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The Neo-Assyrian Empire in the Southwest: Imperial Domination and Its Consequences

The Neo-Assyrian Empire in the Southwest: Imperial Domination and Its Consequences

By Avraham Faust. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2021. Pp. 400. $115. ISBN 9780198841630 (cloth).

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Only a few years ago, the archaeology of empire in the ancient Near East in general and that of Assyria in particular could have been characterized as underdeveloped. Thus, paradoxically, one of the cradles of empires in the ancient world, and the transformative empire of Assyria, often dubbed the first “world empire,” was poorly investigated and understood. The Assyrian empire was described by M. Liverani (“The Growth of the Assyrian Empire in the Habur / Middle Euphrates Area: A New Paradigm,” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 2, 1988, 81–98) as a nodal network dominated by the army and by J.N. Postgate (“The Land of Assur and the Yoke of Assur,” WorldArch 23, 1992, 247–63) as a center consisting of homogeneously administrated provinces which was surrounded by vassal states. These descriptions were monolithic in their nature, in the sense that the Assyrian empire was seen as homogeneous and structured along clear lines.

The first scholar to throw a stone in the pond was Bradley Parker, who in his phenomenal doctoral dissertation research (published as The Mechanics of Empire: The Northern Frontier of Assyria as a Case Study in Imperial Dynamics, Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project 2001) exposed the enormous variability and dynamic change in how the Assyrian empire impacted local societies in the Upper Tigris region, from the complete makeover of strategically located regions with good agricultural potential to noninterference and the creation of desolate buffer zones. Recently, several scholars, including Timothy Matney, Craig Tyson, Virginia Hermann, and John MacGinnis, have followed in his footsteps by investigating provincial and peripheral societies and landscapes and how the empire differentially engaged with each.

Faust’s work under review here fits squarely into this tradition of investigating how Assyria interacted with societies at the edge of and beyond the empire. Faust adds a systematic and detailed review of Assyria’s impact on the southern Levant. This topic has been at the core of his research for decades, and he is clearly well positioned to tackle it.

The book starts with an introduction of the Assyrian empire. Although adequate, it does show an issue that is prevalent throughout the book: Assyria is approached mainly through a Levantine focus—that is, by referencing studies on the texts and archaeology of Assyria in the southern Levant, augmented with a few, very general sources for the broader context—rather than through the enormous wealth of studies on Assyria. This creates a somewhat outdated perspective on Assyria. For example, the substantial and relevant work of A. Bagg (Die Assyrer und das Westland, Peeters 2011) hardly features in this discussion. The basic understanding of Assyria from which Faust’s book departs is institutionalist and schematic, rather than dynamic and variegated, as it is understood in most recent studies by scholars such as those mentioned above—a perspective that would have fit the situation in the southern Levant much better.

Chapter 2 maps out the archaeological information regarding the southern Levant in the eighth century BCE, prior to the Assyrian takeover, a period in which the northern kingdom of Israel was a densely populated, prosperous, and important regional power that took part in various coalitions to withstand Assyrian armies. Its economy was closely linked to that of Phoenicia, which it supplied with products such as olive oil and wine. By contrast, the polities to the south and in Transjordan were much less prosperous and populated.

Chapter 3 charts the subsequent Assyrian conquest of the southern Levant, starting from ca. 744 BCE. In a few decades the northern Levant was annexed as provinces, while the polities to the south and in Transjordan became Assyrian vassals. Chapter 4 then considers how the Assyrian takeover impacted local populations and landscapes. What is clear is that the population in the provinces in the north plummeted, probably due to war and deportations, whereas the vassal states to the south prospered and their populations increased.

Chapter 5 outlines how the economy of the southern vassal states included the large-scale production of olive oil and wine for Phoenician markets, and thus southern societies took over the niche previously occupied by the kingdom of Israel, which was by this point underdeveloped due to a lack of personnel. Interestingly, like in the previous period, the economic impact of Phoenicia was as great as the military and administrative impact of Assyria in reshaping local societies and economies.

In chapter 6, Faust discusses the material evidence for Assyria in the southern Levant. Remarkably little material culture has been found in the numerous well-excavated sites of the period. For example, only seven texts were found, Assyrian artifacts are very rare, and there were only a few local imitations of Assyrian pottery. Likewise, buildings that can be classified as Assyrian are rare and attested at a few sites only. Moreover, Assyrian-style objects occur more often in the vassal states than in the provinces. Thus, the Assyrian empire, often celebrated as the classic example of an empire remodeling societies and landscapes through deportation programs, agricultural development, canal building, and fortifications, is actually elusive in the southern Levant—an empire we would hesitate to reconstruct if it were not for the written sources.

Chapter 7, however, focuses on specific microregions within the provinces where the Assyrian impact is much clearer. These include Meggido, the Acco coast, and the Aphek-Gezer region. These microregions show a greater find density, and in some cases an uptick in farming activity and population numbers. According to Faust, these were strategically important microregions that served to secure revenues from adjacent vassal states, and they would have harbored troops to secure these revenues. This reconstruction reads very much like the network model of the Assyrian empire put forward by Liverani (1988), and more recently by R. Bernbeck (“Imperialist Networks: Ancient Assyria and the United States,” Present Pasts 2.1, 2010), but these discussions are not mentioned by Faust.

In chapters 8 and 9, Faust discusses resistance to Assyria and critiques the concept of “the Assyrian peace.” The discussion is based mainly on Assyrian texts and the Bible. The “Assyrian peace” that Faust has trouble accepting, though, is largely a straw man concept, as it hardly features in studies on Assyria outside the southern Levant, as for example in the recent Companion to Assyria (E. Frahm, ed., Blackwell 2017).

Finally, in chapters 10 and 11, the southern Levant is contextualized in the broader Assyrian empire. The author puts forward a model in which provinces exist to benefit the core and argues that the provinces in the southern Levant were neglected by the Assyrian empire, as they were located too far away from the core to supply it with agricultural produce and served instead mainly as a region where people could be “harvested” for the heartland. While the view that the southern Levant was too far away for producing agricultural staples for the Assyrian heartland is valid, so were most provincial regions in Syria, southeastern Anatolia, and southern Iraq, yet these were not depopulated in the same way. A model in which agricultural staples in the provinces were produced for the heartland is not realistic, and instead, the staples were mainly consumed locally. Thus, distance as a logistical impediment to the transport of agricultural staples is not a sufficient explanation for the particular situation in the provinces of the southern Levant. At the end of the book, one still wonders what exactly happened in the southern Levantine provinces and why. Throughout the volume a lack of engagement with agents and incentives is apparent, and here it is most missed.

Notwithstanding my reservations outlined above, this is a systematic and useful book that summarizes a large body of data on the situation in the southern Levant and provides a fascinating overview of its particular trajectory. Those interested in the Assyrian empire will find much of interest in this book, and I hereby recommend it.

Bleda S. Düring
Faculty of Archaeology
Leiden University

Book Review of The Neo-Assyrian Empire in the Southwest: Imperial Domination and Its Consequences, by Avraham Faust
Reviewed by Bleda S. Düring
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.During

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