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912-609 BCE

Ancient World / Mesopotamia / Assyria /
Akkadian: assur

1. Society and Economy
2. Administration
3. Kings
4. Culture
5. Religion
6. Language
7. History

Assyria around 670 BCE

Basalt statue of king Shalmaneser 3. Found at Ashur. Now in Istanbul Museum, Turkey
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Basalt statue of king Shalmaneser 3. Found at Ashur. Now in Istanbul Museum, Turkey.

Stela of Adad-nirari 3. Iraq National Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
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Decorations from royal palace at Nineveh.
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Decorations from royal palace at Nineveh.

Era of Assyria, defined to start 912 BCE, ending 609 BCE, immediately following the period called "Middle". This era would become the final stage of Assyrian history, but also the era of greatest wealth and territory. During these three centuries, Assyria had mainly two strong periods, ca. 884-824, ca. 60 years, and ca. 745-631, ca. 130 years.
Some historians make king Ashur-dan 2 the first king of the Neo period, some make him the last king of the Middle period. Ashur-dan made few territorial advances, but he put down great efforts in forming an effective and economically strong kingdom. Building upon his legacy, succeeding kings were able to make their great advances.
The first king making significant territorial advances was as Ashurnasirpal 2 in the first half of the 9th century. With him and the succeeding king, Shalmaneser 3, came the first era of Neo-Assyrian strength and wealth. For a long period, Assyrian military campaigns aimed not at securing larger lands, rather just to collect booty. The Assyrians became associated with great brutality.
Campaigns by the Assyrian kings were largely sent to the west and north. The goal were tribute, booty and resources such as metal and horses.
When Shalmaneser died in 824, a period of 80 years of relative weakness followed, caused by stronger neighbours and weaker Assyrian rulers. Adad-nirari 3's 28 years around 800 was a relative exception. Towards the end of this period, Assyria would fall into civil war.
But when a general named Pulu, took the throne in 745 and the royal name Tiglath-Pileser 3, the real imperial period of Assyria began, and would last more than 100 years. Now, defeated kingdoms parts were included directly under the Assyrian king, and the empire would stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to mountains of modern Iran, from deep into the mountains of eastern modern Turkey down to the Persian Gulf.
At its height, the Assyrian empire would come to include Egypt, but the control here was fragile and would last for less than two decades, beginning 671 and coming to its final end in 655. Although being of minimal importance to Assyria, it still was a proof of the empire's strength.
The end of Assyria came from the eternal enemy, Babylonia. The great king of Nabopolassar was able to form effective alliances with neighbouring countries, and managed to defeat Assyria stage by stage in the 620's and 610's. The last three years of Assyria was everything but an empire, the small region of Harran remained under control of the remains of the Assyrian army. Although Egypt came to its aid, Medes and Babylonia crushed the efforts of the last Assyrian king in 609. Assyria would never again rise.
From 745, the amount of available sources to the Assyrian society rises significantly, including royal inscriptions, 2,400 letters

Society and Economy
The ancient feudal structures of the society were largely unchanged through this period.
All free men in Assyria were obliged to serve in the army by the system known as ilku.
There was great difference between men and women, as expressed in the Assyrian law code.

The Neo period is the only period in Assyrian history with changes of capital; it happened four times four times. In the 9th century, under king Ashurnasirpal 2, the capital was moved from Ashur to Calah (Nimrud). In the 8th century, the capital moved several times. First a new one was built with Dur-Sharrukin, but not many years passed before Nineveh became new capital, which it remained until when the entire empire collapsed.
The change of capital is often the most effective and profound method of destroying the elite of the society, and what happened here can be read both as an expression of the king's troubles with his elite, as well as that of his strength, in the sense that he succeeded in making such changes.
Conquered lands were now organized into large provinces, headed by governors that had great autonomy. By paying a fixed tax and contributing to the army, most matters were unchallenged by the Assyrian king.

During this era, Assyria reaches its high point of culture. This is both expressed in the lavish royal palaces, as well as in the focus on higher learning. King Ashurbanipal in the 7th century established the first systematically organized library in the Middle East. This library contained tens of thousands of works, in the shape of tablets. Most were pre-scientific works trying to explain events in the world, but some works were even of scientific nature. There were also many religious texts (like the Gilgamesh), but even folk tales were admitted into the library.

Religion in the empire depended on the native religion of the subjected peoples. The central religion remained the Assyrian religion, and there is little to suggest that the empire imposed its creed upon subjected peoples. Rather gods and cult elements of conquered regions could be imported into the Assyrian realm.

The native language to the empire was Akkadian, but Aramaic grew to become the most important over time. Towards the end of the Neo period, Akkadian was reduced to small language of the elite. Clay tablet written in cuneiform was used for official purposes, and for literature. Aramaic also came to use cuneiform writing.

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By Tore Kjeilen