Assyrians & Persians: A Lesson in Leadership The Assyrian Empire The Assyrians were a Semitic-speaking people who exploited the use of iron weapons to establish an empire by 700 BCE. The Assyrian Empire included Mesopotamia, parts of the Iranian plateau, sections of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt down to Thebes. Within less than a hundred years, however, internal strife and resentment of Assyrian rule began to tear the Assyrian Empire apart. The capital city of Nineveh fell to a coalition of Chaldeans and Medes in 612 BCE. Seven years later, the rest of the empire was finally divided between the two powers.
At its height, the Assyrian Empire was ruled by kings whose power was seen as absolute. Under the leadership of these kings, the Assyrian Empire came to be well organized. Local officials were directly responsible to the king. The Assyrians also developed an efficient system of communication to administer their empire more effectively. A network of staging posts was established throughout the empire that used relays of horses (mules or donkeys in the mountains) to carry messages. The system was so effective that a provincial governor (a representative of the king who governed the province) anywhere in the empire could send a question and receive an answer from the king in his palace within a week.
The Assyrians were good at conquering others. Over many years of practice, they developed effective military leaders and fighters. They were able to enlist and deploy troops numbering in the hundreds of thousands, although most campaigns were not on such a large scale. In one case, an Assyrian army of 120,000 men crossed the Euphrates on a campaign. Size alone was not decisive, however. The Assyrian army was well organized and disciplined. A force of infantrymen was its core, joined by cavalrymen and horse-drawn war chariots that were used as platforms for shooting arrows. Moreover, the Assyrians had the first large armies equipped with iron weapons.
Another factor in the army’s success was its ability to use different kinds of military tactics. The Assyrians were capable of waging guerrilla warfare in the mountains and set battles on open grounds as well as laying siege to cities. They were especially known for their siege warfare. Some soldiers would hammer a city’s walls with heavy, wheeled siege towers and armored battering rams while others dug tunnels to undermine the walls’ foundations and cause them to collapse.
The Assyrians used terror as an instrument of warfare. They regularly laid waste to the land in which they were fighting. They smashed dams; looted and destroyed towns; set crops on fire; and cut down tress, particularly fruit trees. The Assyrians were especially known for committing atrocities on their captives. King Ashurnasirpal recorded this account of his treatment of prisoners: “3,000 of their combat troops I felled with weapons . . . Many of the captive taken from them I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some of these I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers . . . . I burned their young men and women to death.” After conquering another city, the same king wrote: “I fixed up a pile of corpses in front of the city’s gate. I flayed the nobles, as many as had rebelled, and spread their skins out on the piles . . . I flayed many within my land and spread their skins out on the walls.”
The Persian Empire The Persians were an Indo-European speaking people who lived in what is today south-western Iran. Primarily nomadic, the Persians were organized in tribes until the Achaemenid family managed to unify them. One of the family’s members, Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 530 BCE, created a powerful Persian state that stretched from Asia Minor in the west to western India in the east. In 539 BCE, Cyrus entered Mesopotamia and captured Babylon. His treatment of Babylonia showed remarkable restraint and wisdom. He made Babylonia into a Persian province but kept many Babylonian government officials in their positions. Cyrus also issued an edict permitting the Jews, who had been brought to Babylon in the sixth century BCE to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple there.
The people of his time called Cyrus “the Great.” Indeed, he must have been an unusual ruler for his time, a man who demonstrated much wisdom and compassion in the conquest and organization of his empire. He won approval by using not only Persians but also native peoples as government officials in their own states. Unlike the Assyrian rulers of an earlier empire, Cyrus had a reputation for mercy. Medes, Babylonians, and Jews all accepted him as their ruler. Indeed, the Jews regarded him as one sent by God “I am the Lord who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please.’” Cyrus had genuine respect for ancient civilizations. In building his palaces, he made use of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian designs and building methods.
Cyrus’s successors extended the territory of the Persian Empire. His son Cambysis undertook a successful invasion of Egypt. Darius, who ruled from 521 to 486 BCE, added a new Persian province in western India that extended to the Indus River. He then moved into Europe, conquering Thrace and creating the largest empire the world had yet seen.
Darius was responsible for strengthening the basic structure of the Persian government. He divided the empire into twenty provinces, called satrapies. Each province was ruled by a governor, or satrap, literally a “protector of the Kingdom.” Each satrap collected taxes, provided justice and security, and recruited soldiers for the royal army. Darius was generous to those who served him well but harsh to his enemies. One pretender to the throne had his nose and ears cut off and tongue torn out before being impaled.
Much of the empire’s power depended on the military. By the time of Darius, Persian kings had created a standing army of professional soldiers from all over the empire. At its core were a cavalry force and an elite infantry force. They were known as the Immortals because whenever a member was killed, he was immediately replaced.
After Darius, the Persian kings became isolated at their courts, surrounded by luxuries. As the kings increased taxes, loyalty to the empire declined. Struggles over the throne weakened the monarchy. Persian kings had many wives and children. The sons had little real power and many engaged in plots to gain the throne. This bloody struggle for the throne weakened the empire and led to its conquest by the Greek ruler Alexander the Great during the 330s BCE