The Assyrian century: interpretations of texts and ruins

The debate about the economic impacts of the Assyrian rule of the Levant is continuing. As discussed in previous posts about the Pax Assyriaca and the trade through Mediterranean ports, there are diverging views on the extent to which the Assyrians were involved and directed the local economy and the effect this had on the local population. I want to discuss two recent articles in this debate, which also give a clue about the interpretive framework of their authors.

The Assyrian Economic Impact on the Southern Levant in the Light of Recent Study was written by K. Lawson Younger, Jr. and published in The Israel Exploration Journal volume 65:2 (2015). It asserts that the Assyrians were involved and facilitated trade to a greater extent than scholars such as Avi Faust and J. David Schloen, but in particular A.K. Grayson (who I haven’t discussed), gave credit for. He suggests that the Assyrians were encouraging trade in the conquered territories. His argument proceeds on the basis of several Assyrian documents.
At the very outset he suggests that other scholars have been excessively influenced by Assyrian royal inscriptions and palace reliefs. He suggests that they have fallen victim to Assyrian propaganda. The Assyrians gloried in war, but there were also other, more pragmatic considerations in the administration of the empire, which are expressed in less glamorous texts.

K. Lawson Younger then goes on to consider several texts, both Assyrian documents, and inscriptions from subject people, to make his case that Assyrians were involved in trade. The documents make a good case that the Assyrians had an eye on trade, that trade happened within the Assyrian Empire, that there were officials at the courts of client kings, who were also responsible for collecting taxes on trade, but I do not think that the documents support the full argument of the author. They do not show that the trade in the southern Levant was mainly conducted within the Assyrian Empire, rather that taxes were levied on the trade of the Phoenicians, which continued to be with the people beyond the Empire. They do not show much concern for the local economy beyond a concern for sufficient food for troops to pass through.
K. Lawson Younger also draws conclusions from some documents that seem to show an ignorance of ancient realities. He lists several documents in which vassal kings refer to the Assyrian kings as father (in one case even “father and mother”). He concludes that

[the] metaphors of ‘father and mother’ that are used to describe the Assyrian ‘king’ and ‘the house of Assyria’ paint a rich image, quite the opposite of brutal, oppressive overlords.

A quick look at the wider literature of the Ancient Near East and a considered reading of J. David Schloen’s book would make it clear that these references do not necessarily mean that the Assyrian kings cared for these vassal kings and had the best interest of these vassals or their kingdoms at heart. Rather, it is the usual terminology (and ideology) in which those vassal relationships were expressed. It does not mean that those kings decided to join or continue in a benevolent kingdom because they desired to be in such pleasant company or because trade would blossom. The greatest motivation to enter and continue in such a father-son relationship was still the threat of violence by the Assyrians. And some of the documents used by K. Lawson Younger clearly show this, as do the actions of smaller kingdoms throughout the Assyrian centuries.

What I did notice in this discussion was that the authors who interpreted the documents and archaeology to paint a picture of Assyrian oppression and little Assyrian involvement in the economy of vassal states in the Southern Levant beyond tribute, taxes and some oversight of trade, these authors also tended to see the history of Israel more along the story-line as told by the Bible. Others tended to project a picture of the world that is quite different from a first impression of the ancient literature, instead taking hints and particular textual expressions, along with emphasis on some very particular archaeological finds, to come up with models that are often based in modern structuralist thought or anthropological theories. The split, therefore, seems to be not so much whether we use the Bible in our historical interpretation, but whether we give credence to ancient texts in general or rather see them as propaganda and posit our own particular models as a basis for historical reality. Maybe we can even go so far as to distinguish two major opposing approaches to history, one based on narrative, the other on theory. Of course, readers of this blog will know that I do favour giving ancient texts their weight, that I prefer narrative approaches to history and that I think that truth is often distorted through approaches based on modern models and particular theories.

I should mention another recent article on the issue of Assyrian rule in the Southern Levant. Avi Faust published the article Settlement, Economy, and Demography under Assyrian Rule in the West: The Territories of the Former Kingdom of Israel as a Test Case in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, volume 135 (2015). In it he examines many sites in the territory of the former Israel and particularly their extent during the 7th century. His conclusion is that

[all] in all, and before going into a regional analysis, we may observe that the territories of the former kingdom of Israel experienced a drastic decline following the Assyrian conquest. Almost all sites show signs of destruction, damage, and decline, and most did not recover at all.

While the overall population was clearly decimated, there were some pockets, where the population recovered during Assyrian administration. Around Megiddo and Gezer, the population during the 7th century was not as small as in other areas. Particularly around Gezer it seems that exiles from other parts of the Assyrian Empire were settled.
Faust’s overall assessment of Assyrian policy in Israel is:

The data presented here shows that the Assyrians did not really care about the fate of the areas they conquered. They carried off whatever they could and their investment was minimal. The remaining population, including the newly settled exiles, produced some surplus
for limited taxation. The local administration was interested solely in immediate extraction
of wealth and not in encouraging long-term benefits.

Overall, his argument proceeds on a close examination of the archaeological evidence. In contrast to some of his other work, he hardly draws on texts. But he does discuss the evidence within a narrative approach and does not rely on modern models for interpretation.

In the kingdoms of the Ancient Near East there was a debate on how to respond to the Assyrians. It seems that we still debate on how we should deal with them, but now it is not a matter of life and death, just a matter of interpreting history.

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