Assyrian History: The Beginning of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

The period of time from c. 911 BCE until c. 607 BCE is referred to as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and it marks the most glorious period of the Assyrian Empire. It’s during this time that the Assyrian Empire would grow to control what was then considered the “Four Corners of the World.” Many may recognize this phrase from the Bible, and it was used to describe the territories bordered by some of the largest rivers in the ancient Near East, starting from the Gihon in Ethiopia to the Tigris in Assyria to the Euphrates in Armenia and ending with the Pishon in Havilah or Elam.

Ashur and Qal’at Sherqat, was the capital of the Old Assyrian Empire (2025–1750 BC), the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1050 BC), and for a time, of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–608 BC).

It was to be the largest empire in ancient Mesopotamia, and it would also go down as one of the most brutal, with comparisons often being made between the famous kings of Assyria and some of the world’s other most well-known yet ruthless leaders, such as Genghis Khan. Xerxes, and Adolf Hitler.

However, many historians will take issue with comparing these ancient rulers to the likes of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. No one in history has matched the brutality carried out by Hitler in Europe and on the world’s Jewish population, and these ancient rulers, including those in Assyria, were using tactics typical in a time when warfare, slavery, and deportation were the normal modes of establishing and maintaining power. Were they brutal compared to modern standards? Yes. But they were no more brutal than the Romans, who would line roads with crosses where those who refused to submit were crucified.

The point here is to point out the significance of context. For Assyria, the expansion that took place in this last part of their history was motivated, as one might expect, by financial desire. The reign of Tiglath Pileser I taught Assyrian kings that war, through the bounty it brought in, was highly profitable. And since Assyrian kings were like most other kings of the time, they viewed themselves as extensions of the gods.

Building large palaces and surrounding themselves with tremendous wealth was an effective means of communicating this to their subjects. This expansion of wealth, plus military victory, was the source of power for Assyrian kings, and when combined with the greed and ambition of human beings, it created the perfect recipe for a powerful empire. However, it is important to not write off Assyrian imperial expansion during this time period as the mere desire of kings to enrich themselves. There were strategic reasons as well.

Trade was of utmost importance to the Assyrians, and at the beginning of the 10 th century BCE, this was in danger. Tribes, mainly different groups of Aramaeans, blocked or threatened trade routes through the Zagros Mountains, stalling trade with Anatolia, and to the south, the Aramaeans were threatening to close off trade with cities near the Persian Gulf. At the end of the 10 th century BCE, Assyria controlled a territory that stretched no more than 1,600 km (1,000 miles) wide and 800 km (500 miles) wide.

Yet Assyrian cities were strong and closely connected. And as compared to the other major actors in the region, it was the best positioned to be able to significantly expand. Egypt was essentially powerless, controlled largely by Libyan kings, and other kingdoms, such as the Medians and Persians in Iran, were still too far away to be much of a threat, and in Armenia, Urartu, a kingdom that would rise to power over the course of this millennium, was not yet powerful.

So, even though Assyrian territory at the turn of the 10 th century was small, the stage was set. And as powerful and cunning kings came to the throne in relative succession, Assyria’s influence in the region expanded rapidly. Expansion began just beyond Assyrian territory and extended slowly.

However, as Assyria expanded, it would come into contact with increasingly powerful enemies, making it increasingly difficult for Assyrian kings to maintain control over their territory. Territories that were conquered were lost to revolt, and internal turmoil slowed down the Assyrian march across the Mesopotamian plains.

Nevertheless, over the course of the next 350 years, Assyria would become the superpower in Mesopotamia and abroad. But to secure this position, Assyria and its people would be in a state of perennial war, a constant in any story of imperial conquest, past or present.

An Empire Awakening: The Reemergence of the Assyrians

The ascension of King Adad-nirari II generally marks the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was at this time that Assyria “awoke” and began to expand beyond the territory immediately surrounding Assur. Most of Adadnirari II’s campaigns consisted of retaking territories that had been lost after Tiglath Pileser I, most notably the Eber-Nari, the territory covering Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.

He was then able to secure these borders by sending Assyrian governors to oversee these territories with Assyrian troops and also executed resistors or deported them to the heartland of the empire where they could be more easily controlled. Additional campaigns helped secure territories in Kurdistan (northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey). However, one of Adad-nirari II’s most significant accomplishments was in fact not a military conquest but rather a treaty.

After defeating the Babylonian king Shamash-mudammiq twice, the Assyrian king was able to take control of large swaths of northern Babylonian territory. When a new Babylonian king took the throne, Adad-nirari II was less successful in his conquests, but he was able to arrange a treaty which ensured peace between the two kingdoms for the next 80 years. This is significant because it meant Assyrian kings did not need to worry about their powerful southern neighbors, freeing them up to focus on campaigns throughout the Levant and Canaan.

In 890 BCE, Tukulti-Ninurta II took the throne, but he would only rule for six years. During this time, he was unable to significantly expand the borders of the empire, but he did manage to expand the royal holdings in Assur, rebuilding the city’s walls.

The few campaigns he did conduct managed to win over the support of the Aramaeans to the south and west of Assur, further strengthening Assyrian control over Mesopotamia. In 893 BCE, TukultiNinurta II died, and he turned the kingdom—which was rapidly becoming a powerful empire—over to his son, Ashurbanipal II, who would be the first in a long line of Assyrian kings who are now considered to be among the most powerful and ruthless leaders in history.

Upon taking the throne, Ashurbanipal II immediately set out on what would become a series of military campaigns. He began by venturing into the mountains north of Assur, clearing the region of tribes and asserting his dominance.

He then immediately turned his attention to the west, setting his sights, as so many other great Assyrian rulers did, on the Mediterranean and the riches it promised, securing more territory across Syria and Lebanon in the meantime. After his successes there, he turned back towards Assyria, establishing Assyrian dominance in the territory surrounding the Euphrates River. If compared to the kings that would come after Ashurbanipal II, the amount of territory he added to the empire was relatively small.

However, his contribution to consolidating previous gains and establishing further dominance cannot be overlooked. The bounties and tributes he acquired as a result of his conquests added significantly to the riches of the empire and it helped to reshape the geopolitical situation in the region, specifically the ascension of the Assyrians as one of the dominant powers in Mesopotamia.

But perhaps the most significant development to come out of Ashurbanipal II’s reign was that the Assyrians kings now had the reputation for leading brutal, ruthless military campaigns, and the thought of a strengthening and mobilizing Assyrian army would have struck fear into the hearts of all kings in the area, no matter the size or strength of their kingdom.

However, for as important as Ashurbanipal II’s foreign policy was, he also contributed to domestic growth, largely by building. His most storied building project was his palace. Most Mesopotamian monarchs had an insatiable thirst for building, as they saw this as a way of establishing their demigod status and legitimacy to rule. Part of the regal duties of an Assyrian king was to make sure the temples and other religious buildings of the two major Assyrian cities, Assur and Nineveh, were properly maintained and expanded upon. And while Ashurbanipal II did not overlook this responsibility, he decided to build his palace in Calah—the city referred to as Nimrud in the Bible—as his capital.

Some historians wonder if this was chosen because it was better defended; Assur was dangerously exposed to attacks from the west, and it’s reasonable to wonder if Ashurbanipal II chose Calah because it did not possess these same vulnerabilities. But no matter the reason, Ashurbanipal II’s palace is considered to be one of the most formidable of any of the palaces built by Assyrian kings. Ashurbanipal II was succeeded by Shalmaneser III in 858 BCE, and his reign would be nearly entirely defined by war. In total, he found himself off campaigning and conquering for 31 of the 34 years he spent as king, a remarkable number even by Assyrian standards. During this time, Assyrian soldiers managed to go further than any Assyrians had managed to go before.

They entered and received tribute from kings and princes in Armenia, Cilicia, Palestine, and all the way down to some of the kingdoms traditionally loyal to the Babylonian throne, nearly reaching the shores of the Persian Gulf. In the process of doing this, he managed to quell rebellions and further fortify the territories conquered by his father.

However, Shalmaneser III’s reign would prove to be a turning point in Assyrian history, largely because of the difficulty in attempting to conquer ever more powerful enemies. Many Assyrian kings before Shalmaneser III attempted to conquer all of Syria and its capital city, Damascus. But they were nearly always unsuccessful, and Shalmaneser III would fall to a similar fate.

He launched several campaigns into Syria against multiple different cities, but he was eventually forced to accept defeat. In the south, though, Shalmaneser III would see far more success, as he was able to bring the city of Babylon under Assyrian control. During the initial part of his rule, he left this once powerful kingdom to the south alone, due to the treaty signed earlier that century, so that Babylon could have the chance to deal with its own security threats. However, when rebellion broke out and the Babylonian kings called upon the support of Shalmaneser III and the Assyrians, he took this as a chance to extend the Assyrian kingdom further to the south.

But even though Shalmaneser III was able to expand the reaches of Assyrian power, some historians suggest that he did not go as far as he most likely could have. By dedicating so much time and energy in attempting to conquer Syria, it’s believed he missed out on the opportunity to further extend the kingdom to the south.

In fact, at the end of Shalmaneser III’s reign in 824 BCE, most still consider Assyria to be not much more than a large northern Mesopotamian kingdom. Figure 5 gives an idea as to the extent of Assyria at the time Shalmaneser III died and turned the kingdom over to his son, although it is not entirely accurate as it shows Damascus under Assyrian control. This did not happen until Adad-nirari III took the throne and became old enough to carry out his duties as king.

Peak of Assyrian Empire Dominance
Peak of Assyrian Empire Dominance

This map also shows what the Assyrian Empire looked like at the peak of its dominance. And while in 824 it was by far the most powerful kingdom in Mesopotamia, internal strife would prevent it from expanding much further for another 25 years.

Rebellion and Imperial Stagnation

Shortly before the death of Shalmaneser III, one of his sons, Ashur-daninaplu, with the support of some 27 cities, revolted against the king. However, at this point, Shalmaneser III was too old to deal with the rebellion on his own, so he appointed his crown prince, Shamshi-Adad, to deal with the insurrection.

This inner struggle for control of the Assyrian Empire started a civil war that would continue after Shalmaneser III died in 824, which led to the official ascension of Shamshi-Adad, who was to be known as ShamshiAdad V. While the rebellion halted the imperial expansion of Assyria, it wasn’t a traditional crisis in that it did not dramatically alter the power structures of the kingdom.

No one was looking to overthrow the king. Instead, the purpose of the rebellion was to shed light on some of the corrupt practices of provincial governors who had gone too far and attempted to assume too much power. The insurgents wanted a king who would be able to bring order to a situation that was becoming increasingly out of hand. Yet even though no one sought the removal of the king, it still took ShamshiAdad five years to quell the rebellions that had broken out in cities all over the kingdom. But part of the reason this took so long was that princes and kings, especially those in the mountainous regions near Armenia, took advantage of Assyrian weakness to withhold tribute and forgo Assyrian “protection,” meaning Shamshi-Adad had to campaign to once again reassert control over territory recently conquered by his predecessors. This proved to be challenging as Urartu, a kingdom in Armenia, was slowly gaining more and more power.

In retrospect, this is a foreboding occurrence, as Urartu would prove to be one of Assyria’s main foes throughout its period of imperial dominance. Shamshi-Adad’s reign did not last long, and it was almost entirely defined by the rebellion in 827 BCE and the subsequent war needed to stop it. When he died in 810 BCE, he had managed to add no new territory to the empire. But his rule was not in vain, as he restored order and set his son up to continue the military conquest of Mesopotamia and beyond.

When Shamshi-Adad died in 810, his son, Adad-nirari III, was too young to take power. His mother, Sammuramat, also known as Semiramis, took over as regent. For reasons unknown to historians, Semiramis has become the center of many legends. Different traditions, ranging from Greek mythology to Iranian lore, speak of an Assyrian goddess queen who accomplished great, if not magical, feats.

It’s unknown where these legends come from, although some theories suggest she may have led Assyrian troops to victory against the Medes and that this inserted her name into folklore, which was then distorted and spread throughout time. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to validate these claims. Part of the reason it’s so surprising that Semiramis is such a legendary figure is that her time as queen was relatively uneventful. During this time, no significant gains were made to the empire, and there were no excessive threats to stability.

It seems as though the entire kingdom was simply waiting for Adad-nirari III to come of age and begin his rule. His first year as king was four years after his father’s death, 806 BCE, and soon after he became king he launched a series of military campaigns that, although promising, would not offer much in terms of building and expanding the empire. Adad-nirari III started by finishing the job his grandfather had failed to complete; he invaded Syria and imposed tributes upon the Neo-Hittites, Phoenicians, Philistines, Israelites, and Edomites.

He triumphed in invading and conquering, meaning that he successfully exacted tribute from its ruler, the city of Damascus, and the territories it controlled. Adad-nirari III also entered territories controlled by the Medians to the northeast and the Persians to the east. Assyrian legend indicates that these leaders fell to their knees to submit to the Assyrians, but this version of events has long since been rebuked.

In fact, the military campaigns of Adad-nirari III can best be described as unusually successful raids, not genuine conquest, and Adadnirari III’s reign signals the start of a period of imperial decline. All four of Adad-nirari III’s sons would become kings, starting with Shalmaneser IV, who became king in 782 BCE and ruled for nine years until 773 BCE. During the time of Shalmaneser IV and his three brothers, the most important development in Assyrian history actually took place outside Assyria.

The kingdom of Urartu had grown quite powerful and had established strongholds in both Syria and Iran. Several expeditions by the Assyrian kings who ruled for most of the 8 th century BCE were stunted by Urartian forces, and this prevented Assyria from adding meaningful territory to their empire.

This period of Assyrian history is known as the Interval, as it marks a break in the action after the influential reigns of Ashurbanipal II and Shalmaneser III. However, the Interval is not much more than a blip on the radar, and this period of imperial stagnation would end when Tiglath Pileser III comes to the throne in 744 BCE, launching the final yet most glorious stage of the Assyrian Empire.


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