In his new book “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Very first Empire” (Standard Books), Yale professor Eckart Frahm presents a complete history of the ancient civilization (circa 2025 BCE to 609 BCE) that would turn into a model for the world’s later empires.
Emerging from the city-state of Ashur, situated in contemporary-day Iraq, Assyria undertook a lot of generally-violent military campaigns to spread its rule into Babylonia and other regions but its kings also designed a transportation network that created attainable the cost-free flow of tips and goods and established the 1st universal library, says Frahm, a professor of Assyriology in the Division of Close to Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Yale’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences.
For the book, Frahm draws on finds from current archaeological excavations, cuneiform tablets, and Biblical and classical texts to describe what is identified about life in the empire — for royal and non-royal Assyrians alike — and the situations that contributed to its hasty demise.
In an interview with Yale News, Frahm discusses what inspired his personal interest in this ancient empire, what is identified about its men and women, and why it matters currently. The interview is edited and condensed.
How did you turn into interested in Assyria as a scholarly subject?
Eckart Frahm I 1st became interested in Mesopotamia when I was in higher college. I took some Hebrew, just for the reason that I wanted to discover a language that was unique, and I started to recognize that there was a entire globe beyond the biblical narrative. The history of Mesopotamian civilization encompasses three,500 years, of which Assyrian history is an essential portion.
It is attainable to paint a incredibly detailed, generally fascinating, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.
Later, I had a quantity of university teachers who have been specialists in the linguistic study of Assyrian and who had edited a assortment of Assyrian texts. I did my fair share of editorial function myself, but believed at some point I may possibly move beyond philology to rather bring with each other the a lot of unique sources about Assyrian history.
There are actually tens and tens of thousands of Assyrian cuneiform texts, from royal inscriptions in which kings describe their military activities or creating projects, to letters to royalty by officials or by spies that speak about the military and political challenges the empire knowledgeable. It is attainable to paint a incredibly detailed, generally fascinating, and sometimes entertaining image of Assyrian history.
What is the legacy of the Assyrian Empire?
Frahm: Assyria’s most essential legacy is likely the concept of empire as such. “Empires” have a poor name currently, and I have no interest in downplaying their dark sides. Fundamentally, “empire” suggests that there is some center that guidelines more than a huge and somewhat diverse periphery, which is to a important extent unfree. Empire, on the other hand, also presents some positive aspects, such as, for instance, higher ease of flow of tips and of merchandise.
Certainly, the Assyrians began off mostly as merchants. When they operated their city-state in the early second millennium BCE, extended ahead of the imperial period, it was territorially a incredibly smaller entity. But the geographic horizon of the Assyrian men and women of this time was currently broad: they have been engaged in extended-distance trade, importing tin from Central Asia and textiles from Babylonia, and trading each for silver in Anatolia.
Later on, throughout the so-known as Neo-Assyrian period [ca. 900 BCE to 600 BCE], the Assyrians designed a incredibly sophisticated communication network. The so-known as Royal Road is generally related with the Persian Empire, which began off in 539 BCE, but it existed currently in Assyrian instances.
I feel it is essential to strain that, as opposed to later empires, the Assyrians have been not attempting to impose their personal culture, their personal language, or their personal religion on any of their subjects. People today in the imperial periphery had to spend taxes to the crown and provide labor, but they have been permitted and anticipated to just continue worshiping their personal gods and speaking their personal languages. In this regard you could say the Assyrians have been not super-repressive.
What is identified about the every day lives of non-royal Assyrians?
Frahm: A excellent deal is identified, specifically about these living in cities, but also about the rural population, which engaged in agriculture, with barley as their major crop. Most of the men and women in the countryside have been likely semi-cost-free. These who grew crops could hold a share. A further share went to the state, and from time to time a share went to landowners, a lot of of them members of the military.
There have been also shepherds on the steppe, herding flocks of sheep and goats. A cuneiform letter reveals that, for some seven years, some of these shepherds failed to send a portion of their flocks to the Ashur Temple in Ashur. This draws a complaint from an official of the temple, who tells the king, “If you do not do something about that, then your authority is in peril.” The episode shows us that even although the Assyrian kings have been incredibly potent, they couldn’t totally be in charge of every thing.
We also know a lot about how husbands and wives interacted, from time to time apparently not harmoniously. Cuneiform texts speak about husbands and wives obtaining fantasies of killing their spouses and marrying an individual else and so on. But there are also stories of excellent affection, and of grief when a beloved kid would die.
Households have been primarily, like currently, monogamous, with a couple of youngsters living with their parents in a residence, from time to time grandparents as properly. The dead would be buried actually beneath their feet in vaults beneath the homes. Households would go down there to make sacrifices for the dead on holidays and other specific occasions. People today also had pets. Some texts include things like cat omens, which predict what occurs when a cat sits on a person’s breast or urinates on that individual. The latter was deemed a fantastic sign, indicating that the person in query would turn into wealthy.
Cuneiform letter written by a nearby spy to the Assyrian king Esarhaddon about an insurgency in the city of Ashur, ca. 671 BCE. Yale Babylonian Collection/Yale Peabody Museum. (Image: Klaus Wagensonner)
The fall of the Assyrian empire occurred swiftly. What brought on it?
Frahm: That is a million-dollar query, and the answer is nonetheless not totally clear. Two current theories have attempted to pinpoint forces higher than politics on the a single hand climate adjust, and on the other migration. I’m not totally positive, although, that these components have been completely decisive.
In my view, it was a excellent storm that brought the empire down. One particular challenge was that throughout the empire’s final decades, the Assyrian crown knowledgeable a crisis of legitimacy. It had been precipitated by Ashurbanipal, whose extended reign [669-631 BCE] marked a cultural higher point for Assyria — he designed the 1st universal library and is also popular for the sculpted reliefs that lined the walls of his palaces. But Ashurbanipal didn’t reside up to the image he attempted to project he wanted to be perceived as a excellent warrior, for instance, but in no way went to war. Alternatively, he stayed house in his palace, exactly where, according to his personal texts and later tradition, “he ate, drank, and created merry.”
This, I feel, currently sowed some doubt amongst his subjects about the fitness of their imperial rulers. Then Ashurbanipal dies, and a lot of internal and external strife follows. There’s a rebellion in the south by Babylonians, who truly handle to chase the Assyrians out of Babylonia. At the similar time, territories in the Levant, in the west, regain their independence. And in the east, the Medes, united in response to the stress previously place on them by the Assyrians, join the Babylonians in the fight against the empire.
In 615 BCE, the Medes and the Babylonians embark on a final attack on Assyria. It is the 1st time in hundreds of years that Assyrian cities are beneath siege. For a though the Assyrians have some allies, such as, unexpectedly, the Egyptians. The conflict escalates into what a single could describe as a 1st “world war,” with a cataclysmic series of battles at some point major to Assyria’s collapse.
What went incorrect?
Frahm: The Assyrian cities prove to be not incredibly quick to defend. For instance, Nineveh — the greatest of all the Assyrian cities and the capital at the time — was constructed with 18 gigantic gates. This was a strategic liability: the gates have been so huge that they supplied tiny protection against enemy attacks. Archaeologists truly located the bodies of Assyrian soldiers killed in these incredibly gates when the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BCE got by way of. Two years earlier, in 614 BCE, the Medes had currently conquered the city of Ashur, Assyria’s religious and spiritual center. And with the fall of these cities, and the city of Harran in 609 BCE, comes the fall of the empire and the royal dynasty.
Why is Assyria essential currently?
Frahm: One particular cause is that “empire” is nonetheless with us currently. The empires of currently no longer contact themselves empires. But imperial ideologies, of course, are nonetheless incredibly a great deal in location. So I feel Assyria can be mentioned to mark the incredibly starting of a chain that runs from the 1st millennium BCE to the contemporary age.
I feel Assyria can be mentioned to mark the incredibly starting of a chain that runs from the 1st millennium BCE to the contemporary age.
In the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire was followed by other people, from the Persian up to the Ottoman Empire. Even though empire is a shape-shifting phenomenon, all these geopolitical entities have been primarily primarily based on a blueprint that the Assyrians have been the 1st to generate.
Assyria also teaches us anything about how incorrect it is to “essentialize” the men and women of the Middle East. I feel it really is seriously intriguing to see how Assyria begins off not as a war-prone state but as a fairly peaceful a single, with a mixed constitution in location and even some democratic institutions. Later, it becomes a great deal much more belligerent and autocratic. When you appear at that story, you can see that the peoples of the Middle East can adjust, and that men and women in basic can adjust — that social and political adjust is attainable.
Lastly, as we are coming out of a number of years of plague with the COVID crisis, it is intriguing to contemplate what sort of effect epidemics had in ancient Assyria. In the book I argue that, surprisingly, the rise of the Assyrian empire, rather than its fall, is connected to plague. It was in the wake of two bouts of contagious illness — and the financial and demographic contraction brought on by them — that the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III [744–727 BCE] embarked on a series of conquests and annexations at the finish of which the Assyrian state was much more than twice as huge as it had been ahead of.
So the excellent mystery then, is how can it be that the phoenix of empire rises from the ashes of a number of grim years of plague? I would argue that history is not anything predetermined by deterministic guidelines. If challenges are not also enormous, then humans can truly adapt to them and discover methods to get out of a crisis. This is what Tiglath-pileser did when he compensated for the loss of life and wealth Assyria had suffered by implementing a new grand technique focused on annexing foreign lands, extracting their assets for the higher fantastic of the Assyrian center, and deporting hundreds of thousands of men and women to replenish the function force exactly where it was most urgently necessary.
Now, this is not a story for us to emulate. Rather, I feel of it as a warning that poor actors could properly take benefit of the all-natural disasters that have a tendency to befall humanity and have befallen us, of course, in current years with COVID. And we far better be conscious and be on the lookout for what other people could do in such situations. Assyria teaches us that there are all sorts of methods to react to historical challenges.
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