Ancient History & Civilisation

FEEDING THE ASSYRIAN BEAST

The Assyrian kingdom, although keen to claim publicly its relationship with other Near Eastern states as a simple matter of total submission brought about by brute military force, with the subsequent provision of tribute, was also engaged in a far more subtle strategic game, which involved the control of inter-regional trade networks.55 The soldiers, weavers, leatherworkers, farmers, ironsmiths and other workers needed to keep the Assyrian state functioning required raw materials and payment.56 Courtiers and high-ranking royal officials were granted estates and tax immunities as a reward for their service and loyalty.57 The Great Kings represented themselves as the great providers. They would boast that the vast spoils that flowed back to Assyria from their conquests were used to bring prosperity to even their most humble subjects.58

Precious materials were also required on a vast scale, in order to keep up with a slew of magnificent royal building projects designed to engender both awe and obedience. Of particular note was the ‘Palace without Rival’, built by the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib at Nineveh in the early seventh century BC. It was massive–over 10,000 square metres in area–and opulently decorated with scented woods ornamented with silver, copper and intricately carved ivory. The exterior walls were decorated with a mass of coloured glazed bricks. Every centimetre of the structure was covered with detailed narrative scenes outlining the king’s triumphs. Even the furniture was made of materials of the highest quality, for it was inlaid with ivory and precious metals.59

To function successfully, the Assyrian state required a regular supply of high-quality materials and luxury finished goods on a scale that only trade, not conquest, could provide. Increasingly, it was the Phoenician cities that the Assyrian kings expected to meet these heavy demands, as well as to provide a large number of ships and crews for the royal fleet. Of particular importance from the Assyrian perspective was the flow of precious metals–especially silver, which would eventually become the accepted currency throughout the empire–and of the iron required for armaments.60 The Phoenician cities’ usefulness to Assyria meant that some would continue to enjoy a certain degree of political and economic autonomy, instead of incorporation into the empire.61 Indeed, the establishment of Kition may have been a reaction to the economic pressure that Assyria now exerted on the Phoenician cities, with Tyre no longer able to rely solely on the continued goodwill of its Cypriot trading partners.

However, the real geopolitical watershed was reached when, at the start of the eighth century BC, the Assyrian king Adad-Ninari III conquered northern Syria.62 This development could be accurately described as a mixed blessing for the Tyrians. On the positive side, the Assyrian seizure of northern Syria had removed at a stroke some of their keenest commercial competitors. On the negative side, however, the loss of an important Tyrian source of precious metals was compounded when the victorious conqueror demanded those very same commodities as Phoenician tribute. If these stupendous demands were to be met, then new sources of mineral wealth had to be prospected and exploited. Moreover, they would also require a vast expansion of the scope and geographical range of previous Phoen-ician commercial operations. It thus appears to have been survival, rather than glory, that provided the motivation for the great Levantine colonial expansion in the far-off lands of the West.63

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