Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Empires Never Use Condoms: Iraq and Deuteronomy

Like rape, war is an act of aggression born out of the desire for control. However, at the supreme moment–the big explosion–all control is lost, and none can predict the consequences of the fallout. Take the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BCE, the first empire to wage psychological warfare in their conquest of neighboring peoples. To terrorize newly-conquered vassals the Assyrians would install reliefs of their military conquests in their palaces where vassal emissaries would come pay them tribute. This Assyrian propaganda-art gave Assyrian foes “feminine qualities” in order to humiliate them.

Not only did the Assyrians pioneer psychological warfare, but they were also the first nation to engage in siege warfare, inventing the battering ram, designed to forcefully penetrate city gates. The Assyrian method of conquest involved burning through the countryside, doling out torture and death, until they came to a city–such as Jerusalem–where an Assyrian ambassador would call out terms of surrender from atop the city wall. This would create panic among the people, many of whom would have been refugees of the aforementioned Assyrian death-march, and the city would often capitulate.

assyria relief - winged kings

Capitulation involved ratifying an Assyrian Vassal treaty, in which the cowed city would agree to become a faithful tribute-paying vassal of Assyria. According to the Annals of Sennacharib (an eighth century Assyrian king), Hezekiah, king of Judah, “would not submit to my yoke.” So Sennacharib marched against Judah, destroying its countryside and, according to the annals, forcing Hezekiah to submit and pay tribute. (The Israelite version of the account can be found in 2 Kings 17-19, 2 Chronicles 32). These texts, and the archaeological record, show that Judah was raped by Assyria in the 8th century BCE, and was probably forced to agree to a vassal treaty.

During this time period, no one–besides the inhabitants of Judah–would have found this remarkable, because Judah was just a pawn on the chessboard of the Ancient Near East. However, the consequences of this conquest became extremely remarkable because the book of Deuteronomy was composed in the exact form of an Assyrian vassal treaty (complete with a historical prologue and a list of blessings and curses). The only exception is that in Deuteronomy Israel pledges its fealty to the LORD and not to the king of Assyria. We can safely say that the Assyrians never intended or imagined that their conquest of Judah would result in the production of one of the foundational books for Judaism, and to a lesser extent Christianity. Millions read the book of Deuteronomy today. How many read Assyrian religious literature?

Mt Rushmore (9)

The U.S. empire also uses formalized documents, like the U.S. constitution, when it conquers a foreign nation. Under U.S. supervision, the newly-formed Iraqi government has drafted its own constitution. The Iraqi constitution has the same general structure as the U.S. constitution, though perhaps one of the biggest differences is that it is composed in Allah’s name and it makes Islam the official state religion of Iraq:

  • “In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate” (preamble).
  • “Islam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation: No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established” (Article 2).

No one today expects Iraq to act as a major player in world politics, and some claim that it will just serve as Iran’s puppet. But I can’t help but wonder if the Iraqi constitution will have an enormous impact on the world in some unforeseen way. Two thousand years from now, will billions look to Iraq’s constitution as a foundational document, while the U.S constitution is only remembered by a few as that which provided its form? Who can say? But one thing is certain: world history is full of the accidental offspring of empires.


  1. I’ve wondered something similar.

    We can compare ourselves to the Roman Empire and I see our demise sooner than latter. And, what will they say about us 2,000 years later? And, will they read our blogs? I love thinking about that too. What we leave behind gives a picture of who we are as an “empire”. Our constitution being the greatest (however outdated can come across to us today).

    Anyway, great thoughts.

  2. Thanks Liesl. When our demise comes, I wonder what form it will take. When exactly did Rome fall? Can we say that the Holy Roman Empire was an extension of Rome? If it was, then Rome lasted for a long long time.

  3. Rome fell before it arose. Its history, its politics, its technology, its culture, all borrowed. Rome’s history is one of implementation, not invention. And when your power to expand comes from the people that you subjugate, there is a definitive end to your expansion.