Ancient Empires Before Alexander 10 of 16, lecture 2009, Assyria 2
Assyria at War
Occupying the northern Fertile Crescent, Assyria lacked defensible frontiers and throughout its long existence had to
battle its neighbors on every front, particularly Babylonia. To survive, the Assyrians had to become masters of the
art of war, and they developed the most efficient military machine the ancient Near East had yet seen. The Assyrian
army reached the peak of its development under the monarchs of the Neo-Assyrian period and became a model
emulated by later Near Eastern imperial states, including Persia. The main combat branches of the Assyrian army
were the infantry and the mounted troops. The infantry included heavy infantry for line combat and light infantry, or
skirmishers. The mounted troops comprised both chariot units and heavy cavalry, both armed with bows. The heart
of the army was a regular standing force of professionals, many of them recruited from among deported populations.
Assyrians were a devout people, so war was very much a religious undertaking.
The Climax and Collapse of Assyria
In the late 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Assyria became the first nation ever to establish an empire that spanned the
entire Near East. Under a series of great warrior kings, beginning with Tiglath-pileser III, the Assyrians crushed the
troublesome Armenian kingdom of Urartu; conquered the Levant, exterminating the kingdom of Israel and deporting
its population; destroyed the great city of Babylon, annexing Babylonia; and finally invaded and seized control of
Egypt. By 665, no rival powers survived to challenge Assyrian supremacy. And then the mighty edifice of the
Assyrian empire suddenly collapsed: Egypt shook off Assyrian rule; then Babylonia rose in rebellion. Joined by the
Medes, an Iranian people who dwelt in the Zagros mountains east of the Assyrian homeland, the Babylonians beat
down Assyrian resistance and destroyed the Assyrian homeland. The last embers of Assyrian resistance were
snuffed out in Upper Mesopotamia in 605. The Assyrians vanished from the stage of Near Eastern history, never to
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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