How Did the Almighty Assyrian Empire Fall?

The Assyrian Empire was one of the greatest Mesopotamian kingdoms of the ancient world, until a coalition finally brought it down.

Jan 14, 2022By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
fall of nineveh john martin cuneiform tablet
Fall of Nineveh, by John Martin, 1829, via Wikimedia Commons; with Cuneiform letter of Sinshariskun to Nabopolassar begging for mercy, Hellenistic copy from Babylon, 2nd Century BCE, via The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 

For several centuries, the mighty Mesopotamian kingdom, known as the Assyrian Empire  dominated the Ancient Near East. However, by the end of the 7th century BCE, this once-proud empire had been destroyed. The Assyrian Empire ruled through brutal military force, so when it showed signs of instability and weakness, its enemies seized the opportunity. A coalition of rebels and other Mesopotamian kingdoms rose up and attacked the Assyrian Empire. This resulted in what was probably one of the largest wars ever fought in the Ancient Near East, which lasted almost 20 years. When it was over, the Assyrian Empire was no more. It was utterly destroyed by several new Mesopotamian kingdoms, which would shape the region’s future in their own ways.

 

Assyrian Empire: Interregnum 

seal impression lion hunt and parasol
Two Seal Impressions showing Royal Assyrian Imagery (left and right), Neo-Assyrian, 8th-7th Century BCE, via the British Museum

 

In 631 BCE, the great king of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal (c.669-631 BCE), died of natural causes. During his reign, the Assyrian Empire expanded to its greatest extent. It was possibly the largest empire the world had ever seen, and its capital city of Nineveh was probably the largest city on earth. As was common throughout the history of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal’s son and successor, Ashuretillilani, was met with opposition when he ascended the throne. A conspiracy of Assyrian generals and officials was crushed relatively quickly. During this brief civil war, several of the Assyrian Empire’s vassal kings took the chance to exert their independence and extend their territory. King Josiah of Judah, for example, conquered the city of Ashdod and settled some of his people in the region.

 

Although Ashuretillilani defeated the conspiracy his generals and officials launched against him, he did not rule the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Assyria for long. The evidence is unclear, but it appears that he faced a rebellion launched by his brother Sinshariskun. Somehow, Sinshariskun appears to have gained the upper hand and it is believed that Ashuretillilani was killed in the fighting sometime around 628/627 BCE. Shortly after Sinshariskun ascended the throne of the Assyrian Empire, the vassal king of Babylon died. Hoping to secure an often-rebellious region, Sinshariskun had himself crowned king of Babylon. Sinshariskun then faced a fresh rebellion led by one of his top generals in Babylonia, which he crushed in a grueling three-month campaign from 627-626 BCE.

 

Babylon: The Rise of a Mesopotamian Kingdom

clay tablet depicting sun god
Clay Tablet depicting a Sun God with inscription of Nabopolassar, Neo-Babylonian, 620-610 BCE, via the British Museum

 

The Babylonians had never been content to merely be a part of the Assyrian Empire and had revolted numerous times in the past. With the Assyrians in disarray, the time was ripe for Babylonia to assert its independence once again. In late 626 BCE, Nabopolassar rose in revolt against the Assyrian Empire. Nabopolassar’s origins are unclear. He appears to have been from the region of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. Some have speculated that his family were politically prominent in Uruk and fell victim to an Assyrian purge or that they had been part of a pro-Assyrian faction. Both scenarios would explain why so little is known about Nabopolassar’s background. It has even been suggested that Nabopolassar was an Assyrian general who betrayed Sinshariskun. However, once Nabopolassar revolted and captured the cities of Nippur, Babylon, and Uruk, the Assyrian response was swift. When the Assyrian counter-attack failed, Nabopolassar had himself crowned king, restoring Babylon as an independent Mesopotamian kingdom.

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Sinshariskun did not give up, and for several years he launched numerous campaigns to retake Babylon from Nabopolassar. Despite some initial success, by 622 BCE, the Assyrian campaign had stalled as more cities rallied to Nabopolassar and rose in revolt. To make matters worse, in 623 BCE Elam, another Mesopotamian kingdom that was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire, stopped paying tribute. At the same time, a usurper had seized the Assyrian throne, forcing Sinshariskun to abandon a successful advance that had resulted in the recapture of Uruk. With the Assyrians once again mired in civil war, Nabopolassar was able to reverse the Assyrian gains and set about consolidating his rule. By 620 BCE, Uruk was once again firmly under Nabopolassar’s control and, by 616 BCE, his armies were advancing into Northern Mesopotamia.

 

Riders from the Steppe

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Sword with gold hilt and scabbard, Scythian, 7th Century BCE, via the State Hermitage Museum

 

The Assyrian Empire had long maintained colonies and vassal states in the mountainous regions of Anatolia. During the 620’s BCE, these found themselves fighting for survival against the nomadic Cimmerian and Scythian tribes from the Eurasian steppe. With the Assyrian Empire in disarray, the Cimmerians and Scythians launched a series of destructive raids, first targeting the Assyrian colonies and vassals in the Caucuses and Anatolia. The first to feel their wrath were the Assyrian vassal states of Urartu and Lydia, both of whom looked to their overlords for assistance. With no Assyrian help forthcoming, the Cimmerians and Scythians ravaged both kingdoms. Urartu was particularly hard hit and would never recover, so it was conquered by the Medes in the 590’s BCE.

 

Having ravaged the Assyrian vassals in the Caucuses and Anatolia, the Cimmerians and Scythians made their way south. The next to be hit were the Assyrian colonies that had been established in southern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. These raids were so successful that the Cimmerians and Scythians pushed further into the Levant. The kingdom of Judah was ravaged by the raiders who even managed to sack the city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast. Encountering little to no effective resistance, Cimmerians and Scythians marched into the coastal regions of Egypt which they looted with impunity before finally turning back. However, the very success of these raids would ultimately prove to be the undoing of both the Cimmerians and Scythians. After the raiders returned, many of their leaders were invited to a banquet by Cyaxares, leader of the Medes. Cyaxares slaughtered the Cimmerian and Scythian nobles and drove the survivors back to the steppe.

 

Egypt to the Rescue

bronze figure of amun egyptian spearhead
Iron Leaf-Shaped spearhead, Egyptian, 664-525 BCE; with bronze figure of Amun in military garb, Egyptian, 664-525 BCE, via the British Museum

 

The decline of Assyrian power along with Cimmerian and Scythian raids were of great concern to Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik I. Previously, Psamtik I was one of several vassal kinglets installed by Ashurbanipal in 664 BC to rule over Egypt. Without incurring the wrath of the Assyrian Empire, Psamtik I gradually eliminated his rival kinglets to become sole ruler of Egypt. Psamtik I waged war against the Kushite rulers of upper Egypt and embarked on an intensive diplomatic campaign. He forged a close relationship with the powerful families of the Delta, secured the assistance of Gyges, king of Lydia, who sent Carian and Ionian mercenaries, and compelled the Kushite high priestess of Amun in Thebes to adopt his daughter as her heir. When Assyrian power began to wane, Psamtik I had already established a sphere of influence in the southern Levant.

 

For Egypt, the Assyrian Empire was a useful ally, buffer state, and trading partner. Rather than break this alliance and exploit the Assyrian weakness, Psamtik I chose to come to Sinshariskun’s aid. In 616 BCE, Psamtik I sent an army to assist the Assyrians in their war with the Babylonians. The first joint campaign was a failure as the Egyptian army remained west of the Euphrates and only offered limited support. The Assyrians were pushed back even further, but Nabopolassar and the Babylonians failed to capture Assur, the ceremonial and religious capital of the Assyrian Empire. The following year, in 615 BCE, with possibly greater Egyptian support, the Assyrians were able to drive the Babylonians back but failed to defeat them.

 

Median Intervention 

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Ivory inlay depicting a Median Lion hunt, Median, possibly 8th-7th Century BCE, via the British Museum

 

During the reign of Ashurbanipal (669-631 BCE), the Assyrian Empire defeated the Medes and killed their king, Phraortes, in battle. After this defeat, the Medes were overrun by the Scythians who ruled Media for 28 years. In the 620’s, Phraortes’ son, Cyaxares, massacred many Scythian leaders at a banquet celebrating their successful raids into the Assyrian Empire. Cyaxares then rebuilt the Median army and allied himself with the Babylonian kingdom of Nabopolassar. He then negotiated an alliance with the Scythians so that many tribes came to fight under his banner. Having built himself a secure power base, Cyaxares turned his attention to the Assyrian Empire.

 

Under Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian Empire had incorporated a large section of Media, including the capital of Ecbatana. This means that Cyaxares was also technically an Assyrian vassal. Nonetheless, in late 615 BCE, he launched an invasion of the Assyrian Empire which brought him to the banks of the Tigris River. This put his forces within easy striking distance of the Assyrian heartland while also allowing him to coordinate more easily with Nabopolassar’s Babylonians. Cyaxares’ sneak attack relieved the pressure on the Babylonians who were pinned down in southern Mesopotamia by Assyrian forces, who were then forced to retreat, or risk being cut off and isolated. Most importantly, it set the stage for a grand Medo-Babylonian push against the Assyrian Empire.

 

Assur, Nineveh, & Harran

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Wall relief depicting the fall of a city to the Assyrians, Neo-Assyrian, 7th Century BCE, via the British Museum

 

In 614 BCE, the Medes sacked the city of Assur after a great battle. Assur was the ceremonial capital of the Assyrian Empire, where the Assyrian kings were crowned, so this was a major defeat. Nabopolassar’s Babylonians arrived after the battle when the sack of the city had already begun. Here Cyaxares and Nabopolassar met face to face and sealed their alliance by having Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar II marry Cyaxares’ daughter Amytis. A series of successful Assyrian counterattacks in 614-613 BCE led the allies to combine their armies into a single force. The coalition army managed to besiege Nineveh, the great capital of the Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, the surviving records are sparse, so we do not know exactly how the city fell. However, it appears that the fighting was street to street and that the Medes led the attack. It is also possible that flooding from the Tigris played a role in the city’s demise.

 

The Assyrian king, Sinshariskun, was killed in the fighting at Nineveh but his brother Ashur-uballit II managed to fight his way clear. Since both Assur and Nineveh had fallen, Ashur-uballit II established Harran in upper Mesopotamia as his capital. Ashur-uballit II, was never fully recognized as king by his Assyrian subjects since the coronation could only be conducted at Assur. As such, Ashur-uballit II gathered his Assyrian and Egyptian forces and made ready to reconquer the Assyrian heartland from his Medo-Babylonian enemies. Yet in 610 BCE, the Medo-Babylonian army arrived before the walls of Harran. Ashur-uballit II and a sizable contingent of mostly Egyptian soldiers abandoned Harran and fled into the desert at the approach of the Medo-Babylonian army. After a siege lasting from 610-609 BCE, Harran, the last capital of the Assyrian Empire, fell to the Medo-Babylonian forces.

 

The Battle of Carchemish and the End of the Assyrian Empire

wall relief depicting assyrian chariot
Wall Relief depicting an Assyrian War Chariot, Neo-Assyrian, 7th Century BCE, via the British Museum

 

The Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik I died in 610 BCE and was succeeded by his son Necho II. After the fall of Harran, Ashur-uballit II and Necho II attempted to retake the city in 609 BCE as part of a joint operation. However, they were unsuccessful as Necho II’s army was held up by king Josiah of Judah. Although the Judeans were eventually defeated, and Josiah was slain, the delay prevented the Egyptians and Assyrians from recapturing Harran. As such, 609 BCE is traditionally held as the end of the Assyrian Empire. In reality, Ashur-uballit II was still alive and appears to have still had a core of Assyrian soldiers around him. The fighting, however, was now mostly between the Egyptians and Babylonians for control of Syria and the Levant. By 605 BCE, the Egyptians and their Assyrian allies seized what they thought was a golden opportunity to turn the tides.

 

By this point in the war, Ashur-uballit II appears to have died. Also, Nabopolassar was forced to withdraw from command due to age and infirmity. The Babylonians were led by their crown prince Nebuchadnezzar II who also had a large contingent of Medes at his disposal as the son-in-law of Cyaxares. The Medo-Babylonian army marched on Carchemish, a city on the Euphrates which had served as a stronghold for the Egyptians and Assyrians after the fall of Harran. For the Assyrians and Egyptians, the battle of Carchemish was a disaster, and their forces were utterly destroyed. The great Mesopotamian Kingdom of Assyria ceased to exist as an independent entity and the Egyptians lost almost all of their territories in Syria and the Levant.

 

Fall of the Assyrian Empire: The Aftermath 

samas gate in nineveh
Šamaš Gate, Nineveh, Neo-Assyrian, c. 700 BCE, photo by Diane Siebrandt, via Livius.org

 

The Fall of the Assyrian Empire changed the balance of power in the Ancient Near East. Assyrian hegemony was now shared by other Mesopotamian Kingdoms, including Babylonians, Medes, Egyptians, and Lydians which ensured that relations between these great powers were often tense. This was especially true of the Egyptians and Babylonians, who would continue to fight until the Persians conquered both. The great war that led to the Assyrian Empire’s destruction also brought new peoples into contact with each other and set the stage for later developments. Greek soldiers were employed by the Egyptians and Assyrians and may have gone back to Greece with new ideas and practices. How this may have affected Archaic Greek society is unclear, but there are many possibilities.

 

To the people of the Ancient World, the Fall of the Assyrian Empire was a major event. It was described and referenced in several books of the Bible and in the Histories of Herodotus. The Fall of the Assyrian Empire is less popular among modern audiences, even though it involved so many well-known cultures, rulers, and peoples. It was also one of the largest and bloodiest wars of the Ancient Near East, resulting in the deaths of thousands and the destruction of many famous and ancient cities. As such, the Fall of the Assyrian Empire deserves to be far more well-known as it exerted an incomparable influence on the history and development of the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world.



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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.