The Assyrian Empire Essay, Research Paper
THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE
Assyrian civilization was focused around its powerful king with a militaristic hierarchy supported by officials, artisans, farmers, and slaves. The king was chief judge, lawmaker, commander-in-chief of the army, and head of the religion, although he was not deified himself. Established traditions and customs stabilized the culture and the king. The only revolutions in Assyrian history were by powerful generals or palace officials, as the social hierarchy was never seriously challenged. Governors and priests, in fact any official, could be directly ordered by the king. Kings and officials need not be literate, because they all were assisted by scribes. Offices and professions tended to be hereditary, or appointments were based on patronage. Aramaeans did rise to high positions, but the process took generations.
Social classes were rigidly determined by one’s position in the hierarchy. Captives in war and debtors were made slaves, though the latter could marry a free person, testify in court, conduct business, and own property. Women were entirely dependent on their male relations, raised the children and cared for the home, and were not even allowed to associate with males who were not relatives. If a man lived with a widow for two years they were considered married. Adultery could be punished by the husband killing both or mutilating the wife and castrating her lover; though if he did not punish the wife, the lover could not be punished either. Homosexuality, which was tolerated in Babylon, was punished by the Assyrians. The king maintained a harem of women and eunuchs. Foreign princes and nobles were also kept in the Assyrian court to assure treaties.
Laws operated primarily by the decisions of the king and officials based on precedents. Contracts were made on tablets. Prostitution was allowed but not common; drunkenness was discouraged; theft was limited; and violence and murder were usually settled by private vendetta. A few people were imprisoned but usually for political reasons. The economy was primarily based on agriculture supplemented by crafts, trade, and tribute and plunder from war, though the movement of wealth from the periphery of the empire to the center tended to cause misery and rebellions. All land was considered the property of the god as represented by the king, but in fact temples, wealthy lords, and private individuals did own land or held it in exchange for performing some service to the state.
In war the Assyrians excelled in developing siege engines, and numerous horses were requisitioned for their chariots and cavalry. Cities were persuaded to submit, and excessive cruelty of those who resisted was calculated to make others submit more readily. As the empire grew, more foreign troops filled the ranks of the army. Hunting of lions, wild bulls, and elephants was so popular that elephants became extinct in the area.
Most of the gods were adopted from the Babylonians except for Ashur, the supreme god. Ishtar was the only goddess if one does not count the consorts of the gods, but she too could be warlike. The use of divination for guidance regarding the future was used extensively by Assyrian kings. Astrological astronomers made detailed observations and attempted to correlate human events with celestial signs. Their calendar became quite accurate when they figured out they could add seven lunar periods every nineteen years; they could predict eclipses. Astrology still allowed for divine and human initiative.
Medical theory was based primarily on the belief that disease was a punishment inflicted by the gods on humans for their sins, although dust, dirt, food and drink, as well as contagion were taken into consideration. Physicians attempted to diagnose the symptoms and might prescribe drugs, poultices, enemas, or a change in diet. Libraries of cuneiform tablets were kept, and Ashurbanipal in particular gave instructions to gather any tablet that could be found.
Assyrian society was fairly stable itself, but continued conquest and the imperial exploitation of other peoples eventually brought about its inevitable reaction.