While Assyrian history is largely understood through the military and imperial conquests of its many kings, not everyone who lived under the Assyrians was concerned with imperial conquest. In fact, it’s likely that only a small percentage of the people who would be considered Assyrians were in fact soldiers of what would become some of the greatest armies in the history of the ancient world.
The Assyrian Lower Classes
Unsurprisingly, in the part of the world known as the “cradle of civilization,” a location credited as one of the first places where people practiced sedentary lifestyles based on agriculture, the vast majority of Assyrians, and those who would fall under Assyrian rule, were farmers.
Generally speaking, as was the case throughout most of the ancient world, the people of Mesopotamia and beyond practiced a form of feudalism. Landlords would grant people the opportunity to work their land, which they could use for their own sustenance, and in exchange, the tenants were required to produce a certain bounty for the landlord. In some cases, there is evidence of land being split between landlords and tenants, with each party receiving half of whatever production came from the land.
Part of the reason war and conquest was so important in these times was to help people maintain control of their land. Taxes were paid to local governors, and in exchange, these governors, who were under varying degrees of control to other lords, would offer protection to the farmers. If raiding tribes made their way onto a farmer’s land, the farmer would then turn to his lord to help him. The many insurrections that occurred during this period were usually in response to leaders’ inability to defend people from the constant threats posed by people migrating throughout the land.
As discussed earlier, one of the downfalls of the Assyrian Empire was its inability to properly secure conquered territories. Consider the situation of an ancient Mesopotamian farmer: an Assyrian king marches through your territory demanding you declare fealty to him in the form of taxes and tribute or suffer the consequences. You, as a helpless farmer, have no choice but to submit. However, within a year, the Assyrian army has gone, and there are people making their way onto your territory. You appeal to your Assyrian vassals, but they are far away engaging in wars of conquests in territories of which you know nothing.
If another powerful king were to come and offer you protection in exchange for loyalty, what would you do? Most likely you would abandon the Assyrians in favor of this new king—that is until he left, and you were once again faced with the danger of invading tribes. One can imagine that the life of a typical citizen in the Assyrian Empire was relatively unaffected by which individual was ruling.
Their only real concern was protection, meaning that they could easily be swayed to give their support to any king that was willing and able to offer this security. However, this would change as one kingdom grew more powerful. For example, by the end of the Bronze Age Collapse (c.1000 BCE), the Assyrians were the most powerful kingdom in the region, and as their army grew in size and strength, the risks of joining a rebellion in favor of another power grew, for the Assyrians did not take insurrections lightly.
There was always the possibility that the army would return to reclaim its lost territory, punishing anyone who had dared defy their rule by offering support to another king. This retaliation would likely not be immediate, as the Assyrian army rarely left large forces behind to defend conquered territory, choosing instead to take the bulk of their force onward in pursuit of further conquest.
But nearly all Assyrian kings would begin their rule by working to reconquer lost territory and consolidate it into the empire, meaning a day of reckoning would nearly always come. But in the face of growing threats from nearby nomadic tribes, or other instabilities, loyalty to far off kings, whether Assyrian or someone else, was not entirely justified. In this sense, we can understand the lives of everyday Assyrian citizens to be ones of tremendous instability defined by fear and service. Nevertheless, life went on.
The main occupations besides farmers were what one might expect from ancient civilization. Most people were either animal herders, bakers, brewers, butchers, fishermen, brick makers, construction workers, potters, jewelers, prostitutes, etc. There was no system of money in ancient Assyria, so business was conducted largely through a barter system, with anything from flour to gold serving as currency. These lower-class people would have been relegated to a mostly subsistence lifestyle.
However, there was opportunity for people to climb the social ladder, mostly by conducting a savvy business. One famous example comes from the city of Kish, which came to be ruled by a queen named Ku-Baba, who was at one time a tavern keeper. Stories like these, though, are rare, and while possible, social mobility was not really the norm. Generally speaking, women were allowed and expected to perform similar duties as men, but they were most certainly considered secondary citizens.
Women could not conduct business without the consent of their husbands, and they were expected to submit to their husband’s will. For example, women were the first to assume occupations such as brewers, tavern keepers, doctors, and dentists, but once these positions became lucrative, they were taken over by men.
One interesting thing to note as it relates to women in society is the way marriage was organized. Polygamy was generally speaking not practiced by commoners. In fact, some of the most significant sources about the life of a commoner in the Assyrian Empire are marriage contracts.
A woman’s family would be expected to pay a dowry upon getting married, but if the man was found guilty of adultery, this dowry would be returned to her in full. This is a rule that dates back to the code of Hammurabi and seems to have been widely practiced throughout much of the Assyrian Empire. However, one should be a bit wary about extrapolating cultural norms such as these across the entirety of the empire. Power shifted hands frequently, and it’s difficult to know exactly which customs were truly practiced by large portions of the population.
As we could expect, the primary concern of the average Assyrian citizen was food. Luckily for them, they lived in the Fertile Crescent, a part of the world known for its rich soil and favorable climate. It was not without its challenges, and still susceptible to shocks, as seen from the Bronze Age Collapse, but generally speaking the citizens of ancient Mesopotamia were able to enjoy a healthy and varied diet even by modern standards.
The staple of the Mesopotamian diet was barley, the most widely-available grain in the region. The primary product people made was bread, but they put their barley to work in other ways. For example, because of this abundance of barley, it’s believed that beer was invented in Mesopotamia, and taverns were regular institutions in most cities and villages. In addition to barley, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables were readily available, such as apples, figs, cherries, apricots, pears, carrots, cucumbers, beans, peas, and turnips.
Meat was also a regular part of the Mesopotamian diet; however, most people only ate the fish they could catch from the rivers or the small livestock they could keep in their pens, such as pigs, goats, and sheep. Beef would not have been consumed regularly if at all, largely because cows would have been too costly to raise and maintain and also because some cultural norms held cows in high esteem and prohibited their slaughter.
In general, the lives of commoners in ancient Assyria were hard and fraught with instability. The members of the lower class would be able to afford few luxuries, and it was usually a significant challenge to meet the production demands and taxes imposed by landowners and monarchs. Most people were illiterate, with writing a skill reserved for scribes and other members of the upper classes.
However, the common folk were not the lowest members of the social order. Slavery was prominent in ancient Mesopotamia as has been the case in civilizations around the world since earliest times. One could become a slave in a variety of different ways. The most common reason someone became a slave is they had been captured during war. As mentioned earlier, part of the power of the Assyrian kings came from their deportation policies, and a big component of these mass expulsions of people were to provide cities with the slave labor needed for the massive construction projects usually being conducted in the large metropolises of Assur, Nineveh, or Calah.
One could also choose to enter slavery as a means of repaying a debt, or one’s family could sell you as a way of paying off their debt. When this happened, it usually resulted in the person having to move far away from their home. Furthermore, one could be sold into slavery as punishment for a crime. One of the consequences of slavery in ancient Mesopotamia, and in nearly all other parts of the world where its practice was widespread, was that it kept wages low for free laborers. Because war and deportation were near constants, there was a near unlimited supply of slave labor, meaning there was little to no incentive for people to offer higher wages to their laborers.
In general, slavery was not as harsh or brutal as later versions of it would be, such as the slavery imposed by the Spanish on the indigenous populations of Central and South America or the slavery of the British Empire and American South, but a slave was still considered to be the lowest member of society.
However, over time, through diligent work, a slave could earn his or her way to freedom, something that was especially common for those who agreed to enter slavery as a means of paying a debt; when the debt was paid, the slave was set free. Both slaves and commoners lived difficult lives that were at the whims of those who yielded more power and influence in society, and they were deprived of nearly all the luxuries that were commonly enjoyed by people in the upper echelons of Mesopotamian society.
The Upper Classes of Ancient Assyria
The highest member of Assyrian society was obviously the king. One must always remember that what is now thought of as the Assyrian Empire was much different than the types of states we have today. While the kings that ruled from Assur, Nineveh, and Calah controlled large swaths of territory, and they attempted to maintain control by establishing governors or signing treaties, their grip on power was always loose.
For evidence of this, one need only look at the drama of Assyrian imperial expansion, which was defined by repeated military conquests designed to reconquer rebellious territories and potentially expand Assyrian influence into new lands.
As such, what we consider to be an empire, although powerful for its time, was really more a combination of conquered cities and city-states that were brought together under a common tribute system. This tribute system was large, complex, and imperfect. Nearly every city had its own king, and this king would give his loyalty to another king, who would do the same in return. In this way, some kings, by using their military and terror, were able to amass large spheres of influence that would ebb and flow depending on their effectiveness as a leader. The Assyrian kings became masters of this, putting themselves essentially at the top of the monarchical food chain in the region.
They reported only to the gods, whereas all the other kings in the region reported to the Assyrians, at least when the Assyrian army was able to force them to do so. So, while the privileges afforded to a king would vary differently based on his position within this tribute system, there were similarities in how kings lived. The first characteristic of a king is that he was considered to have a close relationship with the gods. In fact, the more powerful the king, the godlier he was considered to be.
Enlarging his kingdom and providing for his people was proof that the gods favored him and the people he ruled. Success in the battlefield was attributed to a king’s relationship with the gods, meaning the legitimacy of a king’s rule depended heavily on the amount of territory he was able to secure. As one would imagine, this gave heavy incentive to each king to wage war on the territories surrounding his kingdom, which is why the vast majority of ancient Assyrian history, and of all the Mesopotamian kingdoms for that matter, is defined largely by war.
One of the principle duties of a king, beyond providing protection for his subjects, was to build temples and other city improvements that would bring pride and glory to the people. Again, a common theme for nearly all Mesopotamian rulers, not just the Assyrians, was building. Because there was no money, the wealth needed to build these projects was acquired by conquering lands and acquiring the resources that existed on it. So, to further prove the depth of the relationship between a king and a god, it was important for them to embark on great building projects alongside their nearly endless military campaigns. It is for this reason that some of the world’s most magnificent archaeological sites can be found throughout the Middle East.
Archaeological discoveries in the 19 th and 20 th centuries uncovered these ancient treasures, but many have been lost due to the near constant conflict in the region today. . The most common construction project undertaken by a king would, naturally, be a palace. The goal was always to build the largest and most luxurious palace possible, using as much as possible from their time spent conquering to showcase their wealth. Gold, silver, and other precious metals were obviously highly sought.
However, perhaps somewhat ironically, most Assyrian kings would not be around to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Leaders of the Assyrian throne were expected to accompany their armies on military campaigns. They would infrequently return to their capital, which alternated between Assur, Nineveh, and Calah depending on the king, usually leaving the crown prince to oversee construction projects and the management of domestic affairs. Other less important kings would likely spend more time at home, but this would have been a sign of their weakness, giving the kings above them more power and prestige. The pyramid of Assyrian society can be described in the following manner.
The kings of Assur (or Nineveh or Calah, depending on which city the king chose to use as his stronghold) stood at the top. Just below them would have been kings of other cities who had been conquered and brought under the control of the Assyrian kings. Locally, they were still considered supremely important, but since they were vassals to the Assyrian kings, there were limits to their power. We can think of these individuals as similar to the nobility in feudal Europe.
They possessed significant power, but they were not at the top of the pecking order. Under the many different levels of kings came the priests, which is understandable considering the importance of the gods to the Assyrian people. The main job of the clergy class was interpreting signs and omens. Before kings headed off to war, they were expected to first ask the priests if it was a good time to go to war. The priests would then analyze the different omens, ranging from the weather to the stars in the sky, and decide whether or not to give their blessing.
Obviously, there was some bias, as the kings who were most successful were considered to be in good favor with the gods, and this meant they were more likely to receive a blessing for war. Outside of this, the main tasks of priests included taking care of the temple and its business. They would also officiate ceremonies, including sacrificial rites.
Furthermore, the priests of ancient Mesopotamia were the region’s first healers, serving as doctors and dentists before these became professions on their own. Below the priest class were the merchants and businessmen. Trade was an integral part of nearly all the ancient civilizations of the Near East. Their close proximity to one another made it easy for different cultures to engage in economic arrangements beneficial to both sides. One of the original sources of Assyrian power were the trade routes they established with cities in Anatolia (modern-day Eastern Turkey), and one of the main reasons why Assyria began to assert itself in this region was to protect these very same trade routes that were so important to their well-being and success.
Within the merchant class there were usually two groups: those who owned their own business and those who did not. For those who did not own their own business, life was relatively difficult. Most of their time was spent traveling from one city to the next exchanging goods. Trips home would be brief and would not result in much leisure. However, merchants who were successful enough to start their own business lived lives of leisure and luxury. They were able to send their employees out to do the hard work of traveling and trade, meaning they could stay and tend to their homes or attempt to get involved in local politics.
Merchants who gained considerable wealth and influence in a region would sometimes make a play at rebellion, although this did not always work out, since naming oneself king came after having established a close relationship to the gods, meaning other kings. Other members of the upper class included the scribes and private tutors. Literacy was considered a privilege that was only extended to the wealthiest, most influential members of society. Women were typically not allowed to learn to read or write. And because there were no public schools, acquiring an education was reserved for only the most privileged individuals. Most educated people would become teachers, and their services were typically in high demand.
For families with considerable wealth, it was common to hire a private tutor who would teach the children about math, science, and writing. Private tutors might have many different students, and some of them would become full-time employees for one family, which usually resulted in them living lives almost as luxurious as the families they worked for.
Because writing was not widespread, the daily lives of ancient Assyrians can only be pieced together through the various artifacts found at archaeological sites and some remaining contracts that were written on stones. However, this is still enough to gain a solid understanding of what life may have been like during the time of the Assyrians, and it’s not overwhelmingly different from what one might expect.
Distinct social classes meant the Assyrian society was sharply divided. Most of the power and luxury went to those in the upper classes, such as kings, priests, and entrepreneurial merchants, while the lower classes were left to do the bidding of their landlords and the kings who ruled them. However, it’s worth mentioning that “Assyrian society” was far from static. Assyrians first came onto the scene in Mesopotamia in the 2 nd millennium BCE, and they existed to about the 7 th century BCE until their imperial structure toppled and they were assimilated into other cultures of the time.
During this span, the Assyrians made a number of advancements in key areas such as the arts, mathematics, science, and literature, and these are achievements that cannot be overlooked. While most will remember Assyria for their great armies and tremendous military expansion, their contributions to human civilization extend far beyond war and conquest.