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  • The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium
  • Ewa K. Bacon
The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium. Edited by Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 400 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel present essays growing out of a series of conferences at Stanford University's Social Science History Institute. This volume is an ambitious cross-cultural perspective of the ancient empires in a series of case studies based on political theory as well as on recent archeological research. The empires under discussion are Neo-Assyria, Achaemenid Persia, Athens, Rome, and Byzantium. The key questions are: How do empires come into being? How do they survive? What is their ideology? And what is their economic basis? These essays aim "to produce greater insights into the varied bases for imperial 'success' at different times and place and the pattern of imperial declines and successions that have characterized world history for most of the past five millennia" (p. 27).

Peter Bedford (Union College, New York) focuses on the principles and beliefs of Neo-Assyrian (c. 934–605 b.c.e.) imperialists. His thesis is that the Neo-Assyrian period of domination was not primarily about the control of territory, but of goods and services. After an early period of expansion based on a client system of tributaries, Assyrians moved to provincialize conquered neighbors, leading to a pax assyrica (721–630 b.c.e.), during which wealth flowed to elite Assyrian classes. The imperial ideology was based on the premise that the Assyrian king was the divine agent for order in the world. Assyrians framed their empire in theological and moral terms. Assyrian religion was the clear tool of subjugation. The elites dissolved existing regional or ethnic identities and ascribed new identities to groups that they controlled using deportations. The novel aspect of Assyrian domination was "the use of imperial ideology to integrate subjugated people into the Assyrian symbolic universe." The rapid end of the Assyrian dominance (612–605 b.c.e.) as neighboring Medes and Babylonians reasserted themselves was not, however, the conclusive end of the empire. It is just that the locus of empire shifted south to Babylon as it would shift again later to Persia.

Josef Wiesehöfer (University of Kiel) continues the narrative with his essay on the Achaemenid Empire, Persia from 555 b.c.e. under Cyrus to its conquest by Alexander between 334 and 323 b.c.e. It is Herodotus who first crafted a view of Persians as empire builders on a quest for world domination. The empire's core region was protected by controlling the surrounding vassal states. Pan-Hellenic identity was formed when Persians failed to extend this buffer westward. The key to Persian success was to take over well-established institutions and let [End Page 734] local elites make local decisions. There was a clear and simple standard: loyalty to Persia was rewarded and disloyalty was punished. There was no Persian equivalent of "Romanization" as the Persians espoused no single language, no Persian ideology, and no religious unity and presented no Persian sense of imperial mission (pp. 87–88).

If the Assyrians demanded adherence to Assyrian religious ideology, no inhabitant of the Persian Empire, with the noted exception of the elite class, was forced to choose between imperial and local identity. This system, say the Greeks, failed because of the moral decadence of the Persian rulers. But the empire Alexander conquered had not managed to create an organic whole and could ultimately not cope with its separatist elements. The image of tolerant Persians versus severe and brutal Assyrians is just that: an image. It is the tone of royal communiqués that is different, but the Persians had learned how to build empires from the Assyrians.

Ian Morris (Stanford) presents the chapter on the Greater Athenian state only to conclude that his tale is not an example of imperialism, but rather one of state formation. The territory involved was small, the population less than a million, and only lasted seventy-four years (478–404 b.c.e.). The value of including Athens in an essay collection...


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