The Military Campaigns of Tiglath-pileser III: Priest King and Conqueror – Part 1

The year is 745 BCE and much of the Middle East is about to be conquered and confiscated by the powerful Assyrian Empire under King Tiglath-pileser III.

Tiglath-pileser III is regarded as the founder of the second Assyrian Empire. Though his origins are obscure, Greek tradition claims Tiglath-pileser was originally a gardener. His real name is uncertain but some say that it may have been Pul, according to 1 Chronicles 5:26 in the Bible. The name Tiglath-pileser is one that he took once he had ascended to the throne.

And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, unto this day.

Tiglath-Pileser III: stela from the walls of his palace.

Tiglath-Pileser III: stela from the walls of his palace. (Public Domain)

Before moving on, it must be noted that the name Pul or Pulu has significant meaning, and in I Chronicles 5:26, we see the first mention of Pul and Tiglath-pileser together. It seems that even the Bible indicates that Tiglath-pileser invaded Babylon before he conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and that the name Pul may have possibly been his real name. In the records, when Yahweh says He “stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria and the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, what we have here is a metonym. That is to say, two different things which represent the same thing, or the same person in this case.

Tiglath-pileser had taken the hand of Bel (Marduk the supreme god of Babylonia), and by taking Marduk’s hand, he had thus proclaimed himself the son of God in the city of Hammurabi on New Year’s, and had named himself Pul or Pulu, and was proclaimed King of Babylon. We can say that by this very act Tiglath-pileser had proclaimed himself a priest-king, or a type of Messiah. This shows that he intended to unite the military (Assyria) and spiritual powers (Babylonia) together into one nation. Pul represents the spiritual crown, and Tiglath-pileser represents the military crown.

Now some may debate this and say he took this title Pul or Pulu the year before he died. This is not true, for it is recorded twice that he took the oath; and in Babylonian tradition a king had to take Marduk’s hand every year on New Year’s to be the king of Babylonia. We also must remember that he invaded Babylonia to free them from the Syrian threat, while at the same time conquering them. However, this event came after his great conquest of the Near East in 729 BCE.

Tiglath-pileser III, an alabaster bas-relief from the king's central palace at Nimrud, Mesopotamia. The Assyrian king, identified by his conical cap with a turban wrapped around it (so-called Polos), stands (under a parasol) in his royal chariot and raises his right arm in a greeting gesture.

Tiglath-pileser III, an alabaster bas-relief from the king’s central palace at Nimrud, Mesopotamia. The Assyrian king, identified by his conical cap with a turban wrapped around it (so-called Polos), stands (under a parasol) in his royal chariot and raises his right arm in a greeting gesture. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

He must have been a charismatic man with the ability to lead, as he was able to seize the crown of Assyria and unite the chaotic factions into a single nation. He also provided a network of security and trade that would eventually expand to those under Assyria’s sphere of influence. But how did this man conquer so many nations with such ease?

Looking at the Near East from Afar

When looking at this period in Near Eastern history, all one has to do is refer to the Bible and read the inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III to realize that Assyria had no outside threats. The Hittites and Egyptians were a shell of their former glory and imposed no threat to the Assyrian borders. The once mighty United Kingdom of Israel under the reign of King David and later his son Solomon were divided into two separate kingdoms after Solomon’s death. The Houses of Israel and Judah were too busy fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for outside alliances. The fragmented Syria to the northwest was not even a threat to Assyrian expansion either. As for Phoenicia, they were unstable on land and had no real standing army other than relying on mercenaries or those that volunteered. The rest of the smaller tribal groups were mere principalities or city-states similar to Phoenicia. One could easily argue that the reason the Near East was so easy to take was due to fragmentation, and thus no single nation surrounding Assyria, whether it be a kingdom, city-state, or a community of tribes, posed a real threat to Assyria.

Assyrian Soldier with Standing Shield, Soldier with Small Shield, Archer.

Assyrian Soldier with Standing Shield, Soldier with Small Shield, Archer. (Public Domain)

Tiglath-pileser III rejuvenated the Assyrian army through military reform. In the past, Assyria had relied on its provincial governors to supply the army, which was comprised of provincial militias gained from a typical workforce of the time. The only permanent army was the ‘royal guards’. What Tiglath-pileser did was reorganize the army into a permanent standing fighting force that over time progressed to become a professional army. In doing so, he gained a tighter control on his kingdom because the army was loyal to him. By these means he transformed the population into a model military society based on war and expansion made to quench the thirst of their rejuvenated philosophy, which was the worship of war.

Assyria on the Move

They were like a lion on the Serengeti; Assyria represented the lion, and the Near East was its Serengeti. Tiglath-pileser III’s first footprints outside Assyria stained the desert floor blood red.

None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.

To secure his holdings, Tiglath-pileser sent his new professional army to secure his empire by attacking the upstart Syrian-Urartu alliance, which posed a potential threat as it had done many times in the past. He decided to lead his forces towards the Aramaean (Syrian) tribes, with whom Assyria had had many conflicts in the past. The powerful Aramaean tribes had previously invaded the Kingdom of Babylonia from the South. They had taken the cities of Sippar and Dur-Kurigalzu, and posed a threat to the Babylonian way of life. They had also threatened to destabilize Assyria’s power, influence, and historical association with the Babylonians. The weakened state of Babylonia needed a champion.

Assyria’s hatred for the troublesome Arameans gave them reason to strike and to reestablish their rule over Babylonia. Tiglath-pileser pushed farther south for some time, winning battle after battle with his new army, and gaining ever more confidence after each engagement with the enemy. He then turned east to cross the Tigris River. While on the east side of the Tigris, he began attacking along the mountains of Elam, taking many nomadic tribes captive. He then retraced his steps, crossing back over the Tigris, and began his assault on the Aramaeans until he pushed them out of the cities of Sippar and Dur-Kurigalzu. Tiglath-pileser III continued to push south until he reached Nippur, an ancient city of Babylon, before returning home.

Assyria’s (under Ashurbanipal) brutal campaign against Elam in 647 BC is recorded in this relief.

Assyria’s (under Ashurbanipal) brutal campaign against Elam in 647 BC is recorded in this relief. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The people of Babylon looked to Tiglath-pileser III as the savior of Babylonia. This did not look good for the King of Babylon, Nabonassar. Tiglath-pileser began by setting up a new government in Babylonia and placing the kingdom under the suzerainty of Assyria. Never before had Babylonia been under the complete rule of Assyria. Thus, Nabonassar became a mere vassal king, a symbol of state and not power, while the real king remained Tiglath-pileser III, the conqueror and savior of Babylonia.

Assyrian Expansion

After securing Babylon and driving out the Aramaean raiders, Tiglath-pileser then turned his army loose on the known world.

His first campaign of aggression was against Northern Syria, which was an ally of Urartu. Urartu was a rival to Assyria and at the time was gaining much influence over the former vassals, who were becoming an increasing threat to Assyria. Because of the threat they imposed on the weakened state of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser decided it was time to take action and to restore the right of Assyria’s might. However, he did not want to take the chance of invading Urartu head on, and rightfully so.

The Kingdom of Urartu was located on a mountainous plateau located in Eastern Turkey and Armenia, and led up into the Caucasus Mountains with Lake Van in the middle of the kingdom. The Urartu region appeared to be difficult for the Assyrian army to invade, indicating that they had difficulty in conducting mountain warfare, at least for now. Tiglath-pileser understood the best way to defeat his enemy was to beat them on the open plain. He knew that he had to either conquer them, or beat them so badly that he would not have to come back later and finish the job. The Kingdom of Urartu was no joke for Assyria and Tiglath-pileser took the easier of the two roads.

Tiglath-Pileser assembled his army, crossed the Euphrates, and headed for Northern Syria, to the city of Arpad. Before he reached the city of Arpad, a coalition was already assembled to counter the Assyrians. King Sarduri II led the armies of Urartu and King Matiil led the armies of Arpad, along with many other Syrian tribal kings.

The coalition and Assyria met in furious battle. The Assyrians were victorious in the engagement and over 70,000 are said to have been slain or captured, but the numbers are most likely exaggerated.

Tiglath-pileser then turned his attention to the land of the Medes, conquering them on the Iranian plateau. From this expedition he deported 65,000 Medes and made their remaining chieftains pay homage, while incorporating the newly conquered districts into Assyrian lands. The Assyrian army continued to push farther East until they reached the Slopes of Lapis Mountains or “Mount Damavand”.

In 737 BCE Tiglath-pileser invaded the Median territory again and wiped everything out of these territories except for those Medes who lay further to the east of Mount Damavand, and it was also during this campaign that the Assyrians deported another 154,000 people from southern Mesopotamia. In addition, the Syrians also suffered before the events of 737 BCE, as the Assyrians deported 30,000 Syrians to the region of the Zagros Mountains, an area once considered Median territory in 742 BCE, and not to forget that an additional 18,000 more who were deported from the Tigris to be settled in Northern Syria. The time span for the invasion described may have been five to six years.

Tiglath-pileser III stands over an enemy, bas-relief from the Central Palace at Nimrud.

Tiglath-pileser III stands over an enemy, bas-relief from the Central Palace at Nimrud. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pushing into Israel, Judah, and Phoenicia

In 738 Tiglath-pileser made his way west to collect tribute and to expand the growing Empire. He began his regional tour starting with what was left of the fractured kingdoms of the former Hittite empire.

Turning back south to Syria and then heading west to the city-states of Phoenicia, he subdued the citizens without a fight, collecting just about anything and everything the individual kingdoms could offer. This kept Assyria out of their lands by turning them into their vassals.

Next on the list for Assyria was the kingdom of Israel. Menahem was the king of Israel at the time when Tiglath-pileser III came upon the northern horizon of Israel. For a long time before the Assyrian threat, the Hebrew prophets Hosea, Amos, and Joel foretold the coming destruction of Israel if they did not repent of their sins and come back to Yahweh.

And Pul the king of Assyria came against the land: and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand. And Menahem exacted the money of Israel, even of all the mighty men of wealth, of each man fifty shekels of silver, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back, and stayed not there in the land.

Map showing Tiglath's conquests (green) and deportation of Israelites. Tiglath-Pileser III discouraged revolts against Assyrian rule with the use of forced deportations of thousands of people all over the empire.

Map showing Tiglath’s conquests (green) and deportation of Israelites. Tiglath-Pileser III discouraged revolts against Assyrian rule with the use of forced deportations of thousands of people all over the empire. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The storm was on the horizon and it was time to pay financially, for King Menahem gave a thousand talents of silver (about 37 tons, or 34 metric tons, of silver) to Tiglath-pileser by extracting 50 shekels from each wealthy man. An enormous 60,000 citizens of wealth gave up their money to the Assyrian coffers. This makes one wonder how many poor people in turn had to repay those wealthy citizens for their lost monies.

Top Image: Deriv; Tiglath-Pileser III (Public Domain) and bronze relief decorated the gate at the palace of the Assyrian ruler Shalmanesar III (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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