This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.
Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline. This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’
In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government. But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order. Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice. But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends. This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.
All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves. They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests. But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.
Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves. After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves). Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without. They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years. Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,
The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . . The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.
An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts. As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .
Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,
After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom. During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.
Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle? Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization. Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant. But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say. Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers. But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose. The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart. Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer. Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew? If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest? While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low. Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.
In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise. I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:
‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced. I did well unto god and man, to dead and living. Why have sickness and misery descended upon me? I cannot away with strife and dissension. Misery of flesh and mind oppress me. Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night. O God wilt thou deal thus with me? Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’
Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,
‘This confession is . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’
One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part. It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty. They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.
Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.