A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 4

Never had the empire seemed more strong and flourishing than now, and yet it was close to its fall. The Sargonids understood fighting and pillage, but they made no continuous effort to unite the various peoples whom they successfully conquered and trampled underfoot. The Assyrians have been compared to the Romans, and in some respects the parallel is good. They showed a Roman energy in the conduct of their incessant struggles, and the soldiers who brought victory so often to the standards of the Sennacheribs and Shalmanesers must have been in their time, as the legions of the consuls and dictators were in later years, the best troops in Asia: they were better armed, better disciplined, and better led than those of neighbouring states, more used to fatigue, to long marches and rapid evolutions. The brilliance of their success and its long duration are thus explained, for the chiefs of the empire never seem to have had the faintest suspicion of the adroit policy which was afterwards to bind so many conquered peoples to the Roman sceptre. The first necessity for civilized man is security: the hope, or rather the certainty, of enjoying the fruits of his own industry in peace. When this certainty is assured to him he quickly pardons and forgets the injuries he has suffered. This fact has been continually ignored by Oriental conquerors and by Assyrian conquerors more than any others. The Egyptians and Persians appear now and then to have succeeded in reconciling their subject races, and in softening their mutual hatreds by paying some attention to their political wants. But the Assyrians reckoned entirely upon terror. And yet one generation was often enough to obliterate the memory of the most cruel disasters. Sons did not learn from the experience of their fathers, and, although dispersed and decimated times without number, the enemies of Assyria never acquiesced in defeat. In the subjection imposed upon them they panted for revenge, and while paying their tributes they counted the hours and followed with watchful eye every movement of their master. Let him be carried into any distant province, or engaged in lengthened hostilities, and they at once flew to their arms. If the prince were fighting in Armenia, or on the borders of the Caspian, Chaldaea and Susiana would rise against him: if disputing the Nile Valley with the Ethiopians, Syria would revolt in his rear and the insurrection would spread across the plains of Asia with the rapidity of a prairie fire.

Thus no question received a final settlement. On the morrow of the hardest won victory the fight had to begin anew. The strongest and bravest exhausted themselves at such a game. Each campaign left gaps in the ranks of the governing and fighting classes, and in time, their apparent privilege became the most crushing of burdens. The same burden has for a century past been slowly destroying the dominant race in modern Turkey. Its members occupy nearly all the official posts, but they have to supply the army as well. Since the custom of recruiting the latter with the children of Christians, separated from their families in infancy and converted to Islamism has been abandoned, the military population has decreased year by year. One or two more wars like the last and the Ottoman race will be extinct.

Losses in battle were then a chief cause of decadence in a state which failed to discipline its subject peoples and to incorporate them in its armies. A further explanation is to be found in the lassitude and exhaustion which must in time overtake the most warlike princes, the bravest generals, and the most highly tempered of conquering races. A few years of relaxed watchfulness, an indolent and soft-hearted sovereign, are enough to let loose all the pent up forces of insubordination and to unite them into one formidable effort. We thus see that, in many respects, nothing could be more precarious than the prosperity of that Assyria whose insolent triumphs had so often astonished the world since the accession of Sargon.

The first shock came from the north. About the year 632 all western Asia was suddenly overrun by the barbarians whom the Greeks called the Cimmerian Scythians. With an _elan_ that nothing could resist, they spread themselves over the country lying between the shores of the Caspian and the Persian Gulf; they even menaced the frontiers of Egypt. The open towns were pillaged and destroyed, the fields and agricultural villages ruthlessly laid waste. Thanks to the height and thickness of their defending walls Nineveh, Babylon, and a few other cities escaped a sack, but Mesopotamia as a whole suffered cruelly. The dwellers in its vast plains had no inaccessible summits or hidden valleys to which they could retreat until the wave of destruction had passed on. At the end of a few years the loot-laden Scythians withdrew into those steppes of central Asia whence their descendants were again, some six centuries later, to menace the existence of civilization; and they left Assyria and Chaldaea half stripped of their inhabitants behind them.

The work begun by the Scythians was finished by the Medes. These were Aryan tribes, long subject to the Assyrians, who had begun to constitute themselves a nation in the first half of the seventh century, and, under the leadership of CYAXARES, the real founder of their power, had already attacked Nineveh after the death of Assurbanipal. This invasion brought on a kind of forced truce, but when the Medes had compelled the Scythians to retreat to their deserts by the bold stroke which Herodotus admires so much, they quickly resumed the offensive[76]. We cannot follow all the fluctuations of the conflict; the information left by the early historians is vague and contradictory, and we have no cuneiform inscriptions to help us out. After the fall of Nineveh cylinders of clay and alabaster slabs were no longer covered with wedges by the Assyrian scribes. They had recounted their victories and conquests at length, but not one among them, so far as we know, cared to retrace the dismal history of final defeat.

All that we can guess is that the last sovereign of Nineveh fell before a coalition in which Media and Chaldaea played the chief parts[77].

NABOPOLASSAR, the general to whom he confided the defence of Babylon, entered into an alliance with Cyaxares. ASSUREDILANI shut himself up in his capital, where he resisted as long as he could, and finally set fire to his palace and allowed himself to be burned alive rather than fall living into the hands of his enemies (625 B.C.). Nineveh, "the dwelling of the lions,"

"the bloody city," saw its last day; "Nineveh is laid waste," says the prophet Nahum, "who will bemoan her?"[78]

The modern historian will feel more pity for Assyria than the Jewish poet, the sincere interpreter of a national hatred which was fostered by frequent and cruel wounds to the national pride. We can forgive Nineveh much, because she wrote so much and built so much, because she covered so much clay with her arrow-heads, and so many walls with her carved reliefs. We forgive her because to the ruins of her palaces and the broken fragments of her sculpture we owe most of our present knowledge of the great civilization which once filled the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates. The kings of Assyria went on building palaces up to the last moment. Each reign added to the series of royal dwellings in which every chamber was filled with inscriptions and living figures. Some of these structures were raised in Nineveh itself, some in the neighbouring cities. At the south-east angle of the mound at Nimroud, the remains of a palace begun by Assuredilani have been excavated. Its construction had been interrupted by the Medes and Scythians, for it was left unfinished. Its proposed area was very small.

The rooms were narrow and ill arranged, and their walls were decorated at foot with slabs of bare limestone instead of sculptured alabaster. Above the plinth thus formed they were covered with roughly executed paintings upon plaster, instead of with enamelled bricks. Both plan and decoration show evidence of haste and disquiet. The act of sovereignty had to be done, but all certainty of the morrow had vanished. From the moment in which Assyrian sculpture touched its highest point in the reign of Assurbanipal, the material resources of the kingdom and the supply of skilled workmen had slowly but constantly diminished.[79]

Nineveh destroyed, the empire of which it was the capital vanished with it.

The new Babylonian empire, the Empires of the Medes and of the Persians followed each other with such rapidity that the Assyrian heroes and their prowess might well have been forgotten. The feeble recollections they left in men's minds became tinged with the colours of romance. The Greeks took pleasure in the fable of Sardanapalus: they developed it into a moral tale with elaborate conceits and telling contrasts, but they did not invent it from the foundation. The first hint of it must have been given by legends of the fall and destruction of Nineveh current in the cities of Ecbatana, Susa, and Babylon when Ctesias was within their walls.

After the obliteration of Nineveh the Medes and Chaldaeans divided western Asia between them. A family alliance was concluded between Nabopolassar and Cyaxares at the moment of concerting the attack which was to have such a brilliant success, and either in consequence of that alliance or for some unknown motive, the two nations remained good friends after their common victory. The Medes kept Assyria, and extended themselves to the north, over the whole country between the Caspian and the Black Sea. They would have carried their frontiers to the aegaean but for the existence of the Lydian monarchy, which arrested them on the left bank of the Halys. To the south of these regions the SECOND CHALDaeAN EMPIRE took shape (625-536 B.C.). It made no effort to expand eastwards over that plateau of Iran where the Aryan element, as represented by the Medes and soon afterwards by the Persians, had acquired an ever-increasing preponderance, but it pretended to the sovereignty of Egypt and Syria. In the former country, however, the Saite princes had rekindled the national spirit, and the frontiers were held successfully against the invaders. It was otherwise with the Jewish people. Sargon had taken Samaria and put an end to the Israelitish kingdom; that of Judah was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Thanks to its insular position, Tyre escaped the lot of Jerusalem, but the rest of Phoenicia and all northern Syria were subdued by Babylon.

In all this region the Semitic element had long been encroaching upon those other elements which had preceded and been associated with it at the commencement. In all Mesopotamia only one tongue was spoken and written, the tongue we now know as _Assyrian_, but should call _Assyro-Chaldaean_.

The differences of dialect between north and south were of little importance, and the language in question is that of the inscriptions in both countries.

Another change requires to be mentioned. Our readers will remember the names of Ur, Erech, and many other cities which played a great part in the early history of the country, and were all capitals in turn. Babylon, however, in time acquired an unquestioned supremacy over them all. The residence of the Assyrian viceroys during the supremacy of the northern kingdom, it became the metropolis of the new empire after the fall of Nineveh. Without having lost either their population or their prosperity, the other cities sunk to the condition of provincial towns.

For some hundred years Babylon had been cruelly ill-treated by the Assyrians, and never-ending revolts had been the consequence. Nabopolassar began the work of restoration, and his son NEBUCHADNEZZAR, the real hero of the Second Chaldee Empire, carried it on with ardour during the whole of his long reign. "He restored the canals which united the Tigris to the Euphrates above Babylon; he rebuilt the bridge which gave a means of communication between the two halves of the city; he repaired the great reservoirs in which the early kings had caught and stored the superfluous waters of the Euphrates during the annual inundation. Upon these works his prisoners of war, Syrians and Egyptians, Jews and Arabs, were employed in vast numbers. The great wall of Babylon was set up anew; so was the temple of Nebo at Borsippa; the reservoir at Sippara, the royal canal, and a part at least of Lake Pallacopas, were excavated; Kouti, Sippara, Borsippa, Babel, rose upon their own ruins. Nebuchadnezzar was to Chaldaea what Rameses II. was to Egypt, and there is not a place in Babylon or about it where his name and the signs of his marvellous activity cannot be found."[80]

Nebuchadnezzar reigned forty-three years (604-561), and left Babylon the largest and finest city of Asia. After his death the decadence was rapid. A few years saw several kings succeed one another upon the throne, while a revolution was being accomplished upon the plateau of Iran which was destined to be fatal to Chaldaea. The supremacy in that region passed from the feeble and exhausted Medes into the hands of the Persians, another people of the same stock. The latter were a tribe of mountaineers teeming with native energy, and their strength had been systematically organized by a young and valiant chief, in whom they had full confidence because he had given them confidence in themselves. CYRUS began by leading them to the conquest of Media, Assyria, and Asia Minor, and by forcing the nations who dwelt between the southern confines of Persia and the mountains of Upper India to acknowledge his supremacy. Finally, he collected his forces for an attack upon Chaldaea, and, in 536, Babylon fell before his arms.

And yet Babylon did not disappear from history in a day; she was not destroyed, like Nineveh, by a single blow. Cyrus does not appear to have injured her. She remained, under the Persian kings, one of the chief cities of the empire. But she did not give up her habit of revolting whenever she had a chance, and DARIUS, the son of Hystaspes, tired of besieging her, ended by dismantling her fortifications, while XERXES went farther, and pillaged her temples. But the chief buildings remained standing. Towards the middle of the fifth century they excited the admiration of Herodotus, and, fifty years later, that of Ctesias. Strabo, on the other hand, found the place almost a desert.[81] Babylon had been ruined by the foundation of Seleucia, on the Tigris, at a distance of rather more than thirty miles from the ancient capital. Struck by the beauty of its monuments and the advantages of its site, ALEXANDER projected the restoration of Babylon, and proposed to make it his habitual residence; but he died before his intention could be carried out, and SELEUCUS NICATOR preferred to build a town which should be called after himself, and should at least perpetuate his name. The new city had as many as six hundred thousand inhabitants.

Under the Parthians Ctesiphon succeeded to Seleucia, to be replaced in its turn by Bagdad, the Arab metropolis of the caliphs. This latest comer upon the scene would have equalled its predecessors in magnificence had the routes of commerce not changed so greatly since the commencement of the modern era, and, above all, had the Turks not been masters of the country.

There can be no doubt that the next generation will see the civilization of the West repossess itself of the fertile plains in which it was born and nursed, and a railway carried from the shores of the Mediterranean to those of the Persian Gulf. Such a road would be the most direct route from Europe to India, and its construction would awake Chaldaea to the feverish activity of our modern life. Peopled, irrigated, and tilled into her remotest corners, she would again become as prolific as of old. Her station upon the wayside would soon change her towns into cities as populous as those of Nebuchadnezzar, and we may even guess that her importance in the future would reduce her past to insignificance, and would make her capital such a Babylon as the world has not yet seen.


[57] TH. NOELDEKE, _Histoire litteraire de l'ancien Testament_, French version. See chapter vii.

[58] This account of the fabulous origin of civilization in Chaldaea and Assyria will be found in the second book of BEROSUS. See _Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum_ of Ch. MuLLER, vol. i. fr. 4, 13. Book i. is consecrated to the cosmogony, Book iii. to the Second Chaldee Empire.

[59] _Genesis_ xiv.

[60] F. LENORMANT, _Manuel de l'Histoire ancienne_, vol. ii. p. 24. SMITH (_Assyrian Discoveries_, p. 224) puts the capture of Susa in 645, and thus arrives at the date 2280 B.C.

[61] LENORMANT, _Manuel de l'Histoire ancienne_, vol. ii. p. 65, gives an account of the system under which special magistrates gave their name to each year, and of the lists which have been preserved.

[62] This was lately found at Bagdad after long being supposed to be lost.

It is now in the British Museum.

[63] It was visited under the best conditions, and has been best described by W. KENNETH LOFTUS who was in it from 1849 to 1852. Attached as geologist to the English mission, commanded by Colonel, afterwards General Sir Fenwick Williams of Kars, which was charged with the delimitation of the Turco-Persian frontier, he was accompanied by sufficient escorts and could stay wherever he pleased. He was an ardent traveller and excellent observer, and science experienced a real loss in his death. The only work which he has left behind him may still be read with pleasure and profit, namely, _Travels and Researches in Chaldaea and Susiana, with an Account of Excavations at Warka, the "Ereich" of Nimrod, and Shush, "Shushan the palace" of Esther_, 8vo, London: 1857. The articles contributed by J. E.

TAYLOR, English vice-consul at Bassorah, to vol. xv. of the _Journal of the Asiatic Society_ (1855), may also be read with advantage. He passed over the same ground, and also made excavations at certain points in Lower Chaldaea which were passed over by Mr. Loftus. Finally, M. de Sarzec, the French consul at Bassorah, to whom we owe the curious series of Chaldaean objects which have lately increased the riches of the Louvre, was enabled to explore the same region through the friendship of a powerful Arab chief.

It is much to be desired that he should give us a complete account of his sojourn and of the searches he carried on.

[64] LENORMANT, _Manuel de l'Histoire ancienne_, vol. ii. p. 30.

[65] J. MeNANT, _Inscriptions de Hammourabi, Roi de Babylone_; 1863, Paris.

These inscriptions are the oldest documents in phonetic character that have come down to us. See OPPERT, _Expedition scientifique_, vol. i. p. 267.

[66] KER PORTER, _Travels in Georgia, Persia_, etc., 4to., vol. ii. p. 390.

LAYARD, _Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon_, p. 535.

"Alexander, after he had transferred the seat of his empire to the east, so fully understood the importance of these great works that he ordered them to be cleansed and repaired and superintended the work in person, steering his boat with his own hands through the channels."

[67] This palace was the one called the _North-western Palace_.

[68] LAYARD, _The Monuments of Nineveh, from Drawings made on the spot, Illustrated in one Hundred Plates_ (large folio, London: 1849), plates 53-56.

[69] It is now called the _Central Palace at Nimroud_.

[70] The chief work upon this period, the most brilliant and the best known in Assyrian history, is the _Faites de Sargon_ of MM. OPPERT and MeNANT (Paris: 1865).

[71] The palace occupied the whole of the south-western angle of the mound.

[72] MASPERO (_Histoire ancienne_, p. 431) refers us to the authors by whom the inscription, in which these relations between the kings of Lydia and Assyria are recounted, was translated and explained. The chief of these is George SMITH, who, in his _History of Assurbanipal_, has brought together and commented upon the different texts from which we learn the facts of this brilliant reign. The early death of this young scholar can never be too much regretted. In spite of his comparative youth he added much to our knowledge of Assyria, and, moreover, to him belongs the credit of having recognized the true character of the Cypriot alphabet.

[73] RAWLINSON, _The Five Great Monarchies_, vol. ii. p. 196.

[74] The _Northern Palace_.

[75] This library has always attracted the attention of Assyriologists, and the best preserved of its texts have been published at various times under the supervision of Sir Henry RAWLINSON and George SMITH. These texts have been translated into English, French, and German, and much discussed by the scholars of all three nations. The reader may also consult the small volume contributed by M. J. MeNANT to the _Bibliotheque oriental elzevirienne_ under the title: _La Bibliotheque du Palais de Ninive_. 1 vol. 18mo., 1880 Ernest Leroux.

[76] HERODOTUS, i. 106.

[77] HERODOTUS (i. 106) alludes to this capital event only in a word or two, in which he promises to give a more complete account of the whole matter in another work--en heteroisi logoisi--doubtless in that _History of Assyria_ ("Assurioi logoi" i. 184) which was either never written or soon lost. Diodorus, who gives circumstantial details both of the coalition and the siege, dates it a century too early, changes all the names, and mixes up many fables with his recital (ii. 23-28). In forming a just idea of the catastrophe and of its date we have to depend chiefly upon the lost historians, such as Abydenus and Alexander Polyhistor, fragments of whose works have been preserved for us by Eusebius and Georgius Syncellus. See RAWLINSON, _The Five Great Monarchies_, etc., vol. ii. pp. 221-232.

[78] _Nahum_ ii. 11; iii. 1, 7.

[79] LAYARD, _Nineveh and its Remains_, vol. ii. pp. 38-39. _Discoveries_, p. 655.

[80] MASPERO, _Histoire ancienne_, p. 506.

[81] STRABO, xvi. i. 5.

-- 6.--_The Chaldaean Religion._

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