Assyrian History: Assyrian Government Pioneer of Mesopotamia

While the Assyrian Empire expanded largely as a result of military conquest, for it to actually be considered an empire it had to exert some degree of political control over the territories and peoples over which it claimed dominion. The structure of power and government in Assyria changed dramatically as the empire moved from the Middle Assyrian Empire towards its pinnacle during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, mainly through the addition of diplomatic treaties that helped give Assyrian kings control over certain territories, or that at least gave them considerable influence.

In general, though, it’s useful to understand the government in the Assyrian kingdom as being divided into two parts: Assyria proper and Greater Assyria. Neither of these names were used in ancient times, although the territories far away from the imperial center were often referred to as “The Land.” For the purposes of historical study, though, Assyria proper can be considered to be the core of the empire, and it consisted of the lands surrounding the great metropolises of Assur, Nineveh, and Calah, as well as the territories in parts of middle Mesopotamia and eastern Syria.

These lands were governed through a system of regional administrators who were all directly subservient to the king. It’s helpful to think of the Assyrian bureaucratic system as a pyramid, with the king at the top, his chief advisers directly below him, and then a wide range of other regional governors below them. However, this pyramid structure should not be taken rigidly, as it did not often work in exactly this manner.

The king would often give orders to governors who were several levels removed from the top, and positions were granted more out of need than in accordance with any sort of state planning strategy, i.e., as territories came into the control of the Assyrian king, he would grant authority to a regional ruler as he saw fit. One thing to note is that few, if any, Assyrian officials were literate.

The state apparatus was maintained largely through an army of scribes who would write out orders from the king and then send them to all reaches of the empire. It’s safe to say that without this network of scribes it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the king to maintain any degree of control over his empire, which helps to explain why scribes were given such high status throughout Assyrian society.

Overall, control of the bureaucracy in Assyria proper was tighter than it was in Greater Assyria, but this did not mean that governors and administrators always obeyed orders. Heavily influenced by the people they were governing, they were frequently the source of rebellions or other insurrections, which Assyrian kings spent much time dealing with, usually by sending armies or bringing their own army, to forcefully restore order and Assyrian rule.

Since Assyrian kings were also military leaders, they would lead their own army which was usually considered to be the most powerful of all the Assyrian armies. In fact, as seen in the story of Assyrian imperial expansion, the king and his army were largely responsible for the military successes of the empire. Other leaders were either less apt, or they were given smaller forces to command, making them less effective.

As such, being a member of the king’s army was considered to be a great honor for Assyrian soldiers. The law in Assyria was entirely dependent on the king. Matters such as contract disputes or decisions about crimes were left up to local administrators who would act in the name of the king. In instances where a settlement could not be reached, those involved in the dispute might have had to travel to a nearby provincial capital to seek the judgment of a more highlyranking official.

Most of the conflicts that arose would deal with debts that were left unpaid, which were often settled by the debtor being sold into slavery at the service of the one who had granted the debt. This individual would be expected to serve for a time determined by the court to be sufficient for paying off the debt. However, as can be discerned from the imperial history of the Assyrian Empire, the main source of governance was force and terror.

Governors left in control of a city or region were expected to remain loyal to the king, and the punishment for disloyalty was death. Those who supported a rebellious official would either be deported, executed, or sold into slavery. Treatment of disloyal governors was also rather harsh. These people would often be skinned and flayed, or decapitated, and put on display for all those in the area to see to discourage further rebellion.

The logic behind this kind of behavior was of course to say, “remain loyal to the king and everything will be okay.” And given that most people were illiterate and completely dependent on kings and other nobility for the right to work land and earn a living, this was not an overwhelmingly difficult statute to impose on people. Further afield, in the territories known as Greater Assyria, the Assyrian kings relied on treaties to enforce their rule, making use of the local and regional powers to help them exert their influence.

In general, there were two different types of treaties: treaties of cooperation and treaties of vassalage. Treaties of cooperation were usually formed with kingdoms too powerful to be conquered. These might include the installation of an Assyrian king in exchange for Assyrian military support, or it might leave the local king in power and instead establish a peaceful trade agreement.

Oftentimes the arrangement would involve the formation of an alliance against another nearby power. For example, towards the end of the Assyrian Empire, around 650 BCE, Assyrians were able to recruit support from the Arabs and Palestinians to launch an invasion of Egypt. But these alliances would soon crumble, with the Egyptians recruiting the same cities to join them and Babylon in overrunning the Assyrians for good.

These kingdoms wedged between these two great powers were easily swayed to support the one which was more powerful, as this presented them with a good opportunity to regain their own independence.

Other good examples of these types of agreements were the ones made with the kings of Babylon, who were traditionally granted significant liberties to govern as they pleased, partially because the Assyrian kings knew they would never be able to fully overpower the Babylonian kings.

This was an assumption that turned out to be true, as the breaking of these treaties and the attempted conquest of Babylon was one of the main reasons why the Assyrian Empire fell. The other treaties used to control Greater Assyria were treaties of vassalage. These were usually used with kingdoms Assyria could easily intimidate, and they usually revolved around the payment of tribute.

These treaties were often pursued with the weaker kingdoms of Phoenicia, Anatolia, and the territories north of Assur, and they proved to be rather effective in enriching the empire and expanding its influence. Overall, the Assyrian system of government was as effective as one would expect an imperial government in the ancient times to be.

A loose yet effective network of regional administrators helped govern the territories closest to the center of the empire while treaties of cooperation and vassalage helped to subdue the territories further afield. Yet underlying both systems was the threat of constant war and the terror that made the Assyrian armies and kings famous both in antiquity and modern times.

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