LAST YEARS AND FALL OF THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE (626-609 b.c.)

In all probability, Asshurbanapal lived until 626, and during the whole of his reign he remained firmly established in possession of the Assyrian throne and also of the kingdom of Babylon. Elam had been rendered powerless, Babylon had been conquered, and the desert dwellers of the west were too much weakened and impoverished by the severe lesson taught them, as well as by hunger and disease, to be dangerous. Media was only in her youth, and Assyria was still strong enough to resist the first onrush of this new, conquering state. Besides her northeastern and northern neighbours, the states of Asia Minor and the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast had enough to do to defend themselves against the barbarians who were pressing upon them from the north and east. Egypt was indeed independent, but could not seriously think of conquests in Asia. The condition of the Assyrian Empire resembled the calm before the storm.

In his latter years the king doubtless devoted himself by preference to the works of peace. He had already erected many buildings, even during the period of his great wars. He had continued and completed the work on the temples of Assyria and Babylonia, which Esarhaddon had begun. Unfortunately the inscription which enumerates the principal structures belonging to the first half of his reign only occasionally mentions the places in which the temples he erected stood. In the later years of the king’s reign the walls of Nineveh demanded his attention. They were loosened by annual rains and the violent showers of Adad, and had sunk. Asshurbanapal restored them and made them stronger than before. When he had seen his great campaigns crowned with victory, he at last undertook an important work in Nineveh, the town of Bel and Ishtar. Bit-Riduti, the great palace, which Sennacherib had built and established as a royal dwelling, had fallen to ruins. This king did nothing without the gods. It was now again a dream which made known to him their will that he should repair the damage to the palace. This was done. The forced labour of Assyrian subjects brought the stone in carts from the spoil of Elam; and the captive Arabian kings, decked out with appropriate marks of distinction, shared in the labour as workmen. When the palace was completed to the pinnacles and enlarged, it was surrounded with noble grounds; and when the victims were slaughtered at the consecration, the king made his entry carried in a gorgeous palanquin and with festive rejoicings.

Of all the objects assembled in this palace the king set the highest value on the library which he had founded and which has now for the most part been unearthed and brought to Europe. Asshurbanapal was, without any doubt, an admirer and patron of learning and a prince who loved art. He did not allow the libraries of Babylonia to be plundered, but he had the literary treasures which were buried there, including whole works on philosophical, mythological, and poetic subjects, copied in Assyrian characters and added to the historical records of his own predecessors. He even seems to have studied them diligently himself, and to have encouraged their perusal. The fruit of this study is shown in his own memorials. In fact these have some literary value, which cannot be said of the dry chronicles of former kings. He was not, however, the first to found a library. Not only had the ancient Babylonian kings—it is said even Sargon I of Agade—preceded him in this respect, but the Assyrian kings had also set him an example. This was certainly true of Sennacherib, in whose palace at Nineveh, according to the calculation made by George Smith, probably twenty thousand fragments are now awaiting the investigator who can find the time and means to dig them out and make them accessible to western learning. But it cannot be denied that Asshurbanapal earned the gratitude of scholars by rendering so many treasures of the Babylonian libraries accessible to his compatriots, and also by founding libraries in other places; as, for example, in Babylon, and that he devoted more attention to these things than any of his predecessors.

The popular tradition of the downfall of the Assyrian Empire, which took shape in later years and came from the Persians to the Greeks, represents Sardanapalus (by whom none other than Asshurbanapal can be meant) as the type of a luxurious, effeminate, oriental despot, who forgets his kingly duties in the enjoyments of his harem, abandons his empire to the enemies rising against him on all sides, and finally, shut up in his capital, delivers himself in despair to the flames with his wives and all his treasures. We now know how little this picture agrees with the truth, but from what is historically credible we can gather how it arose. Asshurbanapal did indeed take pleasure in filling his women’s palace with the daughters of all the princes subdued by him, and with those of their nearest relatives; and these princes knew well what was pleasing to the supreme king. It is true that this proceeded as much from love of display as from an inclination to voluptuousness; it is true that policy also had a share in it, because by this means his supremacy was confirmed and a pledge given for further submissiveness; it is true that the custom was a usual one with oriental monarchs; but a king who pursued it to such an extent must have been easily transformed into a voluptuary in the minds of his people.

There was also some reason for regarding him as weak and effeminate. The great Assyrian monarchs, at least during the years of their youth and vigorous manhood, had themselves frequently led their armies to victory. It was seldom, if ever, that Asshurbanapal joined in the fight. His official historians do, indeed, ascribe to him the honour of all the victories during his reign, but they have not succeeded in hiding the fact that his generals fought the battles. Yet he was by no means a weakling. That he was an eager hunter is testified by a number of hunting inscriptions, some of them accompanied by reliefs. In any case, a prince who could find pleasure in so manly a pastime was no effeminate voluptuary, little warlike though he may have shown himself to be.

The king’s tragic end in the flames of his own palace, of which the legend speaks, may have been shifted on to him from his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, or, still more probably, from the last Ninevite king. That he, the last great king of Assyria, should have been supposed to continue reigning until the end of the empire, while the insignificant kings who really followed him were forgotten, is natural enough. In short, Asshurbanapal was not a hero who strove to reap the laurels of the battle-field through difficulty and privations on distant campaigns. He preferred to linger in his luxurious palace, and to alternate the delights of the harem and the pursuit of learning with the royal lion-hunting. He was very pious, and did nothing without consulting the oracles of his gods or the dreams of his seers. If he thought the dignity of his empire, and with it the honour of his gods, insulted by an obstinate rebellion, he would avenge them as his predecessors had done by punishments of ingenious cruelty, inflicted both on individuals and on whole countries. The fearful suffering which the war on Asshur’s enemies wrought in its train, the pestilence which filled the streets with corpses, the famine which drove parents to destroy their own children, filled him with transports of joy. His ruling idea was the unity and vastness of his empire. If he left the sword in its sheath, the love of pleasure did not make him neglect his duties as a ruler. He took care that his armies should always be ready to take the field, which would not have been possible without good organisation; and they triumphed over almost all his enemies, maintained his sway against a powerful coalition, crushed the formidable Elam so severely that she never recovered from the blows she had received, and, if not during his reign, at least shortly after it, repelled the advancing Medes. He regularly transmitted his orders to all the governors in his empire, and was by them kept carefully informed of anything of importance which happened in their provinces. No one of his victorious military leaders ever ventured to turn his arms against him. All, including the governors, recognised him and honoured him as their king. Such he was in the fullest sense of the word. In his palace at Nineveh, during two-and-forty years, he held the reigns of government with a strong hand. And this is all the more creditable to the influence of his personality, since the empire was internally weakened by his own political mistakes, in particular by the removal of the centre of government from Babylon, which Esarhaddon had made its seat, to Nineveh, and by other causes, so that it went to pieces a few years after his death.

After him at least two kings ruled over Assyria, who were probably brothers, for one of them, Bel-zakir-ishkun, was the son of a king of Assyria, and grandson of a king of Sumer and Accad, and though their names are missing from the inscriptions, they can have been none other than Asshurbanapal and Esarhaddon; and the other, Asshur-etil-ili [who is sometimes known by a lengthened form of his name, Asshur-etil-ili-ukinni] is expressly called the son and grandson of these rulers. Probably Bel-zakir-ishkun reigned first, and then the other. No historical records have been preserved, dealing either with the fortunes and achievements of these kings or with the fall of Assyria. Certain texts have led some to conclude that a third king, a namesake of Esarhaddon, may have swayed the sceptre at this period, but this has been shown to be extremely questionable.

Immediately after Asshurbanapal’s death, or perhaps even in the last year of his reign, Babylon broke away from the Assyrian rule, and this time the separation was permanent. The empire was much weakened by it. The north and northwest, Urartu and the states of Asia Minor, gradually fell into the power of the ever-advancing Medes. The Assyrian lordship over the countries on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea now existed in name only, so that King Josiah of Judah was able to effect his reform unhindered, and to act as master in the territory of the ancient kingdom of Israel, which for years had been an Assyrian province. And in the year 608 Neku II, king of Egypt, was able to think of extending his empire to the Euphrates, as in days long past, and to take arms against Assyria with the idea of wresting from her all her western provinces. The foundation of the new Babylonian Empire and the invasion of the Egyptians, who could no longer be repelled by the Assyrians, but were only to give way before the Babylonian arms, are described elsewhere. Here we only mention them as among the causes which brought about the fall of the Assyrian Empire. That empire no longer had any real existence, at least as a ruling power. Thrust back to its old frontiers, the ancient Assyrian state slowly languished and only awaited the death-blow.

That blow was to come from the Medes in alliance with the Babylonians, and was partly hastened, partly stayed, by the great migratory streams of the Cimmerians and Scythians.

Though Professor Tiele’s admirable history is recent, much new information concerning the last days of the Assyrian rule at Nineveh has come to light, and historians are now able to place the conquest of the city by the Manda in the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun. Without overlooking a certain Sin-shum-lishir, who is mentioned in several places as an Assyrian king, and must have ruled about this time, but whose personality has not yet been unwrapped from the historic gloom, it is safe to say that this Sin-shar-ishkun was Asshur-etil-ili’s successor. From contract tablets found at Sippar and Erech we know that he occupied the Assyrian throne in 612 b.c., and that his dominion included a part of Babylonia as well. Later records would show him to be of much stronger character than the man he succeeded. In 610 or 609 he attempted to wrest more of the Babylonian provinces from Nabopolassar, and the harassed king took the fatal step of appealing to that people from the north, who for the most part had formed part of the great Indo-European migration into western Asia. Already these Scythian hordes, the Manda, had their eye on the rich Mesopotamian Valley, and therefore Nabopolassar’s appeal did not fall upon unwilling ears. Sin-shar-ishkun was indeed driven back, but when that happened the Manda were in the coveted land. The reader will observe that we have just spoken of the Manda and not the Medes as the assailants of Nineveh. This is because of the recent clearing up of a historical error that was our heritage from the Greek historians. They simply confused the Manda, the nomadic tribes that lived northeast of Assyria towards the Caspian Sea and were the classical Scythians, with the Mada, or true Medes. As Professor Sayce says: “It was not until the discovery of the monuments of Nabonidus and Cyrus that the truth at last came to light and it was found that the history we had so long believed was founded upon a philological mistake.” This matter will be more fully explained in the account of Persia.

Like his father, Cyaxares perceived that it would not be possible for the Medes to extend and maintain their conquests westward so long as he had to dread the rivalry of the Assyrian Empire, so lately the mistress of those regions. Consequently he put into practice the lesson which his father had received from the Assyrians. The as yet untrained hordes of Medians were evidently no match for the better military organisation of the Assyrians and the military skill of the Assyrian generals. Cyaxares, therefore, began as became a warlike prince with the remodelling of his army, dividing his troops, after the pattern of the Assyrians, into the various arms—spearmen, bowmen, and horsemen—and fortifying his citadel, Ecbatana. Then he again ventured to attack Assyria, this time with better success. The Assyrian army was beaten in Nineveh at last, and was surrounded. But an unexpected event came to the assistance of the hard-pressed Ninevites—the Scythians invaded Media.

Their invasion compelled Cyaxares to evacuate Assyria, and for a time Nineveh breathed again. But only for a short time. Cyaxares succeeded in putting an end to the Scythian domination in his kingdom in the course of a few years.

About 609 the Median army under the command of Cyaxares appeared for the second time at the gates of Nineveh. According to Berosus, the Babylonian king, whose son Nebuchadrezzar had married the Median king’s daughter, also took part in this siege. It is easy to understand how it was that Herodotus knew nothing of this, for the Persians were his authorities. But he is certainly right in assigning the chief rôle to the Medes, of whom Abydenus says nothing, for from this time forward they kept possession of Assyria itself; and he is also right in placing the taking of Nineveh during the period of Cyaxares’ government, and not, like Berosus and the authors who follow him, in the time of Astyages, since the latter did not ascend the throne of Media before 584 b.c. It is sufficient that Nineveh fell, and Assyria passed to the power of the Medes, who at the same time acquired the dominion over the North and the countries of Asia Minor as far as the Halys. All other provinces of the fallen empire as far as the Mediterranean Sea, including probably that part of ancient Assyria whose capital was the city of Asshur, and also Kharran and Carchemish, fell to Babylonia.

We have no historical account of the details connected with the fall of Nineveh. The story of the last Assyrian king, Asshur-etil-ili, or, as some authorities call him, Saracus, which represents him in his despair burning himself with his palace and his treasures, is a popular tale which is not indeed impossible, but probably arose by confusion with Shamash-shum-ukin’s end. Nineveh was so completely desolated that when Xenophon passed with the Ten Thousand in the year 401 b.c. he took the ruins for the remains of Median towns destroyed by the Persians. Subsequently a fortress, Ninus, seems to have been built there by the Parthians. Calah also once more rose from its rubbish heaps after lying desolate for a long time. Arbela remained untouched, and it is therefore probable that it fell unresisting into the hands of the conquerors. But the Assyrian monarchy was gone forever.

The Assyrian monarchy was gone, but not the empire at whose head the kings of Asshur had stood. It has been matter of astonishment that so powerful an empire, to which through a series of centuries the whole of western Asia had been subdued, could have been so suddenly overturned by the fall of the capital. But this surprise proceeds from an incorrect conception of history. Events had long prepared the fall of Nineveh. The keen eye of Esarhaddon had already perceived that it would be safer to remove the centre of the empire to Babylon. His son Asshurbanapal, a less acute statesman than he, but a great king and a strong administrator, had once more attempted to secure the hegemony for Assyria. In this he had succeeded, being supported by favourable circumstances and the influence of his own personality. But when the sceptre fell from his strong hand, little more was needed to put an end to the Assyrian dominion, and that end was only a question of time. However, the empire survived for a few years longer, though not in its full vigour. The hegemony now passed again to Babylon; but not unimpaired, for, since Media had conquered Nineveh, the lion’s share of Assyria itself fell to the Median kingdom, together with those northern and northwestern provinces which had been lost long before. But the Assyrian survived in the new Babylonian Empire, which continued its policy of conquest, and the Greeks, who not long afterwards called the Babylonians themselves Assyrians, were in this not so very far from the truth. But the days of the Semitic dominion were hastening to their end. Even the new monarchy under Babylon’s hegemony could only be propped up by the force of Nebuchadrezzar’s personality. His feeble successors were in no condition to prevent the spread of the Median power nor the rise of the Persian monarchy, which had grown to such proportions by the conquest of Elam, until the genius of Cyrus founded a dominion which soon embraced the four ancient empires—the Median, the Elamite, the Assyrio-Babylonian, and the Egyptian—and gave the sceptre of western Asia to the Aryans.

The sense of relief which fell on the oppressed nations at the downfall of the scourge of Asia can be gathered from the rejoicing accents of the Jewish prophets. What an Isaiah, a Micah, had not dared to hope, Nahum and Zephaniah saw approach and actually happen. Nahum is convinced that the fate of Thebes will soon overtake Nineveh. Her merchants, multiplied as the stars of heaven, her crowned, her captains, her whole people, they shall be scattered like flying grasshoppers, and no man shall gather them. “All that hear the bruit of thee shall clap their hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?” (Nahum iii. 19.) And Zephaniah (ii. 13-15), his contemporary, sees with satisfaction the desolation of the proud city, who thought herself so safe and boasted herself to be the first and the only one, but now had become desolate and a place for beasts, in whose ruins the bittern and the screech-owl lodge.

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