Where Are the Assyrians When You Need Them?

In its efforts to redefine barbarism ISIS has bulldozed the remains of the millennia old Assyrian city of Nimrud and has now begun demolishing the Greek/Parthian city of Hatra, crimes against humanity that for an ancient historian surpass their slaughter of innocents.  The destruction of Hatra is a particularly great loss, inasmuch as it is – or was – the finest surviving example of a Parthian city, with standing walls surrounding well preserved temples and statuary.  For these acts every member of this disgusting organization should be exterminated and refused burial; those who are captured should be handed over to the families of their victims.  Seriously.

Nimrud

Nimrud

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

There is, however, a certain irony in the assault on Nimrud, one doubtless unappreciated by the thugs and sociopaths of the “Caliphate.”  The Assyrians, who figure largely in the Old Testament because of their destruction of Israel and subjugation of Judah, are chiefly remembered for their extraordinary cruelty, and the Assyrian Empire may well be the first state in history to recognize that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun time (though the Assyrians never practiced genocide, as the Israelites did against the Amalekites).  In this regard Assyria might be seen as the spiritual precursor of ISIS, setting a standard of cruelty that even the Caliphate has not matched; it has apparently not yet occurred to them to decorate trees with severed heads or flay captives alive, standard Assyrian practice.  On the other hand, the centuries of Assyrian civilization produced a body of art, architecture and literature, while it appears the Caliphate will leave nothing more than promotional videos.

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyria had a long history.  The Assyrian heartland was what is now northern Iraq, and the city of Assur on the northern Tigris River dates back to the 26th century BC, though it was only a Sumerian (southern Iraq) administrative outpost and not actually Assyrian.  The Assyrians, speaking an east-Semitic language, appeared in perhaps the 24th century, but until the mid-21th century Assyria, then known as Subartu, was dominated first by the Akkadian Empire, centered south of Baghdad, and then by the Neo-Sumerian Empire of 3rd Dynasty Ur, located far to the south.  With the collapse of the Empire of Ur in c. 2000 BC Assyria seems for the first time to have become an actual urban kingdom rather than a collection of tribes.

The new kingdom enjoyed independence until the 1750s, when it fell to the Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi.  After his death in 1750 it was independent again until the 15th century, when it was conquered by the Mitanni immediately to the west.  The Mittanni were destroyed in c. 1350 by a coalition including Assyria under King Ashur-uballit I, who established the Middle Assyrian Empire, expanding west into former Mitanni territory and briefly controlling Babylon.  It was during this period, in the reign of Shalmaneser I (1274-1245), that Nimrud was built.  This all came to an end in the 11th century because of internal problems and the great Catastrophe, a movement of Indo-European peoples south and east through the Balkans and Anatolia that fractured the entire power structure of the Near East.  From 1077 to 911 the Assyrian state was weak and occupied with domestic disturbances, but remained intact amidst the general collapse.

From 911 to 824 Assyria was an imperial state again, the King’s armies campaigning almost every year.  During this period Assyria was the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling territory from the Persian Gulf through Syria almost to the frontier of Egypt.  Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) moved the capital from Assur to Nimrud but also began extensive building in Nineveh, which then became the capital and heart of Assyria, as subsequent kings, especially Sennacherib (704-681), lavished their attention on it.  By the seventh century BC Nineveh was possibly the largest city in the world, encompassing some 1900 acres behind its seven and half miles of walls and supporting a population of more than 100,000.

Nineveh - restored gate

Nineveh – restored gate

Neo-Assyria Empires

Neo-Assyria Empires

From 824-744 Assyria stagnated, but then Tiglathpileser III (744-727), establishing a new ruling dynasty, initiated phase two of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, during which it became easily the largest empire the Near East had yet seen, stretching from the Gulf to Armenia and from the Zagros Mountains of Iran west through Syria and Palestine and south to Nubia.  It was also the most modern.  Tiglathpileser reformed the administration of the state, achieving the internal stability that had eluded the Assyrians for centuries, and created what appears to be the first professional standing army in history.  He also replaced, where possible, the subject states with a system of provinces governed by Assyrian officials, and woe to those who revolted.

Tiglathpileser III

Tiglathpileser III

The Assyrians terrorized (and stabilized) the Near Eastern world for more than a century, but maintaining the Empire consumed vast amounts of wealth and manpower, and by the last quarter of the seventh century the state was exhausted.  And surrounded by enemies.  In 625 Babylonia broke free under the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians), and the Assyrians were unable to recover this valuable territory.  In 615 Assyria was invaded by a new group, the Medes, an Indo-European people who had established themselves in northwestern Iran, and they were soon joined by the Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians.  Nineveh finally fell in 612, and Assyria simply ceased to exist as a state, although the last Assyrian king, the usurper Ashur-uballit II, did not disappear until 610.

The world rejoiced.  “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?  Whence shall I seek comforters for thee?” said the Hebrew prophet Nahum.  Nineveh was never again occupied, and today its ruins stand on the Tigris River in Mosul, now occupied by ISIS, which has already destroyed stretches of the original city wall.  Two and a half millennia later Nineveh is being laid waste again.

The Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire absorbed Assyria and much of its empire, but its days were also numbered.  In 539 Babylon was captured by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great (559-550), who had defeated the Medes in c. 550 and united the Iranian people under his rule.  Cyrus then proceeded to conquer just about everything from the Aegean to the Indus River; his son Cambyses II (530-522) added Egypt.  The Achaemenid Persian Empire made that of Assyria seem small (though much of the eastern provinces were junk territory), and it was a far different operation.  Fear of the Persian military of course helped secure the Empire, but Persian policy emphasized respect for local populations and cultures, presaging the greatest political structure of antiquity, the Roman Empire.

The Persian Empire ended in 330 with the assassination of its last king, Darius III, whose throne passed to Alexander the Great.  After the Macedonian’s death in 323 the Asiatic part of the Empire, including Assyria, fell to his general Seleucus, whose descendants would rule the area for the next century and a half.  During the period of Seleucid rule the Empire continually shrank, as a new force, the Parthians, a former subject people in northeastern Iran, expanded westwards and ran up against the frontiers of Roman power in Anatolia and Syria-Palestine by the end of the millennium.  Parthia and Rome would duke it out for the next couple of centuries, when in AD 227 the Arsacid Parthian dynasty gave way to the Sassanid Persians, who would rule the area until the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.  Throughout this period the wealthy fortress city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, played a key role in the constant wars.  And now it is being razed by a group that makes the Mongols look polite.

Parthian Empire

Parthian Empire

To identify the ISIS barbarians with the Assyrians would be an insult to the Assyrians, for all that they were known for their cruelty.  Assyria was a state that existed for the better part of two millennia, playing a crucial role in the history of the ancient Near East and producing a wealth of art and architecture.  ISIS is nothing.  That the Iranians are now playing a serious role in the fight against the Caliphate scum may be a good omen: after all, it was Iranians – the Medes – who initiated the destruction of the Assyrian terrorists.

Of course the presence of the Iranians concerns the US, especially the with-us-or-against-us conservatives, who have trouble understanding the complexities of foreign affairs.  (One is reminded of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.)  America has conveniently forgotten that the Iranians certainly have reason to be pissed off at us, inasmuch in 1953 the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and subsequently supported the increasingly oppressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.  Pity, the Iranians strike me as natural allies, despite their whacko government.  Not only is the Shia the more cultured segment of Islam, but the Iranians, at least the urban populations, are secular, certainly when contrasted with our 7th century friends in the Gulf.

Shah Mohammad Pahlavi

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Mosaddegh

Mohammad Mosaddegh

 

 

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Stuff from Way Back #30: Hanging Out

In addition to other quaint techniques – stoning, amputating limbs – thought to be essentially gone from the modern state’s arsenal of punishments the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) also employs crucifixion, which is fact sanctioned by the Quran (Sura 5).  They are of course not the only Islamic barbarians who have done this: it has happened in Yemen and the Maghreb.  More surprising, this left-over from antiquity has been carried out in the twenty-first century by actual established governments.  It is part of the penal code in the Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, our wonderful eighth century ally.  It is also on the books in Iran, but has never been implemented, and the Burmese army has been implicated in at least one instance of crucifying villagers.  Sometimes the victim has been executed first and then hung on the cross, a barbaric practice nevertheless.

crucifixion of Jesus

crucifixion of Jesus

The point of crucifixion is twofold: to provide the condemned with a lingering, agonizing and humiliating death and to serve as a ghastly warning to others.  Though one might suspect there is nothing like a rotting body hanging on a cross to get the point across about obeying the law, the deterrent effect of even this gruesome punishment can be questioned.  Few would disagree, however, that crucifixion falls clearly into the category of “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the practice is generally condemned in modern societies as barbaric.  Actually, most modern industrialized democracies also consider capital punishment itself to be relatively barbaric (American exceptionalism again).

crucifixion in Hollywood

crucifixion in Hollywood

Crucifixion, at least in the west, is typically immediately associated with the Romans, in large part because of their role in the execution of Jesus.  True, they became enthusiastic practitioners of the art, mostly for extreme crimes – slave rebellion, piracy, desertion, high treason – and except for special cases like desertion generally applied it only to non-citizens, at least until later imperial times, but the use of the cross was almost certainly borrowed from the Carthaginians in the wake of the Punic Wars of the second century BC.  Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people living along the coast of what is now Lebanon and northern Israel, and they in turn probably got it from further east.

crucifixion of Jehanon in Judaea - actual foot on right

crucifixion of Jehanan in Judaea – actual foot on right

The idea of hanging or nailing a body to a tree is fairly widespread (perhaps reflected now in crucifying an already executed man), and tying a prisoner to a pole for beating or execution is an obvious development.  Impalement may have been the first instance of using a pole for prolonging pain, and crucifixion may have developed from that.  On three occasions Herodotus uses the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω to describe executions carried out by Astyages the Mede and Darius I, the Persian king, but this word appears to mean “impale.”   Likewise, ἀνασταυρόω means “impale” and ἀποτυμπανίζω “beat to death (?),” and they only come to mean “crucify” in Roman era texts.  On the other hand, he notes that in 479 BC that a captured Persian general πρὸς σανίδας προσπασσαλεύσαντες ἀνεκρέμασαν: “nailed to a plank he was hung up.”  This sounds more like crucifixion.

crucifixion in Egypt

crucifixion in Egypt

My guess for the inventors of crucifixion are the Assyrians.  There is no compelling evidence that they used it, but these appear to be the first people to understand that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun thing to do after a victory.  We know they burned and flayed people alive, hung flayed skins over city gates and decorated trees with severed heads.  Crucifixion would fit right into this box of tricks.  The continual rise and fall of Assyrian power, incidentally, is a vivid demonstration of the inherent instability of political systems based on fear, a lesson for the new caliphate.  The entire Near East rejoiced when the Assyrian capital Nineveh finally fell in 912 BC.

crucifixion in Iraq

crucifixion in Iraq

The Neo-Babylonians probably used crucifixion (and perhaps invented it), and it is likely their successors, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, did.  The Iranian elite were outsiders, Indo-Europeans (cousins to the Greeks and Romans), but were overwhelmed by the millennia-old Semitic Sumero-Babylonian culture of Mesopotamia.  Their subjects expected punishments to be barbaric; Alexander faced the same problem when he conquered the empire.

The Herodotus episode notwithstanding (the Persian general’s crime struck the Greeks as horrific), the Greeks generally rejected such brutal punishments as unfit for a civilized state, especially since they were practiced by non-Greeks, who were of course barbarians.  As noted, as the new king of the Persian Empire, Alexander was compelled to adopt a number of customs offensive to the Greeks, but the direct evidence that he employed crucifixion all comes from the weaker, more sensationalist sources.  According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD, in 167 BC Syrian troops of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah) crucified a number of people in Jerusalem, but this is not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, where one would surely expect it.  Jewish tradition did not sanction crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution, but according to Jospehus Alexander Jannaeus, king of the Jews from c.103 to 76 BC had 800 of his country crucified in the wake of a civil war.  Who knows?  Nasty people frequently have nasty things falsely associated with them.

crucifixion in Syria

crucifixion in Syria

Because of Christianity crucifixion is typically associated with a T-shaped cross, but this was not inevitable, though very likely common.  A simple pole or even a tree could serve, providing the economy crucifixion package, and the “cross” might be in the shape of a Y or an X.  The victim might even be crucified upside down, something Roman soldiers did for amusement when they had a large number of crucifixions to deal with.  It is likely that many or perhaps most crucifixions were at eye-level, since the job would be much easier.  The victim could be tied or nailed to the cross; only one nail has ever been found (near Jerusalem) but this is probably because they were valuable and thus retrieved (the Jerusalem nail is damaged).  Nails would have to be through the wrists or perhaps the carpal tunnel or the weight of the body could rip them out through the fingers.  Midway down the upright there might be a sort of shelf or seat – the sedile – which would allow the victim to take some of the weight off his arms, presumably to prolong the whole process.  The foot rest usually included in depictions of the Crucifixion is unattested in antiquity.

crucifixion in Japan

crucifixion in Japan

In exactly what manner Jesus was crucified is not known with any certainty, since the details come from the Gospels, which come two to three generations after the event and might be considered tendentious.  That he was indeed crucified is generally accepted by scholars for a variety of reasons, though not by Muslims, because it is denied by a passage in the Quran.  Since the cross became such an icon it is likely that there was a cross bar, and this might account for the tradition that he dragged the cross to the execution place.  In actuality he would have carried only the cross piece, and it is likely the pole was a permanent fixture.  He may well have been crucified at eye level; iconographic needs would have subsequently elevated him.

What do you die from when hanging from a cross?  Apparently there are a variety of possibilities: shock, sundry pulmonary problems, sepsis from scourging or nails, dehydration if you last long enough or even feeding animals if you are at eye level and have no one to shoo them away.  Asphyxiation is a traditional explanation: when you can no longer hold yourself up the extension of your arms over your head would lead to fatal breathing problems because of the distension of the lungs and chest muscles.  The provision of the sedile might support this notion, yet frequently the victim had his legs broken, which means he could no longer support himself by pushing against his tied or nailed feet or a foot step.  Further, there are plenty of accounts of people being tortured by being suspended by their arms without asphyxiating, and one scholar actually did this with test subjects (students no doubt!), who had no problem breathing, though pain increased quickly.  The whole point after all is pain and duration.

crucifixion of Brian

crucifixion of Brian

Sometimes the victim was offered a wine mixture that was supposed to alleviate the pain; Jesus supposedly turned it down.  This is hard to understand, inasmuch as suffering was the whole point of crucifixion, and one hesitates attributing outbursts of sympathy from professional executioners or Roman soldiers.  Easier to understand is the fact that soldiers often put a victim out of his misery with a stab from their spear or sword.  Why?  Because if you were stuck with guarding the crucified (crucifees?) in order that they not be rescued, then the sooner they were dead, the sooner you went to the barracks or the tavern.