Administrative Technology and the Growth of Ancient Near Eastern Cores

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Administrative Technology and the Growth of Ancient Near Eastern Cores

Mitch Allen

(Santa Clara University and AltaMira Press)
Delivered at PEWS Conference, May 2002, UC Riverside. To contact author: AltaMira Press, 1630 N. Main St, # 367, Walnut Creek, CA 94596. Not for citation without permission.
ABSTRACT: The expansion of the Ancient Near Eastern core has been addressed by world-systems scholars for two decades now, since it represented the earliest documented case of strong core and peripheral differentiation. But many have pointed out that those differences were fragile, and ANE empires had limits as far as size and longevity. This situation changes drastically in the first millennium BC, where the Assyrian empire expands to a size unheard of in previous times and survives intact for almost two centuries. Even when it falls, it is replaced by Babylonian, Achaemenid, and Macedonian empires of equal size. What caused this exponential leap in the strength of cores over peripheral areas? Using the example of the western semi-periphery of the Assyrian empire—Phoenicia, Philistia, and Israel—I will attempt to demonstrate that the Assyrians used new innovations in administrative technology to solidify its growth—weight systems, a lingua franca, currency rationalization, taxation mechanisms. Curiously, though, these advances were originally developed by the semi-peripheral states independent of the Assyrian empire were only later turned into tools of imperial stabilization.
I’m going to be speaking about Assyrians, specifically the Neo-Assyrian empire of the 10th-7th century BC, the first large empire of the central world system core. It was an empire that stretched from the mountains of Iran to the Nile River of Egypt—basically the boundaries of the contemporary Middle East, about three thousand kilometers as the crow flies--and significantly dwarfed in size any Near Eastern empire that had come before it. As I’ve shown in my previous work (Allen 1997), their world-system was much larger than the imperial borders, extending from beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to Afghanistan. It was a stable empire too. The Assyrian hegemony in the Ancient Near East lasted close to two centuries, and it was succeeded by equally large empires—Babylonian, Achaemenid Persian, Macedonian, and Roman-- that controlled territory of much the same size or larger for the subsequent millennium.
This, of course, raises the question of “how did they do that?” What were the mechanisms that allowed this breakthrough, so that a world-empire could expand so much larger than any of its predecessors? Generally, the answer to that is accompanied by a yawn. Empires consist of long successions of dynastic squabbles, military conquests, pillaging of defiant enemies, scenes of tribute and gifts by vanquished foes, long defiles of dejected slaves trudging off into exile, and towering monuments to the victors. Assyrian palaces were polluted with this ideological stuff and our popular conception of Assyrians is limited to those kinds of images. Worse for the world-systems theorist, world-empires like the Assyrians are boring: surplus leads to hierarchical differentiation which produces tribute within a unified political entity. Expansion extends beyond the ability to support the bureaucracy and splat, the entity collapses (Wallerstein 1976, 347).
What I want to do here it to suggest a possible answer to the “how did they do that” question, on that that involves innovations in administrative technology, the kind that allowed a world-empire act like a world-economy, enabled this growth. Trying to breathe some life into the old empire


In 1973, Harriet Crawford noted the archaeological lack of Mesopotamian exports in the peripheral areas of Syria, Iran, the Persian Gulf. To this she attributed the fact that what Mesopotamia exported were “invisible exports,” grain, fish, oils, leather goods, and, most important, textiles. As symbolic markers of status, the importance of textiles is now generally accepted. Mesopotamian textiles have been identified as key markers of elite status in peripheral areas of the Near East since Early Dynastic third millennium and were a key trade item in the well-documented Old Assyrian trade in Anatolia (Larsen 1976). Their importance cross culturally has been demonstrated by scholars like Mary Helms (1992). But I would like to talk about truly “invisible” exports, not simply ones that are invisible because of their absence in the archaeological record.
Administrative technology—also called “technologies of social control” (Lamberg-Karlovsky 1996, 93)-- has that characteristic of invisibility. In organizing ever larger units, be they kinship groups, empires, trading systems, or multinational corporations, the technology for communication, information management, coercion, and control of physical assets becomes ever more important. We know these technologies began as early as the fifth millennium BC, maybe even 3000 years before that (Schmandt-Besserat 1992). Finding better ways of controlling the movement, storage, and management of people, goods, armies, capital, and information has been one of the engines of growth of cores when hierarchy entered the earliest world systems. Limitations in administrative technology limit the size of empires, as happened in the first three millennia of the Central Core system. It took administrative innovation to break that ceiling.
I will show later that the Neo-Assyrian empire went through three different phases of administrative technology to control the flow of people and goods through its system, each one of them a response to the increased size of the empire. The transformations of the Assyrian empire allowed it growth and stability and paved the way for future successor empires.


Since most people at this conference are not specialists in Ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology, let me start with a brief primer on the Neo-Assyrian world-empire. Assyria is the name of a geographical region currently in nothern Iraq and western Iran. Centered near modern Mosul on the Tigris River, it began as a peripheral area of the southern Mesopotamian world system, incorporated by the 5th millennium BC, and was peripheral to the Uruk world-system of the 4th millennium. (Algaze 1993a). Assyria had 2 brief periods of expansion of its own—an Old Assyrian empire of the 19th c BC, just predating Hammurabi, and a modest and brief Middle Assyrian Empire in the 14th-13th century BC, sharing the spotlight with the Hittites and New Kingdom Egyptians at the end of the Late Bronze Age, the time of the Trojan War. In neither case could their role be described as hegemonic, with their orbit of control boundaried at the top of the Fertile Crescent. Neither would foreshadow the success of the Neo-Assyrian empire of the 9th century through the late 7th, whose exploits are well known from multiple cuneiform texts, classical and biblical sources, and extensive archaeological work in Iraq over the past 150 years.
Located in a relatively narrow river valley, the Assyrian plain could not always feed the urban population it was trying to support even in periods of intense agricultural activity (Oates 1968: 49), so Assyria regularly relied upon its ability to obtain agricultural and other staple goods from neighboring agricultural areas in Northern Mesopotamia or from the Babylonian plain to the south. This clearly played into Assyrian expansionist tendencies.
The administrative structure of the empire had four overlapping components-- the palace, the provincial administration, the city/town administration and the temple administration (Pecirkova 1978). While each had its own hierarchy and power base, all ultimate power flowed from the king, who could usurp the powers or roles of any functionary at any level of administration (Van Driel 1970, 168). The four overlapping structures served to balance one another and prevent the usurpation of power by any one (Postgate 1973, p. xvi), thus providing stability to the political system.
Using these structures, the Neo-Assyrians built an administrative and economic system that continually expand the size and wealth of the core over several centuries. A small, hereditary aristocracy, headed by the king, populated these administrative domains and controlled most of the internal means of production. Resources were garnered internally through taxes, military callups, and labor conscriptions. The agricultural base continually grew with the addition of new lands settled by deportees from elsewhere in the empire, parceled out as favors by the king, who, in turn, was promised loyalty because of his magnaminity. This created a highly stratified society with a small, aristocratic elite of land owners, high government officials, and military officers, themselves tightly controlled by the king, (Kinnier Wilson 1972,p. 42) and a rapidly expanding internal periphery-- both within Assyria proper and in the provinces-- of village collectives, small land owners, serfs, herders, and crafts workers. 1
The growing wealth of the landed aristocracy and aristocratic bureaucracy was fed by annual influx of booty and large tributes from the expanding ends of the empire, marked with elaborate public rituals celebrating the success of the empire. These too were parceled out by the king to the various aristocratic groups. It was their continued flow-- and the ideological display to the Assyrian populace that accompanied it-- that allowed the whole system to increase in wealth and reproduce itself, capping the potential for political unrest that lurked below the surface of an increasingly stratified society.
With each transaction, the temples, themselves burgeoning, wealthy bureaucracies, were further enriched. They replied by becoming the bankers to the empire, supporting military, agricultural and trade ventures and legitimating the institutions of the state and the economy.
Some of Assyria’s success can be attributed to military innovation. They were the first ancient empire to maintain a year-round standing army and had a well organized system of distribution and storage of food and materiel for soldiers and draft animals that extended throughout the empire (Saggs, 1963). They solved communication problems through an equally effective precursor to the Pony Express, a chain of posts that allowed rapid communication between the capital and distant provinces (Kinnier Wilson 1972). They perfected the latest transportation technology—the horse—both for military purposes and for general transport (Crown 1974).
But these technological fixes cannot be solely responsible for Assyria’s success. Philip Kohl, in his early seminal article that attempted to assess the applicability of the world-systems model to the premodern world, notes in reference to technological advantages of core states “critical technologies such as metal working and, later, horse breeding, were not controlled by core areas alone. Bronze Age technologies could not be monopolized but quickly diffused from one area to another or, in this sense, were transferable. Moreover, important technologies often initially developed or were further refined in peripheral areas close to the natural source of the necessary resources.” (Kohl 1987:22). Because of these factors—technological development in the periphery and because the quick diffusion of technology throughout ancient systems—Kohl feels the technology gap necessary for long-term core stability didn’t exist. Chris Chase-Dunn’s theoretical work on semi-peripheries (Chase-Dunn 1988) echoes Kohl’s idea even more broadly—semi-peripheral areas, rather than cores, are generally the loci of social, organizational, and technological innovation in a world system. We’ll find that largely true about the Assyrian world-empire. So there must have been more that made Assyria so large and so stable.


The expansion from resource-poor city state to world-empire stretched over the course of four centuries and can be divided into three phases.
Agricultural intensification. The nomadic Aramean invasions of the eleventh and tenth centuries BC after the end of the Middle Assyrian Empire had a severe negative impact on the potential of the early Neo-Assyria core to procure these necessary goods. With the exceptions of communities along the major waterways, most settlements in regions of Northern Mesopotamia were abandoned at this time (Postgate 1974b, p. 237). Thus, the initial impetus for the aggressive expansion of the ninth century Neo-Assyrian state-- Phase 1-- may have been to counteract this paucity of agricultural resources available to the Assyrian core. Certainly, early Assyrian expansion toward the agricultural land of Habur River triangle to the west and the eastern river valleys were moves to recapture some of these decimated lands in order to repopulate them and increase agricultural potential for supporting an Assyrian urban elite.
From the populations encountered by the first wave of Neo-Assyrian expansion came two general responses. Agrarian city states, generally occupying lowland river valleys, tended to submit and pay tribute to the Assyrians. They were incorporated into the growing empire, had their economies and political systems reorganized into "pre-provincial" structures, and were forced to institute or reinstitute tribute, acts of submission, and corvee labor (Liverani 1992, pp. 117 ff). The acceptance by the stronger, agrarian states of Assyrian suzerainty seems to be linked to previous incorporation into the Assyrian tribute economy of the Middle Assyrian and early Neo-Assyrian kings, a reestablishment of previously existing core-periphery arrangement (Liverani 1992, p. 117). It provided a ready source of bulk goods and tribute wealth for the Assyrian heartland. These are all mechanisms of incorporation and control long known in the Ancient Near East.
The discovery of trade. During the second phase, the political conquests were different and the mechanisms of control changed dramatically. Moving north and east into mountainous territory, the chiefdoms and tribal peoples with little hierarchical structure encountered in the next phase of ninth century expansion were much more difficult to incorporate.2 The Assyrians responded to these groups by defeating them militarily, and killing, deporting and plundering their population centers.
Liverani (1992, p. 134) estimates that about 20% of the captured populations were deported in the ninth century campaigns of Assurnasirpal. This had its political uses in breaking up existing political power nodes that could threaten the growth of the empire (Oded 1979), but it also served to increase the rural population of the Assyrian-controlled countryside in order to intensify core agricultural production. This helps explain why 85% of all deportees from conquered territories known from the texts were sent to the Assyria core (Oded 1979, p. 28). Oded (1979, 20) estimates there were as many as 4.5 million deportees from just the 157 cases known from existing texts.
To the west, the Assyrians encountered a different set of polities, larger agrarian-based Neo-Hittite states linked into the fluid world-economy of the eastern Mediterranean. As the productivity levels of Assyria and the previously incorporated provinces increased, Assyrian policies changed. No longer were lands preserved for settlement and agricultural development. These needs were met by the core and nearer provinces where the labor costs of transport of bulk goods were considerably lower. Instead, most of the agricultural potential of conquered lands was destroyed through population resettlements, destruction of towns, roads, storage centers, and the disruption of existing social and economic relationships that allowed local exchange to take place. This ensured that products of these conquered lands would not be used for revolutionary activity. Remaining centers were reconfigured as Assyrian administrative centers to support centralized collection of agricultural goods for redistribution in the tributary system, to supply provisions for Assyrian military activities, and to provide control over the local population's growth, wealth, and activity through control of the food supply.3 It is in this realm that we hear of most of the cases of Assyrian murder and pillage, cities destroyed and their populations carried away. Areas initially incorporated as vassals, were reconfigured as provinces during the reign of Tiglath Pileser III in the 8th century, streamlining the administration of large areas considerably (Pecirkova 1987, 165).
At the same time, the economic structure of the Assyrian core-- based as it was on the accumulation of wealth through agricultural production and redistribution of booty and tribute-- did not have the flexibility to allow trade to develop internally, creating a void. But Assyria had reached a point where they needed a trading economy. Their sheer size had reached the geographical limits of bulk goods redistribution and their elite demands for increasing items of status had blossomed. Contact with increasingly diverse foreign regions had created an interest in ivory, exotic animals, purple-dyed garments, ornamented furniture. While booty from annual conquests and tribute from newly-acquired provinces provided much of this, it was clear they needed to be able to reach outside the boundaries of their political empire for status goods. The solution… subcontracting.
Merchants from these western provinces became the traders of the Assyrian empire. Of the texts mentioning tamkaru, traders, from Neo-Assyrian times, Moshe Elat (1991) determined that 22 of the 54 traders' names mentioned in Assyrian documents are Aramaic, the language of these Syrian provinces. Given the pressure to adopt the culture (including naming practices) of the imperial core, the number of Aramaic traders on this list was probably over 50%. If trade was directed from the core, it would have had enormous impact on the trading practices both inside and outside the empire. Generally, one could assume that Assyrian currency standards, weights, writing systems, and terminology would be adopted and standardized throughout the empire. This did not happen. Instead, a variety of weight systems were used and several different currency systems.
Possibly the most significant cultural institution brought by the westerners was their language and script. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Assyrian empire as early as the reign of Tiglath Pileser III (Tadmor 1975, p. 42). Many documents were written bilingually, and when not, often Aramaic graffiti was added to a traditionally inscribed cuneiform tablet (Naveh 1970, p. 16). As early as the eighth century, Assyrian kings employed scribes who could write official documents in Akkadian, Aramaic and Egyptian (Kinnier Wilson 1972, p. 93). Aramaic script became standardized and conservatively unchanging through the century in which it was officially used by the court as one would expect of a government-managed cultural form (Naveh 1970:1-2). Though we have limited data, it seems this script was used regularly in the West for commercial transactions and in trade relations throughout the empire.
In Assyria itself, ironically, the use of stamp seals, an import from the west, rapidly overshadows the traditional use of cylinder seal of the previous three thousand years (Parker 1962). Stamp seals were in general use in western regions for sealing papyrus, leather and other materials on which Aramaic could be written. Cylinder seals were typically rolled onto cuneiform texts. The late seventh century excavations at Fort Shalmaneser in Iraq produced double the number of stamp seals vis a vis cylinder seals, as opposed to 2/3 as many from excavations of eighth century Nimrud (Parker 1962, p. 27). Some of the stamp seals showed distinct western stylistic influence. Assyria adopted the western administrative technology.
Additional evidence of the westernization of Assyrian trade comes from the economic standards used. In this pre-monetary times, weights were standardized to allow for long-distance trade. By the eighth century, there were two in common use—the mina of Nineveh (a core city of the Assyrian homeland) and the mina of Carchemish (Lipinski 1979, p. 575-576). Carchemish, an Aramaic city on the Euphrates river, was one of the gateways for transshipment of materials from the North and West conquered by Assyria first in 854.
Tadmor (1975, pl 42-3) also makes a case for the adoption of the western concept of loyalty oath, or ade, by the Assyrian monarch as the concept that governed relations with the Assyrian king. Originally designed to bind vassal states to Assyria, it eventually became the means by which individual Assyrian subjects, both at the core and in conquered provinces, were bound to their king.
Thus, when the Assyrians sought to reorganize their empire on a larger scale, they used not their own administrative devices, those of a land-locked, territorially-based, agriculturally-dependent world-empire, but the blueprint provided by the newly conquered western provinces, fluent in the language and practices of international trade, as their guide, an astounding leap for any empire.
The final phase of Assyrian expansion, into the Levant and Egypt, led them into vastly different territory. The western phlange of the Fertile Crescent, long a pathway between the Mesopotamian core on the northeast and Egyptian core on the south and connected far to the west via the Mediterranean had long garnered many of its resources—both bulk and elite—through the transfer of goods across long spaces of time and multiple political and economic units. The Late Bronze Age trading system, where goods regularly passed between Crete, Mycenae, , the Hittites, Canaanites, and Egypt, is amply documented in written texts from the Bible to Homer, in tablets from Turkey and Egypt, from tons of imported goods found around the Eastern Mediterranean, and from several spectacular shipwreck finds. The local system that replaced the Bronze Age trading system I call the "Levantine world-system," a multi-state, non-hegemonic system that carried on this long tradition of regional and extra-regional trade. This is the system of David and Solomon, Hiram of Tyre, and the South Arabian Queen of Sheba.
The interaction between the Neo-Assyrian empire and the Levantine world-system was also impacted by radical changes occuring within the Assyrian core. The empire had, in fact, reached the limits of military expansion, as demonstrated by its multiple unsuccessful attempts to incorporate Egypt into the world-empire (Kitchen 1986) and an equally difficult relationship with Babylonia (Brinkman 1984). Military conquest became re-conquests of rebellious provinces, which returned them to the fold, but brought in no new tribute, booty, or conscript labor. This squeezing of resources brought to the surface the competition between Assyrians traditional aristocratic elite and a new elite class of eunuch, which had developed an increasing role in managing the empire and challenged the traditional aristocracy in land ownership (Van Driel 1970, 168; Fales 1984b, 216). Tax exemptions to many parties decimated the ability of the state to garner internal revenues (Postgate 1974a; Brinkman 1984). Assyria was in a 7th century financial crisis.
The Levantine states, and the trade they controlled, became extremely important for solving this crisis. The growth of the demands by the warring elite of the Assyrian core demanded ever larger and more exotic status goods, now obtainable from places like Central Africa, South Arabia, India, the Mediterranean, and North Altantic, through the trading channels of the Phoenicians, Philistines, and Arab states. Items showing up on their tribute lists include exotic animals and woods, ivory, wine, honey, spices, fish, papyrus, and elephant hides (Elat 1978:30-32). Phoenician domestic industries also developed as a result of this trade. Thus Assyria imported large quantities of Phoenician carved ivories (Winter 1976), worked metal vessels (Falsone 1988), and multicolored textiles, which became the fashion of choice for Assyrian elites (Oppenheim 1967, 246-247).
More important, these western provinces were able to provide gold from Egypt and silver from the Rio Tinto mines in Spain to fuel an Assyrian economy ever more dependent on hard currency for its functioning. I will describe this in more detail below.

When the first military campaigns of Tiglath Pileser reached this region, they created problems of control that Assyria had not before faced. First, much of this region had been part of the Egyptian world system and therefore was not oriented toward incorporation into a northern-based empire. Second, distance created communication difficulties for incorporation and long-term control using traditional Assyrian practices. So the Assyrian solution here was very different. While traditional methods of conquest, deportation, taxation, and tribute, were used, none produced stability in controlling important peripheries 1,500 miles away from Assyria. Instead, the Assyrians looked to other methods of control. A few will be examined here.

MANIPULATING ELITES. Retained as vassal states, rather than reorganized as provinces, control was maintained through manipulating the elites of these vassals. While taxes, tribute, and corvee labor demands were generally modest by standards of the empire (Elat 1978, 1982), the Assyrians controlled the local elites through manipulation of royal succession and holding royal hostages. Tabua, possibly daughter of deposed queen Te'elhunu of the Arabs, was raised in Nineveh, then enthroned as queen of the Arabs by Essarhaddon (Eph'al 1982, 122-123 Mitinti of Ashkelon became king in 677after growing up in captivity in the Assyrian court (Tadmor 1966, 98).
TRADE MANIPULATION. Dependent on these trading states for elite goods, the Assyrians manipulated trade relations through a mechanism used to interface between their tribute-based world-empire and the trade-based world-economy beyond it, the karum. This institution has been much discussed in the previous literature, being defined as the wharf or quay, the Assyrian imperi­al trading colony, administrative center, and the tax collecting sta­tion (Lewy 1956, 37-51). In the Neo-Assyrian period, it may have served all of these functions. It is clear, though, that the karum was the key institution of Assyrian economic control within the vassal states. As early as the 9th century, the second phase of expansion, karu were established in areas beyond the political reach of the empire (Liverani 1992). These became central nodes to incorporate the local area when Assyrian conquest finally came.
In the 7th century, the same policy was employed, since the karu mentioned in Assyrian texts were at the edge of the empire's borders. Existing texts list at least eight of them in the Levant.4 Brown (1986) indicates that there were at least five karu in the central Zagros Mountains as well. Archaeologically, we have confirming evidence of the existence of these maritime karu through the location of double harbors—one controlled by the Assyrians, one by the local population-- dating to the 7th century. 5 Clearly, these sites were positioned strategically to control trade across the Mediterranean and to Egypt.
While the karum controlled trade into and out of the geographic empire, large administrative centers controlled the flow of goods within the empire itself. In Syria-Palestine, archaeologists have identified over a dozen buildings whose large storage facilities and related artifacts suggest direct control of the Assyrians and concerned with transportation, trade, tribute and taxes within the empire (Amiran and Dunayevsky 1958, Reich 1992, 214-222). Rather than controlling all the elements of trade within the distant reaches of the empire and outside the empire, they were content to control critical nodes of transportation, storage facilities, and key ports of importation to keep control over the doings of the entrepreneurial westerners (Edens and Bawden 1989).
The economic domination of the trade system at the fringes of the empire was reinforced by legal restrictions on trade by vassals. The Assyrians used this to limit the potential profits of the western traders in order to limit their capital accumu­lation in the interests of maintaining dependence. For example, in the letter ND 2715, dating from the time of Tiglath Pileser III, a local functionary reports to the king on the restric­tions imposed on Tyrian traders, including the payment of mikse (cus­toms duties) on wood and a prohibition against selling wood to Egyptians or Philistines (Saggs 1955, 149-151; Elat 1991, 25-6). Similarly, the treaty between Esarhaddon and Ba'al, King of Tyre, (Parpola and Watanabe 1988) gives the Assyrian king the right to confiscate cargo from any coastal shipwreck, contrary to tradi­tional Near Eastern practice (Elat 1991, 28-9). It is reasonable to assume these were but a few of the many limitations on trade imposed by the Assyrians. Without them, the wealth accumulated by Phoenician, Philistine and Arab traders would have threatened the stability of the core/vassal relationship. This is typical of core/semiperipheral relations, according to Wallerstein (1979, p. 23). While semiperipheral traders sometimes control long distance luxury trade, they are enjoined from the political rights, allowing the core polity to institute confiscatory measures whenever economic profits become so large that they could threaten the core.
BUREAUCRATIC COOPTATION: As important a strategy as the control of trade through force, economic and legal means, or seeking cooperation of local elites, was the strategy of incorporating vassal states into the bureaucratic structure of the empire. Bureaucratic incorporation created the conditions whereby control was normalized by aligning local institutions to imperial ones. Bureaucratic control of the West took two different forms--the exportation of Assyrian administrators to oversee and advise local rulers and contracting of local leaders to perform administrative functions generally reserved for the empire.
In cases where western vassals retained their power locally, many were saddled with qepu' officials from Assyria, who served as tribute collectors, but also to mold the local social and admin­istrative structure to the imperial one (Liverani 1979). For example, according to the extant treaty, Tyre was not allowed to open communiques from Assyria without the qepu' present, presumably to "inter­pret" royal orders (Parpola and Watanabe 1988).
On several occasions, local rulers were subcon­tracted to replace imperial troops in activities the latter would have handled at the core of the empire, guarding the border and manning caravan routes, for exam­ple. The Arab sheikh Idibi'ilu, on the Philis­tine-Egyptian border, served as border guard for Sargon (Eph’al 1982, 93). Another nearby sheikh, from the city of Laban, oversaw deportees settled near the City of the Brook of Egypt. Other texts mention Arab pastoralists as providing labor for the commer­cial and military route along the Jordanian/east Syrian desert (Eph’al 1982, 94-95). While some stress that these moves allowed Assyria to maintain a defensive stance against Egypt without expending precious military person­nel thousands of miles from Assyria, more likely these steps were taken to perforate the border, not seal it. Since Arab guides and camels were regularly used to cross the Sinai desert to Egypt, how better to foster this trade than by incorporating these middlemen into the Assyrian administrative structure.6 This creative solution resolved several problems. It fostered trade, eliminated a potential threat to a distant border, and co-opted pastoral groups into the administrative structure of the empire.7 This cooptation strategy aided in enclosing peoples traditionally external to the system into the system.
CONTROL OF CAPITAL: Though the evidence is scanty from the Neo-Assyrian period, documents from the Old Assyrian (Larsen 1976) and Neo-Babylonian (Oppenheim 1967) periods shows that among the most effec­tive methods of informal control is the control of capital for trade ventures (Allen 1992, Oppenheim 1967). Accumulation of capital was crucial to mounting long distance trade, by land or ship. With the capital surpluses of their trading ventures being converted to gold and silver to be paid in taxes or tribute to the Assyri­an king,8 venture capital may have been difficult to obtain. Thus, control of capital accumu­lation and of credit may have enabled the Assyrians to maintain a hold on the western peripheral states, who seem to have used systems of public-private ventures to maintain their trade relations outside the political boundaries of the Assyrian empire.
We know that the Sanctuary of Ishtar of Arbela, among other Assyrian temples, served as banking institutions for accumulating capital, ensuring the quality of the metals, loaning funds, and receiving debt payments and fines, becoming the "Banc de L'État" (Lipinski 1979:587). The temples of Haddad did the same for Syrian provinces in the 7th century (Lipinski 1979:582-586). They may have served as institutions controlling the flow of capital in the empire. The same mechanism could be one of resistance: Phoenicians, who controlled the silver trade to Spain, generated capital in their own periphery using the Temple of Melqart in Cadiz to perform key banking functions for the Phoenician Spanish colonies (Aubet 2002). While capital could be obtained in Tyre and other Phoenician cities for outgoing expeditions to the West, there had to be some means of regulating trade and exchange on return expeditions. The Spanish temple was presumably beyond the reach of Assyria, deliberately to avoid Assyrian supervision and intervention. One expects that any institution funding trade expeditions located in Phoenicia proper would have had strong Assyrian oversight--possibly one of the functions of the karu mentioned above. We would expect this same pattern in Southern Palestine for Philistine trade institutions.

Controlling capital was a problematic issue for the Assyrians, since the capital itself--generally in the form of silver--was obtained from outside the empire by mercantile activity of semi-peripheral states, rather than under the direct control of the Assyrian core and its agents. In the early days of the empire, this was solved by Assyrian expansion to the northwest into Anatolia in the 9th and 8th centuries, bringing under its direct control sizeable source areas of copper, lead, tin (Curtis 1988), iron (Maxwell-Hyslop 1974), silver (Dalley 1988, 100-101), gold and other metals.

But further expansion in the 7th century, coupled with the rise of the new Assyrian elites and the rationalization of the Assyrian bureaucratic state, led to an urgent need for increased imports of hard currencies, particularly silver and gold. It is in this century that silver becomes the general standard replacing copper (Postgate 1973, 25), where iskaru (contracted craft service) payments are made in silver rather than in-kind, and where silver becomes increasingly the desired medium of tribute. It is, then, no coincidence that this time frame matches that of sharply increased importation of silver from Spain (Aubet 2002, Frankenstein 1979), gold and precious stones from the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea (Eph'al 1982, 106), and gold from Egypt and Nubia via the Philistines.
And the Phoenicians provided it.. During the 8th and 7th centuries, the Phoenicians radically transformed the economy of Southern Spain through Gadir (Cadiz) and an extensive series of other colonies, extracting enough silver to leave 20 million tons of silver slag on the countryside (Frankenstein 1979). Copper, gold, lead, and other metals useful as currency were also exported (Aubet 2002). By-products of this extractive industry included environmental degradation, deforestation, and stratification within the local Iberian society. The Spanish hinterland was incorporated into the Phoenician extractive economy and was reorganized toward intensive mining and smelting of silver ore for export on Phoenician ships.
As in the case of other trade goods, the Assyrians attempted to carefully manage the importation of currency-like metals by the semi-peripheral states through taxation, threats of force, tribute, and controlling the ends of the trade routes. But their need for currency was constant and constantly accelerating. I postulate that the demise of the Assyrian empire may be related to their inability to ensure the unimpeded flow of capital into and through the empire.

The Western semiperipheral states-- Phoenician cities, the Philistine Pentapolis and some Arab tribes—entering the Assyrian world-empire at the moment of the 7th century crisis are, they are preserved and encouraged to continue and expand their existing trade networks. Instead of being beaten down and decimated like the more economically-superfluous land-based states they adjoined, they become semiperipheral agents, valued by the Assyrians for their ability to solve the core problem of securing status goods and precious metals to use as hard currency. They take advantage of the Assyrian core's inability to expand beyond its political and military bounds to secure their own political autonomy and economic wealth, two features that outlast Assyrian hegemony, while feeding the core with what it required for survival.

The Assyrians were masters of the world-empire, doing it better than anyone before them. But they reached the geographical limits of sustainable empire, where transportation costs exceed the ability of cores to exercise power (Stein 1999, 58), soon after crossing the Euphrates River. This is where the true administrative innovation comes in and the Assyrians transform themselves from a land-locked, agrarian-dependent marcher state, to a hegemonic power pulling in resources from the far reaches of the Ancient Near Eastern system and beyond. To do that, though, they enlisted the experts in long-distance operation, the traders of the Levantine world-system of the early Iron Age. Incorporation was a simple process at first, the Assyrians used their might to militarily defeat these polities and establish their hegemony along the Mediterranean coast. But maintaining the empire at such a distance from the Assyrian core was clearly impossible without annual campaigns to put down rebellions.
So the Assyrians used a variety of techniques to induce these states, already under military control, to become partners in this empire. They turned over the procurement of materiel from outside the empire to the experienced trading organizations of the Neo-Hittite states and followed their lead in adopting the language, sealing practices, and monetary standards of eastern Mediterranean international trade. There is no question of Assyrian hegemony here, these states—Carchemish, Arpad, Damascus, and others—were forced to contribute heavily through tribute and labor conscription and faced population deportations to the Assyrian core to ensure pacifism. But, rather than transforming these states into indistinguishable Assyrian provinces, they preserved them to become the traders for the empire.
One more step to the west brought the Assyrians in contact with the true trading geniuses of the Mediterranean—the Phoenicians, Philistines, and Arabs. Here they were forced to go yet a step further. These city states and chiefdoms were not incorporated into the Assyrian provincial structure at all, but allowed to maintain vassal status, conduct extensive trade outside the boundaries of the empire and were treated gingerly by the Assyrian core. The West was not impoverished, but enriched through its active trade beyond the system. The Assyrians encouraged this through cooptative methods described above. Moreover, the Assyrians adopted these western products as elite status goods at the core of the empire—western dress, exotic animals, woods, and finished goods in metal and ivory.
But this Assyrian magnaminity was not about elite status goods, it was about money. For the most important and far-reaching change instituted by the Assyrians in the 7th century was the move toward a monetarized economy, their solution to the 7th century economic crisis. Rather than status goods or bulk goods, remote provinces and vassals were asked to provide cash—silver, gold, copper—to the Assyrian core. Within the core itself, certain payments, like the iskaru, were changed to become payments in silver, transforming the internal economy.
Banking practices, such as the guarantee of quality of silver or of weight by the crown or the temple, further paved the way to a monetarized economy. Remember all this is happening in the same century as our next great technological innovation, coinage, in Lydia at the western edge of the empire. By the arrival of the next major hegemonic state a century later, Achaemenid Persia, coinage is ubiquitous. And its way has been paved by the transformation of the Assyrian economy in the 7th century.
Where did all this money come from? Gold from Egypt and southern Arabia, and vast quantities of silver from the mines in Spain, were transported into the Assyrian system by the entrepreneurial Phoenician, Philistine, and Arab states, offered them a privileged place in the Assyrian-dominated world-system. We’ll call it a semi-periphery.

Yet the Levantine semi-periphery clearly had mechanisms of control surrounding them. They could enrich themselves to a point, but taxation and tribute at key ports created a glass ceiling above them. Methods of exchange of goods, valuation, and recording were rationalized so that these goods fit into the Assyrian-controlled economic system. Assyrians manipulated the ruling elites of the Western states to ensure friendly monarchs on the thrones and coopted unfriendly tribes by incorporating them into the bureaucracy. While the threat of Assyrian force for non-compliance was always there, most mechanisms of control were indirect, subtle, gentle.

A strange world-empire that attaches an entrepreneurial trading system to its boundary, then adopts many of its customs at the core. It breaks all our traditional images of what empires-- those boring, frightening, predictable structures-- looked like. And it raises questions about the dichotomy between a world-system and world-economy, between hegemony of the core and peripheral adaptation of core values, customs, and technologies.


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1. Even the lower echelons of the bureaucracy were likely impoverished (Jakobson 1969, p. 285).

2. The larger, regional states had more completely absorbed Mesopotamian administrative technologies and practices, making the incorporation process easier.

3. This is evident in the policies the Assyrians pursued in Samaria and Judah in the eighth century. The Israelite population is decimated and the Shephelan "breadbasket" of Judah loses 70% of its population (Finkelstein 1992). The urban centers which are preserved-- Hazor (Reich 1975), Megiddo (Lamon and Shipton, 1939), Gezer (Reich and Brandl 1985), for example-- all feature strong Assyrian fortresses with large storage capabilities.

4 Sidon, Tyre, Mt. Lebanon (Saggs 1955,127) Arvad, Gaza (Na'aman 1979, 83), Kar Essarhaddon (Tadmor 1966, 98), City on the Brook of Egypt, and the "sealed harbor of Egypt" (Elat 1978, 26).

5 In addition to Sidon, Tyre and Arvad in Phoenicia, Assyrian-style double harbors have been identified archaeologically at Atlit, Akko, Tabbat-el-Hammam, and Amathos in Cyprus (Raban 1985). The excavation of numerous dual harbors dating to Neo-Assyrian times leads to the assumption that building a competing quay was standard Assyrian practice in vassal ports.

6 My own experience echoes this. Involved in an archaeo­logi­cal project on the border between Afghanistan and Iran, we were surprised to find that the local khans were given con­tracts by the Afghan government to serve as border guards and customs agents. This greatly facili­tated illegal movement of people and goods across the border, fully controlled by these khans who ran it as a profitable business enterprise while ensuring the central government a quiet border.

7 Assyrians traditionally had difficulty incorporating pastoral peoples (Liverani 1992), who had little to gain from their contact with the Assyrians and were notably difficult to subdue on a permanent basis due to their fragmented political structure. This strategy shows that the Assyrians learned from previous mistakes.

8 Tyre’s tribute of 150 talents of gold to Tiglath-Pileser III was the largest ever recorded by the Assyrians (Elat 1991, ­24).

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