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Iron Age Empires: Neo-Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian and Persian Empires

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  1. 0:05 Iron Age Empires
  2. 1:18 Neo-Assyrians
  3. 6:37 Neo-Babylonians
  4. 8:12 Persian (Archaemenid) Empire
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Taught by

Max Pfingsten

This lesson is a survey of the three empires that emerged after the Bronze Age collapse. Parts of the survey are viewed from the perspective of the Israelites, who found themselves the playthings of powerful empires. The lecture focuses on a few specific rulers and their impact on their empires. It also traces patterns of imperial tactics throughout this period and region.

Iron Age Empires

Following the Bronze Age collapse, the ancient world was in constant turmoil for nearly four centuries. Amid this chaos, kingdoms quickly rose and fell.

Perhaps the most famous of these short-lived kingdoms was the Kingdom of Israel. United under a single monarch, King Saul, the Israelites slowly conquered their neighboring Canaanites, Hittites and Philistines. By 1004 BCE, Saul's successor, King David, had carved out the borders of the kingdom of Israel and established Jerusalem as its capital. David's son, King Solomon the Wise, built an amazing temple to hold the Ark of the Covenant. After centuries of wandering, the Ark finally had a home.

Yet stability would prove short-lived. Around 950 BCE, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel rebelled against their extravagant kings, breaking the kingdom in two. To the north, the ten tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel, while to the south, Solomon's dynasty continued to rule the Kingdom of Judah. This division could not have come at a worse time, for it left the Israelites vulnerable to the new empires emerging to the east.

Neo-Assyrians

Around 935 BCE, the ancient civilization of Assyria had begun to stir once more. Due to its distance from the main centers of invasion and its own military might, Assyria had weathered the Bronze Age collapse better than most. In the interim, they had mastered the art of iron working. Iron tools enabled an explosion of building, in which the Assyrians made use of their ample supply of stone and began to establish their own artistic style. They continued to build ziggurats and to plan their cities along much the same lines as the Sumerians, with gardens and zoos, palaces and temples, and walls, of course. But stone allowed the Assyrians to build larger, more enduring structures, and their choice in decor was distinctly Assyrian.

Tiglath-Pileser III worked to reunite and expand the Assyrian Empire
Tiglath Pieser III

Yet the Assyrians were not as interested in architecture as they were in conquest. Their mastery of iron made Assyrian soldiers some of the most dangerous in the world. They had also begun the full-scale construction of siege equipment, which allowed their tide of conquest to flow quickly, without getting held up at fortified cities. Perhaps the most ruthless aspect of Assyrian conquest was their system of deportation. Under Assyrian rule, conquered peoples were forcibly relocated from their lands to other parts of the empire, while Assyrian colonists settled the newly conquered territory. By breaking people from their lands, the Assyrians smashed resistance before it could start and sought to assimilate the new peoples into their empires.

Within a century, the Assyrians had conquered most of the Fertile Crescent, and had begun to push against the Levant. Through alliance with their neighbors, the Israelites fought off the invading Assyrians for a while, but the closest they ever came to victory was a stalemate at the Battle of Qarqar in 853.

Emboldened by instability in the Assyrian homeland, the Israelites spent the next century trying to throw off their Assyrian overlords, until 744, when Assyria finally found a leader to match their imperial ambitions. His name was Tiglath-Pileser III. Tiglath staged a military coup, reunited the Assyrian empire and recovered the lost territories. He reorganized these territories into imperial provinces which paid a set tribute and provided soldiers in war time. Well-organized and rich with tribute, Tiglath organized his soldiers into the world's first proper standing army and began a war of expansion.

The kingdom of Israel managed to hold off the Assyrian expansion until in 738, the King of Judah betrayed the Kingdom of Israel, allying his kingdom with the conquerors. With Judah's help, Tiglath wiped the Kingdom of Israel off the map, expelling its inhabitants from the land and spreading them within the empire. However, with the aid of allies as far flung as Egypt, the Israelites continued to resist Assyrian rule and refused to pay tribute.

Infuriated by this perpetual insurrection, Tiglath's successors would continue the practice of displacing the rebellious Israelites. His son Shalmanaser seems to have done little else in his three-year reign. He died besieging the Israelite capital of Samaria. His top general Sargon seized power and established himself by completely destroying Israel. Within 20 years, ten tribes of Israel were lost forever. Only the two tribes of the Kingdom of Judah remained. We call this mass displacement the First Israelite Diaspora and the ten tribes the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Map of the New-Babylonian Empire
Neo Babylonian Empire Map

With the Israelites finally quelled, Sargon turned east to smash the Elamites and bring the Babylonians back into the Assyrian empire. At home, he built a new capital at Dur Sharrukin, near the ancient city of Nineveh. His successors would do much the same, spending half their lives conquering and the other half erecting temples and palaces to commemorate their conquests.

The Sargonid dynasty would rule the Assyrian empire until its fall nearly a century later. Each successive generation added new lands to the empire, even conquering Egypt in 675. At its height, the Assyrian Empire spanned two continents and covered about 550,000 square miles.

Assyrian rule was incredibly savage. Assyrian Kings boast of their vicious cruelty in inscriptions and even commemorated some of their more vicious exploits in engravings. Though this excessive cruelty served the Assyrians well as they grew their empire, these same shock-and-awe tactics would bring about the downfall of the Assyrians. When the Babylonians decided to throw off Assyrian rule, they found ready allies throughout the empire. Medes, Scythians, Cimmerians and Judeans all rose up. The only land that remained faithful to Assyria was Egypt, at the other extreme of the empire. Between the two, lands broke into rebellion, until at last a combined force sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612.

Neo-Babylonians

One thousand years after Hammurabi built the first Babylonian empire, Babylon had not forgotten its former primacy in all that time. Throughout Assyrian reign, Babylon was always the first to rebel - the first to take advantage of every weakness. Now, with the Assyrians out of the picture, Babylon attempted to reclaim its former glory. At the head of this expansion was the ambitious king Nebuchadnezzar II. Nebuchadnezzar conquered much of the previous Assyrian Empire, though he didn't make it all the way to Egypt.

In his conquest he made use of the same imperial bureaucracy, road system and military tactics that had made the Assyrians so successful. Like the Assyrians, he struggled with the descendants of Abraham. To bring them to heel, he did to Judea what the Assyrians had done to Israel. He drove out their inhabitants and began what his victims called the Babylonian Captivity.

Nebuchadnezzar oversaw the creation of the Hanging Gardens in Babylon
Hanging Gardens

At home, Nebuchadnezzar restored Babylon to its former glory, with ambitious new building projects including the famous Hanging Gardens and the massive ziggurat Etemenanki, whose sheer massiveness may have made it the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Though none of these fabulous buildings survive, the beauty of the Babylonian style can still be seen in the restored Ishtar Gate.

Persian (Archaemenid) Empire

Babylon's time in the sun would be short lived, however. To the east, their old allies, the Medes, were having trouble with a group of invaders from the Bronze Age collapse, the Persians. The Persians had been vassals - first of the Assyrians, then of the Medes. In 549, the Persian king, Cyrus, rebelled against Median control. By 539, he had conquered the Medes and moved on to invade the Babylonian Empire. His conquest is remarkable for its speed and its genius. Confronted by the walled city of Babylon, Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River, which fed the city its water. Dying of thirst, Babylon capitulated without a fight.

Yet Cyrus did not build his empire on pure military might. Like Assyria, Babylon had not been friendly to its provinces. Cyrus exploited the discontent of Babylon's vassals. Assyria was the first to switch to the Persian side at the promise of semi-autonomy. Yet Cyrus was just as kind to the little guys as the big players. He allowed all the peoples displaced by the Babylonians to return to their homes with their gods. Under Cyrus, the Babylonian Captivity ended, and Israel was re-established as a kingdom.

Soon the Persians became known as liberators, and province after province welcomed them with open arms. Cyrus enacted laws of religious tolerance, rebuilt temples and founded new cities, eventually earning the respect even of the Babylonians he had conquered. With this combination of military might and deft diplomacy, Cyrus built the largest empire ever known to man.

Still, not everyone was lining up to join the Persian Empire. The Egyptians, having only recently regained their autonomy, were loath to relinquish it again. Cyrus' son, Cambyses, would settle the issue with the sword, adding Egypt to the empire in 525. Cambyses was not the enlightened leader his father had been, and heavy taxation led to unrest in the empire. While Cambyses was away in Egypt, a group of Zoroastrian priests called the Magi staged a coup, putting one of their own number on the throne. He reigned for all of seven months before himself being overthrown by Cambyses' cousin, Darius.

The Persian Empire under Darius
Darius Persian Empire Map

Like Cyrus, Darius showed amazing foresight. He rebuilt and reconnected the chaotic system of roads left by previous empires. He encouraged religious freedom, while incorporating himself into the religions of his subjects. He gave the kingdoms of the empire a certain degree of autonomy, and he came up with a fair system of imperial taxation. His new capital at Persepolis was one of the most magnificent cities ever built, full of beautiful palaces, glorious temples and beautiful artwork. Persepolis' position as the seat of a powerful empire can best be seen in the Gates of All Nations.

Even more remarkable than his work at home was Darius' expansion abroad. Darius expanded the empire in all directions. To the east he pressed into India. To the south, he extended Persian power from Egypt into Libya. To the north, he crossed the Dardanelles and began an invasion of Europe. In the course of 30 years, the Persians had gone from an obscure tribe of nomadic pastoralists to the leaders of the most powerful empire in history.

The seemingly limitless expansion of the Persians would be only be checked by another hitherto unimportant people, living in obscurity in their mountainous country. Those were the Greeks. When all the world seemed ready to bend knee to the Persian Empire, the Greeks stood against the rising tide and won their independence. This victory of a tiny people over so massive an empire inspired the Greeks to think very highly of themselves, encouraging an explosion of culture that remains Greece's legacy to this day. That Greek culture would eventually cover all the Persian Empire, spread by the imperial ambitions of Alexander the Great.

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