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8-10-2015, 07:37

The demographic and political crisis

The three great figures of Tiglath-pileser I for Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar I for Babylonia, and Shilhak-Inshushinak for Elam, give the illusion that the great crisis, which affected the western regions of Near East at the beginning of the twelfth century bc, had not affected the powers east of the Euphrates. In reality, the crisis was only postponed by a couple of centuries, and definitely affected all three states at the beginning of the tenth century bc. As mentioned above, Elam entered a completely obscure phase, while Babylonia and Assyria both experienced the worst phase of their history. The delay of the crisis of the three powers was partly due to its general movement from west to east. It was also partly due to the ability of these three great powers to react to a degree that may appear useless and unrealistic from a long-term perspective. However, at that moment, this reaction was the result of the intervention of talented leaders, extensive mobilisations, and high levels of cultural originality.

The great crisis that followed had demographic, political, and cultural consequences. In terms of demography and production, the crisis is particularly visible in Babylonia (Figure 27.3). Archaeological evidence (in terms of surveys of settlements) reveals a further decline from the Kassite period. The latter phase had

The demographic and political crisisThe demographic and political crisis

Figure 27.3 The crisis of Lower Mesopotamia. Above, right: De-population in the Kassite period (1200—700 bc); Below: The marshes of Lower Mesopotamia in a relief from Nineveh.

Been already in decline in comparison to the Old Babylonian period. The decline from the Kassite to the ‘Middle Babylonian’ period has been quantified on the basis of the reduction to a half of its production levels for the Nippur area (which was relatively protected from wars and invasions and quite productive), and to less than a quarter for the Diyala region (more exposed to Assyrian and Elamite destructions). In both cases, the crisis affected more the cities than the villages. It is conceivable that, in proportion, areas more exposed to nomadic infiltrations or devastations from the Elamite wars, namely, the south and east, experienced a more visible decline. Overall, there was a truly sudden decline, and the total population regressed to the levels of the Early or Proto-urban phase (ca. 2500 years earlier).

The causes and characteristics of the crisis were both old and new. The long-term causes (the salini-sation of agricultural fields, the collapse of the network of irrigation canals, and the decline of the local administrative systems) were combined with the effects of the more recent wars, the political instability, and the invasions. The latter eventually led to famines and epidemics, a drastic reduction of the population, and low birth rates. A symbolic example of this decline is the appearance of cannibalism as a literary topos. This topos was clearly developed to show the extent of the crisis among the population, whose undernourishment almost led them to the tragic decision of ‘eating their own children’.

The issue of political instability did not affect Assyria (which was rather afflicted by dynastic rivalries), but brought to the collapse of Elam to the point of making any evidence for this phase inaccessible. However, it predominantly affected Babylonia. After the end of the dynasty of Isin, a sequence of shortlived dynasties of different and often foreign origins came to power, but their authority was not well established in the land. Firstly, three kings of the ‘Second Dynasty of the Sealand’ re-emerged from the far south to control Babylonia. They ruled for around twenty years (ca. 1025—1005 bc). Then there were three kings of the dynasty of Bazi, originally from somewhere along the Tigris. This dynasty ruled for another twenty years (ca. 1005—985 bc). It was followed by only one king of an ‘Elamite’ dynasty, who ruled for only six years. Finally, there was the ‘dynasty of E’, whose enigmatic name is documented in the Babylonian King List. The exact duration of this dynasty is uncertain, due to a break in the King List.

The already scanty evidence for this phase progressively leads us into a completely obscure phase. This gap in the evidence lasts until some Assyrian attestations from the end of the ninth and the beginning of the eighth centuries bc provide further evidence to date a number of Babylonian kings: Shamash-mudammiq (contemporary to Adad-nirari II), Nabu-shum-ukin (contemporary of Adad-nirari II and Tukulti-Ninurta II), and Nabu-apla-iddina (contemporary of Ashurnasirpal II and a relatively important ruler). The lack of evidence is not due to the archaeological excavations. The lack of archival and administrative texts, which were already decreasing during the Second Dynasty of Isin, is a clear reflection of the administrative chaos of the time. Unsurprisingly, the only royal inscriptions from this phase have been found on kudurrus (FigUre 27.4), weapons from Luristan, bricks, and rare votive inscriptions. This was also due to the very few military expeditions and building programmes pursued.

Considering this severe lack of detailed evidence, a ‘sense’ of this phase can be partly gathered from pseudo-historical and religious/literary texts. These texts not only refer to, but also partly originated in this period. Chronicles reflect the political uncertainty and poverty of the time. They provide the characteristic ‘indicators’ of the crisis, such as prices or the celebration of the New Year festival. At times, the festival could not be celebrated, indicating that the inhabitants could not leave the city and travel between Borsippa and Babylon. Chronicles and omens brought to the development of the so-called ‘prophecies’. These prophecies narrated the history of past kingdoms as if they still had to develop in the future, mainly in order to predict their uncertain outcome. The kingdoms are anonymous and often difficult for us to identify due to our lack of information for this phase (which would have been known to the audience of the time). However, they are often characterised by a sequence of misfortunes (from famines to invasions, wars, and usurpations), recoveries, and fleeting successes.

It therefore appears that the society of the time had lost its former confidence in the centrality and continuity of kingship. The latter used to be the guiding force and the ultimate authority in the land, due

The demographic and political crisis

1  The crescent moon of the moon-god Sin.

2  Venus, star of Istitar.

3  Solar disk of the sun-god Shamash.

4-5 Tiara with horns of the supreme gods Anu and Eniil,

6 Ram-headed mace and capricorn of the god of water Ea.

Dog of the healing goddess Gula,

Scorpio ot the goddess of war Ishara.

Panther-headed mace of the heroic god Ninurta.

Bird-headed mace of the god of war Zababa.

Wali and mushuS&u dragon of the god of wisdom Nabu.

Double I Ion-headed sceptre of the underworld god Nergal.

Lamp of the god of fire Nusku.

Bull and lightning bolt of the storm-god Adad.

Spear of the god of Babylon Marduk.

Standing bird of the messenger god Papsukkal,

Bird on a perch of the Kassite divine couple Shuqamuna and Shumalia. Snake of the god of justice Ishtaran.

Figure 27.4 The top of a kudurru from the reign of Marduk-apla-iddina found in Susa, showing eighteen divine emblems.

To its exclusive connection with the divine. Kingship now became an ambiguous institution, combining positive and negative aspects, in a fluctuation that was difficult to understand. The only possible solution was to hope in a better future, which could arrive all of a sudden and without any particular reason, just like the misfortunes afflicting the land. This genre of texts mainly seems to belong to the Neo-Babylonian period, but it is likely that its roots originated in this critical phase of Babylonian history.

Finally, there are two literary texts that best represent the main characteristics of this phase. Regarding the Poem of Erra, it is difficult to establish whether it refers to a particular episode or it is more concerned with a general account of the devastations and destructions caused by nomadic incursions in the Babylonian cities. The poem’s tone is theological. It explains an episode of destruction and revival that afflicted Nippur, Babylon, Uruk, Sippar, Dur-Kurigalzu, and Der (namely, the entire Babylonian kingdom). These cities were at the centre of the destructive attack of the god Erra and his subsequent withdrawal. The agents of these destructions are the nomads (Sutians), famines, and plagues. Erra was the god of plagues and many passages from this poem were later inscribed on amulets to protect from diseases, further increasing this deity’s popularity. Therefore, apart from a potential connection with the destruction brought by the Arameans, the poem provides a useful representation of the overall sense of insecurity in Babylonia. This insecurity was caused by the nomadic incursions in Babylonia, and the overall decline in terms production and demography resulting from this situation. The poem’s theological interpretation of the crisis (namely, divine anger) recommends fideistic and magical remedies. Political and military solutions are seen as even more unrealistic and pointless. Admittedly, this was a common problem in Babylonian history. However, the centuries of Aramean infiltration (tenth to eighth century bc) made the situation far more unstable and worrying.

The other important literary text is the so-called ‘Advice to a Prince’ (Text 27.2). It deals with the topic of good government, and provides an interesting point of view on Babylonian internal political affairs. The Poem of Erra has been tentatively dated between the reigns of Adad-apla-iddina (eleventh century bc) to Nabu-apla-iddina (ninth century bc) on very little evidence, but still represents the condition of the Mesopotamian world during the Aramean invasions. Similarly, there have been some attempts at dating the Advice to a Prince with precision (even as late as the reign of Sennacherib). Despite the fact that this text cannot be dated with any precision, it is still a useful text for a general reconstruction of the first millennium bc.

The text is interesting both in terms of structure and content. In terms of the former, the text re-uses the genre of omens applied to a series of relatively homogeneous causes and effects. These are mostly sociopolitical, thus easy to connect to each other: if a king behaves in a certain way in the administration of justice, or of exemptions, and so on, he will succeed; if, however, a king is too strict and arrogant, he will fail. The text therefore shows an implicitly polemic attitude towards the tradition of predicting the future from external phenomena (such as the position of stars or the characteristics of livers). On the contrary, it displays a distinct desire to provide a political reason to political developments. This is the pinnacle of a tendency that had brought personal omens to become more physiognomic and behavioural in the Kassite period. In other words, it was a long process that slowly shifted from more artificial and magical omens to more human and social ones. The process therefore moved from an idea of the existence of a connection between every aspect of nature, to the careful analysis of only the pertinent aspects.

In terms of content, the Advice to a Prince provides a window into the relationship between royal control and the autonomy of the cities. The political and administrative crisis had forced each city to look after itself. Rather than governors appointed by the kingdom, temples acted as the real centres of local resources and activities. Indeed, temples could rely on their millenary tradition, administrative structure, prestige, and ability to motivate the population. They therefore required and obtained from the kings (probably the weakest ones) a certain degree of autonomy and various exemptions from tributes and obligations (defined with the terms kidinnu in Kassite and zakutu in Akkadian). They also had a certain degree of self-government for the administration ofjustice and of the cities’ internal affairs.

When a ‘strong’ (an adjective that had a negative connotation in the omen tradition from as early as the Old Babylonian period) king attempted to abolish exemptions, and regain control over the situation and over the cities’ resources, the cities would react accusing the king of bad government, arrogance, disregard of the ancient traditions, and arbitrariness in the abolition of exemptions solemnly promised by his predecessors. The image of the unfair and arrogant king depicted in the Advice to a Prince is so negative, that it has been suggested that it represents a foreign king (maybe Assyrian) provoking a reaction on a national

Scale. However, it is possible that this image referred to any Babylonian king who was trying to enforce the central structure of the kingdom, but whose interests were by now too far from the ones of the land’s temples and cities.