There are two main reasons why the Neo-Assyrian Empire became so powerful between 934 ? 610 B.C. First, through this era, the power of Assyria was largely dependant on the success of its army (Saggs, 1962). Winer (1961) states that the Assyrian military perfected the art of war. During this time period, some 180 punitive expeditions or campaigns were launched against foreign foes, rebellious vassals or other anti-Assyrian groups (Olmstead, 1923). Second, the Assyrians developed an efficient and effective administrative system with which to maintain, supply and expand their empire.
In Assyria, warfare was a way of life (Saggs, 1962) and its government was run as a military state (Winer, 1961). Early wars had been like raids; undertaken to obtain booty, settle disputes over land and water rights, or fought for military notoriety. During the second Assyrian Empire, war became a part of the state policy. The raid was replaced by a detailed and carefully planned scheme of conquest (Sayce, 1899).
The Assyrian Empire maintained a powerful standing army, not only to satisfy its imperialistic appetite, but also to safeguard the King against potential rebellious provincial governors. Sayce (1899) writes that nothing was spared to make the army as effective as possible. Army discipline was raised to the highest pitch of perfection, and its weapons and uniforms constantly underwent improvements (Sayce, 1899). Part of the army was composed of mercenaries, while another part was recruited by conscription (Sayce, 1899). Almost every male citizen had to bear arms. Only the essential services of bankers, carpenters, merchants and metal workers could, under special favour of the government expect to be occasionally made exempt from military service (Trueman, 1964).
The army was directly commanded by the King, or at times, his commander-in-chief, the Tartannu (Sayce, 1899). The main force of the army consisted of light and heavily armoured infantry. Both units were equipped with bows, pikes and swords. The army also contained a mobile contingent of cavalry that featured mounted archers and lancers. Slingers, archers on foot and chariots driven by three-man crews were further components of the main army. Also attached to the army were units of the King?s staff officers, intelligence personnel, interpreters and scribes. Engineers accompanied the army to build bridges, boats, rafts, roads, and to construct ramps for use during a siege. Breasted (1944) states Assyrian forces were the first large armies to be extensively equipped with iron weapons. Assyrians were especially skilled in besieging cities, using battering rams to break down enemy walls. Siege towers on wheels were further used to pummel enemy cities.
During its military campaigns, the Assyrians had an effective transport and supply system in place to provide for its army. The Assyrian commissariat carefully calculated everything from daily rations for its troops to the hay and straw needed to feed its horses. While captured enemy supplies were often used to feed the troops during military forays, the Assyrians also proved to be adept military planners to ensure that its army was well provisioned if such supplies were not available.
A powerful army allowed the Assyrians to control the trade routes that ran from Iran and beyond to the west. Trueman (1964) states that because of Assyria?s strategic position on the Fertile Crescent, only constant warfare or an empire prepared for war could maintain these east-west trade highways. Under the reign of Asasnirai II, a system of fortified posts was constructed to protect these trade routes. This practice was continued through the New-Assyrian era.
Much of the military and administration efficiency of the Assyrian army rested upon a strong communication and intelligence system. After a revolt was put down, a garrison of Assyrian troops was maintained in the area. These troops were not only expected to maintain the status quo, but also to report on the possibility of any further anti-Assyrian activity. Intelligence reports of any suspected activity were passed back to the capital for evaluation. If these reports indicated an impending attack of more significant numbers than these outposts could handle, then a larger more powerful Assyrian force would be sent to address the problem.
Once a revolt was put down, Assyrian justice would be quick, punitive and severe. Under Tiglath III, the Assyrian practice of deporting rebellious people to other parts of the Empire was begun. This continue to be an important Assyrian practice as a means of breaking up any patriotic feeling among conquered people that might pose a further threat to Assyrian security (Sayce, 1899). Leading craftsmen and their families were often carried off to the leading cities of Assyria where they were employed in beautifying the royal palaces. Other deported people were forced to work on government projects or conscripted into the army. Slave labour, therefore, became an important part of maintaining and enhancing the state?s infrastructure.
Another important tool of the Assyrian military was its use of psychological warfare. Much has been written about the ruthlessness of the Assyrian army. Villages were frequently burned, rebel leaders flayed alive and their skins nailed up as an example to others who might harbour similar thoughts of rebellion. Assyrian chroniclers delighted in describing the treatment handed out to the King?s enemies:
?I slew one of every two. I built a wall before
men of the rebels, and I covered the wall with
their skins. Some of them were enclosed alive
within the bricks of the wall; I caused a great
multitude of them to be flayed in my presence,
and I covered the walls with their skins.?
(Trueman, 1964, p. 51)
The employment of terrorism foe the purposes of propaganda had a profound effect on Assyria?s enemies. In his victories over the main armies of the Urartu and Zikirtu, Sargon II stated that the very fear of Assyria?s army caused his enemies? soldiers to fight like dead men (Saggs, 1965).
Sayce (1899) writes that the Assyrians taught the world not only how to build an empire, but also how to administer it. Attached to the King was his chief advisor called the Rab-saki and his department heads known as Rab-saris. The Assyrians organized their empire into provinces, ruled by a governor who was appointed by the King. By messengers, governors were expected to send frequent and detailed reports to the capital. In the interests of efficient administration, each province was subdivided into smaller areas under the control of lesser officials, but who had the right to lodge complaints or make representation directly to the King (Saggs, 1962). In the buffer states beyond the main Assyrian provinces, the King often appointed a vassal ruler from the local royal family. In exchange for an oath of allegiance, the payment of a tribute and the acceptance of Assyria directing their foreign policy, these vassals were guaranteed the protection of the Assyrian Empire (Saggs, 1962). To further ensure their allegiance, the sons of these foreign vassals were often held as hostages in the capital at the King?s Court. Olmstead (1923) states that for the first time in history, conquered states came to be organized into effective administrative units.
Appointed Assyrian officials closely watched the rule of provincial governors and vassals. This system of appointing officials to monitor Assyrian interests at the Court ensured the loyalty, honesty and diligence of these rulers. These ?watch dogs? were in close communication with the capital. Ruling governors or vassals acted only on definite and detailed orders from the Crown. The expectation of the Assyrian King in this matter is evident in Esarhaddon?s message to the vassal ruler of Tyre:
?You shall not open a letter I send you
without the Qipu-official. If the Qipu-official
is not at hand, you shall await him and
then open it.?
(Saggs, 1965, p. 118)
If they failed to act in the best interests of the Assyrian government, provincial governors or vassal rulers were always subject to immediate recall or punishment. Such a system ensured very tight control of the internal affairs of the Empire by the central government at the capital (Saggs, 1965).
The booty obtained from Assyria?s military campaigns was used to glorify its cities and minimize the expenses of its wars. However, an efficient tax system was also implemented by the Assyrians to finance its Empire. The collection of taxes was the responsibility of the rab alani, or town chief. A scribe serving as a tax inspector was also appointed by the King to assist and monitor the rab alani in these duties. A record was kept to assist in the collection of taxes. Besides direct taxation, there were also indirect taxes (Sayce, 1899). An octroi duty was charged on all cattle, sheep, horses and goods that that entered a town. Tolls were also charged on ships anchored in Assyrian quays and exacted from those who used the bridges that spanned the Euphrates River (Sayce, 1899). Detailed records were kept on the annual condition of crops, so the amount of grain due as tax could be calculated. Once this taxed grain was collected, it was either stored for use by the Assyrian army or forwarded to Assyria?s central cities. To increase grain production and ultimately tax revenues, irrigation was used by damming some of the streams. Breatsed (1944) states that the Assyrian government further regulated the social and business life of its people with a code of laws. These laws allowed the government to control everything from marriage to property rights.
It was further the responsibility of the rab alani to maintain the military and political stability of his/her area. As was the case with the governor?s other subordinate officials, the rab alani was in constant contact with not only the governor, but also the capital. To facilitate an effective line of communication with the King, a good road system was constructed to link the capital with its outlying areas, towns and provincial capitals. Breasted (1944) states this was the earliest known example of an effective road building system in Asia. Permanent posts were maintained along these roads that kept horses and mules in readiness to carry dispatches to and from the capital (Saggs, 1962). These messengers related to the King all of the important on goings in the land.
The Assyrian Empire?s military machine and infrastructure became a paradigm for other great empires that followed. Olmstead (1923) states that whether we admire imperialism or not ?it is simple fact that modern empires owe their government of dependencies to Assyria? (p. 650). Olmstead (1923) suggests that the Persians, Romans and the Greeks modeled much of their empires after the Assyrians. The Persians and Romans, for example, turned their occupied lands into provinces under the rule of governors. Like the Assyrians, the Persians and Romans built excellent roads to keep in touch with their empires. Both Persians and Assyrians used posting stages (Saggs, 1962), across their empires so messages could be rapidly passed between the King and his governors. Persian kings also appointed riyal inspectors to monitor the rule of its governors. Unlike the Assyrians, the Romans did not employ such a system of supervision and consequently many of these governors often turned to graft and greed.
With respect to their treatment of defeated foes, Olmstead (1923) states that the Assyrians were arguably no worse than any other conquerors. Olmstead writes, ?where the Assyrians impaled, the Romans crucified? (p. 646). While much has made of Assyrian cruelty, it has been estimated Caesar?s conquest destroyed one million lives (Olmstead, 1923).
In conclusion, the power of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was largely built on the back of its army. It was a military state that operated an effective and efficient administration system that allowed it to maintain and expand its empire. Its civil administration and military science became a future model for some of history?s greatest empires (Saggs, 1962).