It is hard these days to pick up a newspaper without reading about the latest act of terrorism from ISIS or some other lame-brained group from the Middle East. Actually, on some level, I can almost understand their anger: they live in a desert, they are dirt poor despite all the oil, they are not allowed to drink beer, and all the women dress like Batman.
This slight over-simplification deserves a little historical background. As a historian, of course I want to start 2600 years ago, when the area was ruled by the Assyrians, who commanded one of the fiercest military machines ever built in the ancient world.
There were actually two Assyrian Empires—or perhaps two phases of Assyrian history: the first phase was roughly 1350 to 1100 BC. The second—the one that I will talk about—is the "Neo-Assyrian Empire" of the early Iron Age of about 900-600 BC.
Ashurnasirpal II—a name so hard for a Texan to pronounce that from here on I will simply call him Ashley—ruled from 883 to 859 BC—either conquered or killed everybody near him. Supposedly the Assyrians were just retaking their lost lands, but if this were true, he must have had a defective map since Ashley and his kin eventually ruled territory more than twice the size of the original empire.
The Royal Records tell us a lot about the king and his campaigns, and in very vivid and brutal language. Here is an example narrative of one of Ashley's campaigns:
While I stayed in Aribua, I conquered the towns of Luhuti, defeating their inhabitants in many bloody battles. I destroyed them, tore down the walls, and burned the towns with fire; I caught the survivors and impaled them on stakes in front of their towns.
Almost all the records are full of such friendly details. King Shalmaneser fought the great battle of Karkar in 853 BC against the King of Damascus. His records say the enemy army was huge—thousands of men, horses, and chariots. Here is the account of the battle:
They rose against me for a decisive battle. I fought with them with the support of the mighty forces of Ashur. I did inflict a great defeat upon them between the towns of Karkar and Gilzau. I slew 14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them like Adad when he makes a rainstorm pour down. I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered fleeing soldiers…”
In the pre-Muslim world of Mesopotamia, Adad was the God of Storms. Almost all of the accounts of battle are like this, with lots of routs and massacres. Enemies are cowards who are crushed, cities are sacked, and the air is filled with the anguished cries of women.
Or as a former governor of California once said, "…to crush your enemies, have them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women"
Actually, this is an abbreviation of the Genghis Khan quote: "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."
Okay, that is better than what Arnold said, but Genghis Khan never said, “I’ll be back…”
One of the best examples of Assyrian warfare is in the records of Sargon II, who ruled between 721 and 705 BC. In 714 he attacked Armenia against two kings who had allied to face the Assyrian threat. Here is Sargon’s account:
I was not afraid of his masses of troops, I despised his horses, I did not cast a glance at the multitude of his mail-clad warriors. With my single chariot and the horsemen who go at my side, who never leave me either in hostile or friendly region, I plunged into his midst like a swift javelin. I defeated him. I turned back his advances; I killed large numbers of his troops, the bodies of his warriors I cut down like millet, filling the mountain valleys with them. I make their blood run down the ravines and precipices like a river, I cut down their army and broke up their organization.
You get the picture. There is not a lot of detail about strategy, but from the sentiment, you kind of get the impression that Sargon didn’t like them. The written records are full of massacre, blood, and treachery as the Assyrians slaughtered their enemies like dogs.
Depictions in art of open-field battles are rare, but there is a good example in the reliefs of the Battle of Til-Tuba. When this was fought in either 663 or 653 BC., King Ashurbanipal—whom we will call Alex—defeated the Elamites of southwestern Iran under King Teumma (hereafter called King Ted).
King Ted had made the rather incredibly stupid mistake of sending hate mail to King Alex. (Seriously!—Hate mail!) The Assyrian king came after him and not only did he win a great victory, but he celebrated the victory by having reliefs of the battle made to decorate his royal palace in Nineveh. (And now they are safely in London after thieves—excuse me, archaeologists—took them home for study. Had they been left in Nineveh, they would no longer exist—but that is a story for another day.)
The scenes show us a glimpse of how the brutal battles were fought. Assyrians advance from the right with spearmen, archers, chariots, and cavalrymen working closely together. The Infantry carry spears and very large shields, while the cavalrymen have lances. Four-man chariots chase down the primitive Iranian war-carts. The Elamites are driven into the Ulai River which filled with bodies and the debris of battle.
In a separate set of reliefs, King Ted is dealt with...severely! These reliefs have captions, like today’s cartoons, so that we know exactly what is happening. Ted is chased in his war cart, then his cart crashes and he is hit in the back by an arrow. He flees on foot with his son, but they are surrounded by Assyrian archers and infantry, and are bludgeoned to death with maces.
Defeat in battle and death were not enough, however: King Ted’s head is cut off and is then transported to a tent full of captive Elamite nobles for identification. The Assyrians do it right: they show the Elamites a wide assortment of heads and ask them to identify Ted's among them. And the caption, loosely translated has them saying, “Yep. That’s him.” Then the head is taken to King Alex.
Meanwhile, King Ted’s family—even his in-laws—are being slaughtered. King Alex is not only crushing the Elamites, he is destroying the House of Ted.
This is a great story, with dynamite illustrations so, perhaps, we could call it the world’s first graphic novel?
Think what the psychological impact of these reliefs would have been if you had been an ambassador from a rival kingdom coming to see the great King Ashurbanipal (King Alex) of the terrifying Assyrians. As you are being led into his chambers, you see the depictions of what happened to someone who sent him insulting mail—the towns that had been looted, smashed, and destroyed. It would make quite an impression.
The most famous of the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum are those showing the Royal Lion Hunt. These, too, are from the palace of King Alex in Nineveh and are simply amazing. My children used to complain that I could spend a day in a museum looking at the world’s largest ball of string, but even they stood silent in this room. (Well, for about five minutes and only because I threatened their lives.)
One last tool of the Assyrians needs comment: they were highly effective users of terror and they were unbelievably cruel to those they had conquered. Since this was a deliberate policy, this was "terrorism". Here is an excerpt from the account of King Alex:
Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts around about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire and elsewhere I formed a pillar of the living and of heads over and against the city gate and 700 men I impaled on stakes over and against the city gate.
The artwork in the reliefs confirms this violence: we are shown people staked down, whose tongues pulled out, after which they are flayed alive; people have their hands and feet cut off and are impaled on stakes; and severed heads are heaped in piles or are nailed to the city walls like grisly hunting trophies. In one particularly cruel scene, captives are shown being beaten and forced to grind the exhumed bones of their ancestors, so that not only were the living being destroyed, but so was their past.
From the point of view of the Assyrians, they were not being unnecessarily cruel: this was effective psychological warfare that would force potential enemies to think twice before opposing them. This harsh treatment was not dealt to territories that surrendered before the fighting began, nor was it very often meted out to the newly-conquered—it was nearly always reserved for provinces that had rebelled.
One last scene in the reliefs is very instructive: ambassadors from other lands are being shown the insulting clay tablets that the Elamite King Ted had sent King Alex. In the next relief, they are looking at captives staked to the ground while being skinned alive—an object lesson meant to be impossible to misinterpret.
In several places, the royal records have chilling lines. Written in the first person, the king is recorded as saying, “I poured terror out over the land.”
Yes. He. Did.
Two hundred years ago, Carl Von Clausewitz said that war was an extension of politics by other means. The Kings of Assyria would add that terror has long been an effective instrument of war. We should not be surprised when a culture embraces terrorism as a political tool when it has been used since its earliest recorded history.