Marketing atrocity: Ancient Assyrians would have understood Islamic State’s methods

What are the benefits of cruelty? This question occurred to me after forcing myself to watch some of the slickly produced propaganda videos of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). The now-infamous productions often show the cruel killing of helpless captives in the most horrifying ways imaginable. It’s hard not to wonder about the intent of the filmmakers. It’s also hard not to wonder who the target audience is.

I also watched recent video of ISIS members in a museum smashing (alleged) archaeological relics from the very ancient Mesopotamian past. I felt a certain sense of historical irony while doing so. I wondered as I watched them use sledgehammers and power drills on a 3,000 year old Assyrian statue if they realized that they were following the ancient Assyrian playbook as they tried to erase the region’s past.

Within sight of the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul lie the ruins of the great Assyrian capital at Nineveh. The Assyrians of that era were masters at the art of atrocity marketing. The concept of publicizing horrific cruelty to cow and intimidate subjects or opponents has a long history, and only fell out of style relatively recently (and not everywhere). Lacking the 21st-century media tools ISIS possesses, earlier peoples took a more old-school approach. The Assyrians used stone as the vehicle for their marketing of atrocity.

“I built a pillar over his city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar…And I cut the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled…Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads, and I bound their heads to tree trunks round the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.”

That is the boasting of an Assyrian king who lived almost 3,000 years ago, named Ashurnasirpal II. He was one of many Assyrian monarchs in the so-called “Biblical” era of history that enforced their rule with almost unbelievable brutality.

An undated image of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. REUTERS TV/Files
An undated image of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. REUTERS TV/Files

The cruelty of the Assyrian Empire’s actions were publicized via text, colored wall paintings and carvings in stone. Historian Arthur Ferrill compared them to photos of Nazi concentration camps, and said they had few parallels in history. Artwork showing the skin being cut off of living captives, the impaling of prisoners on stakes, mass forced deportations of conquered peoples, captives being burned or having their tongues torn out and everywhere piles upon piles of human heads are highlighted. One can only imagine what Ashurnasirpal might have done had he possessed video technology.

But the Assyrians were more the norm than the exception throughout most of world history. The ancient Romans, for example, also knew how to make a point by marketing atrocities. One of their citizen-generals, Marcus Crassus, famously had the captured slaves that survived the famed Spartacus revolt crucified along the Appian Way. The 6,000 victims died suspended on either side of the busy Roman road, at evenly spaced intervals. The bodies were left in place for months. Is this the ancient equivalent of posting horrifyingly violent acts on the Internet? Or is it a twisted, bloody version of a modern freeway billboard campaign? It certainly wasn’t unusual. Publicized cruelty was all the rage throughout most of human history, and it was common in most places until quite recently.

It’s only in the last century or so that public executions, for example, have become rare. Having people view a burning, beheading or hanging (with or without a torture appetizer) was thought to be something that reinforced law and authority and demonstrated that justice was being carried out. Often it was thought an edifying thing to have children watch. Had there been video and the Internet two centuries ago, would that mentality have supported the idea that it would be good to post such events online for all to see?

This old-style marketing of atrocity and object lessons seems to contrast sharply with the more modern approach. In the 20th century, the architects of mass atrocities usually tried to disguise or cover up their cruelty. One can only assume that they felt that human sensibilities had become more refined and that widespread exposure of their deeds would reflect badly upon them. How would the German public living in the Third Reich have reacted to ISIS-like, slickly produced films showing the scenes inside a death camp gas chamber while people were dying? Even in a nation brainwashed by state-fostered anti-Semitism, it’s hard to imagine the reaction being anything the Nazi regime would have considered positive.

The fact that the Islamic State’s marketing gurus feel otherwise is interesting. Perhaps its more evidence bolstering the idea that ISIS seeks to return to the values of an earlier, much more harsh historical era. If so,we might be seeing a visual and visceral example of what our ancestors might have done with a good TV studio.

If online video existed in the Middle Ages, does the burning of Joan of Arc go viral? Would it go viral today?

Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster. His podcast Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History was recently named Best Classic Podcast of 2014 by iTunes. His website is

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