Introduction to the Assyrian Conquests (853 bce–612 bce)

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Introduction to the Assyrian Conquests (853 bce–612 bce)

The Assyrian Empire was the world’s first great empire and the first nation to make warfare and militarism a central facet of its foreign and domestic policies. A force to be reckoned with for over seven centuries, the Assyrian Empire experienced many ups and downs, attaining its greatest heights of power and dominance during the ninth through the seventh centuries bce before imploding spectacularly, perishing under the booted heel of vengeful conquerors in 612 bce .

The traditional heartland of Assyria was centered on the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. Bordered by the expansionist Hittite Empire to the west and the Babylonians to the south, and constantly harried by nomadic tribes to the north and east, Assyria developed a militaristic culture early on.

The Assyrians took a unique approach to warfare. While other armies of the day traditionally gave preeminence to the swift chariot, the Assyrians deployed heavily armored infantry and ingenious siege engines. Off the battlefield, they relied on a combination of doggedness and intimidation, becoming masters of psychological warfare.

Assyria enjoyed two distinct periods of regional dominance. The first period, often referred to as the Middle Assyrian period, lasted from roughly 1350 to 1200 bce During this time, Assyria conquered its neighbors, clashed with the Hittites, and annexed the ancient kingdom of Babylon.

In the wake of the collapse of the Hittite Empire, Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser I (1115–1077 bce ) inaugurated a new period of expansionism that saw the Assyrians extend their empire to the Mediterranean coast. A succession of weak rulers temporarily stalled the Assyrian war machine, but by the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 bce ), the Assyrians were aggressively expanding their empire in every direction. They would continue to do so as a matter of policy for the next two centuries during a period commonly called the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

That period also marks the full flowering of two vastly different aspects of the Assyrian culture. On the one hand, the infamous tools of Assyrian psychological warfare were perfected: the deportations, mass beheadings, and gruesome atrocities, all meant to send a message to those who would oppose the empire’s will. On the other hand, Assyrian art, architecture, and learning all reached new heights during the Neo-Assyrian period.

Although known for their warlike society, Assyrians put great emphasis on piety and record keeping. Much of our understanding of Babylonian mythology comes from Assyrian records. Additionally, Assyrians were well known for their grand palaces and feats of engineering: aqueducts and canals watered the capital at Nineveh and the Assyrians were the first to lay a system of paved roads across the Near East to facilitate travel and administration (as well as warfare), a system that served later empires well.

Despite all these triumphs, Babylon remained a thorn in the Assyrians’ side; the Babylonians had never accepted foreign rule. After trying a variety of solutions, in 689 bce the Assyrians finally razed the ancient city of Babylon. It was an extreme measure, even in those extreme times, and Babylon was soon allowed to rebuild.

It was a resurgent Babylon that would lead an allied army against Assyria, sacking the capital of Nineveh (across the river from modern-day Mosul, Iraq) in 612 bce and bringing a sudden end to what was once the most powerful empire on Earth. The Assyrians built their power on a foundation of terror and retribution, and that is what led directly to their downfall.

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Introduction to the Assyrian Conquests (853 bce–612 bce)

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Introduction to the Assyrian Conquests (853 bce–612 bce)