The Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-610 BCE or 912-612 BCE) was, according to many historians, the first true empire in the world. The Assyrians had expanded their territory from the city of Ashur over the centuries, and their fortunes rose and fell with successive rulers and circumstances in the Near East. Beginning with the reign of Adad Nirari II (912-891 BCE), the empire made great territorial expansions that resulted in its eventual control of a region which spanned the whole of Mesopotamia, part of Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. They fielded the most effective fighting force in the world at that time, the first to be armed with iron weapons, whose tactics in battle made them invincible. Their political and military policies have also given them the long-standing reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness.
The empire began modestly at the city of Ashur, located in Mesopotamia north-east of Babylon, where merchants who traded in Anatolia became increasingly wealthy, and that affluence allowed for the growth and prosperity of the city.
Historians have divided the rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire into three periods: The Old Kingdom, The Middle Empire, and The Late Empire (also known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire), although it should be noted that Assyrian history continued on past that point, and there are still Assyrians living in the regions of Iran and Iraq, and elsewhere, in the present day. The Assyrian Empire is considered the greatest of the Mesopotamian empires due to its expanse and the development of the bureaucracy and military strategies which allowed it to grow and flourish.
The wealth generated from trade in Karum Kanesh provided the people of Ashur with the stability and security necessary for the expansion of the city and so laid the foundation for the rise of the empire. Trade with Anatolia was equally important in providing the Assyrians with tin from which they were able to perfect the craft of ironworking. The iron weapons of the Assyrian military would prove a decisive advantage in the campaigns which would conquer the entire region of the Near East. Before that could happen, however, the political landscape needed to change. The people known as the Hurrians and the Hatti held dominance in the region of Anatolia, and Ashur, to the north in Mesopotamia, remained in the shadow of these more powerful civilizations. In addition to the Hatti, there were the people known as the Amorites who were steadily settling in the area and acquiring more land and resources. The Assyrian king Shamashi Adad I (1813-1791 BCE) drove the Amorites out and secured the borders of Assyria, claiming Ashur as the capital of his kingdom. The Hatti continued to remain dominant in the region until they were invaded and assimilated by the Hittites in c. 1700. Long before that time, however, they ceased to prove as major a concern as the city to the southwest which was slowly gaining power: Babylon. The Amorites were a growing power in Babylon for at least 100 years when the Amorite king named Sin Muballit took the throne, and, in c. 1792 BCE, his son King Hammurabi ascended to rule and subjugated the lands of the Assyrians. It is around this same time that trade between Ashur and Karum Kanesh ended, as Babylon now rose to prominence in the region and took control of trade with Assyria.
Soon after Hammurabi’s death in 1750 BCE, the Babylonian Empire fell apart. Assyria again attempted to assert control over the region surrounding Ashur, but it seems as though the kings of this period were not up to the task. Civil war broke out in the region, and stability was not regained until the reign of the Assyrian king Adasi (c. 1726-1691 BCE). Adasi was able to secure the region and his successors continued his policies but were unable or unwilling to engage in expansion of the kingdom.
THE ASSYRIAN DEPORTATION POLICY
Adad Nirari I, king of Assyria from 811 to 783 BC, completely conquered the Mitanni and began what would become standard policy under the Assyrian Empire: the deportation of large segments of the population. With Mitanni under Assyrian control, Adad Nirari I decided the best way to prevent any future uprising was to remove the former occupants of the land and replace them with Assyrians. This should not be understood, however, as a cruel treatment of captives.
Deportees were carefully chosen for their abilities and sent to regions which could make the most of their talents. Not everyone in the conquered populace was chosen for deportation and families were never separated. Those segments of the population that had actively resisted the Assyrians were killed or sold into slavery, but the general populaces became absorbed into the growing empire and were thought of as Assyrians. The historian Gwendolyn Leick writes of Adad Nirari I that, “the prosperity and stability of his reign allowed him to engage in ambitious building projects, building city walls and canals and restoring temples” (3). He also provided a foundation for empire upon which his successors would build.
ASSYRIAN Conquest OF MITANNI & THE HITTITES
Shalmaneser I became king after his father died and completed the destruction of the Mitanni and absorbed their culture. Shalmaneser I continued his father’s policies, including the relocation of populations, but his son, Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1244-1208 BCE), went even further. According to Leick, Tukulti-Ninurta I “was one of the most famous Assyrian soldier kings who campaigned incessantly to maintain Assyrian possessions and influence. He reacted with spectacular cruelty to any sign of revolt” (177). He was also very interested in acquiring and preserving the knowledge and cultures of the peoples he conquered and developed a more sophisticated method of choosing which sort of individual, or community, would be relocated and to which specific location. Scribes and scholars, for example, were chosen carefully and sent to urban centers where they could help catalogue written works and help with the bureaucracy of the empire.
Following a decline in all Mesopotamian civilizations at the collapse of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE) the rise of the king Adad Nirari II (c. 912-891 BCE) brought the kind of revival Assyria needed at that time. The Assyrians had lost territory, prestige, and power but were able to re-conquer the lands that had been lost and secured the borders. The defeated Aramaeans were executed or deported to regions within the heartland of Assyria and assimilated into the culture. He also conquered Babylon but, learning from the mistakes of the past (as when King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in c. 1225 and was assassinated for it) refused to plunder the city and, instead, entered into a peace agreement with the king in which they married each other’s daughters and pledged mutual loyalty. Their treaty would secure Babylon as a powerful ally, instead of a perennial problem, for the next 80 years.
Advancements in military technology were not the only, or even the primary, contribution of the Assyrians as, during this same time, they made significant progress in medicine, building on the foundation of the Sumerians and drawing on the knowledge and talents of those who had been conquered and assimilated. Ashurnasirpal II made the first systematic lists of plants and animals in the empire and brought scribes with him on campaign to record new finds. Schools were established throughout the empire but were only for the sons of the wealthy and nobility. Women were not allowed to attend school or hold positions of authority even though, earlier in Mesopotamia, women had enjoyed almost equal rights. The decline in women’s rights correlates to the rise of Assyrian monotheism. As the Assyrian armies campaigned throughout the land, their god Ashur went with them but, as Ashur was previously linked with the temple of that city and had only been worshipped there, a new way of imagining the god became necessary in order to continue that worship in other locales. Kriwaczek writes:
One might pray to Ashur not only in his own temple in his own city, but anywhere. As the Assyrian empire expanded its borders, Ashur was encountered in even the most distant places. From faith in an omnipresent god to belief in a single god is not a long step. Since He was everywhere, people came to understand that, in some sense, local divinities were just different manifestations of the same Ashur (231).
This unity of vision of a supreme deity helped to further unify the regions of the empire. The different gods of the conquered peoples, and their various religious practices, became absorbed into the worship of Ashur, who was recognized as the one true god who had been called different names by different people in the past but who now was clearly known and could be properly worshipped as the universal deity.
The Assyrian culture became increasingly cohesive with the expansion of the empire, the new understanding of the deity, and the assimilation of the people from the conquered regions. The empire expanded up through the coast of the Mediterranean and received tribute from the wealthy Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. They also defeated the Armenian kingdom of Urartu which had long proved a significant nuisance to the Assyrians. Following these advances, however, the empire erupted in civil war as the king Shamshi Adad V (824-811 BCE) fought with his brother for control. Although the rebellion was put down, expansion of the empire halted.
The Rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire
The Late Empire (also known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire) is the one most familiar to students of ancient history as it is the period of the largest expansion of the empire. It is also the era which most decisively gives the Assyrian Empire the reputation it has for ruthlessness and cruelty.
The empire was revitalized by Tiglath Pilser III (745-727 BCE) who reorganized the military and restructured the bureaucracy of the government.
King Tiglath-Pileser III
“In the time between 745 and 705 BC, the Assyrian Empire took shape. This was the result not only of renewed military expansion but also of new administrative structures that ensured much tighter political and fiscal control” (127). Under Tiglath Pileser III’s reign, the Assyrian army became the most effective military force in history up until that time and would provide a model for future armies in organization, tactics, training, and efficiency.
Military victories increased the wealth of the empire, even though his reign was marred by persistent military campaigns against Babylon and the Elamites.
Decline and Fall
Ashurbanipal ruled over the empire for 42 years (668 to 627 BCE) and, in that time, campaigned successfully and ruled efficiently. The empire had grown too large, however, and the regions were overtaxed. Further, the vastness of the Assyrian domain made it difficult to defend the borders. As great in number as the army remained, there were not enough men to keep garrisoned at every significant fort or outpost. When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE, the empire began to fall apart. His successors Ashur-etli-Ilani and Sin-Shar-Ishkun were unable to hold the territories together and regions began to break away. The rule of the Assyrian Empire was seen as overly harsh by its subjects, in spite of whatever advancements and luxuries being an Assyrian citizen may have provided, and former vassal states rose in revolt.
In 612 BCE Nineveh was sacked and burned by a coalition of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians, among others (as was Ashur and the other cities of the Assyrians). The destruction of the palace brought the flaming walls down on the library of Ashurbanipal and, although it was far from the intention, preserved the great library, and the history of the Assyrians, by baking hard and burying the clay tablet books. Kriwaczek writes, “Thus did Assyria’s enemies ultimately fail to achieve their aim when they razed Ashur and Nineveh in 612 BCE, only fifteen years after Ashurbanipal’s death: the wiping out of Assyria’s place in history” (255). Still, the destruction of the great Assyrian cities was so complete that, within two generations of the empire’s fall, no one knew where the cities had been. The ruins of Nineveh were covered by the sands and lay buried for the next 2,000 years.