Assyria: Chronicling the rise and fall of the world’s first empire

In his new book, Eckart Frahm describes the rise of Assyria from a peaceful city-state to a combative imperial power.
Eckart Frahm with his book “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire”

Eckart Frahm

In his new book “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire” (Basic Books), Yale professor Eckart Frahm offers a comprehensive history of the ancient civilization (circa 2025 BCE to 609 BCE) that would become a model for the world’s later empires.

Emerging from the city-state of Ashur, located in modern-day Iraq, Assyria undertook numerous often-violent military campaigns to spread its rule into Babylonia and other regions; but its kings also created a transportation network that made possible the free flow of ideas and goods and established the first universal library, says Frahm, a professor of Assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in Yale’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

For the book, Frahm draws on finds from recent archaeological excavations, cuneiform tablets, and Biblical and classical texts to describe what is known about life in the empire — for royal and non-royal Assyrians alike — and the circumstances that contributed to its hasty demise.

In an interview with Yale News, Frahm discusses what inspired his own interest in this ancient Mesopotamian empire, what we know about its people, and why its epic rise and fall should still matter to modern readers. The interview is edited and condensed.

How did you become interested in Assyria as a scholarly topic?

Eckart Frahm: I first became interested in Mesopotamia when I was in high school. I took some Hebrew, simply because I wanted to learn a language that was different, and I began to realize that there was a whole world beyond the biblical narrative. The history of Mesopotamian civilization encompasses 3,500 years, of which Assyrian history is an important portion.

Later, I had a number of university teachers who were specialists in the linguistic study of Assyrian and who had edited a variety of Assyrian texts. I did my fair share of editorial work myself, but thought at some point I might move beyond philology to instead bring together the many different sources about Assyrian history.

There are literally tens and tens of thousands of Assyrian cuneiform texts, from royal inscriptions in which kings describe their military activities or building projects, to letters to royalty by officials or by spies that talk about the military and political challenges the empire experienced. It’s possible to paint a very detailed, often exciting, and occasionally entertaining picture of Assyrian history.

What is the legacy of the Assyrian Empire?

Frahm: Assyria’s most important legacy is probably the idea of empire as such. “Empires” have a bad name today, and I have no interest in downplaying their dark sides. Fundamentally, “empire” means that there is some center that rules over a large and somewhat diverse periphery, which is to a significant extent unfree. Empire, however, also offers some advantages, including, for example, greater ease of flow of ideas and of merchandise.

Indeed, the Assyrians started off primarily as merchants. When they operated their city-state in the early second millennium BCE, long before the imperial period, it was territorially a very small entity. But the geographic horizon of the Assyrian people of this time was already broad: they were engaged in long-distance trade, importing tin from Central Asia and textiles from Babylonia, and trading both for silver in Anatolia.

Later on, during the so-called Neo-Assyrian period [ca. 900 BCE to 600 BCE], the Assyrians created a very sophisticated communication network. The so-called Royal Road is often associated with the Persian Empire, which started off in 539 BCE, but it existed already in Assyrian times.

I think it is important to stress that, unlike later empires, the Assyrians were not trying to impose their own culture, their own language, or their own religion on any of their subjects. People in the imperial periphery had to pay taxes to the crown and supply labor, but they were allowed and expected to just continue worshiping their own gods and speaking their own languages. In this regard you could say the Assyrians were not super-repressive.

What is known about the everyday lives of non-royal Assyrians?

Frahm: A great deal is known, particularly about those living in cities, but also about the rural population, which engaged in agriculture, with barley as their main crop. Most of the people in the countryside were probably semi-free. Those who grew crops could keep a share. Another share went to the state, and sometimes a share went to landowners, many of them members of the military.

There were 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 don’t do anything about that, then your authority is in peril.” The episode shows us that even though the Assyrian kings were very powerful, they couldn’t fully be in charge of everything.

We also know a lot about how husbands and wives interacted, sometimes apparently not harmoniously. Cuneiform texts talk about husbands and wives having fantasies of killing their spouses and marrying someone else and so on. But there are also stories of great affection, and of grief when a beloved child would die.

Families were essentially, like today, monogamous, with a few children living with their parents in a house, sometimes grandparents as well. The dead would be buried literally under their feet in vaults under the houses. Families would go down there to make sacrifices for the dead on holidays and other special occasions. People also had pets. Some texts include cat omens, which predict what happens when a cat sits on a person’s breast or urinates on that person. The latter was considered a good sign, indicating that the individual in question would become wealthy.

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform letter written by a local 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 happened quickly. What caused it?

Frahm: That’s a million-dollar question, and the answer is still not entirely clear. Two recent theories have tried to pinpoint forces greater than politics; on the one hand climate change, and on the other migration. I’m not entirely sure, though, that these factors were absolutely decisive.

In my view, it was a perfect storm that brought the empire down. One issue was that during the empire’s last decades, the Assyrian crown experienced a crisis of legitimacy. It had been precipitated by Ashurbanipal, whose long reign [669-631 BCE] marked a cultural high point for Assyria — he created the first universal library and is also famous for the sculpted reliefs that lined the walls of his palaces. But Ashurbanipal didn’t live up to the image he tried to project; he wanted to be perceived as a great warrior, for instance, but never went to war. Instead, he stayed home in his palace, where, according to his own texts and later tradition, “he ate, drank, and made merry.”

This, I think, already sowed some doubt among 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 actually manage to chase the Assyrians out of Babylonia. At the same time, territories in the Levant, in the west, regain their independence. And in the east, the Medes, united in response to the pressure previously put 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 last attack on Assyria. It’s the first time in hundreds of years that Assyrian cities are under siege. For a while the Assyrians have some allies, including, unexpectedly, the Egyptians. The conflict escalates into what one could describe as a first “world war,” with a cataclysmic series of battles eventually leading to Assyria’s collapse.

What went wrong?

Frahm: The Assyrian cities prove to be not very easy to defend. For example, Nineveh — the greatest of all the Assyrian cities and the capital at the time — was built with 18 gigantic gates. This was a strategic liability: the gates were so large that they provided little protection against enemy attacks. Archaeologists actually found the bodies of Assyrian soldiers killed in these very gates when the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 BCE got through. Two years earlier, in 614 BCE, the Medes had already conquered the city of Ashur, Assyria’s religious and spiritual center. And with the fall of those cities, and the city of Harran in 609 BCE, comes the fall of the empire and the royal dynasty.

Why is Assyria important today?

Frahm: One reason is that “empire” is still with us today. The empires of today no longer call themselves empires. But imperial ideologies, of course, are still very much in place. So I think Assyria can be said to mark the very beginning of a chain that runs from the first millennium BCE to the modern age.

In the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire was followed by others, from the Persian up to the Ottoman Empire. Although empire is a shape-shifting phenomenon, all these geopolitical entities were essentially based on a blueprint that the Assyrians were the first to create.

Assyria also teaches us something about how wrong it is to “essentialize” the people of the Middle East. I think it’s really interesting to see how Assyria starts off not as a war-prone state but as a pretty peaceful one, with a mixed constitution in place and even some democratic institutions. Later, it becomes much more belligerent and autocratic. When you look at that story, you can see that the peoples of the Middle East can change, and that people in general can change — that social and political change is possible.

Finally, as we are coming out of several years of plague with the COVID crisis, it’s interesting to consider what kind of impact 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 disease — and the economic and demographic contraction caused by them — that the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III [744–727 BCE] embarked on a series of conquests and annexations at the end of which the Assyrian state was more than twice as large as it had been before.

So the great mystery then, is how can it be that the phoenix of empire rises from the ashes of several grim years of plague? I would argue that history is not something predetermined by deterministic rules. If challenges are not too massive, then humans can actually adapt to them and find ways 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 strategy focused on annexing foreign lands, extracting their assets for the greater good of the Assyrian center, and deporting hundreds of thousands of people to replenish the work force where it was most urgently needed.

Now, this isn’t a story for us to emulate. Rather, I think of it as a warning that bad actors may well take advantage of the natural disasters that tend to befall humanity and have befallen us, of course, in recent years with COVID. And we better be aware and be on the lookout for what others may do in such circumstances. Assyria teaches us that there are all sorts of ways to react to historical challenges.

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