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Neo-Assyrian Empire

Neo-Assyrian Period (935-610 BC): consolidation, expansion, peak and demise

Viewed elementally, the Neo-Assyrian period consists of three phases of Assyrian politics: consolidation from 935 to 745 BC, especially under Assurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III's successive reigns; expansion from 744 to 705 BC, especially under Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II; and the peak of Assyria under Sennacherib and Assurnasirpal from 704 until its demise in 612 BC.

Within these over-encompassing phases were recensions, reorganizations and victories. These tides ebbed a bit between ever-higher peaks until a coalition of Babylonians, Medes and others sacked Assyria in 612 BC.

The Neo-Assyrian period began with innovative tactical shifts: a standing army; trained chariotry and cavalry; battering-ram siege techniques; psychological warfare in the form of cruelty and terrorism; and deportation of conquered peoples.

However, it was under Assurnasirpal II's reign from 883 BC that these tactics were fully employed and Assyrian hegemony was truly restored to its Middle Assyrian borders. However, after his successor Shalmaneser III, Assyria went into a brief decline until Tiglath-Pileser III restored Assyria and the Sargonid Dynasty expanded Assyria until its quick demise.

Consolidation phase935 - 745 BC
New techniques935 - 880 BC
Hegemony880 - 830 BC
Recension830 - 744 BC
Expansion phase744 - 705 BC

From 744 to 705 BC (the reigns of Tiglath Pileser III and Sargon II), Assyria not only expanded its territories but also underwent important restructuring. This is the period where there is a real empire with control from the center.

Assyria's peak704 - 612 BC
Demise612 BC
Babylonia During the Early Iron Age

The Neo-Assyrian era was difficult for Babylonia. Political disarray arose as groups vied for power; economic weakness ensued from loss of access to trade routes; and territorial hegemony proved elusive due to the newly arrived Arameans and Chaldeans who autonomously dominated the countryside. Assyrians campaigned in Babylonia against tribal groups and sometimes the Babylonian king. Babylonia's overall weakness was dotted with ephemeral moments of power. Assyrian king Shalmaneser III regarded the Babylonian king Marduk-zakir-shumi I as an equal; Shalmaneser's throne at Kalhu shows him grasping the Babylonian king's hand as an equal. The latter helped Shalmaneser III's sucessor Shamshi-Adad V ascend the throne and forced him tribute upon him.

Babylon was not a suzerain for very long however, and the very same Shamshi-Adad V who ascended with Babylonian assistance later deported two successive Babylonian kings. Amidst the chaos in Babylonia, the cities were isolated areas where traditional political and cultural life was maintained. Among these were Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Sippar and Uruk. There was some scribal activity; cults kept worshipping deities; and old structures and city-walls were sometimes restored. As isolated points where the Babylonian king held power, these cities were given special privileges including freedom from taxation, forced labor and service, arrest and property seizure. Read more about Babylonia during the early Iron Age and Neo-Assyrian Era.

Elam to the east; Urartu to the north

Elam regularly supported Babylonian and Chaldean opposition to Assyria. Southern marshes linked Babylonia and Elam, and provided a getaway through which traditional armies could not pursue rebels. Fighting continued to erupt between Assyria and Elam until Elam's final betrayal: supporting Assyrian king Assurbanipal brother in the civil war from 652 to 648 BC. After defeating his brother, Assurbanipal invaded Elam and utterly ruined it with destruction, emptying of royal tombs, salting of the land and wholesale deportations to Samaria. The Elamite king's head was brought to Nineveh, where it was hung on a tree in Assurbanipal's personal garden.

To Assyria's north in eastern Anatolia was Urartu. It was crucial in the early 1st millennium and at one point reigned supreme, but sources are incredibly scant and its chronology is culled from Assyrian sources. Urartu was founded by Sarduri I during the reign of Shalmaneser III and was centered at Lake Van. His successors campaigned incessantly in all directions, and when Assyria began to expand the two states were in direct conflict. Tiglath-Pileser III campaigned against Urartu, but it was Sargon II who sacked the religious center Musasir and left Urartu a weak ghost of its former self until the Persians took its last breath.

Consolidation phase (934 - 745 BC)

From 935 - 745 BC, and especially during the successive reigns of Assurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III from 883 - 824 BC, Assyria tightened its grip on the Upper Mesopotamian territories first conquered during the Middle Assyrian Period. Rather than expand Assyrian borders beyond, the goal was to simply restore Assyria to its former glory and subject neighboring states to Assyrian dominance and heavy tribute. Neo-Assyrian kings were part of a tradition of a centuries-old monarchic institution of conquest, continuing an unbroken like of kings (supposedly of the same family) since ~1,500 BC.

This awareness of prior kings' expansions, sometimes in the same areas tackled by Neo-Assyrian kings, is noted in Ashur-dan II and Tukulti-Ninurta II's inscriptions. Ashur-dan II initiated tactical shifts which were followed by later kings: a standing army; new siege techniques; psychological warfare; trained chariotry and cavalry; and deportation of captured peoples. However, campaigns of individual kings were not always great wars of conquest, but often warlike marches to reconfirm dominance over areas regarded as Assyrian. Traditions continued from the Middle Assyrian Period right through the Neo-Assyrian Period.

Assyria's consolidation began in 935 when Assyrian king Ashur-dan II began using a standing army, trained chariotry and cavalry, battering-ram siege techniques, psychological warfare and deportation of conquered peoples. The conquered peoples were used to settle new Assyrian cities, man the Assyrian infantry or serve as slave labor for construction projects.

However, despite early campaigns within Middle Assyrian boundaries, it was not until Assnurnsirpal II (880 - 859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (858 - 824 BC) that Assyria fully re-exerted its hegemony over its Middle Assyrian territory and had totally restored its boundaries. WIthin these boundaries was considered true Assyria and the rest of the Near East had to obey but was not considered part of Assyria itself.

However, after Shalmaneser II the state went into a brief decline. Central authority weakened in Shalmaneser III's old age, and the entire state suffered. Starting in 832 BC, a local governor named Dayan-Assur began to openly carry out his own campaigns. By 827 - 823 BC the princes had begun to fight for succession and a rebellion broke out in the Assyrian heartland. Other governors began to assert their own authority, acting and campaigning independently though they nominally acknowledged the Assyrian king.

Ashur-dan II934 - 912 BCAshur-dan II set the basic patterns of strategy and ideology that are elaborated by succeeding Assyrian kings. First, Ashur-dan II re-conquered Assyrian territories. Next, Ashur-dan II began a campaign of resettlement by rebuilding and equipping fortresses so that drought-exiled Assyrians could return home
Adad-nirari II911 - 891 BCAdad-nirari II (911-891 BC) extended and consolidated territory in which his father had campaigned. He campaigned west of the Khabur river and captured Husirina (modern Sultan Tepe, near Urfa) and Guzana (modern Tell Halaf). Nasibina (modern Nusaybin) is physically closer to Assyria, and was taken by an elaborate siege after six attacks. Adad-nirari II also campaigned in the north and north-east, often forcefully extracting tributes but in one instance aiding an allied city. Also, Adad-nirari embarked in a new direction, toward the Babylonian frontier. In the east Tigris region and one the Euphrates, frontier posts were established and an alliance was made with the Hindanu and Laqe states on the Euphrates north-west of Babylonia. Adad-nirari II's military moved rapidly and redundantly, meaning it must have been stationed throughout the kingdom; although tributes fed the army en route to a location, it required efficiently networked supply points (likely begun by Ashur-dan II) at other times.
Tukulti-Ninurta II890 - 884 BC
Ashurnasirpal II883 - 859 BCEarlier rulers before Ashurnarsipal II tried to "beat the bound" and restore the Assyrian boundary. They would go to the Mediterranean and up the Tigris, but never realy controlled those regions until Ashurnasirpal II. In 878 BC he chose Kalhu as his new capital.
Shalmaneser III858 - 824 BCShalmaneser III went about conquering regions and forcing tributes. Even within the Middle Assyrian boundaries, Assyria was already a huge entity; and now it exacted tribute from far-away lands. By the end of Shalmaneser III's reign he was old and his central power began to fray. His commander-in-chief Dayyan-Assur openly led military campaigns starting in 832 BC and from 827 - 823 BC a rebellion broke out in the Assyrian heartland by princes aggrieved by Dayyan-Assur's power and fighting for succession. Shamshi-Adad V ascended the throne with the help of Babylonian king Marduk-zakir-shumi I. The highly centralized Assyrian state went into a decline due to these internal troubles until Tiglath-Pileser III reversed the minor recension.
Rebellions in Assyria827 - 823 BCRebellions in Assyrian heartland.
Assyrian Recension823 - 745 BC
Shamshi-Adad V823 - 811 BC
Adad-nirari III810 - 783 BC
Shalmaneser IV782 - 773 BC
Ashur-dan III772 - 755 BC
Ashur-Nirari V754 - 745 BC

Expansion begins (745 - 705 BC)

The Assyrian empire expanded to directly govern territory from the Arab-Perisan Gulf to Commagene in Turkey by 705 BC and until the Assyrian regime's 610 BC collapse. Tiglath-Pileser III began the Assyrian Empire. He made several reforms to create a true empire: the land was divided into smaller, more easily controlled province; he assigned eunuchs to positions of authority, those removing issues inheritance of posts and placing himself in sole control of assignments; and he expanded the territory. The expansion of territory was not just to exact tribute as in Neo-Assyria's consolidation phase, but was actually meant to increase the breadth of the Assyrian empire.

Assyrian control gradually intensified until reaching its height after 704 BC under the Sargonid Dynasty initiated by Sargon II and highlighted by Sennacherib and Assurbanipal. Assyria came to dominate the entire Fertile Crescent (including Egypt, temporarily) and control terminal points of the Syrian desert's caravan routes. Rulers of several oases were subject allies of Assyria, and the powerful kingdoms of Urartu (later destroyed by Assyria), Phrygia (later Lydia) and Elam maintained relations with Assyria. Incorporated territories remained under their existing ruler, now viewed as an Assyrian governor. However, Assyria unravelled quickly after Assurbanipal and met its demise in 612 BC.


Pioneered by Hayam Tadmor, the notion of Aramization is the dilution of the god Ashur, and is indicative of Assyria's pending collapse. Assyrian dialect for religious purposes, Babylonain for official documents, then beginning in 8th BC particularly Aramaic. Aramaic became the language of administration, and not Akkadian cuneiform. The lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire went from Akkadian to Aramaic in the Middle Assyrian Period. When Assyria absorbed the Habur, they also absorbed Aramaic. Since Aramaic is much easier to learn, the Assyrian empire underwent Aramaization.

The focus on Ashur melted away, as the larger world of Aramaic speakers and participants became the dominant population group of the empire. Aramization is evidenced by Assurbanipal's desire to collect a huge library, a sign that cuneiform is slowly but surely dying out and that the literary background and trdadtion has beocome are fading away. There is a shift over time from when Assyrian is the language of empire to where Aramaic is the language of empire.

Tiglath-Pileser III744 - 727 BCTiglath-Pileser III (744-727 BC) centralized Assyrian administration, giving him a reputation as the founder of the Assyrian empire. He stopped Urartu in the west, incorporated large parts of Syria, trekked to the Mediterranean and Gaza and defeated the Babylonians (he took home the hands of a statue of Bel). Notably, Tiglath-Pileser III was the first Assyrian king to rule Babylonia (other than a few appointees) since Tukulti-Ninurta. Tiglath-Pileser III's reign left behind few monuments in the Assyrian heartland, as he was too busy militaristically to focus on much else. Sometimes he would take a longstanding capital, dismantle it and build a new capital capital elsewhere; he did this with Gugum, as well as when he replaced Jerusalem with Lachish. War technology developed under Tiglath-Pileser III, and his reliefs provide the earliest depiction of a battering ram.
Shalmaneser V726-722 BCTiglath-Pileser III's son Shalmaneser V briefly ruled after him after his death. Shalmaneser V continued his father's conquest of Samaria, capital of Israel. His queen was named Banite. Shalmaneser V's early death allowed Sargon II, perhaps a brother from another mother or an usurper, to assume the throne and initiate the Sargonid Dynasty.
Conquest of Samaria722 BCIn 722 BC (the 5th year of Shalmaneser V's reign) Samaria and the Northern Kingdom both fall 2 Kings 17:6.
Sargon II721-705 BCAssyrian king Sargon II initiated the Sargonid Dynasty under which Assyria reached its greatest heights. In 717 BC he founded a new capital at Dur-Sharrukin. Sargon II completed the siege at Samaria begun by Tiglath-Pileser III. Sargon II conquered Palestine and then trekked eastward into modern-day Turkey, the Iranian highlands and Elamite territory. After conquering and re-conquering vassals, he implemented a no good vassal but a dead vassal policy and replaced local dynasties with the sort of administrative and military network developed by Tiglath-Pileser III.

Assyria's rise and fall (704 - 612 BC)

From 704 to 612 BC (Sennacherib, Essarhaddon and Ashurbanipal). Greatest heights, with takeover of Egypt, but then knocked out by an alliance of Babylonians and "Miids" indo-european people who moved into central Iran around 1000 BC or so and allied with Persians to eventually become the Akkanemid empire. The Miids aligned themselves at this point with the Egyptians to knock out the Assyrians.

Sennacherib704 - 681 BCSennacherib moved the capital back to Nineveh (Sargon II had just put it at Dur Sharrukin), built an unrivaled palace (called ekallu sa sanina la isu) and installed the Jerwan Aqueduct (and other water works). He invested much of his loot in making Nineveh the primary city of the world. Militarily, Sennacherib successfully confronted Maduk-apla-iddina of Babylonia and in 689 BC Sennacherib sacked Babylon. Next, Sennacherib sacked Lachish in Judah in 701 BC (although he failed to take Jerusalem). To maintain frontier security, Sennacherib also campaigned in Anatolia, the Syrian desert and the southern Levant.
Sack of Babylon689 BC
Esarhaddon680 - 669 BC

Sennacherib's younger brother, Esarhaddon, marched against Egypt in 675 & 674 BC, earning victory in 671 BC when he captured Memphis. He made a tenuous treaty with the Urartians to unite against the face of a Cimmerian threat. Esarhaddon appointed his successors after seeing the rebellion that ensued when he took over the throne. Esarhaddon appointed Ashurbanipal as his heir and Shamash-shum-ukin as king of Babylonia.

Capture of Memphis671 BC
Ashurbanipal668 - 627 BC

The reign of Assurbanipal (aka Ashurbanipal) was marked by internal strife. After being forced to withdraw from Egypt, he had to confront the Babylonians, who were ruled by his brother and backed by the Elamites. A long series of Elamite wars ended in 646 BC when Assurbanipal totally destroyed the city of Susa.

Assurbanipal was vindictive; his reliefs reveal him flaying an Elamite king, taking the head home with him and hanging it upon a tree in his garden while he relaxes with his queen under a grape arbor. Assurbanipal's greatest legacy was his library, which provides most modern knowledge of Mesopotamian tradition.

Capture of Thebes664-3 BC
Demise of Assyria (626 - 612 BC)

Assyria was overthrown in 612 BCE by Babylonians, Medes and Elamites. The Babylonians took over all the southern half of old Assyria and the Medes took over all the northern half. Assyria's weakness and downfall is an example of The Law of Diminishing Return, whereby Assyria began to fall when it overreached and the cost of new conquests outweighed their return.

The Assyrians fell back into Haran, which the Assyrians had sacked in 763 BC and was restored by Sargon II. Haran served for two years as the headquarters for the then–crumbling Assyrian Empire after the fall of its capital Nineveh in 612 BCE.

Ashur-etel-ilani626 - 623 BC
Loss of Babylon626 BC BCAn independent dynasty was established in Babylon.
Sin-shar-ishkun622 - 612 BC
Ashur-uballit II611 - 609 BC

Neo-Assyrian sources

Limmu ListBegun in the Old Assyrian Era, an official was each year chosen as the limmu and the year was named after him.
Palace ReliefsBegun in earnest by Assurnasirpal II, palace reliefs featured both chiseled text and decorative relief.
Royal AnnalsRanging from laconic to detailed, the royal annals begun under the Middle Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I Royal, were prepared each year to record military campaigns; they sometimes revised the past. Also, commemorative texts from construction and restoration projects were buried.
Assurbanipal's LibraryAssurbanipal ordered his officials to gather texts from Babylonian temples and priests' private homes for his library at Nineveh.
Other sources

Earlier Traditions Continued in the Neo-Assyrian Era

Limmu ListsAnnual eponyms continued through Middle Assyria and into the Neo-Assyrian Era.
AshurAshur remained the central city, as well as its environs and its god Ashur.
CeremoniesRoyal ceremonies, including coronation rituals and court hierarchical procedures, continued.
WritingsDeveloped during Middle Assyria, royal inscriptions and campaign reports continued.
TerritoryMiddle Assyrian rulers created an empire spanning northern Iraq, the plains of Ashur, Nineveh, Arbela, Kalhu and Kilizi, and the Assyrian heartland. These bounds remained until the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC.


J. A. Brinkman, "Foreign Relations of Babylonia from 1600 to 625 Bc: The Documentary Evidence," AJA 76, no. 3, 1972

Saggs, 1985. The Might That Was Assyria.

Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East.

Neo-Assyrian EmpireComments