Assyrian Empire: Contributions & Achievements

Instructor: Breana Murad

Breana has seven years experience teaching multiple Social Studies subjects including U.S. History, World History, and Civics. She holds a master's degree in teaching.

One generally finds the Assyrian Empire paired with gruesome descriptions of eyes being torn out and heads being chopped off. However, it is also credited with great architectural and political works that forever changed the landscape of the Middle East.

This is Assyria

Ancient Assyria, like Sparta in the movie 300, was a militaristic society that dominated the Middle East by the 9th century BCE.

A map from 1883 of the extent of the Assyrian Empire.
Assyrian Empire

At its height Assyria included all or parts of Iran, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Ancient Assyrian kings were most well-known for their brutality, but they also had other cultural accomplishments.

Tiglath-Pileser III (Ruled 745-727 BCE)

Tiglath-Pileser came to power following a revolution and quickly settled unrest in Syria, Anatolia, and the kingdoms of Judea.

While in Judea, the Babylonian king died and the Chaldeans took over. Tiglath-Pileser III's army chased the Chaldeans out of Babylon, and Tiglath-Pileser III became its king. Unfortunately for him, he died two years later.

While alive, Tiglath-Pileser III reorganized the empire. Newly conquered kingdoms were generally split and incorporated into the empire as provinces.

Governors appointed by the king ruled each province. Tiglath-Pileser III ensured every governor was a eunuch. In this way, no governor could have his own kids, start his own dynasty, and threaten the rule of the Assyrian king. Smart, right?

In Assyria, a road network connected the empire with the capital city at Calah. Tiglath-Pileser III is given the credit for building it, and for laying the foundation for the Sargonid Dynasty.

Assyria's Military Might

Tiglath-Pileser III and all Assyrian kings owed their success to their military. First, the armies of Assyria were permanent. Soldiers did not go home to plant and harvest crops every year - they were professional, year-round soldiers.

An Assyrian battering ram.
Battering Ram

Second, Assyrian armies were better equipped. Assyrians developed the ability to smelt iron and carbon together. The resulting metal was stronger and cheaper than bronze. The new weapons gave Assyrians an edge (pun intended).

Third, Assyria embraced new units like heavy cavalry and siege engines. Several societies had chariots in their armies, but none had dedicated horse units. This, combined with the use of battering rams and siege towers, allowed the Assyrians to maintain dominance.

Lastly, Assyrians preferred to rule by fear, and settled rebellions with harsh punishments, mass deportations of populations, and sometimes complete destruction. Punishments included gouging of eyeballs, decapitation, and the stacking of decapitated heads in piles outside city walls.

Assyrian brutality - note the decapitated heads.
Assyrian Heads

Weren't they just the sweetest? Assyrian kings used these advantages to maintain control of their large empire.

Sargon II (Ruled 722-705 BCE)

Sargon II established his reign at Calah and then conquered the Israelite capital, deporting all its residents. Babylon was reconquered in 708 BCE, and Sargon was crowned its king.

Sargon built a new city at Sargonsburg (modern-day Khorsabad) in 706. The rectangular city took 10 years to build and was known for beautiful stonework on its walls.

In 705, Sargon died in battle and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib.

Sennacherib (Ruled 705-681 BCE)

Upon taking the throne, Sennacherib immediately settled rebellions in Babylon, Syria, and Palestine. He then attempted to march on Egypt but was forced to turn back.

Sennacherib made his son king of Babylon, but that son was murdered. In revenge, Sennacherib marched on Babylon, razed it to the ground, and deported its inhabitants.

Although he destroyed Babylon, Sennacherib rebuilt Nineveh renaming it the capital of Assyria. Among the improvements he made were strengthening the walls, building new streets, and installing aqueducts to provide water to the city.

A depiction of the death of Sennacherib.
Death of Sennacherib

Sennacherib's own sons murdered him in 681 BCE. The throne was eventually won by the youngest, Esarhaddon.

Esarhaddon (Ruled 680-669 BCE)

Upon taking the throne, Esarhaddon rebuilt the ancient city of Babylon that had been destroyed by his father. He also made a treaty with the Medes (ancient Iranian people) to guarantee the peaceful succession of his son.

Esarhaddon's rule wasn't all peaceful though. He brutally put down a revolt in Phoenicia and invaded Egypt twice.

The Egyptians rebelled within two years and Esarhaddon died while traveling to subdue them. Upon his death, Esarhaddon had tried something new: the empire was divided between his two sons. Shamash-shum-ukin received Babylonia, and Ashurbanipal the rest of the empire. The goal was to avoid a dynastic struggle.

Ashurbanipal (Ruled 668-627 BCE)

When he came to power, Ashurbanipal had to deal with…surprise! Rebellions. One of the greatest threats came from his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin.

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