• Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

Assyria: Chronicling the rise and fall of the world’s 1st empire


May 26, 2023

In his new book “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s 1st Empire” (Fundamental Books), Yale professor Eckart Frahm gives a extensive history of the ancient civilization (circa 2025 BCE to 609 BCE) that would turn into a model for the world’s later empires.

Emerging from the city-state of Ashur, situated in modern day-day Iraq, Assyria undertook many typically-violent military campaigns to spread its rule into Babylonia and other regions but its kings also designed a transportation network that created doable the free of charge flow of tips and goods and established the 1st universal library, says Frahm, a professor of Assyriology in the Division of Close to Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Yale’s Faculty of Arts &amp Sciences.

For the book, Frahm draws on finds from current archaeological excavations, cuneiform tablets, and Biblical and classical texts to describe what is recognized about life in the empire — for royal and non-royal Assyrians alike — and the situations that contributed to its hasty demise.

In an interview with Yale News, Frahm discusses what inspired his personal interest in this ancient empire, what is recognized about its persons, and why it matters these days. The interview is edited and condensed.

How did you turn into interested in Assyria as a scholarly subject?

Eckart Frahm I 1st became interested in Mesopotamia when I was in higher college. I took some Hebrew, just simply because I wanted to discover a language that was unique, and I started to comprehend that there was a complete planet beyond the biblical narrative. The history of Mesopotamian civilization encompasses three,500 years, of which Assyrian history is an essential portion.

It is doable to paint a pretty detailed, typically fascinating, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.

Eckart Frahm

Later, I had a quantity of university teachers who had been specialists in the linguistic study of Assyrian and who had edited a assortment of Assyrian texts. I did my fair share of editorial function myself, but believed at some point I may possibly move beyond philology to alternatively bring collectively the quite a few unique sources about Assyrian history.

There are actually tens and tens of thousands of Assyrian cuneiform texts, from royal inscriptions in which kings describe their military activities or creating projects, to letters to royalty by officials or by spies that speak about the military and political challenges the empire skilled. It is doable to paint a pretty detailed, typically fascinating, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.

What is the legacy of the Assyrian Empire?

Frahm: Assyria’s most essential legacy is almost certainly the concept of empire as such. “Empires” have a negative name these days, and I have no interest in downplaying their dark sides. Fundamentally, “empire” implies that there is some center that guidelines more than a big and somewhat diverse periphery, which is to a substantial extent unfree. Empire, on the other hand, also gives some positive aspects, like, for instance, higher ease of flow of tips and of merchandise.

Certainly, the Assyrians began off mainly as merchants. When they operated their city-state in the early second millennium BCE, lengthy ahead of the imperial period, it was territorially a pretty tiny entity. But the geographic horizon of the Assyrian persons of this time was currently broad: they had been engaged in lengthy-distance trade, importing tin from Central Asia and textiles from Babylonia, and trading each for silver in Anatolia.

Later on, for the duration of the so-known as Neo-Assyrian period [ca. 900 BCE to 600 BCE], the Assyrians designed a pretty sophisticated communication network. The so-known as Royal Road is typically related with the Persian Empire, which began off in 539 BCE, but it existed currently in Assyrian occasions.

I consider it is essential to pressure that, in contrast to later empires, the Assyrians had been not attempting to impose their personal culture, their personal language, or their personal religion on any of their subjects. Persons in the imperial periphery had to spend taxes to the crown and provide labor, but they had been permitted and anticipated to just continue worshiping their personal gods and speaking their personal languages. In this regard you could say the Assyrians had been not super-repressive.

What is recognized about the each day lives of non-royal Assyrians?

Frahm: A terrific deal is recognized, specifically about these living in cities, but also about the rural population, which engaged in agriculture, with barley as their most important crop. Most of the persons in the countryside had been almost certainly semi-free of charge. These who grew crops could hold a share. Yet another share went to the state, and from time to time a share went to landowners, quite a few of them members of the military.

There had been also shepherds on the steppe, herding flocks of sheep and goats. A cuneiform letter reveals that, for some seven years, some of these shepherds failed to send a portion of their flocks to the Ashur Temple in Ashur. This draws a complaint from an official of the temple, who tells the king, “If you do not do something about that, then your authority is in peril.” The episode shows us that even even though the Assyrian kings had been pretty potent, they couldn’t completely be in charge of anything.

We also know a lot about how husbands and wives interacted, from time to time apparently not harmoniously. Cuneiform texts speak about husbands and wives obtaining fantasies of killing their spouses and marrying a person else and so on. But there are also stories of terrific affection, and of grief when a beloved youngster would die.

Households had been basically, like these days, monogamous, with a handful of kids living with their parents in a property, from time to time grandparents as properly. The dead would be buried actually below their feet in vaults below the homes. Households would go down there to make sacrifices for the dead on holidays and other specific occasions. Persons also had pets. Some texts involve cat omens, which predict what takes place when a cat sits on a person’s breast or urinates on that individual. The latter was regarded as a excellent sign, indicating that the person in query would turn into wealthy.

Cuneiform letter written by a neighborhood spy to the Assyrian king Esarhaddon about an insurgency in the city of Ashur, ca. 671 BCE. Yale Babylonian Collection/Yale Peabody Museum. (Image: Klaus Wagensonner)

The fall of the Assyrian empire occurred promptly. What triggered it?

Frahm: That is a million-dollar query, and the answer is nevertheless not totally clear. Two current theories have attempted to pinpoint forces higher than politics on the a single hand climate alter, and on the other migration. I’m not totally confident, even though, that these variables had been definitely decisive.

In my view, it was a fantastic storm that brought the empire down. A single problem was that for the duration of the empire’s final decades, the Assyrian crown skilled a crisis of legitimacy. It had been precipitated by Ashurbanipal, whose lengthy reign [669-631 BCE] marked a cultural higher point for Assyria — he designed the 1st universal library and is also renowned for the sculpted reliefs that lined the walls of his palaces. But Ashurbanipal didn’t reside up to the image he attempted to project he wanted to be perceived as a terrific warrior, for instance, but in no way went to war. Rather, he stayed dwelling in his palace, exactly where, according to his personal texts and later tradition, “he ate, drank, and created merry.”

This, I consider, currently sowed some doubt amongst his subjects about the fitness of their imperial rulers. Then Ashurbanipal dies, and a lot of internal and external strife follows. There’s a rebellion in the south by Babylonians, who truly handle to chase the Assyrians out of Babylonia. At the exact same time, territories in the Levant, in the west, regain their independence. And in the east, the Medes, united in response to the stress previously place on them by the Assyrians, join the Babylonians in the fight against the empire.

In 615 BCE, the Medes and the Babylonians embark on a final attack on Assyria. It is the 1st time in hundreds of years that Assyrian cities are below siege. For a even though the Assyrians have some allies, like, unexpectedly, the Egyptians. The conflict escalates into what a single could describe as a 1st “world war,” with a cataclysmic series of battles sooner or later top to Assyria’s collapse.

What went incorrect?

Frahm: The Assyrian cities prove to be not pretty simple to defend. For instance, Nineveh — the greatest of all the Assyrian cities and the capital at the time — was constructed with 18 gigantic gates. This was a strategic liability: the gates had been so big that they offered small protection against enemy attacks. Archaeologists truly located the bodies of Assyrian soldiers killed in these pretty gates when the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BCE got by way of. Two years earlier, in 614 BCE, the Medes had currently conquered the city of Ashur, Assyria’s religious and spiritual center. And with the fall of these cities, and the city of Harran in 609 BCE, comes the fall of the empire and the royal dynasty.

Why is Assyria essential these days?

Frahm: A single cause is that “empire” is nevertheless with us these days. The empires of these days no longer get in touch with themselves empires. But imperial ideologies, of course, are nevertheless pretty a lot in spot. So I consider Assyria can be mentioned to mark the pretty starting of a chain that runs from the 1st millennium BCE to the modern day age.

I consider Assyria can be mentioned to mark the pretty starting of a chain that runs from the 1st millennium BCE to the modern day age.

Eckart Frahm

In the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire was followed by other folks, from the Persian up to the Ottoman Empire. While empire is a shape-shifting phenomenon, all these geopolitical entities had been basically primarily based on a blueprint that the Assyrians had been the 1st to build.

Assyria also teaches us a thing about how incorrect it is to “essentialize” the persons of the Middle East. I consider it really is truly intriguing to see how Assyria begins off not as a war-prone state but as a fairly peaceful a single, with a mixed constitution in spot and even some democratic institutions. Later, it becomes a lot far more belligerent and autocratic. When you appear at that story, you can see that the peoples of the Middle East can alter, and that persons in common can alter — that social and political alter is doable.

Lastly, as we are coming out of various years of plague with the COVID crisis, it is intriguing to take into consideration what type of effect epidemics had in ancient Assyria. In the book I argue that, surprisingly, the rise of the Assyrian empire, rather than its fall, is connected to plague. It was in the wake of two bouts of contagious illness — and the financial and demographic contraction triggered by them — that the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III [744–727 BCE] embarked on a series of conquests and annexations at the finish of which the Assyrian state was far more than twice as big as it had been ahead of.

So the terrific mystery then, is how can it be that the phoenix of empire rises from the ashes of various grim years of plague? I would argue that history is not a thing predetermined by deterministic guidelines. If challenges are not also huge, then humans can truly adapt to them and uncover approaches to get out of a crisis. This is what Tiglath-pileser did when he compensated for the loss of life and wealth Assyria had suffered by implementing a new grand method focused on annexing foreign lands, extracting their assets for the higher excellent of the Assyrian center, and deporting hundreds of thousands of persons to replenish the function force exactly where it was most urgently required.

Now, this is not a story for us to emulate. Rather, I consider of it as a warning that negative actors may perhaps properly take benefit of the organic disasters that have a tendency to befall humanity and have befallen us, of course, in current years with COVID. And we greater be conscious and be on the lookout for what other folks may perhaps do in such situations. Assyria teaches us that there are all sorts of approaches to react to historical challenges.

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