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

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

Emerging from the city-state of Ashur, positioned in contemporary-day Iraq, Assyria undertook various generally-violent military campaigns to spread its rule into Babylonia and other regions but its kings also made a transportation network that created feasible the totally free flow of concepts and goods and established the initially 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 individuals, and why it matters nowadays. The interview is edited and condensed.

How did you turn out to be interested in Assyria as a scholarly subject?

Eckart Frahm I initially became interested in Mesopotamia when I was in higher college. I took some Hebrew, merely mainly because I wanted to understand a language that was distinct, and I started to recognize that there was a entire planet beyond the biblical narrative. The history of Mesopotamian civilization encompasses three,500 years, of which Assyrian history is an vital portion.

It is feasible to paint a incredibly detailed, generally thrilling, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.

Eckart Frahm

Later, I had a quantity of university teachers who have been specialists in the linguistic study of Assyrian and who had edited a range of Assyrian texts. I did my fair share of editorial perform myself, but believed at some point I could move beyond philology to rather bring collectively the numerous distinct 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 developing projects, to letters to royalty by officials or by spies that speak about the military and political challenges the empire skilled. It is feasible to paint a incredibly detailed, generally thrilling, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.

What is the legacy of the Assyrian Empire?

Frahm: Assyria’s most vital legacy is most likely the notion of empire as such. “Empires” have a terrible name nowadays, and I have no interest in downplaying their dark sides. Fundamentally, “empire” implies that there is some center that guidelines more than a huge and somewhat diverse periphery, which is to a considerable extent unfree. Empire, on the other hand, also delivers some benefits, which includes, for instance, higher ease of flow of concepts and of merchandise.

Certainly, the Assyrians began off mostly as merchants. When they operated their city-state in the early second millennium BCE, extended just before the imperial period, it was territorially a incredibly smaller entity. But the geographic horizon of the Assyrian individuals of this time was currently broad: they have been engaged in extended-distance trade, importing tin from Central Asia and textiles from Babylonia, and trading each for silver in Anatolia.

Later on, through the so-known as Neo-Assyrian period [ca. 900 BCE to 600 BCE], the Assyrians made a incredibly sophisticated communication network. The so-known as Royal Road is generally connected with the Persian Empire, which began off in 539 BCE, but it existed currently in Assyrian instances.

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

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

Frahm: A excellent deal is recognized, specifically about these living in cities, but also about the rural population, which engaged in agriculture, with barley as their major crop. Most of the individuals in the countryside have been most likely semi-totally free. These who grew crops could retain a share. An additional share went to the state, and occasionally a share went to landowners, numerous of them members of the military.

There have 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 have been incredibly potent, they couldn’t totally be in charge of anything.

We also know a lot about how husbands and wives interacted, occasionally apparently not harmoniously. Cuneiform texts speak about husbands and wives obtaining fantasies of killing their spouses and marrying an individual else and so on. But there are also stories of excellent affection, and of grief when a beloved kid would die.

Households have been primarily, like nowadays, monogamous, with a handful of young children living with their parents in a property, occasionally grandparents as properly. The dead would be buried actually beneath their feet in vaults beneath the homes. Households would go down there to make sacrifices for the dead on holidays and other unique occasions. Men and women also had pets. Some texts involve cat omens, which predict what occurs when a cat sits on a person’s breast or urinates on that individual. The latter was regarded as a great sign, indicating that the person in query would turn out to be wealthy.

Cuneiform letter written by a regional 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 rapidly. What brought on it?

Frahm: That is a million-dollar query, and the answer is nevertheless not completely clear. Two current theories have attempted to pinpoint forces higher than politics on the 1 hand climate alter, and on the other migration. I’m not completely confident, even though, that these aspects have been totally decisive.

In my view, it was a excellent storm that brought the empire down. One particular concern was that through the empire’s final decades, the Assyrian crown skilled a crisis of legitimacy. It had been precipitated by Ashurbanipal, whose extended reign [669-631 BCE] marked a cultural higher point for Assyria — he made the initially 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 excellent warrior, for instance, but under no circumstances went to war. Alternatively, he stayed property in his palace, exactly where, according to his personal texts and later tradition, “he ate, drank, and created merry.”

This, I assume, 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 in fact handle to chase the Assyrians out of Babylonia. At the identical 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 initially time in hundreds of years that Assyrian cities are beneath siege. For a although the Assyrians have some allies, which includes, unexpectedly, the Egyptians. The conflict escalates into what 1 could describe as a initially “world war,” with a cataclysmic series of battles at some point top to Assyria’s collapse.

What went incorrect?

Frahm: The Assyrian cities prove to be not incredibly quick 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 have been so huge that they supplied small protection against enemy attacks. Archaeologists in fact identified the bodies of Assyrian soldiers killed in these incredibly gates when the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BCE got by means 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 vital nowadays?

Frahm: One particular cause is that “empire” is nevertheless with us nowadays. The empires of nowadays no longer get in touch with themselves empires. But imperial ideologies, of course, are nevertheless incredibly a great deal in location. So I assume Assyria can be mentioned to mark the incredibly starting of a chain that runs from the initially millennium BCE to the contemporary age.

I assume Assyria can be mentioned to mark the incredibly starting of a chain that runs from the initially millennium BCE to the contemporary age.

Eckart Frahm

In the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire was followed by other individuals, from the Persian up to the Ottoman Empire. While empire is a shape-shifting phenomenon, all these geopolitical entities have been primarily primarily based on a blueprint that the Assyrians have been the initially to make.

Assyria also teaches us anything about how incorrect it is to “essentialize” the individuals of the Middle East. I assume it is seriously intriguing to see how Assyria begins off not as a war-prone state but as a quite peaceful 1, with a mixed constitution in location and even some democratic institutions. Later, it becomes a great deal extra belligerent and autocratic. When you appear at that story, you can see that the peoples of the Middle East can alter, and that individuals in basic can alter — that social and political alter is feasible.

Lastly, as we are coming out of a number of years of plague with the COVID crisis, it is intriguing to think about what type of influence 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 brought on 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 extra than twice as huge as it had been just before.

So the excellent mystery then, is how can it be that the phoenix of empire rises from the ashes of a number of grim years of plague? I would argue that history is not anything predetermined by deterministic guidelines. If challenges are not also huge, then humans can in fact 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 great of the Assyrian center, and deporting hundreds of thousands of individuals to replenish the perform force exactly where it was most urgently required.

Now, this is not a story for us to emulate. Rather, I assume of it as a warning that terrible actors might 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 improved be conscious and be on the lookout for what other individuals might do in such situations. Assyria teaches us that there are all sorts of approaches to react to historical challenges.

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