Running the empire: Assyrian governance

The Assyrian kings presented themselves in their official inscriptions as the sole creators and maintainers of the Assyrian empire. But contemporary archival texts - letters, reports and administrative records - show that they were supported by administrative, military and cultural elites who were involved in building and running the Assyrian empire at every level. Here, we will focus on those who supported the king in governing Assyria.

The "Great Ones" of Assyria

"The land of Aššur" was the contemporary designation for Assyria. All regions formally incorporated into it were organised as provinces and administered by governors (pāhutu or bēl pāhete, "proxy") who were appointed at the king's discretion. While they had no other claim to their office, as the king's chosen representatives they were all-powerful at a local level. By the late 8th century most neighbouring states were allied with Assyria, which meant that, although nominally independent, they routinely had to take Assyrian policy into account. The Assyrian king's personal delegates (qēpu, "trusted one") advised the rulers of allied states and reported directly back to their master.

Sargon II in conversation with an Assyrian "Great One", probably crown prince Sennacherib. Stone reliefs from Façade L of the courtyard in the state apartments of the royal palace of Dur-Šarruken (modern Khorsabad). Louvre, AO 19873-4. Photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

These governors and delegates constituted the Great Ones of Assyria, along with a small group of high officials with traditional titles such as "Palace Herald" and "Chief Cupbearer" who were in fact the most senior Assyrian state officials. It was of paramount importance to Assyria's cohesion that the king could rely on their loyalty and trust them absolutely. Together, this group of about 100-120 men formed the backbone of the Assyrian empire. They were each formally appointed to a high office that was essential to the survival of the state. Equipped with the royal seal, they governed in the king's stead and on the king's behalf. Their relationship to the king was therefore first and foremost bureaucratic and impersonal, based on rules meant to ensure fair treatment.

The reign of an able king was marked by an equilibrium of power between the Great Ones, whose influence neutralised each other and stabilised the state. Each was able to approach the king on an almost equal footing, at least within the formal constraints of appropriateness and politeness. A depiction of Sargon II (721-705 BC) in conversation with a high official gives us an idea of the personal encounter between the king and the Great Ones: without his bodyguards and attendants, the king faces the official - who as a sign of distinction and royal trust wears his sword - eye to eye.

Trustworthy empire-builders

From at least the early 9th century BC onwards, the Great Ones were drafted by preference from a class of professional empire-builders rather than from the ancient noble families who had previously held hereditary positions of power within the Assyrian state. This innovative policy was designed to secure the king's position while ensuring that posts were awarded on merit rather than through family ties - a key strategy for stabilising the expanding state.

Many of the Great Ones were eunuchs (ša rēši, "he of the head"; an ancient term for personal servant) whose physical inability to father children was designed to ensure their loyalty to the king. Moreover, men who became eunuchs gave up their family connections in order to serve the king, often taking a new name in the process. The original backgrounds of Assyrian eunuchs therefore remain entirely obscure. This is not just the accidental result of the chance survival of the available sources, but part and parcel of eunuch identity. Having no family of their own, their allegiance belonged first and foremost to the king, who seems to have regarded them almost like adopted children.

Not all high state officials were eunuchs, however. An obvious exception is the crown prince. Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) and Sargon II, who came to the throne without having been crown princes, are also very likely to have held high state offices before they usurped royal power. Did they not need to be eunuchs because they were members of the royal family? In the absence of information about the known eunuchs' personal backgrounds, the argument easily becomes circular.

Was there an Assyrian parliament?

Sennacherib's military camp in 701 BC. Note the extispicy TT  taking place in one of the tents in the centre of the camp. Detail of a stone relief from the Southwest Palace at Nineveh. A. H. Layard's drawing (Or. Dr. IV, 61), reproduced from J. M. Reade, 'Religious ritual in Assyrian sculpture', in B. N. Porter (ed.), Ritual and politics in ancient Mesopotamia, New Haven 2005, 49 fig. 17. View large image.

Were there regular comprehensive meetings of all Great Ones with the king, forming a kind of Assyrian parliament? Unfortunately this is not at all clear. There are certainly indications that there was a royal council of sorts. When one of Sargon II's governors was confronted with a subordinate's accusations about the levy of taxes, he replied to his king that "The king's magnates are assembled; let us settle (the dispute) in the presence of the Treasurer" (SAA 1 236). He thus referred to a decision-making body that included the king, the Treasurer and an unknown number of other magnates. Alas, we cannot know whether they formed a council with a specific membership or whether the panel consisted of whichever individuals of a certain rank just happened to be in the king's presence.

Most of the Great Ones were of course dispatched either to a province of their own or to a foreign court, where they were expected to represent the king permanently. Assembling them all for a comprehensive state council would have been a logistical challenge, although not an insurmountable one, as each had a deputy (šaniu, "second one") who could handle local affairs in his superior's absence (see The deputy system).

In any case, we know there were occasions when all the Great Ones were expected to come together, most crucially when a new king ascended to the throne and assigned the state offices, either reappointing his predecessors' officials or making new choices. More regular occasions were provided by annual festivals, such as the New Year celebration held at the city of Assur, and other religious events of countrywide importance. In addition, military campaigns regularly brought the king together with at least a selection of magnates and governors, who tended to take personal lead of the troops dispatched from their provinces (e.g. SAA 5 152). Weeks and weeks of being together on the move, and in the temporary confines of the military camp, presented excellent opportunities for frequent and close encounters between the king and the Great Ones.

Further reading:

Mattila, 'The king's magnates: a study of the highest officials of the Neo-Assyrian empire', 2000.
Postgate, 'The Land of Assur and the Yoke of Assur', 1992.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'Running the empire: Assyrian governance', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []

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