with terms of surrender. If the enemy refused to surrender then the Assyrian army would lay siege to the enemies’ cities and once captured, the unfortunate inhabitants of said territory would be systematically tortured, raped, beheaded, and then flayed by the victorious Assyrian army. [12] In one particularly graphic example of Assyrian clinical brutality, the king of a small kingdom known as Kadmuhu, which was located just north of Assyria, refused to give allegiance to the Assyrian king. The king of Kadmuhu was eventually captured by the Assyrians, flayed alive, and then had his skin hanged off the walls of his city for all to see what happens when one resists the Assyrians. [13] The psychological and physical brutality that the Assyrians employed on the battlefield was also extended to their subject peoples.

At the height of their empire, the Assyrians ruled over millions of non-Assyrian peoples. Rebellion was a constant threat and problem that the Assyrians faced, so they quickly devised a method to deal with potentially recalcitrant populations. Beginning in the Middle Assyrian period, during the reign of Shalmaneser I (ruled ca. 1274-1245 BC), the Assyrians instituted a policy whereby they would simply remove any rebellious threats entirely. Instead of trying to win the hearts and minds of their rebellious subjects, the Assyrians would remove entire rebellious populations from one end of their empire to the other to make them work on public projects in new, permanent settlements. The most famous case of this policy came after Sargon II sacked Samaria/Israel and removed most of its population, never to be heard from again. It is estimated by modern scholars that the Assyrians removed 4.5 million people from their original homelands using this method. [14]

Conclusion

In a time period when “might made right” the Assyrians were the most right of all people. Spanning from their ancestral homeland on the banks of the northern Tigris River, the Assyrians left destruction in their wake on their way to becoming the undisputed masters of the ancient Near East. Although the Assyrian Empire eventually collapsed in 612 BC due to the combined efforts of their enemies, the Assyrians left an indelible mark on history due to their innovative martial culture that promoted new military tactics and technologies and was bolstered by a religion that encouraged warfare strategies what were extremely brutal yet effective.

References

  1. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. Volume 1. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 192
  2. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 182
  3. Mieroop, p. 180
  4. Mieroop, p. 230
  5. Mieroop, p. 248
  6. Mieroop, p. 230
  7. Luckenbill, Daniel. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. (London: Histories and Mysteries of Man, 1989), p. 242
  8. Kuhrt, Volume 2, p. 508
  9. Pritchard, James B, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p.451
  10. Curtis, J.E. and J.E, Reade. Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum. (London: British Museum Press, 1995), p. 60
  11. Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catasrophe Ca. 1200 BC. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), pgs. 164-5
  12. Mieroop, p. 231
  13. Kuhrt, Volume 2, p. 480
  14. Mieroop, p.233

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