Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cruelty: The Instrument of Assyrian Control

Ashurnasipal in the throne
The New Assyrian Empire was the most powerful kingdom that dominated the Middle East during the early 1st millennium BCE. For four hundred years they illustrated power and control like no other. Their border stretched from Mesopotamia to parts of Asia Minor, Egypt, and Iran. Under their rule were numerous various people with different languages and culture. A secret to their success was their distinguished guts for brutality and cruelty.

How cruel were the New Assyrian Kings? What were there reasons? And finally, what were the effects of such cruelty they exemplified?

Many Kings of Assyrian had displayed proudly their cruelty towards their enemies. Sometimes in reliefs or in their annals, New Assyrian gave detail of their gory exploits against their opponents. King Ashurnasirpal laid out many of his sadistic activities in one of his annals. He liked burning, skinning, and decapitating his enemies. When he defeated a rebelling city, he made sure they pay a huge price. Disobedient cities were destroyed and razed to the ground with fire, with their wealth and all material riches taken by the king. Their youth and women were either burned alive or made into slaves or placed into the harem. In the City of Nistun, Ashurnasirpal showed how he cut of the heads of 260 rebelling soldiers and piled it together. Their leader named Bubu suffered horrific punishment. He was flayed and his skin was placed in the walls of Arbail. In the city of Suri, rebelling nobles were also skinned and were displayed like trophies. Some skin were left to rot but some were placed in a stake. Officials of the city suffered decapitation of their limbs. The leader of the Suri rebellion, Ahiyababa, underwent flaying and his skin was then placed in the walls of Niniveh. After Ashurnasirpal defeated the city of Tila, he ordered to cut the hands and feet of the soldiers of the fallen city. Other than that, some soldiers found themselves without noses and ears. But also, many defeated soldiers had their eyes gouged out. The heads of the leaders of the Tila were hang in the trees around the city.

Ashurnasirpal was not alone in having a psychotic mind. Many of his successors followed his brutality towards enemies. Shalmaneser III had 20,500 enemy soldiers killed by arrow fire. Rebelling cities were “dug up” and burned with fire. Usually, surrounding towns of the unlucky city also suffered the same fate. Shalmaneser III also illustrated in his relief and carvings how he burned the children of defeated cities. Moreover, he ordered the beheading of the soldiers of disloyal cities and made a pyramid from the heads at the gates of the defeated cities. One time, after he defeated the rebelling city of Arzaskhu, he fastened people alive in the pyramids of heads alongside with pole, which had also alive captured soldiers dangling. 

During Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian began to practice a somewhat psychological brutality – deportation. It was difficult and painful for a conquered people to be taken from their homelands and be brought to a new environment. They had to underwent huge task of adapting to the new area they were placed. Deportation of the vanquished continued after Tiglath-Pileser III. King Sargon II mentioned the people that suffered deportation under his rule. The people of Commagene were defeated, hence it people suffered deportation to another part of the Empire. But Commagene was then occupied by another group of deportees from Bit-lakin. It was also during the time of Sargon II that the ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were lost due to deportation. Under King Sennacherib, the Kassites and the people of Yasubigallai were moved to Hardishpi and Bit-kubatti.

The intellectual King Ashurbanipal also had a share of cruelty. Although he was known for his great library in Nineveh, he was not as merciful as he seemed. One time, an Arabian leader name Uaite instigated a rebellion. Ashurbanipal managed to defeat Uaite and captured him and brought back to Niniveh. There, he brought upon a humiliating punishment. He was tied like a dog and placed in a kennel alongside with dogs and jackals guarding the gates of the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

The Assyrians had reason for displaying such horrific levels of cruelty to the vanquished. It all came down to political control. Once, the Mesopotamian region was made of numerous independent city-states. The mindset of being an independent entity remained in the minds of many people in the region for centuries. Even with an existing central power, the mindset cannot be removed. Hence, empires tended to establish client state system where the city-state must pledged their allegiance and paid tributes in exchange for their cooperation. However, this meant that rulers had chances to rebel against and becoming once more independent and free from their overlords. Thus, rebellions normally occurred during the time of many empires, including the New Assyrian Empire. The New Assyrian Kings tried to avoid it with psychological warfare. Displaying brutality towards rebelling cities was a message to others not to mess with the Assyrian. They wanted to expound: once you rebel and defeated, your riches, children, and your women will suffer humiliation and painful deaths; your city would disappear and you would suffer a terrible death. Deportation also had the equal political message: rebellion meant losing your homeland, your land, and probably your identity and way of life.

With cruelty meant to show that the Assyrian Kings had absolute power. It was away for them to consolidate their power by bringing fears of the horrors of the consequences of defeat in the hands of the Assyrian Army. It giving them a message to submit or to suffer in the most sadistic way possible. Although in modern times, it is seen barbaric, but the Assyrian needed to do so to keep control and their empire. The brutality of the Assyrian Kings led to their expansion and their existence for over a four hundred years.

See also:

Luckenbill, D. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia V. II. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1927.

"Annals of Assur-Nasir-Pal". Accessed January 30, 2015.

"Balck Obelisk of Shalmaneser II". Accessed January 30, 2015.

"Great Inscription of the Palace of Khoesabad". Accessed January 30, 2015.

"Sennacherib Prism". Accessed January 30, 2015.

"The Monolith Inscription (Kurkh Stele)". Acceessed January 30, 2015.


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  2. I am a high school history teacher in Australia. I was in the middle of teaching a class on Tuesday when I scrolled past these comments. They are highly inappropriate and I would like them to be removed ASAP before my next class.

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