History Of A Nation: Neo-Assyrian Empire (Part 2 – The Terror of Ashurbanipal)

721 BC – 609 BC

This will be a carrying on from the previous Neo-Assyrian post as I wasn’t able to finish it all in one day and I wanted a bit of time to focus in on the two halves of Neo-Assyria, the part before Tiglath Pileser when Assyria was growing and expanding and taking everything in, and the part after him, the last brutal long century of Assyrian dominance, led by the Sargonid dynasty. If you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll notice that Sargonid is named the same as the now legendary Akkadian ruler, after its first king Sargon II. There was another Assyrian Sargon I back in the days of Old Assyria that we know little about, but there’s no question about whether Sargon II was emulating either one because the regnal number is modern and only applies to Assyrians.

Right after Tiglath-Pileser died, his son Shalmaneser took over. Israel (Samaria) had been a little rebellious at this time and aligned themselves with Egypt against Shalmaneser. Shalmaneser declared that this was completely unacceptable so he responded by sitting outside Samaria for three years demanding that they surrender. And then he died. It’s a wonder Assyria didn’t collapse. The commander of the armies, Sargon, and possibly a younger brother of the king, saw the chance, took power, and immediately showed why he should have been king all along by taking Samaria and burning it, dragging the Northern Jews away to slavery all across the Assyrian Empire and starting the myth of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel for those interested in theological curiosities.

Aside from a brief interlude to build a new capital city modestly named (translated) ‘Fort Sargon’, Sargon then continued to spend his reign waging war on all of those around him, Elam, Urartu, Babylon, Persians, Medians and basically proving the stereotype that Neo-Assyrians were the most relentless set of warmongers the planet had at the time, perhaps the most prolific ever. This finally led to his downfall in 705 BC when he was killed in battle, and everyone around the Middle East briefly breathed a sigh of relief before discovering that his son, Sennacherib was just as bad.

Sennacherib did move the capital to the more mercantile and urban city of Nineveh and embarked on a series of building projects and art promotion to make him seem like he was different from his father and to his credit, his reign was one of the few times in Assyrian history where peaceful expression was somewhat valued, he might have been responsible for the Hanging Gardens, or at least their original form. He definitely left Nineveh a more beautiful place than when he found it.

See, since Tiglath, the king of Assyria had also been king of Babylon, nominally, the Babylonians just accepted it as a way to stay alive. But Sennacherib really didn’t seem to care for anything outside of Nineveh, at least Sargon had taken part in the rituals. It seems that the Babylonians got progressively more annoyed about this until Sennacherib finally destroyed the city in 689 BC, also taking their god, Marduk from Babylon to be replaced with worship of Ashur, if you’ll remember, the god of Assyria, managing to offend both the Babylonians and his own people to an extent, as they also liked the Babylonians. He also vassalised several small cities around Judea and eventually Hezekiah of Judea himself. Eight years later, Sennacherib was murdered while praying to a god. It was apparently seen as divine punishment, and also seems somewhat poetic.

Then we get Esarhaddon, who rebuilt Babylon and continued the Assyrian penchant for nonstop war (seriously, if there is one thing you should take away from learning about the Assyrian Empire, it is their relentless military campaigning, without exception).

Finally, the last successful king of Assyria, and the person who I named this post after, Ashurbanipal took the throne in 668 BC, ruling for the next 41 years.

Ashurbanipal is known for a couple of things. Aside from Civilisation V of course. Peacefully, he’s known for creating or at least greatly expanding the collection of documents available to the Assyrian kings into one huge library. This library is now at the British Museum, where I have booked my next holiday, so next time I’m in London I shall be spending a day there marvelling at everything Ashurbanipal collected and everything else that is available for me to see. This collection includes our copy of the Epic Of Gilgamesh and many others besides, so thank Ashurbanipal for being such a good collector or we might know significantly less about the ancient world.

On commanding and conquering, Ashurbanipal was certainly prolific and cruel, he increased his power over Egypt, vassalising a Pharaoh to rule in his name while ‘protecting’ them from Nubian raiders by getting more campaigns into their lands. Once this was done, Ashurbanipal ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen, although his record wouldn’t last all that long. Meanwhile, at home, some Lydian rulers in Anatolia/Turkey were getting uppity and declared independence. They were swiftly put down, while Ashurbanipal made moves to defeat all his rivals including a last put-down of long-standing standby country Elam after they stupidly invaded Babylon. But with Ashurbanipal’s brother on the throne of Babylon, even the greatest king the world had ever seen couldn’t hold onto power for long and eventually the brother rebelled against his sibling overlord, allying with everyone that Ashurbanipal had ever wronged, and this was a lot. Wasn’t enough though and within two years, the rebellious brother was burning in Babylon and the rebels were executed. And here’s the problem. For the last two decades of Ashurbanipal’s long reign, he was virtually unchallenged, but his empire’s vast size meant that there were struggles brewing under the surface, not enough troops to maintain the border, colonies recovering from decades of Assyrian war, tribes that would be future empires pushing at the borders of Assyria, the Scythians, the Medes, the Persians, that once Ashurbanipal died Assyria broke into civil wars and while there were three further kings that often get forgotten, Ashurbanipal was, as he is often misconceived, the last king of Assyria for which the title meant a damn.

Assyria was a great state, powerful and rich, but it could not survive the loss of its greatest king. It was time for new states to take the role of the dominant force in the Fertile Crescent.


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