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The Assyrian Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Assyrian Empire

When the Kassites conquered Babylon, they adopted its culture. The Kassites ruled in the area for about four hundred years. The Assyrians took advantage of the invasions of the Sea Peoples to overthrow Kassite rule and create their own empire.

Geography played a major role in the history of the Assyrian kingdom, which was centered on the Tigris some distance upriver from the Persian Gulf. Because the kingdom had no natural features to serve as frontiers or fortifications, it was vulnerable to attack from all sides. Throughout history, nation-states in this position have generally built up their armies. A mighty standing army is, of course, a powerful offensive weapon; it is also a defensive weapon because its sheer size and strength frightens other nations out of any notion of attack. The Assyrian army was the best organized in history up to that time. Soldiers were grouped into divisions under professional commanders, and the army boasted specialized corps of engineers and cavalry. Additionally, the Assyrian army was strong because all its weapons were iron.

Assyrian officials rode into neighboring areas, making it clear that they expected gifts from local rulers. If gifts were not forthcoming, then the Assyrian army marched in, conquered the area, and extracted tributes. In this way, the Assyrians spread out over the Fertile Crescent, eventually taking control of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine; the Assyrians even took over Egypt for a time. Troops were posted throughout the empire and were used to put down any attempt at rebellion. Assyrian troops were noted for their brutality; Assyrian stone reliefs and other records describe torture, enslavement, deportations, and massacres of conquered peoples as well as the sacking of numerous cities.

Tiglath-Pileser III ruled Assyria from 746 to 727 BC and was perhaps the most capable of the Assyrian kings. Tiglath-Pileser’s empire was unified in several ways that were not common among other empires of his era. First, he established a system of Assyrian royal governors in outlying territories of the empire; this differed from the usual practice of ancient empires, in which local leaders were left to rule their own cultures within the imperial structure.

Second, Tiglath-Pileser maintained a standing army that was personally loyal to him as the head of the state. Third, he oversaw the creation of a post office and the construction of a system of roads, which helped the court maintain contact with the outlying cities and also facilitated troop movements. Fourth, the king made the Aramaic language the standard throughout the empire. The capital city of Nineveh was notable for its sizeable royal library, which cotained tablets, scrolls, and manuscripts from cultures throughout the region. Sargon II, who ruled Assyria from 721 to 705 BC, was an enthusiastic collector of written records, both literary and informational. Most of our present-day knowledge of Mesopotamian literature, including what survives of the Epic of Gilgamesh, comes from the surviving works in Sargon’s collection.

In the end, the Assyrian Empire fell for the same reason empires always fall—it was too large and unwieldy to sustain. In the sixth century, it fell to the Second Babylonian Empire. The city of Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC, marking the end of the Assyrian Empire.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The New Kingdom of Egypt and the Fall of Babylon Practice Test

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