Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction by Karen Radner

A history resource article by  © 2015

Years ago I somehow acquired the idea that the Assyrians were a fierce and brutal warrior society whose military had conquered much of the ancient Near East that lay between the kingdoms of Ur and the mighty Hittite Empire of Anatolia.  This idea was reinforced when I visited such museums as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the British Museum in London and viewed the awesome reliefs and monumental winged Lammasu, an Asssyrian protective deity usually depicted with the body of a lion or ox, the head of a human and the wings of a raptor, that once adorned the palaces of Assyrian kings like Ashurnasirpal II.

Recently, though, Oxford Press sent me a review copy of a small book by Karen Radner entitled Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction and I finally had a chance to explore this culture in greater depth.  What I discovered was the Assyrians had a very sophisticated culture, enjoying fine wines, a fresh water supply, indoor toilets and a well-functioning sewage system.  Sounds rather Roman doesn't it?  But the Assyrian culture was founded in the 3rd millenium BCE although it didn't reach its apex until the 1st millenium BCE.

The Lamassu a human-headed winged bull figure from the palace of
King Sargon II in his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) stands
16 ft tall and weighs 40 tons.  Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
I learned the Assyrians enacted consumer protection for the buyers of their goods and even offered extended warranties although we usually don't think of these extending to the sales of human beings (slave sales were subject to a 100-day guarantee against epilepsy and mental instability!)

They were rather protective of some of their inventions, though.  Assyrians invented the foldable parasol but its use was restricted to royalty on pain of death!

The Assyrians were not all that brutal in the conduct of warfare either, although they were highly skilled in the use of chariots and clearly embraced nuanced deployments of chariot, cavalry, archers, slingers and infantry.  The Assyrians were more interested in obtaining human resources from their conquered lands than in wholesale slaughter.  Skilled craftsman and educated scholars would be sorted out and relocated to the Assyrian heartland, initially centered on the religious capital of Assur.  Although slaves were sometimes taken, most conquered laborers were often relocated to areas needing colonization.

Babylonian city under seige by the Assyrians Nimrud Palace 728 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006

"It has been calculated on the basis of references in the royal inscriptions that  4,400,000 + or - 900,000 people were relocated from the mid-9th to the mid-7th century BC, of which 85% were settled in central Assyria - a gigantic number, especially in a world whose population was a small fraction of today's.  For all of these people resettlement was meant to provide a better future while at the same time benefitting the empire.  Of course, their relocation was at the same time an effective way of minimizing the risk of rebellion against the central authority." - Karen Radner, Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction

These conquered colonists were well provisioned and reliefs depict them without fetters.  An 8th century BCE letter from an official to King Tiglath-Pileser III, details the provisions allocated to a group of settlers from western Syria:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has written to me: 'Prepare them for their journey!' I shall give them their food supplies, clothes, a waterskin, a pair of shoes and oil.  I do not have my donkeys yet, but once they are available, I will dispatch my convoy."

Deportation of conquered Iraqi people after defeat by Tilgeth Pileser III of
Assyria Nimrud Palace 728 BCE.  Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006
Once the new colonists reached their destination, the king provided further support:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has said: 'They are to have wives!' We found numerous suitable women but their fathers refuse to give them in marriage, claiming: 'We will not consent unless they can pay the bride price.'  Let them be paid so that the Arameans can get married."

Obviously the king wanted the colony to be a successful community of thriving families.

Although the above passage makes women appear to be chattel this was not necessarily the case, either.  Assyrian women were allowed to engage in business and I read that if the male head-of-household ended up fathering a child with a slave, the husband could not choose to adopt the child without his wife's consent.  So women obviously had some rights.

From the text, it appears average Assyrians were primarily monogamous although traders gone from home for extended periods sometimes took a secondary wife in one of the cities along their trade route.  However, such secondary wives never took precedent over the first wife.

Knowledge was revered in Assyria, so much so that by the 9th century BCE Assyrian King Assurbanipal II is depicted in reliefs in the North Palace in Nineveh with a writing stylus tucked into his belt, instead of the more usual knife.  The Assyrian's great library was already in existence in the 13th century BCE, almost a thousand years before the Great Library of Alexandria.  Radner tells us that when King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in the 13th century BCE, he records that  he brought back library tablets to add to his holdings.  Scholars estimate that the library collection probably extended all the way back to the 14th century BCE under the reign of King Assur-Uballit I.

A statue of Assyrian king Assurbanipal II outside the entrance
to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006

So obviously I found Radner's little tome brimming with information punctuated by actual quotations from translated cuneiform tablets of the period.  She also included some black-and-white images, diagrams of excavated structures, maps, a timeline, a recommended reading list and index.  I must admit I struggled a bit with Assyrian names and the fact that Assyrian archaeological sites like Nimrud had a totally different name in antiquity (ancient Kalhu).  Organizationally, I would have found it easier to follow a more linear presentation of material about the administration and achievements of specific rulers, but, I still found the book to be a welcome addition to my resource library.

Although this is the first book of this series I have ever seen here in the states, Oxford produces a number of them on a variety of topics.  They kindly sent me another one on Roman Britain that I look forward to reading as well.

A Kindle preview:



To learn more about ancient Mesopotamia, I also suggest the Great Courses lecture series:

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Or the following books:

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