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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.

Doughty warrior, approachable monarch – the public image favored by Assyrian rulers (there Shalmaneser III). Photo: Z. Radovan/Bible Land Pictures/akg-images

Page 2: Loss of identity

The bigger the empire became, the more its rulers needed to worry about possible opposition. A series of measures was introduced to promote the integration of new population groups. Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by the peoples of many of the conquered regions in the West, was raised to the status of an official language, on a par with Assyrian, a dialect of Akkadian and written in the cuneiform script. In fact, Aramaic, which was recorded in a rather more simple alphabetic script, would subsequently become the lingua franca in much of the Middle East. Furthermore, the imperial art that adorned the temples and public buildings incorporated more and more elements drawn from the iconography of the subject peoples. New arrivals were also provided with land and housing. “There was even a state-financed program designed to promote intermarriage between the natives and the immigrants.” Initiatives such as this shed a revealing light on the Assyrian concept of empire: “Its raison d’ètre was not the propagation of an ideology, its purpose was an economic advantage to the state that wished to control as many people as possible so as to exploit them for its own benefit.” The dominant feature of all later empires is already clearly recognizable in the Assyrian case, Radner asserts.

As a result of these integrative policies, society in the Assyrian heartland was dramatically transformed within a few centuries. “This loss of identity at the core occurred in almost all empires. One only has to look at contemporary London, the capital of the British Empire. Here too, over the centuries, English traditions gave way to a much broader British identity,” says Radner. She herself has lived in London for the past 10 years. “The current political debate on independence for Scotland has come as something of a shock for the English, many of whom have suddenly become aware that the Empire has profoundly changed England and that it has become difficult to define what is English, rather than British.” Observations, which relate the history of the ancient Middle East not only to that of the wider world of its own time but to more recent epochs, are quite typical for Karen Radner.

Pragmatism even in religious issues

And she has an eye for the surprising but revealing detail. Talking of the temple rituals held in honor of the main god in the Assyrian pantheon, she uses the phrase “cooking for Ashur” as a shorthand for describing what held the Assyrian Empire together. Every day a large team of culinary specialists prepared the offerings for the god. “Prior to the 10th century, the menu was rather insipid,” she says – always barley and mutton, followed by some fruit. But as the empire expanded, the ingredients and the dishes themselves became more elaborate, and the menu got longer and longer, as Egyptian, Levantine, Anatolian, Iranian and Babylonian specialties were added. The whole empire was represented in all its culinary diversity. “It was an intentionally global cuisine, based on products from the whole area then under Assyrian control.” After the ceremonial banquet was over, the food was sent to court and distributed to officials throughout the empire, to be consumed by the governing elite on behalf of their people. Hence, not only the king, but the whole of Assyria participated on a regular basis in the communal meal with the god Ashur. Even sensitive matters of religion demonstrate the striking pragmatism of the Assyrian rulers, Radner says. The deities of the integrated regions received homage as the guests of Ashur in his temple, and at some stage even the Egyptian god Horus found a place in the ever more elaborate temple cult in Ashur’s honor.

Efforts such as these, designed to make all the subject peoples feel at home and appreciated in the empire, were apparently quite successful. The metropolitan center of the empire, located in what is now Northern Iraq certainly attracted many new inhabitants, some very willing to relocate, as the surviving correspondence clearly documents. Anyone could in principle write to the king applying for a post at court, and Radner mentions a job application of a Babylonian astronomer who wanted to bring a research team of 20 assistants.

Handbooks for diviners

The Assyrian clay tablets that have come to light in excavations allow us to reconstruct everyday life in rich detail. In addition to letters and legal documents, more than 25,000 fragments of clay tablets from a huge library assembled by King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (modern-day Mosul in Iraq) in the 7th century BC have survived. This represents the largest single collection of literary and scientific texts we have from the ancient world – even though the wax tablets, leather scrolls and papyri that constituted a significant part of the texts kept in the library were lost when Nineveh went up in flames in 612 BC.

Most of the clay tablets from Nineveh are now in the British Museum in London, but much of the library remains to be analyzed. The texts testify to the efforts of the kings to assemble knowledge and to control its dissemination. Besides literary texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, songs and prayers, the library possessed enormous quantities of scholarly texts. Many of these have survived in multiple copies, and most are devoted to astronomy, medicine in the broad sense and divination, which was primarily based on the inspection of the inner organs of animals, usually the livers of sacrificial sheep. This method of forecasting future events required complex procedures and the rigourous interpretation of the findings, and thus produced wealth of literature in the form of manuals and data collections for its practitioners.

One of the aims of Radner’s work is to correct a widespread misconception of Assyria’s place in world history. “The Assyrians are frequently depicted as an exclusively military power,” she says. But the army was a means to an end, even for rulers like Ashurnasirpal, who in his monuments very often appears in the role of a mighty military leader and ruthless warrior, she asserts. “The rulers were fully aware that an army can also cause problems, as a factor in the power game that is difficult to control.”

No longer loyal

The Assyrian state invested heavily in military technology, building up large cavalry units from the 9th century onwards. The chariot was developed into a type of heavy-armored tank with a crew of four. Professional soldiers captured from the armies of conquered states were integrated into the Assyrian forces. At the same time, the Assyrian kings made strenuous efforts to ensure that the army did not become the nucleus of a parallel power structure. For instance, armies were configured anew for individual campaign and disbanded into individual units in between.

Despite the degree of control and dominion that the kings exercised over the empire’s populations, direct contact with their subjects was indispensable for imperial cohesion. However, the 7th-century kings, unlike their predecessors, began to neglect this element of governance and the Assyrian royal house gradually lost the loyalty of its subjects – after over 1000 years of rule by the same dynasty. Ultimately, the king’s authority was insufficient to hold the increasingly fragile structure together and the Assyrian Empire did not survive the onslaught of the Babylonians and the Medes on their heartland in the late 7th century BC. The final assault on Nineveh in 612 BC and the fire blaze consuming the imperial palace had the fortunate side effect of assuring the survival of the now burned and even more durable clay tablets in the state archives and the royal library as an extraordinarily rich historical source for later scholars. The fall of Nineveh marked the end of the first world empire but the idea of Empire survived.
(Hubert Filser)


radner_260_webLeft to right: Bernd Huber (President of LMU Münich), Karen Radner (Alexander von Humboldt-Professor 2015), Johanna Wanka (Federal Minister for Education and Research), Helmut Schwarz (President of the Humboldt Foundation). Photo: Humboldt Foundation/David Ausserhofer

Prof. Dr. Karen Radner
Assumes her new post as Humboldt Professor of the History of the Ancient Near and Middle East at LMU in August 2015. Born in 1972, Radner studied at the University of Vienna and the Free University of Berlin, obtaining her doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Archaeology in Vienna. She subsequently held research positions at Helsinki University and LMU, where she completed her Habilitation in Assyriology. In 2005 she moved to University College London (UCL) and was appointed Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History there in 2010. In 2014 she was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, Germany’s most highly endowed accolade for research. She is the fifth LMU nominee to win the prize, following the awards to Ulrike Gaul (Systems Biology), Georgi Dvali (Astrophysics), Hannes Leitgeb (Mathematical Philosophy) and Stephan Hartmann (Theory of Science).

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