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Assyria (əsĭrˈēə), ancient empire of W Asia. It developed around the city of Ashur, or Assur, on the upper Tigris River and south of the later capital, Nineveh.

Assyria's Rise

The nucleus of a Semitic state was forming by the beginning of the 3d millennium B.C., but it was overshadowed by the greatness of Sumer and Akkad. Ashur was Assyria's chief god, but the gods of the Babylonians and Hittites were also honored. In the 17th cent. B.C., Assyria expanded briefly, but it soon relapsed into weakness. The 13th cent. B.C. saw Assyria threatening the surrounding states, and under Tiglathpileser I Assyrian soldiers entered the kingdom centered about Urartu (Ararat; see Armenia), took Babylonia, and crossed N Syria to reach the Mediterranean. This empire was, however, only ephemeral.

The Ascendancy of Assyria

Assyrian greatness was to wait until the 9th cent., when Ashurnasirpal II came into power. He was not only a vigorous and barbarously cruel conqueror who pushed his conquests N to Urartu and W to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, but he was also a shrewd administrator. Instead of merely making conquered kings pay tribute, he installed Assyrian governors so that he could have more control over the empire.

Shalmaneser III (see under Shalmaneser I) attempted to continue this policy, but, although he exacted heavy tribute from Jehu of Israel and claimed many victories, he failed to establish hegemony over the Hebrews and their Aramaic-speaking allies. The basalt obelisk, called the Black Obelisk (British Mus.), describes the expeditions and conquests of Shalmaneser III. Raids from Urartu were resumed and grew more destructive after the death of Shalmaneser. Calah, the capital of Assyria during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, has been excavated.

In the 8th cent. B.C. conquest was pursued by Tiglathpileser III. He subdued Babylonia, defeated the king of Urartu, attacked the Medes, and established control over Syria. As an ally of Ahaz of Judah (who became his vassal), he defeated his Aramaic-speaking enemies centering at Damascus. His successor, Shalmaneser V, besieged Samaria, the capital of Israel, in 722–721 B.C., but it was Sargon, his son, who completed the task of capturing Israel. Sargon's victory at Raphia (720 B.C.) and his invasions of Armenia, Arabia, and other lands made Assyria indisputably one of the greatest of ancient empires.

Sargon's son Sennacherib devoted himself to retaining the gains his father had made. He is particularly remembered for his warfare against his rebellious vassal, Hezekiah of Judah. Sennacherib's successor, Esar-Haddon, defeated the Chaldaeans, who threatened Assyria and carried his conquests (673–670) to Egypt, where he deposed Taharka and established Necho in power. Under Assurbanipal, Assyria reached its zenith and approached its fall. When Assurbanipal was fighting against the Chaldaeans and Elamites, an Egyptian revolt under Psamtik I was successful.

Assurbanipal's reign saw the Assyrian capital of Nineveh reach the height of its splendor. The library of cuneiform tablets he collected ultimately proved to be one of the most important historical sources of antiquity. The magnificent Assyrian bas-reliefs reached their peak. The royal court was luxurious. Assyrian culture owed much to earlier Babylonian civilization, and in religion Assyria seems to have taken much from its southern neighbor and subject (see Middle Eastern religions).

Assyria's Decline

Despite the magnificence of Assurbanipal's court, Assyria began a rapid decline during his reign. The military aspect of the empire was its most prominent feature, for Assyria was prepared for conflict from beginning to end. Because of the ever-present need for men to fight the incessant battles, agriculture suffered, and ultimately the Assyrians had to import food. The division of society into a fairly rigid three-class system was not unlike that of other early western Asian peoples (e.g., Babylonia), but it did not supply a solid base for the overgrown Assyrian state.

The lavish expenditures of Assurbanipal on warfare and building drained the resources of the empire and contributed to its weakness. The king of the Medes, Cyaxares, and the Babylonian ruler Nabopolassar, joined forces and took Nineveh in 612 B.C. Under the son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonia was renewed in power, and the great-grandson of Cyaxares, Cyrus the Great, was to establish the Persian Empire, which owed much to the earlier Assyrian state.


See A. T. E. Olmstead, History of Assyria (1923, repr. 1960); D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (2 vol., 1926–27, repr. 1968).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an ancient country in the region of present-day Iraq. The center of Assyria was Ashur. The ethnic composition of its original population is unknown. Around 2000 B.C. most of the inhabitants were the Semitic Akkadians. At that time Ashur functioned as an intermediary in the transit trade between southern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, where the trading stations of the Assyrian merchants were located (the most important was Kanesh, present-day Kültepe). At the beginning of the 18th century B.C., Ashur became the center of the great power of the Amorite Shamshi-Adad I. In the 18th century Ashur and the neighboring cities were subjected to the Babylonian king Hammurabi and in the 16th and 15th centuries to the Mitanni kings. The Assyrian ruler Ashur-uballit I (late 15th and early 14th centuries) managed to create a powerful state and subject Babylonia to its influence. His descendants assumed the title of king of Assyria. In the 14th and 13th centuries they were able to conquer northern Mesopotamia and seize the transport routes to Babylonia.

Ancient Assyria had a self-governing rural and urban commune (ālu) that owned periodically redistributed land directly controlled by household communes (bltu). The nobility that formed trading companies grew rich on the caravan trade. Intensification and specialization of agriculture began in the early second millennium B.C., and usurious credit came into vogue. This led to the creation of large private landholdings by the trading-usurious nobility and to the enslavement and ruin of a considerable percentage of the ordinary members of the commune. The manpower needs of the large estates were not adequately satisfied by debtors in bondage; from the 13th century B.C., on, prisoners of war provided by military campaigns were a steadily growing source of slaves.

A collection of Assyrian laws compiled between the 16th and 13th centuries has come down to our times. Assyrian law was characterized by exceptionally harsh punishments, defenselessness of debtors, and lack of legal rights for women.

After a time of weakness (12th century B.C.) Assyrian might attained new heights under Tiglath-pileser I (late 12th to early 11th centuries). He waged war in Babylonia, northern Syria, and Phoenicia and raided the Armenian highland. During the second half of the rule of Tiglath-pileser I, Aramaean tribes began to move from the Syrian steppe to northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Assyrian power became weak and fragmented. As a result of a struggle within the ruling class, the residence of the Assyrian kings was shifted from Ashur to other cities, first to Calah (present-day Nimrud) and in the eighth and seventh centuries to Dur-Sharrukin (present-day Khorsabad) and Nineveh (present-day Quyunjiq).

A new development in the aggressive policy of Assyria was stimulated by the endeavors of the Assyrian ruling class to seize the abundant raw materials of regions that from the tenth century B.C. had ceased to need broad international trade because of the expansion of Assyria’s own crafts.

At the end of the tenth and beginning of the ninth centuries the Assyrian kings succeeded in reimposing their authority in northern Mesopotamia and in the mountains east of Assyria. Their troops repeatedly invaded Babylonia to the south, Urartu to the north, Media to the east, and Syria to the west. However, the Assyrians encountered fierce resistance from the Syrian union of states headed by Damascus, and Assyrian sway in Syria was shaky. A crisis broke out in Assyria at the end of the ninth century because of the devastation of agricultural regions during the wars and because of the civil wars between the party of the priests and privileged traders, on the one hand, and the party of the military nobility and warriors, on the other. Tiglath-pileser III (745–727) became king after the third civil war. Under his rule the policy of extermination of conquered peoples was replaced by a policy of mass resettlement from some regions to others. The regions governed by viceroys were broken up into smaller units, and the rights of the viceroys were curtailed. A standing army was created and maintained at the expense of the state. Assyria again resumed its policy of aggression. All of Southwest Asia (except Urartu and some remote regions) and Egypt were conquered during the next 100 years. Tiglath-pileser III and his son Shalmaneser V (727–722) and after him Sennacherib (705–680) were supporters of the military party; they curtailed the rights of the nobility and abolished the privileges of the self-governing mercantile cities both in Assyria itself and in Babylonia (Sennacherib even destroyed Babylon entirely). On the other hand, Sargon II (722–705) and especially Esarhaddon (680–669) formed an alliance with the priestly party and Babylonian privileged cities.

As early as the end of the eighth century B.C. the enemies of Assyria tried to oppose it with a coalition of several states and tribes. Under King Ashurbanipal (669-c. 633) war with a coalition headed by his brother the Babylonian king Shamash-shum-ukin finally undermined the power of Assyria. The position of the free landholders (numerically greatly reduced) deteriorated. They were saddled with heavy taxes and duties paid in kind and were bound by mutual communal responsibilities. For the most part they used land that belonged to the king by right of conquest or land given to important personages as a gift from the king. The lands of the king and nobility were cultivated chiefly by captives and resettled persons.

Predatory wars ravaged the peoples of the conquered countries and exhausted Assyria. The army’s morale deteriorated. The military technology of the Assyrians ceased to be a monopoly. At the end of the seventh century a coalition of Babylonia and Media devastated Assyria, destroyed its principal cities, and annihilated the state (626–605). The Assyrian nobility was extirpated during the war, and the rest of the population mixed with the Aramaeans of Mesopotamia.


D’iakonov, I. M. Razvitie zemel’nykh otnoshenii v Assirii. Leningrad, 1949.
D’iakonov, I. M. “Problemy ekonomiki: O strukture obshchestva Blizhnego Vostoka do serediny II tysiacheletiia do n. e.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1968, nos. 3–4.
“Zakony Vavilonii, Assirii i Khettskogo tsarstva.” Translated and with a commentary by I. M. D’iakonov [and Ia. M. Magaziner]. Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1952, no. 3.
The Assyrian Laws. Translated by G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles. Oxford, 1935.
Olmstead, A. T. E. History of Assyria. New York, [1923].
Smith, S. Early History of Assyria. London, 1928.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an ancient kingdom of N Mesopotamia: it established an empire that stretched from Egypt to the Persian Gulf, reaching its greatest extent between 721 and 633 bc. Its chief cities were Assur and Nineveh
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