The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu). The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC. The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC. After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron. With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors. Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.
Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer. He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities. He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably). Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool. He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.
Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible. Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified. Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair. Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs. Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:
I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.
It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself. They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle. The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.