The Assyrian and Persian Empires
After Hammurabi died his Mesopotamian empire slowly crumbled due to internal turmoil, fighting, and outside invaders. This continued over several hundreds of years which led to the Assyrians uniting the region once again. But who were these Assyrian guys? Where did they come from and what was their deal?
Assyria and the Neo-Babylonian Empires Assyria lay north of Babylon, along the Tigris River. Like most of Mesopotamia it fell under the influence of Sumer. Later it was assimilated into and controlled by the Akkadians and then the Babylonians.
The Assyrians were not a powerful force in Mesopotamia until Babylon fell. This opened Assyria up to invasion from many different outside forces. This led to many wars which sometimes Assyria won and sometimes they lost. Because of all the fighting they became fierce warriors. They also had one of the world’s first cavalries, or soldiers who fought while riding horses. The Assyrians also used iron weapons and tools which were much stronger then bronze. This gave them an advantage in warfare. The Assyrians learned iron age technology from the Hittites. The Hittites were a race of people who had invaded Mesopotamia from Asia Minor. The Assyrians built up a very strong military state. This was a city-state which made their primary focus all things which dealt with their military. This allowed them to quickly attack and conquer all of the land and city states around them creating a new empire. By the Mid 600 BCE the Assyrian empire stretched north from the Persian Gulf across the Fertile Crescent and southwest into Egypt.
Their new empire was much larger then any that existed previously. This meant that they would have to find a way to rule over such a large area like Sargon and Hammurabi had before them. They came up with a new idea for governing. The Assyrians divided the empire into 70 smaller provinces. Each province was assigned a governor to rule over it, like a vassal. This governor reported directly to the Assyrian ruler and carried out his wishes.
The one Assyrian ruler we need to know is named Ashurbanipal. He was the last great ruler of the Assyrian empire and expanded it out to be the largest empire in the world at that time. He ruled during the height of Assyrian military power.
Ashurbanipal was a very highly educated noble. He also was the only Assyrian emperor who could read and write. He was an heir to the throne and did not conquer and take it by force. Instead he led huge military campaigns outside of his kingdom. Ashurbanipal was known for his ruthless methods including, like Sargon, making conquered kings wear dog collars and living in kennels like animals. He often killed off all of the surrendering militaries soldiers and women. This led to him having a huge psychological advantage over the armies he faced. Not many wanted to face him and often gave up easily.
Ashurbanipal was also known for something else he built and left behind. His capital city was Nineveh. In Nineveh, he built a library and filled it with cuneiform tablets. These tablets contained texts, poem, and letters from Sumer and Babylonia on subjects such as law, literature, mathematics, and science. The story of Gilgamesh was found among these tablets. 20,000 of these tablets still exist today and provide us with information on ancient Mesopotamia.
When Ashurbanipal died history repeated its self once again. Without the once great emperor to hold everything together civil war and outside enemy attacks weakened the Assyrian empire. Once again Babylon would become the center of the Mesopotamian story. As we learned before, the time when Hammurabi ruled was known has the “Old Babylonian Empire”. Well it is time for the new Babylonian empire to emerge. Its ruler’s name was Nebuchadnezzar II. He took control of Babylon in 604 BCE. Babylon had been a vassal kingdom to the Assyrians for 3 centuries (300 years). He took advantage of the civil wars in Assyria and expanded his empire westward into Egypt and also captured Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he destroyed the Jewish temples and exiled many Jews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was known as the “Neo-Babylonian Empire”. Nebuchadnezzar spent a ton of money on large building projects in Babylon. He built great walls, gates, and temples. His most famous project was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These gardens were elaborate gardens built on a series of stone terraces.
Rise of the Persian Empire In 539 BCE Babylon fell again to new invaders. The think walls and strong gates could not keep them out. These new invaders were called the Persians. They not only conquered Babylon, but all of Mesopotamia in just a few decades.
Cyrus the Great Persia rose in what is now Iran, located east of Mesopotamia. For years the Persians had been ruled by a race of people north of them called the Medes. In 550 BCE a leader named Cyrus the Great led the Persians to victory over the Medes. When Cyrus conquered the Medes he essentially won an empire.
But, as history tells over and over, Cyrus the Great like a lot of other rulers, was not satisfied with his empire and wanted more. He started first in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey, where he waged war against the kingdom of Lydia. He then moved south and to the east. The Persian Empire reached deep into Asia after that. The reason Cyrus was able to conquer things so quickly was due to its highly skilled standing army. A standing army is a permanent army of professional soldiers that were always ready to go at a moments notice. Cyrus also had a large army, which made up the core. These were elite troops were called “the immortals”. There were approximately 10,000 immortals. They got their name because when one was wounded or killed they were immediately replaced giving them the appearance of being immortal. They were given better weapons, armor, and training. They served as elite royal guards and soldiers and were one of the fiercest fighting forces in the world.
Cyrus and the Persian army captured Babylon in 539 BCE. Under Cyrus, Babylon grew to become the wealthiest province in the Persian empire. Cyrus treated the people he conquered relatively well. He assimilated them into the Persian culture while allowing them to keep their own customs and religions. One example of this was that he allowed the Jewish people who had been forced to live in exile in Babylon to return home and rebuild their temple.
Persian Government and Religion The Persian Empire became the largest the world had ever seen. It included people from many different cultures. Because of this the Persian rulers had to come up with a way to unify the empire. Many of the rulers in other empires chose to force the conquered people to change their customs. The Persians took a different approach.
The Persian leader Darius came up with a new way to handle this problem. He created a political structure that gave local people some control over their own government. Darius divided his empire into satrapies, or provinces, and chose a leader for each one. This was similar to what Ashurbanipal had done. However, the local leaders had a great deal more independence. Darius allowed them to keep their local laws and customs and make many of the local decisions. This really cut down on uprisings and revolts.
Ways Darius changed things:
Conquered peoples were required to send a tribute. A tribute is a payment made to show loyalty. Usually this payment was set by the ruler with no concern whether the people could pay it or not. Darius created a plan in which each province paid their tribute according to their wealth. This took a lot of the pressure off of the people in that area and allowed them to live more comfortably.
Next, Darius created a common currency. Currency is money that is used as a medium of exchange, usually bills or coins. Darius introduced gold coins printed with an image of himself. These coins would be accepted across the Persian empire. This made it easier for provinces throughout the empire to trade with each other.
Darius used Persia’s new wealth to build roads across the empire. These roads for easier travel and trade throughout the empire. It also allowed the Persian army to move quicker from province to province.
The Persians set up a postal system with stations along the 1,500 mile Great Royal Road. Messengers on horseback brought messages from one station to the next. It took 3 months for a message to get from one side of the empire to the next but at that time the Persians had the fastest communication system in the world.
The Persians also made some changes to religion. Religions in the region all were polytheistic. Around 600 BCE a Persian man, known as Zoroaster, began teaching that there was one supreme god name Ahura Mazda. This new religion became known as Zoroastrianism. It eventually became the official religion of the Persian empire. This religion had a central belief that the universe was in a state of struggle between the forces of good and evil and that people had an important role to play in this struggle. Zoroastrians believed that they could help this conflict by working for good, or evil, depending on where their loyalties lay. In this religion here was also belief in the existence of an afterlife.
Arts of Mesopotamia The arts of ancient Mesopotamia give us a glimpse of the people’s daily lives. Mesopotamian culture provided us with certain distinct things.
Seals- carved stone seals to identify the owner of an object, especially before the development of cuneiform. Seals left the owner’s mark and could look like several different things like an animal or geometric shape. Seals were often pressed into melted wax leaving an identifiable mark, which could identify who owned the item.
Sculptures- The Sumerians carved sculptures which for the first time in human history looked like actual human beings. A new type of sculpture was created called “relief”.In a relief sculpture the scene sticks out from he surface of the base material. One place which relief sculptures were found on things called stele. A stele is a carved stone slab or pillar that stands on end. The Assryians were masters of the relief sculptures and created large, colorful reliefs on the sides of buildings.