Assyria & Babylonia

Assyria denotes the realm of the god Assur - its heartland was in the lands of the Upper Tigris in modern Iraq. It became an important state: and had two turns at being a powerful empire, in the late bronze and early iron age, ending in 612 BC, after defeat by the Medes and Babylonians. . Babylonia denotes the southern part of modern Iraq - from Baghdad to the Gulf, with its heartland between the Euphrates and the Tigris (Mesopotamia). From the 18th to the 8th century BC it was a powerful state. It then became subject to Assyria, until 612 BC, when the Neo-Babylonian empire was established. It was overthrown by Cyrus in 539 BC.

These two earlier empires provided a template for the Achaemenids in establishing and consolidating their rule. The Persians learned from their mistakes, but also benefited from precedents set by their powerful predecessors. They inherited from them profound cultural influences - on art and iconography, architecture, administration - and adopted their cuneiform writing system..

The Neo-Assyrian empire

I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the World, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, offspring of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, governor of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, descendant of Sennacherib, king of the World, king of Assyria.

So Ashurbanipal - the last and greatest of the Great Kings of Assyria, announces himself. The Neo-Assyrian empire had been firmly established by the conquests of Ashurnasirpal II (883 - 859 BC) - who annexed much of Asia Minor (Phrygians), Syria (Aramaeans, Neo-Hittites and Phoenicians). He was inordinately proud of his ruthless cruelty:

Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men's ears I made a heap; of the old men's heads I made a tower. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.Ashurnasipals' monument, Nimrud - referring to his crushing a revolt of the conquered Aramaeans and Neo-Hittites

Ashurnasipal II between officials

He set the precedent for the Assyrians' main weapon of war - terror. Their accounts of their successes inevitably highlight their savagery after victory; endless lists of flayings alive, impalings, amputations of arms, legs, ears and noses. Small wonder that most enemies, even strong ones, preferred to surrender and plead for mercy. Also decisive was their mastery of siege techniques, and their understanding of the importance of training and organisation.

He built himself a palace in his new capital at Nimrud (north of Baghdad), adorned with relief carvings, most now in the British Museum. The site has recently been trashed by Daesh (2015). He was succeeded by his son Shalmaneser III (859 - 824 BC).

Like his predecessors and successors as kings of Assyria, his militaristic regime needed constant battle experience - and territorial expansion. His armies fought in the west - against the Aramaeans, Arabs and Israel (king Ahab). The Battle of Qarqar was not decisive - and Shalmaneser had to be satisfied with some effective ravaging and pillaging. He expanded and consolidated territorial gains to the east (Zagros mountains) and north (Urartu). He recorded his deeds on the "Black Obelisk" - erected in 859 BC, and now in the British Museum. It refers to Israel (possibly king Jehu) and Parsua (the first ever mention of Persians).

Shalmaneser's Obelisk. Jehu submits.

After Shalmaneser III, weaker rulers led to a decline of Assyrian power - this was halted by the usurper Tiglath-Pileser III ((745 -727 BC), under whom the resilient Assyrians rapidly recovered. His task was to reassert control of Babylonia, Syria and Urartu, in which he succeeded completely. He created a dual monarchy in Babylon, allowing the Babylonians to have a semblance of independence - the leading Babylonians never accepted the arrangement. He also campaigned against the Israelites and Arabs, and took much of western Iran from the Medes and Elamites. A weapon of control which he developed was mass deportation of peoples (eg Syrians to Assyria). He also recruited conquered peoples into the army, creating a year-round standing army.

In 720 BC a new dynasty came to the throne with Sargon II - marking a change from expansionist warrior kings to more stable consolidators and administrators, whose wars were now mainly defensive, against better organised and coordinated enemies: the Chaldaeans of the Euphrates/Tigris delta emboldened since the Assyrian annexation of Babylon; the Medes and Elamites to the east; and Urartu, which had recently expanded to the north and east - but was also under attack from the nomadic Cimmerians. To the distress of the Babylonians he proclaimed himself king of Babylon - thus ostensibly reuniting the two great ancient powers. But a "Babylonian problem" was being perpetuated. The Greeks in Cyprus and the Phrygian king Midas submitted to Assyrian rule: Assyria was at the very height of its power. The work of consolidation was greatly helped by a class of able and energetic and intelligent officials - whose meticulous neatness and attention to detail is revealed in surviving cuneiform tablets. The years 720 - 640 BC are as well-documented as any period in ancient history. He laid the foundations for a new capital at Khorsabad northeast of Mosul. This prism commemorates the event:

Khorsabad foundation cylinder

Translation: "In the month of Abu, the month of the descent of the fire-god, destroyer of growing vegetation, when one lays the foundation platform for city and house, I laid its foundation walls, I built its brickwork. Substantial shrines, built firm as the foundation of eternity, I constructed therein.... Palaces of ivory, mulberry, cedar, cypress, juniper, and pistachio-wood I built at their lofty command for my royal dwelling-place."

Sargon II was succeeded by his son, the crown-prince Sennacherib (705 - 681 BC), already a seasoned soldier. He rebuilt the old Akkadian city of Nineveh (Mosul) as his capital, and constructed a massive palace there for himself. The eldest of his seven sons was made king of Babylon: this was too much for the Babylonian leaders, who had him kidnapped there and handed over to the Elamites. Sennacherib in revenge launched a furious (and later much-criticised) assault on the ancient city. He utterly destroyed the city and all its temples and images of the gods - except Marduk, whom he transported to Nineveh. Sennacherib tried to use religion to defuse the "Babylonian problem". It didn't work, and Babylonian resentment was merely fuelled: it would eventually destroy the Assyrian empire.

Once again, a new king had to suppress unrest and rebellion - he dealt with Judah and its Egyptian allies, and fought a long campaign against Babylon and its Elamite supporters. He was responsible for increased deportations: up to half a million people may have been displaced. Nineveh became a huge and magnificent city, containing Sennacherib's massive palace complex. In 681 BC he was murdered by two of his sons (probably with Babylonian support) - sparking a civil war, which was quashed by Esarhaddon (681 - 669 BC), Sennacherib's youngest son and designated heir (he'd been hidden in a secret location to keep him safe!). A purge of his enemies ensued:

I sought out all of the guilty soldiers who wrongly incited my brothers to exercise kingship over Assyria, and imposed severe punishment on them: I exterminated their offspring.

Esarhaddon expanded the empire to include Egypt, and tried to dampen down the Babylonian problem by rebuilding Babylon. But he suffered from a mysterious illness throughout his reign, which made him paranoid and suspicious: he mistrusted his male relatives, and relied heavily on Naqi'a, Sennacherib's widow. To forestall the succession problem, which had caused him so much trouble, he appointed his eldest son Shamash-shumu-ukin as crown prince of Babylon and a younger son Ashurbanipal as crown prince of Assyria - supposedly "equal brothers".