Monday, November 7, 2016


Mattias Karlsson, Relations of Power in Early Neo-Assyrian State Ideology. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records 10. Berlin; Boston: DeGruyter, 2016. Pp. xiv, 507. ISBN 9781614517443. $182.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Seth Richardson, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book is the revision of a 2013 dissertation. It seeks to catalog the major literary and visual motifs of royal ideology in the first half of Assyria's imperial career (934-746 BC), and then to analyze them as "power relations." This includes royal presentations of the king's puissance at arms and the hunt; his relations with his nobles, cities, and foreign lands; conceptions of ethnic identity and imperial mission; and the king's pious works before the great gods. While all of these individual motifs have received close scholarly attention before, and occasionally in concert, no book-length work has tried to attend to all of them, and across an entire historical period. If the book neither proposes to theorize a politics from its analysis of ideological themes, nor yet achieves it, it still thoroughly and diligently accounts for the nuts and bolts of political speech, and for a (long!) period of time that receives less attention from period specialists,1 who often prefer the more florid dramas of the Sargonid era (721–609 BC).

Like a lot of dissertations, this one has obviously entailed a great amount of work on the part of the author; it organizes a large body of data in a way that will prove useful to future researchers; and it essays to use that data to cast fresh light on a topic we may (rightly or wrongly) feel we know well. Like a lot of reviews of published dissertations, this one applauds the energy and attention that make the first two efforts a success, but wonders how much and how well they relate to the third. Karlsson's analysis is in places thoughtful and original; but it is hard to see that the best of it always derives or benefits from the processing of data into information. Bluntly, then: was the length and research strategy of the work, or the form of proving its ideas by adducing the entire corpus as data points, necessary to support its conclusions? Readers may feel not simply that they meet a book with long indices that are helpful to researching various topics, but also that the author's opinions and conclusions are harder to find than they need to be in a book that is mostly devoted to a description of the data.

The project is driven by the indexing of literary motifs, royal titles and epithets, and visual/iconographic elements found in the royal inscriptions and reliefs of ten early Neo-Assyrian kings, from Aššur-dan II to Aššur-nerari V (934–746 BC). Many tropes are covered: reciprocity motifs in accounts of tribute, gendered roles, relations with other kings, and more. The relevant epithets, titles, and passages are collected and classified in fifteen indices of well over a hundred pages (pp. 381–507). There can be little doubt that this is a "data-driven" study, and the ten chapters analyzing these elements as the "relations of power" all build up from the indices.

So how good is the index? Quite good. Without indexing the inscriptions oneself, it is difficult to assess the indices' comprehensiveness, or the rigor of the indexing system's criteria, which are not always clearly stated. But a spot-check of three topoi suggests that the system is internally consistent and dependable. The topos "geopolitical setting," for instance, is numbered 1.7.1. Of the seven texts associated with this topos Indices 1 and 2 (pp. 381–406), six are discussed on pp. 32–36, with one omitted. Those pages of discussion mention three other texts that are not associated with this topos in the indices. 2 For a second case, the topos "master builder" (4.3) shows much the same treatment: 61 of the 70 inscriptions so indexed are discussed in the relevant chapter (pp. 103–13), with only nine omitted.3 Seven more texts are mentioned in the chapter, but not in the index.4 Finally, the sources for the topos "pacifying the foreign animals" (5.2) are very well accounted for: of 26 indexed sources, 25 are mentioned in the chapter (pp. 133–40), and two sources are not so identified in the index.5 So there is a little discrepancy between the sections; but only a little: and so the correspondence between the two main parts of the book sits in the range of about 85% dependability or better. This seems perfectly sufficient to illustrate the topoi discussed. At the same time, it may be a little bothersome to anyone intending to use the discussion and indices by themselves as definitive or exhaustive guides to any particular topos in the corpus.

The chapters that treat the indexed information, however, are more descriptive than analytic, and the payoff of the book's conclusions are less insightful than one might hope for after such a milling of a monumental amount of data. Structurally, the problem is hinted at by three hundred pages of reportage followed by a four page conclusion to the book. Strategically, it is indicated by the consistent stress on ideas and motifs in the sources as they are "portrayed," "depicted," "modeled," "expressed," "conveyed," "thematized," etc.—but with relatively little attention to questioning why specific ideological presentations were particularly timely or effective in historical context.

Stylistically, the discussion of each section is organized in three ways. First, there is a narrativization of the data points. This is made somewhat awkward by the parenthetic insertion of the many text sigla, which are not conducive to smooth reading,6 but typically have the benefit of basic completeness. Next follows a thorough review, almost an annotated bibliography, of the secondary literature relevant to the topic. And at the end of each section is a one-paragraph summary of two-to-four sentences, usually with the incipit: "Summing up…". Though the conclusions themselves are consistent with the data, this structure does not support the development of larger, overarching arguments from evidence. Many of the conclusions seem to recapitulate—as proofs, by adducing all available data—many long- and already-accepted ideas: that there was little or no export of an imperial Assyrian religion to conquered lands; neither was the project inflected by ethnic concerns; that the king was presented as a priest and servant of the gods; etc. The need to "prove" such points in this scientific way is not clear.

A range of qualitative analysis is undertaken, however, and some of it yields interesting results. On the less strong side, for the "master builder" motif (4.3), the summation is only that "I have argued that the king's role as master builder for the great gods is much attested in the sources, above all in the textual narrative." This does not say much more than that the theme indexed from the texts indeed appears in those texts. For "pacifying the foreign animals" (5.2), there is a little more, as the author stresses (as elsewhere in the book) that the chaotic nature of the foreign lands inheres in their (changeable) state of non-submission, rather than in their (enduring, timeless) foreignness, which is indeed a point worth making.

As a stronger example, for "Ashurnasirpal II and local propaganda" (7.2), there is the interesting proposal that ideological messaging was more standardized at Kalhu than at Nineveh, even if (p. 278) their two standard inscriptions do not bear any "striking differences in content." There is the further comparison made of inscriptions and reliefs from the Assyrian heartland to those from the further provinces, contrasting the former's "centralizing" style against the latter's localism. This is a bit tautological, in that the texts adduced from Guzana, Shadikanni, and Dur-Katlimmu were produced by local governors rather than the king; but potentially useful in comparison to the situation in the following reign of Shalmaneser III, in which sources for "distant provincial areas … are extremely sparse" (p. 281). These are ideas both original vis-à-vis the existing literature, and derive from the analytic method on which the book is organized.

And so the ideas scattered throughout the book are buried here and there, some of them fresh and interesting. But there is little theory to bind this material together. Despite some dutiful and formal attention to theories of all kinds (world systems, gender theory, reciprocity), there is not enough useful application of it. To give a brief example, the discussion of "reciprocity" proposes as "reciprocal" that the lack-of-punishment subjects received was an "exchange" for their submission and tribute. This takes royal ideology too much at face value and fits it awkwardly onto a theoretical framework; a more jaundiced view of things would be welcome here, with this phenomenon explained.

To take a further example, one of the most definitive conclusions of the book is that the early Neo-Assyrian period introduced a particular stress on iconographic as against epithetic presentation. This is potentially quite an important point to make, and a long catalog of images seems to prove it. But—already leaving aside the fact that no Old Assyrian and little Middle Assyrian material exists (as the author acknowledges) to support the comparative claim that this was an innovation or revolution—no discussion is offered as to why this should be the case, or for what reasons it changed. What in the political culture or social world made a new stress in visual or iconic presentation possible, desirable, or effective? Presumably one answer is: "an empire"; but this by itself seems terribly circular. Especially given the background conservatism of the textual tradition, observed changes like this ought to be loaded with explanatory power. But the discussion is only thematically brought together under a rubric of "continuity and change," which deflects explanation instead of making it.

We may look forward to future work from this scholar that takes on more focused forms and topics; this work is promising in that direction. We may also hope that he is better served by future editors: the book's numerous grammatical errors, missing words, wrong words, awkward phrasings, etc., often come to the point that it is difficult to know what the author means. This must be partly the author's fault, but here I cast no stones, since I myself have never published a single word in a language other than my own (nor, frankly, would I dare to do so). But where were the editors in this process? It cannot be the purpose of a press to simply put manuscripts between two covers (and then charge $182 for them). Scholars at the beginning of their careers are not well served by monographic series that do not provide basic editorial services for the manuscripts they accept for publication. The editors would do well to renew their efforts in these matters.


1.   The last work of this sort for the period was Mario Liverani's landmark essay on most prolific king of the period, Aššurnaṣirpal II (883–859 bc): Studies on the Annals of Ashurnasirpal II (Rome: Università di Roma "La Sapienza", 1992).
2.   An3E7, SE17, and SA5E4.
3.   AE101 and 148; SE 1, 3, 21, 36, and 37; TN2E3; and An3E5.
4.   SE39, An3E42, TN2E5, SI6 and 13, AI17 and 18.
5.   AI4, AE17.
6.   The system of abbreviations developed here is not an improvement on the existing sigla it proposes to simplify, e.g., that "An3E17" is either much easier to use or more informative than "[A.0.]104.17." The book also uses a combination of in- text and footnoted bibliographic citations. The intent is to simplify and clarify, but the result is a clutter.

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