The Old Chaldean And Assyrian Monarchies

On a great plain, four hundred miles in length and one hundred

miles in width, forming the valley of the Euphrates, bounded on the north

by Mesopotamia, on the east by the Tigris, on the south by the Persian

Gulf, and on the west by the Syrian Desert, was established, at a very

early period, the Babylonian monarchy. This plain, or valley, contains

about twenty-three thousand square miles, equal to the Grecian

s. It was destitute of all striking natural features--furnishing

an unbroken horizon. The only interruptions to the view on this level

plain were sand-hills and the embankments of the river. The river, like

the Nile, is subject to inundations, though less regular than the Nile,

and this, of course, deposits a rich alluvial soil. The climate in summer

is intensely hot, and in winter mild and genial. Wheat here is indigenous,

and the vine and other fruits abound in rich luxuriance. The land was as

rich as the valley of the Nile, and was favorable to flocks and herds. The

river was stocked with fish, and every means of an easy subsistence was


Into this goodly land a migration from Armenia--the primeval seat of

man--came at a period when history begins. Nimrod and his hunters then

gained an ascendency over the old settlers, and supplanted them--Cushites,

of the family of Ham, and not the descendants of Shem. The beginning of

the kingdom of Nimrod was Babel, a tower, or temple, modeled after the one

which was left unfinished, or was destroyed. This was erected, probably,

B.C. 2334. It was square, and arose with successive stories, each one

smaller than the one below, presenting an analogy to the pyramidical form.

The highest stage supported the sacred ark. The temple was built of burnt

brick. Thus the race of Ham led the way in the arts in Chaldea as in

Egypt, and soon fell into idolatry. We know nothing, with certainty, of

this ancient monarchy, which lasted, it is supposed, two hundred and

fifty-eight years, from B.C. 2234 to 1976. It was not established until

after the dispersion of the races. The dynasty of which Nimrod was the

founder came to an end during the early years of Abraham.

The first king of the new dynasty is supposed to be Chedorlaomer,

though Josephus represents him as a general of the Chaldean king who

extended the Chaldean conquests to Palestine. His encounters with the

kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, and others in the vale of Siddim, tributary

princes, and his slaughter by Abraham's servants, are recounted in the

fourteenth chapter of Genesis, and put an end to Chaldean conquests beyond

the Syrian desert. From his alliance, however, with the Tidal, king of

nations; Amrapher, king of Shinar; and Arioch, king of Ellasar, we infer

that other races, besides the Hamite, composed the population of Chaldea,

of which the subjects of Chedorlaomer were pre-eminent.

His empire was subverted by Arabs from the desert, B.C. 1518; and an

Arabian dynasty is supposed to have reigned for two hundred and forty-five


This came to an end in consequence of a grand irruption of

Assyrians--of Semitic origin. "Asshur (Gen. 10, 11), the son of Shem, built

Nineveh," which was on the Tigris. The name Assyria came to be extended to

the whole of Upper Mesopotamia, from the Euphrates to the Tagros

mountains. This country consisted of undulating pastures, diversified by

woodlands, and watered by streams running into the Tigris. Its valleys

were rich, its hills were beautiful, and its climate was cooler than the

Chaldean plain.

It would seem from the traditions preserved by the Greeks, that

Nineveh was ruled by a viceroy of the Babylonian king. This corresponds

with the book of Genesis, which makes the dynasty Chaldean, while the

people were Semitic, since the kingdom of Asshur was derived from that of

Nimrod. "Ninus, the viceroy," says Smith, "having revolted from the king

of Babylon, overruns Armenia, Asia Minor, and the shores of the Euxine, as

far as Tanais, subdues the Medes and Persians, and makes war upon the

Bactrians. Semiramis, the wife of one of the chief nobles, coming to the

camp before Bactria, takes the city by a bold stroke. Her courage wins the

love of Ninus, and she becomes his wife. On his death she succeeds to the

throne, and undertakes the conquest of India, but is defeated." These two

sovereigns built Nineveh on a grand scale, as well as added to the

edifices of Babylon.

This king was the founder of the northwest palace of Nineveh, three

hundred and sixty feet long and three hundred wide, standing on a raised

platform overlooking the Tigris, with a grand facade to the north fronting

the town, and another to the west commanding the river. It was built of

hewn stone, and its central hall was one hundred and twenty feet long and

ninety wide. The ceilings were of cedar brought from Lebanon. The walls

were paneled with slabs of marble ornamented with bas-reliefs. The floors

were paved with stone. (See Rawlinson's Herodotus.)

All this is tradition, but recent discoveries in cuneiform

literature shed light upon it. From these, compared with the fragments of

Berosus, a priest of Babylon in the third century before Christ, and the

scattered notices of Scripture history, we infer that the dynasty which

Belus founded reigned more than five hundred years, from 1272 to 747

before Christ. Of these kings, Sardanapalus, the most famous, added

Babylonia to the Assyrian empire, and built vast architectural works. He

employed three hundred and sixty thousand men in the construction of this

palace, some of whom were employed in making brick, and others in cutting

timber on Mount Hermon. It covered an area of eight acres. The palaces of

Nineveh were of great splendor, and the scenes portrayed on the walls, as

discovered by Mr. Layard, lately disinterred from the mounds of earth,

represent the king as of colossal stature, fighting battles, and clothed

with symbolic attributes. He appears as a great warrior, leading captives,

and storming cities, and also in the chase, piercing the lion, and

pursuing the wild ass. This monarch should not be confounded with the

Sardanapalus of the Greeks, the last of the preceding dynasty. His son,

Shalmanezer, was also a great prince, and added to the dominion of the

Assyrian empire. Distant nations paid tribute to him, the Phoenicians, the

Syrians, the Jews, and the Medians beyond the Tagros mountains. He

defeated Benhadad and routed Hazael. His reign ended, it is supposed, B.C.

850. Two other kings succeeded him, who extended their conquests to the

west, the last of whom is identified by Smith with Pul, the reigning

monarch when Jonah visited Nineveh, B.C. 770.

The next dynasty commences with Tiglath-Pileser II., who carried on wars

against Babylon and Syria and Israel. This was in the time of Ahaz, B.C.


His son, Shalmanezer, made Hosea, king of Israel, his vassal, and

reduced the country of the ten tribes to a province of his empire, and

carried the people away into captivity. Hezekiah was also, for a time, his

vassal. He was succeeded by Sargon, B.C. 721, according to Smith, but 715

B.C., according to others. He reigned, as Geseneus thinks, but two or

three years; but fifteen according to Rawlinson, and built that splendid

palace, the ruins of which, at Khorsabad, have supplied the Louvre with

its choicest remains of Assyrian antiquity. He was one of the greatest of

the Assyrian conquerors. He invaded Babylon and drove away its kings; he

defeated the Philistines, took Ashdod and Tyre, received tribute from the

Greeks at Cyprus, invaded even Egypt, whose king paid him tribute, and

conquered Media.

His son, Sennacherib, who came to the throne, B.C. 702, is an

interesting historical personage, and under him the Assyrian empire

reached its culminating point. He added to the palace of Nineveh, and

built one which exceeded all that had existed before him. No monarch

surpassed this one in the magnificence of his buildings. He erected no

less than thirty temples, shining with silver and gold. One of the halls

of his palace was two hundred and twenty feet long, and one hundred and

one wide. He made use of Syrian, Greek, and Phoenician artists. It is from

the ruins of this palace at Koyunjik that Mr. Layard made those valuable

discoveries which have enriched the British Museum. He subdued Babylonia,

Upper Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, Philistia, Idumaen, and a part of

Egypt, which, with Media, a part of Armenia, and the old Assyrian

territory, formed his vast empire--by far greater than the Egyptian

monarchy at any period. He chastised also the Jews for encouraging a

revolt among the Philistines, and carried away captive two hundred

thousand people, and only abstained from laying siege to Jerusalem by a

present from Hezekiah of three hundred talents of silver and thirty of

gold. The destruction of his host, as recorded by Scripture, is thought by

some to have occurred in a subsequent invasion of Judea, when it was in

alliance with Egypt. That "he returned to Nineveh and dwelt there" is

asserted by Scripture, but only to be assassinated by his sons, B.C. 680.

His son Esar-Haddon succeeded him, a warlike monarch, who fought the

Egyptians, and colonized Samaria with Babylonian settlers. He also built

the palace of Nimrod, and cultivated art.

The civilization of the Assyrians shows a laborious and patient

people. Its chief glory was in architecture. Sculpture was imitated from

nature, but had neither the grace nor the ideality of the Greeks. War was

the grand business of kings, and hunting their pleasure. The people were

ground down by the double tyranny of kings and priests. There is little of

interest in the Assyrian annals, and what little we know of their life and

manners is chiefly drawn by inductions from the monuments excavated by

Botta and Layard. The learned treatise of Rawlinson sheds a light on the

annals of the monarchy, which, before the discoveries of Layard, were

exceedingly obscure, and this treatise has been most judiciously abridged,

by Smith, whom I have followed. It would be interesting to consider the

mythology of the Assyrians, but it is too complicated for a work like


Under his successors, the empire rapidly declined. Though it

nominally included the whole of Western Asia, from the Mediterranean to

the desert of Iran, and from the Caspian Sea and the mountains of Armenia

to the Persian Gulf, it was wanting in unity. It embraced various

kingdoms, and cities, and tribes, which simply paid tribute, limited by

the power of the king to enforce it. The Assyrian armies, which committed

so great devastations, did not occupy the country they chastised, as the

Romans and Greeks did. Their conquests were like those of Tamerlane. As

the monarchs became effeminated, new powers sprung up, especially Media,

which ultimately completed the ruin of Assyria, under Cyaxares. The last

of the monarchs was probably the Sardanapalus of the Greeks.

The decline of this great monarchy was so rapid and complete, that

even Nineveh, the capital city, was blotted out of existence. No traces of

it remained in the time of Herodotus, and it is only from recent

excavations that its site is known. Still, it must have been a great city.

The eastern wall of it, as it now appears from the excavations, is fifteen

thousand nine hundred feet (about three miles); but the city probably

included vast suburbs, with fortified towers, so as to have been equal to

four hundred and eighty stadias in circumference, or sixty miles--the three

days' journey of Jonah. It is supposed, with the suburbs, to have

contained five hundred thousand people. The palaces of the great were

large and magnificent; but the dwellings of the people were mean, built of

brick dried in the sun. The palaces consisted of a large number of

chambers around a central hall, open to the sky, since no pillars are

found necessary to support a roof. No traces of windows are found in the

walls, which were lined with slabs of coarse marble, with cuneiform

inscriptions. The facade of the palaces we know little about, except that

the entrances to them were lined by groups of colossal bulls. These are

sculptured with considerable spirit, but art, in the sense that the

Greeks understood it, did not exist. In the ordinary appliances of life

the Assyrians were probably on a par with the Egyptians; but they were

debased by savage passions and degrading superstitions. They have left

nothing for subsequent ages to use. Nothing which has contributed to

civilization remains of their existence. They have furnished no models

of literature, art, or government.

While Nineveh was rising to greatness, Babylon was under an

eclipse, and thus lasted six hundred and fifty years. It was in the year

1273 that this eclipse began. But a great change took place in the era of

Narbonassar, B.C. 747, when Babylon threatened to secure its independence,

and which subsequently compelled Esar-Haddon, the Assyrian monarch, to

assume, in his own person, the government of Babylon, B.C. 680.

In 625 B.C. the old Chaldeans recovered their political importance,

probably by an alliance with the Medes, and Nabopolassar obtained

undisputed possession of Babylon, and founded a short but brilliant

dynasty. He obtained a share of the captives of Nineveh, and increased the

population of his capital. His son, Nebuchadnezzar, was sent as general

against the Egyptians, and defeated their king, Neko, reconquered all the

lands bordering on Egypt, and received the submission of Jehoiakim, of

Jerusalem. The death of Nabopolassar recalled his son to Babylon, and his

great reign began B.C. 604.

It was he who enlarged the capital to so great an extent that he

may almost be said to have built it. It was in the form of a square, on

both banks of the Euphrates, forty-eight miles in circuit, according to

Herodotus, with an area of two hundred square miles--large enough to

support a considerable population by agriculture alone. The walls of this

city, if we accept the testimony of Herodotus, were three hundred and

fifty feet high, and eighty-seven feet thick, and were strengthened by two

hundred and fifty towers, and pierced with one hundred gates of brass. The

river was lined by quays, and the two parts of the city were united by a

stone bridge, at each end of which was a fortified palace. The greatest

work of the royal architect was the new palace, with the adjoining hanging

garden--a series of terraces to resemble hills, to please his Median queen.

This palace, with the garden, was eight miles in circumference, and

splendidly decorated with statues of men and animals. Here the mighty

monarch, after his great military expeditions, solaced himself, and

dreamed of omnipotence, until a sudden stroke of madness--that form which

causes a man to mistake himself for a brute animal--sent him from his

luxurious halls into the gardens he had planted. His madness lasted seven

years, and he died, after a reign of forty-three years, B.C. 561, and

Evil-Merodach, his son, reigned in his stead.

He was put to death two years after, for lawlessness and

intemperance, and was succeeded by his brother-in-law and murderer,

Neriglissar. So rapid was the decline of the monarchy, that after a few

brief reigns Babylon was entered by the army of Cyrus, and the last king,

Bil-shar-utzur, or Bilshassar, associated with his father Nabonadius, was

slain, B.C. 538. Thus ended the Chaldean monarchy, seventeen hundred and

ninety-six years after the building of Babel by Nimrod, according to the

chronology it is most convenient to assume.