Theses Doctoral

Power and Elite Competition in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, 745-612 BC

Jones, Christopher Wayne

This dissertation represents an investigation into the changing nature of political power during the final 133 years of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, seeking to understand how power functioned within the Assyrian system through studying the careers of its imperial administrators. How was power distributed between the king and his officials? What sort of relationships existed between officials and the king, and with each other? How did Assyrian officials’ careers progress? Finally, to what extent did the above shape the political history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire?

To answer these questions, this dissertation utilizes a combination of old and new approaches. Close readings of primary source documents are combined with aggregate analysis and insights from the fields of social network analysis and organizational communication. Rejecting most previous efforts at studying Assyrian imperial organization as too reliant on hierarchical models of organization, this study utilizes tools such as a Communicative Constitution of Organizations framework and Leader-Member Exchange Theory, which emphasize the importance of informal structure and interpersonal relationships in studying human organizations. Through a social network analysis of 3,864 letters which survive from the years 745-612 BC, it identifies especially influential officials during the reign of each king as well as long term changes over time in communications patterns and the types of officials who achieved prominence. This dissertation argues that Sargon II initiated a wide-ranging reform of the imperial administration, seeking to centralize power in the person of the king and the royal family through greatly expanding the number of provincial governors and other officials who reported directly to the king. These reforms increased the importance of informal hierarchy, as a few officials who managed to build close working relationships with the king could wield significant power. Sargon’s reforms structured the empire in such a way as to promote intense competition between officials for status, both between individuals and between the rival sectors of provincial government, palace administration, and the major temples.

However, this competition had unintended consequences: the large number of persons writing to the king made it more difficult for the king to acquire accurate information about conditions in the empire. Essentially a prisoner of the information being provided to them, Assyrian monarchs of the seventh century tried a variety of methods to solve this problem, including employing special agents to provide an independent source of information, consulting experts in divination to check the loyalties of their subjects, and implementing public oaths which enjoined the entire population to inform the king of potentially disloyal elements. None of these attempts were successful, and the problem of information likely contributed to a weakening of imperial control over the course of the seventh century, culminating the dramatic collapse of the empire in 612 BC.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Van de Mieroop, Marc
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2021