Updated: Jun 19, 2021
The Assyrian Political System
Assyria was a militaristic society, and the army provided its basic structure and hierarchy. All men could be called up for military service and all state offices were designated as military ones, even if they had non-military duties. The king was at the top of this structure and his primary role was to conduct war for the benefit of the god Assur and the state. Thus, there existed an ideology that the king in person should lead his army into battle annually. Beneath the king was a large, pyramid-shaped hierarchy of officers, who between them took care of all state responsibilities. Those with the highest ranks were also governors of provinces and were men usually of prominent Assyrian families, although, by the mid-eighth century they were replaced by eunuchs appointed by the king to curb local powers.
Campaigns were at first only fought during the summer, when agricultural tasks were limited and men were available. As Assyria became more powerful and could establish a standing army, it could fight at any time. We know very little about actual troop numbers or how they were levied and organized. The army rarely moved out in full force or engaged in large battles in the open field. Its tactic was often one of terrorizing the enemy into submission. Territories were approached with massive forces and, if they did not yield immediately, cities and villages that presented easy targets were attacked. When conquered, the inhabitants were severely punished as examples. They were tortured, raped, beheaded, and flayed, and their corpses, heads or skins were publicly displayed. Houses were razed, fields were covered with salt, and orchids were cut down. The psychological approach to Assyria’s behavior was called ‘calculated frightfulness’. Basically, the results of defeat would be so devastating that it was better to yield immediately.
As a direct result of their campaigns, the Assyrians acquired huge quantities of resources from all over the Near East. After the submission of a foreign state, the Assyrians set a level of tribute to be paid annually, which often included specialties of the region. For example, the Zagros people had to provide horses and the Phoenicians had to provide purple cloth and cedar logs. The Assyrians also required manpower for the territories and often deported large groups of people, at first for specialty reasons – due to the craftsmanship. But later during the Empire, they began moving groups of people for punitive reasons and used the threat of deportation in order to encourage submission.
Assyria always remained a fundamentally agricultural society, and the majority of its people lived on the land they worked. The families were small – a husband and wife with usually one or two children. They worked small plots of land, tended vegetable gardens, and had a few oxen, sheep, and goats. The social structure of the state probably had great inequalities, with a small and extremely wealthy upper class and numerous families living in subsistence levels.
Ninth Century Expansion
During the Late Bronze Age Collapse, Assyria was forced to surrender control over the northeast Syrian area that it had colonized in the Middle Assyrian Period. This all changed with the rise of King Adad-Nirari II in 912 B.C. He reconquered the lands which had been lost and secured the borders. He also conquered Babylon but, learning from past mistakes, refused to plunder the city and, instead, entered into a peace agreement with the king in which they married each other’s daughters. Their treaty would secure Babylon as a powerful ally for the next 80 years.
The kings who followed Adad-Nirari II continued the same policies and military expansion. Tikulti-Ninurta II expanded the empire to the north and gained further territory toward the south in Anatolia, while his son, Ashurnasirpal II, consolidated rule in the Levant and extended Assyrian rule through Canaan.
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