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The Assyrians

posted on 2012-01-01, 00:00 authored by Benjamin IsakhanBenjamin Isakhan
This chapter seeks to extend earlier works on Mesopotamian democracy to a civilisation that is not only typically excluded from such discussions of democracy in the ancient Near East, but generally considered to be among the region’s most bloodthirsty and bellicose: the Assyrians. On the one hand it cannot be denied that the Assyrians went through periods of aggressive expansion, that they were cruel to at least some of their enemies and that the more militant Assyrian kings struck fear into the hearts of men and women across the region (I:106-110, 113; II:1, 54-6 in: Grayson 1991: 201). On the other hand, however, it is peculiar that the intermittent war-mongering of the Assyrians is seen not only as ‘a modern myth exaggerated beyond all proportion’ (Parpola 2003: 1060), but also seen to exclude them from practicing any form of democracy. This is starkly inconsistent with the contemporary assessment of other societies of the ancient world, such as the Greeks or Romans who were both belligerent and at least nominally democratic. To give one example of this double standard, Jana Pecirkova argues that while the Greek polis enabled the birth of science, philosophy and the rule of law, the Assyrians were not able to distinguish ‘between the rational and the irrational, between reality and illusion’ (Pecirkova 1985: 155). The reason for this, according to Pecrikova, is simple: their ‘only alternative to monarchy … was anarchy … Political decisions were arbitrary in character and not governed by any laws or generally acknowledged and accepted rules’ and the ‘people were the passive subjects of political decision-making’ (Pecirkova 1985: 166-8). This chapter, while cautious not to over-state the democratic tendencies of the Assyrians, takes Pecirkova’s argument to task by examining the complex functioning of power and politics, the checks and balances on monarchical authority, the rule of law and the sophisticated intellectual scene of the three key epochs of ancient Assyrian civilisation.


Title of book

The Edinburgh companion to the history of democracy

Chapter number



40 - 49


Edinburgh University Press

Place of publication

Edinburgh, Scotland







Publication classification

B1 Book chapter




B Isakhan, S Stockwell