Assyria
Part Fourteen
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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