“No harvest was reaped”: demographic and climatic factors in the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

A Commentary to this article was published on 11 May 2016

Abstract

In the 9th century BC, Assyrians based in northern Iraq started a relentless process of expansion that within two centuries would see them controlling most of the ancient Near East. Traditional explanations for the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 7th century BC have emphasized the role of military conflict, and especially the destruction of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, by a coalition of Babylonian and Median forces in 612 BC. However, it remains unclear how the Assyrian state, the most powerful military machine of its age and the largest empire the Old World had ever seen up to that time, declined so quickly. In this paper, we highlight two potential factors which may have had some influence upon the Assyrian decline that have not been previously explored. The first is a major increase in the population of the Assyrian heartland area at the dawn of the 7th century BC, which substantially reduced the drought resilience of the region. The second factor is an episode of severe drought affecting large portions of the Near East during the mid-7th century BC. We propose a series of testable hypotheses which detail how the combination of these two factors may have contributed to the development of considerable economic and political instability within the Assyrian Empire, and argue that these demographic and climatic factors played a significant role in its demise.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Guillermo Algaze, Dr. Bülent Arıkan, and Ms. Alysha Tribbett for their thoughtful suggestions about early drafts of this paper, and to the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations and Koç University, and especially to Özge Ertem and Akın Özarslantürk at the RCAC Library, for their support of our research.

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Correspondence to Adam W. Schneider.

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Schneider, A.W., Adalı, S.F. “No harvest was reaped”: demographic and climatic factors in the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Climatic Change 127, 435–446 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1269-y

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Keywords

  • Severe Drought
  • Iraq
  • Proxy Record
  • Paleoclimate Proxy
  • Final Decade