Warfare and brutality played a vital role in the imperial culture of Neo-Assyria. According to authors Cline and Graham, for the Neo-Assyrians “war was, in essence, an act of piety. Their chief god, Ashur commanded them to to carry order (or cosmos) from the divine realms to earth” (Cline and Graham 2001: 45). The king served as the appointed administrator of Ashur, enforcing the god’s wishes on earth, and in doing so bringing the earth closer to the form that Ashur allegedly wished for it. This intersection of warfare and religion served as the core of the Neo-Assyrian imperial ideology, and as such was well represented in the art produced for the imperial rulers.
The Neo-Assyrians are well-known for their brutality, and this was certainly no accident. From reliefs displaying the brutal treatment of their military opponents, to texts detailing the destruction the Neo-Assyrians claim to have inflicted on those they vanquished, the overall impression given is one of tremendous and calculated violence. Cline and Graham claim that this reputation for violence was entirely deliberate on the part of the Neo-Assyrians, and that it served as a defensive “wall of fear” (Cline and Graham 2001: 42) designed to protect their geographical heartland and legitimize their imperial goals. This wall of fear was created and sustained through an ideology that put a great deal of attention on the empire’s divine right to rule, which was reinforced and justified using two methods proposed by political scientist Herfried Münkler.
In his book Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States, Münkler describes the need for empires to justify and legitimize their existence in the face of potential criticism by their contemporaries. Münkler proposes several models for how empires can justify themselves, and two in particular fit the case of the Neo-Assyrians extremely well. As with much of the scholarship on empires and state formation, the real value of examining the theories proposed lies not in considering cases that neatly fit one particular model, but in considering the cases where these models intersect. By investigating these intersections in more detail, it is possible to construct a concept of an empire or culture that perhaps can lean into the complexities presented by the evidence, rather than attempting to brush them aside.
Firstly, Münkler describes the key role that an “imperial mission” plays in justifying the frequently violent activities necessitated by the maintenance of an empire, saying that “all empires that have lasted any length of time have chosen as their self-justifying objective a world-historical task or mission that confers cosmological or redemptive meaning on their activity” (Münkler 2007: 84). This fits neatly with Cline and Graham’s description of the Neo-Assyrian ideological focus on creating heaven on earth through following the instructions of Ashur (handed down through their king). Münkler also discusses how critical it is for an empire to have something for this imperial mission to be directed against, noting that “the discourse of barbarism is a general feature of empires, or at least of those which set themselves the task of civilizing the areas under their rule” (Münkler 2007: 96).
These two methods of justification described by Münkler are deeply embedded in the Neo-Assyrian ideology, and therefore were well represented in the art produced by the Neo-Assyrian empire. In their depictions of the aftermath of military engagements and general conquest, the subjugation of the vanquished is displayed in lavish detail (figure 1 and figure 2). The attention to violent detail (such as the bodies in the river in figure 1, or the mass of captives in figure 2) underline the notion that to the population of Neo-Assyria was to believe that these actions were just and according to the wishes of the gods. (If we imagine what the popular response would be today if images of the corpses of political rivals were displayed in the Oval Office, it is possible to gain some sense of just how engaged the Neo-Assyrian ideology was with self-righteous violence.) These military conquests are depicted as powerful moments of triumph, backed by in an ideology that celebrated them as manifestations of divine will.
These displays of tremendous violence were legitimized in the eyes of the Neo-Assyrians by the belief that their leader was directing these acts for the good of the people, and through divine commandment. The divinity of the king is also frequently depicted in Neo-Assyrian art, further reinforcing the idea that following the king’s orders was in fact an act of piety (figure 3). The Neo-Assyrian belief in a divinely ordained imperial mission allowed anyone outside the empire to be identified as the sort of “barbarian” described by Münkler, giving the empire a powerful ability to direct their imperial power wherever they pleased. Taken on the whole, the art produced by the Neo-Assyrian empire served to underscore their imperial motives, and reinforce their validity. By using art to laud the value of state-mandated violence, both through depictions of the violence itself and the kings that ordered it, the Neo-Assyrians fortified their ideological right to empire.
Cline, Eric H., and Mark W. Graham. Ancient Empires: from Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2011. Print.
Münkler, Herfried. Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.
Title Image: Saluting Protective Spirit, 883-859 BCE, gypsum, Neo-Assyrian, Iraq, Nimrud, Northwest Palace. Wikimedia Commons.