This week we looked at Assyrian civilization. Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies. What made them who they were?
We first looked at their geography. . .
1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in mountains towards the fringe of that region. We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics. Necessity might force them to rely on hunting. They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan). Assyrians had similar characteristics.
2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires. These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians. Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything. Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them. Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.
Then we looked at their army . . .
1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force. Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement. But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.
In class I compared their army to the new ‘Blur Offense’ in football popularized by the University of Oregon.
2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults. Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which
- Usually did not emphasize diplomacy. They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
- So – how do you hold onto your territory? The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement. If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did. My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
- With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on. We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage. Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset. It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.
Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army. Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent. But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.
The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.
Then we looked at their religion. . .
The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur. Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services. Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of movement in Assyrian civilization.