(This was written in 1973)
My thoughts on the Assyrian empire contradict the accepted interpretation of certain features of Near Eastern history in the first millennium BC.
The origins of civilisation are well known to have been in Sumer, and there is a continuity in the culture that developed directly out of this, through the Akkadians, the Babylonians the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and finally the Persians.
The Assyrians came at the end of the bronze age, and the beginning of the iron age, and eventually, after the break up of the Hittite Empire, they established a military despotism of unprecedented ferocity which lasted for about 150 years and resulted in economic ruination. Few have a good word to say for the Assyrians. After them came the Achaemenid Persian empire, which although it was denounced by the Greeks as a rigid oriental tyranny, is widely seen as a benevolent government, excellent by previous standards. Achaemenid art is hailed as the flower of the art of the whole near eastern civilisation that began with Sumer. It is recognised that Assyrian art, especially in its bas-reliefs, made immense strides, that it is greatly superior, for example to the art of the Hittites. But it is agreed that there is a harshness and cruelty in it, which the superior Persian artist was able to overcome. Persian civilisation is seen as a grand achievement, the Assyrian empire as an odious tyranny, which was deservedly forgotten shortly after it fell.
My own experience led me to feel uncomfortable with this view. It began with various impressions I felt at Persepolis when I visited in 1970. Much of my knowledge of Persian culture had come from Zaehner’s Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism which I had read about a year previously. I could not fail to admire the achievement of Persepolis. Of course the palace is in ruins, but a lot remains. My overall impression was to sympathise with Alexander who burned the whole thing down in a drunken riot. There is a suffocating atmosphere about the sculpture, imaginatively reconstructed for all its admirable symmetry and organisation. Actually there seems too much organisation about it. I thought about the Zoroastrian dualism which it seemed to express. The art that sprang to mind as an analogy was socialist realism. Persian civilisation seemed insofar as it was a synthesis of what went before, like the synthesis of our civilisation that communism purports to be. Some older material, such as an isolated Elamite carving, had far more appeal. It may have been cruder, but to me it was far more attractive and vital. Alexander’s destruction of Persepolis was a symbolic act, indicating that the far more vital Hellenic civilisation, with its own art forms was destined to supplant this old ossified Persian culture. All these, I emphasise, were merely impressions.
My reaction to the Assyrian wall carvings in the British Museum were different. Here, at first, I was repelled by what seemed to be a monstrous militarism and ferocity. All was to do with war and domination, apart from the occasional hunt, which was cruelty applied to animals rather than humans. It all seemed to be merely crude propaganda on behalf of the king, just one big bloody triumph. That I suspect is a common reaction. However, in this, I suspect lies the key to Assyria’s uniqueness and originality.
Previous to Assyria was the bronze age, and we may take the Hittites as an example. Their culture was like a continuous accretion from Sumerian times, the interest in the old language was kept up as were many mythological and literary themes. Also new ones were developed. There was a patient attitude; civilisation had been growing and developing for a very long time and there was a sense of continuity with the past. Progress was steady, new things were added and digested, religion was traditional, laws were relatively humane and were becoming more so.
The Assyrians came on the scene like revolutionaries. They it was who first challenged the ancient assumptions about what civilisation was all about, and they have not received the credit for it. Once we understand their art, and its originality, I think we can appreciate it for the very fine and original achievement it was.
I do not underplay the many repellent features of Assyrian culture, the brutal punishments, the cruel mutilations, nor do I suggest the ancient world was not well rid of them. However, in the realm of art and culture, and yes of ideas, they were important innovators and contributed more to the advance of civilisation than is recognised.
The theme of domination and conquest is of course pervasive in ancient art, well before the Assyrians; the point is that the Assyrians take it to a new intensity. They are not merely being traditional, they are making a statement about what life is like, expressing their most deeply held convictions. Their aim is not to glorify God, or the king as a god, on whom depends the well being of the people. The impression given is that what is being said is that the core of life is about conquest and domination. Whatever we think of it, this is an original thought. The Assyrians were an emotionally intense people they raise this emotion, this factor in life to such a pitch it becomes supreme. We might even say that theirs is the basic thesis of the Marquis de Sade. Life is to be enjoyed at the expense of all the suffering of others. The good is conquest and domination. This is a philosophical, and ethical thought. It was contemporaneous with Zoroaster, with the Hebrew prophets, and the earliest Greek poets, and should be seen as part of the same movement, the questioning of accepted values and the gradual emancipation of the mind from traditional myths.
So the Assyrians stand for a new level of thinking, reflection about the values that underlie society, they attempt a new rational foundation. “All good in life is at the expense of the weak”. “the basic principle of society is power”. To a great extent this was true, the societies of the ancient world were based on slavery, on the wretchedness of large numbers of people. Unfortunately it is a self fulfilling doctrine, rulers who believe it become crueller than they otherwise might have been. A comparable honesty may be found among the Greeks, particularly in Homer; where it is not found is among the Persians. What we find among the Persians… (the rest of the MS is lost.)
The Greeks were keen business-men. The Romans built a vast empire of tremendous power and wealth. but if they had done no more than that they would be as dead as the Assyrians. (Gilbert Highet)
For all their cruelty, no.
The Assyrians are not dead for me.
Nimrud, Nineveh fallen,
The east the imperium
The power and the lust and the
Joy of dominion
The rapture of life
And the magical tree.
Poor but free
Thee I resurrect
Assyria the fallen
Direct through millennia
Thou speakest to me.
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