Ancient Assyria: Economy & Trade

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  • 0:02 The Assyrian Empire
  • 0:31 Assyrian Agriculture &…
  • 2:14 Assyrian Taxes and Tribute
  • 2:48 Assyrian Trade
  • 3:28 Assyrian Resource Allocation
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

In this lesson, you will learn about the Assyrian empire's agricultural, trading, and taxation/tributary system, as well as how they allocated resources to develop a successful economy.

The Assyrian Empire

Before 1270 BCE, Assyria was just a small trading community north of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia. However, from that point until its end in 612 BCE, it became one of the greatest civilizations in the ancient world. During its reign, the skilled Assyrian military expanded its control until it included land as far west as Egypt and as far east as Persia. As the borders grew, so did Assyria's wealth.

Assyrian Agriculture & Irrigation

Farming in Assyria took place in rural areas and small agricultural communities near major cities. Slavery existed in the empire, but a majority of the farm labor was done by peasants, some of which owned the land and some of whom worked for masters.

Food was in high demand for the large population. Barley and other grains helped meet that demand. Cereals were a staple food, as was flatbread and even beer. This made barley so valuable that it was often used as a form of payment. Other crops were grown as well, such as melons, apples, and beets.

The people had to depend on fishing and hunting for their meat source. That is because Assyrian livestock was bred to be used for milk and as pack animals. Assyrians domesticated, or tamed, sheep, donkeys, and goats, as well as water buffalo and oxen. The oxen were used to pull the plows to make the land arable for farming. Horses were also imported for transportation and to serve as pack animals.

The empire had access to several river systems, but water was still an issue for farmers because the soil was prone to drying up. This problem was addressed by government leaders who undertook projects on public works to build irrigation systems. The new dams, aqueducts, and canals helped redirect the water from rivers to the nearby farms and cities. For instance, King Sennacherib had to build a dam on the Khosr River and a 30-mile long canal to bring water into the capital city of Nineveh. An artificial marsh was also created to handle overflows in the spring. His father, Sargon II, discovered the qanat system when invading Armenia. This was an underground tunnel that could bring water down from the hills. He used the idea to increase water supply to his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin.

Assyrian Taxes & Tributes

To help fund the administration of such a massive empire, the people of Assyria contributed through taxes and tributes. Those living in provinces were under the direct control of the empire. They paid taxes on everything from agriculture to transportation. These funds were then either sent directly to the king or used to fund local projects.

The vassal states were under the indirect control of the king. Allowed to maintain their hereditary kings and national identities, they still had to pay an annual tribute to the Assyrian ruler. If they did not, then the military was dispatched to forcibly collect it.

Assyrian Trade

The location of Assyrian cities on major rivers and key trade routes helped increase the empire's wealth. The city of Assur was located on an important caravan route that connected Mesopotamia to Anatolia. Assyrian merchants used the route to export textiles, or woven thread. In exchange, they received copper, silver, and gold.

Another reason for successful trading was the establishment of Karu, which were trading posts or marketplaces, as well as merchant associations. These associations took care of contract negotiations and settled disputes over debts. For efficiency, the Assyrians also developed a somewhat standardized method of exchange and weights and measure.

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