Assyrian culture (1800 to 600 BC)
Lord Byron began his poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib” with “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.” At the height of their power, the Assyrians were very much like a wolf among sheep, although their reputation is enhanced by several references to them in the Old Testament and by the extensive battle scenes that were found on their ruins. For a period, they rose to the challenge of being surrounded by enemies and became the most powerful military force in the known world. Their legendary barbarity and fierceness was a deliberate policy intended to foster the submission of enemies and minimize the threat of revolt by vassals.
Assyria was located in northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) along the Tigris River. It was settled after Sumer to the south but was dominated by the Sumerians both culturally and politically during its early history.
The capital of Assyria was Ashur for most of its existence, but moved to other sites when kings built new palaces. Other important cities and capitals in the Assyrian homeland were Nineveh, Arbela, Khorsabad, and Nimrud.
Rise to power
Around 2000 BC Semitic barbarians called the Amorites invaded Assyria. By 1800 BC an Amorite king of the Assyrians had established control over most of northern Mesopotamia. Their power was short-lived in this period, however, due first to the rise of Babylonia under Hammurabi and then the rise of the Mitanni in modern Syria.
The period 1363 to 1000 BC was the Middle Assyrian Empire. Several strong kings first reasserted Assyrian independence and then began encroaching on neighboring empires. The Assyrians avoided destruction during the catastrophe of 1200 BC, perhaps because they were already embracing the new military tactics and weapons that the older kingdoms were not. In the political vacuum of the ancient Dark Age, the Assyrians prospered. By 1076 BC Tiglathpileser I had reached the Mediterranean to the west.
The New Assyrian Empire, 1000 to 600 BC, was the peak of their conquests. Their empire stretched from the head of the Persian Gulf, around the Fertile Crescent through Damascus, Phoenicia, Palestine, and into Egypt as far south as Thebes. Their northwestern border was the Taurus Mountains of modern Turkey. Other than the vestiges of what had once been the Minoan (Crete), Mycenae (Greece), and Hittite (Turkey) cultures, all areas of pre-catastrophe civilization in the West were ruled by Assyria.
The Assyrian economy was based on agriculture and herding, but the Assyrians also benefited by being situated astride some important trade routes. They are not remembered as traders in their own right, perhaps only as tax collectors on traders passing through. During the New Empire period, they profited from the taxes and tribute they collected from their various provinces and vassal states, including even Egypt for a few years.
Religion and culture
That of its Mesopotamian predecessors, mainly Sumer, heavily influenced the Assyrian religion. The chief god of the Assyrians was Ashur, from whom both their culture and capital take their names. Their temples were large ziggurats built of mud bricks, like their neighbors to the south.
The principal activity of the rich was hunting from chariots, appropriate for such a war-like culture. Despite their fearsome reputation, the Assyrians embraced civilization. They wrote using cuneiform and decorated their cities liberally with relief’s, painted stonework, and sculpture.
The king was the head administrator of government, supported by local provincial governors. The palace was the site of government. Advisors consulted the omens before important decisions were made.
Provinces and vassal cities were required to pay taxes and tribute in the form of food, goods, gold, labor, military supplies, and soldiers for the army. An extensive network of roads and grain depots were built during the New Empire to speed communication and armies moving to trouble spots.
The Assyrians built on a large and lavish scale, using mostly mud bricks, but also stone that was more readily available than it was farther south. Several New Empire kings built extensive palaces and decorated them with the booty of war and the tribute of vassal states. Palaces were also decorated with painted stone reliefs, extensive gardens, and man-made streams. A common decorative fixture was the lamassu—a winged hybrid creature, part bull and part man.
The first Assyrian armies were peasant spearmen. Following a series of military reforms around 800 BC, however, they employed a standing army of conscripts and professionals. This army was better armed, armored, and supplied than most of its enemies, giving it important advantages. The New Empire armies benefited from cheap iron used for improved swords and armor.
The Assyrians were among the first to adopt the concept of the integrated army made up of an infantry core for shock, supported by light missile troops and a mobile wing of chariots, camelry, and cavalry. The army was capable of fighting on the plains where chariots and then cavalry were critical, as well as in rough terrain where horses and chariots had little use. They campaigned regularly to the north and east against barbarians that posed a threat. The elite of the army for many years were the charioteers, followed by the cavalry when chariots became obsolete.
The Assyrians were accomplished at the art of capturing walled cities. Their historical records recount numerous city assaults and the brutality that followed. Cities that did not submit were often completely destroyed. Inhabitants were either killed or sent to another corner of the empire as slaves.
Decline and fall
The brutal policies of subjugation and exorbitant demands for tribute and taxes made the Assyrians unpopular masters. Despite the ferocity of their reprisals, vassal states continually revolted given an opportunity. Weaker kings were unable to hold the empire together in the face of internal and external pressure. In 612 BC the capital at Nineveh fell to a coalition of Babylonians and Medes. The Babylonians were in revolt (Babylon had been sacked in 648 BC) and the Medes (from modern western Iran) were seeking retribution for past Assyrian invasions of their lands.
The last Assyrian army was defeated soon thereafter by the same coalition and the Assyrians as a separate culture disappeared from the world’s stage.
The Assyrians are remembered from their boastful inscriptions and biblical references as ferocious warriors. Whether they were significantly more brutal than was normal for the time is unclear.
For several centuries, however, they were the greatest military power in the civilized world. Their armies were innovative, and they appear to have been among the first to use large bodies of cavalry effectively. They certainly influenced the Persian armies that followed them.
They are not remembered for any significant advances in technology, philosophy, the arts, or science. Their cities have been piles of rubble for thousands of years now and have not given up fabulous treasures that can compare with those of Egypt and Greece.