• Mon. Jun 5th, 2023

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


May 26, 2023

In his new e-book “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire” (Primary Books), Yale professor Eckart Frahm affords a complete historical past of the traditional civilization (circa 2025 BCE to 609 BCE) that will turn into a mannequin for the world’s later empires.

Rising from the city-state of Ashur, situated in modern-day Iraq, Assyria undertook quite a few often-violent navy campaigns to unfold its rule into Babylonia and different areas; however its kings additionally created a transportation community that made doable the free movement of concepts and items and established the primary common library, says Frahm, a professor of Assyriology within the Division of Close to Japanese Languages and Civilizations in Yale’s School of Arts & Sciences.

For the e-book, Frahm attracts on finds from latest archaeological excavations, cuneiform tablets, and Biblical and classical texts to explain what is thought about life within the empire — for royal and non-royal Assyrians alike — and the circumstances that contributed to its hasty demise.

In an interview with Yale Information, Frahm discusses what impressed his personal curiosity on this historic empire, what is thought about its individuals, and why it issues right now. The interview is edited and condensed.

How did you turn into taken with Assyria as a scholarly subject?

Eckart Frahm I first turned taken with Mesopotamia once I was in highschool. I took some Hebrew, just because I needed to study a language that was completely different, and I started to appreciate that there was an entire world past the biblical narrative. The historical past of Mesopotamian civilization encompasses 3,500 years, of which Assyrian historical past is a vital portion.

It’s doable to color a really detailed, usually thrilling, and infrequently entertaining image of Assyrian historical past.

Eckart Frahm

Later, I had numerous college academics who had been specialists within the linguistic research of Assyrian and who had edited quite a lot of Assyrian texts. I did my justifiable share of editorial work myself, however thought sooner or later I’d transfer past philology to as an alternative convey collectively the numerous completely different sources about Assyrian historical past.

There are actually tens and tens of hundreds of Assyrian cuneiform texts, from royal inscriptions by which kings describe their navy actions or constructing initiatives, to letters to royalty by officers or by spies that discuss in regards to the navy and political challenges the empire skilled. It’s doable to color a really detailed, usually thrilling, and infrequently entertaining image of Assyrian historical past.

What’s the legacy of the Assyrian Empire?

Frahm: Assyria’s most essential legacy might be the concept of empire as such. “Empires” have a nasty title right now, and I’ve little interest in downplaying their darkish sides. Basically, “empire” means that there’s some heart that guidelines over a big and considerably various periphery, which is to a major extent unfree. Empire, nonetheless, additionally affords some benefits, together with, for instance, larger ease of movement of concepts and of merchandise.

Certainly, the Assyrians began off primarily as retailers. Once they operated their city-state within the early second millennium BCE, lengthy earlier than the imperial interval, it was territorially a really small entity. However the geographic horizon of the Assyrian individuals of this time was already broad: they had been engaged in long-distance commerce, importing tin from Central Asia and textiles from Babylonia, and buying and selling each for silver in Anatolia.

In a while, throughout the so-called Neo-Assyrian interval [ca. 900 BCE to 600 BCE], the Assyrians created a really refined communication community. The so-called Royal Street is commonly related to the Persian Empire, which began off in 539 BCE, however it existed already in Assyrian instances.

I feel you will need to stress that, not like later empires, the Assyrians weren’t making an attempt to impose their very own tradition, their very own language, or their very own faith on any of their topics. Individuals within the imperial periphery needed to pay taxes to the crown and provide labor, however they had been allowed and anticipated to only proceed worshiping their very own gods and talking their very own languages. On this regard you possibly can say the Assyrians weren’t super-repressive.

What is thought in regards to the on a regular basis lives of non-royal Assyrians?

Frahm: An excellent deal is thought, significantly about these residing in cities, but in addition in regards to the rural inhabitants, which engaged in agriculture, with barley as their primary crop. Most people within the countryside had been most likely semi-free. Those that grew crops might hold a share. One other share went to the state, and generally a share went to landowners, a lot of them members of the navy.

There have been additionally shepherds on the steppe, herding flocks of sheep and goats. A cuneiform letter reveals that, for some seven years, a few of these shepherds did not ship a portion of their flocks to the Ashur Temple in Ashur. This attracts a grievance from an official of the temple, who tells the king, “In case you don’t do something about that, then your authority is in peril.” The episode reveals us that despite the fact that the Assyrian kings had been very highly effective, they couldn’t totally be accountable for all the pieces.

We additionally know rather a lot about how husbands and wives interacted, generally apparently not harmoniously. Cuneiform texts discuss husbands and wives having fantasies of killing their spouses and marrying another person and so forth. However there are additionally tales of nice affection, and of grief when a beloved youngster would die.

Households had been primarily, like right now, monogamous, with a number of kids residing with their mother and father in a home, generally grandparents as nicely. The lifeless can be buried actually beneath their ft in vaults beneath the homes. Households would go down there to make sacrifices for the lifeless on holidays and different particular events. Individuals additionally had pets. Some texts embody cat omens, which predict what occurs when a cat sits on an individual’s breast or urinates on that particular person. The latter was thought-about a very good signal, indicating that the person in query would turn into rich.

Cuneiform letter written by an area spy to the Assyrian king Esarhaddon about an insurgency within the metropolis of Ashur, ca. 671 BCE. Yale Babylonian Assortment/Yale Peabody Museum. (Picture: Klaus Wagensonner)

The autumn of the Assyrian empire occurred rapidly. What induced it?

Frahm: That’s a million-dollar query, and the reply remains to be not completely clear. Two latest theories have tried to pinpoint forces larger than politics; on the one hand local weather change, and on the opposite migration. I’m not completely certain, although, that these elements had been completely decisive.

In my opinion, it was an ideal storm that introduced the empire down. One concern was that throughout the empire’s final many years, the Assyrian crown skilled a disaster of legitimacy. It had been precipitated by Ashurbanipal, whose lengthy reign [669-631 BCE] marked a cultural excessive level for Assyria — he created the primary common library and can be well-known for the sculpted reliefs that lined the partitions of his palaces. However Ashurbanipal didn’t stay as much as the picture he tried to mission; he needed to be perceived as an incredible warrior, as an example, however by no means went to battle. As a substitute, he stayed residence in his palace, the place, based on his personal texts and later custom, “he ate, drank, and made merry.”

This, I feel, already sowed some doubt amongst his topics in regards to the health of their imperial rulers. Then Ashurbanipal dies, and a variety of inside and exterior strife follows. There’s a rebel within the south by Babylonians, who truly handle to chase the Assyrians out of Babylonia. On the similar time, territories within the Levant, within the west, regain their independence. And within the east, the Medes, united in response to the strain beforehand placed on them by the Assyrians, be part of the Babylonians within the struggle towards the empire.

In 615 BCE, the Medes and the Babylonians embark on a final assault on Assyria. It’s the primary time in a whole bunch of years that Assyrian cities are beneath siege. For some time the Assyrians have some allies, together with, unexpectedly, the Egyptians. The battle escalates into what one might describe as a primary “world battle,” with a cataclysmic collection of battles finally resulting in Assyria’s collapse.

What went improper?

Frahm: The Assyrian cities show to be not very straightforward to defend. For instance, Nineveh — the best of all of the Assyrian cities and the capital on the time — was constructed with 18 gigantic gates. This was a strategic legal responsibility: the gates had been so massive that they offered little safety towards enemy assaults. Archaeologists truly discovered the our bodies of Assyrian troopers killed in these very gates when the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BCE acquired via. Two years earlier, in 614 BCE, the Medes had already conquered town of Ashur, Assyria’s non secular and religious heart. And with the autumn of these cities, and town of Harran in 609 BCE, comes the autumn of the empire and the royal dynasty.

Why is Assyria essential right now?

Frahm: One purpose is that “empire” remains to be with us right now. The empires of right now not name themselves empires. However imperial ideologies, after all, are nonetheless very a lot in place. So I feel Assyria may be mentioned to mark the very starting of a series that runs from the primary millennium BCE to the trendy age.

I feel Assyria may be mentioned to mark the very starting of a series that runs from the primary millennium BCE to the trendy age.

Eckart Frahm

Within the Center East, the Assyrian Empire was adopted by others, from the Persian as much as the Ottoman Empire. Though empire is a shape-shifting phenomenon, all these geopolitical entities had been primarily primarily based on a blueprint that the Assyrians had been the primary to create.

Assyria additionally teaches us one thing about how improper it’s to “essentialize” the individuals of the Center East. I feel it is actually fascinating to see how Assyria begins off not as a war-prone state however as a reasonably peaceable one, with a combined structure in place and even some democratic establishments. Later, it turns into rather more belligerent and autocratic. Once you have a look at that story, you possibly can see that the peoples of the Center East can change, and that folks normally can change — that social and political change is feasible.

Lastly, as we’re popping out of a number of years of plague with the COVID disaster, it’s fascinating to contemplate what sort of affect epidemics had in historic Assyria. Within the e-book I argue that, surprisingly, the rise of the Assyrian empire, relatively than its fall, is related to plague. It was within the wake of two bouts of contagious illness — and the financial and demographic contraction attributable to them — that the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III [744–727 BCE] launched into a collection of conquests and annexations on the finish of which the Assyrian state was greater than twice as massive because it had been earlier than.

So the good thriller then, is how can or not it’s that the phoenix of empire rises from the ashes of a number of grim years of plague? I might argue that historical past just isn’t one thing predetermined by deterministic guidelines. If challenges aren’t too large, then people can truly adapt to them and discover methods to get out of a disaster. That is what Tiglath-pileser did when he compensated for the lack of life and wealth Assyria had suffered by implementing a brand new grand technique centered on annexing international lands, extracting their property for the larger good of the Assyrian heart, and deporting a whole bunch of hundreds of individuals to replenish the work pressure the place it was most urgently wanted.

Now, this is not a narrative for us to emulate. Somewhat, I consider it as a warning that unhealthy actors could nicely make the most of the pure disasters that are inclined to befall humanity and have befallen us, after all, in recent times with COVID. And we higher remember and be looking out for what others could do in such circumstances. Assyria teaches us that there are all types of how to react to historic challenges.

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