As far back as the reign of Shamashi-Adad (1813-1791 BCE), the Assyrian military had shown itself an effective fighting force. In the period known as the Middle Empire, kings like Ashur-Uballit I (1353-1318 BCE) were employing the army with great efficacy in the conquest of the region of the Mitanni and the king Adad Nirari I (1307-1275 BCE) expanded the empire through military conquest and crushed internal rebellions swiftly.
Adad Nirari I completely conquered the Mitanni and began what would become standard policy under the Assyrian Empire: the deportation of large segments of the population. With Mitanni under Assyrian control, Adad Nirari I decided the best way to prevent any future uprising was to remove the former occupants of the land and replace them with Assyrians. This should not be understood, however, as a cruel treatment of captives. Writing on this, the historian Karen Radner states:
The deportees, their labour and their abilities were extremely valuable to the Assyrian state, and their relocation was carefully planned and organised. We must not imagine treks of destitute fugitives who were easy prey for famine and disease: the deportees were meant to travel as comfortably and safely as possible in order to reach their destination in good physical shape. Whenever deportations are depicted in Assyrian imperial art, men, women and children are shown travelling in groups, often riding on vehicles or animals and never in bonds. There is no reason to doubt these depictions as Assyrian narrative art does not otherwise shy away from the graphic display of extreme violence.
Deportees were carefully chosen for their abilities and sent to regions which could make the most of their talents. Not everyone in the conquered populace was chosen for deportation and families were never separated. Those segments of the population that had actively resisted the Assyrians were killed or sold into slavery, but the general populace became absorbed into the growing empire and they were thought of as Assyrians. This policy would be followed by the kings who succeeded Adad Nirari I until the collapse of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE.
During their zenith from the 10th century BC to 7th century BC, the Assyrians controlled an enormous territory that extended from the borders of Egypt to the eastern highlands of Iran. Many historians perceive Assyria to be among the first ‘superpowers’ of the ancient world. In a brilliant insight by historian Mark Healy, quite paradoxically, the rise of Assyrian militarism and imperialism (from 15th century BC) mirrored their land’s initial vulnerability, as it laid inside the rough triangle defined between the cities of Nineveh, Ashur and Arbil (all in northern Mesopotamia).
Simply put, this terrain rich in its plump grain-lands was open to plunder from most sides, with potential risks being posed by the nomadic tribes, hill folks, and even proximate competing powers. This, in turn, affected a reactionary measure in the Assyrian society – that led to the development of an effective and well organized military system that could cope with the constant state of aggression, conflicts, and raids (much like the Romans).
Such an intrinsic scope of the military being tied with the economic well-being of a state resulted in what can be called a domino effect. So in a sense, while the Assyrians formulated their ‘attack is the best defense’ strategies, the proximate states became more war-like, thus adding to the list of enemies for the Assyrian army to conquer. Consequently, when the Assyrians went on a war footing, their military was able to absorb more ideas from foreign powers, which led to an ambit of evolution and flexibility (again much like the later Romans). These tendencies of flexibility, discipline and incredible fighting skills became the hallmark of the Assyrian army that triumphed over most of the powerful Mesopotamian kingdoms in Asia by 8th century BC.
The scope of Assyrian military development and expansion was intrinsically tied to the economic prosperity of the rising realm. In the period circa 1450 BC, such a military system was required for actually protecting the vulnerability of the Assyrian lands locked between the powerful Mesopotamian states of Mitanni in the north and Babylonia at the south, which supported the land’s economic stability. But as the centuries went by, Assyria morphed into the aggressor with the aid of its continually developing military prowess.
Suffice it to say, more conquered lands brought more plunder in the form of various valuable resources, ranging from metals, horses to skill-based populations. This was complemented by the control of crucial trade routes that crisscrossed through various parts of Mesopotamia. In essence, waging wars (along with conquering and raiding) became organized ventures conducted for the betterment of the Assyrian realm’s economy. So simply put, by 11th century BC, the security needs of the state became indistinguishable from the prosperity of the ascending empire – with the Assyrian army playing its crucial role in both the ‘merged’ affairs.
With the last king of the dynasty of Khammurabi (about 2098 B.C.) a period of darkness falls upon the history of the land between the rivers. A new dynasty of the Babylonian kings’ list begins with a certain Anmanu, and continues with ten other kings whose names are anything but suggestive of Babylonian origin. The regnal years of the eleven reach the respectable number of three hundred and sixty-eight. The problem of their origin is complicated with that of deciphering the word (Uru-azagga?) descriptive of them in the kings’ list. Some think that it points to a quarter of the city of Babylon. Others, reading it Uru-ku, see in it the name of the ancient city of Uruk. The length of the reigns of the several kings is above the average, and suggests peace and prosperity under their rule. It is certainly strange in that case that no memorials of them have as yet been discovered, — a fact that lends some plausibility to the theory maintained by Hommel that this dynasty was contemporaneous with that of Khammurabi and never attained significance.
The third dynasty, as recorded on the kings’ list, consists of thirty-six kings, who reigned five hundred seventy-six years and nine months (about 1717-1140 B.C.). About these kings information, while quite extensive, is yet so fragmentary as to render exact and organized presentation of their history exceedingly difficult. The kings’ list is badly broken in the middle of the dynasty, so that only the first six and the last eleven or twelve of the names are intact, leaving thirteen or fourteen to be otherwise supplied and the order of succession to be determined from imperfect and inconclusive data. Only one royal inscription of some length exists, that of a certain Agum-kakrime who does not appear on the dynastic list. The tablets found at Nippur by the University of Pennsylvania’s expedition have added several names to the list and thrown new light upon the history of the dynasty. The fragments of the so-called “Synchronistic History” (sect. 30) cover, in part, the relations of the Babylonian and Assyrian kings of this age, and the recently discovered royal Egyptian archives known as the Tel-el-Amarna tablets contain letters from and to several of them. From these materials it is possible to obtain the names of all but three or four of the missing thirteen or fourteen kings, and to reach something like a general knowledge of the whole period and some details of single reigns and epochs. Yet it is evident that the absence of some royal names not only makes the order of succession in the dark period uncertain, but throws its chronology into disorder. Nor is the material sufficient to remove the whole age from the region of indefiniteness as to the aims and achievements of the dynasty, or to make possible a grouping into epochs of development which may be above criticism. With these considerations in mind it is possible roughly to divide the period into four epochs: first, the beginnings of Kassite rule; second, the appearance of Assyria as a possible rival of Kassite Babylonia; third, the culmination of the dynasty and the struggle with Assyria; fourth, the decline and disappearance of the Kassites.
Merely a glance at the names in the dynastic list is evidence that a majority of them are of a non-Babylonian character. The royal inscriptions prove beyond doubt that the dynasty as a whole was foreign, and its domination the result of invasion by a people called Kashhus, or, to use a more conventional name, the Kassites. They belonged to the eastern mountains, occupying the high valleys from the borders of Elam northward, living partly from the scanty products of the soil and partly by plundering travellers and making descents upon the western plain. The few fragments of their language which survive are not sufficient to indicate its affinity either to the Elamite or the Median, and at present all that can be said is that they formed a greater or lesser division of that congeries of mountain peoples which, without unity or common name and language, surged back and forth over the mountain wall stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Persian gulf. Their home seems to have been in the vicinity of those few mountain passes which lead from the valley up to the table-land. Hence they were brought into closer relations with the trade and commerce which from time immemorial had used these passes, and thereby they were early made aware of the civilization and wealth of Babylonia.
Whether driven by the impulse to conquest, begotten of a growing knowledge of Babylonian weakness, or by the pressure of peoples behind and about them, the Kassites appear at an early day to have figured in the annals of the Babylonian kingdom. In the ninth year of Samsuiluna, of the first dynasty, they were invading the land. This doubtless isolated invasion was repeated in the following years until by the beginning of the seventeenth century B.C., they seem to have gained the upper hand in Babylonia. Their earlier field of operations seems to have been in the south, near the mouth of the rivers. Here was Karduniash, the home of the Kassites in Babylonia, a name subsequently extended over all the land. It is not improbable that a Kassite tribe settled here in the last days of the second dynasty, and, assimilated to the civilization of the land, was later reinforced by larger bands of the same people displaced from the original home of the Kassites by pressure from behind, and that the combined forces found it easy to overspread and gain possession of the whole country. Such a supposition is in harmony with the evident predilection of the Kassites for southern Babylonia, as well as with their maintenance of authority over the regions in which they originally had their home. It also explains how, very soon after they came to power, they were hardly to be distinguished from the Semitic Babylonians over whom they ruled. They employed the royal titles, worshipped at the ancient shrines, served the native gods, and wrote their inscriptions in the Babylonian language.
Of the six kings whose names appear first on the dynastic list nothing of historical importance is known. The gap that ensues in that list, covering thirteen or fourteen names, is filled up from sources to which reference has already been made. Agumkakrime (sect. 103), whose inscription of three hundred and thirty-eight lines is the most important Kassite document as yet discovered, probably stands near the early kings, is perhaps the seventh in order (about 1600 B.C.). This inscription, preserved in an Assyrian copy, was originally deposited in the temple at Babylon, and describes the royal achievements on behalf of the god Marduk and his divine spouse Zarpanit. The king first proclaims his own glory by reciting his genealogy, his relation to the gods and his royal titles:
I am Agumkakrime, the son of Tashshigurumash; the illustrious descendant of god Shuqamuna; called by Anu and Bel, Ea and Marduk, Sin and Shamash; the powerful hero of Ishtar, the warrior among the goddesses.
I am a king of wisdom and prudence; a king who grants hearing and pardon; the son of Tashshigurumash; the descendant of Abirumash, the crafty warrior; the first son among the numerous family of the great Agum; an illustrious, royal scion who holds the reins of the nation (and is) a mighty shepherd…
I am king of the country of Kashshu and of the Akkadians; king of the wide country of Babylon, who settles the numerous people in Ashnunak; the King of Padan and Alman; the King of Gutium, a foolish nation; (a king) who makes obedient to him the four regions, and has always been a favorite of the great gods (I. 1-42).
Agumkakrime found, on taking the throne, that the images of Marduk and Zarpanit, chief deities of the city, had been removed from the temple to the land of Khani, a region not yet definitely located, but presumably in northern Mesopotamia, and possibly on the head-waters of the Euphrates. This removal took place probably in connection with an invasion of peoples from that distant region, who were subsequently driven out; and it sheds light on the weakened and disordered condition of the land at the time of the appearance of the Kassites. These images were recovered by the king, either through an embassy or by force of arms. The inscription is indefinite on the point, but the wealth of the king as intimated in the latter part of the inscription would suggest that he was at least able to compel the surrender of them. On being recovered they were replaced in their temple, which was renovated and splendidly furnished for their reception. Gold and precious stones and woods were employed in lavish profusion for the adornment of the persons of the divine pair and the decoration of their abode. Their priesthoods were revived, the service re-established, and endowments provided for the temple.
In the countries enumerated by Agumkakrime as under his sway no mention is made of a people who were soon to exercise a commanding influence upon the history of the Kassite dynasty. The people of Assyria, however, although, even before that time, having a local habitation and rulers, the names of some of whom have come down in tradition, could hardly have been independent of a king who claimed authority over the land of the Keissites and the Guti, Padan, and Alman, — districts which lie in the region of the middle and upper Tigris, or on the slopes of the eastern mountains (Delitzsch, Peradies, p. 205). According to the report of the Synchronistic History, about a century and a half later Assyria was capable of treating with Babylonia on equal terms, but, even if the opening passages of that document (some eleven lines) had been preserved, they would hardly have indicated such relations at a much earlier date. The sudden rise of Assyria, therefore, is reasonably explained as connected with the greater movement which made the Kassites supreme in Babylonia.
The people who established the kingdom of Assyria exhibit, in language and customs and even in physical characteristics, a close likeness to the Babylonians. They were, therefore, not only a Semitic people, but, apparently, also of Semitic-BabyIonian stock. The most natural explanation of this fact is that they were originally a Babylonian colony. They seem, however, to be of even purer Semitic blood than their Babylonian ancestors, and some scholars have preferred to see in them an independent offshoot from the original Semitic migration into the Mesopotamian valley (sect. 51). If that be so, they must have come very early under Babylonian influence which dominated the essential elements of their civilization and its growth down to their latest days. The earliest centre of their organization was the city of Assur on the west bank of the middle Tigris (lat. n. 35° 30′), where a line of low hills begins to run southward along the river. Perched on the outlying northern spur of these hills, and by them sheltered from the nomads of the steppe and protected by the broad river in front from the raids of mountaineers of the east, the city was an outpost of Babylonian civilization and a station on the natural road of trade with the lands of the upper Tigris. A fertile stretch of alluvial soil in the vicinity supplied the necessary agricultural basis of life, while, a few miles to the north, bitumen springs furnished, as on the Euphrates, an article of commerce and an indispensable element of building (Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, II. chap. xii.). The god of the city was Ashur, “the good one,” and from him the city received its name (Jastrow, Rel. of Bab. and Assyria, p. 196).
The early rulers of the city of Assur were patesis (sect. 75), viceroys of Babylonian rulers. Some of their names have come down in tradition, as, for example, those of Ishme Dagan and his son, Shamshi Adad, who lived according to Tiglathpileser I. about seven hundred years before himself (that is, about 1840-1800 B.C.). Later kings of Assyria also refer to other rulers of the early age to whom they give the royal title, but of whom nothing further is known. The first mention of Assur is in a letter of king Khammurabi of the first dynasty of Babylon, who seems to intimate that the city was a part of the Babylonian Empire (King, Let. and Inscr. of H., III. p. 3). In the darkness that covers these beginnings, the viceroys became independent of Babylonia and extended their authority up the Tigris to Kalkhi, Arbela, and Nineveh, cities to be in the future centres of the Assyrian Empire. The kingdom of Assyria took form and gathered power.
The physical characteristics of this region could not but shape the activities of those who lived within its borders. It is the northeastern corner of Mesopotamia. The mountains rise in the rear; the Tigris and Mesopotamia are in front. The chief cities of Assyria, with the sole exception of Assur, lie to the east of the great river and on the narrow shelf between it and the northeastern mountain ranges. They who live there must needs find nature less friendly to them than to their brethren of the south. Agriculture does not richly reward their labors. They learn, by struggling with the wild beasts of the hills and the fierce men of the mountains, the thirst for battle and the joy of victory. And as they grow too numerous for their borders, the prospect, barred to the east and north, opens invitingly towards the west and southwest. Thus the Assyrian found in his surroundings the encouragement to devote himself to war and to the chase rather than to the peaceful pursuits of agriculture; the preparation for military achievement on a scale hitherto unrealized.
It is not difficult to conceive how the Kassite conquest of Babylonia profoundly influenced the development of Assyria. The city of Assur, protected from the inroads of the eastern invaders by its position on the west bank of the Tigris, became, at the same time, the refuge of those Babylonians who fled before the conquerors as they overspread the land. The Assyrian community was thus enabled to throw off the yoke of allegiance to the mother country, now in possession of foreigners, and to establish itself as an independent kingdom. Its patesis became kings, and began to cherish ambitions of recovering the home-land from the grasp of the enemy, and of extending their sway over the upper Tigris and beyond. It is not unlikely that this latter endeavor was at least partially successful during the early period of the Kassite rule. It is certainly significant that Agumkakrime does not mention Assyria among the districts under his sway and if, as has been remarked (sect. 108), his sphere of influence seems to include it, his successors were soon to learn that a new power must be reckoned with, in settling the question of supremacy on the middle Tigris.