The Armies of Ashur
I built a pillar over against his city-gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar and some upon the pillar on stakes I impaled, and others I fixed to stakes round about the pillar; many with the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the high officers, of the high royal officers who had rebelled. Ahiababa I took to Ninuwa, I flayed him, I spread his skin upon the wall of Ninuwa.
Annals of Ashur-Nasir-Pal
The Neo-Assyrian Empire offers lessons for our own age, because, on the one hand, the empire had a cultural complex which included mastery of a variety of tools which made them one of the fastest rising empires in history, and the most potent military force that the world had seen to that time. At the same time, there were inherent contradictions in that cultural complex which brought about the downfall of their empire. America's experience in Iraq in the present duplicates many of these contradictions. The first is the need to have internal legitimacy rooted in a place cult, even as there is an economic and political necessity to have a concept civic religion which allows embracing a world trading empire.
The second lesson has to do with the nature of the Assyrian military machine itself, and the basis upon which it rested.
Ishtar the first among the gods, the lady of confusion,
Who makes terrible battles –
Ye Great Gods, ye Rulers of heavan and earth,
Whose onward rush is battle and destruction.
Who have enlarged the kingom
Of Tiglath-Pileser, the beloved prince…
And ye have decreed that his rule
Should be mighty, and that his priestly seed
Should have a palce in Ekharsagkurkura
Address to the Gods, 12-17,24-27
Cylinder Inscription Ca 1100 BC
Tutankhamen is buried with a small iron dagger with a gold hilt. The production of iron from solid blooms began somewhere in the 3rd millennium BC. This involves heating the melt and pounding out impurities, quenching with water, and then pounding again to beat the metal and its trace elements into a strong lattice. Muscle power without a blast furnace can create areas of solid iron – called blooms – and then mix these with carbon from the fire by dint of sheer brute force. It is a bootstrapping process – an iron hammer makes pounding more iron much faster. An iron anvil faster still.
Beginning around 1300 BC, hotter furnaces – though still not blast furnaces, and the iron ores with the "right" impurities allows the Hatti – the Hittites as they are called – to rapidly expand their empire in the mountain regions of Anatolia. That this upset the delicate balance of power might well be a contributing factor to the "Dark Age" of 1150-750BC. It is certainly important in what happened with Neo-Assyria.
You see, the Neo-Assyrians faced a basic energy problem. Iron made cities and warriors far more productive, since even limited amounts of iron dramatically reduce working times in leather, wood, other metals, and human flesh. They improve tack and harness dramatically. People can carry more, work more and do more. But the invention of the iron plow lays centuries in the future – the Chinese have the first iron bit mouldboard plows in the Warring States period. The importance of this invention can't be stressed highly enough – the mouldboard plow, with its iron bit and ability to turn the soil over as it plows is still the commercial standard. Today, some 2500 years later.
This plow is so important to agriculture after its introduction, it revolutionizes farming where ever it appears – that the absence of it is something that many people have trouble accepting. Applying iron to tillage is so self-evident, that we forget the economics of the early iron age.
It is important to connect this to the main thesis of Vale to Babylon:
1. Assyria had three legitimacy problems that forced particular responses: internal, within a cultural sphere, and over the wider empire.
2. The Assyrians had geo-political pressures based on economics and the collapse of the previous trading order.
3. The Assyrians had a cultural complex to thrust outwards, but the components were in contradiction with each other.
In the second part of this essay one of the most important conflicts was looked at: namely that for internal political purposes, the Neo-Assyrian Empire had to keep a localized god cult religious system, but this same system made it impossible to use concept god based assimiliation. Local god cults are very good for assimilating invaders, and keeping people's together, but are poor for assimilating those who are conquered. The tension between the kind of god cult necessary for holding the Assyrian core, and the kind of god cult needed to run a multi-ethnic trading empire, is seen in the beginning of Neo-Assyria, in the only epic that survives to us.
This tension was made worse as the onset of the Dark Ages that divides what I will call mesoäntiquity from neoäntiquity grew deeper, as the Assyrians could no longer be attached to the trading system run by the Hatti-Egyptian axis along the Eastern Mediterranean. This Dark Age now needs to be examined from the point of view of a crucial technology: Iron working, which, while in small forms had existed for hundreds of years in various locations, became a generally available process in the Hatti (Hittite) Empire.
There are scholars who argue, and I won't disagree, that ironworking accelerated internal political conflicts within the Hatti political space, and that the empire imploded, in part, under the pressures of militarization of iron, there are also arguments that the failure to have iron implements hindered the Egyptians. I am going to leave aside these arguments, because the fact of the Dark Ages at the end of Mesoäntiquity is more important than the reasons for the purposes of Neo-Assyria, and for the purposes of lessons in our age.
The first lesson to be drawn is that the United States is also an international trading empire, but that it is using a localized version of a god cult for its political legitimacy. As the power of this localized god cult grows, the ability of the US to project its culture outwards and integrate other nations, declines. The mentality of its military corps becomes hardened into thinking of conflicts in territorial terms, and in terms of body count, and not in terms of assimilation of other localized cults into a broader framework, which is the process that the Greeks used in their successful cooption of previous cults, and the techniques of which were to be retained by Christianity through the conversion of Europe to the Cross.
The second lesson, is about energy and technology.
The Black Gold of Neo-Antiquity
Iron had been worked for almost a thousand years by the time that the Hatti push matters into higher gear. Iron working comes in two types – cold iron, where iron is heated, but not enough to melt it, and then repeatedly pounded and quenched to form a matrix of iron an certain impurities – particularly carbon – to form stronger alloys. Steel is at the pinnacle of this process, but in antiquity sponge iron, that is iron produced at low temperatures, created a material which was harder than bronze, but also harder to work. Early iron production is found in Nigeria, India and in other areas, but it was the Hatti who, in the 1300's BC began systematic working of iron and production of iron implements.
Realize at this point that Iron traded at several times its weight in silver – the main monetary metal of exchange – and above its weight in gold, that is the main monetary metal of wealth storage. Some accounts fix the price as high as 40 times its weight in silver, a First Assyrian Empire text fixes its price at 8 times that of gold. Presently the theory is that iron came as a by product of copper production, but that the ancients were not reliably able to identify the "right" ores to be able to smelt iron in quantity.
Iron, like aluminum in the late 18th century, was an exotic metal that had exotic properties. It was still an age dominated by pottery but augmented by iron. The key shift is this: it is impurities that make iron more flexible, and give it a hardness edge over bronze. While Iron was valued simply because it was rare, it was not used in weaponry, and in the form of cold iron, it is softer, not harder, than bronze weaponry.
The iron of the time is not pig iron of later periods – that is formed into iron matrix with other materials by heat. It is a laborious process of working what would later be called "cold iron". Cold iron is brittle compared to bronze, but it is also hard. Iron, however, is superior to bronze for so many applications, that it is difficult to overstate what the introduction of Iron did to the productivity of cities. An iron age city has access to better rivets, better blades, better hammers. Iron is best used for cutting and joining as these pictures from the Iron Age show – clasps, needles, chains are as important as swords in the technology of the period. This dramatically expands the productivity of garment making, and creates more demand for textiles, wool and leather. This extended all the way up to the "tank" of that day and age: the chariot.
The Hatti discovered the pounding/quenching cycle which produces the first useful grades of worked iron. These kinds of iron/carbon mixture are not generally called steel, but they are 5 times as hard as base iron, and harder than cold worked bronze, which base iron is not. However, it is not clear that this produced the military revolution that some scholars advocate, however, the other extreme, that it offered no military advantage, over looks the most common kind of iron artifact in weaponry – the arrow head. Small, hard and able to pierce bronze and leather, the arrowhead is an advantage. But it is not yet enough of one to dramatically alter the balance of power.
Instead, it is the iron of tool working – clasps, needles and all of the "joining" and working uses of iron which gives an army the advantage of mobility. An army that moves better and faster is one which has the advantage on the battle field. It would take an entire book to document all the times that mobility advantage, not advantage in actual arms, was the decisive feature in war.
This ability to be better equipped was not lost on the Assyrians – their army featured a military boot, and a backpack, which were the first of their kind. An army that can travel with its own food can out march and out maneuver other armies. And when we look at the long history of Neo-Assyrian campaigns, this is indeed the pattern, one that would be the trademark of Fredrick the Great much later on – the use of interior lines, where armies could be moved across the interior of a compact country, and defeat in turn attacks from outside, or press the advantage on multiple fronts.
It is a high risk strategy, and one that plays into the sense of historical destiny which was present even in the epic at the outset of the Neo-Assyrian period. They believed, and they had the tools to enforce, the idea that their cultural core was superior, and the ability to move through it untrammeled was essential to their ability to campaign over a large space than any other empire to that point.
Looking at Jane Waldbaum's oft criticized, but still seminal study of the transition From Bronze to Iron, it is clear that the disruption of trade prevented the copper sourced from Cyprus, and the Tin which came from outside the region, from being available at the same time. Tin, in particular, is the bottleneck.
This is where the dark age collides with technology. The weakness of the bronze economy is that it requires copper and tin. Tin is harder to come by that common copper, and harder to extract from its ores. With the trading system collapsing – because, in part, iron was not yet providing a real advantage in battle – the ability to get both copper and tin together was dramatically reduced. The bronze age cultures did what many cultures hav done – cannibalized older artifacts, in this case, remelting them into new ones. Part of what makes a dark age seem dark, is that it is busy erasing its own history to feed its present.
Iron however, needs only be matrixed with carbon. Carbon, suffice it to say, is as close as the nearest fire pit, if one can heat the iron up enough to get the process of "carburization" to happen. Thus the superiority of the best kinds of iron – which had been known about, but not understood how to reproduce – collided with the need for "metal self-sufficiency" to drive iron adoption forward. And once it is possible to produce the first tier of iron-carbon materials, bronze is no longer the metal of choice for hardness or durability.
That it is not in weapons, but in tools that Assyria experiences the iron age can be seen by comparing the acceptance of iron weapons, where cites in the Assyrian space lag behind, for example, Crete, and instead looking at tools: within a century of introduction, almost all tools in the Assyrian space are iron, not bronze, this is well ahead of the other states.
The iron age then, is a bastard child, a product of the need for replacement for bronze, and the greater capabilities of iron once it is carburized in quantity. This is a recipe for a dramatic contraction, at first, of affluence – because easy to make in quantity bronze is replaced by harder to make in quantity iron, and because the lack of bronze for equipping large armies leads to vulnerability to invasion, which further disrupts the trading, and the spiral downward continues.
Iron working then provides, at first, not the advantage of individual superiority, but the advantage of size. It is possible, once iron manufacture is going, to equip larger armies against bronze starved opponents. One reason for the rise of the Medes is that they had access to tin from outside of the region, and thus were able to mount armies with bronze even as the transition to iron occurred. However, other states were not.
The result is that iron creates the ability to make larger, more heavily equipped armies, with more horses. However, early it offers no significant man to man advantages except in the area of bows, and to exploit this requires horse drawn chariots, which were the way that bows were brought to grips with infantry. This in turn feeds a basic energy problem.
You see, a heavily armored fighter requires upwards of 3000 calories a day to put in the field. The Assyrian Army, the largest field deployable one in the world, had an enormous stomach. And thus was in a precarious position. On one hand, getting the east-west trading system going again allows bronze production – the old economy, and better iron production with iron from Anatolia. On the other hand, to feed this army requires access to the whole of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. In short, to build the East-West trading empire that the Assyrians know they need, they must control the resources of Babylon. Legitimacy of empire, and fuel for empire, are one and the same thing.
Hence the fascination with going south and east, even when other states pressed on all sides.
America in Babylon
The United States began its period as a trading empire in a similar manner to the Assyrians, first as the client state of another trading system, and then taking over when that trading system collapsed. This is not to compare the two experiences directly, as the United States lived in a different era and world. However, the mechanisms of power politics remain remarkably similar – client states, puppet governments, dislocation of populations and atrocities were tools of state power in Assyria's age, and our own.
As Assyria's fascination with Babylon was both based on cultural and economic needs, so is our own. Where the Assyrians need grain to supply their attrition first Iron Age army, and again to supply their second Iron Age army, the United States needs petroleum, found, in no small part, in the South East of the cradle of civilization.
The American experience in the 1950's corresponds to the early Assyrian attempts to simply install friendly governments. However, by the Neo-Assyrian period, direct rule, or rule through a puppet state, was the preferred mode for Neo-Assyria to deal with its relationship with Babylon. The fundamental contradiction of the Ashur cult – that it was not strong enough to dislodge the Neo-Babylonian Marduk cult, in no small part because the Assyrians were among the worst writers in the ancient world – and yet they could not stay away from Babylon.
The United States is in the grip of a localized version of Christianity which has many of the same problems in encompassing the region of Iraq. As the primary motivation for a large fraction of both the political elite and the officer class, imposition of this Homeland Jesus cult, as opposed to the more generalized civic and secular religion of democracy or the broader ecumenicism of empire – has lead to the need to obliterate religious centers of power because they would not submit.
The Assyrians faced the economic problem of needing to supply a vast army, and as with most attrition powers, they thought in terms of attrition – by direct sack and destruction. Over and over again in the Assyrian king chronicles we are treated to might lists of the great cities that Assyria had laid waste to.
The corresponding ethos in our own time is the cult of body count. The US military, as the Assyrians, thought of defeat of enemies in terms of collecting tribute, and in slaughtering the military age males who would make up the back bone of a potential counter force. In both cases this strategy has failed to produce the degree of subjugation that was desired. We have an obelisk dedicated to Tiglath-Pilser I that, while weathered heavily, still bears a line noting that the king did something to 1000 of the men of someplace, and took 4000 into slavery. We can guess that what happened to the first 1000 probably was not very nice. In the epic poem, the poet declares at a similar point that the king "committed no atrocity". And yet, the people taken are not mentioned again in the text.
The rest of the obelisk is a list of conquests and victories, most of which remain outside of Assyrian control. The obelisk makes it clear that the Assyrian kingdom's dance card was very full, one year has 6 battles listed in it, in different regions. The Assyrian army, like its modern American counterpart, had an enormous advantage in mobility – derived in no small part from the staff apparatus that both countries have – but could not keep areas defeated in the conquered zone. The obelisk often says "raided" and "fought" and hopes that we don't know the difference between that and actual conquest.
The result of this is the next layer of failure is seen in the actions of such a military in oocupation.