The Assyrians, whose empire dominated the Middle East from the 9th through 7th centuries BCE, meticulously documented the history of their state. The Assyrian kings built vast palaces walled with relief sculptures, illustrating the events of their reigns upon great slabs of gypsum. These images were largely devoted to warfare, and depicted bloody incidents of conquest, siege, revenge and mutilation, all appropriate occupations of monarchs who claimed to serve as the viceroy of god on earth. What threaded these episodes into a sequential narrative were repeating images of marching Assyrian troops. In the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, for example, soldiers were depicted striding over rugged terrain and rafting through swirling water, marching toward chaotic sieges and leading captured prisoners away. The Assyrians delighted in these images that portrayed inexorable imperial expansion through files of orderly figures marching from one engagement to another. They visually anticipate the military parades of 20th and 21st century tyrants, of which our current president is reportedly an enthusiastic admirer.
The Assyrians made use of the written word to record their history as well. Their chronicles depicted the monarch working tirelessly to expand the Assyrian realm through violent exploit, and royal scribes dressed the king’s actions in the rhetoric of ancient legend, describing both warfare and adventures in distant landscapes. An inscription of Sargon II dwells in detail upon the terrain traversed by the king during a campaign in the Zagros mountains, creating strange and desolate worlds for Sargon to encounter as he marched east:
I passed between…lofty peaks overgrown with every sort of tree, among which it is easy to lose one’s way, whose very entry is fearsome, over the entire fastness of which shadow glooms, as in that forest of cedars, the traverser of which could not behold the glory of the sun… on the sides of which yawn chasms and mountain ravines, a fearsome spectacle to behold…the worst possible going for the ascent of infantry…1
The “forest of cedars” likely refers to the Cedar Forest explored by the hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, conflating Sargon’s route of invasion with a remote and fabled landscape from Mesopotamia’s mythic past. This becomes a stage upon which Sargon’s resolve and ingenuity may be exercised:
I provided my engineers with heavy copper mattocks, so they broke up the sharp peak of the mountain into fragments …I took the lead position before my army, I made…my combat troops fly over it like valiant eagles… I brought the surging flood of Assyrian troops easily over its arduous crest…
The text emphasizes the king’s absolute conquest of absolutely inimical terrain, and transforms these desolate places into mythic locales only traversable by monumental effort, the reach of empire made manifest in the tramp of feet through lonely mountain passes. Such passages served to heroicize imperial expansion, lending a luster of adventure to tedious exercises in massacre and control. Sargon’s troops would have their share of fighting after marching through such benighted places, battling against the petty kingdoms of the Iranian highlands. Sargon declares that his troops burnt entire cities to the ground, while his soldiers plundered temples, cut down fruit trees, and in general “defiled [the] famous city and made its region into a disgrace.” Such ruthlessness was in keeping with the tenor of the king’s adventures in legendary terrain. The tone did not justify but rather naturalized such actions as part of a mythic account, rendering atrocities heroic by the adversity faced en route. What could the hero do, upon reaching the faithless enemy land, but destroy it utterly?
As the United States again threatens war with Iran it is instructive to compare Sargon’s rhetoric with the warmongering of the present. After Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, the president threatened to raze cultural sites in Iran and touted the awesome destructive capacity of the American military. Elsewhere he has said the military should serve as an extractive force, occupying nations to take their oil. Such statements, not posited in the mode of Mesopotamian epic, conform instead to the mythic universe of an oligarchic real estate asshole born in postwar New York: the largest, the strongest, the biggest missiles, the best soldiers, which will strike very hard and very fast. Rather than extolling the adventure of imperial expansion, his missives exult in the technological reach of American weaponry even as they revert to an ancient rhetoric of plundering supremacy. Indeed, Trump’s inartfulness and barbaric stupidity have the salutary effect of stripping all pretense from the United States’s imperial ventures abroad. What under previous administrations would have been dressed in sanctimonious justifications is now plainly spoken of in the moral imperatives of an Iron Age despot, namely to massacre inconvenient foreigners and pillage their resources. Whatever else comes of the present crisis, this basic truth about our own invasions should not be forgotten.
- All translations from Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 3rd ed. (Bethesda MD: CDL Press, 2005), 791-813.