At the beginning of the first millennium BC, Assyria was dominated by Aramean tribes, who invaded the region en masse and weakened the once great empire. For more than a century, no ruler was strong enough to push them back and famine and poverty raged in the land. It was only at the beginning of the ninth century BC that a breath of fresh air arrived in the form of Adad-nirari II.
Renewed expansionist energy (911-824 BC)
The first expansionist move of the Neo-Assyrian rulers was to conquer the territory between the “Assyrian triangle” (Ashur, Niniveh, Arbela) and the loop of the Euphrates to the west. Adad-nirari II (911-891) managed in seven campaigns to shift the border to the Habur-region; his successor Tukulti-Ninurta II (890-884) gained ground up until the Upper Tigris; but it was only under Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) that the wished-for territory was submitted with the help of Neo-Hittite states. The conquered people were subjugated to the payment of tribute but could largely retain their local autonomy. That strategy required an almost permanent presence of the Assyrian army and each year the king set out to confirm his power with a great exhibition of strength and terror: whomever refused to pay tribute, was annihilated. This policy of terror and scorched earth is vividly described in royal inscriptions and annals:
“king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes, trampler of all enemies, he who smashes the forces of the rebellious, king who acts with the support of the great gods, his lords, and has conquered all lands, gained dominion over all the highlands and received their tribute, capturer of hostages, he who is victorious over all countries…” (Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal II)
With the expansion of the Assyrian territory, much wealth flowed into the hands of its rulers. It enabled Ashurnasirpal II to create a new capital at Kalhu (Nimrud) with a formidable palace, which functioned not only as the seat of power, but as a museum of the king’s great deeds as well: in the throne room orthostats were installed on the walls showing military campaigns, ritual performances and royal feasts and the doorways were flanked by the great protective lamassu’s (winged bulls with human heads). To prevent that anyone would ever remove this exhibition of Ashurnasirpal’s deeds meant for eternity, he had everything inscribed with long formula cursing the one disturbing it all. (It did not prevent the modern archaeologists to transport it all to their musea though)
The next aim of the Assyrian rulers was to reach the Mediterranean, which especially under Shalmaneser III (858-824) became the main goal for territorial expansion (trade!!). However, he met a lot of opposition from the Aramaic states, that had organised themselves in a confederation. Yet, he managed to conquer the tribe of Bit-Adini and renamed Tel Barsip, one of the cities on its territory, “Kar-Shalmaneser”. After his defeat of the city-state of Damascus, the coastal city-states of Tyre and Sidon submitted voluntarily, as well as the kingdom of Israel. Two sources are very revealing on this subject: the Black Obelisk and the bronze gates of Balawat. Both depict Shalmaneser’s campaigns (for example to the source of the Tigris) and the subjected people bringing tribute (for example Iaua of the “house of David” – Israel).
Relations with Babylonia to the south were quite stable during this period, because of a peace treaty that had been signed under Adad-nirari II. When the Babylonians were more and more threatened by Chaldean confederations they even sought the help of Shalmaneser III, who willingly provided it. Unfortunately, any attempt at conquering territory in the east (Elam) failed, even though multiple efforts were undertaken.
Crises (823-722 BC)
Now that even the wealthy Phoenician city-states were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians, the riches entered the empire abundantly and one would expect that the Assyrian heartland and its inhabitants thrived because of it. However, the fruits of the expansion arrived almost exclusively in the hands of the highest elite, leaving everyone else as poor as they had been before the conquests. That sparked unrest, and from 827 BC onwards, revolts surged in the big Assyrian cities (Ashur, Niniveh, Kalhu), but in smaller provincial centres as well.
By the time Shamshi-Adad V (823-811) came to the throne, the nobility had formed a front against the court and all the king’s attention went to putting down the revolt, resulting in the loss of control over the western territories. After ending the rebellion, Shamshi-Adad did not manage to regain all the land between Assyria and the Mediterranean, but he rather chose to consolidate the northern border with the kingdom of Urartu, where he strangely enough encountered a coalition of Persians and Medes.
The Assyrian rebellion caused the relationship between Assyria and Babylonia to change: to be able to defeat the rebels, Shamshi-Adad had asked the Babylonian king for help, who provided it under conditions that were humiliating to the Assyrian. When in 813 BC a political crisis arose in Babylon, Shamshi-Adad immediately saw his chance and took control of the region. Nonetheless, the southern Chaldean tribes remained independent and would cause a great threat to Assyria.
Things did not get better under Shamshi-Adad’s successors: when he died, his son Adad-nirari III was still too young to reign, so his mother Sammu-ramat acted as regent. Military business was left to the head of the army Shamshi-ilu, who performed this job under the next three kings as well. When Adad-nirari III (810-783) then finally came to the throne, he re-established Assyrian sovereignty in the west and Hatti, Amurru, the Phoenician cities and Israel again delivered yearly payments of tribute. Yet, the threat from the north had become substantial, and the next king Shalmaneser IV (782-773) was unable to do more than defend the northern border. His successors Ashur-dan III (772-755) and Ashur-nirari V (754-745) had to handle the plague and multiple uprisings in Ashur.
Finally a king arose who knew how to handle things. Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727) made a coup on the Assyrian throne and went on to subdue the southern Babylonian confederations, manage the northern menace of Urartu and consolidate the western territories. Babylonia, where from Shamshi-Adad V onwards an Assyrian puppet king had reigned, he now integrated into the Assyrian empire by putting it under his direct political control. Tiglath-Pileser’s son Shalmaneser V (726-722) stepped into his footsteps, but his promising career was violently by a revolution of the palace, led by his brother, who we know as Sargon II (721-705).
The Sargonids (721-609 BC)
Sargon (Akkadian sharru kin) means “rightful king”, which immediately makes clear that he was not. The choice for the name set the tone for his reign, since the great Sargon of Akkad was well-known in Mesopotamia, even after more than a millennium, being the first ruler to conquer an empire:
The provinces profited from the political upheaval in the capital to revolt. In Babylonia, Merodach-Baladan seized control and when Sargon marched south to reclaim the throne, the Babylonians entered into a coalition with Elam. The Elamite army pushed back the Assyrians, leaving Babylonia in the hands of Merodach-Baladan. In contrast, the revolts in the western territories were soon crushed. In 717, the city of Carcemish was conquered, which not only provided massive booty, but added significantly to the power of Sargon too, since the city had been the religious and political capital of the once great Hittite empire.
The amassing of booty resulted in a change in the economy of Assyria, where silver now became the standard means of payment (instead of bronze). The wealth also enabled Sargon to build a new capital, this time on a virgin site: the construction of Dur-Sharrukin was begun in 713 BC. It was built almost perfectly symmetrical, with the enormous palace and temples on the one side and the arsenal on the other. A ziggurat flanked the palace, in which the walls were decorated with reliefs.
After more victories in the west (Philistine, some Neo-Hittite states) and in the Zagros mountains, Sargon turned his attention again towards Babylon, where he now achieved success and repelled Merodach-Baladan from the throne, taking it for himself and leaving his son Sennacherib in charge in the north. However, when the region of Tabal in central Anatolia rebelled, Sargon went there in order to take charge of the situation. The Assyrian army was defeated and the king died on the battlefield, his body lost to the enemy – a catastrofe for the Assyrians, whom believed that unburied persons would never be able to enter the netherworld and be miserable for eternity. The city of Dur-Sharruken was abandoned, being considered a bad omen for Sargon’s death.
Nonetheless, Sargon was succeeded without problems by his son Sennacherib (704-681). He immediately had to face a coalition of Chaldeans, Elamites and Arab tribes led by Merodach-baladan II in Babylonia; yet, he managed to repress them and installed another Assyrian puppet king on the throne in Babylon. After new problems arose in the region, he made his son Ashur-nadin-shumi viceroy there.
Sennacherib also met with resistance in the western provinces and especially the episodes in Israel are well-known from the Bible, but also from the Assyrian reliefs at Niniveh (Sennacherib’s new capital) and from archaeological excavations. While the Assyrian army was plagued by the plague when laying siege to Jerusalem, they did achieve victory over Lachish, one of the other large cities in the region. The city was destroyed and its population deported or killed.
“After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities, thinking to conquer them for himself.” (2 Chron. 32)
Still the problem of Babylon was not solved: Ashur-nadin-shumi was killed and a new coalition between Babylonians and Elamites was formed. Sennacherib saw no other solution than to march south and destroy the city of Babylon, god-napping its city god Marduk and leaving its population desperate but temporarily under control.
When choosing his youngest son Esarhaddon (680-669) as successor, Sennacherib was killed in the temple of Ninurta at Kalhu by one of his other sons, and it took Esarhaddon some time to end the political turmoil and get rid of his brothers. Vis-à-vis Babylon, he adopted a new policy: he started large re-building projects and intervened between the Chaldean tribes, spreading dissension and thus neutralising them. When new threats appeared in the north in the form of Cimmerians and Scythians, he used more diplomatic than military means to turn them northwestwards, away from Assyria. However, his policy towards the western territories remained brutal, taking away the independence of some city-states by turning them into provinces. Furthermore, Esarhaddon implemented an expansionist policy and conquered parts of Lower Egypt, up until Memphis.
The heir Ashurbanipal (669-627) consolidated the territory conquered by his father, but little by little peripheral regions were given up, such as Cyprus and Egypt (even though Ashurbanipal held power there for some years). In Babylon, his brother Shamash-shuma-ukin was in control, yet in 652 he switched sides and led the rebellion of Chaldeans, Arameans and Elamites. It took Ashurbanipal four years to conquer his brother. Both Babylon and Susa are destroyed. The military and financial power of the Assyrians started to wane, and when Ashurbanipal died, civil war and external enemies threatened the existence of the Neo-Assyrian empire.
The succession of Ashurbanipal was problematic, with his sons Ashur-etel-ilani (630-626) and Sin-shar-ishkun (626-612) fighting over the throne. Furthermore, in 627 the circumstances in Babylonia changed again, when Nabopolassar ascended the throne. The situation was now fully reversed: Babylonia waged war as an independent state against an Assyria that was severely weakened. From 615 the Medes joined forces with the Babylonians and soon Assyrian cities started to fall: Arrapha (615), Ashur (614), Niniveh (612). Sin-shar-ishkun disappeared and Ashur-uballit II (612-609) was named king of Assyria, but even with the help of the Egyptians he did not manage to save the empire. In a final battle at Harran (609), the coalition of Babylonians and Medes crushingly defeated the Assyrian army. That was the end of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
(Later on I will write a blog post about the King and his Scholars)
- Joannès, Francis. La Mésopotamie au 1er millénaire avant J.-C. Paris, 2000.