Ancient History & Civilisation

A CRUEL LESSON IN SUPPLY AND DEMAND

By the last decades of the eighth century BC it might therefore have looked as though the Tyrians were the clear winners in the great Phoenician expansion into the western Mediterranean. They had certainly succeeded in securing the means to keep the Assyrian beast’s ravenous hunger for precious metals sated and thereby maintain a fragile political independence that other, less productive, neighbours had already lost. Moreover, their relentless quest for raw materials had directly led to the establishment of a substantial network of trading emporia and colonies stretching from Cyprus to Spain. However, in this instance appearances were deceiving. During the 730s the Assyrian king Tiglathpileser III, breaking with the policy of his royal predecessors, who had left the Phoenicians to their own devices as long as hefty tributes continued to be paid, attacked and captured a number of cities, including Tyre. On this occasion the Tyrians, who had initially joined an anti-Assyrian alliance with some Syrian and other Phoenician cities, suffered a lighter penalty than most others because of their swift capitulation and the huge tribute of 150 talents of gold that was then paid. This unusual leniency on the part of the Assyrians was also surely connected to the crucial role that the Tyrians continued to play in maintaining the supply of precious metals and other goods into the Near East. However, Tyrian commercial activities did now start to come under much closer Assyrian scrutiny and supervision. The freedoms that the Tyrians had jealously guarded for centuries would be gradually eroded as Assyrian customs officials became increasingly involved in the administration of the famous twin harbours, enforcing the payment of heavy customs duties on products such as wood and ensuring that Phoenician merchants did not break the ruinous trade embargo that had been placed on the Great King’s enemy, Egypt.131

It was perhaps these clear signs of weakness that led to a series of revolts by Tyrian satellites in both Phoenicia and Cyprus, and to the eventual annexation of the latter by the Assyrians, making Tyre ever more reliant on its commercial operations in the West. A Tyrian revolt against Assyrian rule led to the Tyrian monarch Luli having to flee the city and go into exile in Cyprus–an act beautifully caught on a royal Assyrian bas-relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) that depicts the king with his family and retainers being bundled on to ships as the Assyrian army under the vengeful king Sennacherib is about to break into the city after a five-year siege. In a further sign of Tyre’s decline, it appears that a number of Phoenician cities that had previously been under its rule supplied the Assyrians with sixty ships so that the island city could be blockaded. Certainly Sidon was no longer under Tyrian control, and nor was most of Tyre’s former territory on the Levantine mainland. Although Tyre was still nominally an autonomous kingdom, the powers of its monarch were now severely curtailed. A new ‘agreement’ signed sometime in the second half of the 670s placed restrictions on whom the Tyrians could trade with and its famous ports were now directly administered by Assyrian officials. Moreover, a governor was stationed in Tyre to oversee Assyrian interests. The Tyrian king was now not even allowed to open official communiqués without Assyrian officials being present.132

Yet, even after several more unsuccessful rebellions during the seventh century, Assyria still resisted incorporating Tyre, along with the cities of Arvad and Byblos, into one of the three provinces into which the rest of Phoenicia had been divided. Pragmatism dictated that Assyria could not risk disrupting the Tyrian trading network in the western Mediterranean, which now supplied the bulk of the silver and other metals that the Great King relied on to maintain his rule over his diffuse domains.133 The incorporation of Tyre would in no way have guaranteed the acquiescence of colonies thousands of kilometres over the sea. Furthermore, the modes of control that the Tyrians had developed in relation to their western colonies very much centred on the figure of the king himself and his relationship with Melqart. It was much more efficient for Assyria to maintain a strictly controlled but nominally independent Tyrian monarchy.

Yet, conversely, the pressures that Tyre increasingly faced during the seventh century BC undoubtedly played some part in creating favourable conditions for the growth of a number of its western colonies. With a founder often distracted by the ongoing battle for its own political survival and an environment in which there were as yet no big predators at the top of the political food chain, these fledgling communities could develop in a way that was simply unimaginable in the old world of the Near East. Moreover, the commercial exploitation and colonization of the central and western Mediterranean by both Phoenicians and Greeks, and their subsequent interactions with indigenous populations, based as they were on both cooperation and competition, would set an important precedent for how this new world would subsequently develop. Indeed, the greatest legacy of Tyre would not be Gades, the silver routes, or the diplomatic high-wire act with Assyria, but a colony situated on the North African coast in what is now Tunisia, whose renown would soon come to far outshine the faded lustre of its Phoenician parent.

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