Under Tiglath-Pileser III arose the second Assyrian empire, which differed from the first in its greater consolidation. For the first time in history the idea of centralization was introduced into politics; the conquered provinces were organized under an elaborate bureaucracy at the head of which was the king, each district paying a fixed tribute and providing a military contingent. The Assyrian forces became a standing army, which, by successive improvements and careful discipline, was moulded into an irresistible fighting machine, and Assyrian policy was directed towards the definite object of reducing the whole civilized world into a single empire and thereby throwing its trade and wealth into Assyrian hands. With this object, after conquering Armenia, and the Medes, and breaking the power of the Hittites, Tiglathpileser III secured the high-roads of commerce to the Mediterranean together with the Phoenician seaports and then made himself master of Babylonia. In 729 BC the summit of his ambition was attained, and he was invested with the sovereignty of Asia in the holy city of Babylon. Two years later, in the month of Tebet he died but his successor, who took the name of Shalmaneser IV, continued the policy he had begun.
Shalmaneser died suddenly in Tebet of 722 BC, while pressing the siege of Samaria, and the seizure of the throne by another general, Sargon, on the 12th of the month, gave the Babylonians an opportunity to revolt. The Babylonian prince Marduk-baladan, entered Babylon and was there crowned legitimate king. For twelve years he successfully resisted the Assyrians; but the failure of his allies in the west to act in concert with him, and the overthrow of the Elamites, eventually compelled him to flee to his ancestral domains in the marshes of southern Babylonia. Sargon, who meanwhile had crushed the confederacy of the northern nations, had taken (717 BC) the Hittite stronghold of Carchemish and had annexed the future kingdom of Ecbatana, was now accepted as king by the Babylonian priests, and his claim to be the successor of Sargon of Akkad acknowledged up to the time of his murder in 705 BC.
His son Sennacherib, who succeeded him on the 12th of Ab, did not possess the military or administrative abilities of his father; and the success of his reign was not commensurate with the vanity of the ruler. He was never crowned at Babylon, which was in a perpetual state of revolt until, in 691 BC, he shocked the religious and political conscience of Asia by razing the holy city of Babylon to the ground. His campaign against Hezekiah of Judah was as much a failure as his policy in Babylonia, and in his murder by his sons on the 20th of Tebet 681 BC both Babylonians and Jews saw the judgment of heaven.
Esarhaddon, who succeeded him, was of different calibre from his father. He was commanding the army in a campaign against Ararat at the time of the murder; forty-two days later the murderers fled from Nineveh and took refuge at the court of Ararat. But the Armenian army was utterly defeated near Malatia on the 12th of Iyyar, and at the end of the day Esarhaddon was saluted by his soldiers as king. He thereupon returned to Nineveh and on the 8th of Sivan formally ascended the throne.
One of his first acts was to restore Babylon, to send back the image of Bel (god)-Marduk to its old home, and to re-people the city with such of the priests and the former population as had survived massacre. Then he was solemnly declared king in the temple of Bel-Merodach, which had again risen from its ruins, and Babylon became the second capital of the empire. Esarhaddon's policy was successful and Babylonia remained contentedly quiet throughout his reign.
In February (674 BC) the Assyrians entered upon their invasion of Egypt, and in Nisan (or March) 670 BC an expedition on an unusually large scale set out from Nineveh. The Egyptian frontier was crossed on the 3rd of Tammuz (June), and Tirhaka, at the head of the Egyptian forces, was driven to Memphis after fifteen days of continuous fighting, during which the Egyptians were thrice defeated with heavy loss and Tirhaka himself was wounded. On the 22nd of the month, Memphis was entered by the victorious army and Tirhaka fled to the south. A stele, commemorating the victory and representing Tirhaka with the features of a negro, was set up at Sinjirli (north of the Gulf of Antioch) and is now in the Berlin Museum. Two years later (668 BC) Egypt revolted, and while on the march to reduce it, Esarhaddon fell ill and died (on the 10th of Marchesvan or October).
Assurbanipal succeeded him as king of Assyria and its empire, while his brother, Samassumyukin, was made viceroy of Babylonia. The arrangement was evidently intended to flatter the Babylonians by giving them once more the semblance of independence. But it failed to work, Samassumyukin became more Babylonian than his subjects. The viceroy claimed to be the successor of the monarchs whose empire had once stretched to the Mediterranean. Even the Sumerian language was revived as the official tongue, and a revolt broke out which shook the Assyrian empire to its foundations. After several years of struggle, during which Egypt recovered its independence, Babylon was starved into surrender, and the rebel viceroy and his supporters were put to death.
Egypt had already recovered its independence (660 BC) with the help of mercenaries sent by Gyges of Lydia, which had vainly solicited aid from Assyria against his Cimmerian enemies. Next followed the contest with Elam, in spite of the efforts of Assurbanipal to ward it off. Assyria, however, was aided by civil war in Elam itself; the country was wasted with fire and sword, and its capital Susa levelled with the ground. But the long struggle left Assyria maimed and exhausted. It had been drained of both wealth and fighting population; the devastated provinces of Elam and Babylonia could yield nothing with which to supply the needs of the imperial exchequer, and it was difficult to find sufficient troops even to garrison the conquered populations. Assyria, therefore, was ill prepared to face the hordes of Scythians (or Manda, as they were called by the Babylonians) who now began to harass the frontiers. A Scythian power had grown up in the old kingdom of Ellip, to the east of Assyria, where Ecbatana was built by a Manda prince; Asia Minor was infested by the Scythian tribe of Cimmerians, and the death of the Scythian leader Dugdamm (the Lygdamis of Strabo) was regarded by Assurbanipal ha a special mark of divine favour.
When Assurbanipal died, his empire was fast breaking up. Under his successor, Assur-etil-ilani, the Scythians penetrated into Assyria and made their way as far as the borders of Egypt. Calah was burned, though the strong walls of Nineveh protected the relics of the Assyrian army which had taken refuge behind them; and when the raiders had passed on to other fields of booty, a new palace was erected among the ruins of the neighbouring city. But its architectural poverty and small size show that the resources of Assyria were at a low ebb. A contract has been found at , dated to the fourth year of Assur-etil-ilani, though it is possible that his rule in Babylonia was disputed by his ???, Assur-sum-lisir, whose accession year as king of Assyria occurs on a contract from Nippur (Niffer).
The last king of Assyria was probably the brother of Assur-etil-ilani, Sinsatiskun (Sin-sarra-uzur), who seems to have been the Sarąkos (Saracus) of Berossus. He was still reigning in Babylonia in his seventh year, as a contract dated in that year has been discovered at Erech, and an inscription of his, in which he speaks of restoring the ruined temples and their priests, couples Merodach of Babylon with Assur of Nineveh. Babylonia, however, was again restless. After the overthrow of Samassumyukin, Kandalanu, the Chineladanos of Ptolemy's canon, had been appointed viceroy. His successor was Nabopolassar, between whom and the last king of Assyria war broke out. The Scythian king of Ecbatana, the Cyaxares of the Greeks, came to the help of the Babylonians. Nineveh was captured and destroyed by the Scythian army, along with those cities of northern Babylonia which had sided with Babylonia, and the Assyrian empire was at an end.
The seat of empire was now transferred to Babylonia. Nabopolassar was followed by his son Nebuchadnezzar II, whose reign of 43 years made Babylon once more the mistress of the civilized world. Only a small fragment of his annals has been discovered relating to his invasion of Egypt in 567 BC, and referring to "Phut of the Ionians".
Of the reign of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, however, and the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, we now have a fair amount of information (For the events leading up to the conquests of Cyrus, see Persia). This is chiefly derived from a chronological tablet containing the annals of Nabonidus, which is supplemented by an inscription of Nabonidus, in which he recounts his restoration of the temple of the Moon-god at Harran, as well as by a proclamation of Cyrus issued shortly after his formal recognition as king of Babylonia. It was in the sixth year of Nabonidus (549 BC) - or perhaps in 553 - that Cyrus, "king of Ansbaii" in Elam, revolted against his suzerain Astyages, "king of the Manda" or Scythians, at Ecbatana. The army of Astyages betrayed him to his enemy, and Cyrus established himself at Ecbatana, thus putting an end to the empire of the Scythians, which the Greek writers called that of the Medes, through a confusion of Mada or "Medes" with Manda. Three years later we find that Cyrus has become king of Persia and is engaged in a campaign in the north of Mesopotamia. Meanwhile Nabonidus has established a camp at Sippara, near the northern frontier of his kingdom, his son (probably the Belshazzar of other inscriptions) being in command of the army.
In 538 BC Cyrus invaded Babylonia. A battle was fought at Opis in the month of June, in which the Babylonians were defeated, and immediately afterwards Sippara surrendered to the invader. Nabonidus fled to Babylon, whither he was pursued by Gobryas, the governor of Kurdistan, and on the 16th of Tammuz, two days after the capture of Sippara, "the soldiers of Cyrus entered Babylon without fighting." Nabonidus was dragged out of his hiding-place, and Kurdish guards were placed at the gates of the great temple of Bel, where the services continued without intermission. Cyrus did not arrive till the 3rd of Marchesvan (October), Gobryas having acted for him in his absence. Gobryas was now made governor of the province of Babylon, and a few days afterwards the son of Nabonidus, according to the most probable reading, died. A public mourning followed, which lasted six days, and Cambyses accompanied the corpse to the tomb.
Cyrus now claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings and the avenger of Bel-Marduk, who was wrathful at the impiety of Nabonidus in removing the images of the local gods from their ancestral shrines to his capital Babylon. Nabonidus, in fact, had excited a strong feeling against himself by attempting to centralize the religion of Babylonia in the temple of Merodach (Marduk) at Babylon, and while he had thus alienated the local priesthoods the military party despised him on account of his antiquarian tastes. He seems to have left the defence of his kingdom to others, occupying himself with the more congenial work of excavating the foundation records of the temples and determining the dates of their builders.
The invasion of Babylonia by Cyrus was doubtless facilitated by the existence of a disaffected party in the state, as well as by the presence of foreign exiles like the Jews, who had been planted in the midst of the country. One of the first acts of Cyrus accordingly was to allow these exiles to return to their own homes, carrying with them the images of their gods and their sacred vessels. The permission to do so was embodied in a proclamation, in which the conqueror endeavoured to justify his claim to the Babylonian throne. The feeling was still strong that none had a right to rule over western Asia until he had been consecrated to the office by Bel and his priests; and from henceforth, accordingly, Cyrus assumed the imperial title of "king of Babylon." A year before his death, in 529 BC, he associated his son Cambyses II in the government, making him king of Babylon, while he reserved for himself the fuller title of "king of the (other) provinces" of the empire. It was only when Darius Hystaspis, the representative of the Aryan race and the Zoroastrian religion, had re-conquered the empire of Cyrus, that the old tradition was broken and the claim of Babylon to confer legitimacy on the rulers of western Asia ceased to be acknowledged. Darius, in fact, entered Babylon as a conqueror. After the murder of the Magian, it had recovered its independence under Nidinta-Bel, who took the name of Nebuchadnezzar III, and reigned from October 521 BC to August 520 BC, when the Persians took it by storm. A few years later, probably 514 BC, Babylon again revolted under the Armenian Arakha; on this occasion, after its capture by the Persians, the walls were partly destroyed. E-Saggila, the great temple of Bel, however, still continued to be kept in repair and to be a centre of Babylonian patriotism, until at last the foundation of Seleucia diverted the population to the new capital of Babylonia and the ruins of the old city became a quarry for the builders of the new seat of government.
See also: Babylonia and Assyria