You are here

Resource Extraction in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires

Michael Jursa

           This paper opens the assessment of the impact of government by discussing resource extraction (taxes and labor) in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires of the Late Iron Age. The case put forward is that administrations of the Near East in this period made ample use of mediated resource extraction through entrepreneurial (or quasi-‘liturgical’) middlemen in their core areas, and through local patrimonial elites in the imperial periphery. This practice imposed considerable limitations on the role and reach of centralized bureaucratic administration. In arguing this case, the paper explores the applicability of the four Bonney-Ormerod typologies of state fiscal system – “tribute,” “domain,” “tax,” and “fiscal” – working with their assumption that, in early states, the prime determinant of what a state would extract in a given year was its anticipated expenditure rather than an estimate of actual revenue. Given the nature of the evidence, care is taken to discuss what are, in the Bonney-Ormerod model, “tribute” and “domain” states. 

The paper draws attention to the following points that arise from data extracted from the Neo-Assyrian royal archives of Nineveh (seventh century) and Neo-Babylonian administrative archives of the sixth century:

  1. In the Neo-Assyrian empire, the state extracted resources directly, primarily via the imposition of taxation and service obligations whose fulfilment was overseen directly by state officials. The primary requirements were labor, especially for the cultivation of the Assyrian countryside and for the army, and food supplies for the increasing urban populations. As expected in a tributary empire, coercion played an important role, easing the bureaucratic apparatus’ burden of resource extraction.  Thus the labor-force required to cultivate the Assyrian countryside was boosted by considerable numbers of deportees, who were forcibly resettled in different parts of the Assyrian empire following the conquest of their homelands. Captured peoples, including specialists, were also allocated to service in the royal household and in the households of the elite. Conquered peoples could also be incorporated into the military, hence the formation of specialised units comprised of specific ethnic groups such as Arameans.
  2. The Neo-Babylonian empire was certainly as exploitative of its imperial periphery as its Neo-Assyrian predecessor, but in contrast to the latter it exhibits a stronger leaning towards the taxation and domain state according to the Bonney/Ormrod model. The tasks of the bureaucratic apparatus in the imperial core were limited not so much by using the shortcut of direct coercion (as in the Neo-Assyrian case), but rather by enfranchising individuals with aspects of state administration. Vertical hierarchies within the state administration were steep, and the dense central network of bureaucratic control had a short reach. On its margins semi-autarchic state institutions of secondary rank (e.g., temples), managed by local elites and franchise holders (e.g., tax-farmers) who were dependent on networks of patronage, substituted for the lack of direct state control. The power of the state extended to the level of individual households more often than not in a mediated (and indirect) manner.

         In both cases (Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian), central control over state resources was irregular, a shortcoming which limited the ability of the state to mobilize those resources. The difficulty that states encountered when they attempted to increase resource extraction by force, or through the contract-based delegation of obligations to outsiders, reduced the capacity of the bureaucratic apparatus to make plans and forecasts.

Session/Panel Title

The Power of the Written Word: Cross-Cultural Comparisons

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy