Crossing the river

An example of Assyrian ingenuity

A relief in the British Museum offers a good example of Neo-Assyrian ingenuity, with men crossing a river using inflated animal skins.

Josho Brouwers

The Neo-Assyrian Empire, generally thought to have been founded by Adad-nirari II in 911 BC, is widely regarded as the first true empire of the ancient world. The Assyrians ruled over large swathes of conquered territory, over which they exerted considerable influence.

Other, earlier kingdoms had, of course, also expanded their borders via conquest. The Akkadian Empire of the third millennium BC expanded across Mesopotamia, but did not reach far beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At different times, the Egyptians brought Nubia and the Levant into their sphere of influence. In China, the Zhou established a large kingdom (empire) at around the same time that Egyp’s New Kingdom, the Hittite Kingdom, and the Babylonians flourished, between ca. 1500 and 1100 BC.

Comparable in organization to the later Roman Empire, the Assyrians established their rule in conquered lands, installed governors (and puppet leaders), built roads and road stations, and so on. They ruled over a diverse population. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the largest empire that the world had seen, eclipsed only later by Alexander’s conquests and, ultimately, the Roman Empire.

The Neo-Assyrian army

The success of the Neo-Assyrians is generally attributed to two technological innovations, the widespread use of iron and the introduction of true cavalry. But the Assyrian army was arguably one of the best organized and most ruthless forces that the world had yet seen, perhaps overshadowed only by the Macedonian army of the later fourth century BC. Among other things, the Assyrians developed a number of military innovations, one of which is shown in the relief depicted at the top of this article.

This gypsum wall relief was taken from Room B (panel 10, bottom) in the North West Palace at Nimrud (Kalhu), in what is today Iraq. It has been dated to 865 BC–860 BC and thus belongs to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BC). In the nineteenth century, it was shipped to London and is currently on display at the British Museum, along with a range of other, similarly exquisite Assyrian reliefs.

The panel depicts an Assyrian army crossing a river. Without a bridge or a place to ford the river, other means to cross had to be found. The relief shows a boat with parts of a dismantled chariot (or siege engine?) aboard; horses are shown swimming across. But pay attention to some of the swimming human figures: they are holding on to inflated animal skins that they use as floatation devices.

As their enemies quickly learned, the Assyrian army would not let any obstacle hinder its path. City walls were wrecked using sophisticated siege engines, poorly-equipped infantry could be run down by cavalry or heavy chariots, and even rivers could be crossed at will.