Updated: Jul 19
In the first half of the eighth century, Assyria had lost its ability to campaign outside its borders, and internally local officials had usurped some of the royal powers. Provincial governors were able to act with a great deal of independence, although they still had to acknowledge their subservience to the king.
This all changed with the rise of Tiglath-Pileser III. When he came to the throne, he carried out extensive reforms that focused on thwarting the powers of the governors by replacing their large provinces with smaller ones and increased their number from 12 to 25. Similarly, he made the most important military and administrative offices less powerful by assigning them to two persons rather than one. He also appointed eunuchs in high government positions so that there was no pressure for duties to be passed on from father to son.
Simultaneously, Tiglath-Pileser III initiated a policy of territorial expansion far beyond the borders that had been maintained since Middle Assyrian times. Under his reign, the Assyrian army became the most effective military force in history up to that time. He replaced the annual levy of troops from the Assyrian population with a standing professional army, using conquered people for the infantry and Assyrians as the core of the cavalry and chariotry.
The focus on expansion turned toward the Levant early in his reign, but the policy toward the region changed fundamentally. Instead of merely forcing the local states to pay tribute, their existence was gradually abolished and the regions were incorporated into the empire as provinces. This policy actually may not have been Assyria’s initial intention, but was forced upon it by the resistance of the local populations.
Ideally, Assyria did not want to exert direct control over regions beyond its traditional borders. The intention was to exact tribute and to enforce political obedience, and local rulers were left in power as long as they complied with Assyrian demands. We can distinguish three types of political arrangements with the states in the west, reflecting three stages toward their full incorporation into the empire:
Vassal states - where the local ruler remained in the charge but was to deliver annual tribute.
Puppet states - where a local man considered to be more faithful to Assyria was placed on the throne.
Provinces - ruled by a governor directly under Assyria’s control.
Acts of disobedience usually precipitated the progression from one stage to the next, and only if the arrangement failed to produce the desired results did the Assyrians reduce local autonomy further. They planned the creation of provinces strategically to maximize control and reduce direct confrontation with surrounding enemies, thus creating buffer states around core areas.
The history of Israel (which is the focus of our next series) provides a good example of how this policy operated, and shows the various stages of Assyrian control, as well as local reaction to it. The Biblical account allows us to see the non-Assyrian point of view, while the Assyrian annals give the empire’s version of events. Early in Tiglath-Pileser’s reign, the Israelite Menahem provided tribute voluntarily and was left in peace. After his death, his son Pekahiah was almost immediately assassinated by the anti-Assyrian Pekah in 735 B.C., supported by Damascus and by the population, who resented the heavy payments.
In 734 B.C., Tiglath-Pileser III campaigned along the Syrian coast and turned the regions there into provinces. Only in 732 B.C. did he advance against Damascus, the focus of opposition to Assyria, which he incorporated into the empire. At the same time, the northern parts of Israel were likewise made Assyrian provinces. Tiglath-Pileser III claims that the people of Israel overthrew Pekah and replaced him with a pro-Assyrian ruler, Hoshea, an act certainly prompted by his military presence nearby.
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