Assyria
Part Two
Author: Godspeed, George

 

 

 

 

 

Chronology And History

35. An essential condition for adequate knowledge of an ancient people
is the possession of a continuous historical tradition in the form of oral
or written records. This, however, in spite of the mass of contemporaneous
documents of almost every sort, which the spade of the excavator has
unearthed and the skill of the scholar deciphered, is not available for
scientific study of Babylonian or Assyrian antiquity. From the far-off
morning of the beginnings of the two peoples to their fall, no historians
appeared to gather up the memorials of their past, to narrate and preserve
the annals of these empires, to hand down their achievements to later days.
Consequently, where contemporaneous records fail, huge gaps occur in the
course of historical development, to be bridged over only partially by the
combination of a few facts with more or less ingenious inferences or
conjectures. Sometimes what has been preserved from a particular age
reveals clearly enough the artistic or religious elements of its life, but
offers only vague hints of its political activity and progress. The true
perspective of the several periods is sometimes lost, as when really
critical epochs in the history of these peoples are dwarfed and distorted by
a lack of sources of knowledge, while others, less significant, but
plentifully stocked with a variety of available material, bulk large and
assume an altogether unwarranted prominence.

36. What the Babylonians and Assyrians failed to do in supplying a
continuous historical record was not accomplished for them by the later
historians of antiquity. Herodotus, in the first Book of his "Histories,"
devotes twenty-three chapters to Babylonian affairs (Bk. I. 178-200), and
refers to an Assyrian history in which he will write more at length of these
events (I. 184). But the latter, if written, has been utterly lost, and the
chapters just mentioned, while containing information of value, especially
that which he himself collected on the ground, or drew from an earlier
traveller, presumably Hecataeus of Miletus, give distorted and fantastic
legends where sober history might be expected. Ctesias of Cnidos, physician
at the court of Artaxerxes Mnemon (415-398 B.C.), who seems to have had
access to some useful Assyrian material from Persian sources, introduced his
Persian History with an account of Babylonio-Assyrian affairs, in which the
same semi-mythical tales were interspersed with dry lists of kings in so
hopeless a jumble of truth and falsehood as to reconcile us to the
disappointment of having only a few fragments of it.

37. It is, however, a cause of keen regret that the three books of
Babylonian or Chaldean History, by Berosus, have come down from the past
only in scanty excerpts of later historians. Berosus was a Babylonian
priest of the god Bel, and wrote his work for the Macedonian ruler of
Babylonia, Antiochus Soter, about 280 B.C. As the cuneiform writing was
still employed, he must have been able to use the original documents, and
could have supplied just the needed data for our knowledge. Still, the
passages preserved indicate that he had no proper conception of his task,
since he filled a large part of his book with mythical stories of creation
and incredible tales of primitive history, with its prediluvian dynasties of
hundreds of thousands of years. A postdiluvian dynasty of thirty-four
thousand ninety-one years prepares the way for five dynasties, reaching to
Nabonassar, king of Babylon (747 B.C.), from whose time the course of events
seems to have been told in greater detail down to the writer's own days.
Imperfect and crude as this work must have been, it was by far the most
trustworthy and important compendious account of Babylonio-Assyrian history
furnished by an ancient author, and for that reason would, even to-day, be
highly valued. A still more useful contribution to the chronological
framework of history was made by Ptolemy, a geographer and astronomer of the
time of the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius. Ptolemy's "Canon of Kings,"
compiled for astronomical purposes, starts with the same Nabonassar at whose
time Berosus begins to expand his history, and continues with the names and
regnal years of the Babylonian kings to the fall of Babylon. Since Ptolemy
proceeds with the list through the Persian, Macedonian, and Roman regnal
lines in continuous succession, and connects the era of Nabonassar with
those of Philip Arridaeus and Augustus, a synchronism with dates of the
Christian era is established, by which the reign of Nabonassar can be fixed
at 747-733 B.C. and the reigns of his successors similarly stated in terms
of our chronology. By this means, not only is a chronological basis of
special value laid for this later age of Babylonian history, but a starting-
point is given for working backward into the earlier periods, provided that
adequate data can be secured from other sources.

38. Happily for historical science, the original documents of Babylonia
and Assyria are unexpectedly rich in material available for this purpose.
As already stated (sect. 29), the Assyrians were remarkably gifted with the
historic sense, and not only do their royal annals and other similar
documents contain many and exact chronological statements, but there was in
vogue in the royal court a practical system which went far toward
compensating for the lack of an era according to which the dates of events
might be definitely fixed. From the royal officers one was appointed each
year to give his name to the year. He or his official status during that
period was called limu, and events or documents were dated by his name. The
king usually acted as limu for the first full year of his reign. He was
followed in succession by the Turtan, or commander-in-chief, the Grand
Vizier, the Chief Musician, the Chief Eunuch, and the governors of the
several provinces or cities. Lists of these limi were preserved in the
royal archives, forming a fixed standard of the greatest practical value for
the checking off of events or the dating of documents. While this system
was in use in Assyria as early as the fourteenth century, the lists which
have been discovered are of much later date and of varying length, the
longest extending from 893 B.C. to about 650 B.C. Sometimes to the mere
name of the limu was added a brief remark as to some event of his year.
Such a reference to an eclipse of the sun occurring in the limu of Pur-
Sagali in the reign of Ashurdan III., has been calculated to have taken
place on the fifteenth of June, 763 B.C., a fact which at once fixes the
dates for the whole list and enables its data to be compared with those
derived from the synchronisms of the canon of Ptolemy and other sources.
The result confirms the accuracy of the Assyrian document, and affords a
trustworthy chronological basis for fully three centuries of Assyrian
history. For the earlier period before 900 B.C. the ground is more
uncertain, but the genealogical and chronological statements of the royal
inscriptions, coupled with references to contemporaneous Babylonian kings
whose dates are calculable from native sources, supply a foundation which,
if lacking in some parts, is yet capable of supporting the structure of
historical development.

39. The Babylonians, while they possessed nothing like the well wrought
out limu system of Assyria, and dated events by the regnal years of their
kings, had in their kings' lists, compiled by the priests and preserved in
the temples, documents of much value for historical purposes. The "Great
List," which has been preserved, arranges the names in dynasties, and gives
the regnal years of each king. At the end of each dynasty, the number of
the kings and the sum of their regnal years are added. Though badly broken
in parts, this list extends over a millennium, and contains legible names of
at least seventy kings arranged in about nine dynasties. As the last
division contains names of rulers appearing in the Assyrian and Ptolemaic
canon, the starting-point is given for a chronological organization of the
Babylonian kings, which unfortunately can be only approximately achieved,
owing to the gaps in the list. The two other lists now available cover the
first two dynasties only of the great list. Not only do they differ in some
respects from one another, but they do not help in furnishing the missing
names in the great list. These can be tentatively supplied from
inscriptions of kings not mentioned on the lists, and presumably belonging
to periods in which the gaps occur. Using all the means at their disposal,
scholars have generally agreed in placing the beginning of the first dynasty
of Babylon somewhat later than 2500 B.C.

40. For the chronology of Babylonian history before that time, the
sources are exceedingly meagre, and all results, depending as they do upon
calculation and inference from uncertain data, must be regarded as
precarious. Numerous royal inscriptions exist, but connections between the
kings mentioned are not easy to establish, and paleographic evidence, which
must be invoked to determine the relative age of the documents, yields often
ambiguous responses. A fixed point, indeed, in this chaos seems to be
offered in a statement made by Nabuna'id, a king of the New Babylonian
Empire. In searching for the foundations of the sun temple at Sippar, he
came, to use his own words, upon "the foundation-stone of Naram Sin, which
no king before me had found for 3200 years." As the date of the discovery is
fixed at about 550 B.C., Naram Sin, king of Agade, whose name and
inscriptions are known, may be placed at about 3750 B.C., and his father,
Sargon, at about 3800 B.C. While much questioning has naturally been raised
concerning the accuracy and trustworthiness of this date thus obtained, no
valid reasons for discarding it have been presented. It affords a
convenient and useful point from which to reckon backward and forward in the
uncertain periods from the third to the fifth millennium B.C. By all these
aids, to which are added some genealogical statements in the inscriptions,
a series of dynasties has been worked out for this early age, and their
chronological relations to one another tentatively determined.

41. It is possible, therefore, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, to
determine chronologically not only the great turning points in Babylonio-
Assyrian history, but even the majority of the dynasties and the reigns of
the several kings. Founded upon this, the historical structure may be
reared, and its various stages and their relations determined. A bird's-eye
view of these will facilitate further progress. First in order of time comes
the Rise and Development of the City-States of Old Babylonia to their
unification in the City-State of Babylon. In the dawn of history different
primitive centres of population in the lower Tigro-Euphrates valley
appeared, attained a vigorous and expanding life, came into contact one with
another, and successively secured a limited supremacy, only to give place to
others. The process was already in full course by 5000 B.C. By the middle
of the third millennium, the city of Babylon pushed forward under a new
dynasty; one of its kings succeeded in driving out the Elamites, who had
invaded and were occupying the southern and central districts; the victory
was followed by the city's supremacy, which was not only more widely
extended, but, by the wisdom of its kings, was more deeply rooted, and was
thus made permanent. With Babylonia united under Babylon, the first epoch
closed about 2000 B.C.

42. The second period covers the Early Conflicts of Babylonia and
Assyria. The peaceful course of united Babylonia was interrupted by the
entrance of the Kassites from the east, who succeeded in seating a dynasty
of Kassite kings upon the throne of Babylonia, and maintaining them there
for nearly six hundred years. But this foreign intrusion and dominance had
roused into independent life a Semitic community which had its centre at
Assur on the central Tigris, and in all probability was an offshoot from
Babylonia. This centre of active political life developed steadily toward
the north and west, but was dominated chiefly by its hostility toward
Babylonia under Kassite rule. Having become the kingdom of Assyria, it
warred with the southern kingdom, the advantage on the whole remaining with
the Assyrian until, toward the close of the epoch, a great ruler appeared in
the north, Tiglathpileser I., under whom Assyria advanced to the first place
in the Tigro-Euphrates valley; while Babylonia, its Kassite rulers yielding
to a native dynasty, fell into political insignificance. The forces that
controlled the age had run their course by 1000 B.C.

43. The third period is characterized by the Ascendancy of Assyria.
The promise of pre-eminence given in Tiglathpileser I. was not fulfilled for
two centuries, owing to the flooding of the upper Mesopotamian plain with
Aramean nomads from the Arabian steppes. At last, as the ninth century
began, Ashurnacirpal led the way in an onward movement of Assyria which
culminated in the extension of the kingdom over the entire region of western
Asia. Shalmaneser II,, Tiglathpileser III., and Sargon, great generals and
administrators, turned a kingdom into an empire. The first wore out the
resistance of the Syrian states, the second added Babylonia to the Assyrian
Empire, and the third, as conqueror of the north, ruled from the Persian
gulf to the border of Egypt and the upper sea of Ararat. The rulers that
followed compelled Egypt to bow, and reduced Elam to subjection, but at the
expense of the vital powers of the state. New peoples appeared upon the
eastern border, revolt deprived the empire of its provinces, until, in less
than two decades after the death of the brilliant monarch Ashurbanipal,
Nineveh, Assyria's capital, was destroyed, and the empire disappeared
suddenly and forever. Four centuries were occupied with this splendid
history and its tragical catastrophe. The age closed with the passing of
the seventh century (600 B.C.).

44. Of the partners in the overthrow of Assyria, the rebellious
governor of the province of Babylonia received as his share of the spoil the
Tigro-Euphrates valley and the Mediterranean provinces. He founded here the
New Babylonian Empire. Its brief career of less than a century concluded
the history of these peoples. Under his son, the famous Nebuchadrezzar II.,
the empire was consolidated, its resources enlarged, its power displayed.
His feeble successors, however, were beset with manifold difficulties, chief
of which was the rising energy of the Medes and Persians who had shared in
the booty of Assyria. United under the genius of Cyrus, they pushed
westward and northward, until the hour came for advancing on Babylon. The
hollow shell of the empire was speedily crushed, and the Semitic peoples,
whose rulers had dominated this world of western Asia for more than four
millenniums, yielded the sceptre in 538 B.C. to Cyrus the Persian.

 

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six  Part Seven  Part Eight  Part Nine  Part Ten  Part Eleven  Part Twelve  Part Thirteen

Part Fourteen   Part Fifteen   Part Sixteen

Main Page

World History Project