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Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

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.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

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.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

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.

1280px-Map_of_Assyria

Bavaria today

Bavaria today

Napoleon broke up the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. One of the new kingdoms which he carved out of the decayed giant was the kingdom of Bavaria, based around a duchy which dated back to the middle of the first millennium.   The new kingdom of Bavaria was twice the size of the old duchy and it contained many of the prettiest parts of Germany (today Bavaria makes up 20% of Germany’s territory) thanks to the fact that he first king of Bavaria, Maximillian I, was a Francophile and an ardent French ally.

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

The kingdom of Bavaria survived the destruction of Napoleon’s empire.  Because of its large population and area (and since it contains the important city of Munich) Bavaria played a major part in the Prussian-lead unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century.  By playing Prussia off against its rival Austria, Bavaria incorporated into the German Empire on favorable term–indeed the army, train-system, and postal services of Bavaria remained distinct from the rest of Germany.  The unification of Bavaria with Germany took place in 1871.  Bavaria’s eccentric king, Ludwig II was the monarch who called for a German empire with the Prussian king Wilhelm I as emperor.  Coincidentally, the life of Ludwig  II was a fascinating Gothic melodrama of swans, and operas, and castles, and alienists (see more next week).

Bavaria, Germany

Bavaria, Germany

In November 1918, as World War I ended, Kaiser William II abdicated the throne of Germany.   King Ludwig III, soon followed him into exile, thus bringing the Wittelsbach dynasty to an end.  Overnight the Kingdom of Bavaria became the Free State of Bavaria (which it is still is today–although a bizarre attempt to found a communist republic nearly caused the state to leave Germany as the Bavarian Soviet Republic).

The Crown of Bavaria

The Crown of Bavaria

 

At any rate, here is a picture of the Crown of Bavaria, which can today be found at the Residenz palace in Munich.  The crown, which is purely ceremonial and was never worn,  was made by the most famous French goldsmith of the Napoleonic era (in accordance with Maximillian’s love of all things French) and is set with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, and a huge blue diamond–the Wittelsbach Diamond.  Or, at any rate it was originally set with this huge gem stone.  In the dark days of 1931, the Wittelsbach family pried the Wittelsbach diamond out and sold it in order to stay solvent.

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

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