Ancient Empires Before Alexander 9 of 16, lecture 2009, Assyria 1
The Dawn of Assyria
Although their millennia-long history exceeds that of almost any other Near Eastern people, the Assyrians are
remembered mostly for their brutality. In fact, their actions differed only in degree from those of their neighbors. The
Assyrians were a diverse people bound together by a shared language and religious cult. Their origins lie in the stirrings
of urban civilization in northern Mesopotamia during the mid-3rd millennium B.C., when they were a merchant folk.
The first ruler to create an empire centered on Assyria was the Amorite Shamshi-Adad in the early 2nd millennium.
Assyrian power receded after his death but recovered under the rulers of the Middle Assyrian period in the late 2nd
millennium, who capitalized on the Hittites’ crushing of Mitanni to create an empire in the northern Fertile Crescent,
which stood on par with Hatti, Egypt, and Babylonia. But like them, the Middle Assyrian empire fell victim to the
upheavals that marked the end of the Bronze Age.
The Rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire
Assyria entered its great era of imperial glory late in the 10th century B.C., with the dawn of the New Kingdom, or
the Neo-Assyrian empire. The era was characterized by a new aggressiveness and a new severity. Through annual
campaigning, a series of capable monarchs had established Assyria as the Near East’s preeminent power by the end
of the 9th century, ruling an empire that spanned the upper Fertile Crescent and was troubled only by weak but
independent neighbors in Babylonia, Egypt, and the Armenian mountain kingdom of Urartu. Then a massive
internal revolt halted Assyria’s expansion, and for nearly 100 years its kings had to fight Babylonia and Urartu, as
well as rebellious subjects, to keep the empire alive. In the end they were successful, and they set the stage for the
revival of Assyria’s fortunes that began in the late 8th century.
The Government of Assyria
The Assyrian king was a warrior king, protector of the land and the people. He was the earthly regent of the god
Ashur, with the sacred duty of bringing the world under Ashur’s authority, so that the forces of chaos would be
subjugated and order would prevail. At first, the territories of the Assyrian empire were divided up into a core
territory, the Assyrian heartland, comprised of provinces administered by governors, and the outlying territories,
made up of vassal states under native rulers. The later Neo-Assyrian kings converted most of these vassal states into
directly ruled Assyrian provinces. All Assyrian subjects swore oaths of loyalty on their own gods and on Ashur. The
Assyrians’ reputation for brutality actually grew out of their harsh treatment of rebels, who were oath breakers and,
consequently, enemies of the gods. The Assyrians’ deportation of defeated peoples was actually a common Near
Eastern practice and often enabled deportees to have a better life in their new homes.
Robert L. Dise Jr. has taught at the University of Northern Iowa since 1992; prior to joining its faculty, he taught at Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). He received his B.A. in History from the University of Virginia (at Charlottesville), concentrating on the history of the ancient world, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, specializing in the history of Rome.
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