Assyrian Wars (c. 746–609 B.C.E.)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Assyrians vs. numerous
kingdoms of the Middle East
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Middle East
DECLARATION: No formal declaration recorded
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Assyrian dominance of
OUTCOME: Assyria built and maintained a vast empire
over the course of about six centuries, although by the
beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. the empire was
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
TREATIES: No formal treaties recorded
These were the years of the Assyrian Empire’s greatest
glory and its ultimate extinction. Despite the immense
expansions achieved by Tiglath-pileser III (fl. c. 745–727
B.C.E.) and his three successors, Sargon II (fl. 722–705),
Sennacherib (fl. 705–681), and Essarhaddon (fl. 680–669),
the empire that had begun around 3000 B.C.E. would
totally disappear by 609 (see ASSYRIA, FALL OF).
Descended from the Semites who migrated from the
Eurasian steppes in the third millennium B.C.E. to the
middle regions of the Tigris River valley, the Assyrians first
assumed control over the fading Hittite world after 1200
B.C.E. At its height, some six centuries later, the Assyrian
Empire stretched as a huge arc from the Persian Gulf westward
across Syria to the Mediterranean and southward to
include Palestine and Egypt.
A military coup around 745 B.C.E. brought the Assyrian
general Pul to the throne. He declared himself Tiglathpileser
III and succeeded not only in reviving the
declining empire’s fortunes but also in taking it to its
zenith. Before Tiglath-pileser the Assyrian kings lacked
the administrative ability to control the new provinces
they carved out of conquered territories, but the generalturned-
emperor reorganized the state and centered it
around a powerful standing army equipped with superior
weapons—iron spears, chariots, and battering rams.
Tiglath-pileser’s military strategy was three-pronged:
quell the Aramaean revolt south of Babylonia, annex Syria,
and reclaim the northern borders around Urartu, northeast
of the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. In 746 he marched to
Babylonia, where he joined his vassal king Nabu-nasir (fl.
747–734) to fight successfully at Radhan in the south
along the Tigris and to press across the river to the banks
of the Uknu. Unlike his predecessors, Tiglath-pileser left
his own men in charge of the conquered lands and also
built a fort, Kar-Ashur, to prevent future upheavals. With
his southern borders secured by about 744, Tiglath-pileser
directed his conquests toward the east and the northern
territories of Urartu.
In order to divert the massive Urartu army, Tiglathpileser
campaigned in Media (central Iran) before turning
north. After pillaging the unprotected territories around
Media, the Assyrian army marched to Syria and defeated a
contingent from Urartu in 743. From there the stage was
set for an Assyrian show-down with the Urartu general
Sarduris II (760–730) and his coalition forces at Kishtan.
The Assyrians routed the Urartu general and forced him to
retreat over the border. For the next three years Tiglathpileser
laid siege to Arpad—a defiant Urartu-backed city
in Syria—until it broke in 740. More than 70,000 prisoners
were taken, and the city was demolished.
Until his death in 727 Tiglath-pileser III waged almost
continuous warfare in the region. He defeated Hamah in
739, Damascus and Syria in 732, and southern Iraq in
731. He drove the trouble-making Chaldean prince Ukinzer
(r. 732–29) from Babylon in 729. The Assyrian Empire
now encompassed land from the Persian Gulf to the
Armenian mountain ranges and south to Egypt.
The reign of Tiglath-pileser’s son and successor, Shalmaneser
V (726–722), was mostly uneventful except for a
724 conquest of Israel against a Jewish army led by
Hoshea (reigned over Israel, c. 730–722), an anti-Assyrian
leader in the region whose exploits are documented in the
In 721 Shalmaneser’s successor, Sargon II, defeated
the Elamites, an upstart tribe from the east who had conquered
Israel the previous year and forced a migration of
Israelites who would become known as the Ten Lost
Tribes. Subsequently Israel became a province of Assyria,
paying tribute in return for internal autonomy. Sargon II
defeated Gaza in 717 and won a border struggle with the
Egyptian army in 716. After he was killed in an ambush in
705 in northwestern Iran, Sargon II’s son Sennacherib
ascended to the Assyrian throne.
Sennacherib quelled a rebellion in Babylonia in 703.
He then marched the Assyrian army into western Iran,
attacking and defeating a coalition force of Egyptians, Syrians,
and Palestinians in 701. Sennacherib’s troops laid siege
to a defiant Jerusalem, led by Hezekiah (late eighth–early
seventh century B.C.E.). A plague, however, decimated Sennacherib’s
troops, and the siege was lifted. Nevertheless, by
the end of Sennacherib’s campaign of expansion, the Assyrian
army had captured 46 fortified cities and obtained the
surrender of more than 200,000 people.
A Babylonian uprising occurred again in 700. In
response Sennacherib’s navy sailed south of Babylonia and
attacked Elam—a kingdom sympathetic to the Babylonian
rebellion—by sea. The Elamites responded by taking
Assyrian Babylonia and deposing the king, Merodach-Baladan
II (r. 721–710 B.C.E. and 703). Not until 689 was
Sennacherib able to launch a counteroffensive on Babylonia.
The Assyrians destroyed Babylon. Sennacherib had
the waters of the Arakhtu River diverted so that the city
was flooded. In the process he levelled the great temples of
Babylon (see BABYLON, FALL OF).
An internal coup in 681 was responsible for Sennacherib’s
assassination. His son and successor, Essarhaddon,
rebuilt Babylon and led several expeditions against
Egypt. In 671 the Assyrians conquered the Egyptian city
of Memphis, but they could never really control the continuous
rebellions launched by the city’s Ethiopians. In
fact, Essarhaddon died while trying to suppress a revolt in
Memphis in 669, and despite his many successes in battle,
a certain inertia had crept into the Assyrian Empire that
led to its final decline.
Assyria under King Ashurbanipal (668–627) managed
to quell the all-but-constant rebellion in Egypt, driving
the Ethiopian king of Egypt, Taharqa (fl. 690–664), out in
668. Taharqa’s nephew, Tanutamon (r. 664–653), renewed
hostilities with Assyria in 664, but Ashurbanipal defeated
the rebellion and forced Memphis to resume paying tribute.
In 656 Egypt regained its independence when it
drove out the Assyrian administration. Ashurbanipal
failed to respond because of an Elamite uprising in southern
Babylonia. Ashurbanipal crushed the state of Elam,
seized the capital city of Susu, and killed the Elamite
king, Shilhak-In-Shushinak (r. 680–653). In 652, out of
fear of an imminent Assyrian invasion, the Babylonian
king, Shamash-shuma-ukin (r. 667–648), formed a coalition
against Assyria with Ashurbanipal’s own brother,
Shamash-shum-ukin. Ashurbanipal defeated the coalition
in 648 after laying siege to Babylon for three years.
Shamash-shuma-ukin died in what would prove to be the
last of Assyria’s major victories.
In 635 a civil war erupted in Assyria between Ashurbanipal’s
sons over the coming succession. As a result
Assyria’s enemies began to take advantage of the weakened
state. Ashurbanipal himself died in 627, and the empire
disintegrated rapidly. The following year the nomadic
Chaldeans, led by King Nabopolassar (fl. 625–605), conquered
Babylonia, and the Scythians claimed both Syria
and Palestine. The Babylonians expelled the Assyrians in
623. In 616 the Medes, an old nemesis of the Assyrians,
attacked the empire’s capital city, Nineveh; it fell four
years later. (See ASSYRIA, FALL OF.)
Although a skeleton Assyrian army led by King Ashuruballit
II (611–609) fought against the Babylonians and
the Medes, the empire was clearly doomed.
See also ASSYRIAN CONQUEST OF EGYPT; ASSYRIAN
CONQUEST OF PALESTINE AND SYRIA.
Further reading: John Oates, Babylon (London:
Thames and Hudson, 1967); Robert W. Rogers, A History
of Babylonia and Assyria (Santa Clarita, Calif.: Books for
Libraries, 1971); Nigel Tallis, Assyria at War, 1000–610 B.C.
(London: Osprey, 2002).