Skip to main content

         In the Neo-Assyrian empire, letters were an important tool of administration. The majority of extant administrative letters comprise correspondence between the king and his officials, especially provincial governors, but we also have many letters exchanged between officials (whether of equal rank or superior/subordinate). Letters served to report information, to issue commands, and to report on actions taken in fulfilment of commands and on problems encountered, as well as simply to “keep in touch” (viz. letters reporting that all is well). An efficient postal system ensured timely delivery of letters throughout the empire.

         The interplay between oral and written communication depended to a large extent on practical considerations, especially physical proximity to the king. In official correspondence, the authors of letters frequently refer to another official who is (or soon will be) present at court, and they exhort the king to question that individual about the matter at hand. Such references reveal the value attached to eyewitness testimony, and they illustrate the procedure by which the king used oral and written information in reaching a decision. Similarly, provincial officials often relayed in their letters the contents of verbal reports delivered to them by messengers sent by officials under their jurisdiction (e.g. SAA 1 45: 7–12). The words of messengers and of other officials are reported to the king in the style of verbatim accounts, and often a correspondent cites earlier questions or orders from the king himself. These latter cases served as an aid for orientation, especially when a single letter dealt with several different matters.

         The role of the scribe as intermediary was important: the king and his officials had highly-trained scribes to write letters for them, and also to read out to them the correspondence they received. In the king’s case, the palace scribe performed this task as head of chancery. The presence of such intermediaries meant that those who were not among the king’s regular correspondents, but who wished nevertheless to petition him in writing, were concerned to use their connections at court so as to ensure that their appeals actually reached the ears of the king.

         The king’s missives bore the royal seal: one official questions the authenticity of a sealed royal order that came to him, since it did not resemble the thousand sealed orders that he claimed to have in his possession (SAA 15 125). The royal seal was also issued to officials to whom the king delegated his authority. The importance of (written) royal commands is illustrated by cases of officials refusing to act until they have received direct royal confirmation of an order that has been passed on to them verbally by a third party. That there was a perception of “state affairs” (separate from the ruler’s personal interests) is indicated by the delegation of royal authority to officials, as well as by the references in officials’ letters to orders issued “by/from the palace.”

The paper demonstrates the value of contrasting the Neo-Assyrian evidence with the slightly later Babylonian administrative correspondence. In the latter, the evidentiary force of the letter nearly eclipsed the role of the messenger, as letters were crucial and independent physical evidence of administrative action. In comparison to Neo-Assyrian practice, this eclipse is probably a function of setting correspondence on a lower hierarchical plane within the administrative system. In this respect the Neo-Babylonian letters are closer to the Arabic evidence analyzed in the previous paper (Orality and Literacy in Early Islamic Administrative Practice); this said, they can be shown to reflect a very different bureaucratic mentality.