Episode 54. Eckart Frahm: A new history of Assyria, the world’s first empire: Transcript

0:13 JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

Assyria, perhaps the best known place in the ancient Middle East. Many people today have heard of it, although they might be hard pressed to tell you much about the place or its inhabitants. In the modern world, the Assyrians have acquired a fearsome reputation. “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold”, wrote Lord Byron. The Assyrians were remembered in later sources largely negatively. And in the 19th century, this reputation was cemented with the discovery of gruesome carvings adorning the walls of the royal palaces and tales of conquest in their historical texts. When I Googled what the Assyrians were famous for, suggestions included their fearsome army and their use of torture to inspire fear. But more mundane Assyrian sources tell a different story.

1:34  JT

Our guest is one of the foremost experts on the ancient Assyrians. He has just written a book detailing Assyrian history. I ask him how we should make sense of the different sources about Assyria, and whether the Assyrians really deserve their terrible reputation.

1:53  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

2:07  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

2:11  EF

Pleasure to be here.

2:13  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what you do?

2:17  EF

My name is Eckart Frahm. I’m a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale. My research centres on the political and intellectual history of Mesopotamia in the first millennium BCE, with a special focus on the Assyrian empire.

2:36  JT

Okay, so we’re going to be talking about the Assyrians. But before we start, could you give us some basic background: when and where are we talking about?

2:44  EF

The origins of the Assyrian state are found in the city of Ashur on the Tigris, some 60 miles south of the modern city of Mosul in northeastern Iraq, where we have archaeological evidence from roughly the second half of the third millennium BC onwards. But properly speaking, Assyria begins to enter the stage of history roughly around 2000 BCE, as a city state that then later on, during the first millennium BCE, morphs into a large empire, that stretches essentially from central Anatolia to the Persian Gulf in the South, and from western Iran to the Levant. And for some years, even to Egypt. It collapses very rapidly towards the end of the seventh century BCE. That leaves this legacy of empire, among other things, and a lot of stories were told about the Assyrians ever after.

3:39  JT

Okay, so many people have probably heard of the Assyrians, but they probably couldn’t tell you very much about them. So how is it that we’ve heard of the Assyrians?

3:49  EF

The Assyrians, interestingly, were never really what you could call a lost civilisation. I mentioned their collapse, the collapse of the Assyrian state, in the late seventh century BCE. But quite a few later sources talked about them. And among them were the Hebrew Bible on one hand, and the historians of classical Greece and Rome. And both these sources, of course, were well-known throughout classical antiquity, the Middle Ages in the West, and also to a certain extent in the East. And so memories of the Assyrians were actually carried on. The Hebrew Bible, of course, provided a slightly distorted picture, but it did know for example, the existence of imperial kings of Assyria, such as Tiglath-pileser III or Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon; all mentioned in the Bible. It focuses on the conflict between the kingdoms of Israel and then of Judah with the Assyrian empire. Some of this is very accurate. In the second Book of Kings you’ll find depictions of altercations between the Assyrians and the Israelites and Judeans, that, as we now know, actually not at all distorted. But then you also have theological re-interpretations that do impact the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, of these accounts of altercations with the Assyrians.

3:49  EF

The classical sources have a different focus. So they’re interested in the very beginnings of the empire and its fall, as these authors saw that. And altogether, what the Greeks and Romans have to tell us about Assyria is, I would say, less accurate. It’s characterised by a certain tendency to orientalise Assyria. But still, for example, the first great queen, who in the classical sources is said to have played an important role in creating the empire in the first place; she’s named Semiramis in the Roman and Greek sources, actually has a model, an actual Assyrian royal wife by the name of Sammu-ramat, who flourished around 800 BCE. And the allegedly last Assyrian king in those sources, Sardanaplus, is modeled upon the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, an actual king in the seventh century BC. Needless to say, of course, after the rediscovery of the Assyrian sites and cities in the mid-19th century in Iraq, and the decipherment of cuneiform, including Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions. Our knowledge has enormously increased, and we can now in many ways, say that the Bible and classical historians did get many things wrong.

6:42  JT

Okay, I’d like to pursue this in a little bit more depth. So in the 19th century, when the Victorian discoverers came across the Assyrian sites, a lot of the interest was because of what we knew from the biblical and classical sources. And there was a lot of interest in matching up what we knew from those sources and the Assyrian texts. But 170 years later, we’ve got tens of thousands of sources. What role do the biblical and classical sources play now in our understanding of the Assyrian history?

7:16  EF

The biblical and the classical sources provide information on the imperial age of Assyria. So they tell us about those kings I have mentioned from those centuries, essentially beginning around 745 BCE. And here, I think, they are still of some interest, especially because they provide perspectives from, well, the margins of the empire, not from the centre. So they tell how those who were actually oppressed by the Assyrians–that applies especially to the Judeans and Israelites, of course–how they saw ancient Assyria. And that’s an important perspective, if we want to avoid writing history exclusively from the perspective of the winners. So that is something I would say, where those non-Assyrian sources continue to be important, not only for their own sake, but also really as resources to better understand the impact of the Assyrian empire.

8:12  EF

Where they fail us entirely is the earlier history of history, which as I said, begins essentially in the second half of the third millennium BCE. There are more than 1000 years prior to the imperial period that are not documented at all by the Hebrew Bible, by the classical sources. And here, the discoveries made in cities such as Nineveh, Kalah, Ashur in northeastern Iraq, have really completely reshaped our picture of how ancient Assyria works. And of course, also in terms of details with regard to the imperial period, when we have detailed royal inscriptions by Assyrian kings that provide us an enormous amount of specific information of how campaigns were conducted, what kind of buildings they constructed. We have thousands of letters from the state archives of those kings that also show us how things can go wrong, how, well, spies and informers provide information from the margins of the empire about what’s going on there, what kind of problems the empire experienced. This kind of stuff, of course, is completely new and allows us now to paint a picture of ancient Assyria that is much, much more detailed and much more accurate, I would say, than anything you would find in Second Kings, or let’s say, in the work of Diodorus.

9:36  JT

So we have this very long live series of cultures, I guess. And we have so much information about them. We know all sorts of people and what they did, but if you boiled that down to the essentials, who or what do you think everybody should know about when it comes to the Assyrians? What are the key things we should actually know and remember about them?

9:57  EF

So sort of drawing on what I’ve just said, one thing that I found quite fascinating also when writing this overview of Assyrian history is in fact how much Assyria changes over time. It is now mostly known as an autocratic violent state subjugating others in western Asia in the first millennium BCE. But this is not how it started. On the contrary, it starts off, Assyria does, as a city-state; the city-state of Ashur. We can see that from documents from between 2000 and roughly 1800 BCE, which is first and foremost, actually quite peaceful. Whereas in the south in Babylonia, the various states they’re constantly embroiled in wars, the Assyrians stayed away from the fray. They acquire wealth by other means than war. They’re engaged in long-distance trade, they import tin from the east, textiles from the south, also produce textiles themselves, and then sent them with donkeys on caravans to Anatolia, where they sell them into new circuits of trade, especially at a trade colony named Kanesh, about 1000 kilometres away from Ashur. So they are essentially merchants. They are not yet at all soldiers.

11:19  EF

And politically, this old Assyrian city-state also looks very different from what comes later. It’s essentially based on a mixed constitution. There’s a hereditary dynasty of rulers who actually don’t have that much power, can’t even call themselves kings. There is a kind of aristocratic institution known as the limmu, in charge of taxation and things like that. These limmus or eponyms after whom years are named, are in office for one year. And then there is a popular assembly that deals with legal matters. It’s a mixed constitution as Mario Liverani has called it, that is a little bit reminiscent of what you find in Republican Rome, or even perhaps in the United States. So this is quite striking. And this then morphs towards the second half of the second millennium into a totalitarian state, and then very quickly, into a state that engages in warfare, and expands massively. But it is quite striking that at the very beginning, it’s so different and it gives the lie to certain ideas about the East being this region characterised by stagnation and despotism, with Hegel saying that the world spirit in order sort of to flow more freely had to move first to the West. So this isn’t really at all confirmed when you look at Assyrian history.

12:44  JT

When we think of Assyria’s rulers, we tend to picture very hyper-masculine men. I guess that’s the fault of the palace reliefs from the late Assyrian kings. Earlier you mentioned Semiramis, a very powerful woman. What role did royal women play in governing the empire?

13:03  EF

Yeah, so first, it’s important, I think, to admit that Assyria, of course, essentially, was a patriarchal society. An important chronological document–cuneiform document from Assyria–is the so-called Assyrian King List. It’s called the King List for a reason. Among the rulers of Assyria, there is not a single woman; none is mentioned in this King List. However, we know from a variety of sources that in various times and places women actually played important roles.

13:36  EF

Actually, let me go back to Old Assyrian times, and we can see that these merchants who traded on the behalf of their families stationed in Ashur, often away from their wives. And at those times when they were sometimes for a couple of years, and they were abroad, and Kanesh or other places. The women in Ashur had to kind of manage the household; also the local trade and all that. So they were actually very resourceful. We know that from letters they wrote to their husbands in which they often complain about their situation, but also clearly indicate that they were able to get it all done on their own.

14:08  EF

When then Assyria emerges as a territorial state, with very strong kings, we also see how women associated with royal court on several occasions really seem to call the shots and Semiramis is probably the most famous one. I should perhaps say Sammu-ramat; Semiramis is the Greek version. Of course, this Greek version isn’t an accurate depiction of what she did. In the Greek version she is really an all-powerful empress that rules the world from India to Ethiopia. That’s an exaggeration. But we know that her model, Sammu-ramat, who was the wife of Shalmaneser V and mother of Adad-nirari III, again roughly 800 BCE or so, probably essentially the regent for her son, Adad-nirari, who might have been a minor at the time; that she among other things, for example, conducted campaigns. She went literally with her son, but I mean, I have the feeling he didn’t play much a role in that. She went on a campaign to the west, about which we actually have an inscription. In that sense that she was in charge along with her son, but he’s mentioned like more as an afterthought. She was in charge of establishing new borders between two Assyrian vassal states.

15:20  EF

And we also see that she was important, because a stela dedicated to her was found in Ashur among hundreds of other stela, all dedicated to powerful men, including kings, but also eponyms and so on. So Sammu-ramat is an example of this. She has been called … I mean rather Semiramis, the later sort of legendary reflection has been called, a model of exceptionality, which is a nice way to indicate that this was indeed not the rule, but she is also not alone. We have another queen by the name of Naqia, the wife of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who ruled from 705 to 681, who likewise seems to have held enormous power. She was the mother of Sennacherib’s successor Esarhaddon, and was clearly instrumental in getting her son on the throne; it had to be done against great opposition from other brothers of Esarhaddon.

16:14  EF

And she then again, as we learn from a number of inscriptions, among other things built a palace for his son, claiming that she herself did that, and is often mentioned, is actually directly addressed. For example, in a letter from the south, about military action in Babylonia against the Elamites, where the writer is not addressing the king. Esarhaddon was often sick and might not have been able to deal with this matter at the time. But he addresses it to Naqia, whom he calls his lord, so using a masculine term. I would also say that Sardanapalus, Ashurbanipal, this last late Assyrian king, who was known from Greek tradition as Sardanapalus, is an interesting case of, well, you mentioned the term hyper-masculinity; he clearly wanted to present himself in that light. And we see him on his reliefs, which you have in the British Museum in London. You know very well, of course. We see him there fighting lions. We have inscriptions in which he claims that even when he was just crown prince, he already put into office important emissaries and administrators and so on.

17:24  EF

He then later in some of his inscriptions claims that he went to war and so on. But we know also again from some of his inscriptions that he was extremely reluctant to go to war, that he actually on one occasion, had a man have a prophecy that he shouldn’t go and the goddess Ishtar would do the war for him, and he should just stay at home in his palace and make merry there. And that’s very much sort of in line with this later legend about Sardanapalus, which claims that he was extremely effeminate; had relations with men and women alike, never left his palace. So he didn’t really live up, I would say, to the expectations of Assyrian kings, really fitting into this hyper-masculine mould. Even though he tried very hard to project it. I mean, even being some sort of a populist, some homme a lettre engaging in fights against lions in the arena near Nineveh before the public and, in the end, probably a discrepancy between his ambition and somewhat sadder reality probably contributed to a crisis of legitimacy for the Assyrian crown, that eventually led to the … or contributed to the downfall of the Assyrian empire.

18:33  JT

I wonder if we could pursue that then. So when authors study people, they often become quite sympathetic to them. The Assyrians have acquired a reputation for cruelty. In your book, you don’t shy away from talking about them in those terms. So my question is, how deserved is their reputation? Were they particularly cruel in real life?

18:56  EF

Again, I would say it’s important not to essentialise the Assyrians nor any other people. I mentioned already that when you look at the long duree, then the Assyrians are starting off actually as a remarkably peaceful people. They’re not engaged in warfare like everyone else, they try to just acquire stuff through trade. I would also like to start off by saying that, of course, it’s important to keep in mind that essentially all pre-modern–and I would say tp a significant extent, all modern states–engage in violence. And even when you think of the ancient Egyptians, for example, who are usually better remembered for fancy wall reliefs of dancing girls in some tomb. That of course, that too, was a violent society. That pharaohs in Egypt likewise conducted campaigns into foreign lands and were then regaled by their soldiers with the cut off hats and penises of the enemies. And you can see that on Egyptian reliefs.

19:55  EF

Neither were the Greeks or the Romans, of course, particularly peaceful. And Seneca for example, makes that point somewhere, that while the Romans constantly talk about this mission of civilising everyone else, what they really did was just kill people off and extract their wealth. So that’s one point I would like to make first when talking about violence, which, however, and that must be admitted, becomes an important tool for Assyrian rulers from the second half of the second millennium BC onwards. And what is quite pronounced is actually the Assyrian willingness to display this violence publicly. To show it in the form of images on reliefs, for example, lining the walls of the Assyrian palaces, and also describe it in royal inscriptions.

20:40  EF

And some of these descriptions are really very graphic. One from the reign of the ninth century king Ashurnasirpal II talking about him having conquered the city of Tela and and killing off everyone engaged in rebellion against him and burning the young boys and girls and things like that. We have one other text, not clearly dateable, in which the Assyrian king is portrayed first as a hunter and then as someone who rips open pregnant women. A depiction of the latter is also found, even though usually violence against women is more for taboo and is not so regularly mentioned. But we have a depiction of this on reliefs of Ashurbanipal depicting his campaign against the Arabs. Arabs were ruled by women. So in this case, the violence against them, it might have been motivated by this very fact. At any rate, I think it must be admitted that violence was important.

21:38  EF

That said, it’s also important to say that the Assyrians might have exaggerated almost, descriptions of violence, because one also needs to consider that they didn’t have an interest in killing off too many enemies. People actually were important resource in ancient states. They were simply needed as a workforce. The Assyrians had an interest in having subjects who would be paying taxes, and dead subjects don’t. So what the Assyrians usually do when conquering a foreign place, they would indeed punish and sometimes kill the ringleaders of the opposition against them. But then they either leave people there in peace, or they would deport them. And that was something of course, for which the Assyrians are also famously infamous and definitely did that as well. They deported lots of people bringing them to other places in the empire in order to destabilise the local identity and make it easier for the Assyrians to rule there. But also to have the workforce where it was really needed. So that was actually much more important to the Assyrians then killing off people.

22:40  EF

And it’s also perhaps important then to remember that there were also discourses about violence in Assyria that questioned violence. The most important literary text created in the first millennium BCE is the so-called Erra Epic. And it’s probably a Babylonian text, but it was read in Assyria, quite extensively. And this is a text that essentially sort of portrays the god Erra as the violent and unhinged berserker, who can’t control himself. He is a very negative figure and he’s finally brought under control by his vizier, Ishum, who, like a good psychoanalyst, as my student Eli Tadmor who writes a dissertation about this, has said, kind of manages to show to him that his destructive wreaking havoc everywhere is not getting him anywhere. So you have here also critical approaches towards violence. And those were, of course known to the Assyrians as well and engaged in them, they engaged in diplomacy, they were not always violent when it came to dealing with their opponents. Their success depended, of course, on all sorts of different political tools that they used, in addition to using violence.

23:44  JT

Okay, so when you read in historical texts about the Assyrians coming into conflict with whoever else it is, whichever of their neighbours, or, you know, say at the end of the Assyrian empire, when politically the Assyrians are wiped out, is there a bit of you that feels disappointment?

24:00  EF

It’s true, of course, when you work on a civilisation, I think you need also to develop a certain degree of sympathy for certain aspects of it. And I would say, I mean, Assyria is a case where we can see how some very attractive features go along with not so attractive ones, if you wish. So, for example, you can say that Assyrian art in the seventh century is really something very remarkable. The depictions of those lion hunts that I mentioned earlier, that you have in the British Museum, of course, are really, really beautiful. And nothing like that actually is being created then by the Babylonians. And when the Persians eventually follow up as an empire in the Middle East, they essentially imitate Assyrian art.

24:40  EF

So I would say there’s certainly things in Assyria that are very impressive and that are also appealing and there’s, of course, also an everyday life going on that we can follow to certain extent. And there you see, for example, the text about an Assyrian woman who had died in childbirth. It is also again, written with great sympathy and quite a quality; it’s quite impressive. So yes, when I wrote in my book about the downfall of Assyria, I certainly didn’t do it with glee. I mean, ideally, of course, as a historian you also try to stay somewhat distant from your topic. It’s better, I think, not to identify too much with the subject of your work. But it cannot be avoided altogether to identify to a certain extent. And, of course, we look at what we see in history with our own eyes and with our contemporary prejudices and socialisations. That goes without saying,

25:31  JT

Yeah. With this great history, what do you think the Assyrians would have considered their greatest achievements?

25:39  EF

The Assyrians–if there is something that actually you could say is a continuity in Assyrian history, it’s the sense of acquisitiveness; they want to get stuff. And they get it initially by trade. So profit is an important motive. And later on, they get it through war. When there’s this turn towards war, of course, when you conquer others, against their will, obviously, then you have to have an ideology that justifies this. And the Assyrians had that. Essentially, it’s an ideology that features order as a value of great significance. So the idea here is, yes, the Assyrians will take away agency from local states in the Levant, in Iran, in Babylonia, but they give something in return, and that is essentially order. And you can also say peace, because the idea here is if you just pay your taxes and sent me some workmen on occasion, then I will guarantee that if anyone else attacks you, I will defend you.

26:38  EF

Now, of course, is this morally defensible or not? Very hard to say. Probably not. But this is what some modern scholars have done called the Pax Assyriaca, so the Assyrian peace. Is that a good term? And of course, one can question that. And it probably really depends on where you look. For the Babylonians after 689, when Sennacherib had completely destroyed the city of Babylon, with the debris being washed down to the island of Bahrein, hundreds of kilometers further south as Sennacherib claims, this was hardly a peaceful experience for them at all; it was the peace of the graveyard.

27:16  EF

However, when you, let’s say, think about the reign of the Judean King Manasseh of Judah in the seventh century, who had remained an Assyrian vassal for some 40 years or so, then you could say probably the people in Judah there during this time of Manasseh had a fairly decent life. And, of course, what this imperial expansion also created was a large space to interact, to communicate, to exchange ideas and merchandise and so on. So this idea of order, I think … you’ve asked me what the Assyrians would have considered their greatest achievement, not what might have been their actual greatest achievement {LAUGHS} … I would say the idea of order is probably something that the Assyrians of the imperial period would have considered a really significant achievement on their part.

28:03  JT

Can we then turn to the other aspect then? Assyria seems to have disappeared quite suddenly; again, politically speaking. You mentioned the artistic legacy. What else is the legacy of Assyria? Or what was the legacy of Assyria?

28:18  EF

So I would argue that empire itself, the idea of empire, is an important legacy, maybe the most important legacy of ancient Assyria. In my book, I say that the Assyria is the world’s first empire. That’s, of course, a claim that can be debated. Others have said the first empire is the kingdom of Agade in the third millennium, or maybe the New Kingdom of Egypt in the second millennium. This is a question of definition. But there are a couple of criteria for empire that I think of Assyria fulfills more comprehensively than some of these earlier polities.

28:52  EF

It’s a really, really sizeable state in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. It’s characterised by a general drift of wealth from the periphery to the centre. Ruled autocratically. It’s also characterised, I think that’s important, by a great deal of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, well organised in provinces and so on. So this all essentially becomes a model, I would say, for later empires that emulate Assyria. Of course, also changing some features of the Assyrian imperial rule. But you can see how, for example, the Neo-Babylonian empire that follows the Assyrians after 609 when Assyria finally disappears from the world stage, that it does use the Assyrian imperial toolkit, so to speak.

29:36  EF

It has been shown, for example, that the imperial bureaucracy of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, it looks very much like the Assyrian one. And it’s interesting that Nabopolassar, who defeated the Assyrians, along with the Medes, actually comes from the family from Uruk in southern Babylonia that had worked for the Assyrians during the Assyrian imperial period. So he knew quite well how Assyria operated. So there are many features in where the Neo-Babylonian empire draws on practices the Assyrians had implemented. And that then applies mutatis mutandis also to later empires.

30:15  EF

The Persian empire is an interesting case. It succeeds the Babylonian empire and one would now expect, of course, that the Persian Empire draws on the Babylonians, maybe to a certain extent also on the Elamites, the Medes perhaps, and to some extent it does. I mean, of course, it does follow the models set by those states. But even though Assyria by this time no longer exists as a territorial state for more than 70, 80 years, it’s quite conspicuous that the Persians seem to be very infatuated with Assyria. And, I mean, yes, Assyrian art is a very prominent example here. The Persians do in their art, after they initially imitate Babylonian art–there is a new gate building in Persepolis is that is modelled on the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, but after that, they built their palaces and other monumental structures very much in line with Assyrian art with these massive bull colossi and stone reliefs lining the walls. All elements not found in Babylonia.

31:13  EF

And well the Cyrus Cylinder, the first document by an imperial Persian king mentions King Ashurbanipal quite prominently. So you see here, there is already by then this memory of Assyria. And that’s certainly something that you could say objectively exists. That the idea namely that Assyria is the first empire. This is what Greek historians like Herodotus or Diodorus claim; Christian authors like Orosius. And it then enters the discourse about what’s called the translatio imperii in the Middle Ages. That is, the transition of one empire to the next. And there Assyria is usually, as a rule mentioned first. For instance, in Dante’s book on monarchy, De Monarchia, he claims that the Assyrians were the first to sort of gain the prize, the prize of empire, that’s how he phrases it, even though the Romans are then the ones who really get it right. He says the Romans had the first empire that in every regard was really an empire, but he acknowledges the Assyrians as having essentially created the prototype. So this legacy, if it doesn’t exist in reality, and I would say it does, then it certainly exists in terms of memory. Assyria is then remembered as the first empire in the history of the world.

32:23  JT

Okay. There are many different ways in which you can write a history of Assyria. What approach did you take for this book? And why did you choose it?

32:33  EF

I would say my history is a decidedly political history, which, in a way you could argue is almost unfashionable these days. You had a few months ago on your podcast as a guest Amanda Podany, who just wrote a wonderful book on Mesopotamian history that’s called Weavers, Scribes and Kings. And clearly, I mean, as the title indicates, the focus is rather on the weavers than the kings. So it’s history told through the lenses of everyday people much more than rulers and so on and so forth. And that’s wonderful. Also something that can be done very nicely with the sources available from ancient Mesopotamia. And I respect this a lot.

33:10  EF

But I also think it’s important that we continue also to take political history seriously. I think in our own time, we realise that downplaying the significance of the so-called “Great Men”, and if you wish, “Great Women” can actually be problematic. That we lose from sight something that is an important force in history. Some of my book focuses on one hand on individual rulers, on the administrative and military apparatuses that they use. It also, of course, tries to include the greater forces of history, whether that’s geography, climate change, the outbreak of epidemics, and so on. And then seeks to investigate how these different factors all interact with one another, and then lead to specific outcomes. So it is, if you wish, a slightly old fashioned approach. I mean, I also have a chapter on everyday life in the empire. For example, the way I talk about the lives of average people, of women, of slaves. It’s, of course, very important to realise that most people in Assyria were not the ones at the royal court, but rather, people living in cities. Sometimes, actually quite often, slaves and so on. Half of the population was female. Their perspectives, of course, matter. There is no question about that. I hope, to some extent, at least, to have also taken that into consideration.

34:38  EF

But at the same time, again, I think it is important also to look for what really drives these major changes that occur in history. And the book is an attempt to at least start exploring these great transformations that we see when we look at the Assyrian history. At the same time here and there I also trying to provide little vignettes, you could sort of say are inspired by the approach of microhistory. So I have a chapter on the year 671, where I focus very, very much on just one year, a few months. And what happens during that year, emphasizing the discrepancy between a great success the Assyrians experience when they actually conquer Egypt during this year, with the events at home, where you have a number of insurgencies against the Assyrian king. Some of which involve again, I mean, a lot of different people. So this is not just the elite, but you have slave women, who are suddenly starting to prophesy and things like that. So these things are also found in the book. And I hope make also for exciting and entertaining reading, if you wish. But the overall emphasis is on these larger questions of developments, of major developments, transformations, political events, and so on and so forth.

35:55  JT

Yeah. Originality in a history book like this, in part comes from how you put things together. But there’s also new ideas. Could you give us an example of new ideas that you offer in this book, please?

36:09  EF

Thank you, it’s nice to give me this opportunity, so I think … I mean, many, many people have written about the fall of the Assyrian empire. And I do too, of course. But I can’t claim that I have now found a real solution for what happened then. But I do think I have actually a new idea for this question that’s far less often asked, but I think is also very important. And that is, how did the Assyrian empire actually emerge? And I mean empire here in the strict sense of this large state, that suddenly comes into being in the mid-eighth century, during the reign of King Tiglath-pileser III.

36:44  EF

He comes to the throne. By the end of his reign, Assyria is twice as large as it had been at its beginning. It now rules everything from western Iran to the eastern Mediterranean. This, in my view, is the moment when Assyria really becomes an empire. And what makes this really quite strange and striking is that it happens after a period of at least 20 years when Assyria actually experienced a massive crisis. There are very few royal inscriptions and documents in general are rare. But we have a nice chronographic document, the so-called Assyrian Eponym Chronicle. And from this, we get a very good idea what’s going on during these years, between the 760s and the 750s essentially. And what we can see is that Assyria suffers a number of outbreaks of plague. I don’t know what plague exactly it is. But it is important enough to be mentioned in the Eponym Chronicle as the only event. It apparently affects the whole country.

37:43  EF

We also see that there were several rebellions. Probably, we can assume, related to these bouts of plague, these epidemics. We can assume … we have just experienced it ourself, of course, living in these COVID years … that plagues lead to loss of life and loss of wealth. And that then causes all sorts of additional problems. There’s also evidence for the Assyrian army not going on campaign for many of these years during the 760s and 750s. So one would rather have expected in the wake of all that, essentially a major breakdown. And yet, what we actually have then in 745, in the wake of those crisis years, is that suddenly out of the ashes of these anni horribiles the phoenix of Assyrian empire rises. So that’s very strange and needs to be explained.

38:32  EF

And here, I mean, in my view, is a case where we can see that there’s actually agency in history. That history is not ruled by deterministic rules. That Tiglath-pileser III is a king who actually develops a grand strategy, if you wish, to cope with these problems. And that is a strategy that involves war and annexation. So he annexes foreign lands, which means the plague can also not have completely devastated the Assyrian population. Otherwise, he couldn’t have done it. But anyway, he manages to go out and conquer. Then to extract wealth from those places, to deport hundreds of thousands of people to replenish the workforce at home. And this is how he builds the empire. So the empire is built in reaction to the crisis.

38:32  EF

This isn’t exactly a lesson for our own age. Actually, more like … like a warning. I mean, what we can see here is how strong men and, if you wish, bad actors, if you don’t want to identify with the Assyrians here, profited from natural disasters hitting humanity. And that’s, of course, something that happens all the time. It might be wise to look at this quite closely. And it’s one of those cases where I think we actually can learn something from Assyrian history.

39:46  JT

Ah, yeah, yeah. There’s food for thought in there, for sure. The natural progression from that: imagine, you know, a student comes into your office, and “I really want to do something about the Assyrians”. What are the big questions that remain unsolved? What could you give them to fire their imagination?

40:03  EF

I think there are still many big questions unsolved. I mean, where did the Assyrians actually come from? We know so little about Ashur in the third millennium: hardly any texts, there’s some archaeology. It would really be interesting to know more about what later on would become Assyria isn’t really properly speaking Assyria in the third millennium. We have lots of cuneiform texts from southern Iraq from this time, but not really from the north. So what’s actually going on there is still unknown. I think for the time being unless more information is retrieved it’s very hard to answer this, however. Another really interesting question where we suffer again from a lack of sources is how this transformation of Assyria from a city state into a territorial state, a kingdom. How this occurred. So by 1700 BCE, we see that Assyria is still a city state, so it has this mixed constitution. There was a short episode under King Shamshi-Adad I when Assyria was part of a large kingdom. But otherwise, it remained this very special entity with this assembly and the eponyms and all this stuff.

41:11  EF

And then there’s sort of a dark age for 300 years. We have very few sources. When the dust settles again in the 14th century, we see then Assyria suddenly transformed into a territorial kingdom that engages in aggressive expansion, especially under King Ashur-uballit I. So what brings about this transformation, which is really a very, very substantial one? And we have other changes as well: the style of writing and all these things change. So what’s really going on here? It’s something that happens certainly under the influence of the Hurrians in Syria, and somehow Babylonians in the south. Eventually the Assyrians seek to model themselves culturally very much along the lines of Babylonia, probably in order to get rid of Hurrian culture, which they at this point, consider an imposition. But how this all happens in detail is very much unclear.

42:04  EF

I mentioned the fall of the Assyria as what Paul Garelli called a historical scandal. You have this huge empire rules almost all of western Asia and then just within some 12 years or so it disappears almost entirely from the scene. There are elements of Assyrian culture that remain in place out on the ground in Ashur. Certain imperial gods are still worshiped 800 years later. But as a state Assyria really disappears completely. Cuneiform writing in Assyria comes to an end. The major Assyrian cities such as Kalah, and especially Nineveh, are destroyed. So it’s a big event. It follows what you could say was the first world war involving the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Medes, and many others. So what brings about this collapse? What is it really? I think, here too final answers have still to be … to be looked for. And we have more sources. So this is an interesting question to follow. Recently, the idea has been fielded that climate change is the culprit. Here, I actually do not fully agree. It’s complicated. So that’s an important question as well.

43:12  EF

I mean, I’m personally interested also in some small issues related to my own work on individual problems. I still would like to know who really killed Sennacherib. My personal preference is that it was his son Arda-mullissi. But others have claimed and recently reiterated this, that it was rather the successor who eventually came to the throne, namely Esarhaddon. So that’s another kind of intriguing problem where we have actually a lot of sources. They seem to be contradictory, and include Babylonian and biblical sources. And it’s one of those questions where I would be excited to know the answer.

43:46  JT

Hmm. Well I think you’ve whet our appetite very nicely there. What is your book called? And when and how can we find it?

43:54  EF

So the book is called Assyria, the Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire. It was just published in the States by Basic Books. It will be published by Bloomsbury in London, I think in June or July. But it is available now. It’s just come out and I appreciate that I had a chance to field some of the ideas I have produced in the book in this podcast. That was a wonderful opportunity.

44:21  JT

Well, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

44:24  EF

Well, thank you for having me.

44:25  JT

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45:33  JT

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46:12  JT

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