Once upon a time on the eastern shores of the sea there were many little kingdoms fighting for dominance, trying to exert control over each other. The frequent raids into the territories of neighbours made life uncertain. The enmity stifled trade. People remained poor. But then a new military power swept over these shores. It united the people. It built centres of industrial production, encouraged trade between the people and to the many parts of the empire. Prosperity came to the shores. Peace reigned.
That is the store often told about the Pax Assyriaca, the military-enforced peace by the Assyrian empire. It came to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, to the ancient areas of Israel, Judah, Phoenicia and Philistia and incorporated them into its empire. After the devastating campaign of Sennacherib in 701 BCE, the Assyrians controlled the eastern Mediterranean, ushering in 70 years of unparalleled growth and development, and an international trading network which spanned the Mediterranean (Gitin 1995:61). It stimulated the Phoenician trade and colonization in the West, brought about the industrialization of the Philistine cities, and the integration of the previously small-scale economy of Judah into the wider trade network.
I want to present a somewhat different view of the possible historical reality at that time. I have previously lectured on this topic, but on this blog my thoughts will have to be in condensed form.
The standard picture painted of the effect of Assyrian rule relies heavily, even if only implicitly, on our understanding of the Roman Empire – even the name given to this narrative echoes the Pax Romana. Behind it is an assumption that empires across the ages function similarly.
The phrase and concept was particularly pushed ahead by Sy Gitin, the excavator of Tel Miqne/Ekron. Tel Miqne has been identified with Ekron. The city grew to a size of 85 acres in the 7th century, eight times the size of the 8th century city (Gitin 1997:84). Excavations and surveys uncovered 115 olive oil processing installations, significantly more than in other city in the area. It became a huge olive oil industrial center (Gitin 1997:84). Comparing the olive oil installations in Judahite cities of the Shephelah, Gitin concludes that there is a clear shift visible from an olive oil producing cottage industry in the 8th century in Judah to the mass production of olive oil in the 7th century, which was concentrated in one city (Gitin 1995:69). He sees Ekron as “a prime example of the innovative Assyrian policy of industrial specialization and mass production which concentrated large-scale industrial activity in one center” (Gitin 1995:69). Furthermore, Gitin also sees textile production being centralized in Ekron (Gitin 1997:90). This leads him to the conclusion that “Ekron was apparently chosen as a focus of Assyrian economic activity because of its geographic and topographic advantages” (Gitin 1995:63), so that it achieved a “new status as international industrial center within the Neo-Assyrian empire” (Gitin 1997:91).
Bunimovitz and Lederman, the excavators of Beth-Shemesh, suggest that due to Assyrian policy, populations from small settlements in the Shephelah were forcibly removed to the industrial centres by the Assyrians to increase industrial production. While the pax Assyriaca brought trade and prosperity to the Philistine cities, it preserved the devastation of the Judaean Shephelah (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:23). The main Iron Age settlement at Beth-Shemesh is thought to have been destroyed by Sennacherib (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:5). An underground water reservoir was excavated from 1993 onwards. The vessels in the reservoir are typical of the 7th century BCE. The excavators therefore propose that the reservoir was re-used in the 7th century by Judahites. Judahites must have resettled here. On the basis of the relative frequencies of some pottery types, Bunimovitz and Lederman conclude that the reservoir would have been in use only early in the 7th century, a relatively short occupation (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20). The reservoir was intentionally blocked with fill from nearby structures, making it unusable. It would have been the end of the renewed settlement. Bunimovitz and Lederman attribute this action to Philistine opposition to the renewed settlement (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20–23).
The increase of settlement in the Buqe’ah (a desert area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea) and the Negev (desert area in the south) has also been linked to the Pax Assyriaca, as more land was brought into production for trade and new trade routes were opened.
The presence of several archaeological sites in Philistia that clearly show signs of Assyrian influence and may even be Assyrian administrative centres further strengthened the case for direct Assyrian control in this area. The Assyrian royal texts also tell us that Assyrian kings encouraged trade between subjects.
But a closer reading of the Assyrian texts and a reconsideration of the evidence brings me to a very different picture. The Assyrian empire grew and was maintained by armed force. Trade and the advancement of economic interests are never given as reasons for going to war by Assyrian scribes. Rather, they cite divine command as the primary reason for conquering other peoples (Oded 1992:9). That may be because the enemies are plotting against Assyria (Oded 1992:46–52), threaten an ally (Oded 1992:61–68), have usurped power (Oded 1992:69–81), sinned against the gods (Oded 1992:121–157), or have broken the peace (Oded 1992:101–120). Of course, the gravest offense against all divine principles is the violation of a loath of loyalty by an Assyrian vassal (Oded 1992:83–94). In other words, the Assyrians conquered and punished the nations to keep order and peace in the world. This was the charge of the Assyrian kings. Only later did some kings also justify bellicose action as a demonstration of force and glory and a path to world domination (Oded 1992:145–196).
Economic considerations can nevertheless be implied through the tribute lists and the overall pattern of Assyrian war and resource control. The Assyrians did not exact basic commodities from its vassals as tribute payment, but metals and war horses, as well as some luxury goods (Postgate 1992:254). Many of these resources were re-invested in the Assyrian war machine.
Postgate emphasizes the differences between Assyrian provinces and vassal states (Postgate 1992). Assyrian provinces were regarded as part of the Assyrian state. They did not pay tribute. Instead, they contributed corvée labor to the king and food offerings to the temple of Ashur (Postgate 1992:251+257). The vassal kings paid tribute and at times also provided building materials for imperial projects (Na’aman 2003:83–84). The vassal kings, at times appointed from amongst the local population by the Assyrians, governed their territory largely independently, as long as they fulfilled their obligations to the Assyrians, including aid during times of war.
These kingdoms continued to exist, because they continued to co-operate with Assyria and provided tribute. Indeed, I would argue that the incorporation of some territories into the provincial system was at times a measure of last resort, when the local population became unmanageably rebellious, or the territory had been bled so dry that vassals could raise little tribute. In the northern frontier areas, no intensification of agriculture seems to have followed Assyrian influence, though it is unclear whether these areas were vassal states or buffer zones (Parker 2001:270). Once a territory was incorporated into the provincial system, major changes took place. The local population was often replaced by exiles deported from other parts of the empire as a result of military action (Parker 2001:262–263). Indeed, Parker speaks of a rapid population influx in the case of the Cizre Plain and the Upper Tigris Valley, once they became incorporated into the Assyrian provincial system (Parker 2001:269).
Now to some of the points:
While recognizing the growth of Ekron and its significant industry in the 7th century, Na’aman criticizes the conclusions drawn by Gitin (Na’aman 2003). “We may conclude that the prosperity of certain western vassals arose from the stability produced by the pax Assyriaca and from the new economic opportunities created by the empire—rather than the result of a deliberate imperial policy of economic development of these states.” (Na’aman 2003:87).
David Schloen also considered the case of Ekron and points out that many of the oil presses appear to be in domestic buildings. Also, many seemed to have been used for a relatively short perod, while others continued in service for a longer time-span. He suggests that the social networks that enabled the sharing of agricultural installations broke down through the military activity and that many of the inhabitants were indeed refugees from elsewhere in the area. Over time these relationships became established again, so that the use of installations was shared. Ekron was not so much an industrialised city as a very inefficient city.
The main Iron Age settlement at Beth-Shemesh is thought to have been destroyed by Sennacherib (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:5). An underground water reservoir was excavated from 1993 onwards. The vessels in the reservoir are typical of the 7th century BCE. The excavators therefore propose that the reservoir was re-used in the 7th century by Judahites. Judahites must have resettled here. On the basis of the relative frequencies of some pottery types, Bunimovitz and Lederman conclude that the reservoir would have been in use only early in the 7th century (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20). The reservoir was intentionally blocked with fill from nearby structures, making it unusable. It would have been the end of the renewed settlement. Bunimovitz and Lederman attribute this action to Philistine opposition to the renewed settlement (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20–23).
Fantalkin has re-analyzed the pottery assemblage and concluded that the frequencies of pottery types are mainly related to the function of the reservoir (Fantalkin 2004:250). Mainly vessels to draw water would be expected in a reservoir. And this is indeed so. Fantalkin also shows that some of cooking pots found in the reservoir are similar to pots found in destruction layers associated with the Babylonian conquest ( Fantalkin 2004:249). He attributes the blocking of the water reservoir to the Babylonian campaigns to Judah (Fantalkin 2004:253).
A closer examination of the sites in the Buqe’ah and northern Negev indicates that the settlers there probably mainly were involved in agriculture for subsistence purposes. They very likely also were involved in trade, with the remains of a caravanserai excavated at Tel `Aroer. These trading posts mainly served the trade in luxury items, not a commodities trade. And they were in marginal areas, where the authority of the Assyrians was not strong. Such trade in luxury items was required, for the cities of the Levant had little access to the sort of resources that Assyria exacted as tribute. It is therefore puzzling that many archaeologists link the establishment of these remote trading posts with the Pax Assyriaca.
The sites with the clearest remains of Assyrian provenance in the Levant were all located in the very south of Philistia. Namely they area Tell Jemmeh, Tel Sera’ and Tel Haror. All these sites are on a line along Nahal Besor and Nahal Gerar. I would suggest that this is the Brook of Egypt, the border to Egypt. These forts therefore safeguarded more the border to another empire and were staging points in the various invasions of Egypt, rather than a direct administration of vassals.
It is also clear that even after Sennacherib’s campaign peace did not reign in the area. The Assyrians campaigned repeatedly to punish rebellion, especially in Ashkelon.
Trade did continue under Assyrian dominance, but there was probably little “economic development” in the area by the Assyrians to encourage trade within the empire. Assyria exacted tribute, assistance in war and in other projects.
I’ll discuss more evidence in subsequent posts and will also come to the more recent articles debating the different views.