Assyrian administrative system

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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In the time of ancient Assyria, the Near East had several different types of governments. There were the Babylonian cities, where power was held in assemblies comprised of tribal and other social leaders of the citizen body. Generally speaking, though, monarchies were the most common system – depending on the government, the head of state would be called the king or maybe a city lord or clan leader. Assyria had a monarch, and by the Neo-Assyrian era the Assyrian kings presented themselves in their inscriptions as the sole creators and maintainers of the empire.

In truth, the Assyrian king was part of a vast state apparatus – at the top of the apparatus, of course – and engaged tremendously not just in exercising power but also in delegating it as well across an empire that at times included far-flung islands such as Cyprus and Bahrain. The machinery of the state including many officials – bureaucrats, military commanders, and cultural elites – who made up a vast administrative body and who are attested to within the abundant letters, reports, and other textual sources which have been excavated and translated.

Territorial control.

Viewed at the broadest level, areas that were part of the Assyrian state were either provinces or vassals. Both were kept cooperative and loyal not just through punitive, militaristic, ≤i>negative means but also through positive means such as support in maintaining authority and through proximity and inclusion with the royal household. Pesonal family links were a crucial tool for the Assyrian king in keeping stability.

  • Provinces – these were directly and centrally administered through governors who were appointed by the Assyrian king. Governors had no claim to their office except through the king. Governors were often drawn from the royal court, and over time eunuchs were favored as they had been in the royal court since infancy and had no dynastic ambitions.

  • Vassals – these were more locally administered, but were expected to pull the yoke of Assyria as inscriptions say. They had their own local rulers who were often related to the Assyrian household through dynastic marriage. Also, the Assyrian king kept a qepu in the vassal's court to represent Assyrian interests and report back intelligence.

On provinces.

Regions formally incorporated into Assyria were organized as provinces. They were under the full central authority of the king. The king appointed a pahatu or bel pihati for each province, which are often called governors in English but actually translate more closely as proxies – as in, the proxies of the king. When a new king ascended to the throne he held the same authority over them as his predecessor. He could swap out any incumbent governor. This was in contrast to vassal rulers, who generally had their own dynasties and maintained hereditary rule. From the 9th century reign of Ashurnasirpal onwards, the governors were mostly eunuchs (if not entirely so) – royal inscriptions referring to my governors, my eunuchs.

On vassals.

Vassals were states whose rulers pledged allegiance to the Assyrian king. Their rulers would sign treaties and swear oaths by the gods that their states would pull the yoke of Assyria. This agricultural term does not just reflect being brought under control and made tame, but also carrying a burden and making contributions of labor, financial, or other resources that were very important in the fruitfulness of Assyrian ambitions.

Vassal rulers were held responsible for their own kingdom or city-state. For the most part, they were under local governance. They had some level of autonomy, such as the ability to pass their office on by inheritance. However, they had to accept the presence and authority of delegates from the king. These delegates were known as qepu and represented the Assyrians' interests in their client states' governments – all the while, the qepu would also communicate back to the Assyrian central administration.

The relationship between the Assyrian central administration and its vassals was cultivated and deepened over generations. Dynastic marriages into the Assyrian royal household were normal, as was keeping members of the vassal ruler's family in the Assyrian royal court. These family members were essentially collateral or hostages, but they were given excellent treatment and were expected to be supportive to Assyria when they were returned home.

Generally, vassals were outside the Assyrian heartland and furthest from the central administration. Islands in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf – among them Cyprus, Tyre, Arwad, and Bahrain – as well as mountainous areas in the Taurus and Zagros and the flats of the North Arabian Desert, are examples of far reaches that were treated as vassals. However, there were some vassals – for example, a cluster of Aramaean tribes, or the city-states of the Medes – that were quite close to the heartland but remained difficult to subdue by any means except occasional military submission and exaction of tribute.

Paying tribute and submitting to the Assyrian king had some practical benefit for a vassal. In the event of uprisings, the Assyrian central administration was expected to side with their vassal and quell any threats or popular resistance. However, in the 8th century the calculus of which empire to side with could become exceedingly complicated both for the ruling class and the proletariat. We see that especially in Syria, many vassals defected from Assyria and joined Urartu, which was a major competitor with its heartland in the Armenian highlands.

We see that Tiglath-Pileser III put in place a zero-tolerance policy that was maintained by his successors. His vassal rulers in Syria remained loyal, but the general population there had moved to the Urartian interest sphere and Assyrian rule was weakened. He conducted a military campaign, followed by the elimination of local government and the absorption of the vassal regions as full-fledged, centrally administered provinces of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. These areas were not new to Assyrian political influence, but their status as provinces of a central state was new. These efforts were continued by Tiglath-Pileser III's successors and we see the addition of provinces that amounted to a tripling of the area under central Assyrian control within just a few decades.

Great Ones

The Great Ones were the most senior Assyrian state officials, usually numbering about 120. The king had to totally trust them and relied on their absolute loyalty. There were several positions making up the Great Ones,

  • Regional representatives

    • Governors put in place to directly administer provincse.

    • The qepu officials assigned to monitor vassals.

  • Chief Cupbearer

  • Palace Herald

Letters between the king and the Great Ones reveal that his relationship with them provided them enough autonomy and fair treatment to conduct their affairs faithfully, dutifully, and loyally. This was essential to guarantee the Assyrian Empire maintained effective control over distant territories, via the Great Ones. Despite all authority tracing up the king, there was a tremendous amount of mutual trust and respect between the Great Ones and the king himself. Remarkably, reliefs show the king – equal in size and eye to eye – in deep conversations with his highest officials. This indicates they could speak candidly and at ease with the king, within the bounds of appropriate and polite behavior as required by protocol.

From the 9th century BC onward, the composition of the Great Ones changed. Many Great Ones had held their positions through heredity, and belonged to ancient noble families. However, from the reign of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal onward, these hereditary officeholders were replaced with palace-educated professional bureaucrats – the eunuchs. This provided important stability by centralizing the Assyrian king's power, and also ensuring officeholders were chosen on merit rather than family ties. It was a significant change in the role or royal eunuchs, who previously had been mostly within the palace but now were used throughout the empire in highly visible and powerful roles.

The royal seal.

When the Assyrian state shifted from a kingdom to an empire, an innovation took place: the royal seal, which was given to each of the Great Ones. The royal seal allowed those who held it to act on the king's behalf. This made it a powerful tool whose implementation coincided with a rising need to delegate power from the king to his officials across a vast territory. Simply possessing the seal was enough to issue commands in the king's stead, and additionally, it could be used on contracts or written orders – it served as a royal authorization as if from the king himself.

However, the royal seal only gave power via the king. The Great Ones had the power to use the royal seal, of course, but they were merely instruments of the king. The royal seal itself was engraved as a seal on a golden finger ring. It depicted the king killing a lion in close combat, symbolizing his strength and his power to tame evil forces. The image was known throughout the empire.


There was tremendous uncertainty in the Near East for a sender giving a letter or anything else to a messenger who would bring it to the recipient. Anxiety about it meant that only the messenger — and not a single person else — was expected to handle the delivery until giving it to the recipient. The messenger would single-handedly make the delivery, along with a riding animal — and for greater speed but at a greater cost, the messenger would bring two riding animals the animals could take turns rather than one needing to take extended breaks.

The key thing here was that in traversing complicated territories with conflicting political systems, the delivery and its messenger stayed together as the only way to have any sort of guarantee of delivery. Letters were immensely private things, and they were recorded on tablets that were then encased with clay that bore the messenger's seal and sometimes a very brief description of the contents. Messengers were trusted to not only make the delivery but to respect the privacy of the contents. With the transition to alphabetic Aramaic from cuneiform Assyrian, there was an explosion and deepening of literacy among previous illiterate or barely literate levels of society — the Aramization of the Near East — this trust must have become even more important.

On the Neo-Assyrian relay system.

In the 9th century BC, the Neo-Assyrian Empire developed a completely innovative communications strategy. It became possible to send mail and goods from the capital all the way to the Mediterranean at Adana (the ancient Assyrian vassal of Quwe) within five days. This was a distance of 700 kilometers that included rivers, mountain ranges, and steppes. The new system worked by overcoming the challenge of trust, and the inefficient single-messenger-per-delivery system that was traditional. In the traditional system, even with two animals, eventually they would need to rest, sleep, eat, and drink — and even if the animals were able to survive, the messenger himself needed breaks as well. Deliveries that might take one hundred uninterrupted hours could increase to a week in practice. In the new system, there were postal stations every 35 to 40 kilometers across the entire empire. The messenger would bring the delivery to the next postal station, and rather than the package waiting for them to recover it was instead given to a messenger at that postal station who brought it to the next station on its journey. The package never had to come to a standstill and could be transported effectively uninterrupted. (Of note, no postal stations have been excavated yet which limits our understanding.)

We do not know exactly how the exchange worked, or if deliveries were made at night, but it brought a tremendous degree of efficiency. The speed of the Assyrian postal system was not exceeded for two thousand years with the introduction of the telegraph in the 19th century. However, this system was operated by the military and was only available for the royal court and those holding the royal seal — not more than about 150 people. The expense of this system — the mules, the soldier-messengers, not to mention the postal stations themselves maintained across the entire empire — suddenly seems even more expensive when considering it was only for top-level administrative use. It must have had tremendous benefit in supporting the coherence of the empire. The royal seal was put in place alongside the development of the postal system, suggesting it was part of a master strategy for stability, the delegation of responsibility, and the visibility of the king through the golden ring worn by his trusted appointees.

The extremely elite and militarized nature of the relay system suggests that the issue of trust was still present. Although modern people receive mail without needing to consider who exactly of tens and hundreds of people had access to it, this was an entirely new concept in the 9th century BC. However, there was tension between efficiency and increasing the number of people involved in mail handling. This tension was ameliorated in various ways. The relay system was only operated by sworn servants of the state — even the mules were part of the state assets — and the amount of trust the king placed in their service means the postal system itself can be viewed as an extended way that the Assyrian king was forced to delegate tasks as the empire expanded too far for single-handed central control. Also, it was highly efficient but the relay system was only efficient with a low level of throughput to ensure the relays were on standby. When the Neo-Assyrian populace adopted Aramaic, the state explicitly required only Assyrian cuneiform on all official documents. This may have been more than just continuity of the language of recordkeeping, or the deep scribal tradition around cuneiform — it may have been a means to curtail normal people from snooping.

On mules.

Mules were the backbone of communication. They are the generally sterile offspring of two different species: a horse and a donkey. They do not need as much food or water as a horse — but also have the strength of a donkey, without its stubbornness — and mules can be ridden, which of course is also possible with a horse but is not possible with a donkey. Mules were excellent for long-distance transport in an arid, challenging climate like much of the ancient Assyrian territory.

However, mules were expensive in ancient Assyria — in fact, they are still expensive to this day — and would have cost several times the price of a human. Producing a mule requires forcing a horse and a donkey to mate, which would almost never happen without human interference, and they are almost never able to produce offspring themselves. Skilled professionals are required to produce mules, from the mule's point of conception through its training. Mules were unaffordable to most people, but the Assyrian state used them extensively in transporting communications and goods.