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Assyrian art of the siege
Chronology is a bit soft, but in 877 or 876 BC Assyria came to blows with the city of Bit Adini, which had sided with another city against the Assyrians. Assur conceived the entire world as a place that owed submission and tribute to the gods, so anyone who went against their order of the world was going against the gods, and therefore subject to harsh penalties, including extermination.
Invading the insubordinate state in what is now Syria, King Ashurnasirpal II laid siege to their fortress at Kaprabu. Whereas the flood control walls of cities in the east of Mesopotamia could be scaled with ladders, however, the formidable walls of western Levantive cities and forts required specialized engines of war. Fortunately, his army was experienced at building and using those. Armies in the region had been doing that for a very long time.
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If we take him at his word, Ashurnasirpal II was rather fond of sacking cities. According to surviving court records, he destroyed or subjugated a dozen city-states during his reign, which saw the Assyrian Empire expand to its largest extent. Italian archaeologist Davide Nadali argues that Ashurnasirpal II actually preferred siege to battle as “the most efficient system to conquer cities and territories.” Yet as we shall see, there are reasons to question just how total his military victories really were.
To be sure, the Assyrian siege train was as legendary as their brutality. According to the bible, King Hezekiah of Jerusalem rebelled after the death of Sargon II in 705 BC. He then spent four years preparing Judah for invasion. When it came, he lost 46 “cities” (towns, really) and only preserved the heart of Yahwist religion thanks to a convenient plague that struck the Assyrian camp. Or that’s the story that Hezekiah had someone write down, anyway.
Hezekiah’s victory was pyrrhic. Unlike the bible, Assyrian court records indicate that they withdrew after he submitted to them and their gods.
By that point, the Assyrian army had systematically surrounded Jerusalem with fortified posts “like a bird in a cage,” as their texts term the technique of blockade. Once the city was cut off from relief, they ravaged everything outside the walls that they could eat, burn, or steal.
Ashurnasirpal II really liked his siege engines and included them in the bas-reliefs lining the walls of his palace at Nimrud. Every room was filled with elaborate scenes carved onto gypsum from a local quarry and painted in brilliant colors.
According to ancient art historians, at least two master artists worked on the wall panel that interests us today. Strangely, it has never been the BBC writing room prompt for a Dr. Who episode.
“Well-constructed siege ramps were used not only for heavy infantry, but also for the hallmark of Assyrian siege warfare: the battering ram,” writes archaeologist Louis R. Siddall.
The Assyrian battering ram reached its height of development during the reigns of Sargon II and Sennacherib, and by this stage it comprised a long central ram pole with an iron boss head. It was protected by wicker shields with an open top for archers, and was mounted on a four- or six-wheeled base for mobility. This structure combined the mobility needed for ascending the ramps, protection for its operators, and the iron boss on the ram was particularly effective in destroying dried mud bricks, which were the main building material in the ancient Near East. It is for these reasons that the Assyrian texts and reliefs regularly include the battering rams as an integral feature of assaults on walled cities.
Just as waging war in different geographies requires different tactics, each city is different and requires a different approach to overcome its defenses. Moreover, experts stress that the siege art of Assyria portrays the moment of assault as an idealized tableau rather than an accurate history of a particular event. The real siege of Kaprabu did not look like this, nor did it end like this. We can only glean a sense of how the Assyrians conducted their sieges generally.
As we can see in the relief, towers provided platforms for archers to suppress resistance on the walls while the battering ram worked. In the above panel, the Dalek-like ram is demolishing a defensive tower in order to make the wall itself defenseless against sappers.
Although the Assyrians did destroy some cities, populations were generally incorporated into the empire. It was better to have a productive, tribute-paying city under their thumb than a useless ruin.
A set of rules had already emerged in Sumerian times that allowed cities to capitulate at any stage of a siege, though on less favorable terms the longer it went on. Put another way, the price of submission — in blood and treasure — continued to rise as long as the siege progressed. Hezekiah could have submitted on better terms, earlier, with less damage inflicted on Judah.
From the perspective of the besieger, this makes sense. Camp plague was just one of the risks that made sieges so expensive. From their records, we can tease out a more nuanced picture. Nadali writes that “the Assyrians were particularly well-trained in managing these kinds of military operations—which often resulted in limited casualties, on one hand, and a collection of goods that could be pillaged from the conquered enemies’ centres, on the other.”
Indeed, the representations of sieges on the walls of the Assyrian palaces, from the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, precisely reflect the preference Assyrians granted to sieges and blockades. However, at the same time, it has also been shown that a careful and analytical reading of the Assyrian sources, starting particularly from the letters of the officials that were in the field or ruling the region where the Assyrian army was operating, reveal that even sieges were not always successful.
When they were determined enough, no defenses would be strong enough to stop the Assyrians. Their two sieges of Babylon lasted 15 and 22 months respectively, consuming the entire imperial bureaucracy and everything it could provide. Yet they did not destroy Babylon, for its value lay in having, not erasing.
The name of King Akhuni survives to us because he submitted to Assyria and paid tribute again, resuming Bit Adini’s subordination to Assur as inscribed on court records. They also say that Ashurnasirpal II “defeated and confined” Akhuni in his fortress first. Then, with other cities to sack, he crossed the Euphrates and entered the lands of Hatti.
Reading between the lines, it seems that a renegotiation of the original hierarchical relationship is what really took place at Kaprabu. As the events loosely match those recorded in the bible, we are left to wonder if this was not the norm.
When Assyrian records boast of cities destroyed and then their leaders resuming tribute to Assur, the destruction must be more figurative than literal, or else it is a reference to the slighting and reduction of city walls to prevent future rebellion.
Leaders fight over hierarchies and resent humiliations by one another all the time. Unfair systems of exchange create enmity. We are used to thinking of Assyrians as bloodthirsty, and they could be, yet this reputation is overblown. They preferred siege because it turned a war into a haggling session at the souk. The final result depended on how both leaders managed risks.
Even if their cosmology was offended, villains from outer space were not necessary to salve the pride of Assur. Apologies, money, and perhaps some hostages were usually enough.
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