Little is known about population groups and settlement patterns in Assyria before about 2000 BCE. By this date the people were speaking a dialect of Akkadian and writing it in the cuneiform script. A people called Amorites, who had been seminomads living in the Syro-Arabian desert, made major inroads into all of Mesopotamia. They took over many city-states, founded new dynasties, and gradually intermarried with the older population and adopted its culture. This is certainly what happened in Assyria; therefore, the “Assyrians” after around 2000 were a mixture of Amorites, who spoke a Semitic language, and the older population, which spoke Akkadian, also a Semitic language. About 1200 BCE the Arameans, another group of Semitic-speaking seminomads from the Syro-Arabian desert, began to make significant incursions into Assyria, and over the next several centuries they intermingled with the Assyrians, thus making the “Assyrians” an even more mixed population group.

The Assyrian population was concentrated in a few cities in what is now Iraq, mainly Aššur, Arbela, Nineveh, and, after the mid-ninth century, Kalḫu (Nimrud). The rural population clustered in numerous villages from which they would venture each day to till their fields and tend their flocks. As the empire was created, Assyrians were settled in some provincial regions where they remained sometimes for centuries. Around 1900 the city-state of Aššur established some Assyrian merchant colonies in Anatolia to facilitate trade between the two regions.

Political History.

The Assyrians not only developed a powerful and profitable empire, but also sponsored and protected the activities of the religious and cultural communities. It is because of the Assyrians that so much of the earlier Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations have been recovered by modern archaeology. The political history of the Assyrians is divided by modern scholars into the Old (c. 2000–1750), Middle (c. 1750–1000), and Neo-Assyrian (c. 1000–609) periods. There was no unified nation “Assyria” at the beginning of the Old Assyrian period. There were just independent city-states, which shared a commonculture, and nomadic tribes in the surrounding hills and mountains. Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1813–1781), whose ancestors were Amorites, led his forces slowly up the Tigris River to conquer Aššur and then the surrounding region as far as Mari on the middle Euphrates River. [See Mari.] He was the first to establish some political solidarity in the region. This unity collapsed, however, shortly after his death, and for over three centuries (c. 1740–1400) little is known about the region and its people. During this “dark” age, a revolution in warfare, the light horse-drawn chariot, was introduced into southwestern Asia by Indo-Aryan warriors. The Assyrians seized this new device and used it in their building of a militaristic state. [See Chariots.]


Assyrian Empire

view larger image

The power of the Middle Assyrian monarchs, notably Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243–1207) and Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076), was unprecedented. They not only ruled over a united Assyria, but they also led their armies on vigorous campaigns abroad, conquering Babylonia to the south and Syria to the west as far as the Mediterranean Sea. In the process the principles of an absolute monarchy, ruling from Aššur, were established, and the idea of imperialism was given practical expression.

After a period of confusion and temporary eclipse of Assyrian might (c. 1000–900), the greatest period of the Assyrian empire emerged. Outstanding among the warrior kings of the early phase of this era were Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) and Shalmaneser III (858–824). During their reigns the Assyrian armies thundered once again to the west, reaching the Mediterranean and then moving both north and south along the Levantine coast. There was, however, little interference in Babylonian affairs. The exotic items such as gold, silver, ivory, and cedar that they brought back from the western expeditions were used to build and decorate new palaces and temples. Masses of foreign captives, mainly Arameans, were transported to Assyria to work on these building projects or to develop uncultivated land in order to feed the expanding population of the Assyrian cities.

After another brief interval of weakness, a series of kings resumed the military expansion of the empire. At its height (c. 680) Assyria laid claim to an empire that embraced all of the Fertile Crescent, including Egypt, as well as central Anatolia and western Iran. By this time the capital had been moved to Nineveh, where the last great monarch, Ashurbanipal (668–627), resided. In 612 Nineveh fell to the Medes and Babylonians, and over the next few years the territory that had been the Assyrian Empire was taken over by the Babylonians.

Social Structure.

Assyrian society was male dominated and militaristic in character. Every male in theory was required to perform military service when called upon by the king. Thus, the social structure was essentially based on army rank—the king at the top and the peasant infantry at the bottom. The role of women, who were confined to harems and had to be veiled, was to care for the men in their family, their children, and their homes. The men engaged in arduous activity on the battlefield, hunting ground, and fields and pastures. To a modern Western eye, Assyrian society appears harsh and cruel. Punishments for criminal acts were severe, commonly requiring physical mutilation, torture, and execution.

At the bottom of the social spectrum were slaves, but they did not play as vital a role in Assyrian society as they did in the Roman Empire. There were two kinds of slaves: (1) Assyrians who went bankrupt and so became debt slaves, and (2) foreign prisoners of war. The latter had no chance of freedom, except escape or death, but the debt slaves could regain their independence by gradually paying off their debts. Above the slaves were various levels of free citizens, from rank and file to archers to noncommissioned and commissioned officers, charioteers, and cavalry. Above these were the chief army commanders of which the most important was the field marshal, who was directly under the king. The chief officers came from the noble families of the Assyrians.

Political Structure.

The king was an absolute monarch being the supreme commander of the army, the chief priest in religion, and the highest source of appeal in legal disputes. He ruled by personal decree, there being no legislative or consultative assembly. The only restraints on his authority were ancient customs and religious practices, which he had to observe, and the attitude of the nobility. He had to keep his nobles happy by providing them with high offices and the benefits which came therefrom.

The Assyrian king resided in a palace which was full of courtiers, many of whom were eunuchs, of various rank. Only one courtier, however, seems to have had regular direct access to the monarch. All messages, even from the royal family, had to be conveyed through the major domo. It appears that most Assyrians, including the king himself, were illiterate. There was a large corps of scribes of which the chief was one of the king's most important advisers. It was a hereditary monarchy, the legitimate successor normally being the eldest son of the previous king.


The Assyrians regarded warfare as their most important activity. In return for the military service which, in theory, every male citizen had to perform, he was given the use of a plot of land under an arrangement called the ilku. “Captains” (rab kiṣri) lived in the various agricultural villages, and when the call to arms was sent out, it was their responsibility to rally and produce their companies at the appointed place and time. By the Neo-Assyrian period, the annual military campaign, led by the king, had become the norm and, later in the same era, a standing army, which served year round, was also established.

On the march, the army was preceded by the divine standards (“the colors”) followed by the diviners, the king surrounded by his bodyguard, the cavalry and chariots, the infantry, the siege machines and other equipment, and the camp followers. Engineers were responsible for taking the army across rivers and for organizing sieges. Rafts were built to transport equipment across the rivers, and individual soldiers stripped their clothes off and swam with the aid of inflated goat skins. The Assyrians were experts both at open-field warfare and sieges. In the field their cavalry made the initial attack, followed by the chariots, and then the infantry. Siege warfare, which was costly and time consuming, was used only as a last resort. If a region refused to submit voluntarily and would not field an army to fight, the Assyrian army surrounded a strategic town. All traffic in and out of the city was cut off and, if this maneuver did not bring capitulation, the army would attempt to penetrate the walls by various techniques: tunneling, battering rams, or building earthen ramps up the wall. Once the town was taken, it was thoroughly pillaged, and the inhabitants either were taken prisoner or slaughtered in gruesome ways as an example to the other towns in the region. Excellent organization and tactics, together with metal (first bronze, later iron) weapons, the bow, and the light horse-drawn chariot, made the Assyrians the most successful fighting power the world had seen.


State religion in Assyria was cultic and polytheistic. There were a number of temples, including that of the god Ashur (Aššur) at the city of the same name, dedicated to a variety of deities. Each temple had a corps of priests and servants who carried out elaborate rituals and regularly cared for the gods by providing them with food and drink. There were numerous festivals, but the most important was for the new year (akītu), which was celebrated in the spring. Festivals often involved processions of the gods' statues through the city streets. Among the chief Assyrian gods were Ashur, Ninurta (god of war), Ishtar (goddess of love), Shamash (sun god and god of justice), Sin (moon god), and Adad (storm god).

Magic, both black (bad) and white (good), was practiced, and a large body of incantations and rituals, on a variety of themes, has been discovered on clay tablets. The Assyrians, like the Babylonians, believed in divination. According to them, the gods were constantly sending messages regarding the future to human beings through any number of vehicles. It was the task of humans to recognize and read these omens. The two most popular vehicles for omens were the entrails of a sacrificed animal, particularly a sheep's liver, and the movements of the stars and planets. An Assyrian king would not take any decisive action without consulting his diviners.


The economy of the Assyrians was founded on agriculture, animal husbandry, and foreign trade. In the rolling hills of the Assyrian homeland where rainfall was regular, the fertile fields lent themselves to abundant yields and the pasturing of sheep and goats. The crops were primarily barley (for bread and beer), linseed oil, and grapes, which were used for both fruit and wine. Goats were a source of milk, butter, and cheese, and their wool, like that of sheep, was used for textiles, which were major articles of export. The Assyrians participated in an extensive trading network, which brought them metal (silver, gold, tin, copper, and iron) precious stone (such as lapis lazuli), ivory, and various other items, both practical and luxurious.


ASSYRIANS. Figure 1. Relief showing warriors carrying heads of enemies and throwing them on a heap. Battle of Til Tuba. Ashurbanipal and the Assyrians fight Teumman, king of Elam, on the Ulai River in 635 BCE. British Museum, London. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

view larger image

The palace had considerable control of the economy, although it is impossible to give exact data because of scanty sources. The temples had a much smaller role to play in the economy, and by the Neo-Assyrian period they had become dependent on the king for much of their income through royal offerings and for the maintenance and construction of their buildings. Although the palace and, to a much lesser extent, the temples were directly involved with agriculture and animal husbandry, it appears that foreign trade was in the hands of private entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, the palace gained profit from the trade by means of taxation. As the empire was expanded, another major source of income became the annual tribute exacted from the provinces and territories. The tribute was of two types: (1) supplies for the military garrisons and armies on campaign in the form of grain and animals, and (2) luxury items for the construction and embellishment of monumental buildings.

Art and Architecture.

The artists of Assyria were sponsored primarily by the state; therefore, most of their works related to the deeds of the king. The carved stone reliefs that lined the walls of the palaces portrayed the Assyrian monarch triumphantly fighting, hunting, and feasting (see figure 1). The scenes were accompanied by inscriptions explaining these activities. The quality of the human figures was high, even if the subject matter was repetitious. It was in the depiction of animals, however, that the Assyrian artists surpassed themselves. The reliefs were painted in various colors, which have now almost entirely disappeared. Scenes similar to those on the reliefs were incised on a number of bronze bands on gates discovered at Balawat near Nimrud. The palaces were also adorned with scenes set out with glazed ceramic bricks, clay knobs, and painted murals. A rich horde of finely carved ivories was excavated at Nimrud, as was a large amount of jewelry of superb craftsmanship. Note must also be taken of the mythological and legendary scenes carved on the stone stamp and cylinder seals.

The palaces were constructed on artificially created terraces and consisted of many rooms of various types. The central room was the audience chamber; colossal bulls and lions sculptured in stone towered over the palace entrances. Temples and temple towers (ziggurats) were also built on terraces. [See Ziggurat.] Stone statues of the king, large and small, were erected inside to indicate his continual worship of the gods.

Archaeological Recovery.

First excavated in the early nineteenth century, Assyrian sites in Iraq were among the initial places of investigation in the whole of the Fertile Crescent. Émile Botta, a Frenchman, concentrated on Khorsabad (ancient Dur Sharrukin, “Fort Sargon”) and Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman, began work at Nimrud (ancient Calah). The discoveries, which included colossal stone winged bulls and reliefs, were a sensation when they were transported to London and Paris. They generated increased support and also lured other Europeans into Assyrian archaeology. By modern standards, the techniques employed in these early excavations were primitive. Tunneling was common because the goal was to find as many interesting objects as possible.

A more scientific approach finally came with the German expedition to Aššur at the beginning of the twentieth century. Walter Andrae, leader of the team, recognized the importance of making a topographical map that divided the mound into small carefully labeled, squares. Andrae also paid attention to the different levels (strata) of the site. Avoiding tunneling, he dug systematically, section by section. Every object was assigned a number and photographed, and its provenance was carefully recorded. Another innovation was the division of the finds. Rather than taking all of the objects to Berlin, a significant portion was handed over by agreement to the sultan in Istanbul because northern Iraq (the core of Assyria) was at this time part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Before Andrae had opened excavations at Aššur, the site of Nineveh (modern Mosul) had attracted the interest of successive British archaeologists. Expeditions from various nations have continued during the twentieth century to exploreother tells in Assyria. Gradually Iraqi archaeologists have appeared on the scene, and in modern times they outnumber foreigners in the field. There is no longer a division of the finds from foreign expeditions; a strict ban on the export of any antiquities has enriched Iraqi museums, notably the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and the Mosul Museum.

A major change in the direction of archaeology in the Near East was brought about by modern irrigation projects, which involved the construction of dams and the flooding of plains which were full of ancient sites. This development led to “rescue archaeology”; the organization of numerous teams of archaeologists from various parts of the world to survey the area and excavate some of the most significant looking tells. In Assyria, one such project was in the Eski Mosul region on the upper Tigris River just north of Mosul. [See Eski Mosul Dam Salvage Project.] In concluding this description of archaeological recovery of Assyrian remains, it must be stated that only a fraction of the ancient sites in this region has been explored, and even the excavated tells have not been fully investigated.


A major product of archaeological activity in Assyria has been the discovery of a vast quantity of inscriptions. These are in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing system, and the language is Akkadian. The Assyrians had their own dialect of Akkadian, but they often wrote in the Babylonian dialect because they were very much influenced by Babylonian culture. Cuneiform and the Akkadian language were deciphered about the same time that intensive archaeological activity began, that is around 1850.

The majority of inscriptions are on clay tablets. Hundreds of thousands have been recovered, but there are many texts inscribed on stone, metal, and other materials. The contents of the inscribed tablets vary considerably. On the one hand there are libraries of tablets; most notable are the libraries of Ashurbanipal (668–627). In these libraries are found myths (such as the creation stories), legends (such as the Flood story), epics (such as the Gilgamesh epic), hymns, prayers, magical incantations, medical texts, divinatory texts, astrological texts, and mathematical texts. There are also archives: the documents accumulated by the palace and merchant houses in the course of daily business. These include letters, contracts, and administrative records. Although efforts to edit and publish all these inscriptions, which are now in museums, have increased in recent years, a significant portion of them remains unpublished, and an unknown quantity are buried in ancient sites.

By the late period of Assyrian history, the spoken language had changed from Akkadian to Aramaic, which was written in an alphabetic script on parchment or papyrus. Because those two materials perished in the Assyrian climate, almost all Aramaic documentation has disappeared. References to it exist, however, in cuneiform inscriptions.

[See also Akkadian; Akkadians; Amorites; Aramaic Language and Literature; Aššur; Cuneiform; Nimrud; Nineveh; and the biographies of Andrae, Botta, and Layard.]


  • Andrae, Walter. Das wiedererstandene Assur. 2d ed. Munich, 1977. Account of the excavations at Aššur and their results, written by the director of the expedition.
  • Barnett, Richard D., and Margarete Falkner. The Sculptures of Aššurnāṣir-apli II, 883–859 BC, Tiglath-pileser III, 745–729 BC, Esarhaddon, 681–669 BC, from the Central and South-West Palaces at Nimrud. London, 1962. Excellent collection of photographs and commentary on Assyrian sculptures; see as well Barnett and Lorenzini (below).
  • Barnett, Richard D., and Amleto Lorenzini. Assyrian Sculpture in the British Museum. Toronto, 1975.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History. Vols. 1.2–3.2. 2d and 3d eds. Cambridge, 1971–1991. The relevant chapters in these volumes vary in quality but in general are quite authoritative and include extensive bibliographies.
  • Collon, Dominique. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. Chicago, 1988. Comprehensive treatment of cylinder seals with fine illustrations and a sound commentary.
  • Dalley, Stephanie, and J. N. Postgate. The Tablets from Fort Shalmaneser. Cuneiform Texts from Nimrud, 3. London, 1984. The introduction to this book is one of the best treatments of administration and the army. See also Postgate (below).
  • Grayson, A. Kirk. Assyrian Royal Inscriptions. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 1972–1976. English translation of all royal inscriptions and related texts from the beginning of Assyrian history to 859 BCE. See also Luckenbill (below).
  • Larsen, Mogens T. The Old Assyrian City-State and Its Colonies. Copenhagen Studies in Assyriology, 4. Copenhagen, 1976. Authoritative presentation of the Old Assyrian merchant colonies in Anatolia.
  • Luckenbill, Daniel D. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. 2 vols. Chicago, 1926–1927. Contains English translations of all Assyrian royal inscriptions known at the time of publication; dated but, except for the first volume (see Grayson above), there is nothing else yet available.
  • Mallowan, M. E. L. Nimrud and Its Remains. Vols. 1–2. London, 1966. Final report of the excavations at Calah (Nimrud) conducted by the author in the 1950s and 1960s; extensively illustrated. The architecture was one of Mallowan's chief interests.
  • Oates, David. Studies in the Ancient History of Northern Iraq. London, 1968. The author excavated for many years in northern Iraq and this volume reflects his great knowledge of the region, its ancient history, and modern archaeology there.
  • Olmstead, Albert T. History of Assyria. Chicago and London, 1923. Olmstead was the first to write a proper history of Assyria and although the book is quite dated and ponderous, it is still well worth reading.
  • Postgate, J. N. Taxation and Conscription in the Assyrian Empire. Studia Pohl, Series Maior, 3. Rome, 1974. Thorough and reliable discussion.
  • Paley, Samuel M. King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria 883–859 B.C. Brooklyn, 1976.
  • Reade, Julian. Assyrian Sculpture. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.
  • Russell, John M. Sennacherib's Palace Without Rival at Nineveh. Chicago, 1991.
  • The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Assyrian Periods. Toronto, 1987– Scholarly editions, including English translation, of all known Assyrian royal inscriptions. Three volumes have appeared and others are in preparation.
  • Saggs, H. W. F. The Might That Was Assyria. London, 1984. Comprehensive and up-to-date treatment of Assyrian history and civilization; good introduction for readers who know little or nothing of the subject.
  • State Archives of Assyria. Helsinki, 1987. Ongoing series of publications of Neo-Assyrian (nonroyal) inscriptions, in standard editions with English translations. The introductions to the volumes are particularly useful for the nonspecialist.

A. Kirk Grayson