Healy, Mark. The Ancient Assyrians.

(Elite series, 39) London: Osprey Publishing, 1991.

Most people have heard the word “Assyrians,” but most equally have no idea when their culture flourished, or where. The “when” is between 2,900 years and 2,600 years ago, more or less — after the Babylonians and before the Achaemenid Persians — and the “where” is in what used to be called the “Fertile Crescent,” up the broad shallow valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers from the Arabian Gulf and on to the northeastern Mediterranean coast.

In fact, most English-speakers probably have heard of the Assyrians only via the Old Testament, which is hardly an unbiased source. I first learned about them in an undergraduate course many years ago that was meant to provide background to the pre-Classical world that most of us are more likely to be interested in, and I always felt a bit sorry for them. Assyrian history has a few “great” kings, in the sense of being successful empire-builders, people like Tiglath-Pileser and Sargon and Sennacherib, but none of them are especially sympathetic. Assyria became an imperial power as a matter of survival, Mesopotamia being essentially broad and flat with few natural boundaries and being crowded at that time with a number of highly competitive ethnic groups. She responded to depredations by her neighbors by doing them one better, but the empire was always mostly a matter of military occupation and suppression and not much cultural expansion, and when the Assyrian empire collapsed rather suddenly after a mere three centuries, no one mourned her at all.

The volumes so far in Osprey’s “Elite” series appear to be much like the longstanding “Men-at-Arms” series, only more so. They’re thicker, with extended text, more color plates, and many more photos, maps, and diagrams. (“Elite” seems a misnomer when you’re considering an entire culture, but that’s just marketing.) Healy is an educator but not particularly an academic specialist in the ancient world. Still, his style is fluid and he does a good job in this overview, both in surveying Assyria’s geopolitical goals and in interpreting the stone carvings which provide most of the pictorial evidence for what the Assyrian military was like. The plates, painted by the talented Angus McBride, are very good indeed, especially in showing detail and in pointing out the slow evolution of costume, armor, and weapons over three hundred years.

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Published in: on 9 August 2012 at 6:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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