ANCIENT ASSYRIA

Foreign Policy

Thomas Sandberg
5/26/2014

Glennis Mowday
Weighting: 20%
Word Count: 2,492


To what extent did Assyria’s relations with foreign powers change during the period from Tiglath-pileser III
to the fall of the Assyrian Empire?
“Empires won by conquest have always fallen either by revolt within or by defeat by a rival.”
-John Boyd Orr

For almost the entire duration of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, from the time of Tiglath-pileser
III till its fall, conflict raged through the Mesopotamian basin. Beset on all sides by great foreign
powers – Egypt to the West, Elam and Chaldaea to the South, the Medes in the East and the
nomadic hordes of Scythians and Cimmerians in the North – Assyria missed no opportunity to flex its
immense military might. Its strict policies for the management of the Empire included deportation,
installation of governors and garrisons, supply of tribute and a low tolerance for disobedience. Each
king contributed something to expand of Assyria’s borders, and the relationship with other nations
gradually altered throughout the period.

Considered the founder of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-pileser III is renowned for
instigating reforms vital for Assyria’s subsequent conquests. At the beginning of his reign he brought
in massive administrative reforms;
1
these included the multiplying and shrinking of the districts
within Assyria proper to reduce the power of the great lords and barons, and the integration of
conquered states by turning them into provinces. These provinces were treated similarly to the
districts, and each was headed by a shaknu
2
loyal to the King.
3
States which were too far away to be
provinces became vassal states and left mostly to their own governance, but were made to pay an
annual tribute to the Assyrian capital
4
and were also under the supervision of a gêpu.
5
To keep all
the provinces and vassal states in check, Tiglath-pileser created a very efficient messaging system.
Message runners were constantly moving between the royal court and the shaknu and gêpnu.
Another measure of control which Tiglath-pileser III employed was the movement of large
numbers of people throughout the empire. Although deportation was not unprecedented in
Assyrian history, the scale at which Tiglath-pileser implemented it was greater than any previously
employed by an Assyrian King.
6
After a conquest, the people of the conquered state would be
uprooted and moved to a distant part of the empire to be resettled. An example of this method
during Tiglath-pileser’s reign includes 742-741 BCE, when 30,000 Syrians were sent from Hamath to
the Zagros Mountains. Dr Georges Roux believes that this mass movement of people “largely
contributed to the ‘Aramaization’ of Assyria…which, together with the internationalization of the
army, probably played a role in the collapse of the empire.”
7

This ‘internationalization’ of the army was part of Tiglath-pileser III’s military reforms.
Previously the army was made up of a levy raised by the barons for the annual campaigns. These
conscripts were mostly untrained peasants and farmers, not as effective as professional soldiers.
8

Tiglath-pileser supplemented these conscripts with mercenary troops raised from the outer

1
Carla Archer 1986, The Assyrian Empire: From Tiglath-pileser I to the Fall of Ninevah, 1115-612 BC, Shakespeare Head
Press
2
Shaknu is the Assyrian word for ‘appointed’, but is also loosely translated to ‘governor’. (G. Roux)
3
Dr Georges Roux 1992, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London
4
Op. cit. Archer
5
Gêpu is Assyrian for ‘overseer’. (G. Roux)
6
Op. cit. Archer, Helen Hindmarsh 2009, The Near East, Nelson Publishers, Sydney
7
Ibid.
8
Op. cit. Roux
provinces.
9
These foreign soldiers fought under a kisir sharruti
10
and for the most part were loyal to
the king, however this was only because the king was able to pay them – Mercenaries always fight
for the highest bidder.
11


Tiglath-pileser III’s first military action in 745 BCE was to relieve Babylonia from the
Aramaean threat in the south. He was also sure to remind Nabû-nâsir that “the King of Assyria was
still its protector”.
12
Moving west, the Assyrians attacked the Aramaean princes led by Mati’ilu at
Arpad who was under the command of Sardur III, King of Urartu. Sardur rushed to defend his allies,
but was sent running near Samsat on the Euphrates.
13
Tiglath-pileser records him in his annals
fleeing on the back of a mare and that he ‘escaped at night and was seen no more.’
14
Arpad became
a province in 741 BCE after a three year siege.
15
Meanwhile in Babylonia, power had been seized by
Chieftain Ukîn-zêr
16
after the death of Nabû-nâsir in 734 BCE. A letter from the Assyrian
representatives at Babylon from this time before the main army had arrived shows the policy
employed in an attempt to persuade the Babylonian people to overthrow the usurper:
“We took our stand before the Marduk-gate and argued with the Man of Babylon…. the
servant of Ukîn-zêr was standing beside him… We addressed the Babylonians in this way: ‘Why are
you acting in a hostile fashion towards us on their account? Their place is among Chaldaean
tribesmen… and Babylon is showing favours to a mere Chaldaean!’”
As is shown in this letter, the Assyrians attempted diplomacy before their attack, which
killed the usurper. Tiglath-pileser III then led the procession in the Babylonian New Year Festival and
proclaimed himself the new King of Babylon in the eyes of the city god Marduk under the throne-
name Pulû.
17
He did not rule Babylon for long however, as he died the very next year (727 BCE).
Tiglath-pileser III’s successor Shalmanaser V contributed very little to the Empire. No records
survive from his reign, except for a mention in the Bible saying that he besieged Samaria in 722
BCE.
18
His successor Sargon II came to the throne in 721 BCE, and easily eclipsed his predecessor’s
reign. The legacy left to him by Tiglath-pileser was one full of revolts, as both Egypt and Elam were
damaged by the king’s conquests and began to incite unrest in Assyria’s vassal states.
19

The beginning of the unrest arose in Babylon, where the chieftain of the Chaldaean Bit-Yakin
tribe, Marduk-apal-iddina, had usurped the crown of Babylon with the support of King Humbanigash
of Elam.
20
Sargon marched south in 720 BCE, meeting his enemies at Dêr, where he claims victory.
However, the Babylonian Chronicles state that the Elamites defeated him, while Marduk-apal-iddina
claims he had smashed his enemies single-handedly.
21
These conflicting statements are confusing,
but considering that Sargon abandoned Babylonia for the next ten years, it is safe for us to assume

9
Ibid.
10
Kisir sharruti is a ‘bond of kingship’. (G. Roux)
11
Op. cit. Archer
12
Op. cit. Roux
13
Ibid.
14
Ibid.
15
Ibid.
16
Although G. Roux states that Ukîn-zêr was Aramaean, Chris Forbes says (with reference to the primary sources) that
he was the leader of the Bit-Ammukani Chaldaean tribe.
17
Op. cit. Roux
18
Op. cit. Archer, Hindmarsh and Roux
19
Op. cit. Roux
20
Op. cit. Archer, Hindmarsh and Roux
21
Op. cit. Roux
that the battle of Dêr cost him dearly. Unable to contend with the Chaldaeans holding Babylon,
Sargon instead turned his campaigns to the west, where a number of revolts had sprung up,
supported by Egypt.
22
Here Sargon was able to assert his dominance, and swiftly defeated the rebels,
flaying some of their leaders alive as a symbol of Assyrian power.
23
However, the real threat
remained in the north with Urartu, who were encroaching on Assyrian territory in light of pressure
from the Medes and migratory tribes.
24
Sargon launched an immense counter-offensive in 714 BCE,
which was recorded in the annals of his eighth year. He sacked their most holy city Musasir, and
carried off their god Haldia.
25
Although not destroyed, Urartu had been severely weakened by this
campaign and left vulnerable to other nations.
26

Now that the north and west were stable, Sargon was able to turn back to the problem
posed by Marduk-apal-iddina on the Babylonian throne. Marching south in 710 BCE, Sargon fought
the Chaldaean for two years, until he finally fled and Sargon proclaimed himself ‘Vice-Regent of
Marduk’ in the Babylonian New Year Festival.
27
This decisive victory impressed many surrounding
nations, and Sargon received their gifts from as far as Cyprus in the Mediterranean. The empire was
now stronger than it had ever been, despite the efforts of its enemies.

Sargon began a new dynasty, known as the Sargonids, which ruled successively for almost a
century. The first of these was Sennacherib, who came to the throne in 704 BCE. The reign began
with a brief period of consolidation and building. After only a year, however, Sargon’s attention was
drawn southward because of a revolt in Babylonia which was instigated by Marduk-apal-iddina, who
took the throne once the Assyrian governor had been overthrown.
28
Sargon marched on Babylon,
and Marduk-apal-iddina fled before him. Sargon forbade looting in the sacred city and left with a
puppet king installed.
29

Sargon’s next target was the western coast, where many of the vassals had withheld tribute.
In 701 BCE, the Assyrian army plundered and pillaged all down the coast and attacked the town of
Lachish in Judah. There is a very important relief in Sargon’s palace which chronicles this battle,
known as the Lachish relief. It highlights many of the tactics used by the Assyrians in siege warfare,
along with the treatment of prisoners and the citizens of the town. The highpoint of this relief shows
the Assyrians attacking up siege ramps with battering rams, spears and bows and arrows, and the
outer wall of the city smashing to pieces. The victorious Assyrians lead captives from the city for
deportation, and some are hoisted onto spikes or strung out to be flayed alive. This relief is a very
good example of the kind of propaganda created by the Assyrians to strike fear in their enemies.
After the siege, the Judean king Hezekiah came to an agreement with Sargon which involved paying
large sums in tribute.
30

Back in Babylonia, Marduk-apal-iddina had been fomenting trouble once again with Elamite
support, and the Assyrian army, led by Sennacherib’s son Assur-nadim-shum, drove him from

22
Ibid.
23
Ibid.
24
Op. cit. Archer
25
Op. cit. Roux
26
Op. cit. Archer and Roux
27
Op. cit. Archer and Roux
28
Op. cit. Archer
29
Ibid.
30
Op. cit. Archer and Roux
Babylonia and out into the Persian Gulf, where he remained until his death.
31
Sennacherib sailed to
Elam and plundered the country land and sea, and in response the Elamites attacked Babylonia and
captured Assur-nadim-shum.
32
Conflict with Elam continued until a Babylonian revolt in 691 BCE. A
year later, Sennacherib besieged the Chaldaean king in Babylon. This time Sennacherib showed no
mercy, and flooded the city, looting and pillaging throughout. The images of the gods were stolen
from the temples and carried off to Assur. Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon became the administrator
of Babylon.
33
The sack of Babylon turned out to be disastrous for Sennacherib, as it tore a rift of
opinion in the Assyrian court about relations with the sacred city.
34
As a result, Sennacherib was
assassinated in 681 BCE by two of his own sons while praying in Ninevah.
35


After a brief bought of internal strife, Sennacherib’s youngest son Esarhaddon emerged in
680 BCE as the rightful king of Assyria as chosen by his father and the god Assur.
36
His first act was to
rebuild the holy city of Babylon after his father’s sinful destruction. Because of this benevolent act,
Esarhaddon found many allies in Babylonia, and the southern extant of the empire remained
peaceful throughout the reign.
37
The eastern border was similarly secure, as peaceful allegiance was
reached with the growing Mede Empire.
38
The northern borders of Urartu became hazy, as the
nomadic hordes of Cimmerians and Scythians began expansion from southern Russia. But the main
focus of Esarhaddon’s reign was Egypt.
During the early years of Esarhaddon’s reign, Egypt ceaselessly worked to incite rebellion in
the regions between them and Assyria, including Phoenicia, Judah and Arabia. As a counter to
Egypt’s growing aggression, Esarhaddon marched on the border in 675 BCE, capturing fortresses in
the Delta to use as bases in the subsequent invasion. After a brief period of difficulty, Esarhaddon
attacked Egypt again in 671 BCE, taking Memphis and forcing both Upper and Lower Egypt to
surrender.
39
He then proclaimed himself “King of Upper and Lower Egypt and Ethiopia”, a title he
barely had claim to.
40
Unfortunately the victory was left incomplete as Esarhaddon was called back
to Assyria, and Upper Egypt rebelled in 669 BCE. Esarhaddon died on his way back to Egypt later that
year. The Egyptian campaign was only partially successful and absorbed far too many men and too
much energy at a time when the Empire was beset by nomadic raiders in the north.
41
In fact, the
campaign may have considerably weakened the whole empire, possibly leading to its downfall.

After the death of Esarhaddon, Assurbanipal ruled Assyria and his brother Shamash-shum-
ukin ruled Babylonia simultaneously from 668 BCE. Most of Assurbanipal’s reign was also focussed
on the control of Egypt. A series of rebellions and revolts in Egypt caused the Assyrians to march
down in 663 BCE and sacked the city of Thebes in Upper Egypt. This shocked the ancient world, as

31
Op. cit. Archer
32
Ibid.
33
Ibid.
34
Op. cit. Archer
35
Ibid.
36
Ibid.
37
Op. cit. Roux
38
Op. cit. Archer
39
Ibid.
40
Ibid.
41
Ibid.
Thebes was previously untouchable, and the city never fully recovered.
42
Thebes marked the
furthest edge of the Assyrian empire, 2000 kilometres from the capitol at Ninevah.
43
However, when
Egypt revolted for the last time in 665-651 BCE, Assurbanipal was in no position to reclaim it,
44
as a
struggle had broken out with Elam which might have threatened Mesopotamia.
The usurper Teumman had taken the Elamite throne in 664 BCE, forcing the previously ruling
family to take political asylum in Ninevah. Teumman requested that they be extradited, but
Assurbanipal refused, sparking a conflict between the nations.
45
After an Elamite attack, the
Assyrians pushed them back into their own country, where Teumman was killed in battle on the
Kerkha River.
46
Elam was subdued, but no sooner had Assurbanipal returned home, than Babylon
rose up in revolt.
After seventeen years of peace, Shamash-shum-ukin rose up against his brother with the
support of many southern nations. Assurbanipal came down hard, and for three years he besieged
Babylon until “dead bodies choked the streets and the Babylonians were practicing cannibalism.”
47

In the end, Shamash-shum-ukin lost all hope, and lit his palace on fire with him and his family inside,
rather than face the wrath of his brother.
48

After the defeat of his brother, Assurbanipal went south-east to finish off the waning state
of Elam. The country was weak as the result of internal strife and pressure from the Persians to the
north
49
and it took two campaigns for Assurbanipal to completely desolate the country and leave it
barren. The gods were stolen, the capital Susa sacked, and the nation was effectively finished.

Assurbanipal was the last great Assyrian king. After he died in 626 BCE, his sons Assur-etil-
ilani and Sin-shar-ishkun inherited an empire with more holes than stitches. Yes, the Cimmerians
were held at bay, yes the empire was the largest it ever had been – but the cost ought to be
measured not in the weight of booty, but in the vast number of enemies that Assyria had made for
itself. Tiglath-pileser III had fathered a glorious empire, bursting with military might and dazzling
with the favour of the gods, but the borders eventually proved too large to maintain. But in its
prime, Assyria had stood triumphant over all the lands from the western ocean to the eastern
mountains, thanks to a strict military regime and a low tolerance for rebellion.


42
Ibid.
43
Op. cit. Archer and H.W.F. Saggs
44
Op. cit. Archer and Roux
45
Op. cit. Reade
46
Op. cit. Roux
47
Op. cit. Archer
48
Op. cit. Roux
49
Op. cit. Archer
Bibliography

Carla Archer 1986, The Assyrian Empire: From Tiglath-pileser I to the fall of Ninevah, 1115-
612 BC, Shakespeare Head Press

Dr Georges Roux 1992, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London

Helen Hindmarsh 2009, The Near East, Nelson Publishers, Sydney

H.W.F. Saggs, class handout

Reade, class handout