Assyria From Rise To Fall

Author: Godspeed, George

By 700 B.C. the era of small states had ended with the emergence of the Assyrian empire. The great contribution of the Assyrians was the forcible unification of weak, unstable nations and the establishment of an efficient imperial organization.

Language And Literature

The discoverers of the long-buried memorials of Assyria and
Babylonia were at first and for a long time unable to read their message.
But side by side with the work of the explorer and excavator went
continually the investigations of the scholar. The objects sent back by
European excavators and installed in museums immediately attracted the
attention and enlisted the energetic activity of many students, who gave
themselves to the task of decipherment. Beginning with Georg Friedrich
Grotefend, of Hannover, who, in 1815, published a translation of some brief
inscriptions of the Achemaenian kings of Persia, this scientific activity
was immensely stimulated by the discoveries and investigations of Sir Henry
Rawlinson, who, after more than fifteen years of study in the East,
published, in 1851, his "Memoir on the Babylonian and Assyrian Inscriptions"
containing the text, transliteration, and translation of the Babylonian part
of the Behistun inscription, which records the triumph of Darius I. of
Persia over his enemies. During the same period the brilliant French savant
Jules Oppert, the Irish scholar Edward Hincks, and the Englishman Fox Talbot
had been making their contributions to the new linguistic problem. In 1857
the accuracy and permanence of their results were established by a striking
test. Copies of the inscription of Tiglathpileser I. of Assyria, recently
unearthed, were placed in the hands of the four scholars, Rawlinson, Oppert,
Hincks, and Fox Talbot, and they were requested to make, independently of
one another, translations of the inscription in question. A comparison of
these translations showed them to be substantially identical. A new
language had been deciphered, and a new chapter of human history opened for
investigation. Since that time these and other scholars, such as E.
Schrader, Friedrich Delitzsch, Paul Haupt, A. H. Sayce, and many more in
Europe and America have enlarged, corrected, and systematized the results
attained, until now the stately science of Assyriology, or the organized
knowledge of the language, literature, and history of Babylonia and Assyria,
has a recognized place in the hierarchy of learning.

23. The Babylonio-Assyrian writing, as at first discovered in its
classical forms, appears at a hasty glance like a wilderness of short lines
running in every conceivable direction, each line at one end and sometimes
at both ends, spreading out into a triangular mass, or wedge. From this
likeness to a wedge is derived the designation "wedge-shaped" or "cuneiform"
(lat. cuneus), as applied to the characters and also to the language and
literature. Closer examination reveals a system in this apparent disorder.
The characters are arranged in columns usually running horizontally, and are
read from left to right, the great majority of the wedges either standing
upright or pointing toward the right. These wedges, arranged singly or in
groups, stand either for complete ideas (called "ideograms," e.g. a single
horizontal wedge represents the preposition in) or for syllables (e.g. a
single horizontal crossed by a single vertical wedge represents the syllable
bar). It would be natural that, in course of time, the wedges used as signs
for ideas would also be used as syllables, and the same syllable be
represented by different wedges, thus producing confusion. This was
remedied by placing another character before the sign for a particular idea
to determine its use in that sense (hence, called a "determinative;" e.g.
before all names of gods a sign meaning "divine being") or, after it, a
syllabic character which added the proper ending of the word to be employed
there (hence, called "phonetic complement"). In spite of these devices,
many signs and collocations of signs have so many possible syllabic values
as to render exactness in the reading very difficult. There are about five
hundred of these different signs used to represent words or syllables.
Their origin is still a subject of discussion among scholars. The
prevailing theory is that they can be traced back to original pictures
representing the ideas to be conveyed. But, at present, only about fifty
out of the entire number of signs can be thus identified, and it may be
necessary to accept other sources to account for the rest.

24. The material on which this writing appears is of various sorts.
The characters were incised upon stone and metal, - on the marbles of
palaces, on the fine hard surfaces of gems, on silver images and on plates
of bronze. There are traces, also, of the use as writing material of skins,
and of a substance resembling the papyrus of ancient Egypt. But that which
surpassed all other materials for this purpose was clay, a fine quality of
which was most abundant in Babylonia, whence the use spread all over the
ancient oriental world. This clay was very carefully prepared, sometimes
ground to an exceeding fineness, moistened, and moulded into various forms,
ordinarily into a tablet whose average size is about six by two and one-half
inches in superficial area by one inch in thickness, its sides curving
slightly outwards. On the surface thus prepared the characters were
impressed with a stylus, the writing often standing in columns, and carried
over upon the back and sides of the tablet. The clay was frequently moulded
into cones and barrel-shaped cylinders, having from six to ten sides on
which writing could be inscribed. These tablets were then dried in the sun
or baked in a furnace, - a process which rendered the writing practically
indestructible, unless the tablet itself was shattered.

25. This prevailing use of clay was doubtless the cause of the
disappearance of the picture-writing. The details of a picture could not
easily be reproduced; circles gave way to straight lines joined together;
these were gradually reduced in number; the line was enlarged at the end
into the wedge, for greater distinctness, until the conventional form of the
signs became established.

26. This method of writing by wedges was adopted from Babylonia by
other peoples, such as those of ancient Armenia, for their own languages,
just as German may be written in Latin letters. A problem of serious moment
and great difficulty has arisen because of a similar use of the cuneiform in
Babylonia itself. Side by side with cuneiform documents of the language
represented in the bulk of the literature which has come down to us, and
which may be called the Babylonio-Assyrian, there are some documents, also
in cuneiform, in which the wedges do not have the meanings which are
connected with them in the Babylonio-Assyrian. In some cases the same
document is drawn up in two forms, written side by side, in which the way of
reading the characters of one will not apply to those of the other, although
the meaning of the document in both forms is the same. Evidently the
cuneiform signs are here employed for two languages. What the philological
relations of these languages may be, has given rise to a lively controversy.
On the one hand, it is claimed that the two show marked philological
similarities which carry them back to a common linguistic ground, and
indicate that they are two modes of expressing one language, namely, the
Semitic Babylonia. The one mode, the earlier, which stood in close relation
to the primitive picture-writing, and may be called the "hieratic," was
superseded in course of time by the other mode, which became the "common" or
"demotic," and is represented in the great mass of Babylonio-Assyrian
literature. The former had its origin in the transition from the
ideographic to the phonetic mode of writing, - a transition which was
accompanied with "the invention of a set of explanatory terms, mainly drawn
from rare and unfamiliar and obsolete words expressed by the ideograms." It
was later developed into an "artificial language" by the industry of
priestly grammarians (McCurdy, History Prophecy and the Monuments, I. sects.
82 f.). On the other hand, the majority of scholars maintains that the
earlier so-called "hieratic" is an independent and original language whose
peculiar linguistic features point decidedly to a basis essentially
different from that of the Semitic Babylonian. This language they regard as
hailing from a pre-Semitic population of Babylonia, the "Sumerians," whose
racial affinities are not yet satisfactorily determined. The Semitic
Babylonians, coming in later, adopted from them the cuneiform writing for
their own language, while permitting the older speech to continue its life
for a season. Divergence of view so radical in regard to the same body of
linguistic facts can have only one explanation, - the facts are not decisive
and the fundamental questions must await final adjudication till a time when
either new documents for philological investigation are discovered, or light
is obtained from other than linguistic sources.

27. As the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates formed the common home of
Babylonians and Assyrians, so the two peoples possessed a common language,
and their literatures may be regarded as parts of one continuous
development. Centuries before the name of Assyria appeared in history, the
Babylonians possessed a written language and developed an ample literature.
Both language and literature passed over to the later nation on the upper
Tigris, and were cherished and continued there. Comparatively slight
differences in the forms of the cuneiform signs, and a greater emphasis upon
certain types of literature are all that distinguish the two peoples in
these regards. Indeed, the kings of Nineveh filled their libraries in large
part with copies of ancient Babylonian books, a practice which has secured
to us some of the choicest specimens of Babylonian literature. In sketching
their literatures, therefore, the typical forms are the same and serve as a
basis for a common presentation.

28. Religion was the inspiration of the most important and the most
ample division of the literature of Babylonia. Scarcely any side of the
religious life is unrepresented. Worship has its collections of ritual
books, ranging from magical and conjuration formulae, the repetition of
which by the proper priest exorcises the demons, delivers from sickness, and
secures protection, to the prayers and hymns to the gods, often pathetic and
beautiful in their expressions of penitence and praise. Mythology has been
preserved in cycles which have an epic character, the chief of which is the
so-called Epic of Gilgamesh, a hero whose exploits are narrated in twelve
books, each corresponding to the appropriate zodiacal sign. The famous
story of the Deluge has been incorporated into the eleventh book. Less
extensive, but of a like character, are the stories of the Descent of Ishtar
into Arallu, or Hades, of the heroes Etana and Adapa, and the legends of the
gods Dibbara (Girra) and Zu. The cosmogonic narratives are hardly to be
separated from these, the best known of which is the so-called Creation Epic
of which the fragments of six books have been recovered. The poetry of
these epics is quite highly developed in respect to imagery and diction.
Even metre has been shown to exist, at least in the poem of creation. Among
the rest of the religious texts may be mentioned fragments of "wisdom" and
tables of omens for the guidance of rulers.

29. If the Babylonians had a passion for religion, the Assyrians were
devoted to history, and the bulk of their literature may be described as
historical. The Babylonian priests, indeed, preserved lists of their kings;
business documents were dated, and rulers left memorials of their doings.
But the first two can hardly claim to be literature, and the royal texts, in
fulness and exactness, are surpassed by those of the Assyrian kings. The
series of Assyrian historical texts on the grand scale begins with the
inscription of Tiglathpileser I. (about 1100 B.C.), written on an eight-
sided clay cylinder, and containing eight hundred and nine lines. The
inscription covers the first five years of a reign of at least fifteen
years. It begins with a solemn invocation to the gods who have given the
king the sovereignty. His titles are then recited, and a summary statement
of his achievements given. Then, beginning with his first year, the king
narrates his campaigns in detail in nearly five hundred lines. The
description of his hunting exploits and his building of temples occupies the
next two hundred lines. The document closes with a blessing for the one who
in the future honors the king's achievements, and a curse for him who seeks
to bring them to naught. This, for its day, admirable historical narrative
formed a kind of model for all later royal inscriptions, many of which copy
its arrangement and almost slavishly imitate its style. Its combination of
summary statement with an attempt at chronological order, somewhat
unskilfully made, is dissolved in the later inscriptions. They are of two
sorts, either strictly annalistic, arranged according to the years of a
king's reign, or a splendid catalogue of the royal exploits organized for
impressiveness of effect, and hence often called "laudatory" texts.
Examples of one or both forms have been left by all the great Assyrian
kings. The most important among them are the inscriptions of Ashurnacirpal,
Shalmaneser II., Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal.

30. Closely connected with the historical documents is the diplomatic
literature. An example of this is the so-called "Synchronistic History of
Assyria and Babylonia," a memorandum of the dealings, diplomatic or
otherwise, of the two nations with one another, from before 1450 B.C. down
to 700 B.C., in regard to the disputed territory lying between them. To the
same category belong royal proclamations, tribute lists, despatches, and an
immense mass of letters from officials to the court, - correspondence
between royal personages or between minor officials. Such correspondence
begins with the reign of Khammurabi of Babylon (about 2275 B.C.), and is
especially abundant under the great Assyrian kings from Sargon to
Ashurbanipal. Not belonging to the epistolary literature of Assyria and
Babylonia, but written in the cuneiform character, and containing letters
from kings of Assyria and Babylonia as well as to them, is the famous Tel-
el-Amarna correspondence, taken from the archives of Amenhotep IV. of Egypt,
- in all some three hundred letters, - which throws a wonderful light upon
the life of the world of Western Asia in the fifteenth century B.C. The
numerous inscriptions describing the architectural activities of the kings
belong here as well as to religious literature. Among the earliest
inscriptions as well as the longest which have been discovered are the pious
memorials of royal temple-builders. The inscriptions of Nebuchadrezzar II.
the Great deal almost entirely with his buildings.

31. The literature of law is very extensive. While no complete legal
code for either Babylonia or Assyria has been discovered, some fragments of
a very ancient document, containing what seem to be legal enactments,
indicate that such codes were not unknown. Records of judicial decisions,
of business contracts, and similar documents which are drawn up with lawyer-
like precision, attested by witnesses and afterwards deposited in the state
archives, come from almost all periods of the history of these peoples, and
testify to their highly developed sense of justice and their love of exact
legal formalities.

32. Science and religion were most closely related in oriental
antiquity, and it is difficult to draw the line between their literatures.
Studies of the heavens and the earth were zealously made by Babylonian
priests, in the practical search after the character and will of the gods,
who were thought to have their seats in these regions. In their
investigations, however, the priests came upon many important facts of
astronomy and physical science. These materials were collected into large
works, of which some modern scholars have believed an example to exist in
the so-called "Illumination of Bel," which, in seventy-two books, may go
back to an age before 2000 B.C. Other similar collections are geographical
lists, rudimentary maps, catalogues of animals, plants, and minerals. The
ritual calendars which were carefully compiled for the priests and temple
worshippers illustrate the beginnings of a scientific division of time.
Education is represented also in grammatical and lexicographical works, as
well as in the school books and reading exercises prepared for the training-
schools of the scribes.

33. Of works in lighter vein but few examples have been found. The
epics indeed may be classed as poetry, and served equally the purposes of
religious edification and entertainment. Besides these, fragments of folk
songs have been found. Folk tales are represented by some remains of
fables. Popular legends gathered about the famous kings of the early age;
an example of which is the autobiographical fragment attributed to Sargon I.
of Agade. In comparison, however, with the tales which adorn the literature
of ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia were singularly barren in light

34. The word "literature" in the preceding paragraphs has been used
with what may seem an unwarranted latitude of meaning. Neither in content,
nor in form, nor in purpose could much of the writing described be strictly
included in that term. But, in the study of the ancient world, scrap of
written evidence is precious to the historian, and these crude attempts are
the beginnings, both in form and in thought, of true literary achievement.
The form of literature was fundamentally limited by the material on which
books were written. It demands simple sentences, brief and unadorned, -
what might be called the lapidary style. Imitation and repetition are also
characteristic. The royal inscriptions have a stereotyped order. In
religious hymns and prayers, epithets of gods and forms of address tend
constantly to reappear from age to age with wearisome monotony. Lack of
true imaginative power, and, at the same time, a realistic sense for facts
show themselves; the one in the grotesqueness of the poetical imagery, the
other in the blunt straightforward statements of the historical
inscriptions. Yet even in the earliest poetical composition, the principle
of "parallelism," or the balancing of expressions in corresponding lines,
was employed, a device which, supplying the place of rhyme, became so
powerful a means of expression in the mouth of the Hebrew prophet. A
progress in ease and force of utterance is traceable also in the royal
inscriptions, if one compares that of Tiglathpileser I. with those of
Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal. Babylonia and Assyria, indeed, in this sphere
as in so many others, were great not so much in what they actually wrought
as in the example they gave and the influences they set in motion. They
planted the seeds which matured after they themselves had passed away.

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