The military traditions of the Assyrians are well-documented in Assyrian Culture, but to only discuss this aspect of their society would do a great injustice to one of the most influential empires to have existed in the ancient world. While some of the advancements seen in the Assyrian age might not be seen as significant compared to what would come later, one cannot overlook their contributions to world culture.
Unique art combined with advances in writing, math, and science helped advance civilization to points it had never before reached. However, nearly all of these advancements were done with heavy religious influence, a topic that must be discussed when looking at the cultural influences of the Assyrian Empire.
Assyrian Art It is safe to say the Assyrians are not known for their art, especially when compared to some of the other civilizations in the region, most notably the Egyptians. However, this does not mean Assyrian society lacked artistic influence. For one, it’s believed the Assyrians were highly musical.
Musical instruments, mainly drums, flutes, and other wind instruments, have been uncovered in many different archaeological sites, and it’s believed they were used as both a source of recreation and religious ceremonies. The Assyrians were apparently not too concerned with the creation of sculptures, something that was far more prevalent in other ancient civilizations, such as the Sumerians and the Egyptians.
One of the few sculptures worth noting, the sculpture of Ashurbanipal, which can be found in the British Museum, is generally considered to be of low-quality, representing an underdeveloped tradition of sculpture in Assyria. Furthermore, the use of sculptures as adornments of palaces and other buildings was rare in Assyria. Only palaces and temples in Anatolia bear these characteristics and it’s believed this was the work of the Hittites. However, where the Assyrians did excel was in reliefs.
Excavations of various sites, including Nineveh and Assur, uncovered countless reliefs which are considered to not only be beautiful works of art, but which also suggest the Assyrians had discovered a new use for art—propaganda. The reasons historians believe this is because the Assyrians are one of the first Mesopotamian civilizations to paint reliefs not of the Assyrian Gods but rather of the Kings.
Military In Assyrian Culture and Art
Most paintings tell stories of the many great military battles achieved by Assyrian kings, and it’s believed these were used as a means of strengthening the perceived relationship between the kings and the gods, which would have served as a means of establishing legitimacy.
This is not to suggest that the Assyrians invented propaganda, but there was a strong tradition in Assyrian society of glorifying the conquests and accomplishments of the kings, and it seems this made its way into the arts, representing a shift in focus as compared to other civilizations that existed at the same time.
Following Figures are examples of some of the more elaborate reliefs created by Assyrian artists:
In addition to reliefs, Assyrians seemed to have been exceptional metal workers. They left behind stunning pieces of bronze, gold, and silver plates, vessels, and ornaments.
This should not come as a surprise, considering that exceptional Assyrian metalwork, particularly iron, was one of the reasons the Assyrians were able to emerge as victors from the Bronze Age collapse. Additionally, it is believed female slaves, under royal commission, wove carpets and robes and embroidered them with silks and other fine fabrics acquired through trade with distant lands.
While the Assyrians produced few, if any, pieces of art that would achieve international fame, they did appear to have an exceptional art culture that was interested in glorifying the territorial achievements of Assyrian leaders. And as the empire expanded in both influence and size, the number and complexity of the artwork also expanded, suggesting Assyria, during its time of imperial dominance, was in fact a hub of sophisticated cultural development.
Writing in Ancient Assyria
For a civilization so overwhelmingly obsessed with war, it’s surprising just how much attention was paid to the creation and preservation of written texts. Throughout the great cities of Assyria, mainly Nineveh, Assur, and Calah, massive royal libraries were found, but there is evidence to suggest that libraries existed all over the empire, mainly in temples. But it’s also believed that many private citizens—mainly the wealthy ones—also had their own libraries. There were three main types of texts that were contained in the great libraries of Assyria: royal inscriptions, myths and literature, and scientific texts.
There seems to have been a great interest in preserving the literary traditions of Babylon, Akkadia, and Sumer, for Assyrian king after Assyrian king would order the transcription of countless Babylonian texts. Royal inscriptions remain to this day the most significant source for understanding the events that took place within the Assyrian Empire.
It was common for Assyrian kings to have a whole army of scribes at their disposal, some of whom were responsible for copying over older texts and some of whom would be given the duty of writing down the decisions, actions, and victories of Assyrian kings. Always searching for glory, many of these royal inscriptions contain exaggerated accounts of triumphs, leaving scholars of ancient Assyria with the tall task of attempting to verify these accounts.
The Assyrians wrote in what is known as cuneiform script, a style of writing that was significant in that it abandoned the use of pictographs and instead used symbols that followed a one symbol, one sound, one meaning formula. This style of writing was likely first developed by the Akkadians, but as speakers of a Semitic language, it was continued on and advanced by the Assyrians.
In general, Assyrian culture placed a heavy emphasis on writing, most likely as a means of trying to preserve its glory, adding yet another layer to a culture we most often associate with military tradition.
Scientific Achievement in Ancient Assyria
Scientific study was relatively concentrated in ancient Assyria. Some historians believe the great libraries were meant to serve as a way to attract the greatest Mesopotamian minds to go to Assyria and take up residence, and this was only possible because the number of people who were educated enough to take up a life of scholarly pursuits were the scribes, of which there were relatively few. Because scribes needed to be able to understand multiple languages, such as Sumerian, Babylonian, and Akkadian (Sumerian was not a Semitic language like the others mentioned here and was therefore infinitely more difficult for Assyrians to understand) in order to be able to carry out the large amount of transcriptions commissioned by the many Assyrian kings, scribes had access to a large amount of texts that had been produced by various different cultures.
One of the ways they contributed to scientific development was to create large lists. These lists were usually documentations of plants, animals, cities, kings, etc. Furthermore, scribes spent a good deal of time compiling information gathered by those who had ventured abroad for military pursuits, using this information to come up with rudimentary maps of the world; of course, these maps only included what we refer to today as the Near East, but to the Assyrians, this would have been the entire world.
Mathematics was also a common pursuit for many Assyrian scribes, although it appears the practice was only carried out as a means of intellectual exercise, meaning there were no practical applications of mathematics in building and land surveying. For example, scribes would commonly write out math problems, what we refer to today as word problems, that required an understanding of multiplication and division. It also appears that Assyrian mathematicians would have used algebra as a means of describing quantities of things, by using letters and other symbols as a means of representing variables.
However, far more impressive than their mathematical achievements were some of their scientific advancements. For example, the Assyrians were able to devise a rather advanced understanding of the lunar cycle, and they used this to create a lunar calendar that proved to be rather useful and accurate. They also had a strong astronomical tradition, believing as most ancient civilizations did that what they saw in the heavens reflected the events to come on Earth. The calendar developed by the Babylonians and expanded upon by the Assyrians helped to develop the calendar most of the world uses today.
They tracked the moon starting with the first new moon after the equinox, and this helped them to divide the year into twelve months of 29 or 30 days. Each day began at sunset and was divided into twelve “double hours” which were divided into 60 “double minutes.” This is the foundation for the 24-hour clock we use today. However, this system, as one might expect, was unreliable.
Weather conditions in Iraq mean many cloudy days, which would have prevented the Assyrians from being able to accurately track celestial movements. Furthermore, by using the moon instead of the sun to track years, each year was about 11 days shorter than it should have been, which would be added up and turned into a full season after nine years.
It’s easy to look back at these accomplishments and dismiss them; many of the things the Assyrians took to be true were eventually improved upon as technology and understanding increased. However, considering this civilization existed more than 2 millennia in the past, their scientific achievements are still worth honoring.
However, as significant as some of the Assyrian cultural achievements were, it should be remembered that their most significant achievements came on the battlefield. Education and literacy were limited to a small group of people, effectively limiting the abilities of the Assyrian Empire to develop its culture much further than it did.
The perfection of siege warfare and the use of iron weapons will likely always be remembered as the Assyrians’ greatest contribution to world culture, but one should never forget that art, writing, and science were integral parts of this ancient civilization.