‘The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC’

The perfect introduction to the world of the Assyrian Empire.
‘The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC’
A detail of an alabaster-bas-relief of Ashurbanipal's lion-hunt scene. 7th century BC. From the North Palace at Nineveh, in modern-day Nineveh Governorate, Iraq. The British Museum, London. (Osma Shukir Muhammed Amin/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Dustin Bass

For those interested in learning about the ancient Assyrians in a broad scope, Mark Healy’s new work “The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC” is a superb starting place, and for those wishing to simply have a good grasp of the ancient empire, it’s also not a bad place to end.

Mr. Healy states early in the book that he first wrote about the ancient Near East empire three decades ago, but his new work greatly expands on his knowledge and research from the end of the 20th century.

Portion of relief, the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, seventh century B.C. (Carole Raddato/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Portion of relief, the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, seventh century B.C. (Carole Raddato/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Kings

As indicated in the title, the author begins with empire and how that was achieved. Of course, there is no better place to start than from the top, where Mr. Healy dissects the reigns of the kings. Mr. Healy makes it easy to grasp the primary focal point of kingship: expansion. This expansion is conducted through the obvious means of war and conquest, the destruction of cities and the development of vassal states, and the forced tribute and looting of defeated kingdoms.

The lives and military details of these Assyrian kings are relatively scarce, and for understandable reasons. Archaeology proves the primary source. Healy discusses the cuneiforms discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries; he discusses the stone reliefs and how they explain the kings, their methods of warfare, and what was used in certain battles and in war in general, from chariots to shields to bows; and there is also the discovery of bronze and iron weaponry, which informs the shape and size of speartips and arrowheads.

Another source, which may or may not be surprising, is Old Testament texts from the Bible. Mr. Healy demonstrates how accurate the scriptures have proven to be, but also how some of the scriptures have been either misinterpreted or how the author of the scriptures misrepresented the actualities of battle.

For readers wishing to dive deeper into the history and archaeological discoveries of ancient Assyria, Mr. Healy highlights various historians for certain subjects, and, of course, there is always his bibliography to peruse.

Kings and Deities

The ancient peoples of the Near East, like the Assyrians, Egyptians, or Persians, are tied to their gods. Piety was a necessity, especially dealing with war aims. One could not afford to offend the gods, and the Assyrian kings always credited them for victories, whether for purposes of posterity or propaganda. Mr. Healy explains how the kings were viewed more as chosen by the deities than being deities themselves.
In almost anecdotal tones, this idea of being chosen by the gods is demonstrated during a war (710–707 B.C.) for Babylon between the Chaldean tribal leader Merodach-baladan and the Assyrian king, Sargon. The most important priests believed Marduk, the city’s patron deity, had favored Sargon, and therefore they extended the invitation for him to enter the city. Of course, despite the god’s supposed blessing, Sargon still relied on gathered intelligence to assure him that Merodach-baladan had left the city and that the people of Babylon would accept him.

Babylon and the Assyrian Fall

Mr. Healy discusses how Babylon remained a thorn in the side of the Assyrian Empire—at times defeating the city, at times not. But ultimately, it was the Babylonian Empire that took the place of the Assyrian one.

Concerning the fall of the Assyrian Empire, Mr. Healy explains that it remains somewhat of a mystery, as the empire appeared strong at the moment of its sudden fall. Mr. Healy presents several interesting possible causes, one being a sudden change in the climate. Nonetheless, maintaining such a vast empire was difficult and required the kings to often be away from their capital city to quell rebellions or to find new cities to conquer.

Gypsum wall panel relief of Tiglath-Pileser III. (Public Domain)
Gypsum wall panel relief of Tiglath-Pileser III. (Public Domain)

The author makes it clear that, although the ancient times were hardscrabble and violent, to say the least, the violence was not without reason. The invading and conquering were less about military prestige and more about economic ascendency. As the empire expanded, the economic demands increased, and it was newly conquered lands, found booty, and impressed slaves that provided the economic supply.

Of course, the driving force of the economy was the army. A strong army typically meant a strong economy, and, rightfully so, much of the tribute that was paid to Assyria was put toward the army (a rather crude form of supply-side economics).

The second half of the book focuses on the Assyrian army. Mr. Healy discusses the use of archers, spearmen, and slingers during conflicts. He explains what these soldiers wore and how they maneuvered (at the end of the book, he even provides the movements from several battles to demonstrate how they fought or how sieges were conducted).

But it was not just the mighty warrior that made this army so effective, but the use of horses. From Mr. Healy’s telling, the gathering of horses through conquest, tribute, or local breeding was essential to the success of the army and henceforth the vitality of the economy.

Glazed tile depicting a king and attendants, 9th century B.C. (Anthony Huan/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Glazed tile depicting a king and attendants, 9th century B.C. (Anthony Huan/CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Beautiful Work

“The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC” is full of images from archaeological discoveries, like the cuneiforms, reliefs, and weapons. Considering the longevity of the empire and the vast armies it possessed, combined with how relatively few artifacts have thus far been found, it is inferred that there is so much more to be discovered, which is exciting in its own right. There are also numerous illustrations of what soldiers looked like in uniform. The visual concepts are very helpful in understanding this ancient civilization, at least in dealing with its more brutal aspects of war.

It is a beautiful book that proved to be a fine guide through a multi-century early empire. And Mr. Healy’s writing and clear explanations make the content easy to digest and retain.

Cover of 'The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC' by Mark Healy. (Osprey Publishing)
Cover of 'The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC' by Mark Healy. (Osprey Publishing)
The Ancient Assyrians: Empire and Army, 883–612 BC By Mark Healy Osprey Publishing, Aug. 8, 2023 Hardcover: 320 pages
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.