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L’art du siège néo-assyrien

L’art du siège néo-assyrien

By Fabrice De Backer (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 61). Pp. xxvii + 527, b&w pls. 104. Brill, Leiden 2013. $245. ISBN 978-90-04-24305-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The present book is the (ad hoc) culmination of De Backer’s impressive research on Neo-Assyrian warfare that started at least with his (to the best of my knowledge as yet unpublished) dissertation on the equipment of Neo-Assyrian armies from Tiglath-Pileser III through to Ashurbanipal in 2004 (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium). Beginning with a very brief chapter (1–2) discussing the current state of the question, De Backer then details in six chapters, each divided into several sections and subsections, most if not all aspects that play a part in (what we more or less know of) Neo-Assyrian siege warfare. After his thorough analysis of the selection of material available (see below), De Backer summarizes the evidence in his conclusion (ch. 8) and ends with a series of 96 appendices (ch. 9). A relatively succinct bibliography (501–24), an index of modern authors (525–27), and a set of 352 figures (three of them photographs, the rest drawings) divided over 104 plates conclude this book, which is primarily aimed at academics and students interested in military history, archaeology, and the ancient Near East.

In chapter 2 (entailing 17 short sections, each dedicated to a king), De Backer gives a brief account of Neo-Assyrian history limited to the major events of the relevant reign. Chapter 3 presents in five sections a general review of Neo-Assyrian siege machines, guiding the reader through the figures, which as noted above are presented in the plates at the end of the book. In chapter 4, consisting of nine sections, De Backer reviews the specific materials the Neo-Assyrians used during siege warfare, including those used as defense against besieging armies. What De Backer refers to as the personal element (i.e., the description of essential functions figuring autonomously or not in the different components in the army of the Assyrian kings [109]) is the topic of chapter 5, which is presented in 10 sections, the first again introductory. In chapter 6, which in my view is the core of this book, Neo-Assyrian siege techniques are detailed in eight sections, covering both attacking and defensive techniques. The first of these sections is, again, an introduction; the second expounds on the definitions De Backer uses. Logically, chapter 7 is dedicated to the chronology of a hypothetical siege, again paying attention to both attackers and defenders, the last section detailing the fate of a conquered city and its population.

The evidence De Backer uses to build his argument essentially is twofold, archaeological and historical. Most, if not all, of the archaeological material is more or less familiar to students of the ancient Near East, predominantly consisting of the reliefs from the Neo-Assyrian palaces on display in various museums, but De Backer also includes evidence taken from the field, such as ramps. The historical material consists of ancient texts, above all texts produced by various kings to recount their actions, as well as classical sources, and focuses on descriptions of materials, personnel, and techniques. Unfortunately, not all Neo-Assyrian kings provided us with information regarding these matters, leaving us with some gaps in the overall picture. As a whole, though, the general picture is sufficiently clear and allows us to understand the development of Neo-Assyrian warfare, even if it lacks some of the details we would have liked to know. As De Backer indicates (xxii), it has been his choice to base his analyses on a maximum of resources, leaving it to others to work on subjects with less clear-cut evidence, such as the reign of Essarhaddon, logistics, or the recurring standard phrases, which do not necessarily bear on the actual occurrences, of (or in) the sources.

Especially the last element, the insufficient attention to the peculiarities of Neo-Assyrian texts, constitutes, in my view, one of the weaknesses of De Backer’s approach to the problem, as does the absence of the so-called private sources of the various kings. Even though De Backer explains his choice fervently (xxiv), I believe his views would have gained considerable strength by endeavouring to address such questions as well, which, after all, would not have been too onerous (as he states to have feared [xxiv]). Leaving this point of criticism aside and accepting that De Backer has opted for an all-out attack on the available evidence of his choice, we cannot but conclude that he has achieved a solid result, providing his colleagues with ample material to continue research on Neo-Assyrian military techniques and tactics for many years to come. His book does not constitute the final word for this field of research, but it does constitute a firm base for future investigations. As such, an index of the museums and the archaeological evidence they hold and upon which De Backer founds (part of) his conclusions, as well as an index of his sources, would have been welcome assets. Regarding the latter, although he does mention his Assyrian literary sources by name of king and editor in the text and the notes (and provides translations for many of them as well), an index (name of king/text, followed by the edition and page) would have been greatly appreciated. Regarding the former, I understand that copyright issues might have prohibited including photographs of the reliefs discussed, but a list of museums and inventory numbers, accompanied by brief descriptions, would have served the reader as well.

This last criticism does have some influence on my view of the book. Regrettably, even though the book is well produced with few typos, the price may be prohibitive for the individual reader (a problem common with Brill books). On the one hand, the book deserves a wider audience than libraries alone or as a part of a university course reader (for students able to read French). Nevertheless, while De Backer’s knowledge of this subject is thorough and uncontested, there are, as indicated above, some lacunas in the overall presentation of the evidence that ultimately make the book less suited for students, at least without proper supervision. Thus, it seems neither De Backer nor Brill has made a clear decision about the intended audience or how to present a summary of the evidence used to compose the book. In view of one of De Backer’s intended goals—to offer a platform for further studies—one might state: the book deserves better.

Jan P. Stronk
Ancient History
University of Amsterdam

Book Review of L’art du siège néo-assyrien, by Fabrice De Backer

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Stronk