Printer Friendly

Guerre et paix en Assyrie: Religion et imperialisme.

Guerre et paix en Assyrie: Religion et imperialisme. By FREDERICK MARIO FALES. Les conferences de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Paris: LES EDITIONS DE CERF, 2010. Pp. 246, illus. [euro]20 (paper).

The book under review is an excellent introduction to the Assyrian art of warfare and stands as state-of-the-art in the field. It is also remarkable that this is not a translation but was actually composed in excellent French by a non-native speaker, a rare achievement. As with any review there are the inevitable quibbles. I have my own ideas on the meaning of kallapu (pp. 108-9), for which see my paper soon to be published in the proceedings of the Munster Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. Also, the assignments Fales posits for chariot crew members (pp. 127-28) are little short of bizarre. Does it not stand to reason that the mar damqi or the bel narkabti "chariot owner" would be the chariot fighter? And should not the first and second "third man in the chariot" be the two supplemental persons? More importantly, there were neither auxiliaries (p. 115) nor mercenaries (p. 68) in the Assyrian army. The auxiliary system is peculiar to Rome in the ancient world and radiates out of concepts of citizenship foreign to Assyria. Romans were stingy about handing out grants of citizenship in conquered areas for the simple reason that Roman citizens paid no direct taxes or, to put it differently, Romans lived off the sweat of their empire's brow. However, they cleverly used the army as a way of assimilating warlike foreigners who would not put up with such treatment--as, for example, Germans. First you served as an auxiliary and, once you had served your thirty years, you got a diploma of citizenship. Your children could then become legionaries.

In the Assyrian system, it was non-citizens who were getting a free ride from the government's perspective, so they handed out citizenship to whomever they could force to take it, That meant, however, that you had to pay taxes (after a few years' grace to get settled in) and serve in the army. If you were already in your own army and things worked out right, you went straight into Assyria's army, as was the case with the Samaritan chariotry. None of these people were mercenaries, who are, by definition, not citizens of the state which they serve.

Assyria had a standing army recruited from among its citizens, which it supplemented with levies and with troops contributed by tributaries and semi-incorporated areas. There was also a sort of tribal police (Aramean Gurai and ltuai) who went on campaign with the army, but these were not mercenaries either; the government supervised them, disciplined them, and provided them with land on which to live. Mercenaries are unsuited to the Assyrian system and would certainly have left traces in the administrative records if any such had existed. We should, for example, have condotta.

What I would like to do in the remainder of this review, since this book is state-of-the-art, is to use this opportunity to assess where we are in our study of Assyria and how far we have yet to go in disabusing ourselves of the Orientalist trope of the evil empire, an issue raised prominently by Fales himself in his introduction (pp. 9-25). Unfortunately, the answer to date must be "very far."

Fales makes a good start by adding the administrative and epistolary documents back into the equation, but not, in my opinion, nearly aggressively enough, and his general account of Assyrian history (pp. 153-61) remains something that can only be described as hostile. One would never, for example, know that Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon, ignoring angry protests from Nippur. A careful, and long overdue, rereading of the annals reveals all sorts of hidden treasures: rebuilding, returning gods, extending citizenship, bringing new lands under cultivation for the benefit of subjects, generous extension of tax privileges, and the like. A careful reassessment of Biblical--particularly prophetic--references to Babylonia and Assyria yields findings in exactly the same direction. Tributary relationships, generally regarded as the "good side" of Assyria, are what are anathematized by the prophets. Incorporation, by contrast, is described, literally as heavenly: the "work of God's hands." and Sennacherib is criticized not for attacking Judah and Jerusalem, but for not carrying out his plan of incorporating them into the empire. Medea and Elam had ample reason for similar complaint--Assyrians always did their worst in areas they seemed unable to win or were not intending to hold.

The topos of Assyria as atypically violent is largely a myth, one which often attributes to them deeds actually committed against them by others. The rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire was accomplished by a literally apocalyptic level of destruction, the traces of which in the archaeological record have, with distressing regularity, been laid at the door of Assyria.

As Fales notes, religious ideology played a very prominent role in imperial policy in ancient Mesopotamia. Here is the most curious "upside down and backwards" thing of all. There were indeed in ancient Mesopotamia two national gods, one of whom was a transcendent god of justice and the other of whom clawed his way to the top of the pantheon, was inclined to irrational rages against real or Imagined enemies, and signed off on acts of horrific violence, particularly involving the destruction of the sanctuaries of other gods. However, in exact inversion to Fales' presentation, quoted from E. Frahm (pp. 80-82), there can be absolutely no question that the former god was Aur and the latter Marduk. This was the case from the Old Babylonian period onward. This warrior god and self-described "dragon" was the sort of necessary evil that polytheistic and henotheistic systems exploit to keep the hands of the other deities of the pantheon, whether Samas, Enlil, or Assur, clean of the murder and mayhem which is sometimes necessary to maintain order and punish the wicked. The amorality and unpredictable favoritism of gods like Marduk also provided a ready explanation for why good people died while bad people were spared in wars and floods. With the warrior acting as delegate of the gods, all was down to a dull roar and the damage could be minimized.

It is only when the warrior god acted on his own recognizance, as in the rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire, that we have "holy war" in all its terror. Yet even here we are talking about vengeance for real happenings, however justified, requited, and long ago. There is no trace in ancient Mespotamia in any period of thinking in terms of binary opposition (pp. 82-83), let alone of setting divinely ordained civilization in contest with savage chaos.

When fine scholars make mistakes of this magnitude, it is certain that a prevailing agenda of which they may not be fully aware is at work. The source of that agenda is not far to seek. As Fales notes, there is a direct correlation between the topos of the Awful Assyrian and that of the Terrible Turk (pp. 44-46). And that on every level. Nobody in the Europe of World War I was shocked by mass deportation. In fact, it was (and still is) the prevailing "scientific" theory for how best to deal with ethnic conflict. Moreover, in the half century leading up to the war, Europe had been gradually expanding into Muslim lands, "with murder, rapine, and pillage," to quote Gladstone's immortal phrase, sending over a million refugees streaming into what was left of the Ottoman empire. What was shocking in this period was not mass population transfers by Turks, but who was doing it to whom.

Moreover, running like a thread through European history is a consistent pattern of horrific violence directed against outsiders being justified in terms of the alleged (and often completely imaginary) prior horrific violence of the soon-to-be victims. When Gyogry Dozsa was captured by Hungarian nobility in 1514, they forced his followers to eat his half-roasted flesh on the grounds that, by hoping to ally with the Turks against their masters, Hungarian serfs were Turks and thus cannibals.

Similarly, the purely imaginary impalement of Christian babies by Terrible Turks depicted in Albrecht Durer's engravings and the all too real burning to death of the citizens of Heidelberg in their churches on the direct orders of "Turken" Louis XIV "justified" the behavior of Charles V of Lorraine in Ottoman Budapest, lovingly depicted by his son in a commemorative tapestry now hanging in the Musee Historique Lorrain in the Ducal Palace in Nancy. In one corner, a woman is being burned to death in her house; in another Muslims attempting to surrender are being disemboweled; and at center stage the wife of the commander is about to be gang-raped while her husband is forced to watch. And they call this the Age of Enlightenment! It is perhaps not surprising that Hungarian nationalist music celebrates the Battle of Mohacs, in which Suleiman the Magnificent trounced (and killed) the Hapsburg-tied King of Hungary.

The Awful Assyrian arrives on the scene in the age of the French Revolution, when the Girondins can think of no graver insult to Robespierre than to characterize him, however incongruously, as "Sar-danapalus." A direct connection between the Terrible Turk and the Awful Assyrian was made by Lord Byron eager to participate in the torture deaths of Muslim women and the impalement of Muslim villagers by Hellenic insurgents in the Greek War of Independence.

Since then, Assyria has become the paradigm of the enemy which one feels compelled to pursue to the death because one has wronged them without just cause, to cite Thucydides, but whom one wishes to believe is deserving even of genocide.

It is high time that the Assyrians be treated as just another imperial power, like Athens, Rome, Austria, England, or the United States. Imperialists may generally be expected to look after their own self interest. Some of what they do is negative, but some is also positive. And as far as that goes, in the judgment of the Biblical prophets--who had extensive experience of their own and other people's empires--the Assyrians represented the best that empires (and indeed human governance) had to offer.


COPYRIGHT 2012 American Oriental Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Scurlock, Jo Ann
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2012
Previous Article:Antico Oriente: Storia, societa, economia.
Next Article:The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters