The Fall Of Assyria

History Of The Babylonians And Assyrians

Book: Part III: The Ascendancy Of Assyria

Author: Godspeed, George

Fall Of Assyria. 626-606 B.C.

264. About the year 640 B.C. all records of the reign of Ashurbanipal

cease. That he remained on the throne for yet fourteen years is evident

from the Ptolemaic canon, which gives twenty-two years to the reign of

Kineladanos (Kandalanu, sect. 254) over Babylon, that is, 648-626 B.C. This

silence is properly interpreted as due in part to the tranquillity of these

years and in part to the storm and stress which fell upon the state as they

were coming to their close. While the victories of the past century had

placed Assyria at the height of its glory and had extended its bounds to

regions hitherto unsubdued, these achievements and acquisitions proved, in

the end, to weaken its power and gave to new enemies the vantage-points for

its ultimate overthrow. Egypt, the scene of hard fighting and splendid

conquest, was already practically independent. Psamtik, its vassal king,

had taken advantage of the Elamite and Babylonian troubles to withhold

tribute, and, by an alliance with Gyges of Lydia, another recreant, had

obtained Carian mercenaries to overthrow his Egyptian opponents and maintain

his independence against his Assyrian overlord. He is the founder of the

twenty-sixth dynasty. Elsewhere, also, though in a different fashion, the

same results were preparing. As has already been remarked, the incessant

assaults upon the Median tribes of the east were steadily moulding them into

a unity of national life, which, once reached, could not be restrained, and

which, inspired equally with hatred of its Assyrian enemy and the sentiment

of nationality, under proper leadership was to prove a dangerous antagonist.

The breaking down of the vigorous nations of Urartu on the north and of Elam

on the southeast not only cost Assyria heavily in men and treasure, but also

made it easier for the peoples who were advancing from the north and east to

grapple freshly and hand to hand with her before time had been given for

recuperation. Indeed, these conquered territories could not be held by the

Assyrians. As Egypt, so Elam, once devastated and made harmless, was

practically abandoned; within a few years Persian tribes entered and took up

the old feud with Assyria. Thus, instead of peace and prosperity within the

broad reaches of the immense empire, as the outcome of the tremendous energy

of the century, the Assyrian kings found themselves confronted with yet more

serious and threatening difficulties, and at a moment when the state was

least able to grapple with them.

265. The two sons of Ashurbanipal followed him in the kingdom. The

one, by name Ashur-etil-ili, has left memorials of building activity at

Kalkhi, where he reconstructed the temple of Nabu (sect. 176). The remains

of his palace bare and petty in comparison with the structures of his

predecessors, are found upon the same terrace and speak significantly of his

limitations. His brother, Sin-sharishkun, succeeded, and has the unenviable

reputation of being the last Assyrian king. In a broken cylinder

inscription he speaks in the swelling language of his great ancestors, of

the gifts of the gods and their choice of him as the ruler of the world. It

is only an empty echo of the past. Before his reign was over (608-607 B.C.)

Necho II. of Egypt, son of Psamtik, had entered Palestine with an army and,

after defeating Josiah of Judah at Megiddo (?), had marched into Syria and

occupied it as far as the Euphrates, while Assyria, already in the throes of

death, made no resistance. But, in Babylonia, Sinsharishkun had shown a

vigor worthy of better days in the attempt to maintain his supremacy.

Business documents from Babylonia, one from Nippur dated in the fourth year

of Ashuretilili, and another from Uruk of the seventh year of his successor,

indicate that each was recognized as ruler over that region. Their

authority over Babylon itself was hardly more than nominal, however, for

already, probably on the death of their father (626 B.C.), according to the

Ptolemaic canon a certain Nabu-palucur had become king of that city.

Another tablet from Nippur is dated in the first year of an Assyrian king,

Sin-shum-lisir, but of him and his place in the history of this troubled age

nothing is known.

266. In tracing the details of these confused years, the student is

dependent on three sources of knowledge, all imperfect and unsatisfactory.

There is, first, what may be called contemporary testimony, limited to the

indefinite utterances of the Hebrew prophet, Nahum, and to statements of the

Babylonian king, Nabuna'id, who lived three quarters of a century later;

second, the Babylonian tradition, preserved in the fragments of Berosus

found in other ancient writers (sect. 37); third, Herodotus and the other

Greek historians who represent, in the full and picturesque, often

fantastic, details of their narratives, the Medo-Persian tradition. From

all of them together only approximate certainty on the most general features

can be reached, and the opportunity for conjectural hypothesis is large.

267. The Medo-Persian tradition as represented by Herodotus lays

emphasis on the part taken by the Medes. According to him Deioces, the

founder of the Median kingdom, about the beginning of the seventh century,

was followed by his son, Phraortes, who attacked and subdued the Persians.

Not satisfied with this success, Phraortes engaged in war with Assyria, now

shorn of its allies. The Assyrians, however, defeated him; he lost his life

in the decisive battle. His son, Cyaxares, reorganized the Median army and

proceeded against Nineveh to avenge his father. The Assyrian army had been

defeated and Nineveh was besieged, when the Scythians, led by Madyes, fell

upon Media, compelled the raising of the siege, and defeated and overcame

Cyaxares. They then overran all western Asia as far as the borders of

Egypt, whence, by gifts and prayers, they were induced by Psamtik to retire.

Their dominion lasted twenty-eight years. Cyaxares, however, succeeded in

recovering his kingdom, by slaying the Scythian leaders assembled at a

banquet. He then took Nineveh and brought the Assyrian state to an end.

268. In the Babylonian tradition, Sardanapalus (Ashurbanipal) is

succeeded by Saracus (Sinsharishkun?). Hearing that an army like a swarm of

locusts was advancing from the sea, he sent Busalossorus (Nabupalucur?), his

general, to Babylon. The latter, however, allied himself with the Medes by

marrying his son, Nebuchadrezzar, to the daughter of the Median prince,

Ashdakos, and advanced against Nineveh. Saracus, on hearing of the

rebellion of his vassal and the contemplated attack, set fire to his own

capital and perished in the flames. In another form of the story, which

seems to combine elements of both traditions, it is said that the Babylonian

chief united with the Median in a rebellion against Sardanapalus and shut

him up in Nineveh three years. In the third year the Tigris swept away part

of the walls of the city, and the king, in despair, heaped up the treasures

of his palace upon a funeral pyre, four hundred feet high, and offered

himself to death in the fire, together with his wives.

269. The inscriptions of Nabupalucur contain no reference to his

relations to Assyria, beyond his claim to be king of Babylon and to have

conquered the Shubari, a people of North Mesopotamia (sect. 143). The stele

of Nabuna'id (ABL, p. 158), however, set up about 550 B.C., while it offers

difficulties of its own, throws a welcome light upon the exaggerations and

confusions in the traditions. It declares that Nabupalucur found a helper

in the "king of the Umman-manda," who "ruined the temples of the gods of

Assyria" "and the cities on the border of Akkad which were hostile to the

king of Akkad and had not come to his help," and "laid waste their

sanctuaries." Both traditions, therefore, contain elements of truth. The

Babylonians were at war with Assyria and in alliance with another people in

this war; yet not the Babylonians, but this other people, actually overthrew

Assyria. Whether this people, whom the royal chronicler calls the

Ummanmanda, is to be identified with the Medes, or was one of the Scythian

hordes of which Herodotus writes, is uncertain. So long as this is

undetermined, an important part of the historical situation cannot be

cleared up. What is tolerably plain, however, is that, when Nabupalucur set

himself up as king in Babylon, the Assyrian rulers sought to maintain their

power there and succeeded in bringing the Babylonian usurper into straits.

A happy alliance with the people of the eastern mountains, whether Medes

under Cyaxares, as is, indeed, most probable, or Scythians, delivered him

from his difficulties and opened the war which closed with the destruction

of Nineveh and the disappearance of the Assyrian monarchy. The vicissitudes

of the struggle, the length and details of the siege, and the fate of the

last Assyrian king may well have lived on in the Median and Babylonian

traditions, and in their essential features he preserved in the narratives

of Herodotus and Berosus. In the series of references of the prophet Nahum

to the defences and dangers of the city of Nineveh, have properly been

thought to lie the observations of an eyewitness of the splendors of that

mighty capital. His predictions of its overthrow and particularly of the

one soon to come, "that dasheth in pieces" (Nah. ii. 1), may have had their

occasion in his own experiences upon Assyrian soil during these troubled

years. A gruesome memorial of the assault is a fractured skull, preserved

in the British Museum, "supposed to have belonged to the soldier who was on

guard in the palace of the king" (BMG, p. 102). The date of the capture of

the capital, the final blow which crushed Assyria, while not exactly

determined, is probably 606 B.C. Scarcely twenty years after the close of

the brilliant reign of Ashurbanipal the empire had disappeared.

270. Assyria's sudden collapse is so startling and unexpected as

properly to cause surprise and demand investigation. The series of events

which culminated in the catastrophe and gave occasion for this fall were, it

is true, such as could not have been prepared for in advance and they would

have sorely strained the resisting power of any state. Yet evidently the

causes for Assyria's disappearance before this combined onslaught of her

enemies must lie deeper. The problem involves a consideration of the

elements and forces which made this monarchy so great and enabled it to

attain so wide and magnificent an empire. Attention has already been called

to the conditions of soil and climate in which a population hardy, vigorous,

and warlike would be nourished. This people was from the first environed by

adverse forces that called forth its aggressive energies. The wild beasts

of the upper Tigris and the rude tribes of the mountains must be held in

check, while a hard living was wrung from the ungracious soil. The effect

was to give to the nation a peculiarly warlike character, and to weld the

comparatively small population into unity of spirit and action. Leaders

were demanded and produced to whom large initiative was given, and in whom

the spirit of conquest was supreme, - a spirit to which religion and culture

might contribute energy, but which they could not dominate.

271. To this people, however, from the beginning was given a higher

ideal than mere brutal warfare. The relation of Assyria to Babylon, unique

in the history of mankind, while it gave an outlet to Assyria's military

activity, infused into her heart a patriotic purpose to deliver the mother

country from enemies, and stirred a lofty sentiment of reverence for the

culture and civilization there achieved. So deep, indeed, was this

sentiment, that the Assyrian adopted in its entirety the culture of

Babylonia, its language, its art, the essentials of its religion, and

manifested little or no desire to improve upon them. This procedure, on the

other hand, contributed immeasurably to the successful achievement of the

military ideal which lay deep in the Assyrian heart. Most great nations

must work out their own civilization with constant toil and distinct

sacrifice of energy. But Assyria, inheriting and appropriating the culture

of Babylon, had the residue of strength to give to the work of conquest and

political administration. She had an immense start in the race for

supremacy; no wonder that the race was so splendidly won.

272. Yet Assyria's weakness lay in the very elements of her strength.

The early unity of national life led to pride of race and blood which

permitted no admixture and, as revealed in Assyrian monumental portraits,

resulted in far purer Semitism than was the case with the Babylonians. But

purity of blood, in course of time, enfeebles a people. The Assyrian was no

exception. The defects essential to a military state were equally manifest.

The exhausting campaigns, the draft upon the population, the neglect of

agricultural development which is the economic basis of a nation's existence

and for which industry or commerce cannot compensate, least of all the

spoils of aggressive warfare, the supremacy of great landowners, and the

corresponding disappearance of free peasants, the employment of mercenaries

and all that follows in its train, - these things, inseparable from a

military regime, undermined Assyria's vitality and grew more and more

dangerous as the state enlarged. These weaknesses might have been less

pronounced had Assyria been able to work out original and fruitful methods

of social and civil progress. But, as has been just noted, her

civilization, because it was imitative, set free more energy to devote to

conquest; hence her achievements only emphasized her inner emptiness. No

great distinctively Assyrian poetry, or architecture, or ideals of life and

religion ever came into being. The nation stood for none of these things.

Living on a past not its own, it could feel no quickening of the inner life.

No contribution to the higher ranges of human thought was possible.

Moreover, in its administrative activity, one central thing was lacking, -

the ability to organize conquered peoples in a way to unite them vitally to

the central government. They yielded and lay passive in the grasp of the

mailed fist, but no national spirit thrilled through the mass and made it

alive. Assyrian pride of race among other things stood in the way of union.

Thus in some measure may be understood how the Assyrian monarchy so suddenly

fell at the height of its glory, and so utterly disappeared that, as has

often been observed, when Xenophon and his Greeks passed by the site of

Nineveh some two hundred years later, they did not so much as know that any

such capital had ever existed there. The monarchy had stood in proud

isolation, ruling its empire from its palaces on the Tigris; with its

passing, the great fabric which it reared was neither shattered nor shaken,

since between the Assyrian monarchy and the Assyrian empire no vital

connection existed. Hence, when the one disappeared, the other passed under

the sway of Babylon. In view of the absolutism and tyranny of the monarchy

the outburst of hate and exultation at Assyria's overthrow is not

surprising. It is voiced most clearly by the prophets of that petty vassal

state upon the Judean hills, the history of which is at the same time the

wisest commentary upon the career of its haughty and tyrannical master and

his severest condemnation.

273. Yet Assyria's contribution to world-history was real and

indispensable. Its rulers supplied, for the first time, the realization of

an ideal which has ever attracted the world's leaders, - the unification of

peoples in a world-empire, the dominance of one lord, one authority, over

all men. In this achievement it worked out the beginnings, necessarily

crude and imperfect, of political organization on a large scale. The

institutions, forms of government, methods of administration that were

devised by its statesmen, formed the basis on which later world-rulers built

solider structures. In this empire thus unified, it distributed the

elements of civilization, the most fruitful civilization of that day,

although not its own. Along the roads under its control trade and commerce

peacefully advanced from east to west, and, with these, went art and culture

to Asia Minor and to Greece. Even its wars, cruel as they were, served the

interests of civilization, in that they broke down and annihilated the

various petty and endlessly contending nationalities of western Asia,

welding all into a rude sort of unity, which prepared the way for the next

onward movement in the world's history. A true symbol of Assyria is offered

by that most striking form taken by its art, - the colossal figure standing

at the entrance of the royal palaces, a human head upon a bull's trunk; from

its shoulders spring the wings of an eagle, but its hinder parts seem still

struggling in vain to escape from the massive block of alabaster in which

the sculptor has confined them forever.

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