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From Mycenae to Mesopotamia: Ancient Greek Relations With Assyria
By Philip Chrysopoulos
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A relief-drawing from the Palace of Sennacherib, Nimroud, Nineveh. ( Wikimedia Commons TYalaA CC BY-SA 4.0)
The first mention of Assyria by ancient Greeks was in the middle of the 7th century BC, although they were not familiar with the exact geographical designation of the country.

What ancient Greeks believed was Assyria was a vague geographical area that included the Levant, parts of Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia. Consequently, they knew little of its history, people, or culture.

Most of the information on the interactions between Greeks and Assyrians have come from surviving Assyrian texts. It should be noted, however, that most references to Greeks pertain to the Ionians -- one of the four major tribes into which the Greeks considered themselves divided, dwelling in the region known as Ionia in Asia Minor.

From surviving Assyrian texts, there is evidence that the Assyrians and Mycenaean Greeks traded during the Late Bronze Age. Hittite King Tudhaliya IV concluded a treaty with his vassal Sausgamuwa, ruler of the kingdom of Amurru in Syria, in the second half of the 13th century BC.

In the treaty text, Tudhaliya forbade trade between Ahhiyawa and Assyria via the harbors of Amurru. Historians agree Ahhiyawa refers to the Greek word Achaea, meaning the Achaean or Mycenaean land.

The treaty indicated that trade between Assyria and the Mycenaean world was important, substantial, and regular, and the Mycenaeans exchanged products with coastal towns in the general Levant area.

The Assyrian Empire

The ancient kingdom of Assyria was located on the upper end of the Tigris River, an area that today is divided between Turkey and Iraq. The kingdom reached its height in the mid-600s BC, when the great Assyrian Empire extended from the lowlands of Syria in the west to the mountains of present-day Iran in the east.

Assyria owes its name to the Greeks. In Greek, Assyria means "the country of Ashur." This was the name of the god Ashur (Assur) and the early capital city. The Assyrians arrived in the region around 2000 BC, but the Assyrian state was formed circa 1300 BC. This began a period of expansion around 1000 BC, conquering more and more territories and slowly building an empire.

Within two centuries, from a small region around Ashur, Assyria had developed into an empire that encompassed an area stretching from Egypt to Anatolia. The Assyrians were fearsome warriors. They were famous for their cruelty and fighting prowess. Moreover, they were great builders, as ruins of the fortified walls and constructions in the new capital Nineveh as well as Ashur and Calah show.

At the same time, the Assyrians had great artists noted for their detailed stone bas-reliefs. They had a taste for the opulent with the palace of King Ashurbanipal's court becoming legendary. Furthermore, the famous library of the king was also quite elaborate.

The Library of Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) contained over thirty thousand clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing. Archaeologists found these in the ruins of Nineveh. They also discovered the library after excavations that began in 1851 and were completed in 1932.

Texts from the library became central to the modern study of Assyrian and Babylonian scholarship for almost two centuries. Nowadays, tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal are on display at the British Museum.

In 612 BC, the Babylonians and their Medes and Scythian allies overwhelmed the Assyrians. They destroyed the Assyrian Empire, including their last capital city.

By the time Alexander the Great arrived in the area around 330 BC, Assyria had become a battleground between the Persians and Greeks. After victories against the Persian army, Alexander incorporated the region into his empire. However, it broke away after his death.

The Greeks in Assyria

Evidence of Greeks in Assyria comes from indirect sources, mainly from 19th century archaeological findings.

Greek soldiers were part of the army of pharaoh Necho II, when he intervened in Assyria around 610 BC, evidenced by parts of a hoplite's armor found at Carchemish on the Euphrates.

There are several mentions of people referred to as Ionians in Assyrian royal inscriptions and letters from mid-8th century. A letter from Nimrud from the time of Tiglath-Pileser III reports the repelling of an attack by Ionians and mentions a city of Ionians, probably to be located near Ugarit.

Later, during the reign of Assyrian king Sargon II there are references of raids on the Cilician coast by Ionian pirates.

Although no Assyrian documents mention the deployment of Greek soldiers, there are second-hand traces of hoplites under Sargon's reign: A report of the capture of several fugitives, with a certain man named AddiqrituĊĦu among them, most probably the Assyrian rendering of a Greek name (Antikritos or Adakrytos).

Another archaeological finding is a bowl of Cypriote or Phoenician origin from the Cypriote town Amathus, discovered in 1875 and dating probably from around 700 BC. It depicts hoplites in formation fighting alongside with the Assyrians and attacking a fortified town defended by a different group of hoplites.

Obviously, the artist knew about the hoplites' tactics, and the bowl proves the deployment of hoplites in Assyrian service at the end of the 8th century.

Also, another indication of Greek presence in Assyria is a number of decorated bronze plaques from chariot horse-harness belonging to the Damascene king Hazael, identified by their inscriptions. They have been found as re-gifted votive objects at the Heraion of Samos and in the temple of Apollo at Eretria on Euboea.

Assyria under Alexander and his Generals

Alexander's incorporation of Assyria into his empire was part of his ambition to Hellenize his eastern conquests. However, after Alexander's premature death, his generals struggled over the splitting of his conquests.

There ensued a series of battles between Alexander's generals over partitions of the empire. Seleucus I Nicator took Assyria, Babylon, and some parts of Asia Minor in 301 BC. The possession of Assyria gave him an opening to the Mediterranean. This was where he immediately founded the new city of Antioch upon the Orontes River. It was his chief seat of government.

Seleucus was the founder of the powerful Seleucid Empire, which controlled Mesopotamia from the late 4th to mid-2nd century BC. Assyrian sites included Ashur, Nimrud, and Nineveh. Communities resettled these areas, rebuilding and expanding a large number of villages.

Around 293 BC, Seleucus appointed his son Antiochus in Antioch as viceroy. The empire had expanded and required a double government. Seleucus established the Seleucid dynasty. It lasted for two centuries. At this time, Hellenistic civilization and a mix of Greek and Near Eastern artistic traditions developed and flourished.

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