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Ancient History

The Imperatives of Empire

München, 05/13/2015

Early forms of social technology, clever political moves and elements of absolutism are some of the themes in Karen Radner’s story of the birth of the world’s first empire on the banks of the Tigris – nearly 3000 years ago. A Humboldt Professorship has now been formally bestowed on her.

Professor Karen Radner in front of a relief depicting the Assyrian king Sanherib (704-681 BC), located in Maltay near Dohuk in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq. Photo: Karen Radner

The tour through Munich’s Museum of Egyptian Art ends in a room with five strikingly lit, meter-high reliefs that portray the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BC) watched over by magnificent winged gods. These huge stone panels were part of the Palace of Kalhu (at Nimrud in Iraq). Ashurnasirpal ruled over a kingdom which later, in the years after 710 BC, would encompass the Eastern Mediterranean and large areas of the Middle East. So these reliefs make an appropriate setting for a meeting with Karen Radner to learn more about the origins of the idea of empire. For the Neo-Assyrian Kingdom can be seen as the first empire in world history. In this setting, Radner warms to her theme and talks of the role of social technologies, power politics and absolutist kingship in the empire’s rise.

“‘Empire’ does not refer to the size of a political unit; here, the German term “Großreich” is rather misleading,” she tells me. “The focus lies on dominance of a small group of people who govern and exploit a mass of diverse populations to their own end. Modern multinational businesses provide a useful analogy.” As one of the world’s leading experts on the history of the ancient Middle East, Radner comes to LMU as a Humboldt Professor, having won this most highly endowed German award for research achievement. Her interests focus on the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This state serves as a paradigm for how, over the course of several centuries, one kingdom among many succeeded in creating the world’s first empire, almost a millennium before the Roman Empire reached its zenith.

Well defended

The prehistory of the Assyrian Empire begins in the 14th century BC, when the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East were becoming more and more arid. The changing climate put many of Assyria’s contemporaries and competitors under severe pressure. Powerful states like Egypt and the realm of the Hittites in Anatolia decayed and disintegrated. In Babylonia, drought led to a drastic fall in agricultural productivity. Decline, upheaval and collapse were the order of the day.

But Assyria managed to come through the dark days at the end of the Bronze Age relatively unscathed, largely thanks to its geopolitical position. The area between the foothills of the Zagros and the Taurus ranges continued to receive enough rainfall to maintain agriculture and food supplies. Assyria’s heartland was also well protected from attack by the mighty River Tigris, at a time when unprooted population groups were looking for new horizons. And from this position of relative security, in the 10th century BC, its leaders began to reconquer territories that had been under Assyrian control in earlier times. Their ambition was to make the kingdom as powerful as it had once been. Indeed, its rulers justified their strategy of territorial expansion with the need to rescue the Assyrian living in enclaves scattered beyond the boundaries of the realm. The victims of this policy were the new neighbouring states that had emerged during the preceding period of disruption.

A series of campaigns

Despite publicly focusing on restoration, the Assyrian kings realized that they in order to create lasting impact they needed to overhaul the older administrative structures. And in the 9th century BC, they succeeded in converting the traditional kingdom they had inherited into a new beast, that we today can describe as the world’s first empire. This state not only controlled the reclaimed territories but continued to grow; by the 7th century BC, the Assyrian rulers had incorporated what is now Syria, portions of Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and regions in Western Iran and Eastern Anatolia into their realm and, finally even conquered Egypt.

The 9th century BC kings Ashurnasirpal II and his son Shalmaneser III played a crucial role in this process. They moved the seat of power from the ancient capital of Ashur to Kalhu. “This was a decisive step,” Radner remarks. The new capital gave them the scope to build up new power structures and publicize them on a grand scale. They also reorganized the administrative apparatus and found new ways to ensure that all important posts throughout the realm went to trustworthy allies.

This last reform amounted to a transformation of the Assyrian elite. Perhaps the key problem that faces any absolutist ruler is deciding how to delegate power. The Assyrian solution was to create an administrative caste dominated by eunuchs. Castrated males had been part of the royal household long before this – but in the new system they took on a wholly new role, as the backbone of state administration. The state paid for their education and training and separated them from their families in early childhood to grow up as wards and wardens of the state.

Royal iconography as political propaganda

“This system provided a highly qualified government elite that was easy to control,” Radner stresses. “Eunuchs, after all, cannot have families.” To the modern mind, this may have been a pretty drastic way of going about it, but it ensured that the ruler could concentrate power in his own hands and those of a carefully selected group of officials. “The kings created a class of imperial state servants to whom they could delegate power without risking to threaten their own dominance,” Radner explains.

The Assyrian rulers took pains to cultivate their public image, as can be seen on many of the surviving palace reliefs and other works of art. Some portray the king as a mighty warrior who shows his enemies no mercy. Others depict the king as a caring guardian, who communicates with his people and is attentive to their needs – and who enjoys divine protection, as the reliefs in Munich clearly show. The political import of this royal imagery is palpable even today and convince as public relations efforts.

In order to extend royal power and to maintain close contact with the governors of even the most distant provinces, further innovations were introduced, which demonstrate the farsightedness of the political elite and turned out to be of enormous importance for the history of communications: Under Shalmaneser III, a relay courier service was set up that allowed the center to keep in touch with the extensive domain under its control. Messengers mounted on mules conveyed the state correspondence via a network of dedicated staging posts. “This was a revolutionary measure,” says Radner. “Up until the introduction of railways and the invention of telegraphy, no other innovation had such an impact on the speed of long-distance communications.” Staging posts were located 35 to 40 km apart. “That corresponds to the distance a mule can cover without difficulty,” Radner explains. And the mules, the hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, were specially bred for the task. Reliable and sturdy, mules are less sensitive and far more frugal than horses, and can cope with rugged terrain. For, unlike the Roman Empire, the Assyrian state did not invest in paved interregional roads.

Letters encased in clay

Maintenance of the state-run post network was extremely costly, which underlines the system’s political importance. “It was a very deliberate investment,” says Radner. The letters delivered by the couriers were inscribed in cuneiform script on small clay tablets enclosed in clay envelopes. Although the relay system along which mail travelled was a novelty, the principle of the confidentiality of correspondence had been established a thousand years earlier. Unopened letters are, as one expects, rare in the archaeological record and one of the few examples, a petition, makes it perfectly clear why the letter was still sealed: “This is the third time I’ve written to you,” writes the plaintiff to an official, who obviously had no intention of responding anyway. Official correspondence was embossed with the state’s seal. Beginning in the reign of Shalmaneser, every senior official was issued, as a mark of his rank, with a gold ring bearing the royal emblem. It shows the king killing a lion, emphasizing his role as the guardian of the state, who protects his people from all dangers that might threaten it.

Karen Radner delights in pointing out details like this. Her research is based on combining diverse approaches. When discussing the Assyrian imperial mail, the material basis is provided by the surviving letters of the state correspondence. These and other types of texts elucidate how the postal system operated, and environmental data highlight the advantages of using mules in the mountainous terrain of northern Assyria and the arid regions to the West. This is history as careful analysis of all available clues.

And her deductions are convincing. For, taken together, these innovations constitute a clear strategy which, over the course of time, helped the Assyrian kings to consolidate and progressively extend their power. The implementation of such measures required substantial financial resources, so the rulers had to rely on an increase of the overall prosperity of the state. They were very aware, says Radner, that the state’s most valuable assets were its people – in particular those with special training and abilities. They set out to attract such people to the new capital and did not shy away from compelling suitable families from conquered areas to settle in Kalhu and the later imperial capitals like Nineveh. Wary of the dangers of parallel societies, they favored and enforced integration and the creation of new social structures instead.

Page 2: Loss of identity