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Mechanisms of Communication in an Ancient Empire: The Correspondence between the King of Assyria and his Magnates in the 8th Century BC


AHRC funded four-year research project, October 2008 to September 2012.

Dr Karen Radner (PI), Dr Mikko Luukko and Silvie Zamazalová.

Project partners: Professor Simo Parpola (University of Helsinki), Professor Steve Tinney (University of Pennsylvania)

Research questions

How did ancient empires cohere? What roles did long-distance communication play in that coherence? How did long-distance communication work, structurally and socially? The aim of the project is to address these questions for the Assyrian Empire in the period between 721 and 705 BC, the reign of Sargon II, when Assyria became the first large empire to exercise hegemony over the Old World core system. In the royal archives of Nineveh and Nimrud, now in northern Iraq, primary documentation has survived to an unparalleled extent, allowing us to tackle these questions for this particular period.

Assyria’s success and stability owed much to innovations in administrative technology which afforded the control of a vast geographical horizon: Yet the mechanics of organization of the Assyrian Empire have found little attention beyond the study of the king’s role. A shift of focus away from the monarch onto the second level of imperial control, i.e. the provincial governors to whom the king delegated governing power on a local level, will allow a new understanding of the set-up of the Assyrian empire to be constructed, and allow us to query views currently held about the characteristics of Assyrian imperial administration and control.

Research context

Empire studies are a thriving field, and it is our project’s goal to expand this field of study to fully incorporate the information surviving from the Assyrian Empire. It was the first of a series of Near Eastern states that united the lands from the Mediterranean coast and Inner Anatolia to Western Iran and deep into the Arabian Desert. While the role of the king has always – and deservedly – raised much interest in modern research, the second level of imperial control has been largely neglected, and a comprehensive study is hitherto lacking; a systematic study of the interaction between one king and his immediate subordinates, as documented in their letters, will enhance our understanding of the Assyrian state and provide a context for the king that is independent from and less biased than his highly subjective memorial inscriptions, the source most commonly utilised to discuss Assyrian kingship.

The focus on the second level of imperial control is in part inspired by current research in other fields within Ancient History, especially in the study of the Achaemenid and Roman Empires which overlapped the geographical regions forming the Assyrian Empire, and the project’s results will be relevant to all those with an interest in the administrative and practical setup of ancient empires. The size of Sargon’s letter archive is matched only by the 1544 surviving letters of Libanius, a celebrated rhetorician from Antioch who communicated with many notables, including the Roman emperor, in the 4th century AD. The Libanius corpus, although a key source for the study of ancient government and administration, constitutes nevertheless a private correspondence while the Sargon corpus is directly addressed to the king himself. Nor was it transmitted by manuscript tradition, as are Libanius’ letters, but retrieved in the shape of the original clay tablets during excavations in the royal cities of Nimrud and Nineveh. This largest corpus of letters between a king and his high officials known from antiquity gives first-hand insight into the mechanisms of communication between the top levels of authority in an ancient empire. Since, through technological stasis, the modes of long-distance transmission of information changed little in subsequent centuries, the analysis of Sargon’s correspondence should prove useful for studies of the Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Roman and later empires, for which comparable corpora have not survived.

Research program

We will use the letters to explore the administrative superstructure, and specifically the role of the king’s representatives in the provinces, during the reign of Sargon II of Assyria. Our research will be based on a thorough analysis of c. 1200 surviving letters and letter fragments of the correspondence of the king with his governors and magnates in order to establish the governing mechanisms of communication. These texts will be utilised to illuminate structures rather than as a mine for anecdotes, and instead of attempting a generalised diachronic survey we will deliberately focus on Sargon’s reign and concentrate on enhancing our understanding of fifteen years of Near Eastern history, allowing for the fact that the set-up of Assyrian government and administration was not a system set in stone but was adapted to changing circumstances and needs. We will combine the discipline’s standard practise of working closely with the primary sources – vastly facilitated by the fact that the original letters are housed in the nearby British Museum – with two distinct and complementary methodologies applied from empire studies and linguistic pragmatics (the study of language-use and communication).

On the one hand, the different forms of the Assyrian and Babylonian language employed in the letters will be compared by using methods developed in the field of linguistic pragmatics: the king’s style of communication can be juxtaposed with that of his subordinates in order to highlight the interplay of discourse and pragmatic constraints on grammatical choices; Mikko Luukko’s research will explore the etiquette of exchanging letters and reconstruct the notions of politeness and appropriateness.

On the other hand, Karen Radner will apply a structural approach. Studies of the Assyrian empire, when not concerned with the history of events, often have an ahistorical tendency as 9th, 8th and 7th century sources are used indiscriminately, suggesting that the empire’s organisation was unchangeable. Yet it was an extremely flexible system which needs to be analysed for specific moments in time. Sargon’s reign is particularily interesting as we see the mechanisms of control failing for the first term since the beginning of Assyria’s expansion in the 9th century: recently incorporated provinces tried to regain independence and, in one, successfully so. Our analysis of the second level of control will aim to establish its level and nature in different parts of the empire, differentiating between the provinces inside Assyria’s natural boundaries, the new provinces established by Sargon’s immediate predescessors and his own additions; the case of Babylonia, where a completely new administrative system was introduced in 710, will deserve special attention, as will the breakup of certain “super-provinces” and the creation of a new “disembedded” centre for the empire. We will also investigate the practical aspects of long-distance communication, by placing the correspondents geographically – with special attention to the traffic routes linking them, sometimes over great distances – and by scrutinising and contextualising their motives for exchanging letters, with an awareness of time and timing.

Moreover, by adapting an existing unpublished database of transliterations and translations created by Professor Simo Parpola of the University of Helsinki and merging it with commentaries and introductory materials and in co-operation with our project partner Professor Steve Tinney of the University of Pennsylvania, we are creating an open-access web resource that will make the Sargon letters more widely accessible: the site is called "Assyrian empire builders: Governors, diplomats and soldiers in the service of Sargon II, king of Assyria" . A similarly conceived resource  featuring the 7th century Assyrian kings’ correspondence with their scholarly advisors is the model for this.

Page last modified on 22 jun 10 10:21 by Donna Velasco