The Assyrian Military-Religious Ethos

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Assyrian soldier in combat with Kushite tribesman during campaign in Egypt, 7th century BC.

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The Neo-Assyrian Empire was arguably the world’s first superpower, straddling the Middle East at its height in the 7th century. In addition to a strong, well organized central government, the Assyrians were highly innovative in their approach to warfare. Beginning with Tiglath-Pilaser III, the Assyrians began to build a military whose capabilities would arguably not be matched until Roman times. The army used forward bases, an efficient command structure, and an impressive logistics system to launch campaigns against rebellious vassals and external threats many thousands of miles apart, and often at the same time. Manpower was replenished by resettling conquered populations. The Assyrians were also broke new ground in developing a combined arms approach: while in the past cavalry had been rather neglected in the Middle East civilizations except for the chariot age, but the Assyrians made a strong cavalry arm a priority, launching campaigns against their Indo-Iranian neighbors to the north and the east to capture horses. Assyrian cavalry included lancers who wore helmets and lamellar cuirasses as well as horse archers. Infantry types were numerous and included large contingents of missile troops, archers and slingers. The Assyrians developed a strong tradition of siegecraft, although it was still costly, which meant that only the most strategically important cities would be assaulted. Assyrian siege works are still visible today at Lachish, Israel.

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The Assyrians’ new religious, political, and military ideology had taken shape during the long centuries when they fought for survival, and it then became the foundational ethos for their empire’s relentless conquests. Its two fundamental tenets were the waging of holy war and the exaction of tribute through terror.

The Neo-Assyrians were convinced that their god demanded the constant expansion of his worship through military conquest. Essentially, their army belonged to Assur, and all who did not accept Assur’s supremacy were, by that fact alone, enemies of Assur’s people. Ritual humiliation of a defeated city’s gods was therefore a regular feature of conquest. Statues of conquered gods would be carried off to the Neo-Assyrian capital, where they would remain as hostages at the court of Assur. Meanwhile, an image of Assur himself-usually represented as a sun disk with the head and shoulders of an archer-would be installed in the defeated city, and the conquered people would be required to worship him. Although conquered peoples did not have to abandon their previous gods altogether, they were made to feel their gods’ inferiority. The Assyrians were therefore strict henotheists, meaning that they acknowledged the existence of other gods but believed that one god should be the supreme deity of all peoples.

For the Neo-Assyrians, “receiving tribute” meant the taking of plunder. Rather than defeating their foes once and imposing formal obligations, the Assyrians raided even their vanquished foes each year. This strategy kept the Neo-Assyrian military machine primed for battle, but it did little to inspire loyalty among subject peoples, who often felt that they had nothing to lose through rebellion. Moreover, annual invasions toughened the forces of the Neo-Assyrians’ subjects. To counter them, imperial battle tactics became notoriously savage-even by the standards of ancient warfare, which regarded the mutilation of prisoners, systematic rape, and mass deportations as commonplace. Neo-Assyrian artwork and inscriptions often celebrate the butchering and torture of their enemies. Smiling archers are shown shooting fleeing enemies in the back while remorseless soldiers impale captives on stakes.

The Neo-Assyrian army was not a seasonal army of part-time warriors or peasant conscripts, but rather a massive standing force of more than 100,000 soldiers. Because the Assyrians had mastered iron-smelting techniques on a large scale, they could equip their fighting men with high-quality steel weapons that overwhelmed opponents still reliant on bronze. The organization of this army also contributed to its success. At its core were heavily armed and armored shock troops, equipped with a variety of thrusting weapons and bearing tall shields for protection. They were the main force for crushing enemy infantry in the field and for routing the inhabitants of an enemy city once inside. To harass enemy infantry and break up their formations, the Assyrians deployed light skirmishers with slings and javelins, and they combined archery and chariotry as never before. They also developed the first true cavalry force in the West, with individual warriors mounted on armored steeds, wielding bows and arrows or heavy lances. They even trained a highly skilled corps of combat engineers to undermine city walls and to build catapults, siege engines, battering rams, and battle towers.

The Legacy of Neo-Assyrian Power

The successors of Sargon II continued these military policies while devoting great energy to promoting an Assyrian cultural legacy. Sargon’s immediate successor Sennacherib (sen-AH-sher-ib, 704-681 B. C. E.) rebuilt the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, fortifying it with a double wall for a circuit of nine miles. He constructed an enormous palace there, raised on a giant platform decorated with marble, ivory, and exotic woods; and he ordered the construction of a massive irrigation system, including an aqueduct that carried fresh water to the city from thirty miles away. His son rebuilt the conquered city of Babylon along similar lines, and was also a patron of the arts and sciences. His grandson Assurbanipal (ah-sur-BAHN-en-pahl, r. 669-627 B. C. E.) was perhaps the greatest of all the Neo-Assyrian kings. For a time, he ruled the entire delta region of northern Egypt. He also enacted a series of internal reforms, seeking ways to govern his empire more peacefully.

By Neo-Assyrian standards, Assurbanipal was an enlightened ruler, and one to whom we owe a tremendous debt. Like Sargon II before him, he had a strong sense of the rich traditions of Mesopotamian history and laid claim to it. But he did this much more systematically: he ordered the construction of a magnificent library at the great capital of Nineveh, where all the cultural monuments of Mesopotamian literature were to be copied and preserved. This library also served as an archive for the correspondence and official acts of the king. Fortunately, this trove of documentation has survived. Our knowledge of history, not to mention all modern editions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, derive from the library at Nineveh.

When Assurbanipal died in 627 B. C. E., the Neo- Assyrian Empire appeared to be at its zenith. Its borders were secure, the realm was largely at peace with its neighbors, its kings had adorned their capitals with magnificent artwork, and the hanging gardens of Babylon were already famous: these were artificial slopes whose cascading flowers and trees were fed by irrigation systems that pumped water uphill, an amazing marriage of engineering and horticulture. The collapse of this empire is therefore all the more dramatic for its suddenness. Within fifteen years of Assurbanipal’s reign, Nineveh lay in ruins. An alliance had formed between the Indo-European Medes of Iran and the Chaldeans, a Semitic people who controlled the southern half of Babylonia. By 605 B. C. E., the Chaldeans had occupied Babylon and destroyed the last remnants of Neo-Assyrian power on the upper Euphrates, becoming the predominant imperial power in Mesopotamia and the Levant. In 586 B. C. E., they captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and deported the population of Judea to Babylon. Meanwhile, the Medes retired to the Iranian Plateau to extend their suzerainty there.

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