I’ve been binging some older episodes of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Dan Carlin, together with John Talbot (professor at BYU), Brandon Dell’Orto (my AP US History teacher), Mike Duncan (host of The History of Rome podcast), and Tom Holland (author of some excellent narrative histories), are a collection of people who really infused me with a love of history–each in a specific way. Dan Carlin’s contribution, though, is to simply expose me to great history via extremely entertaining and compelling stories.

Because I’m trying to read through the biblical book of Isaiah right now, I listened to Judgment at Ninevah, a short but fascinating Hardcore History episode on the fall of Assyria (major players in Isaiah and the Hebrew world generally). Ninevah–I’d heard about it from the Bible–something about Nimrod and Jonah. But Dan Carlin emphasizes that Ninevah’s fall is perhaps the biggest event in history you’ve never heard of. A couple of notes from the episode:

  • We have a hard time believing our society could end. Dan Carlin loves the moment in the old “Planet of the Apes” when Charleton Heston’s character, thinking he was on an alien planet, discovers that it’s really this earth. Carlin points out that there’s something difficult about believing that in hundreds of years, people might be digging up our skyscrapers, trying to figure out who we were. But history has a pattern, and it may be hubris to believe that pattern’s ended with us. Everyone else thought this way, too.

“Planet of the Apes”

  • Dan Carlin’s Great Division of History. He divided it into “the very, very old world,” “the very old world,” and “the old world.” (Presumably, there’s a “this world” too.) The very, very old world begins when empires and writing began, and ends with the Fall of Ninevah. It’s the crash that mandates a new version on the computer of history. It’s “the greatest event in history no one knows about,” a “very big deal.”
  • There are two kinds of societies in history. The ones that are always a player on the world stage and endure as a people–think China and Egypt–and the ones that have a glorious moment, and then effectively never play a role again–or are wiped out entirely. For this latter group, think the Mongols, or, Assyria!
  • The Assyrians were around for a long time, a very, very long time. If we assume the modern world began (generously) in the Renaissance, around 500-600 years ago, then bear in mind: Assyria lasted a lot longer than that, 3-5 times longer. They have unbroken records going back to ~2300 years ago!
  • The Assyrians were bad people. They had war reliefs, “unique in human history,” that depict awful things they did. Now, keep in mind, they were the first empire–and they perfected the art of keeping subjugated people’s in check by doing terrible things to rebellious peoples, and then installing reliefs of their punishment in the lobby area of their palaces–something visiting dignities got to see. On the plus side, this kept the place unified, allowing for a lot of civilizational progress. On the down side, they subjugated people’s brutally. (And there’s some evidence they enjoyed it…)
  • Assyria had a lot of neighbors. I drew from Dan Carlin’s description of their neighbors, but also my Phillips’ Historical Atlas (one of my favorite books) to figure this out. Basically, Assyria was situated smack dab in Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent. They had Urartu on the north (and nomads, like the Scythians, beyond them), Persians and Medes to their east, Egypt and Judah/Samaria to their west, and Phrygia (and later the Ionian Greeks) in Anatolia, to their northwest. And Assyria had no really great geographical protection.

A map of Mesopotamia, 750-550 BCE

  • Assyria fell into the Empire Traps. Assyria was at the height of its power just before it died. It committed the great sin of all empires: it overextended itself. While its armties were off conquering Egypt, it was left mostly defenseless to a series of allied forces (mainly the Medes and Babylonians) who, along with everyone else, hated the Assyrians for all the awful things they’d done to them. So like a surprising stock market crash, Ninevah fell from greatness–to being abjectly destroyed.  And no one cried.

It was a great episode, and I learned a lot. It ended, nicely for my study in the Hebrew Bible, on the words of Nahum (the biblical prophet): “Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery… it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?… for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?”

Woe indeed!