“The First Great Powers: Babylon and Assyria” by Arthur Cotterell


Literary allusions to Babylon and Assyria are often not very complimentary, and they are most certainly based on common misconceptions. For example, an angel sanctimoniously proclaims in Revelation 14:8 that “Babylon the Great has fallen, she who made all the nations drink of the wine of the anger of her fornication!” As for the Assyrians, Lord Byron wrote in “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815) that they “came down like a wolf on the fold,” and that their “cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.”

There we have it, then: fornicators and oppressors of the innocent—in short, a nasty, aggressive, degenerate lot. These are, of course, fanciful descriptions of the very real fall of Babylon and the oppression of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah by Assyria and Babylon. Shalmaneser V of Assyria laid siege to Samaria and his successor Sargon II captured it three years later in 721 BCE, whilst Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon in 587 BCE, king Zedekiah blinded and the inhabitants sent into exile, the storied “Babylonian captivity.”


The First Great Powers: Babylon and Assyria, Arthur Cotterell (Hurst, September 2019)
The First Great Powers: Babylon and Assyria, Arthur Cotterell (Hurst, September 2019)

Both these literary works predated the rediscovery of Nineveh and Kalhu (Nimrud) by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1847-51, which, as Arthur Cotterell tells us, “generated a wave of excitement among scholars and the general public unmatched in the annals of archaeology,” at least until the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1924. Layard’s finds conclusively proved that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were not the be-all and end-all of the ancient world. Furthermore, as the historians and archaeologists delved deeper, it would soon appear that it was these ancient Mesopotamian lands, not Egypt, Greece or Rome, that held the key to the origins of civilisation itself.

There is no evidence, by the way, to suggest that the Babylonians were more prone to exporting fornication than any other ancient nation or that the invading Assyrian army’s uniforms were purple and gold. Layard’s discoveries included the unearthing of a library of tablets dating to the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE). These, it would later transpire, provided information not just on how civilization began, but how Assyria and Babylon had co-existed in what Cotterell calls a “love-hate relationship”, due to the fact that Assyria had always been culturally dependent upon Babylon, the older power and descendent of the older civilizations of Sumer and Akkad.

As the title of the book suggests, Cotterell’s thesis is that Babylon and Assyria were the first “world powers”, older than Egypt, Greece and Rome but not generally considered as important because they are not as well-known and their influence on Western society perhaps underestimated. If one reason for this is, asCotterell argues, that “there was no history of Babylon and Assyria currently available for the general reader,” we are now very fortunate that the author of  The Near East: A Cultural History and The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilisation as well as works on China and East Asia has now ably and thoroughly filled this gap himself


In The First Great Powers, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations come into sharp focus. They prove much more interesting than their art which depicts profiles of fierce-looking people with curly beards killing other bearded people or large mythic animals (pazuzus) with human heads, wings and leonine bodies guarding square gates. The Babylonians were, we discover, much more than degenerate people feasting and fornicating their way through history, and the Assyrians achieved a great deal more than creating brutally efficient armies which destroyed anyone and anything which stood in their way. These activities may well have taken place to some extent, as they do in all societies, but these ancient Near Eastern peoples also built the first urban centers and were the first to live in cities, invented writing and codified laws. Their societies were, in a word, civilized, as well as being hierarchical and well-ordered. Art and culture flourished, too, and now The Epic of Gilgamesh has, thanks to good modern translations, taken its rightful place in world literature.

This is not just an accessible history of the ancient Near East. Cotterell includes chapters on the nature of kingship, religion, Babylonian and Assyrian society, how war was waged, and what the imperial capital cities were like. The many well-reproduced photographs make it easy for readers to see what they are reading about.

History can sometimes be a bit dry in the wrong hands; Cotterell’s hands are the right ones, and in them, the rulers of Assyria and Babylon emerge very much three-dimensional. For example, Esarhaddon of Assyria (680-669 BCE), because of his grandfather Sargon II’s usurpation of the throne and his father Sennacherib’s assassination (possibly by one of Esarhaddon’s brothers), never felt quite right about being king, and spent a good deal of his reign shut up in his palace, refusing food and drink, and even occasionally secretly appointing a substitute king for one hundred days at a time, then having him killed. However much one might wonder why people continued to accept this dubious honor, there were four of them in a twelve-year reign! As Cotterell suggests, Esarhaddon seems to have felt that there might be a family curse because of Sargon’s actions; as Shakespeare’s Henry IV, who was also a usurper (and  rumored to have had several impersonators dressed in royal armour during the battle of Shrewsbury), famously said, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” an adage evidently as true in ancient Assyria as it was in medieval England.

The discussion of Babylonian and Assyrian society is especially enlightening for readers whose knowledge extends only to the political history of these peoples. At the top was, of course, the king, and under him (although women had a fair amount of power and influence, there were no queens regnant in either Babylon or Assyria) the aristocracy, which owed its privileges to the king, who held almost absolute sway over religious, political and economic matters. The Assyrians, we find, (were as a rule) far more warlike than the Babylonians, a trait which they inherited from Sumer and Akkad; Sennacherib of Assyria may have “come down like a wolf on the fold,” but it was Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BCE) who issued the oldest-known law codes. Assyrian kings, Cotterell tells us, “rarely included among their royal titles any claims to be the source of justice.” Instead, as king Ashurbanipal proclaimed, he was “the powerful hero who tramples his enemies underfoot, who annihilates his foes, who destroys his enemies’ fortifications, who puts down those who rebel against him.” Hammurabi, on the other hand, wrote “For all time in the future, may any king who shall arise in this land observe the words of justice I inscribed on this stele.”


Cotterell makes sure that readers do not understand Babylon and Assyria as parts of a monolithic society, nor indeed as simply an older civilization (Assyria) succeeded by a newer one (Babylon), because it’s Babylon which was the older kingdom, and not only that. When the Assyrian Empire fell in 612 BCE it was at the hands of king Nabopolassar of Babylon, who started a short Babylonian “revival” which lasted until Cyrus II of Persia’s capture of Babylon in 539 BCE.

Cotterell proves his thesis about Babylon and Assyria persuasively and conclusively, in a book which will inspire general readers to look further into these fascinating civilizations, and perhaps come to a new understanding of their importance to our own society. The way they centralized kingly power, administered their far-flung empires and achieved the creation of cohesive societies were some of their great achievements, and this book finally places them front and centre. It’s not that the Greeks and Romans need to take a back seat, but thanks to Cotterell’s efforts in this seminal book they might have to move back a row or two.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.