History Of A Nation: Middle Assyrian Empire (Assyria Part 2)

1392 BC – 934 BC

At the end of the Old Assyrian period, as I mentioned when I did my Mitanni post, the waning Assyrian Empire was pretty much under the control of the neighbouring Mitanni, yet on my map I’ve shown, there are no Mitanni at all. I explained they had a quick decline in that post, but what replaced it was basically back to business as usual for the Assyrians, except the Middle Assyrian Empire was sort of a different beast. I’m hesitant to say exactly how different because I honestly don’t have those sorts of answers, I’m only an inexperienced historian.


I’m sure you remember where Assyria was. At least I hope you do. Off to the east of Syria, Assur on the Tigris was still the centre of the Assyrian Empire and the famed Nineveh was still a small provincial Assyrian town to the north, that hasn’t changed from the Old Assyrian Empire. Cities like Karkhemish and Qatni were regained to Assyrian control underneath the Middle Assyrian Empire with the collapse of the Mitanni. The eastern border extended down the Tigris and Euphrates about halfway between Assur and Babylon, the Kassites were still in control of the Babylonian area. Both cities were so old at this point and yet both still so far away from their most famous moments. And as to the Kassites being the middle point of Babylon, this is the middle point of Assyria.

During this period the focus would shift from Assur to the Nineveh area, although many of the Assyrian monarchs were egomaniacs and there was more than one attempt by them to be the one to change the capital or even build a new city in their name.

Timeline and Personalities

Back to ruler descriptions, yay. While for a time, Assyria was under the control of the Mitanni, the first king who pushed that away was Ashur-uballit I, who defeated the Mitanni king Shuttarna II, one of the kings in Mitanni who left a rather unstable legacy because of this. He also defeated Burnaburias II of Kassite Babylon, installing the more favourable Kurigalzu II in his place. Ashur knew the importance of reestablishing Assyria as a power on the world map, as it had spent a generation or more with no real power.  And in just a short time he reestablished Assyria as a major power and gained himself a lot of influence and power over the nearby states. Think how unusual that is, Ashur-uballit must have been an incredible uniter, to pull a state back from the brink like that, and destroy their former overlords, the Mitanni in the process (down to a few minor kings who had no real power before their line was finally snuffed out a few generations later). And yet we hear so little about him. Ashurbanipal takes all the glory, although that is much later.

His grandson, Arik-den-ili, started a tradition of annual military campaigns against all of Assyria’s neighbours, and you wonder where the Assyrian Empire’s reputation for stereotypical aggressiveness comes from. It was instituitionalised from a still relatively early point in their history. This of course meant that the next king, Adad-Niriri would boast to be the conqueror and subduer of all the nations in the area. He may have been, I’m not casting any doubt on those claims.

The inscriptions continue to be similarly military, Shalmaneser I conquered eight countries in the north west and blinded thousands of enemy prisoners, Tukurti-Ninurta won a major victory against the Hittites and the Babylonians and demolished the walls of Babylon, and Ashur-Nadin-apli declared himself Lord of the World and sent the Egyptians packing with a fire-breathing dragon. I might have made that up, he seemed to have been a normal king. Ninurta though, he was one of those who tried to build a new capital for himself.

Ninurta-apal-Ekur a few years later actually did style himself King of the Universe, see, I’m never too far off. We like him anyway as we know his reign overlaps with two Babylonian kings which is always a big help for nailing down exactly when in the chronology contemporaries were ruling. Yet despite that we don’t know how long he reigned exactly, it could have been 13 or 3. After that we have Ashur-Dan I, who rules for a long old time, forty years in the 1100s BC. He saw the Kassite dynasty to the south collapse and let Assyria take centre stage alone. The sons of Ashur-Dan, after his long reign, squabbled for the throne and there was a period of instability, before we get to the next great king.

Tiglath-Pileser I, a name that you could not confuse with any previous Assyrian monarch, made good of this and made Assyria into a stable realm that absolutely was the main power in the Middle East. Babylon had been taken over by an Isin-led dynasty that had little power outside its borders, the Hittites were gone, Egypt was suffering instability, Assyria was the uncontested power in its area. Tiglath brought Assyrian control as far west as the coast of the Mediterranean. Some people even consider him the founder of one era of an Assyrian Empire although for convenience’s sake, I’m lumping him in with the Middle period. He did have trouble from the Aramean/Canaanite tribesmen to the south (to be covered in an upcoming episode!) towards the end of his reign and this would only increase in the reigns of his sons. And then there were short reigns, wicked uncles murdering to get the throne (Shamshi Adad IV, putting shame to that once great name of Old Assyria), and a lot of short reigns. Even the longer reigns, Ashur-Rabi II for one, seem to not have been as successful as before. 1050 to about 930 BC was not the best time for the Assyrian Empire, though still powerful, the kings did not do or did not record as glorious conquests as their predecessors had. This was Assyria suffering the effects of the Bronze Age collapse as many others did, so invasions by the Sea Peoples, natural disasters would have compounded or perhaps caused all of the royal infighting and instability within the governance of Assyria at this time. But keep in mind that Assyria actually weathered the Bronze Age collapse remarkably well in comparison to nearly every other state in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yes, they lost control over their outer regions and had a lot of infighting in the royal line, but the royal line survived and trade still flowed out to their former holdings, Assyrian warriors were still well regarded. The city was not sacked, and the civilisation continued, though everything changed around them and their former holdings changed in people groups and culture. Think of it like a turtle putting its head inside a shell to weather a storm and that’s how Assyria coped with the Bronze Age collapse, damaged but alive. The long uneventful reigns of Ashur Rabi II and Tiglath Pileser II seem to confirm that, they got pragmatic and defended what they could well defend.

Eventually we get to Ashur-Dan II, who is either the last king of the Middle Assyrian Empire or the first king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire depending on how you look at it. He reversed the decline in political instability and recovered all of the lost territory (vassal city states on the fringe would have switched allegiances during this time), setting up the stage for the most powerful part yet of the Assyrian Empire. But that’s for another time.

Assyrian Society

On a quick note here, we do know a few interesting things about Middle Assyria, so I’ll share them here. Like in Old Assyria, the practice of limmu continued for high political office and this time, the custom had changed, the king could take this office and indeed many of them did. All Assyrian men had to serve in the army, while women did not have a very easy time of it in comparison to other ancient civilisations, at least according to law codes that have laws like adulterous women put to death. For that, I think Assyria’s military and masculine focus played a part. I’d say Middle Assyria is one of the most militaristic states we’ve come across so far, mostly fighting its way to unrivalled dominance in its area. That’s very much a masculine state. Of mind. And this went over into the laws, executions were all over the place, it was a harsh place to live. But that made it effective. If you want a defence for somewhere that was a harsh, overly authoritarian place to live, always say it’s effective and you have an argument for anything. I don’t actually know if it was that effective. It was effective, the king controlled all the power and if he was a good king, ruled the priesthood and the secular world simultaneously as lord.

However, gays were just fine. Well, gay men. Apparently. Homosexuality was welcomed, as long as the two men were of equal standing and there was no chance of there being a bottom slave. This, we’ll find out was surprisingly common in the ancient world, I think it’s the first time I’ve come across some gay history so it’s a good place to start mentioning it.

Middle Assyria was really, first and foremost, marked by the constant wars that its kings led it into, a very militaristic society, with valuable economic resources gained through conquest, nobles called upon to be the horse-breeders of society, all of the common freemen in conscription as already noted. Quite a harsh place. And this would continue again into Neo-Assyria.


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