Sunday, 17 June 2018

A new type of blog post coming soon

Poulnabrone Dolmen
We’ve covered a lot of history over the years. In particular we’ve looked at the civilisations of the Ancient Middle East and Greece in great detail. The blog posts on these will continue next year in full detail and I have already began to prepare for these. But there is something that has been weighing on my mind.

To some extent this blog is beginning to constitute a minor history of the world. It definitely has errors and flaws but I have enjoyed writing it. Chinese and Indian civilisations have been mentioned in earlier blog posts, as have the South American and Mesoamerican civilisations. The earlier blog posts are considerably less detailed than perhaps they should be. Possibly I may revise them at some stage but I am more worried about other omissions.

Slieve Gullion Passage Tomb
I love writing about ancient history but there is a tendency for historians to focus on their pet areas. I personally love Mesopotamian history so I often gravitate to writing about that. But in writing about the so-called Greek Dark Ages I have noticed how few resources there are. Writers will speak of the fall of the Mycenaean civilisation, mention a few facts about Archaic Pottery and a dark age and then boom, we’ve skipped straight to Homer. A few more sentences, or maybe even a page, mentioning Hesiod, Sparta, tyrants and maybe Sappho and Thales and boom, we’ve reached the Battle of Marathon, happily skipping over centuries of development. This is troubling. All of history is important, not just the few centuries that historians like writing about.

To properly understand a historical civilisation we need to know something about why they arose and who came before them, in the same way we study those civilisations to understand ourselves. So, I will spend some time over the next few years interrupting my normal blogs to give context to what is happening all over the world from the years 4000-500BC.

I will break these up into sections for better understanding. So, the first blog will probably be about what is happening in Africa or Europe for the years 4000-3000BC. This will hopefully keep things manageable.
Silbury Hill

I make no claims to be an expert on these areas or anything even close to it. I have never studied history as a discipline properly at a college level but I do have a degree in Greek and Roman Civilisation and have studied Biblical and Mesopotamian history as an amateur since I was a small child. So, while not an expert I can at least talk with some confidence about these time periods. But Stone Age Japan or Central Asia in the Bronze Age are just not things that I know. There is honestly no one in the world qualified as a full expert in the prehistory of the entire world, so this is a humbling and daunting task. So, this will be a challenging experiment. But it will be an interesting challenge and hopefully a fun one.

So, if you’re a follower of this blog and you notice that the series on Near Eastern history is discontinued for a while, don’t worry, it will return. But we’ll try and explore some new times and places first. I hope that you will enjoy this dive into lesser known history as much as I will!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Greece from 625-600BC

Attic Black-Figure Pottery
This post will look at Greece and the wider Greek world from the years 625BC to 600BC. Firstly a word as to our sources. By and large, the closer we move to the present the better the sources become. Archaeology will shed some light on the period but not much. Archaeology can give information on settlement patterns and occasional destruction levels but it cannot tell the stories of the people who lived at this time. For this we are reliant on later writings from the classical world. Unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, at least some of which are near contemporary with the events they describe, we have almost no manuscripts from this era, so most of what we hear will be mediated through the words of later writers. This is not necessarily an issue but it should be remembered.

I must reiterate that I am not a professional historian, or any other type of historian for that matter. There are certainly mistakes and errors in the sources and I may make mistakes in my interpretations of these sources. Mistakes are particularly likely to occur when dealing with years, as the years in the ancient world do not necessarily correspond exactly to our own. Even professional historians have differing opinions on the exact ordering of events at this time, so exact precision is not likely here. Also, a lot of events have only approximate dating anyway, so some historians will place an event in 620 while another might say 610 and the truth is that no one knows for sure, although some opinions are more founded than others. Also, a lot of writers and poets of the time are writing for periods of time. This it can be correct to speak of Mimnermus writing poetry around 620BC but also it is equally correct to say around 610BC.

I will quickly summarise the state of the Greek world in the year 625BC. The Cimmerian threat was receding, as the Lydian kings fought back against the horse nomads. But the rising power of the kings of Lydia would be a threat to the Greek city states in its own right and soon wars would reoccur between them. In cultural terms, poetry continued to grow in importance with Callinus and Mimnermus both writing poetry around this time. Black-Figure pottery was developing and would continue to develop. In Lydia Ardys II was king. In Sparta, Anaxander was the Agiad king and Anaxidamus or Archidamus I was the Eurypontid king. Periander was the tyrant of Corinth while Athens had resisted the attempted tyranny of Cylon and also expelled the cursed Alcmaeonidae.

Corinthian Pottery
However fair he may once have been, when the season is overpast he is neither honoured nor loved, nay, not by his own children.
Mimnermus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)

Around the year 625BC a poet called Mimnermus. He was from either Colophon or more likely from Smyrna. Few fragments of his work survive but we know that he wrote elegies and some small fragments survive through quotations from later classical authors. He wrote mythological compositions, preserving some mythic traditions that were not mentioned elsewhere (such as Ismene being killed by Tydeus). This is a good reminder that Greek mythology was somewhat fluid. Students of Greek or poetry will find Mimnermus very interesting but for this blog I just wanted to mention him, that his memory might not be entirely forgotten.

Between you and me let there be truth, the most righteous of all things.
Mimnermus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)

In the year 624 Ardys II of Lydia died and his son Sadyattes became king of Lydia. The Lydian kingdom is important for the Greek world at this time as it was the largest and most organised kingdom that was on their immediate borders. The Ionian city states on the western coast of what is today Turkey had extensive friendly and unfriendly contacts with the Lydian kingdoms. While all of the greater Greek world was culturally significant, most of the early cultural advances were from these Ionian cities.

The Olympics were held this year and Rhipsolaus of Laconia won the stadion race, with Hipposthenes of Laconia winning the wrestling. Hipposthenes had previously won the boys wrestling match in a previous Olympics and would go on to absolutely dominate wrestling in the Greek world for the next twenty years, which is an extraordinary achievement.

Euphobos Plate showing heroes in the
Trojan War fighting over the body of Euphorbos
In 621 the assembly of Athens asked a man named Draco to write laws for them. Athens was growing in size and prosperity and a lot of people were unhappy with the existing state of affairs. The wealthy people were seizing the land of the smaller farmers. The smaller farmers were going into debt and in some cases falling into slavery to try and pay off their debts. This anger led to an attempt to write a formal set of laws and Draco was appointed to carry out this task. We do not know much of Draco or of the laws that he made.

The Athenians were not very happy with the laws that were written as they were felt to be too harsh. The death penalty seems to have been used for a lot of smaller crimes and it did not stop people from being sold into slavery for their debts. Nevertheless it was a great step forward in that now Athens had laws that were erected on posts in public places. Any citizen could read the laws know his rights under them, provided he was literate. Developments like this helped foster a relatively literate culture among the Athenians. Draco was certainly not the first legislator, either in the world or even in Greece, but he was an important step in the history of European laws and politics. He was supposedly exiled by the annoyed Athenians to the neighbouring city state of Aegina, where he died. The memory of Draco, whose name is the Greek for Dragon, survives in English and other languages today. The word “draconian” means high-handed, harsh or even cruel, and thus his laws are remembered.

Jar showing Heracles fighting the Hydra
There are laws of Draco, but he legislated for an existing constitution, and there is nothing peculiar in his laws that is worthy of mention, except their severity in imposing heavy punishment.
Aristotle, Politics 2.1274b, written around 325BC

Around the year 620 Sadyattes, king of Lydia, began a ten-year war against the Greeks of Ionia that was continued even after his death. The Ionians were far from destroyed but the war seems to have gone quite favourably for Lydia. The Cimmerian threat was receding and the Lydian kingdom was growing in strength.

Also in this year the Olympics were held. Olyntheus of Laconia won the stadion race, making it his second victory in the most prestigious race, following his victory in 628. Hipposthenes of Laconia once again won the laurels for wrestling, making this his second victory in the men’s wrestling and his Olympic victory overall.

In the year 619 Sadyattes, king of Lydia, died and his son Alyattes II succeeded him. Alyattes II continued the war against the Ionian Greek cities. It was also around the time of Alyattes II that the Lydian kingdom began to mint coins. It is not clear that coinage was actually a Lydian invention and there is some evidence that the Greeks may actually have begun this practice. The Chinese states of the contemporary Spring and Autumn Period were also experimenting with coinage around this time, although their coins are rather different in shape and size from the coins in the west. The exact truth of this will probably not be determined but it is sufficient for our purposes to say that coinage began to be used around this time and that the Lydians, as the largest kingdom in the region, minted a great deal of coins.

Entrance to the Cloaca Maxima from the Roman Forum
According to the traditional dating, Ancus Marcius, king of Rome, died in 617. His predecessor had been struck down by a thunderbolt and while Ancus Marcius presumably died a rather more prosaic death, he had nevertheless been quite useful for Rome. He had fortified the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber and built the first bridge across the Tiber at Rome, called the Pons Sublicius. This was presumably not a very impressive bridge but it was the first of many bridges to come. This bridge was made of wood and was sacred to the Romans. Its wooden construction allowed it to be dismantled in times of war. A prison was built near the Capitoline Hill, near to the Forum, which later came to be known as the Tullianum or the Mamertine Prison. The river regions down towards the sea were brought within the hinterland of Rome and Ostia was supposedly built at this time to function as the port of Rome. But archaeology suggests that Ostia was rather later than this. As with all the royal dates for Rome, the actual dates are more likely to be about fifty or sixty years after the traditional dates.

After Ancus Marcius had died there seems to have been a time period where the Roman people would decide who they would have as king. The executor of the will of Ancus Marcius was Etruscan called Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was descended from Demaratus of Corinth and had moved to Rome to make his fortune, supposedly changing his name from the Etruscan “Lucomo” to the more Latin name he now bore.

In 616 Lucius Tarquinius Priscus had persuaded the people to elect him as their new king and to pass over the sons of Ancus Marcius. It should be noted that the kings of Rome were not hereditary so this was not unusual per se, although as the guardian of the previous kings son’s it might be said that it was unusual for Lucius Tarquinius Priscus to do what he had done. He went on to be a useful king for Rome. He defended them against the Sabines and the nearby Etruscan cities. He also is supposed to have dedicated the Circus Maximus, which was a large flat area between the Palatine and the Aventine Hills. This would be later built into a fully-fledged hippodrome but probably all that was done in this period was to dedicate the ground and have wooden stands erected so people could watch the games. Most useful of all he apparently constructed the beginnings of the Cloaca Maxima, which is in some respects the oldest continually used building in Rome. This began from humble beginnings, as a series of uncovered drainage trenches but which would eventually be covered over to make full sewers, some of which are still used today. While this did not all take place immediately in 616 the dates of the Roman kings are so unclear that I mention all the deeds of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus at once.

View of the Circus Maximus from the Palatine Hill
with the Aventine Hill in the background
Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the ‘Circus Maximus.’ Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands-called ‘fori’ —from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the ‘Roman’ or the ‘Great Games.’ This king also divided the ground round the Forum into building sites; arcades and shops were put up.
Livy Ab Urbe Condita (1.31), written about 20BC

Also, in the year 616 the Olympic Games were held, with Cleondas of Thebes winning the stadion, as possibly the only Theban stadion winner in the history of the games. Hipposthenes of Laconia continued his winning streak, winning his third victory in the men’s wrestling.

In 612 Nineveh, the greatest city of the known world, fell to the Babylonians and Medes. This was noted throughout the region and was a shocking fall but the Greeks were not directly influenced by the Assyrians, compared to their trading contacts with the Lydians, Phoenicians and Egyptians. So it is hard to know how this affected the Greeks, save that they would have been aware that a great empire had fallen in Asia.

The Olympics were also held this year. Lycotas of Laconia won the Stadion Race while Hipposthenes of Laconia won his fourth victory in the men’s wrestling. This extraordinary run would continue.
Around the year 610 the war between the Lydians and the Ionians seems to have finished, but further conflicts between them would flare up periodically and the politics of the time were convoluted. In this year Psammetichus I of Egypt died and was succeeded by his son Necho II as Pharaoh. These Pharaohs of the Saite Dynasty would prove very friendly to the Greeks, who provided useful services as traders and soldiers so there would be extensive Greek contacts with Egypt at this time and later.

Greek Pottery
Not much is known to have happened in the year 609 so this is as good a time as any to mention the poet Alcman, who flourished around this time period. Alcman was a choral lyric poet who wrote in the Doric dialect of Sparta. The classical picture of Sparta at this time is of a grim place, ravaged by the Messenian Wars and ever-watchful lest such wars should occur again. This is to some extent correct but Alcman’s poetry shows a more cheerful side to Spartan life, including dancing processions with singing choruses. The many references to Lydia and Sardis led some to believe that either Alcman spent time there, or that possibly he was a Lydian slave who had been brought to Sparta. All of this is conjectured but we can say for certain that even the highly militarised state of Sparta took time for luxury and poetry in this period.

In 608 the Olympic Games were held. Cleon of Epidaurus won the Stadion race. Hipposthenes of Laconia won the men’s wrestling for the fifth time. Including his victory as a boy in the boy’s wrestling event of 632, he had won six Olympic laurel trophies and had dominated the sport for over twenty years. Hipposthenes disappears from history after this but his sporting prowess should be acknowledged.

In this year another Olympic victor disappears from history. Athens was at war with the city of Mytilene on a tiny island connected to the island of Lesbos, near the coast of Asia Minor. When the Athenians attacked, the Mytilenaen general Pittacus challenged the Athenian commander to a duel. As both armies and cities were quite small and relatively evenly matched, the Athenian general agreed. Pittacus was famed for his wisdom and Phrynon was renowned throughout the Greek world as a winner of the Stadion race at the Olympics in 636. The two men fought in single combat to determine the war but the legend states that Pittacus had placed a net under his shield which he brought out during the combat to entangle Phrynon and slay him, thus singlehandedly saving his city with his tricks.

Later statue of Pittacus
When the inhabitants of Mitylene offered to Pittacus the half of the land for which he had fought in single combat, he would not accept it, but arranged to assign to every man by lot an equal part, uttering the maxim, "The equal share is more than the greater." For in measuring "the greater" in terms of fair dealing, not of profit, he judged wisely; since he reasoned that equality would be followed by fame and security, but greediness by opprobrium and fear, which would speedily have taken away from him the people's gift.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 9.12, written around 40BC

Mytilene was so grateful to the wisdom of this general that they appointed him as a lawmaker for their city, although the distinction between lawmaker and tyrant is not exactly clear in this case. His laws are not well known to us but they included the provision that drunkenness was not an excuse for crimes and that crimes committed when drunk should carry twice the penalty. This was a way of curbing the aristocratic class, who were far more likely to get drunk and commit outrages against the general populace. At the same time, if the aristocrats behaved well, it wouldn’t harm them, so it was an excellent way of reforming the city. Legends say that he was a merciful man, who even pardoned the murderer of his son. Pittacus’ reputation for wisdom spread throughout the Greek world and he was known as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. These were a number of individuals who lived around this time, or shortly thereafter, who were famed for their wisdom. Few are remembered today by any but classicists but to the Classical Greeks their words and maxims would have been well known.

Proto-Corinthian Pottery
Not much can be said for the year 607, 606 or 605. This is as good a time as any to mention that Proto-Corinthian pottery was famed at this time and was considered some of the highest quality ceramic ware in Greece.

In the year 604 the Olympic Games were held. Gelon the Laconian won the stadion race. The other victors for this year are not recorded by history.

Not much happens to my knowledge for the years 603, 602 or 601 so now is as good a time as any to speak of Cleobulus and Arion, both of whom flourished around this time. Cleobulus was a citizen of the city of Lindus in Rhodes and may well have been the tyrant of that city. But this is not certain by any means. He was a poet and a traveller, who may have travelled to Egypt and spent time among the wise men of the Egyptians (this is probably a later myth). He educated his daughter Cleobulina well and she would go on to become a renowned writer herself. Not much is known of Cleobulus save that he wrote epitaphs and riddles. But despite the fact that later sources do not speak much of him, we do know that he was accounted among The Seven Sages of Greece. He flourished around the latter end of the 7th century BC so it is sufficient to make mention of him here.

The father is one, the sons twelve, and each of these has twice thirty daughters of features twain; some are white and others are black, and though they be immortal they all perish.
A riddle of Cleobulus preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, written perhaps around 200AD? The answer is "a year"

Depiction of Arion and the Dolphin
by Albrecht Durer 1514AD
Arion also is supposed to have flourished around this time and was provided for by Periander the tyrant of Corinth. He may have been from the island of Lesbos and he was said to have been a great lyre-player and to have been instrumental in making dithyrambs, which were hymns to Dionysus the god of wine. None of his works survive to my knowledge but there is a striking legend that sees the poet being taken prisoner while at sea, playing his lyre before being thrown into the deep and then being saved from drowning by dolphins. The dolphins had gathered to hear his song and carried him to safety. At first glance, this seems like an entirely frivolous legend but dolphins are notoriously friendly and have been known to save people in contemporary times. So, it is unlikely but it is at the very edge of possibility that the story is true. However, a second glance makes it even more unlikely, as there are legends of Dionysus being captured by pirates and turning the pirates into dolphins. So if a poet who glorified a god was saved by the creatures of that god? Well, it certainly sounds like an almost certain myth but with the very faintest outer possibility that there might be a grain of truth to the story.

Later coin from Tarentum (around 500-473BC)
Possibly showing the legend of
Arion and the dolphins
Periander was despot of Corinth. During his lifetime, according to the Corinthians – and indeed the Lesbians – a very marvellous thing took place, namely the rescue of Arion of Methymna from the sea at Taenarum by a dolphin. This Arion was the finest singer to the lyre then known, and is the first recorded composer of dithyrambs, which he named and trained Corinthian choirs to perform. It seems that he spent most of his life at the court of Periander; but one day conceiving a desire to visit Italy and Sicily, he did so, and some time afterwards, having made large sums of money there, determined to return to Corinth. Accordingly he set sail from Tarentum, chartering a vessel manned by Corinthians, a people whom he thought, of all men, he could trust. But when they reached the open sea the crew conspired to secure his money by throwing him overboard . . . Putting on all his harper’s dress and grasping his lyre, he took his stand in the stern-sheets, and went through the Orthian or High-pitched Nome from beginning to end. Then he threw himself just as he was, dress and all, into the sea. The crew continued their voyage to Corinth; but meanwhile a dolphin, it seems, took Arion upon his back and carried him ashore at Taenarum . . . There is a small bronze votive-offering of Arion on the promontory of Taenarum, consisting of a man upon a dolphin’s back.
Herodotus Histories 1. 23, written around 440’s BC

In 600, Smyrna fell to the Lydians. The King of Lydia, Alyattes II, had attacked it and Smyrna was left in ruins for many years after this. The poet Mimnermus may have died in this battle. The Olympic Games were held this year and Anticrates of Epidaurus won the Stadion race. The other winners are not recorded by history.

Elsewhere the process of colonisation went on apace. The city of Massalia was founded by Greeks from the Ionian city of Phocaea. This was the first Greek settlement in what is now France and would go on to become one of the most significant western colonies. Supposedly the founding was opposed by the Carthaginians but their fleet was defeated and the Greeks founded their city in alliance with the local Ligurian tribe. Massalia would later become the main trading emporium for the Greeks in their trade with the Celts.

Later Greek temples at Paestum
The city of Poseidonia was also founded around this time on the west coast of southern Italy. This name was later changed to Paestum and later to Pesto. Sadly this is not the etymology of the food “pesto”. It was not an important city in antiquity but is known today for some of the best preserved Greek temples of the ancient world. These however would be built much later.

Not in hewn stones, nor in well-fashioned beams,
Not in the noblest of the builder's dreams,
But in courageous men of purpose great,
There is the fortress, there the living State.
The Bulwark of the State, Poem by Alcaeus

Alcaeus of Mytilene also flourished around this time. He was a contemporary of Pittacus and was quite antagonistic to him. He was a lyric poet and famed in later antiquity. He was a soldier of fortune and his brother was a mercenary for the Babylonians (possibly taking part in the siege of Askelon. Strangely, if his brother Antimenides was fighting against the Philistines, Alcaeus boasts in a poem of his slaying a giant slightly over 15 feet tall (or over 4.5 metres). Allowing for no problems in the translation and allowing for a considerable amount of poetic exaggeration it might suggest that the Philistines had a tradition of fielding large warriors in battle. Alcaeus actively participated in the political intrigue of Mytilene at the time and fell afoul of Pittacus, who apparently pardoned him. He would later be a poetic contemporary of Sappho, who was also from Mytilene.

Depiction of Alcaeus and Sappho
circa 470BC
From the end of the world thou hast just returned,
And an ivory-hilted sword hast thou earned,
A sword which is all overlaid with gold,
A magnificent prize for thy labours bold,
Which by Babylon's men was given to thee;
For thou from their troubles thine allies didst free.
Thou slew a royal warrior, a man,
To be five ells tall lacking only a span.
To Antimenides, Poem by Alcaeus

Also around this approximate date the Eleusinian Mysteries began to be formally brought into Athenian life. These were an ancient set of rituals involving processions to nearby Eleusis. There those who were to be initiated into the secrets would fast and be shown secrets that would supposedly change their lives. In exchange they would be sworn to secrecy about what exactly the rituals involved. To this day we are not sure exactly what was done, said or shown at these mysteries. But we have a fair idea, mostly because later Christian writers had no such scruples about revealing the secrets. The rites were connected to Demeter and Persephone, goddesses who were associated with both the harvest and the underworld. There were dances and libations to the dead and possibly hallucinogenic drugs involved. These rites predated this period but only seem to have been formalised in this era. They would continue until 392AD when the Arian Christian Goths destroyed the sanctuary. But the secrecy that was enjoined on the initiates means that the full details of the Mysteries will always remain a mystery.

Attic vase showing the slaying of Nessos
the Centaur, created by the Nessos Painter
Thus the period ends, with more colonisation and founding of Greek cities across the wider Mediterranean world. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was the supposed king of Rome. Alyattes II was the very real king of Lydia and threatening the Ionian city states, while also being instrumental in the development of coined money. The Seven Sages of Greece were beginning to be active and poets such as Alcman, Arion, Cleobulus and Alcaeus made a name for themselves throughout the Greek world. Heroic feats of sport continued to be enacted every four years at the Olympic Games and the Delphic Oracle made her pronouncements and decided the fate of colonies and thrones. Here is where we will leave the Greeks for now.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Greece from 650-625BC

Papyrus fragment of
poem by Archilochus
Thou should entrust all things to the Gods; often they raise upright those that be laid low on the black earth through misfortunes, and often they overthrow men and lay them on their backs though they stand firm enough; then comes much trouble, and a man wanders in need of food and distraught in mind.
Archilochus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)

This post will look at Greece and the wider Greek world from the years 650BC to 625BC. Firstly a word as to our sources. By and large, the closer we move to the present the better the sources become. Archaeology will shed some light on the period but not much. Archaeology can give information on settlement patterns and occasional destruction levels but it cannot tell the stories of the people who lived at this time. For this we are reliant on later writings from the classical world. Unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, at least some of which are near contemporary with the events they describe, we have almost no manuscripts from this era, so most of what we hear will be mediated through the words of later writers. This is not necessarily an issue but it should be remembered.

I must reiterate that I am not a professional historian, or any other type of historian for that matter. There are certainly mistakes and errors in the sources and I may make mistakes in my interpretations of these sources. Mistakes are particularly likely to occur when dealing with years, as the years in the ancient world do not necessarily correspond exactly to our own. Even professional historians have differing opinions on the exact ordering of events at this time, so exact precision is not likely here. Also, a lot of events have only approximate dating anyway, so some historians will place an event in 640 while another might say 630 and the truth is no one knows. Also, a lot of writers and poets of the time are writing for periods of time. This it can be correct to speak of Archilochus writing poetry around 660BC but also it is equally correct to say around 648BC.

Later sculpture of Archilochos
I shall begin with a brief summary of what is happening elsewhere in the world during these years.  In China, the Zhou Dynasty was fading into obscurity as the rising feudal lords began to struggle for power. King Xiang of Zhou was the nominal ruler but was so powerless that he had to be replaced on the throne by one of his dukes after he had been expelled from it. India was in the Later Vedic Period and the states such as Kuru, Panchala, Kosala and Videha were flourishing along the Ganges Plain. These states would later form what are known as the Mahajanapadas. In the Near East, Ashurbanipal was king of Assyria. Ashurbanipal's kingdom was locked in a vicious struggle with the Babylonian uprising led by Ashurbanipal's brother, Shamash-shuma-ukin. Lydia was ruled by Gyges, who had previously sworn allegiance to the Assyrians but who was now in revolt and facing the Cimmerian steppe tribes. Egypt was led by Pharaoh Psammetichus I (or Psamtik I) who had manoeuvred the Assyrians out of his country. There were many other developments elsewhere but they will hopefully be covered in later blogs. This should give an overview of some happenings elsewhere at least.

I find that this period of Greek history is rather poorly treated by historians. So many histories make a brief mention of the Greek Dark Ages before giving a cursory mention to Homer and Hesiod, maybe a brief nod to some of the developments in Athens and Sparta and then dive straight into the Persian Wars. It is as if the Greeks of Marathon sprung into being fully-fledged, like the fully grown and fully armoured Athena springing to life from the cloven head of Zeus. This is not the case and the classical Greeks owed much of their culture to developments in the Dark Ages or Archaic periods. I think the real reason why this period is so seldom studied is that it has no overarching storyline to it. Each state or city has its business and a chronology of the period can devolve into disconnected stories without a narrative. Bearing this in mind, I will try and describe the period as accurately, but also as engagingly, as I can.

Clay toy from Attica 7th century BC
In Greece at the time Eurycrates was the Agiad king of Sparta and either Anaxandridas I or Zeuxidamus was the Eurypontid king of Sparta. Pheidon II was the tyrant of Argos. Myron was tyrant of the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Cypselus was tyrant of Corinth. Thebes and Athens were controlled by aristocracies, probably. The Second Messenian War had possibly finished by this time but, possibly not. The Lelantine War was finishing. Colonisation of Sicily, southern Italy and northern Turkey continued around this time. In Asia Minor, the Ionian cities had conflicts with the newly established Mermnad Dynasty of Gyges and there were also threats from the Cimmerian nomads. The Ionian League had been organised in previous decades to allow the city states of the western coast of present-day Turkey to combine against these threats but the city states still fought each other occasionally. Such was the state of the Greek world at the beginning of this twenty-five year period.

Around 650 BC the Lelantine War drew to a close, as described in the previous blog on Greece. It had been fought for over five decades by Chalcis and Eretria on the island of Eubeoa and was won by Chalcis? Or maybe it was won by Eretria? No one is really sure. But the two sides had fought themselves to insignificance. Cleomachus of Thessaly had won glory for himself by fighting on the Chalcidian side but not much else changed as a result of the war.

Later ruins from Himera in Sicily
649 is the traditional date of the foundation of Himera. Himera was a Greek city midway along the northern coast of Sicily and was quite close to the Phoenician settlements being created by the Carthaginians of North Africa. The Greeks and Carthaginians would later clash over this site. But it showed that Greek colonisation was now beginning to clash with Phoenician colonisation. Presumably the original inhabitants of the lands colonised were not thrilled with either set of colonisers.

In the year 648 some people believe the Second Messenian War started. This has been dealt with in a previous post. The dates of this war are very open to speculation but we have spoken of it previously so I will not write about it twice. In the Olympic Games that year the pankration was added to the games. This was a kind of wrestling but allowed boxing as well and, like Greek boxing, was quite a vicious sport that only disallowed biting and eye-gouging. In this Olympic Games Gyges, or possibly Gylis, of Laconia won the stadion race. Myron, the tyrant of the Sicilian city of Syracuse won the chariot race, meaning that he owned the team, not that he raced himself. Crauxidas the Crannonian won the equestrian race. Lygdamis of Syracuse won the newly instituted Pancratium contest and was supposedly a giant of man. It is unusual that the Gyges and Lygdamis were both Olympic winners this year, as they were the Greek names of the Lydian and Cimmerian rulers at that time. Perhaps there was substantial Asian influence on Greece at the time or perhaps there is major confusion in the sources.

At these games, a pancratium contest was added, and the winner was Lygdamis of Syracuse. Lygdamis was massive; he measured out the stadion with his feet, in only six hundred paces.
Eusebius’ Chronicle, written around 330AD

Image from NASA showing eclipse path in 648BC
During this year there was an eclipse and it is probable that this is the eclipse mentioned by Archilochus and possibly referred to by the slightly later Mimnermus. If so, this makes the solar eclipse of on the 6th of April 648 BC the first astronomical observation of European civilisation. Some writers think that this may be referring to another eclipse in 660 however. The Greek record of the eclipse was hardly a scientific observation, as Archilochus merely writes a poem suggesting that all the world is in flux and that before people know it, dolphins will start coming onto the land, so not strictly scientific. But it is an observation of sorts nonetheless.

There is nothing in the world unexpected, nothing to be sworn impossible nor yet marvellous, now that Zeus the Father of the Olympians hath made night of noon by hiding the light of the shining Sun so that sore fear came upon mankind. Henceforth is anything whatsoever to be believed or expected. 
Let not one of you marvel, nay, though he see the beasts of the field exchange pasture with the dolphins of the deep, and the roaring waves of the sea become dearer than the land to such as loved the hill.
Archilochus quoted in Aristotle Rhetoric 95-97 written around 330BC

Solar Eclipse
In 645 Archilochus possibly died, fighting for his home island of Paros against the neighbouring island of Naxos. His killer, Calondas was reviled for slaying poet, even though it was a fair death in battle, and was later rebuked by the oracle at Delphi. Around this time, Gyges of Lydia died and his country was attacked once again by the Cimmerian barbarians. These also attacked the Greek cities of the coast and the Ephesian poet Callinus, seeing the unexpected taking of the Lydian capital Sardis, exhorted his countrymen to make their stand against the barbarian invaders and fight. A few fragments of his poetry are all that remain to us.

Purpose ye to sit in peace though the land is full of war? … And let every man cast his javelin once more as he dies. For 'tis an honourable thing and a glorious to a man to fight the foe for land and children and wedded wife; and death shall befall only when the Fates ordain it.
Callinus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)

In 644 the Olympic Games were held but by the small city of Pisa rather than the traditional game organisers from the small city of Elea. The Stadion race was won by Stomas of Athens.

Greek Pottery from c.640BC
In 642 Tullus Hostilius is supposed to have died, struck down by the lightning of Jupiter after having made an error in rites that were supposed to placate the angry gods. After an interrex was appointed to govern the time between the kings, the Romans made Ancus Marcius their king. Ancus Marcius was in some ways a compromise between the previous kings, pious Numa and warlike Tullus. He tried to carry out the sacred rites while at the same time waging war against the neighbouring Latin tribes. Around this time Demaratus of Corinth is supposed to have migrated to Rome and married into the Roman aristocracy, bringing some measures of Greek culture with him. All of the traditions that I have mentioned are preserved from much later sources and, as mentioned in the previous blog, many historians believe that the period of the kings was slightly later, so that all the items I am describing may more likely be placed around fifty or sixty years later. But these are the traditional dates given by Livy so I will follow them here.

Greek Pottery from c.640BC
Tradition records that the king, whilst examining the commentaries of Numa, found there a description of certain secret sacrificial rites paid to Jupiter Elicius: he withdrew into privacy whilst occupied with these rites, but their performance was marred by omissions or mistakes. Not only was no sign from heaven vouchsafed to him, but the anger of Jupiter was roused by the false worship rendered to him, and he burnt up the king and his house by a stroke of lightning.
Livy Ab Urbe Condita (1.31)

In 640 The Olympic Games were held once more, with Sphaerus the Laconian winning the Stadion race and Cylon of Athens winning the longer Diaulos race. We shall hear more of Cylon soon. I am not sure if the Pisans still held control of the Olympic Games or if the Eleans had taken back control at this point. In cultural affairs, around this time Peisander of Camirus, a city in Rhodes, wrote an epic poem about the labours of Heracles, fixing their number at twelve and enshrining the story and image of the ultimate Greek hero firmly in the consciousness of the Greeks. Sadly, the epic does not survive. Around this time we have the record of the earliest Greek explorer, albeit kind of accidentally. Colaeus of Samos was supposedly blown off course around this time and was the first Greek that we know of to pass the Straits of Gibraltar (known to the Greeks as the Pillars of Heracles) and travel the Atlantic Ocean. He did not go very far, merely as far as the city of Tartessos and he brought a large cargo of metal back to the city of Phocaea, where they dedicated a tenth of their huge profits to the gods in thanks for their safe travels. It is important to mention that these lands were very much occupied at the time and the Greeks were also following in the footsteps of the Phoenicians in trading with these lands.

Figurine of Astarte from Tartessos in south-western
Spain. Possibly Phoenician in origin
They then put out to sea from the island and would have sailed to Egypt, but an easterly wind drove them from their course, and did not abate until they had passed through the Pillars of Heracles and came providentially to Tartessus.
Herodotus Histories: 4:152, written around 440BC

In 636 the Olympic Games were held and the stadion was won by Phrynon of Athens, who would later go on to be an Athenian general. Alternatively, someone with the same name would later go on to become an Athenian general.

Vase from Tartessus region in south-western
Spain. Possibly Phoenician in origin
In 632 The Olympic Games were again held and the stadion was won by Eurycleidas of Laconia. Polyneices of Elis would win the boys stadion race. The competition for the boys was extended with wrestling added to the list of games for them. Hipposthenes of Laconia would win this and later go on to win more Olympic glory in the men’s competitions of later years. A previous winner of the Olympic Games would become notorious during this particular Olympics.

Cylon of Athens, the winner of the diaulos race in 640, had married a daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of the nearby city of Megara, and had supposedly received a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that he would be able to seize control of the city of Athens during a festival of Zeus. Bolstered by the prophecy Cylon and his followers seized the Acropolis in Athens hoping that the city would acknowledge Cylon as a ruler of the city. The attempt to install a tyrant failed however. The Athenian people fought back and besieged the followers of Cylon on the Acropolis. Eventually the besieged ran short of food and water, knowing their cause was lost, hid in the temples, with Cylon and his brother making their escape.

Greek votive figure
from 7th century BC
Having clearly lost in their coup attempt the followers of Cylon petitioned that they would surrender to the judgement of the city, on the provision that their lives were spared. This was granted to them and they exited the temple sanctuaries, where it was ritually forbidden to shed blood. They left the temples expecting to be exiled from the city. To retain the ritual protection of the temples until they were judged they seem to have tied a rope to the temple and gone to the angry citizenry still holding the rope. The Athenians reneged on their promise and murdered Cylon’s surrendering supporters. Some later traditions hold that the rope broke that carried their ritual protection and that this was a sign from the gods that they should be slain. This is not in all of the sources and later events would tend to suggest that this didn’t happen. The attempted coup, siege of the Acropolis and subsequent betrayal and executions are known as the Cylonian Affair.

The people seem to have executed Cylon’s followers on the advice of Megacles, who held the position of Eponymous Archon (the year was named after him). Megacles was a member of the powerful aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae and while the Athenians followed his advice in slaying the suppliants, they afterwards regretted this. The Alcmaeonidae were held to have committed a great sacrilege and to have been cursed by the gods. The entire family was banished from Athens in recognition of their sin and even the tombs of their ancestors were exhumed and placed outside the city limits. The curse of the Alcmaeonidae would return to haunt Athens for generations after, as each generation sought to return and reclaim their ancestral rights.

The Athenians who were charged with the duty of keeping guard, when they saw them at the point of death in the temple, raised them up on the understanding that no harm should be done to them, led them out and slew them. Some who as they passed by took refuge at the altars of the awful goddesses were despatched on the spot. From this deed the men who killed them were called accursed and guilty against the goddess, they and their descendants.
Thucydides 1.126, written around 400BC

Skeletal remains of (possibly) Cylon's supporters
Photo taken from here.
Archaeology provides a tantalising insight into the Cylonian Affair, with a mass grave of around eighty skeletons being discovered at Phaleron (just outside Athens). The skeletons have been dated to this time period and have their hands bound with shackles. The mass grave of these shackled prisoners suggests a mass execution and it has been plausibly suggested that these are the graves of Cylon’s followers. But there are other reasons why the state might execute prisoners and not much else of the period is known. In fact the Cylonian Affair is almost the first certain date in Athenian history. So, it is not proved, but it is an interesting possibility.

Later ruins from Selinus in Sicily
In 631, the city of Sinope was founded on the Black Sea, on the northern coast of Asia Minor, although there was probably a city in the region in times previous. The Greek settlement was founded by settlers from Miletus.

Around 630 the city of Cyrene in Libya was founded by Battus, who led a colony from the island of Thera in the Aegean. There are a number of myths and legends surrounding this first colony of the Greeks on the African continent but all that we can firmly say is that there was a Greek colony founded there around this time. Around this time the Greek city of Selinus was established on the south-western coast of Sicily, facing across the sea towards Carthage. While new cities were being founded, Trapezus, a city later known as Trebizond or Trebzon, was destroyed by the Cimmerian invaders around this time but was later rebuilt by the Greek colonists. Around this time, once again, an exact date is not possible, the Bellerophon Painter and Lion Painter were active in producing pottery in Attica. They were beginning to use the technique known as Black-Figure pottery, which would go on to be the predominant style of vase-painting for a number of decades.

Later ruins from Cyrene in Libya
Now in the time of Battus the founder of the colony, who ruled for forty years, and of his son Arcesilaus who ruled for sixteen, the inhabitants of Cyrene were no more in number than when they had first gone out to the colony.
Herodotus Histories 4.159, written around 440BC

In 628 the Olympic Games were held, with Olyntheus of Laconia winning the stadion race and Eutelidas the Lacedemonian winning the boys wrestling and boys pentathlon. There was a boys pancratium held this year but this was probably too violent even for the ancient Greeks so this was discontinued. Deutelidas of Laconia won this first and only competition. Perhaps, as it was never held again and thus his record was never broken, Deutelidas is the most successful athlete ever? Possibly not. There is not much more that can be said about this year.

In 627 Cypselus of Corinth, who had forced his way to becoming tyrant of Corinth, died. His son Periander succeeded him. While the tyrants were by their nature above the rule of law and had no clear traditions about succession, many tyrants did in fact hand over their rule to their sons.

Greek Pottery from c.640BC
In 625 the period that we are looking at draws to a close. The Cimmerian threat was receding, as the Lydian kings fought back against the horse nomads. But the rising power of the kings of Lydia would be a threat to the Greek city states in its own right and soon wars would reoccur between them. In cultural terms, poetry and pottery continued to grow in importance, with the poems of Archilochus and his contemporaries being remembered until the decline of classical civilisation. Black-Figure pottery was developing and would continue to develop. In Lydia Ardys II was king. In Sparta, Anaxander was the Agiad king and Anaxidamus or Archidamus I was the Eurypontid king. Periander was the tyrant of Corinth while Athens had resisted the attempted tyranny of Cylon and also expelled the cursed Alcmaeonidae.

The period may not have seen much happening compared to other twenty-five year periods, but it still saw what is arguably the first named European astronomical observations and exploration, as well as a coup attempt, murder and ritual curses in Athens; a city which now re-emerges into history. Such was the state of affairs in the Greek world in 625BC.

Monday, 5 March 2018

625-600BC in the Near East

Assyrian Soldiers from Nineveh Relief
This blog post will be looking at the years 625BC to 600BC in the Near East, which for the purposes of this blog, extends from Kush in the south, Lydia in the west, to Urartu and Iran in the north and east. Occasionally other regions may be mentioned but the Greek world during this period will be written about in another post. As always, the sources must be mentioned. The Assyrian records, which have been the main historical record for the preceding century, become scarce and then silent, for reasons that will become clear. These can however be replaced with the Babylonian chronicles, which become quite thorough and detailed around this time. They do however have some gaps nonetheless. They are written in very sparse prose that has certainly omitted crucial details, and while they are less biased than the Assyrian annals, the writers still have their own opinions.

There are some Egyptian and Kushite records of the time but these are not easily available. Occasional Urartian and Elamite documents exist, but these are so fragmentary and isolated that they can seldom even fully provide names of rulers. The writings of Herodotus shed some light on this period but must as always be used with caution, as Herodotus is writing at a later date and without a full understanding of what he documents. Other Greek writers such as Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus may be used, but these must be treated with extreme caution. Berossus, a Babylonian writer contemporary with Alexander the Great, has some writings that deal with this time period, but his work only survives in quoted excerpts from a lost summary of his work.

Assyrian basin from Nineveh (Pergamon Museum Berlin)
The Hebrew Biblical writers shed some light on the period and the books of Kings, Chronicles, Jeremiah and possibly some of the other prophetic writings may be examined here. However, as always, while these texts are historical, they are not history and the preoccupations of the contemporary historian will not often match the preoccupations of the scribes who wrote these documents. Lastly we have some Talmudic writings and Armenian legends that may prove interesting, but will be treated with extreme caution, as they are much, much later. They also tend to be full of details that, while perhaps possible, seem rather unlikely. But we will mention them in their place.

I must reiterate that I am not a professional historian, or any other type of historian for that matter. There are certainly mistakes and errors in the sources and I may make mistakes in my interpretations of these sources. Mistakes are particularly likely to occur when dealing with years, as the Babylonian/Assyrian/Jewish years do not correspond exactly to our own. So, there is the possibility that I may have, for example, interpreted an event as happening in late 609 when it may in fact have been early 608. If the reader spots any errors such as this, please let me know in the comments and I will research it and correct it as soon as possible. Even professional historians have differing opinions on the exact ordering of events at this time, so exact precision is not likely here.

Ceremonial vessel from Jin state in China
To give context to the period I feel it would be useful to mention what else was happening in the world. In China, the ineffectual Zhou Dynasty was headed by King Xiang of Zhou, but the most powerful man in China had been Duke Wen of Jin. Duke Wen had been succeeded by Duke Xiang, who tried to cement the power of the central Jin state against the southern and western states of Chu and Qin. In India, there were a number of powerful kingdoms, such as Kuru, Panchala, Kosala and Videha, which were establishing themselves across the northern Indian plains, particularly along the Ganges River. These states would later be known as the Mahajanapadas but not much can be said about them here. In Greece, the city-states continued to develop, in some cases having autocratic rulers known as “Tyrants”, but also seeing further formalisation of hoplite warfare. Literature in Greece continued to expand, with a number of poets extant and even the beginnings of Greek philosophy and science. This is a very loose summary of some of the events elsewhere in the world between 625-600BC.

In the Near East, in the year 625BC, Sinsharishkun was king of Assyria. Some scholars believe that Ashur-etil-ilani was still ruling but I have addressed this chronology in my previous post and I believe that Ashur-etil-ilani had actually died in 627, as well as the usurper Sin-shumi-lisir. Sinsharishkun’s position was rather precarious, as Nabopolassar had launched a rebellion in Babylon the year previously and had successfully broken away from the Assyrian empire. In Babylon Nabopolassar, a Chaldean who had previously been an allied general of the Assyrians, had broken free of the Assyrian yoke but was locked in a war with Sinsharishkun. To the west, in Lydia, Ardys II was king of Lydia and engaged in war with barbarian steppe tribes and in wars with the Greek city states along the western coast of what is now Turkey. These tribes were part of a loose tribal grouping that included the Medes in what is now Iran. The Medes were probably under the rule of Cyaxares at this time, although this cannot be said for certain.

Drawing of inscription of Senkaminisken
In Urartu, Rusa III was the king but not much is known of his reign apart from some inscriptions at Armavir and Rusahinili. In Egypt, Psammetichus I, or Psamtik I depending on how the spelling is done, was the Pharaoh. He had stopped acknowledging Assyrian rule, despite having been put in power by the Assyrians, but he still seems to have maintained an alliance with the Assyrian kings. To the south of Egypt, in Kush, Senkamanisken was Pharaoh of Kush. He was probably a grandson of Tantamani, who had fought Ashurbanipal in the 660’s. In Judah, King Josiah reigned from Jerusalem and was in the early stages of a religious reform. Other rulers and states were in the region at this time but these are the main ones who will feature in this blog. It should be mentioned that there was a powerful kingdom called Saba in what is now present-day Yemen, but the sources for this region at this time are not easy to find or interpret so this may be left for a later blog.

Nineveh relief of Assyrian soldiers being paid
per severed head taken in battle
I, Sinsharishkun, great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria…
Inscription of Sinsharishkun (Inscription 1)

In 625 Sin-sharru-usur was probably Limmu of Assyria, although, as noted in the previous blog, the Limmu lists become uncertain after 649. All further mentions of Limmus in the blog will be equally tentative. Around this time Cyaxares became king of the tribes of the Medes, but the dating of this is uncertain. In April of 625 the chronicles record that a panic fell upon Babylon, which must have been due to the approach of the army of Sinsharishkun. The gods of Sippar and Shapazzu were withdrawn into Babylon to protect them from the invaders and the Babylonian Akitu festival may have been disrupted at this time due to the warfare. On the 14th of May 625 the Assyrians captured Raqmat and looted it. I am unsure exactly where Raqmat was, but it must have been close enough to Babylon to force Nabopolassar to try and retake it. On the 30th of July 625 the armies of Babylon marched to Raqmat but had to withdraw when the Assyrian army approached.

On the ninth day of the month Abu Nabopolassar and his army marched to Raqmat. He did battle against Raqmat but did not capture the city. Instead, the army of Assyria arrived so he retreated before them and withdrew.
Early Years of Nabopolassar (Babylonian Chronicle ABC2)

Royal tombs of the kings of Lydia
Photo taken from
In 624 Kanunaiu was the Limmu of Assyria. In the month Ululu, around August/September, the Assyrian army moved towards Banitu Canal, which was near Nippur. Nippur was a regional rival to Babylon, had an ancient temple that was older than any in Babylon and was the main Assyrian base in the region. The Assyrian army must have been trying to reinforce their garrisons and strengthen them against the Babylonian/Chaldean uprising of Nabopolassar. The armies of Babylon and Assyria clashed but the engagement was indecisive. In Lydia, Ardys II died and his son Sadyattes became king of Lydia.

They did battle against Nabopolassar but achieved nothing
Early Years of Nabopolassar (Babylonian Chronicle ABC2)

In 623 Asshur-matu-taqqin was the Limmu of Assyria. The rebellion against the Assyrians spread, with the vital city of Der, a key fortress city on the border of Elam, rebelling against the Assyrian king Sinsharishkun. Possibly as part of this rebellion, an Assyrian general called Itti-ili rose up against Sinsharishkun. On the 15th of Tashritu (15th of November) Itti-ili attacked Nippur, which was the main Assyrian base in Babylonia. For all those who know the story of the next few decades it is important to remember that the outcome of these wars was not inevitable. In some ways Sinsharishkun was probably the most powerful man in the world, even with the constant rebellions from every direction. The situation resembled the accession of Sargon II, with Babylonia lost to rebellion and the western provinces in outright revolt. It took Sargon around a decade to bring the empire fully under control once more and there was no reason to suppose that Sinsharishkun would be unable to do the same.

Nineveh relief of Assyrian soldiers besieging a city
Sinsharishkun marched against the rebel Itti-ili, seems to have defeated him, recaptured Der, stabilised the garrison at Nippur and plundered Uruk. But rather than following up on his victory and attacking Nabopolassar, who seems to have hidden elsewhere, Sinsharishkun immediately returned with his army towards Nineveh. Babylon itself may have been abandoned by Nabopolassar at this time but the Assyrians were unable to finish the war. The Babylonian chronicle describing these campaigns is damaged at this point but it seems as if there was yet another rebellion in the Assyrian heartlands. The Assyrians would not be defeated from without, before they had destroyed themselves from within.

Sinsharishkun pursued Itti-ili, ravaged Uruk, and set up a garrison at Nippur. He went up from beyond the Euphrates and set out toward Assyria. He ravaged [?] and set out for Nineveh. … Who had come to do battle against him … When they saw him they bowed down before him ... The rebel king … One hundred days …
Early Years of Nabopolassar (Babylonian Chronicle ABC2)

In 622 Daddi was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonian chronicles fall silent for a number of years at this point and there are no corresponding Assyrian records to fill in the silence. We know that Sinsharishkun remained on the throne so it is probable that whatever revolt happened in Assyria was quelled by Sinsharishkun. But this crushing of the rebellion may have taken a number of years and other campaigns may have happened at this time. We do know that Sinsharishkun was still undertaking building projects at this time, including renovations of the temple of Nabu at Nimrud during this year.

Nineveh relief of Assyrian soldiers
I re-laid its foundations and the temple … I built and completed that temple. Its grand designs… eponymy of Daddi the treasurer.
Inscription of Sinsharishkun, written 622 (Inscription 19)

Around this time, the leadership of the Iranian steppe tribes was being consolidated by Cyaxares. The Cimmerians and Scythians that had been mentioned by Herodotus, and the Umman-manda mentioned by the Assyrians (who may have been Scythians), seem to be either destroyed or coalesced under the leadership of Cyaxares and the Medes. Herodotus tells that Cyaxares destroyed the Scythians by inviting them to a great banquet and slaying them all while they were drunk; thus eliminating all threats to his rule. However, this story is only recorded in Herodotus. No mention of it is found in any other source of the period (in fact a lot of the details about the steppe tribes come purely from Herodotus). It is possible that the banquet happened but that it was to do something else. The Medes and Scythians were nominally tributary to the Assyrians, whose supremacy Cyaxares seems determined to overturn. Perhaps the banquet story was a memory of a purge of all the pro-Assyrian nobility of the Scythians and Medes? Without better sources we shall never know. If it did in fact happen, it may have happened around this time, but might have also been at any stage in the 620’s or the early 610’s.

Nineveh relief of Assyrian officials
Most of them were entertained and made drunk and then slain by Cyaxares and the Medes: so thus the Medes took back their empire and all that they had formerly possessed
Herodotus, Histories, 1.106

In Judah, King Josiah was engaging in a religious reform around this time. This reform was probably begun at a slightly earlier date, as the book of Chronicles records that this began around 632/630. Both dates are probably correct in certain ways. The events being described are extensive reforms of the entire religious apparatus of the state, rebuilding of large structures in the city and campaigns to enlarge the state of Judah. These doubtless took a number of years and could be described with equal truth as happening at various points. The reforms were three-fold. Firstly, the religious practices of earlier rulers, including his grandfather Manasseh, were overturned. Josiah may have been trying to reinstate the practices of the time of Hezekiah, his great-grandfather and mirrored his policies. The Asherah poles and statues of other gods were destroyed. Various sanctuaries around Judah were also demolished and the main temple in Jerusalem was rededicated purely to the God of Israel.

He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek. He removed from the entrance to the temple of the LORD the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melek. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun.
2 Kings 23:10-11

Nineveh relief of a hunting scene
Secondly, Josiah took the opportunity of Assyrian weakness to assert his independence in the absence of the Assyrian armies. While the religious reforms were underway he marched north to Bethel and destroyed the sanctuaries there. Bethel was an ancient religious centre; even its name means “The House of God” and it had had a temple to the gods of the northern kingdom there since the time of Jeroboam I. Josiah destroyed the temple and desecrated it so that it could not be rebuilt, even burning human bones on the altars, which would have been seen as a terrible desecration. Interestingly the temple at Bethel may have actually been a temple to Yahweh, the god of Israel, but it was seen as idolatrous by the reformers and destroyed.

Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also. Then Josiah looked around, and when he saw the tombs that were there on the hillside, he had the bones removed from them and burned on the altar to defile it, in accordance with the word of the LORD proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things.
2 Kings 23:15-17

The third part of the reform was the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a very large structure that had stood since the time of the united kingdom of Israel and was dedicated to the God of Israel. It had been restored by earlier kings of Judah, such as Joash, but was in need of repair at this time. Josiah gathered money to restore the structure and rededicated the entire structure. While the temple was being rebuilt, the priests found a lost book, which was then taken to Josiah. This book may have been the book of Deuteronomy and it described the laws of God and the punishments for those who failed to obey them. This further spurred on the reform, as the king and the priests tried to make the state follow these regulations. Some have supposed that the book was a forgery from this time period. I don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to say this but it is clear that, if the book was previously unknown, that the Pentateuch in its current form could not have been common knowledge at the time of Josiah.

Modern drawing of Josiah hearing
the words of the lost scroll
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
2 Kings 22:11-13

The books of Kings and Chronicles record that Josiah and the priests inquired about the newfound book from a prophetess called Huldah. The prophet Jeremiah had begun to prophesy some years earlier but may not have been known to the court at this time. Later Talmudic sources suggest that King Josiah asked Huldah rather than Jeremiah because Huldah was more likely to be merciful, but there is no evidence of this. Huldah did not spare the king’s feelings. She prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed but that it would not come in Josiah’s lifetime.

Tell the man who sent you to me: “This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.”
2 Kings 22:15-17

If this prophecy was given to the king it may not have been shared as common knowledge or universally accepted; or perhaps it may have been taken as a prophecy for the far future. Josiah pressed on with his reforms and dedicated the rebuilt temple, reading the newfound Book of the Law to the people. This year also saw Josiah bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and reinstate it in the Temple. It is not clear where it was before this. Perhaps it had been removed by an earlier king such as Manasseh. This is, to my knowledge, the last definite mention of where the Ark was, in the Hebrew scripture. It also makes the plot of the first Indiana Jones movie somewhat less plausible than it already is. There are later traditions that the Ark was hidden away so that it could not be taken to Babylon and also traditions from various peoples and groups around the world who claim to have it or to have once had it. But it seems clear from context that the Ark was becoming less important in the actual practice of Judaism and it is no longer mentioned.

He said to the Levites, who instructed all Israel and who had been consecrated to the LORD: “Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built. It is not to be carried about on your shoulders. Now serve the LORD your God and his people Israel.”
2 Chronicles 35:3

Assyrian relief from Nineveh
Also in the year 622, it is recorded that Josiah held a large Passover celebration, with people assembled from all of his expanded kingdom. It was said by the writer of Chronicles to have been the largest Passover celebration of any of the kings of Israel, although this may be hyperbole. It would seem that celebrating the Passover may have been rather unusual, as it is mentioned in the sources, whereas if it was celebrated every year it would have been less usual. The celebration of the Passover is also interesting, as the last king to have celebrated the festival lavishly was Hezekiah, showing yet another instance of Josiah emulating his great-grandfather.

The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 35:18

In some ways the Biblical narrative of this time period is somewhat independent of the other historical sources of the time. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian sources all tell us nothing of this, nor do the Hebrew writers have much interest in the events happening outside Jerusalem. But despite being an interesting perspective on the region the very fact that the accounts are in parallel shows us that the Assyrian empire in the west was effectively absent at this time, confirming our suspicions. The behaviour of Josiah shown in Kings and Chronicles also leads us to believe that Josiah was modelling his behaviour on Hezekiah’s, who had tried to win independence from Assyria by befriending Babylon. It is very likely that Josiah pursued a similar course, which would explain certain later developments in the story.

Stela of Anlamani of Kush
In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the LORD, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.
Jeremiah 3:16

In 621 the limmu for this year seems to be even more uncertain than for other years. The Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hebrew, etc. records all seem silent for this year, so this is as convenient a place as any to mention that around this time Susa was once again occupied and that a king or kings tried to rule again in Elam. While we have some inscriptions that are possibly from this period there are no certain dates and we cannot even give the names of the kings with certainty. The strength of the Elamite nationalism is extraordinary, in that they would once again try to resist their enemies after the devastation of the previous decades. But resist is indeed what they tried to do.

In 620 Sa’ilu was Limmu of Assyria and the other records of the time are scant indeed. Herodotus records that Sadyattes of Lydia began a war against Ionia around this time, but this may have happened during previous years. In Kush, Senkamanisken of Kush died and Anlamani succeeded him as Pharaoh of Kush, ruling from the city of Napata. In this year Sinsharishkun restored a temple of Nabu in Asshur. Nabopolassar seems to have captured Sippar, the sacred city of Shamash the sun god, and a strategic location preventing the Assyrians from striking directly at Babylon. The main Assyrian garrison in Babylonia, at Nippur, was besieged around this time, but our evidence for this is rather indirect.

Lydian coin
In 619 Mannu-ki-ahhe was Limmu of Assyria. In Lydia Sadyattes died around this time and his son, Alyattes II succeeded him. Alyattes II was the most powerful of the Lydian kings and it is a great pity that this period is not better studied or known, as he was a powerful king indeed, but there is little that can be said. He continued the wars against the Greek city states of Ionia that his father Sadyattes had begun. It was around the time of his reign that coinage began to be first used. Interestingly, coinage appears to have had a parallel and unrelated development in China around this time as well. In the west, it is not clear if the Greeks or the Lydians were the first to coin precious metals but it was probably the Lydians, with the Greeks following suit shortly thereafter. The coins of the Lydians were of electrum, a mixture of gold and silver, that they minted in great quantities. The symbol on the obverse of the coin was a lion, the symbol of the ruling Mermnad dynasty. Occasionally this included a sun symbol or a bull that was attacked by the lion. The reverse was a punch mark used in the stamping of the coin. If this is indeed a Lydian invention it was their greatest invention and certainly helped to change the world.

Lydian coins
The next two years, 618 and 617, saw Nabu-sakip and Asshur-remanni as the respective Limmu’s for the Assyrian empire. With the Babylonian chronicles silent, there is not much more that can be said for these two years but during this time it should be presumed that the war between Sinsharishkun of Assyria and Nabopolassar of Babylon continued. During this time Uruk seems to have been under siege by the Assyrians and Babylonians at various points. As merchants were supposed to date their contracts by the name and regnal year of the king, and as it was very unclear which king would triumph, the merchants of Uruk conveniently label their documents around this time as “the x years of the siege”. This prudently avoided acknowledging whoever might prove to be the loser in the struggle for Mesopotamia. This also suggests that the outcome was very much in doubt, even to those closer to Babylon. Around this time Nippur, the main Assyrian fortress in Babylonia, fell to Nabopolassar after a prolonged siege.

In 616 Bel-ahu-usur was Limmu of Assyria. In this year another Babylonian chronicle begins, which gives details of the ongoing war between Assyria and Babylon. The war seems to have been stalemated for some years, with Sinsharishkun able to work on the restoration or reconstruction of various temples in Asshur and Nineveh at this time. In other words the war was serious but not an existential threat to Assyria. This seems to change in this year and as far as I can tell, there was no more building work undertaken by Sinsharishkun after 616. While it might seem strange to have building work and large-scale wars undertaken simultaneously this was not unusual for the Assyrian empire, which existed in a near constant state of war, even at the best of times.

In Nabopolassar marched up the Euphrates to try and detach the region south of Harran from the Assyrian Empire. The people of the region paid tribute and did not attempt to resist. Sinsharishkun had not been idle. The few allies yet loyal to Assyria had been called to battle. The Manneans, an Iranian kingdom near Urartu, were summoned and Psammetichus of Egypt sent troops. The case of Egypt is strange, as they had rebelled against Assyria but remained allies with them. The behaviour of these Pharaohs seems very strange indeed.

Model of the city of Megiddo held by the kingdom of Judah
The Egyptian contingent would have marched along the Via Maris, the trade route by the sea that snaked inland near the Valley of Jezreel and passed near the northern Israelite town of Megiddo across the hills and towards Damascus. Josiah had recently tried to establish his power in this region and the passing of Egyptian troops would have been noted.

A part of the Assyrian army met the Chaldeans near Gablini on the Euphrates on the 12th of Abu (the 4th of July) and the Chaldeans were victorious. The gods of the nearby cities of Mane, Sahiri and Bali-hu were captured and sent to Babylon and the Chaldeans deported a number of people. However this was not an outright victory, as later, in the month of Tashritu (September/October) the Assyrians arrived in force with their full army and the Chaldeans withdrew before them, possibly abandoning Gablini.

In the month Tashritu the army of Egypt and the army of Assyria went after the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) as far as Gablini but they did not overtake the king of Babylonia. So they withdrew.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

The Chaldeans had redeployed their troops to the east of Mesopotamia and attacked Arraphu (near present-day Kirkuk). A battle was fought at Madanu outside the city and the Babylonian chronicles record a major Chaldean/Babylonian victory over the Assyrians. It seems that in this year the city of Nimrud was sacked, probably by the Medes under their king Cyaxares. The Medes would have seen the problems that the Assyrians were having with internal and Babylonian rebellions and seem to have attacked in this year, although as yet, Cyaxares and Nabopolassar were acting independently.

The army of Babylonia inflicted a major defeat upon the Assyrian army and drove them back to the Zab River. They captured their chariots and horses and plundered them extensively.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

Nineveh relief of Assyrian king
In 615 Sin-alik-pani was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonians/Chaldeans marched up the Tigris River and attacked Asshur, the founding city of Assyria itself. They laid siege of the city around April or May and unsuccessfully tried to take it. A month later the Assyrian army under Sinsharishkun arrived at the city and pushed the Babylonians back to Takrita’in (modern Tikrit) further down the Tigris. The Babylonians retreated into the fortress and Sinsharishkun tried to besiege it for ten days. But the Babylonians sallied out of the fortress and defeated the Assyrians, forcing them to withdraw. Rather than continue the attack the Assyrians withdrew, as the Medes were threatening the eastern frontier. In the month Arahsamna (around October/November) the Medes attacked Arraphu and probably captured it, although the text is broken at this point. The constant pressure from both Nabopolassar and Cyaxares allowed the Assyrians no time to regroup and now the very core of the Assyrian empire was threatened.

The king of Assyria mustered his army, pushed the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) back from Asshur and marched after him as far as Takrita'in, a city on the bank of the Tigris.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

In 614 Pasi was Limmu of the Assyrian empire. No movements of the Assyrian or Babylonian armies are recorded, perhaps worn out from the rapid attacks of the previous year. Around July or August the Medes took the initiative and captured Tarbisu, which was a city very close to Nineveh itself, before marching south along the Tigris and laying siege to Asshur, which had survived a month long siege the previous year. Perhaps the walls were damaged from the previous siege. The Babylonians heard that the city was under siege and marched towards the embattled city. But before the Babylonians could reach Asshur the Medes took the city.

Drawing of an earlier attack
by Assyrian soldiers against a city of the Medes
Even though the Assyrians were the enemy, the Babylonians were somewhat awestruck when the city fell and recorded it in grim tones. The Medes plundered the city and in the ruins, Cyaxares of Media and Nabopolassar of Babylon met and formed an alliance against Sinsharishkun of Assyria. Possibly Amytis, the daughter of Cyaxares, married the son of Nabopolassar to cement the alliance, but I am unsure if this actually happened.

They (the Medes) went along the Tigris and encamped against Asshur. They did battle against the city and destroyed it. They inflicted a terrible defeat upon a great people...
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

The Assyrians were now in a very dangerous position. Their armies had been the terror of the region for centuries, but they had very few actual allies. If their armies were gone, their state was lost. At the height of their power they had been able to field armies possibly numbering up to a quarter of a million men. Now those numbers had been whittled away in the numerous civil wars after the time of Ashurbanipal. The constant fighting against the Medes and Babylonians had also taken their toll on their numbers. Their best generals had been lost fighting on both sides of the rebellions. Now they could no longer count on weight of numbers to decide victory.

A (bad) reconstruction of part of the walls
of Nineveh
This too the saying of Phocylides: The law-abiding town, though small and set on a lofty rock, outranks foolish Nineveh.
Phocylides, Greek poet writing c. 530BC quoted by Dio Chrysostom

The Babylonians may well have had Assyrian soldiers and generals in their armies, as most Assyrian troops would have chosen to submit rather than face death, and the large Assyrian garrison at Nippur may have switched sides rather than fight to the death. Thus the Babylonian armies would have known all the tactics of the Assyrians and now probably outnumbered them. The unreliable Scythian allies of the Assyrians fought with the same tactics as the Medes, so no strategic advantage could be gained there. Finally, Sinsharishkun had come to the throne in dubious circumstances, meaning that even his Assyrian troops probably had limited loyalty to the crown.

“I am against you” declares the LORD Almighty. “I will burn up your chariots in smoke and the sword will devour your young lions. I will leave you no prey on the earth. The voices of your messengers will no longer be heard.”
Nahum 2:13

In 613 Nabu-tapputi-alik was Limmu of the Assyrians. The region south of Harran now revolted against Babylon and the Babylonians marched along the Euphrates to attack Rahi-ilu, which was on an island in the Euphrates. On the 11th of May, using siege engines brought from both sides of the river, and possibly building a pontoon bridge, Nabopolassar attacked the city and captured it shortly thereafter. The Assyrians were still a force to be reckoned with however, as their army arrived on the scene while the Babylonians were looting it and the Babylonians were forced to retreat. 

He did battle against the city and captured it. The king of Assyria and his army came down and the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) and his army went home.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

There is a strange and unusual document that may be from this time. A later Babylonian cuneiform tablet, from the Hellenistic era, claims to be a copy of a letter from Sinsharishkun to Nabopolassar. It seems that Sinsharishkun believed that the war was nearly lost and that he was imploring Nabopolassar to break his alliance with the Medes and instead ally with Sinsharishkun. In return Assyria would acknowledge the supremacy of Babylon. The letter is very fragmentary and full of strange literary allusions. If real, it would probably have been sent after the Assyrians had forced back the Babylonians from the Euphrates River, south of Harran, as this would have given Sinsharishkun some bargaining power. It was an interesting proposal, as the Babylonians and Assyrians were weakened from over a decade of warfare, while the Medes were not. The possibility that the Iranian horse tribes might turn on the Babylonians was a real one.

The purported Letter of Sinsharishkun
to Nabopolassar
The weak man … the partridge, which wishes to share a nest with a falcon.
Letter of Sinsharishkun to Nabopolassar (possibly written in 613, and possibly referring here to a subordinate position in an alliance with Babylon)

But the letter may not be genuine at all but may simply be a Babylonian literary forgery. But if it is real it is a startling insight into the mind of a man who was once the most powerful man in the world but was now in fear of his life. There are fragments of other letters from Nabopolassar who may have entered into correspondence. If this correspondence was real, it was ignored by Nabopolassar, who had no intention of breaking his alliance with Cyaxares. 

Letter of Sinsharishkun, king of Assyria, which … he wrote to Nabopolassar his lord.
Letter of Sinsharishkun to Nabopolassar (possibly written in 613, these are the closing lines and may be from the copyist, rather than the letter itself)

In 612 Marduk-remanni was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonians and Medes set their armies in motion and in the month Simanu (May/June) the armies joined forces, possibly at Opis on the Tigris River. Marching up the river at speed, possibly transporting troops on boats, past the ruins of the destroyed city of Asshur, the armies reached Nineveh. The siege of Nineveh began towards the end of the month of Simanu. Nineveh was the largest city in the world at the time and was fortified with a double layer of walls, protected on two sides by the Tigris and Khosr rivers and defended by what was left of the formidable armies of Assyria.

The king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) and his army crossed the Tigris; Cyaxares had to cross the Radanu, and they marched along the bank of the Tigris. In the month Simanu, the Nth day, they encamped against Nineveh.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

The Fall of Nineveh painted by
John Martin 1829
Sinsharishkun was in the city and it was defended fiercely. The Babylonians and Medes assaulted the city for three months, until finally, in the month of Abu (July/August), the city fell to the attackers. There was fierce fighting in the streets and the defenders were slaughtered. Sinsharishkun died at this time, either by suicide or in battle. He was not captured by the attackers. A remnant of the Assyrian army, possibly led by a general named Ashur-uballit, may have fought its way out of the falling city and escaped to the north and west, but this is unclear.

The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished. The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lighting.
Nahum 2:4-5

The city that had dominated the region was put to the torch and the libraries of Ashurbanipal burned. The palaces and temples were looted and accumulated plunder of centuries was taken by the Medes and Babylonians. At least one high Assyrian official submitted to the Babylonians during the capture, probably fearing the Medes more than the Babylonians. There have been some tablets found containing treaties where the Medes were forced to submit to the Assyrians, and these have been found smashed. Perhaps this was done deliberately by the Medes when the city fell; perhaps it is a mere accident of history.

Skeletons from Nineveh
Photo taken from this article

On the Nth day of the month Abu they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sinsharishkun, king of Assyria, died. They carried off the vast treasure of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

The brutality of the siege was even found by archaeology, where the skeletons of twelve archers and a horse were found preserved underneath a gate they had defended. Arrowheads and spearheads were found by the scene and the fact that the bodies were undisturbed suggests that the gatehouse collapsed upon the corpses shortly after the fighting, perhaps because of siege rams or fire. The multiple wounds on the bones testify to the ferocity of the fighting.

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, Bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses
Nahum 3:1-3

I should take a moment to discuss a story often told about the fall of Nineveh, that it was taken after a flood had destroyed some of the walls. The Hebrew book of Nahum is often quoted to back up this assertion. The book of Nahum was a Hebrew text that described the fall of Nineveh. It was probably intended as prophecy but if it was not prophecy it may have been written shortly after the fall of Nineveh (as the state of Judah very swiftly had new enemies to write about and these are not mentioned in Nahum), as a triumphant poem over the destruction of a great enemy. Either way, it was probably written nearly contemporarily with the events it describes. There are some phrases that might be construed as depicting a flood, but are more likely to just be poetic imagery, e.g. “The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses” or “Nineveh is like a pool whose water is draining away”. Both of these are more likely to be poetic imagery, as the rulers of the Near East often describe “devastating a city like the Flood” to indicate the destruction done.

Painting of The Dream of Sardanapalus
by Ford Madox Brown 1869
The rebels, encouraged by their advantages, pressed the siege, but were foiled by the strength of the walls from harming the defenders, for in those days, artillery, defences for sappers, or battering-rams had not been invented. Moreover, there was great abundance of all provisions for those in the city, as the king had attended to this beforehand. Consequently the siege dragged on for two years, assaults were continually made upon the walls, and the occupants were cut off from egress to the country, but in the third year, a succession of heavy downpours swelled the Euphrates, flooded part of the city, and cast down the wall to a length of 20 stades.
Diod. II 27: 1–3 (written around 60BC)

A much later source, Diodorus Siculus describes the fall of Nineveh but his account contains so many errors that I feel his account should be treated cautiously, as his probable source (Ctesias) was also unreliable. He records that Nineveh fell after a siege of three years and that the river flooded at the end of the siege, washing away the walls, at which point the king killed himself. This account errs in the names of the river, the king and the duration of the siege. Also, the city had flood defences that were in place to prevent flood damage. Even if such a section of the wall was destroyed by either the rivers Khosr or Tigris, the walls of Nineveh were a double circumvallation. So, supposing a large flood, manmade or natural, washed away a large section of the first wall, the second, much higher, wall would still stand in the path of the attackers. The key here seems to be the name Sardanapalus.

Partial reconstruction of one of the gatehouse of Nineveh
Thereupon the king realized that the oracle had been fulfilled, and that the river had manifestly declared war upon the city. Despairing of his fate, but resolved not to fall into the hands of his enemies, he prepared a gigantic pyre in the royal precincts, heaped up all his gold and silver and his kingly raiment as well upon it, shut up his concubines and eunuchs in the chamber he had made in the midst of the pyre, and burnt himself and the palace together with all of them. The rebels, hearing of the end of Sardanapallus, burst into the city where the wall was down and captured it, then arrayed Arbakes in the royal robe, saluted him king, and invested him with supreme authority.
Diod. II 27: 1–3 (written around 60BC)

Sardanapalus was the supposed last king of the Assyrians. The Greek memories of the Assyrian Empire were extremely confused. Only the names of Sardanapalus and Semiramis are remembered in later tradition. Sardanapalus is a portmanteau of the names Sargon and Ashurbanipal. His supposed campaigns in Cilicia appear to be a folk memory of the campaigns of Sennacherib. As the last king in Nineveh he is probably taken from Sinsharishkun but his death in the flames of a burning palace sounds suspiciously like the death of Shamash-shuma-ukin when Babylon fell to the Assyrians. So, what seems to have happened is that later Greek legends lumped every tradition about the later Assyrian empire and ascribed it all to Sardanapalus. Diodorus’ account of the fall of Nineveh is probably a similar conglomeration of different memories, rather than an actual account of the siege. The fiery suicide of Sinsharishkun may have some more truth to it however, as it is also mentioned in the Babyloniaca of Berossus, but Berossus may be simply copying Ctesias in this matter.

The Death of Sardanapalus
painted by Eugene Delacroix 1827
Note the smoke billowing in the background
Sarakos, dismayed at his attack, burned himself together with his palace
Berossus’ Babyloniaca

The city of Nineveh was looted for several weeks after its fall. If any remaining Scythian allies of the Assyrians had not already switched sides, by this point they had joined the Medes under Cyaxares. The king of Urartu, Rusa III, may have been part of the alliance and sent some troops. A much later Armenian writer called Movses Khorenatsi mentions that an Armenian king called Paruyr Skayordi took part in the destruction of Nineveh, so this may be a memory of the Urartian king Rusa III. Alternatively, it may simply be a later invention.

Plunder the silver! Plunder the gold! The supply is endless, the wealth from all its treasures!
Nahum 2:9

The Medes left Nineveh in Ululu, about a month after the city had fallen, returning to their Iranian homelands laden with plunder. Nabopolassar continued the campaign, with his generals attacking the city Nasibina (classical Nisibis/modern Nusaybin) and the land of Rusapu in southern Turkey. More plunder was taken back to Nabopolassar at Nineveh. Presumably this was an attempt to stop any surviving Assyrian generals in the north-western provinces from regrouping and trying to reform the Assyrian empire after its cataclysmic defeat. The Assyrians had been hated for their vicious policies of conquest and terror and the news of their destruction must have been heard with joy and stupefaction across much of the Near East.

Remains of a later fortress at Harran
King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?
Nahum 3:18-19

The Assyrians seem to have tried to reform the empire from the city of Harran, which was slightly further west than Nasibina. It held the temple of the moon god Sin and the previous Assyrian kings had gone there to hear prophecies of their future. The new king was Ashur-uballit II and with Harran as his base and a plea to Pharaoh Psammetichus for troops, he attempted to re-forge the empire that had been lost.

On the … of the month … Ashur-uballit ascended to the throne in Harran to rule Assyria.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

In 611 Nabu-mar-sharri-usur was Limmu of what remained of Assyria. Nabopolassar returned to Assyria to continue plundering and to quell any attempted Assyrian recovery. In the month of Arahsamna (around October/November) Nabopolassar attacked Ruggulitu, the location of which I am unsure. Within a month it was taken and the defenders annihilated. Nabopolassar returned to Babylon. At this point Nabopolassar appears to have been getting older and struggled to lead campaigns personally, but it was vital for the Babylonians to crush the Assyrians once and for all.

The mound is the remains of an Assyrian city
at Sultantepe near Harran.
It was abandoned in 610 after the capture of Harran
He did battle against the city and on the twenty-eighth day of the month Arahsamnu he captured it. He did not leave a single man alive.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

In 610 Nabu-sharru-usur was the Limmu of what remained of Assyria. In Egypt Psammetichus I died and his son Necho II became Pharaoh of Egypt. Around April or May the Babylonian army once more assembled and marched towards Assyria, campaigning there until around October or November. In the month of Arahsamna the Babylonians marched to Harran and besieged it. Ashur-uballit II, not wanting to get caught in the city, fled the city with his field army and his Egyptian allies, hoping for Egyptian reinforcements to try and retake the city. Ashur-uballit II crossed the Euphrates River, heading southwest, probably at Carchemish, which was held by an Egyptian garrison. If this was Ashur-uballit’s plan he was disappointed, as the death of Psammetichus and coronation of his son would have delayed the main Egyptian army, which was now desperately needed. The Babylonians took the city of Harran and looted the city and the temple of Sin. The aging Nabopolassar left his field army in the region and returned to Babylon, while the forces of the Medes also withdrew. Presumably they had been summoned to help wipe out the last bastion of the Assyrians.

Assyrian relief of a river
The king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) reached Harran, fought a battle, and captured the city. He carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

In 609 Gargamisaiu was the Limmu of the remnants of the Assyrian empire. Gargamisaiu is not a name but means merely “The Carchemishite”, presumably because the Egyptian-held city of Carchemish was all that remained of the Assyrian Empire. Early in the year Necho II of Egypt led a large army from Egypt towards Carchemish on the Euphrates River to try and support Ashur-uballit II against the triumphant Babylonians who had recently captured Harran. Josiah of Judah had tried to extend the kingdom of Judah to include all the territories held by the old northern kingdom of Israel and the fastest route for the Egyptians led through this newly conquered territory. If Josiah had followed the precedent of Hezekiah he would have pursued a hostile policy against Assyria and fostered friendly relations with Babylon. It seems that this was the case.

View of the plains of Megiddo from the citadel
Necho king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”
2 Chronicles 35:20-21

Necho II saw that Josiah had mustered his armies against him and requested free passage, making the argument that the Egyptians had no quarrel with the kingdom of Judah, that time was of the essence and that his army was marching elsewhere. But Josiah would have been wary of any attempt to save the Assyrian army on the Euphrates and sent his army into battle near the city of Megiddo. In a small aside, while Josiah is nowhere referenced in other histories, it does seem as if Herodotus records a memory of this battle where he refers to Necho fighting the inhabitants of Syria at a place called Magdolos, which does seem very likely to have been Megiddo, particularly as it was placed south of Kadesh by Herodotus.

Necho also engaged in a pitched battle at Magdolos with the Syrians…
Herodotus Histories 2:159

The battle was a terrible defeat for Josiah and he lost both his army and his life in the battle. Josiah’s attempt to rebuild the united kingdom of Israel had failed and this was the last time that a king of Judah was able to lead an army in the field. Necho II had no time to stop and consolidate the kingdom of Judah under his rule but marched northwards instead. In Jerusalem, Josiah was mourned, with the prophet Jeremiah writing a lament for the fallen king. The Crown Prince Shallum, who was not the eldest son of Josiah but may have been groomed for the succession, changed his name to Jehoahaz and took the throne in Jerusalem.

The Death of Josiah
Painted by Francisco Conti (1681-1760)
Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Necho had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo. Archers shot King Josiah, and he told his officers, “Take me away; I am badly wounded.” So they took him out of his chariot, put him in his other chariot and brought him to Jerusalem, where he died.
2 Chronicles 35:22-24

Around June/July the combined Assyrian and Egyptian army under Ashur-uballit II and Necho II marched across the Euphrates towards Harran, capturing a city held by the Babylonians. This was to be the last Assyrian victory however. The Assyrians and Egyptians laid siege to Harran for over a month before the approach of the aged Nabopolassar and the full Babylonian army forced them to retreat back to Carchemish. There was no battle in the field but this is the last that we hear of Ashur-uballit II. He may have survived and continued fighting in later battles with the Egyptian army but he was a king without a kingdom and history records him no more. The Assyrian Empire, heavily centralised around the capital in their homeland, could not be revived once the capital was lost. The Assyrian people did however survive and their history since then has been a deeply tragic one. Like the empire, in this year the Assyrian limmu dating system comes to an end. 609 was the year of the Gargamisaiu and because the Assyrian Empire will never rise again, from a certain point of view, it will be the year of the Carchemishite forever.

Dying Lion relief from Nineveh
When they had defeated it they encamped against Harran. Until the month Ululu they did battle against the city but achieved nothing. The king of Akkad went to help his army but did not join battle.
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle (ABC3)

With the Egyptian army forced back to the Euphrates, the Babylonians pushed north and east towards the edges of Urartu. Possibly there were further pockets of Assyrian resistance in the mountains bordering the northern edge of Assyria. If so, it is likely that the Medes would have been attacking these and the Babylonian forces of Nabopolassar would have tried to support their allies in crushing these remains. Excavations in Assyria have shown that there was some continuity in Assyrian administration, meaning that the officials who did not resist were formed into a replacement bureaucracy that functioned for the Babylonians as they had for the previous Assyrian kingdom.

Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts that settle in the walls on a cold day – but when the sun appears they fly away, and no one knows where.
Nahum 3:17

Necho II set up his court at Riblah, near the city of Hamath, where he sent troops to Jerusalem and dethroned the new king Jehoahaz, who had reigned for only three months. Jehoahaz was taken prisoner and later sent to Egypt in chains, where he died in exile.

Gates of Megiddo
Pharaoh Necho put him (Jehoahaz) in chains at Riblah in the land of Hamath so that he might not reign in Jerusalem, and he imposed on Judah a levy of a hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold.
2 Kings 23:33

Another of Josiah’s sons, Eliakim, was placed by Necho on the throne of Judah and a heavy tribute was placed on the kingdom. Eliakim changed his name to Jehoiakim, which was very similar to his previous name but possibly seen as having more dignity. Sometimes this name is written as Jeconiah. Jehoiakim is viewed as being a bad king in the Biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, prophesied against in the book of Jeremiah, and in the later Talmudic sources he is described in an unbelievably bad light. He is supposed to have not only reverted all the religious reforms of his father but to have slept with his mother and tried to make a replacement sun to show that he did not need God. At least some of the Talmudic attacks on Jehoiakim are probably unjustified later writings about a king who was in a difficult situation and who would prove spectacularly unsuccessful at handling it.

Jehoiakim burnt the Torah; …He dishonoured his mother. His mother remonstrated with him: “Have you then taken any pleasure in the place from whence you came?” He replied: “Do I do this for any other purpose than to provoke my Creator!” When Jehoiakim came, he said, “My predecessors knew not how to anger him: do we need Him for anything but his light? But we have Parvaim gold, which we can use for light; let him take His light!”
Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin 103b

In 608 the Babylonian army mustered in August/September and marched up the Tigris to fight in the mountains bordering Urartu, possibly quelling any remaining Assyrian rebels and assisting the Medes in subduing their portion of the region. After burning cities in the mountains of Bit-Hanunya the Babylonians returned around the month of December. Urartu at this point was a subject kingdom to the Medes. In the west Alyattes II of Lydia began to conquer all of Anatolia, filling the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Assyrian empire.

In the year 607 there were further campaigns in the mountains near Urartu. There now appear to have been two Babylonian field armies, one led by Nabopolassar and the other by his crown prince Nabu-kudurri-usur. Nabu-kudurri-usur is better known to history as Nebuchadnezzar II or just Nebuchadnezzar. The two armies marched towards the mountains of the north, attacking Biranati near Urartu, around the month of May/June. Nabopolassar returned to Babylon a month later, leaving Nebuchadnezzar to finish the siege and finish the subjugation of the Urartian hinterlands. The army of Nebuchadnezzar then returned to Babylon around August/September before marching westwards and capturing the city Kimuhu (the later region of Commagene) on the upper waters of the Euphrates. Nebuchadnezzar may have been threatening to outflank the Egyptians who were further south. The city was attacked around November and fell about a month later.

If you search for the year 607BC online you will sometimes see this given as the year the Babylonians took Jerusalem. This is almost certainly incorrect, as it contradicts a great number of other dates that are well established. There is a religious group that believes the year 1914AD and the number 2520 to be prophetically important and thus try to count backwards from this to establish the date of the fall of Jerusalem. It is a minor point and not really relevant here but I did find that this incorrect timeline was showing up a lot when I checked stuff out online and thought people should be aware of it. There is a full discussion of this date here.

In the year 606 the Egyptians counterattacked and attacked Kimuhu, capturing it after a siege of four months. In the month of September/October Nabopolassar marched his armies northwest along the banks of the Euphrates to try and threaten the southern flank of Necho’s new empire. Switching from one bank of the river to the other the Babylonians captured the smaller cities of Shunadiri, Elammu and Dahammu before returning to Babylon in November/December. Nabopolassar’s health was failing and this was to be his last campaign. Nabopolassar had left the armies in place, presumably under the command of Nebuchadnezzar or one of his generals. The Egyptian army stationed at Carchemish counterattacked and pushed the Babylonians back along the river, forcing a retreat.

In 605 Nabopolassar was too physically weak to campaign personally but with the hinterlands under their control and the Median alliance with Cyaxares securing their eastern flank, the Babylonians decided to confront the Egyptians head on. Nebuchadnezzar led the army to Carchemish where they crossed the River Euphrates unopposed. At Carchemish the Babylonian army won a massive victory and the Egyptian army was crushed. The remains of the Egyptians and any Assyrians that might still have been fighting alongside them, retreated to Riblah, near Hamath. The Babylonians were aware of the Egyptian base there and followed them at their heels, winning another victory against the survivors of the rout and scattering them a second time.

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and Leonard Woolley
(discover of Ur) excavating Carchemish
They fought with each other and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them to non-existence. As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat so quickly that no weapon had reached them, in the district of Hamath the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them so that not a single man escaped to his own country.
Babylonian Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC5)

It is unclear if Necho II was with his army at the time but if he was he managed to escape the carnage. The short-lived Levantine empire of Necho II was over and all the land from the Euphrates to Egypt lay open for the Babylonians. For all that it failed, it should be remembered that Necho’s campaign on the Euphrates was possibly the most sustained Egyptian power projection in the history of Egypt to date, at least since the time of the New Kingdom. But despite the Egyptian collapse at Carchemish and Riblah, there was a temporary delay in the Babylonian assault.

On the 15th of August Nabopolassar died; the rebel general who had helped to destroy the most powerful kingdom in the world and set up another to rival it in its place. In September Nebuchadnezzar had returned to Babylon and on the 7th of September he was crowned king of Babylon.

Cylinder inscription of Nebuchadnezzar
For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been king of Babylon, when on the 8th of Abu he went to his destiny
Babylonian Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC5)

In 604 Nebuchadnezzar returned to the Levant with his armies and generals and continued the conquest of the region. Ashkelon, one of the Philistine cities of the coast, resisted. Possibly it was garrisoned with Egyptian troops. Ashkelon was besieged by the Babylonians. While Ashkelon was under siege the other kings of the region were invited to submit to the conquerors, who had taken up the mantle of the old Assyrian Empire. Jehoiakim of Judah and the kings of Ammon, Moab, Edom and the other small states in the region submitted to the new order. Tribute was levied on these kingdoms and a number of high-ranking prisoners were taken to Babylon, although there were probably not large scale deportations.

During Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years.
2 Kings 24:1

In early 603 Ashkelon fell and was plundered and burnt, with the garrison and Philistine inhabitants deported into exile. The Babylonians continued consolidating their power in the region, levying tribute and gathering soldiers. Meanwhile Necho II had retreated to Egypt and was gathering a new army to face the Babylonian threat. The Babylonians continued to campaign in the Levant but not much is known of their exact movements at this time.

Assyrian cuneiform tablet
from Nineveh

Gaza will shave her head in mourning; Ashkelon will be silenced. You remnant on the plain, how long will you cut yourselves? “Alas, sword of the Lord, how long till you rest? Return to your sheath; cease and be still.” But how can it rest when the Lord has commanded it, when he has ordered it to attack Ashkelon and the coast?
Jeremiah 47:5-7

In 601 Nebuchadnezzar made an attempt to break Necho’s army and invade Egypt. Necho II made a stand at the edge of Egypt itself and managed to defeat the Babylonians. It does not seem to have been a total defeat but Nebuchadnezzar was forced to retreat and he returned to Babylon with much of his army. Seeing the chaos in the region and probably under instructions from Necho, Jehoiakim of Judah decided to revolt against Babylon. The Babylonians did not respond immediately, as they were gathering their strength for the next battle with Egypt. But the other kingdoms that bordered Judah would have seen this switch of allegiance as open season for attacking and raiding Judah, which had no real field armies left after the disaster at Megiddo.

The goddess Hathor giving rule over all
lands to Necho II
In open battle they smote the breast of each other and inflicted great havoc on each other. The king of Akkad turned back with his troops and returned to Babylon.
Babylonian Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC5)

In the year 600 the Babylonians were rebuilding their army and preparing to reassert their dominance in the Levant. Meanwhile Necho II seems to have tried to support the rebellion of Judah by attacking the city of Gaza and capturing it.

Thus the period ends, with the empire of Assyria destroyed and three new powers, Media, Babylon and Lydia, taking its place. Each kingdom was led by strong rulers, with Cyaxares, Nebuchadnezzar II and Alyattes II being the strongest rulers that each of these kingdoms would have. Egypt was also very strong at this point, with a vigorous and capable Pharaoh Necho at its head but militarily it wasn’t a match for Babylon. Assyria had been the dominant power in the region for centuries and with its sudden collapse, new changes might soon appear in the region.

Assyrian gate guardians
A list of some of the sources used in the blog
Limmu Lists
Sardis Expedition
Accession of Sinsharishkun
Inscriptions of Sinsharishkun
Early Years of Nabopolassar Chronicle ABC2
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle ABC3
Late Years of Nabopolassar Chronicle ABC4
Jerusalem Chronicle ABC5
Letter of Sinsharishkun to Ashurbanipal
Babyloniaca of Berossus
Fall of Nineveh and the Flood of Diodorus Siculus
Skeletons from the Fall of Nineveh
Archaeology of Elam