The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/Rise and Fall of Assyria

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The Great Events by Famous Historians
François Lenormant and E. Chevallier
Rise and Fall of Assyria
Destruction of Ninevah



B.C. 789


Mesopotamia for many centuries was the field of battle for the opposing hosts of Babylonia and Assyria, each striving for mastery over the other. At first each city had its own prince, but at length one of these petty kingdoms absorbed the rest, and Nineveh became the capital of a united Assyria. Babylonia had her own kings, but they were little more than hereditary satraps receiving investiture from Nineveh.
From about B.C. 1060 to 1020 Babylon seems to have recovered the upper hand. Her victories put an end to what is known as the First Assyrian Empire. After a few generations a new family ascended the throne and ultimately founded the Second Assyrian Empire.
The first princes whose figured monuments have come down to us belonged to those days. The oldest of all was Assurnizirpal; the bas-reliefs with which his palace was decorated are now in the British Museum and the Louvre; most of them in the former. His son Shalmaneser III, and later Shalmaneser IV, made many campaigns against the neighboring peoples, and Assyria became rapidly a great and powerful nation. The effeminate Sardanapalus was the last of the dynasty.
The capital of Assyria was Nineveh, one of the most famous of cities. It was remarkable for extent, wealth, and architectural grandeur. Diodorus Siculus says its walls were sixty miles around and one hundred feet high. Three chariots could be driven abreast around the summit of its walls, which were defended by fifteen hundred bastions, each of them two hundred feet in height. These dimensions may be exaggerated, but the Hebrew scriptures and recent excavations at the ancient site leave no doubt as to the splendor of the Assyrian palaces and the greatness of the city of Nineveh in population, wealth, and power. In historical times it was destroyed by the Medes, under King Cyaxares, and by the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, about B.C. 607.
We are indebted to the monuments, tablets, and "books" recently discovered for the history of Assyria and other ancient oriental nations. Layard unearthed the greater portion, on the site of ancient Nineveh, of the Assyrian "books" (for so are named the tablets of clay, sometimes enamelled, at others only sun-dried or burnt). The writing on these "books" is the cuneiform, and was done by impressing the "style" on the clay while in a waxlike condition. Many of the tablets were broken when Layard and Rawlinson gave them over to the British Museum. The reconstruction of these tablets was undertaken by George Smith, an English Assyriologist of the British Museum, who displayed great skill and earnest application in the deciphering of the cuneiform text.
In each reign the history of the king and his acts was written by a poet or historian detailed to that office. The "books" were collected and kept in great libraries, the largest of these being made by Sardanapalus.

The greater part of the expeditions of Shalmaneser IV, succeeding each other year after year, were directed, like those of his father, sometimes to the north, into Armenia and Pontus; sometimes to the east, into Media, never completely subdued; sometimes to the south, into Chaldæa, where revolts were of constant occurrence; and finally westward, toward Syria and the region of Amanus. In this direction he advanced farther than his predecessors, and came into contact with some personages mentioned in Bible history. The part of his annals relating to the campaigns that brought him into collision with the kings of Damascus and Israel possesses peculiar interest for us, much greater than that attaching to the narrative of any other wars.

The sixteenth campaign of Shalmaneser IV (B.C. 890) commenced a new series of wars; the King crossed the Zab, or Zabat; to make war on the mountain people of Upper Media, and afterward on the Scythian tribes around the Caspian Sea. He did not, however, abandon the western countries, where he soon found himself opposed by the new King whom the revolution arising from the influence of Elisha the prophet had placed on the throne of Damascus in the room of Benhidai.

"In my eighteenth campaign" (886), we read on the Nimrud obelisk, "I crossed the Euphrates for the sixteenth time. Hazael, king of Damascus, came toward me to give battle. I took from him eleven hundred and twenty-one chariots and four hundred and seventy horsemen, with his camp.

"In my nineteenth campaign (885) I crossed the Euphrates for the eighteenth time. I marched toward Mount Amanus, and there cut beams of cedar.

"In my twenty-first campaign (883) I crossed the Euphrates for the twenty-second time. I marched to the cities of Hazael of Damascus. I received tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and Byblus."

It evidently was at the end of this campaign that Jehu, king of Israel, whose territory Hazael had ravaged, appealed to Shalmaneser for help against his powerful enemy. The inscription on the obelisk says that the Assyrian King received tribute from Jehu, whom it names "son of Omri," for the great renown of the founder of Samaria had made the Assyrians consider all the kings of Israel as his descendants. One of the bas-reliefs of the same monument represents Jehu prostrating himself before Shalmaneser, as if acknowledging himself a vassal.

The annals of Shalmaneser say no more after this, either of the king of Damascus or of Israel. They record, as his twenty-seventh campaign, a great war in Armenia that brought about the submission of all the districts of that country that still resisted the Assyrian monarch. In the thirty-first campaign (873), the last mentioned on the obelisk, the King sent the general-in-chief of his armies, Tartan, again into Armenia, where he gave up to pillage fifty cities, among them Van; and during this time he himself went into Media, subjected part of the northern districts of that country, which were in a state of rebellion, chastised the people in the neighborhood of Mount Elwand, where in after-times Ecbatana was built, and finally made war on the Scythians of the Caspian Sea.

The official chronology of the Assyrians dates the termination of the reign of Shalmaneser IV in 870, the period of his death. But during the last two years his power was entirely lost, and he was reduced to the possession of two cities, Nineveh and Calah. His second son, Asshurdaninpal, in consequence of circumstances unknown to us, raised the standard of revolt against his father, assumed the royal title, and was supported by twenty-seven of the most important cities in the empire. One of the monuments has preserved a list of these cities, and among them we find Arrapkha, capital of the province of Arrapachitis, Amida (now Diarbekr), Arbela, Ellasar, and all the towns of the banks of the Tigris. War broke out between the father and his rebellious son; the army embraced the cause of the latter; he was recognized by all the provinces, and kept Shalmaneser until his death shut up and closely blockaded in his capital.

Shalmaneser died in B.C. 870; his son, Shamash-Bin, continued the legitimate line. He succeeded in repressing the revolt of his brother Asshurdaninpal and in depriving him of the authority he had usurped. The monument recording the exploits of his first years gives no details, however, of the civil war; it merely records, after enumerating the cities that had joined the revolt of Asshurdaninpal, "With the aid of the great gods, my masters, I subjected them to my sceptre."

The usurpation of the second son of Shalmaneser and a civil war of five years had introduced many disorders into the empire and shaken the fidelity of many provinces. The early years of Shamash-Bin were occupied in reducing the whole to order. In the narrative which has been preserved, extending only to his fourth year, we find that the King overran and chastised with terrible severity Osrhoene or Aramæan Mesopotamia, where the people had been in rebellion, and reduced to obedience the mountainous districts, where are the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates, and finally Armenia proper. In his fourth year he marched against Mardukbalatirib, king of Babylon, who had taken advantage of the disorders in Assyria to assert his independence, and who was supported by the Susianians or Elamites. He completely defeated him and compelled him to fly to the desert, killed very many of his army in the battle, took two hundred war chariots, and made seven thousand prisoners, of whom five thousand were put to death on the field of battle as an example. Unfortunately our information ceases at that period and we know absolutely nothing of the greater part of the reign of Shamash-Bin, or of the expeditions to the west of Asia, Syria, and Palestine, that must have been made after the termination of the campaigns by which the royal authority was reëstablished in all the ancient provinces of the empire. This King remained on the throne until 857. In 859 and 858 he had to repress a great revolt in Babylon and Chaldæa.

Binlikhish [or Binnirari] III, the next king, reigned twenty-nine years, from 857 to 828. An inscription of his, engraved in the first years of his reign, describing the extent of the empire, says that he governed on one side "From the land of Siluna, toward the rising sun, the countries of Elam, Albania (at the foot of Caucasus), Kharkhar, Araziash, Misu, Media, Giratbunda (a portion of Atropatene, frequently mentioned in the cuneiform inscriptions), the lands of Munna, Parsua (Parthia), Allabria (Hyrcania), Abdadana (Hecatompyla), Namri (the Caspian Scythians), even to all the tribes of the Andiu (a Turanian or Scythian people, whose country is far off), the whole of the mountainous country as far as the sea of the rising sun, the Caspian Sea; on the other side from the Euphrates, Syria, all Phoenicia, the land of Tyre, of Sidon, the land of Omri (Samaria), Edom, the Philistines, as far as the sea of the setting sun (the Mediterranean)"; on all these countries he says that "he imposed tribute."

"I marched," he says again, "against the land of Syria, and I took Marih, king of Syria, in Damascus, the city of his kingdom. The great dread of Asshur, my master, persuaded him; he embraced my knees and made submission."

Binlikhish III was a warlike prince; every year of his reign was marked by an expedition. We have a summary of these in a chronological tablet in the British Museum, containing a fragment—from the end of the reign of Shamash-Bin to that of Tiglath-pileser II—of a canon of eponymes mentioning the principal events year by year. They nearly all occurred in Southern Armenia and in the land of Van, where obedience was only maintained by incessant military demonstrations, and subsequently in the countries to the north of Media as far as the Caspian Sea. Other expeditions were also made as far as Parthia, toward Ariana and the various countries that, to the Assyrians, were the extreme East. We do not, however, know what that region was called by them, as it is always designated by a group of ideographic characters of unknown pronunciation. By the defeat of Marih, king of Damascus, the submission of the western provinces was secured for the remainder of this reign, for there is no record of any other campaign there.

The year 849 was marked by a great plague in Assyria; 834 by a religious festival, of which unfortunately no particulars are known; and, lastly, 833 by the solemn inauguration of a new temple to the god Nebo, in the capital.

But the most interesting monument of the reign of Binlikhish III is the statue of Nebo, one of the great gods of Babylon, discovered by Mr. Loftus and now in the British Museum; the inscription on the base of the statue mentions the wife of the King, and calls her "the queen Sammuramat"; this is the only historical Semiramis, the one mentioned by Herodotus. He places her correctly about a century and a half before Nitocris, the wife of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon. "Semiramis," says the father of history, "raised magnificent embankments to restrain the river (Euphrates), which till then used to overflow and flood the whole country round Babylon." But why did Herodotus, and the Babylonian tradition he has so faithfully reported, attribute these useful works to the queen and not to her husband, Binlikhish? It was once supposed, as a solution of this problem, that Sammuramat had governed alone for some time, as queen regnant, after the death of her husband. But this conjecture is absolutely contradicted by the table of eponymes in the British Museum, where it can be seen that Sammuramat never reigned alone. In our opinion the only possible explanation will be found in regarding Binlikhish and Sammuramat as the Ferdinand and Isabella of Mesopotamia. The restless desire of Babylonia and Chaldæa to form a state separate from Assyria grew more decided as time went on; in the time of Binlikhish it had already gained great strength, and the day was not far distant when the separation was definitely to take place, and to occasion the utter ruin of Nineveh. In this position of affairs it was natural for a king of Assyria to seek to strengthen his authority in Chaldæa by a marriage with a daughter of the royal line of that country, who were his vassals, and thus, in the opinion of the people of Babylon, acquire a legitimate right to the possession of the country by means of his wife, as well as the advantages to be derived from the attachment of the people to their own legitimate sovereign. We shall therefore consider Sammuramat as a Babylonian princess married by Binlikhish, and as reigning nominally at Babylon while her husband occupied the throne at Nineveh, and as being the only sovereign registered by the Babylonians in their national annals. In fact, her position must have been a peculiar one; she must have been considered the rightful queen in one part of the empire, to have been named as queen, and in the same rank as the king, in such an official document as the inscription on the statue of the god Nebo. She is the only princess mentioned in any of the Assyrian texts, as we might naturally suppose; for unless under such very exceptional circumstances as we imagine in the case of Sammuramat, there can have been no queens, but only favorite concubines, under the organization of harem life, such as it was under the Assyrian kings, and as it still is in our days.

The exaggerated development of the Assyrian empire was quite unnatural; the kings of Nineveh had never succeeded in welding into one nation the numerous tribes whom they subdued by force of arms, or in checking in them the spirit of independence; they had not even attempted to do so. The empire was absolutely without cohesion; the administrative system was so imperfect, the bond attaching the various provinces to each other, and to the centre of the monarchy, so weak that at the commencement of almost every reign a revolt broke out, sometimes at one point, sometimes at another.

It was therefore easy to foresee that, so soon as the reins of government were no longer in a really strong hand—so soon as the king of Assyria should cease to be an active and warlike king, always in the field, always at the head of his troops—the great edifice laboriously built up by his predecessors of the tenth and ninth centuries would collapse, and the immense fabric of empire would vanish like smoke with such rapidity as to astonish the world. And this is exactly what occurred after the death of Binlikhish III.

The tablet in the British Museum allows us to follow year by year the events and the progress of the dissolution of the empire. Under Shalmaneser V, who reigned from B.C. 828 to 818, some foreign expeditions were still made, as, for instance, to Damascus in B.C. 819; but the forces of the empire were especially engaged during many following years in attempting to hold countries already subdued, such as Armenia, then in a chronic state of revolt; the wars in one and the same province were constant, and occupied some six successive campaigns—the Armenian war was from B.C. 827 to 822—proving that no decisive results were obtained.

Under Asshur-edil-ilani II, who reigned from B.C. 818 to 800, we do not see any new conquests; insurrections constantly broke out, and were no longer confined to the extremities of the empire; they encroached on the heart of the country, and gradually approached nearer to Nineveh. The revolutionary spirit increased in the provinces, a great insurrection became imminent, and was ready to break out on the slightest excuse. At this period, B.C. 804, it is that the British Museum tablet registers, as a memorable fact in the column of events, "Peace in the land." Two great plagues are also mentioned under this reign, in 811 and 805, and on the 13th of June, B.C. 809—30 Sivan in the eponymos of Bur-el-salkhi—an almost total eclipse of the sun, visible at Nineveh.

The revolution was not long in coming. Asshurlikhish [Assurbanipal] ascended the throne in B.C. 800, and fixed his residence at Nineveh, instead of Ellasar, where his predecessor had lived after quitting Nineveh; he is the Sardanapalus of the Greeks, the ever-famous prototype of the voluptuous and effeminate prince. The tablet in the British Museum only mentions two expeditions in his reign, both of small importance, in 795 and 794; to all the other years the only notice is "in the country," proving that nothing was done and that all thought of war was abandoned.

Sardanapalus had entirely given himself up to the orgies of his harem, and never left his palace walls, entirely renouncing all manly and warlike habits of life. He had reigned thus for seven years, and discontent continued to increase; the desire for independence was spreading in the subject provinces; the bond of their obedience each year relaxed still more, and was nearer breaking, when Arbaces, who commanded the Median contingent of the army and was himself a Mede, chanced to see in the palace at Nineveh the King, in a female dress, spindle in hand, hiding in the retirement of the harem his slothful cowardice and voluptuous life.

He considered that it would be easy to deal with a prince so degraded, who would be unable to renew the valorous traditions of his ancestors. The time seemed to him to have come when the provinces, held only by force of arms, might finally throw off the weighty Assyrian yoke. Arbaces communicated his ideas and projects to the prince then intrusted with the government of Babylon, the Chaldæan Phul (Palia?), surnamed Balazu (the Terrible), a name the Greeks have made into Belesis; he entered into the plot with the willingness to be expected from a Babylonian, one of a nation so frequently rising in revolt.

Arbaces and Balazu consulted with other chiefs, who commanded contingents of foreign troops, and with the vassal kings of those countries that aspired to independence; and they all formed the resolution of overthrowing Sardanapalus. Arbaces engaged to raise the Medes and Persians, while Balazu set on foot the insurrection in Babylon and Chaldæa. At the end of a year the chiefs assembled their soldiers, to the number of forty thousand, in Assyria, under the pretext of relieving, according to custom, the troops who had served the former year.

When once there, the soldiers broke into open rebellion. The tablet in the British Museum tells us that the insurrection commenced at Calah in B.C. 792. Immediately after this the confusion became so great that from this year there was no nomination of an eponyme.

Sardanapalus, rudely interrupted in his debaucheries by a danger he had not been able to foresee, showed himself suddenly inspired with activity and courage; he put himself at the head of the native Assyrian troops who remained faithful to him, met the rebels, and gained three complete victories over them.

The confederates already began to despair of success, when Phul, calling in the aid of superstition to a cause that seemed lost, declared to them that if they would hold together for five days more, the gods, whose will he had ascertained by consulting the stars, would undoubtedly give them the victory.

In fact, some days afterward a large body of troops, whom the King had summoned to his assistance from the provinces near the Caspian Sea, went over, on their arrival, to the side of the insurgents and gained them a victory. Sardanapalus then shut himself up in Nineveh, and determined to defend himself to the last. The siege continued two years, for the walls of the city were too strong for the battering machines of the enemy, who were compelled to trust to reducing it by famine. Sardanapalus was under no apprehension, confiding in an oracle declaring that Nineveh should never be taken until the river became its enemy.

But, in the third year, rain fell in such abundance that the waters of the Tigris inundated part of the city and overturned one of its walls for a distance of twenty stades. Then the King, convinced that the oracle was accomplished and despairing of any means of escape, to avoid falling alive into the enemy's hands constructed in his palace an immense funeral pyre, placed on it his gold and silver and his royal robes, and then, shutting himself up with his wives and eunuchs in a chamber formed in the midst of the pile, disappeared in the flames.

Nineveh opened its gates to the besiegers, but this tardy submission did not save the proud city. It was pillaged and burned, and then razed to the ground so completely as to evidence the implacable hatred enkindled in the minds of subject nations by the fierce and cruel Assyrian government. The Medes and Babylonians did not leave one stone upon another in the ramparts, palaces, temples, or houses of the city that for two centuries had been dominant over all Western Asia.

So complete was the destruction that the excavations of modern explorers on the site of Nineveh have not yet found one single wall slab earlier than the capture of the city by Arbaces and Balazu. All we possess of the first Nineveh is one broken statue. History has no other example of so complete a destruction.

The Assyrian empire was, like the capital, overthrown, and the people who had taken part in the revolt formed independent states—the Medes under Arbaces, the Babylonians under Phul or Balazu, and the Susianians under Shutruk-Nakhunta. Assyria, reduced to the enslaved state in which she had so long held other countries, remained for some time a dependency of Babylon.

This great event occurred in the year B.C. 789.

[When the noble sculptures and vast palaces of Nimrud had been first uncovered, it was natural to suppose that they marked the real site of ancient Nineveh; a passage of Strabo, and another of Ptolemy, lent confirmation to this theory. Shortly afterward a rival claimant started up in the region farther to the north.

"After a while an attempt was made to reconcile the rival claims by a theory the grandeur of which gained it acceptance, despite its improbability. It was suggested that the various ruins, which had hitherto disputed the name, were in fact all included within the circuit of the ancient Nineveh, which was described as a rectangle, or oblong square, eighteen miles long and twelve broad. The remains at Khorsabad, Koyunjik, Nimrud, and Keremles marked the four corners of this vast quadrangle, which contained an area of two hundred and sixteen square miles—about ten times that of London!

"In confirmation of this view was urged, first, the description in Diodorus, derived probably from Ctesias, which corresponded (it was said) both with the proportions and with the actual distances; and, next, the statements contained in the Book of Jonah, which, it was argued, implied a city of some such dimensions. The parallel of Babylon, according to the description given by Herodotus, might fairly have been cited as a further argument; since it might have seemed reasonable to suppose that there was no great difference of size between the chief cities of the two kindred empires."—Rawlinson.]