Assyrian History: The Fall of the Empire

As is often the case in imperial history, the expansion of the Assyrian Empire actually coincides with its downfall. Starting with the rise of Tiglath Pileser III to the throne in 747 BCE, the Assyrian Empire began to expand dramatically, largely by conquering territories Assyrian kings had long sought to control but had failed to conquer, mainly Phoenicia, Palestine, Syria, Arabia, and Egypt.

Despite the successes of these campaigns, they ultimately distracted Assyria from the major threat to its dominance in Mesopotamia: the kingdom of Babylon. Since Babylon and Assyria shared many cultural similarities— mainly worshiping the same gods—and because both kingdoms were exceptionally powerful, there had been an understanding between the two kingdoms that neither was to try to meddle too much in the affairs of the other.

Yet as Assyria began to rise in prominence throughout the 7 th and 8 th centuries BCE, the prospect of controlling their southern neighbor and ruling all of Mesopotamia became too great an opportunity to pass up, leading to a prolonged period of Assyrian intervention in Babylon that would contribute significantly to the fall of the empire.

The story told here starts with the rise of Tiglath Pileser III and details the relations each subsequent Assyrian king had with its southern neighbor, as trying to describe these events alongside an explanation of other Assyrian campaigns in the north and west would not do justice to the significance of Assyrian-Babylonian affairs.

The periods in which Assyrian kings turned their attention away from Babylon align nicely with the expansions of territory that existed in other parts of the empire.

Losing Control: Assyria Struggles to Maintain Power over Babylon

As a powerful Mesopotamian civilization, Assyrian rule was under constant threat from the many different powers that also existed in Southwest Asia, specifically the kingdoms of Elam, Arabia, Egypt, Urartu, Medes, and Babylonia. From around 750-650 BC, Assyria became heavily involved in Babylonian affairs in an attempt to expand their influence in the region. This move would end up having significant consequences for all the civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and surrounding areas. It would lead to a period of restored dominance for Babylon, and it also was one of the most important factors driving the decline of Assyrian power and influence in the area.

The year 748, or 747 depending on the source, initiates Assyrian involvement in the affairs of Babylon, and it serves as a useful starting point for understanding how these interactions affected the overall decline of Assyrian hegemony. It was in this year that Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III ascended the throne.

After decades of famine and military struggle against tribal groups such as the Chaldeans and Aramaeans (the two dominant tribes of ancient Mesopotamia), Tiglath Pileser III began his rule by moving quickly and forcefully into the lands bordering the southern and eastern edges of Assyrian territories. Part of the strategy for doing this was to prop up the Babylonian throne from afar. A strong Babylonian king was in Assyria’s best interest, as it helped secure the region and provide a buffer between Assyria and other powerful states such as Elam and Medes. As a result, Assyrian kings would often exert control over Babylonian territories on behalf of the Babylonian kings.

Yet unsurprisingly, this fragile alliance would often break, leading to conflict between Babylon and Assyria. However, by 745, Tiglath Pileser III had his attention drawn elsewhere, and this caused him to leave the Babylonians to fend for themselves. A serious of political revolts in Babylon led to the ascension of a Chaldean, Mukin-zeri, to the Babylonian throne.

After having just spent the last few years working to control Chaldean influence in Babylon, Tiglath Pileser III did not take this news well. He moved quickly into Babylon and worked to confine Mukinzeri’s influence, subjecting many other Chaldean cities to tribute, effectively removing Mukin-zeri’s source of power. After doing this, Tiglath Pileser III assumed the throne of Babylon. Direct Assyrian control of the Babylon kingdom became the norm for the next century, with most of Tiglath Pileser III’s successors assuming similar positions of influence within Babylonian affairs.

Tiglath Pileser III died in 727 and was succeeded by his son, Shalmaneser V, but this reign was shortlived (lasting only 5 years) and poorly documented. The only significant event recorded is a large-scale deportation of Chaldeans from territories surrounding Babylon. However, Assyrian kings were never able to bring the kingdoms of Babylonia fully under their control. Instead, Babylonian leaders, usually Chaldeans, were able to seize power when they sensed weakness in the Assyrian rule, or when other matters distracted Assyrian kings from paying enough attention to their southern flank.

As a result, over the next several decades, Assyrians and Chaldeans would struggle for control over the Babylonian throne, and this struggle would have a significant effect on the well-being of the day-to-day experiences of Babylonian citizen and on the ability of the Assyrian Empire to remain intact.

Periods of stability and economic prosperity were punctuated with war and conflict that would all but bring Babylonian life to a halt. For a while, attempts by Babylonian rulers to assert independence were supported by the kings of Elam—the civilization lying to the east of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. The Babylonian king Merodach-baladan (a Chaldean), who assumed the Babylonian throne in 721, was able to secure an alliance with Elam that would succeed in resisting the Assyrians. And the time of this collaboration aligned with the decision of Sargon II (who assumed the Assyrian throne after Shalmaneser V’s death in 722) to turn his attention away from Babylon and Assyria’s southern flank.

The combination of passive Assyrian intervention and an alliance with Elam allowed Merodach-baladan to reign relatively freely for the next ten years. An attempted attack on the ancient city of Der, which, although controlled by Assyria at the time, had historically been a part of the Babylonian kingdom.

Assyria took up arms in defense of the city, but the battle ended in a stalemate, with the Elamites gaining some territory but with the Assyrians retaining control of the city itself. However, after this battle, the Assyrian army retreated to the north, leaving the region in peace for a full ten years. Merodach-baladan used this peacetime to restore prosperity to Babylon.

Scientific and cultural activity boomed, and there was an economic expansion that increased the number of transactions—meaning the recorded economic activities of the time, such as contracts signed, tributes paid, and so forth—to the highest number in five centuries. There were also significant advances in astronomy and writing. However, this would change in 710 when Sargon II turned his attention back to the south and began retaking some of the territory the Babylonian kings had managed to secure in the previous decade. This culminated with Sargon II’s defeat of Merodach-baladan in 709. At this time, Sargon II assumed control of the Babylonian throne and began working to consolidate his conquest.

He did this by centralizing provincial and tribal governments, placing them under the control of two governors, and also through the widespread deportation of Aramaeans and Chaldeans.

Furthermore, he sought to transform tribal towns by injecting them with Assyrian populations and institutions. This decision would mark a significant turning point in the Late Assyrian Empire.

Throughout the next thirty years, Assyrian kings would engage in a serious of costly and drawn-out military campaigns intended to secure control over Babylonian territories. While these efforts were successful in that they turned Elamite allegiances away from Chaldean kings and towards the Assyrians, and that Assyrian kings were able to assert dominance over Babylonian territories, they ultimately contributed to the empire’s downfall, especially after what is known as the Great Rebellion.

The origins of the Great Rebellion can be traced all the way back to Sargon II’s death in battle in 705. He was replaced by his son, Sennacherib, who would oversee a period of short-lived stability.

A rebellion began in 703 led by provincial governors and Merodach-baladan, who had been in hiding since his defeat to Sargon II seven years prior; he managed to rally support in tribal settlements and cities around Babylon for his return to the throne. After several years of conflict, in which allegiances and alliances shifted frequently, Merodach-baladan was eventually defeated for good in 700. Sennacherib then left Babylon, leaving behind his son, Ashur-nadin-shumi, as steward and monarch of Babylon, to rule over a period of relative stability.

However, that would end in 694 when Sennacherib decided to mount a campaign against a group of Elamites who had granted refuge to groups of rebellious Chaldeans. This decision set in motion yet another period of political instability. Defeat in northwestern Babylon left another Chaldean king, Mushezib-Marduk, on top of the Babylonian throne, but after the Elamite king suffered a stroke and support from the Arabs in the west dwindled, Mushezib-Marduk had no means of securing his own claim to power.

Babylon eventually fell back into Assyrian control in the winter of 689. After this revolt, Sennacherib was far less merciful than Assyrian kings of the past. He began to dismantle the city, razing buildings, and instructing his troops to destroy temples and loot as much as they could. He also made a point of removing the soil from around the Euphrates, sending it down the river into the Persian Gulf, so as to remove Babylonian farming capacity. During this period, economic activity throughout Babylon understandably sank, thrusting the region into the worst period of economic despair it had experienced over the previous six decades.

This was significant, as there had long been an understanding that the Assyrians would give special treatment to the Babylonians. Sennacherib recanted on this, and it was something the Babylonians would never forgive. It is likely for this reason that the Babylonians became so involved in military campaigns led by the Egyptians and Medians, which would ultimately bring an end to the Assyrian period of Near Eastern history. Things would again change dramatically in 681. Sennacherib was assassinated, and Esarhaddon took his place.

He immediately performed an about-face regarding policy towards Babylon, restoring the city as the cultural and political center of the area. He also restored long-held tax exemptions to certain parts of the population and ushered in policies that would restore economic prosperity to the region.

It seems Babylonians and their allies responded favorably to this shift in policy, as Esarhaddon’s reign experienced few major disruptions. There were of course minor tribal disturbances, but Esarhaddon was able to rule Babylon relatively peacefully throughout the duration of his time as Assyrian king. But towards the end of his time as ruler, when the moment arrived for him to name a successor, Esarhaddon’s choice would have profound effects on the state of Babylonia and also on the stability of the Assyrian Empire. Towards the end of his reign, Esarhaddon named his son, Ashurbanipal, as heir to the Assyrian throne, but he gave one of his younger sons, Shamashshum-ukin, the kingdom of Babylonia, envisioning a scenario where his two sons ruled as independent but united sovereigns. However, this would not come to be.

It’s unclear how specific Esarhaddon was in his mandate that power be divided, but in the end, Ashurbanipal came to not only rule Assyria and its empire, but he also maintained close control over Babylon, effectively turning Shamash-shum-ukin into a dependent monarch. It seems this decision was initially something to which Shamashshum-ukin agreed, but repeated interference by Ashurbanipal into Babylonian governance soured the relationship and eventually drew the two brothers into direct conflict.

Fighting broke out sometime in 652 BCE, and it would last for the next seven years. There are considered to be two theaters, the North, led by Ashurbanipal, and the South, led by his brother Shamash-shum-ukin. While many of the major cities such as Uruk, Kullab, Ur, Kissik, and Eridu declared their allegiance to Ashurbanipal, only Uruk was reinforced with Assyrian troops, making it the only city of this group to be seriously threatened throughout the war.

Shamash-shum-ukin, however, was able to gain the support of the Elamites to the east and the Arabs from the west (a recurring theme in the Assyrian struggle to maintain control over Babylonia), and this helped prolong the war for much longer than would have been expected considering the relative dominance of Ashurbanipal. Two major consequences came from the fraternal conflict known as The Great Rebellion. Firstly, Elam was essentially removed as an influential actor in the region. After suppressing the rebellion in Babylonia, Ashurbanipal moved through western Elam, devastating the plain as he did.

People were relocated, cities were destroyed, animals (which had been Elam’s primary source of wealth) were run off, and salt and thorn-bearing plants were sowed across fields, returning the land to a primeval state. Secondly, Assyria never again embarked upon a major military campaign. Suppressing and punishing rebellious populations through the Elamite plain, the Arabian Desert, and Babylonia put tremendous strain on Assyrian resources. And by removing Elam, Assyria effectively destroyed a buffer that had protected them from stronger tribal groups threatening to advance north from present-day Iran.

What’s important to note about this period of Assyrian history is just how dependent the empire’s political apparatus was on its leader, the emperor. No system of political power can rely too heavily on just one person, but as seen with the sweeping changes in policy that came as new rulers took the throne, this was certainly the case in late Assyrian times. This sheds some light on a crucial truth about the empire at this point in time: its grip on power was loosening. Furthermore, part of the reason Assyria was able to establish itself as the dominant power in the region was because of its military superiority. However, this slowly crumbled over the 100-year span from the mid-8 th to mid-7 th century BCE.

Repeated campaigns in the wake of rebellions in Babylon, as well as strengthening alliances among Assyria’s neighbors, meant that Assyrian control over the Fertile Crescent was slowly dwindling. The inability of Assyrian rulers after Tiglath Pileser III to maintain a firm hold over Babylon and its surrounding territories represents a weakening of this military hegemony. And although the Assyrian Empire would remain intact some 20 years after the end of the Great Rebellion, Assyria would not launch another significant military campaign, and their days as the most dominant power in Mesopotamia were essentially over.

Kandalanu’s Reign and the Siege of Harran

After succeeding in suppressing Shamash-shum-ukin’s rebellion, Ashurbanipal appointed Kandalanu to the Babylonian throne. Not much evidence exists about the origin of Kandalanu or his time as king, leading many to suggest that perhaps Kandalanu was merely a throne name for Ashurbanipal, meaning they were the same person.

But there is no definitive evidence to prove this. Whether or not this notion is to be believed, it is true that the 20 years in which Kandalanu ruled Babylon after the Great Rebellion were prosperous. He was likely given control of the kingdom gradually, with Ashurbanipal overseeing the running of Babylon from afar. The first five years were marked with slow economic activity, but the next fifteen saw the region return to the levels of prosperity it had enjoyed during the times of Esarhaddon.

Kandalanu and Ashurbanipal both died in 627 (another reason why some believe they may have been the same person), and this created another period of instability. Nabopolassar assumed the Babylonian throne, but he was quickly beaten back by Assyrian forces. However, after Ashurbanipal’s death, Assyria had been left with two leaders: Sin-shumu-lishir and Sinsharra-ishkun.

This suggests that the power structure in Assyria had been significantly weakened. In fact, in Babylonian texts, 626 BCE is considered the first year where Assyrian lands had no kings. Nevertheless, an Assyrian army made its way down to Babylon to lay siege and restore order. But unlike previous sieges, which left Babylon in ruins, the Babylonian army was able to rally and plunder the Assyrian army. This gave legitimacy to Nabopolassar’s claim to the throne, and it also marked the beginning of a new era in Babylon that saw it as the center of influence in the Fertile Crescent.

Shortly after Nabopolassar expelled the Assyrians from Babylon, Cyaxares, the king of Medes, a region located to the northeast of Assyria, launched an attack on Assyrian territories. Median forces captured Tarbisu and then decisively defeated the Assyrians at the Battle of Assur. They then joined forces with the Babylonian army and launched an attack on the center of Assyrian political and economic control, Nineveh. It was during this battle, in 612 BCE, where the Assyrian king Sin-sharraishkun died and was replaced by Ashur-uballit II. Ashur-uballit II then collected his forces and went to Harran, which is located to the west of Nineveh.

However, the Medians and Babylonians besieged Harran in a battle known as the Siege of Harran, which ended with the fall of Harran in 609. An attempt was made by a force made up of Egyptians and Assyrians to take Harran back, but it failed, and this all but ended the Assyrian Empire as we know it. Understanding the Assyrian Collapse To observers of history, it may be difficult to understand how the Assyrian Empire, which grew so substantially in size throughout the 7 th and 8 th centuries was able to be toppled in such a short period of time. It went from controlling the entire region of Mesopotamia, with strongholds to the north, south, and west, to essentially a vassal of the Babylonian Empire in less than half a century.

And with this rise of the Babylonians, Assyria all but disappeared from the annals of history. This might seem strange to student of ancient history, but the story of the Assyrian collapse is a familiar one. The kingdom of Assyria, the region surrounding Assur, Nineveh, Calah, and environs, is actually quite small and generally resource-poor.

Yet through their use of superior weaponry, effective military tactics such as siege warfare, and strategic deportation policies, Assyria was able to significantly expand its influence throughout the region. And, the main purpose of Assyria’s quest for power was so that it could secure access to the resources it needed to support its population. This set up a paradoxical situation in which Assyria needed to expand in order to survive, but it was this expansion that ultimately contributed to its demise.

The resources acquired through the tribute collected from conquered territories were necessary for the survival of the Assyrian kingdom, but maintaining this system of tribute and control also put a tremendous strain on these resources, particularly manpower. It is for this reason why Assyrian power in the region can be documented through such tremendous ebbs and flows.

Starting with the Old Assyrian Empire, which came into existence towards c. 2000 BCE, Assyrian kings were constantly conquering territory and then reconquering the territory taken by previous kings they lost. This occurred because Assyrian kings were never able to leave behind forces sufficient enough to quell rebellions or establish firm control over newly conquered regions under threat from nearby powers.

As a result, the Assyrian Empire became overly dependent on its emperor. Rebellions would break out in one region of the empire, and because the local forces were not sufficient to stop these insurrections, territory would be lost until the emperor and his army could make their way back to reassert Assyrian rule. Doing this meant once again leaving newly conquered territory undefended, which meant it would only be a matter of time before these conquered populations would rebel or be conquered by someone else.

This trend existed throughout Assyrian history. And the only reason the NeoAssyrian Empire was able to expand to the point that it did was because this period saw the strongest Assyrian military. It struck fear into the hearts of kings across Mesopotamia, into Anatolia, and throughout Armenia and other northern territories. As a result, many of these kings, desiring to avoid trouble for their people, would voluntarily submit to Assyrian rule, giving the Assyrian kings a base from which they could expand the empire even further.

However, as Assyria picked fights with larger and more powerful kingdoms, such as Egypt, Elam, and Babylon, it became more difficult for them to secure all of the empire’s borders. Babylon’s ascendancy under Nabopolassar presented an opportunity for the Egyptians and Medians to retake lands previously lost to the Assyrians and eventually move on the cities at the center of Assyrian power. It’s easy to look back on the fall of Assyria and wonder why they did not decide to simply stop expanding and instead consolidate their power at home. But those of us studying history are armed both with hindsight and modern ways of thinking. To the leaders of antiquity, conquest was everything.

Securing new lands brought riches and glory to the monarch and his subjects, and it was a means of pleasing the gods, who were ultimately the determiners of destiny. The story of the Assyrian Empire is a long one, spanning thousands of years and countless kings, some of whom, such as Tiglath Pileser III and Sargon II, have gone down in history next to Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, and Genghis Khan as some of the greatest conquerors of all time.

Yet just as these powerful rulers would eventually fall, so would the Assyrians, but not before making their mark as one of the most successful civilizations in the history of the ancient world.




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