Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire
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Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire

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Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire

Eckart Frahm is a professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale. Previously, Frahm was a research assistant and Assistant Professor of Assyriology at Heidelberg. He has worked on cuneiform tablets in the British Museum in London, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and a few other collections.

Below, Eckart shares five key insights from his new book, Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire. Listen to the audio version—read by Eckart himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire By Eckart Frahm Next Big Idea Club

1. Middle Eastern history is not unchangeable.

Middle Eastern history is often perceived as an endless sequence of despotic regimes. This “orientalist” view, still widely held, goes back to Hegel, who considered the East a region characterized, from the earliest times onwards by stagnation and autocratic rule. For the “world spirit” to blow more freely, Hegel argued, world history had to travel from East to West.

Assyrian history shows that Hegel’s assessment of the East is flawed. In its final incarnation in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, before it eventually collapsed, Assyria was a war-prone, autocratic state, ruled with an iron fist by powerful kings who would cruelly summarize their military campaigns by stating: “Before me, cities, behind me, ruins.”

Assyria, however, started its journey through the ages as something quite different: as a small city-state that worked hard to keep autocratic tendencies at bay. At the beginning of the second millennium BC, Ashur was jointly governed by three interlocking institutions: a dynasty of hereditary rulers with very limited power; “aristocratic” leaders chosen for a tenure of one year from the city’s leading merchant families; and a popular assembly that decided legal matters—a system reminiscent of the “mixed constitutions” of Republican Rome or the United States.

It was only in the second half of the second millennium that Assyria turned into a territorial state ruled by all-powerful kings. In contrast to later centuries, the early Assyrian city-state was, moreover, eager not to get embroiled in any wars, relying instead for its economic welfare on long-distance trade and the initiative of local entrepreneurs. Assyria’s power structure, in other words, underwent major transformations over time, and its economic development defies Marxist orthodoxies.

“Assyria, however, started its journey through the ages as something quite different: as a small city-state that worked hard to keep autocratic tendencies at bay.”

Studying Assyrian history also reveals some other surprising things. The first references to named rulers of the Arabs and the ancient Israelites are found in an Assyrian inscription from 853 BC in which we find them fighting side-by-side. Considering the modern-day tensions between the state of Israel and the Arab world, this seems quite remarkable. Assyrian sources reveal yet another unexpected fact: in contrast to later times, the Arab tribal states of the eighth and seventh centuries BC were often ruled by women. What all this tells us is that essentializing the peoples and states of the Middle East—and considering them innately incapable of implementing social and political change—is simply wrong.

2. Some things also never seem to change.

Admittedly this is not meant to cancel out the first insight, but in world history, there are also some things that apparently never change. Among these constants of human history, perceptible in the Assyrian Empire as well as today is that merchants, entrepreneurs, and high-ranking military officers tend to make more money than scholars and academics.

Archaeological excavations in the ancient city of Dur-Katlimmu have revealed that the house of Shulmu-sharri, a powerful general and confidant of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, was lavish. It comprised eighty-two rooms grouped around five large courtyards. The house of Duri-Ashur, a successful wine merchant who raised money from small investors in the city of Ashur, was relatively large as well.

The residence of the Assyrian chief scribe, one of the leading “intellectuals” of the empire, was decidedly less impressive. According to a seventh-century BC cuneiform letter from Nineveh, it was “tiny,” and apparently so dingy that “even a donkey would not want to enter it.” Scholars and religious experts who had fallen out of favor with their royal patrons faced even greater distress. Some were asked by their peers, “Once you have become older, who will support you?” It is a question that today’s graduate students in the Humanities often have to field as well, whether from their parents or some annoying uncle.

3. Crises can have very different outcomes.

The last and ultimate crisis that hit Assyria, in the late seventh century BC, led to the complete collapse of the Assyrian state. But a crisis some 150 years earlier, in the mid-eighth century, had exactly the opposite effect: it brought about Assyria’s transformation into an actual empire.

What happened in Assyria during this period, in the 760s and 750s BC, was quite similar to what the world experienced in the course of the past few years: the kingdom was struck by a series of devastating epidemics, which decimated its population, curbed economic growth, left the Assyrian military paralyzed, and led to several internal revolts. A climate-change-induced decrease in annual rainfall posed an additional threat. Assyria seemed on the verge of a complete breakdown.

“History is not governed by deterministic rules.”

But the country was about to experience a dramatic turnaround instead. In 745 BC, a new king, Tiglath-pileser III, ascended the throne and embarked on a series of ambitious military campaigns. When the king died in the winter of 727 BC, Assyria was more than twice as large as it had been at the beginning of his reign.

How did it happen that the phoenix of empire rose from the ashes of the preceding anni horribiles? To find an answer to this question, one must remember that history is not governed by deterministic rules. Unless they become too massive, challenges can be met by adapting to the changes that occur. This is exactly what Tiglath-pileser did. Taking stock of the loss of life caused in the Assyrian heartland by several bouts of plague, and realizing that it was hard to boost crop production under increasingly unfavorable ecological conditions, the king decided to focus on the conquest and annexation of foreign lands, the extraction of their wealth for the greater good of the Assyrian center, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people to replenish the workforce needed to keep the state running. It was, all in all, a remarkable feat of political and demographic reengineering.

Of course, Tiglath-pileser’s way out of the crisis can hardly be considered a model for our own time. His violent campaign of imperial expansion should rather be conceived as a warning. It tells us something about the ways in which “bad actors” can take advantage of the disasters that tend to befall humanity. We should all be on the lookout.

4. Beauty and learning can coexist with cruelty and sadism.

The reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the mid-seventh century BC marks, in many respects, the high point of Assyrian culture. Like many other Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal wished to rule his country as a powerful monarch and military leader. But he was also keenly interested in scholarship and poetry. As a youth, he writes in one of his inscriptions, he had “learned all the skills of the antediluvian sage Adapa”; had become well-read in the “signs of heaven and earth”; and had “carefully examined cuneiform signs on stones dating from before the Flood.”

Apparently, Ashurbanipal wanted to be a true “Renaissance man” or, to be less anachronistic, a new Gilgamesh. Like the famous literary hero of yore, first an explorer and warrior, then a sage, he wished to combine the qualities of the conqueror with those of the philosopher king.

In many respects, Ashurbanipal’s reign lived up to such lofty aspirations. The king created the world’s first universal library, a collection of thousands of literary and scholarly texts. He also commissioned some of the most intriguing works of ancient Near Eastern art. The bas-reliefs lining the walls of Ashurbanipal’s newly built North Palace at Nineveh are beautifully crafted masterpieces.

Some modern scholars have been so enthralled by Ashurbanipal’s cultural contributions that they have described Ashurbanipal as an enlightened humanist. But there was also another side to the king. Ashurbanipal was a spiteful, brutal man who lived in constant need of affirmation, a populist avant la lettre who often playacted, as if on a stage, rather than actually ruling his country. The king’s descriptions of the fates of defeated foes are driven by a deep-felt hatred. Ashurbanipal claims, for example, that he “destroyed the faces” of some of his Babylonian enemies, “flayed them, and chopped up their flesh.” Too frightened to join his troops on military campaigns, he demonstrated particular inventiveness when it came to torturing captured enemies at home, usually before large crowds of spectators.

“The king created the world’s first universal library, a collection of thousands of literary and scholarly texts.”

Ashurbanipal’s art, too, displays a pronounced penchant for violence, even where this is not evident right away. The most renowned relief from Ashurbanipal’s reign is a banquet scene. At first glance, the viewer seems to gaze at an idyll—a peaceful rendezvous between the king and his wife in a beautiful garden, with musicians playing their instruments and birds flying through the sky and nesting in trees. But things are not quite as harmless and harmonious as they appear, for upon closer inspection, one can see something else in one of those treetops: the severed head of a defeated enemy. The twentieth-century German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Ashurbanipal’s Assyria illustrates this adage well.

5. Imperial oppression can trigger unexpected responses.

Strange things can happen in the shadow of empire and in the periphery of imperial power. Assyria left a legacy of great importance: the very idea of empire itself. But probably even more important is the legacy left by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, two small Assyrian vassal states in the southern Levant. Here, a revolutionary new idea was born that would change the course of history forever: the concept of a monotheistic god more powerful than all earthly lords. How this idea emerged is a complicated story that unfolded over several centuries. But its beginnings can be traced to the eighth and especially the seventh centuries BC, when Assyria ruled almost all of Western Asia. The kingdom of Judah was an Assyrian client state at the time, paid tribute to the empire, and provided it with soldiers and laborers.

Like all Assyrian vassals, the Judean elites were forced to swear long series of loyalty oaths to the Assyrian king, in which they had to promise him obedience and profess their love for him. Based on what we know from other places, it is likely that a clay tablet with a copy of these oaths was put on display in the temple in Jerusalem and translated into Hebrew.

But then something happened that the Assyrians had not anticipated: Rather than endorsing their status as imperial subjects, Judean priests reapplied the stipulations of the oaths to their own god and claimed that he—and not the Assyrian king—deserved unconditional loyalty, love, and respect. Parts of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy document this new, revolutionary theology, which drew on the Assyrian loyalty oaths while at the same time inverting them. From now on, it was YHWH—and not the Assyrian king—who was Israel’s, and eventually the whole world’s, legitimate ruler.

A group of Judean intellectuals bent on liberating their minds and, in the long term, their homeland, had thus sowed the seed of the idea of monotheism—an intellectual breakthrough that occurred far from the imperial center, but in reaction to Assyria’s imperial policies.

To listen to the audio version read by author Eckart Frahm, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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