What have the Assyrians ever done for us? In Assyria: the Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire Eckart Frahm explains that: they established a template for domination that has been used ever since. They created eerily beautiful sculptures that still inspire awe in museum visitors around the world. And the Assyrian kings were the role model for God.
This last claim, you may be thinking, is a bold one - what’s the evidence?
The 8th Century BCE was an important time in the Middle East. Not only was it the period when the Assyrian empire really got started, it was also the time that the initial texts of the Bible were first written down - perhaps the formative time for Jewish religion and identity. The Assyrian expansion is therefore the geopolitical context for the Bible.
King fearing Isrealites
The authors of the Bible hated the Assyrians, and with good reason. By 701 BCE the Assyrians had destroyed the small northern kingdom of Israel utterly, and had subjected the equally vulnerable southern kingdom of Judah to a brutal campaign, which the Judaian king Hezekiah only narrowly survived and was then forced to agree a humiliating treaty of submission in which he handed over huge quantities of treasure.1
Confronted with the reality of an all powerful king with claims of global domination, the early Israelites, Frahm tells us, transferred these properties onto their God. For example, on the one hand the biblical prophet Isiah deplores the Assyrian king’s desire to “gather all the earth as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken” while then going on to say that for God “the whole earth is full of his glory”
Copy paste curses
More tangibly, the curses prescribed for breakers of an Assyrian royal loyalty oath that was widely circulated around the empire (including presumably to Judah) were exactly mirrored by an early version of the Deuteronomic Code in the Bible:
“In exchange for disobedience,” Frahm notes, “the biblical text predicts, a man will first experience ulcers, then blindness, and finally the ruin of his marriage when an enemy takes possession of his wife. Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty [containing the loyalty oath] includes a section with very similar curses, listed in exactly the same sequence and presented as punishments meted out by the gods Sin, Shamash and Ishtar.”
Resisting this power [of the Assyrian kings] by means of military or political action was futile, and so the Hebrew priests and prophets did something else: they projected it onto their own god... This political-theological ‘transfer’ was a revolutionary move that inaugurated a new type of religion.
Eckart Frahm, Assyria
The concept of God is of course more profound than just potency. And Judaism is not just a simple reaction against the Assyrian empire, otherwise we would see lots of Gods popping up wherever the Assyrian army matched through. But the crucial idea of divine omnipotence seems closely bound up with the idea of Assyrian royal power.2
As a bare minimum we can say that God wears royal Assyrian clothes.
What’s in the book
Frahm starts his story at the beginning with a whizz through early Mesopotamia, the first identifiable ‘Assyrian like’ things (temples, gods and language) from 2500 to 2000 BCE, and then goes onto...
- 🤑 early history of Ashur3, when it was a city state of merchants with a kind of republican government. 2000 to 1700 BCE.
- 🤴 period of strong royal power, with Assyrian monarchs trying to muscle in on the ‘brotherhood of kings’ in the ancient near East. 1400 to 1050 BCE
- 😰 experience of the Bronze Age Collapse that wiped out many neighbouring states, and the comparatively rapid Assyrian recovery. 1050 to 750 BCE.
- 😎 heyday of Assyrian empire where they dominated the Middle East from Egypt to Iran. 750 to 630 BCE.
- 💀 collapse of empire and total destruction of the Assyrian state in just a few decades. 630 to 610 BCE
Frahm then reflects on what it all means with a few chapters on the legacy of their empire and how it finds echoes in the Persian, Greek and Roman empires; the influence of the Assyrian empire on the Bible as noted above; some reflections on why some people still call themselves Assyrians today; and the current state of Assyrian archaeological sites after the deliberate destruction carried about by the short lived Islamic State in 2015.
So all in all he covers a lot of ground. Generally speaking he moves the history along nicely, while also providing a glimpse of more everyday matters such as life for the ordinary punter and what we know about the role of women (royal or not).
What I liked
One of the things I enjoyed reading about was the Assyrians before they became an empire and were instead a thriving city state of merchants who specialised in shipping (or more accurately donkeying) Mesopotamian textiles and tin up north to what is now Turkey, and Anatolian silver back home.
It wasn’t by any means a pacifist nirvana4. But it was very different from its warring monarchical neighbours and very different too from the autocratic empire relishing violence that it would become.
So why did it change from the one to the other?
Here Frahm breaks it to us that we just don’t know - we have very few records over the period when this change occurred. But I suppose another way of looking at this is why wouldn’t this change have occurred? After all, in hundreds of years governmental stasis might be even more surprising.
I came, I saw, I re-conquered
This is also indicative of Frahm’s approach: the focus is on what happened and he is careful not to speculate too much on why it happened. So when the Assyrian state experienced a period of crisis in the 8th Century and came close to collapse, he attributes the speedy recovery to the energetic response of a ‘great ruler’ who grabbed the bull by the horns and took the bits between his teeth. The collapse of the empire is also presented as the responsibility of a few successive weakling rulers who preferred staying at home trying out new sexual positions rather than rampaging around Mesopotamia flaying people alive.
My personal bias is that ‘great man’ or indeed ‘feeble man’ causation in history should be more of a last resort, and would have liked Frahm to speculate a bit more on what was driving it all.
I found Assyria pretty easy to read, the narrative is broken up into manageable chunks, and the writing chugs along in an engaging way although without ever being exciting.
Finally I feel it is remiss to review a book about the Assyrians and not comment on their reputation for shocking cruelty and violence! Frahm doesn’t sensationalise this aspect - in his view the Assyrians are not materially worse than say the Egyptian Pharaohs who apparently like to make little piles of vanquished penises and other body parts. But he does provide a few nice examples of what the Assyrian kings were capable of, my favourite being Sargon II (721 - 705 BCE) who took deadlines very seriously (and literally). In a letter to one of his governors he asks him to deliver some bales of straw and reeds by the first of the month, adding “should even one day pass by, you will die.”
In another letter he puts in an order for some horses, noting that:
Whoever is late will be impaled in his own house, and his sons and his daughters too shall be slaughtered.
Sargon II (721 - 705 BCE) 😬
At its core this is a solid political history of the rise and fall of the Assyrian empire. If you want to follow the Assyrian kings and their armies as they conquered and plundered - with a few moments of reflection between campaigns - then this is the book for you.
And while you may not find God in these pages, you may find his childhood home.
Which you can still see in stone carved comic strip style at the British museum. ↩︎
I have heard some similar arguments put forward for the Persian kings, who were seen much more positively in the Bible because they freed the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity. God is sometimes described using royal Persian imagery. But the difference here one could argue is that the Persian angle is coming in a few hundred years after the critical formative “Assyrian years”. Ie in the 8th Century BCE God was an impressionable child but by the time He met the Persians He was already set in His ways. I should probably add a caveat here to say that I am very far from being an expert in any of this stuff! ↩︎
Assyria is a Greek word, which they derived from the name of the city Ashur. ↩︎
One text from this period - a treaty between Ashur and another unidentified kingdom - states “You shall not allow the Babylonians to come up to you; if they travel overland to your country, you shall hand them over to us and we shall kill them”. ↩︎
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Assyria : The Rise and Fall of the World's First Empire
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