Second Assyrian Empire Displays Military Prowess

The reestablishment of Assyria’s strategic power capabilities by Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III formalized the empire’s efficient yet brutal strategic military dominance of the Near East, the Middle East, and the surrounding ancient world.

Summary of Event

The first Assyrian Empire began with Shamshi-Adad I (r. c. 1814-1782 b.c.e.), who established limited Assyrian rule in the ancient Middle Eastern region with the purpose of controlling strategic trade routes in and near the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. However, the great king of the Babylonian Empire, Hammurabi, defeated the Assyrian’s son, Ishme-Dagan I (1782-c. 1741 b.c.e.), and the first Assyrian Empire collapsed. With the fall of Babylon in the sixteenth century b.c.e. as a result of a very powerful Kassite invasion force, Assyria also succumbed to the Kassites and endured repeated invasions by various marauding nomadic tribes. In the fifteenth century b.c.e., the powerful Mitanni kingdom invaded and enslaved the Assyrian heartland, as well as other states within the northern Mesopotamia region, for more than two centuries. In the thirteenth century b.c.e., the once mighty Mitanni kingdom collapsed because of a massive and successful Hittite invasion. The Assyrian king Ashur-uballit I (r. c. 1363-1330 b.c.e.), taking full advantage of the regional turmoil with the fall of the Mitanni kingdom, temporarily restored Assyria’s independence and freedom of action by strengthening the field army and using it to recapture Assyrian territories. Ashurnasirpal II
Shalmaneser III

Between the thirteenth and ninth centuries b.c.e., the talented Assyrian kings who followed Ashur-uballit also sought to consolidate Assyria’s territorial sovereignty and political independence in a number of important ways. First, they extended Assyrian territory against the wild and dangerous mountain tribes in the east, the enemy states located in the Lake Van region in the north, the powerful Babylonian Empire in the south, and the states in the Mediterranean region in the west. Second, they built an extremely powerful army and security forces that were capable of extended military field operations against enemy states and marauding nomadic tribes in the Near East and Middle Eastern regions. Third, they greatly strengthened the Assyrian economy (which was based primarily on animal husbandry, agriculture, and trade) as well as strengthening its commercial links with neighboring friendly states to pay for and sustain foreign military operations. Finally, they erected geographical and military defensive barriers to prevent foreign invasions from belligerent neighbors such as Lullubi, Urartu, and Babylon into the heartland of Assyria.

However, the reestablishment of Assyrian military hegemony in the Near East, the Middle East, and the surrounding ancient world occurred with Assyria’s House of Ashur-rabi, which successfully produced, among other outstanding rulers, two excellent strategic leaders, Ashurnasirpal II and his famous son, Shalmaneser III.

Ashurnasirpal II.

(Library of Congress)

Ashurnasirpal II, the son of Tukulti-Ninurta II (r. c. 890-884 b.c.e.), came to the throne of Assyria around 883 b.c.e. with the singular purpose of subjugating kings on both sides of Assyria. Ashurnasirpal II was an extremely complex, very ambitious, and gifted individual who was determined to put Assyria on the path of world conquest and military glory. His strategic political policy toward all enemies and friends of the Assyrian state was to threaten to use or actually to use massive military power brutally and ruthlessly, both to advance Assyria’s national interests and to extend the geostrategic reach of the emerging Assyrian Empire. Surrounded by extremely aggressive enemy states on all sides in the Near East and Middle Eastern regions, Ashurnasirpal II was determined to improve the organizational efficiency, military effectiveness, and the military shock power of the Assyrian army.

In this context, Ashurnasirpal II (and the Assyrian rulers who followed him) introduced revolutionary reforms to strengthen fighting capabilities of the Assyrian field army. They included the following force structure reforms: the development of all-weather and all-terrain capabilities for field combat operations; the development of extremely sophisticated logistics capabilities to support all types of field combat operations in all weather and all terrain; the development of a highly efficient transport system with camels and mules as the main transportation and logistical units; the development of a very powerful, well-trained, and combat-ready Assyrian cavalry force (supplementing and inevitably replacing war chariots); the development of heavy mobile siege towers, mobile battering rams, and massive wall breakers to break down and collapse the walls of enemy capitals and cities; the development of a national system for horse procurement to maintain the overall combat readiness of Assyrian cavalry divisions; military technological improvement of the three most important organizational components of the Assyrian infantry division (slingmen, spearmen, and archers); the maximization of the combat organization of Assyrian field army divisions, companies, and units to maximize maneuverability, fighting ability, overall discipline, and killing power; and finally, the development and application of advanced psychological and propaganda strategy and tactics.

By producing one of the most battle-ready and highly disciplined armies in the history of the ancient Near East and Middle East, Ashurnasirpal II increased the efficiency and functionality of Assyria’s military and domestic intelligence organization and improved the overall administrative and economic organization of Assyria in preparation for sustained military operations against its many enemies. As the historical record indicates, Ashurnasirpal II conducted a series of merciless “total war” campaigns against Lebanon, Armenia, Babylon, Syria, Kurdistan, Urartu, the land of the Hittites, the cities of Phoenicia, and other enemy states in the Near East and the Middle East. His campaigns had the political consequence of securing Assyria’s long borders, expanding its external territorial control, expertly terrorizing its enemies and friends, and satisfying its national interests. The political legacy of Ashurnasirpal II is that his extremely successful military campaigns and raids in the Near East, the Middle East, and the surrounding ancient world led to the unequaled primacy of Assyrian strategic military power, which was increased even further by his son, Shalmaneser III.

Shalmaneser III came to power c. 858 b.c.e., continuing the expansionary foreign military policy of his father, Ashurnasirpal II. His general military campaigns against Syria, Turkey, Urartu, Palestine, Israel, Babylon, Iran, and other enemy states in the Near East and the Middle East demonstrated the combat effectiveness and brutal shock power of the Assyrian field army. In particular, his campaigns against Urartu in 858 b.c.e., 849 b.c.e., and 831 b.c.e. to secure Assyria’s northern passes were instances of Assyria pursuing its national interests through military means. However, he was less successful than his father in politically exploiting his numerous tactical military victories, especially with regard to the birthplace of Assyrian civilization, a still powerful Babylon, the emerging empire of Urartu in eastern Turkey, and the various major and minor kings in Iran, Syria, and Palestine. Moreover, Shalmaneser III’s foreign military strategy faced very serious domestic problems, including a damaging conflict between his two sons on who would succeed him, which broke out into civil war, and independent provincial governors who had built their power bases and were at odds with Shalmaneser III’s authority. These problems cast a shadow over the political legacy of Shalmaneser III, and they would play a major role in the ultimate collapse of the Assyrian Empire.


The strategic significance of the rule of Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III is that both sought to strengthen the Assyrian state and transform it into an empire by pursuing a foreign military policy that was aggressive, expansionary, and consistent with overall national security interests. The evidence shows that Ashurnasirpal II was the more successful in pursuing these objectives and that his son Shalmaneser III was less so for foreign policy and domestic political reasons.

Further Reading

  • Gabriel, Richard A., and Karen S. Metz. From Sumer to Rome: The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. Discusses the advanced military capabilities of ancient armies from Sumer to the Roman Empire.
  • Luckenbill, Daniel David. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylon. London: Histories and Mysteries of Man, 1989. A comprehensive review of the ancient records on the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 3d ed. New York: Penguin, 1992. An excellent examination of the history, culture, and governmental and military capabilities of ancient Iraq.
  • Saggs, H. W. F. The Might That Was Assyria. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1984. The author examines the military capabilities and strategic accomplishments of ancient Assyria.
  • Wiseman, D. J. “The Assyrians.” In Warfare in the Ancient World, edited by Sir John Hackett. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1989. Focuses on the military capabilities and successful campaigns of the Assyrian Empire and its leaders.

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