The Decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Did overpopulation and drought contribute to its collapse?


Assyrian King Sargon II (721–705 B.C.E.), holding the staff of kingship and wearing the royal conical crown, meets with a court official.

The mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire, which came to control the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Zagros Mountains as well as Egypt and part of Anatolia, collapsed at the end of the seventh century B.C.E. It is traditionally believed that the empire began to disintegrate due to a series of military conflicts as well as civil unrest. The destruction of the Assyrian capital Nineveh by a coalition of Babylonian and Median invaders in 612 B.C.E. marked the fall of the empire. A new study published in the scientific journal Climatic Change argues that a population boom and drought—two factors that have thus far been underexplored—may have contributed to the rapid demise of what some scholars consider the world’s first true empire.

The study, led by Adam W. Schneider of the University of California, San Diego, and Selim F. Adalı of Koç University, uses recently published paleoclimate data from various parts of the Near East as well as textual and archaeological evidence to suggest that the region experienced an episode of severe drought in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E. The Assyrian heartland had undergone a population explosion during the late eighth and early seventh centuries, largely due to the forced resettlement of conquered peoples into the empire. The researchers suggest that the major population growth may have greatly hindered the state’s ability to withstand the drought that plagued the region in the latter part of the seventh century.

“We strongly suspect that any economic damage inflicted upon the Assyrian Empire by drought would have served as a key stimulus for the increasing unrest which was to characterize its final decades,” Schneider and Adalı wrote in their paper.

“At a more global level,” the researchers caution, “the fate of the Assyrian Empire also teaches modern societies about the consequences of prioritizing policies intended to maximize short-term economic and political benefit over those which favor long-term economic security and risk mitigation.”

Read Schneider and Adalı’s paper in Climatic Change.

From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook, a collection of articles written by authoritative scholars, details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture. It examines the evolving relationship that modern scholarship has with this part of the world, and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bronze Age Collapse: Pollen Study Highlights Late Bronze Age Drought

Did Climate Change Bring Sumerian Civilization to an End?

The Last Days of Hattusa

ISIS Destroys Antiquities in Mosul, Iraq


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