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Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 195

After the Hammurabi period Assyria rose into prominence as a predatory power, which depended for its stability upon those productive countries which it was able to conquer and hold in sway. It never had a numerous peasantry, and such as it had ultimately vanished, for the kings pursued the short-sighted policy of colonizing districts on the borders of their empire with their loyal subjects, and settling aliens in the heart of the homeland, where they were controlled by the military. In this manner they built up an artificial empire, which suffered at critical periods in its history because it lacked the great driving and sustaining force of a population welded together by immemorial native traditions and the love of country which is the essence of true patriotism. National sentiment was chiefly confined to the military aristocracy and the priests; the enslaved and uncultured masses of aliens were concerned mainly with their daily duties, and no doubt included communities, like the Israelites in captivity, who longed to return to their native lands.

Assyria had to maintain a standing army, which grew from an alliance of brigands who first enslaved the native population, and ultimately extended their sway over neighbouring States. The successes of the army made Assyria powerful. Conquering kings accumulated rich booty by pillaging alien cities, and grew more and more wealthy as they were able to impose annual tribute on those States which came under their sway. They even regarded Babylonia with avaricious eyes. It was to achieve the conquest of the fertile and prosperous mother State that the early Assyrian emperors conducted military operations in the north-west and laid hands on Mesopotamia. There was no surer way of strangling it than by securing control of its trade routes. What the command of the sea is to Great Britain at the present day, the command of the caravan roads was to ancient Babylonia.

Babylonia suffered less than Assyria by defeat in battle; its natural resources gave it great recuperative powers, and the native population was ever so intensely patriotic that centuries of alien sway could not obliterate their national aspirations. A conqueror of Babylon had to become a Babylonian. The Amorites and Kassites had in turn to adopt the modes of life and modes of thought of the native population. Like the Egyptians, the Babylonians ever achieved the intellectual conquest of their conquerors.

The Assyrian Empire, on the other hand, collapsed like a house of cards when its army of mercenaries suffered a succession of disasters. The kings, as we have indicated, depended on the tribute of subject States to pay their soldiers and maintain the priesthood; they were faced with national bankruptcy when their vassals successfully revolted against them.

The history of Assyria as a world power is divided into three periods: (1) the Old Empire; (2) the Middle Empire; (3) the New or Last Empire.

We have followed the rise and growth of the Old Empire from the days of Ashur-uballit until the reign of Tukulti-Ninip, when it flourished in great splendour and suddenly went to pieces. Thereafter, until the second period of the Old Empire, Assyria comprised but a few city States which had agricultural resources and were trading centres. Of these the most enterprising was Asshur. When a ruler of Asshur was able, by conserving his revenues, to command sufficient capital with purpose to raise a strong army of mercenaries as a business speculation, he set forth to build up a new empire on the ruins of the old. In its early stages, of course, this process was slow and difficult. It necessitated the adoption of a military career by native Assyrians, who officered the troops, and these troops had to be trained and disciplined by engaging in brigandage, which also brought them rich rewards for their services. Babylonia became powerful by developing the arts of peace; Assyria became powerful by developing the science of warfare.


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