Mark Healy on The Ancient Assyrians

Mark Healy

The Ancient Assyrians are given a new appraisal which highlights their military and imperial achievements.
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Mark Healy, many congratulations on your new title, The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army. Who were the Assyrians?

We would locate Assyria in the northern half of modern Iraq. The name Assyria derives from that of its chief god, Ashur. Assyria = ’the land of Ashur’.

They seem to have had a succession of impressive commanders, Shalmaneser III, among them. Who was the most successful of the Assyrian generals?

It was always understood that the head of the army was the King of Assyria. It was he who led the army on campaign on most occasions. It was also the norm for him to appoint a commander of the army with the title of turtanu who could be delegated by the monarch to lead campaigns if the king chose to stay in Assyria. Although Shalmaneser III spent the bulk of his reign on campaign, ranging with his army to all points of the compass, he did not move to the creation of an imperial model for his conquests choosing those polities he conquered to become vassal states paying annual tribute to Assyria.  In that sense he employed the traditional policy whereby Assyria dealt with conquered territories. It took a later king, Tiglath-pileser III to move towards a more formal model of empire.

Of the kings of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III (745 – 727 B.C.) and Sargon II (721- 705 B.C.) were responsible for the greatest territorial conquests – in effect doubling the size of the empire by the time of the latter’s death in 705 B.C. Expansion continued thereafter down to the collapse of the empire in 612 B.C. with highpoint of Assyria’s expansion being the conquest of much of Egypt in the reign of Esarhaddon (680 – 669 B.C.).

We’re often told The Persian Empire was the first – but that’s not right is it?

That is correct.

Although Sargon of Akkad is sometimes credited with having created the first empire in history in the late Third Millennium B.C., the consensus among historians was that it was the Assyrians who actually did so between 745 B.C. and 612 B.C. It was Tiglath-pileser III (745 – 727 B.C.) who embarked upon the creation of a properly imperial structure with the annexation of conquests and their formal translation into provinces under a governor, with the population in these paying annual taxes to the empire. This policy was embraced by his successors. Although vassal states were retained almost all conquests were translated into provinces.

The exceptions were those polities whose vassal status better served Assyria’s economic and strategic interests – for example, although the Assyrians had to deal with recalcitrant Phoenician kings – the city states of Tyre, Sidon etc were permitted to retain their vassal status as they served to provide Assyria with great wealth and luxury goods by virtue of their overseas trading links.  Even after a number of these had rebelled and subsequently been defeated by the Assyrians they were still permitted to retain their status as vassals.

Although the subsequent Persian Empire was far larger than that of the Assyrian it is known that the Persians looked back on the Assyrian Empire and adopted aspects of its imperial model.

What was the relationship between the Assyrians and the Babylonians?

Put simply, it was a love hate relationship. The Babylonians viewed themselves as the religious and culturally more pre-eminent – and in this Assyrians acquiesced. Babylon was regarded with respect. However, with Assyrian military expansion and the intrusion of hostile Aramaean tribes into Babylonia conflict resulted on a grand scale. From the reign of Tiglath-pileser III,  Assyrian military involvement in Babylonia became ever present – that is from 745 B.C. to the end of the empire in 612 B.C. Babylon itself was subjected to devastating sieges at the hands of the Assyrian Army at the hands of Sennacherib and Assurbanipal.  In the case of that the former much of the city was later rebuilt by the Assyrians – during the reign of Esarhaddon, the son of Sennacherib – with many Assyrians having perceived the destruction of Babylon as a ‘great sin’.

Babylon’s revenge was that together with the Medes they brought about Assyria’s destruction in 612 B.C.

How influential were they militarily, on subsequent powers such as the Persians, Babylonians and even Greeks?

There is little doubt that the Assyrian Army was very influential in the manner especially on its immediate successor – that of Babylon. Indeed, in the light of the real paucity of visual evidence of the appearance of the soldiery of the Babylonian Army it is likely that in many aspects of its arms, equipment and manner of operating it drew very heavily on the example of its great former northern neighbour.

It was also the case that the Persians and even the Greeks drew on aspects of the Assyrian exemplar. We know that Greek mercenaries served in the Assyrian Army and no doubt took what they learned back to their respective city-states. The Persians also drew from the Assyrian Army especially in siege warfare techniques.

Siege equipment in particular is very interesting – there seems to be archaeological evidence showing impressive pieces of kit – why do you think they were so innovative in this regard?

The sieges of cities the Assyrian Army undertook greatly exceeded the number of open field battles they ever fought. This arose primarily because the size of the Assyrian Army was usually far larger than those whom they fought and for many polities/states the only possibility of surviving a major Assyrian assault lay behind their thick city walls and defences. Most of these city walls, especially in Mesopotamia were built of dried mud brick which were ‘easier’ to assail than those walls encountered in the Levant which utilised stone.

Battering rams were the primary offensive weaponry used against walls and these were supplemented by the use of mining. The former frequently required the construction of a siege ramp such as still to be found at the site of the former Judean fortress city of Lachish stormed by the Assyrians in 701 B.C. However, in the face of very strong city walls a siege could take years to bring about the city’s capture. The Syrian fortress city of Arpad took three years to fall and the siege of Babylon by Sennacherib took eighteen months before it fell. Even the Assyrians attempted where possible to avoid sieges.

We’ve seen a renewed interest in the Assyrians, what with Eckart Frahm’s recent publication and of course yours. Why do you think this is?

In truth, I am not conscious that there has been a renewed interest in the Assyrians. They have always been of interest to a certain section of the reading public. In the UK people have benefitted from the extraordinary number of Assyrian wall reliefs and other artifacts in the British Museum and the recent large exhibition of the life and times of Assyria’s last great king – Ashurbanipal. I would also like to think that perhaps people’s interest in this subject – particularly in the US – does not just arise from the importance of the Bible in American culture. Whilst the Assyrians are renowned for their brutality they are historically of great importance in the Ancient Near East generally by virtue of helping to spread the Aramaic language, the mixing of diverse populations in consequence of their deportation policies and of being the very first great world empire – providing a model for others – especially the Babylonians and Persians to follow.

Mark Healy is the author of The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, published by Osprey.

Aspects of History Issue 17 is out now.