Representing Assyrian interests in the vassal states

By the second half of the 8th century BC, the Assyrian Empire controlled vast regions in the Middle East directly: these were the provinces that constituted the Assyrian state, administered by Assyrian governors whose position was not heritable but was awarded at the king's discretion. Other regions were under the control of local governments, although Assyria made sure that its interests were also represented appropriately in these seemingly independent states.

The vassals of Assyria: a cordon of buffer states

Hereditary rulers (such as kings, city lords or sheikhs) led the local governments of most contemporary states, although other models of rule are attested as well, most prominently in the Babylonian cities which were controlled by various civic bodies representing the city's notables. While these states were nominally independent, they were often obliged to accept and follow whatever course of action was stipulated by Assyria, both in regard to internal affairs and foreign policy. Bound to the Assyrian king by means of treaties and oaths, we call them Assyrian vassal states.

Until the mid-8th century BC, Assyria's preferred relationship with the regions outside of the territory traditionally claimed by the Assyrian crown (i.e. the land between the Euphrates and the western flanks of the Zagros Mountains) was that of overlord and vassal. When Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) began to annex the cordon of former vassal states and initiated their transformation into Assyrian provinces, it was as a reaction to the emergence of Urartu as a rival power which threatened the vassals' loyalty to Assyria and indeed led to the defection of many allies.

Yet despite the ongoing expansion and integration of territories into the Assyrian administrative system, the dichotomy between provinces and vassal states continued to exist until the end of the Assyrian Empire: the latter were allowed their nominal independence, especially when situated in a location that impeded effecting and maintaining direct Assyrian control, such as in mountain regions or on islands (e.g. Tyre, Arwad and Cyprus), or when located in the buffer zone between Assyria and a rival power, such as Urartu.

An island such as the one shown on this relief from Sargon II's palace at Dur-Šarruken (modern Khorsabad), with the strongly fortified settlement that could only be reached by sea, offered good protection from Assyrian expansionism, especially as Assyria did not maintain a regular fleet. Detail from a scene showing the transport of building timber by boat decorating the northwest façade of court VIII at the royal palace of Dur-Šarruken. Louvre, AO 19889; photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

Kumme, a buffer state between Assyria and Urartu

One such vassal state was Kumme. It was a small mountain realm located in the upper reaches of the Lesser Khabur, to the north of what is today the Turkish-Iraqi border in the region of the modern town of Beytüşşebap. From the early second millennium BC, Kumme was famous throughout the Near East for its temple of the storm god which, over time, attracted royal patronage from the likes of the kings of Mari, the Hittite Kingdom and Assyria. The impressive mountain landscape provided the setting for the storm god's epic battles against such worthy foes as the rock monster Ullikummi: there can be little doubt that the ancient inhabitants saw the avalanches and landslides that occur frequently in the region as a manifestation of the storm god's power.

Since 739 BC, Kumme's territory bordered directly onto the Assyrian province of Birtu PGP  (formerly the kingdom of Ullubu) but its powerful new neighbour made no attempt to incorporate the tiny mountain state. The correspondence of Sargon II (721-705 BC) provides us with much information on the relationship between Assyria and its vassal, which remained under the control of its traditional ruler, the "city lord" of Kumme.

At the time of Sargon, Kumme was ruled by the city lord Ariye. As part of his obligations to the Assyrian king, guaranteed by a treaty, Ariye had to supply manpower, horses and timber to his overlord and also provide intelligence reports on the other states of the region. For this, Kumme was in a strategically excellent position, as it was located on the direct, if difficult, mountain route leading from Assyria's heartland to the centre of Urartu. Despite its links to Assyria, Kumme entertained close relations with Urartu and even provided this state with men and information (SAA 5 95, SAA 5 105). This did not happen behind Assyria's back but with its encouragement and support: it was seen as a good way of gaining access to Urartu and gathering intelligence about the archenemy.

A view of the mountainous landscape around Beytüşşebap.
A view of the mountainous landscape around Beytüşşebap. Photo by Hizli Erisim [].

The Assyrian ambassador at Kumme

Kumme's loyalty to Assyria was assured by the permanent presence of an Assyrian ambassador at Ariye's court. This position (called qēpu, "trusted one", in Assyrian) was held by Aššur-reṣuwa, whose letters to Sargon II constitute the most extensive dossier of any Assyrian ambassador currently known (SAA 5 84-100). Aššur-reṣuwa's messages describe mundane routine affairs, such as the organisation of timber transports to Assyria, but also provide information on Assyrian-Urartian espionage and counter-espionage, which remains thrilling even more than two and a half millennia after the event: most spectacular, perhaps, is the unveiling of an Urartian plan to kidnap several Assyrian governors while they were staying in Kumme's territory (SAA 1 29).

But Kumme's collaboration with Assyria and its ambassador was not always easy. One constant source of problems was the fact that Kumme's inhabitants continued to trade with Urartu (SAA 1 46, SAA 5 100, SAA 5 103), which was illegal in the Assyrian view and caused ongoing friction, primarily because it posed a significant security risk for Assyrian espionage. Aššur-reṣuwa, like all other ambassadors serving in the Assyrian vassal states, enjoyed unlimited access to Kumme's ruler and influenced his decisions openly. Not surprisingly, many Kummeans perceived ambassador Aššur-reṣuwa's activities as oppressive and invasive, and this feeling eventually led to a murderous conflict with some local dignitaries (SAA 5 106, SAA 5 107). How this particular feud ended for Aššur-reṣuwa personally is unknown, but for Kumme it resulted in a significant tightening of Assyrian control. When the new king of Urartu, sometime after 714 BC, questioned the conspicuous absence of Kummean messengers at his court, the answer from Kumme, according to the information conveyed back to Sargon, was this: "Since we are subjects [of Assyria], a foreman of cavalry is our superior. (Only) the houses of Kumme are left to us; ... we cannot put our feet anywhere" (SAA 5 95).

This seems to indicate that the Assyrians no longer made a pretence of respecting Kumme's autonomy. In view of the earlier mutiny against the Assyrian ambassador, and therefore against Assyrian supremacy, it seems that the country was incorporated into the provincial system of the Assyrian state, not as a separate province (it was much too small for that) but as part of a bigger administrative structure. That the Kummeans found themselves under the control of a mere cavalry officer clearly added insult to injury.

This is one of the letters sent by ambassador Aššur-reṣuwa to Sargon II (SAA 5 84), providing an intelligence report on Urartu. Note that his news is not at all local but a compilation of spy reports covering all of Urartu: he reports on the war with Mannea PGP  taking place in the region south of Lake Urmiya and the activities of the Urartian king in his capital Turušpa (on the eastern side of Lake Van). British Museum, 81-2-4, 55; photo by Greta Van Buylaere. View large image.

From vassal state to annexed territory

At this time, our information on Kumme dries up completely. It is not attested in any of the later Assyrian sources, but we can probably assume that the tiny mountain realm became part of the province of Birtu as a consequence of the local uprising against the Assyrian ambassador. As advantageous as the maintenance of a cordon of buffer states was for the Assyrian Empire, if the mechanisms by which indirect control was applied to the vassal state were not respected locally, the next best solution was simply to do away with local government altogether.

The crucial problem at Kumme was that, while its city lord Ariye and his son Arizâ seem to have been loyal to Assyria, their devotion was not shared by key members of Kumme's elite - and a vassal ruler who lost his ability to lead his country was worthless to the Assyrian king. Time and again, pro-Assyrian vassals were unseated by native usurpers who enjoyed the support of the local population precisely because they would not accept Assyria's supremacy. This invariably led to an Assyrian invasion and, more often than not, to the annexation of the state in question. In Kumme's case, it is unknown whether Ariye was ousted by those who would not accept the influence which the Assyrian ambassador Aššur-reṣuwa exerted on him. It may well be that the risk of a local rebellion against him, foreshadowed by the plot against the ambassador, was enough to end Kummean independence once and for all.

Further reading:

Dubovský, 'Hezekiah and the Assyrian spies', 2006.
Dubovský, 'King's direct control: Neo-Assyrian qepu officials', 2012.
Lanfranchi, 'Consensus to empire', 1997.
Olmstead, 'Assyrian government of dependencies', 1918.
Radner, 'Between a Rock and a Hard Place', 2012.

Content last modified: 30 Jan 2013.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'Representing Assyrian interests in the vassal states', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2013 []

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