Review

The Might That Was Assyria

  • by H.W.F. Saggs. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, with maps, photographs, index, xii + 340 pp. 1984.

Reviewed by Charles Lutton

For approximately two-and-a-half centuries, the Assyrian empire exerted tremendous influence upon developments in what biblical accounts called the "land of Canaan." At the height of its power, Assyria absorbed the kingdoms of Syria, Israel, Judah, and Egypt as far as Thebes. Jonah, after being disgorged by a whale, is said to have called upon the inhabitants of Ninevah, the Assyrian capital, to renounce their sins and worship the Hebrews' god. Isaiah viewed Assyrian imperialism as an instrument used for divine purpose.

Over the centuries, the Assyrians have suffered from a "bad press." True, they pursued policies of often ruthless conquest, made possible in part by their army, noted for its ferocity and fighting efficiency. As Professor Harry Saggs points out in his new study, The Might That Was Assyria, "Largely in consequence of the Bible and of Byron's poem,* the Assyrians have a reputation in the English-speaking world for ruthless barbarity. They have been maligned. Certainly they could be rough and tough to maintain order, but they were defenders of civilization, not barbarian destroyers."

Byron wrote about the Assyrian attack on Jerusalem, capital of Judah. The opening lines read: "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold."

Dr. Saggs, Professor of Semitic Languages, University College, Cardiff, and author of many works, including The Greatness That Was Babylon, has spent over half his life studying the Assyrians. He sets out to present them as real human beings. For example, Professor Saggs has his readers meet the king who took time off from a military expedition to go harpooning dolphins in the Mediterranean, and the royal governor who regarded the introduction of bee-keeping in his province as his most notable accomplishment. We learn how Assyrians dressed, their marriage customs, religious views, and medical practices, which mixed magic with medical treatments -- much as people today often call for divine intervention for people undergoing surgery or who suffer from severe illness. The author warns in the preface that, "The reader will soon notice that I actually like the Assyrians, warts and all: I make no apology for this. Though the Assyrians, like the people of every other nation ancient and modern, were sometimes less than kind to their fellow humans, I feel no compulsion to be continually advertising my own rightmindedness by offering judgment upon their every action or attitude in terms of current liberal orthodoxy." In his chapter reviewing the background and beginnings of Assyria, Professor Saggs mentions the influence of the Sumerians in that part of the world. Of this remarkable people, he writes, "Altogether, there is a good deal of evidence in favor of the view that a particular ethnic group played a major part in the creation of what we know as Sumerian culture, although this sticks in the gullet of many younger archaeologists, who have been politically conditioned to regard it as wicked even to consider the possibility that one race or ethnic group may be more able than another."

This is a well-written introduction to one of the major formative influences on the history of the ancient Near East. It also serves as a barometer marking the progress of revisionism. After all, the Assyrian capital of Ninevah fell in 612 B.C. to the combined forces of the Medes, Scythians, and Babylonians under Nabopolassar. Yet, it was not until 1984 A.D. that a major work describing the Assyrians as something other than Satanic tools appeared, and gained a measure of acceptance, as shown by its being a selection of the very establishment History Book Club. At this rate, I can well imagine a fearless historian of the year 4580 A.D. writing in his preface to A History of the German Empires to 1945: "The reader will soon notice that I actually like the Germans, warts and all .... Though the Germans, like the people of every other nation ancient and modern, were sometimes less than kind to their fellow humans ... they were defenders of civilization, not barbarian destroyers."


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1986 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pages 250-251.