Opening the Mediterranean: Assyria, the Levant and the Transformation of Early Iron Age Trade

Article excerpt


The evidence for structures of exchange in the Early Iron Age Mediterranean has been rationalised in many ways, variable in terms of both the evidence selected and the arguments applied. However, the most pervasive and tenacious explanation has been based upon a coreperiphery model, which approaches the expansion of Phoenician commerce in the Early Iron Age by conceptualising it as flowing from a largely eastern Mediterranean core to the western Mediterranean periphery. Thus the Early Iron Age expansion has been interpreted as a direct function of Neo-Assyrian imperialism (Frankenstein 1979), an idea that has circulated in the work of many scholars (Shaw 1989; Kuhrt 1995: 403-410; Coldstream 2003: 240-41, 359; Fantalkin 2006).

The basic outline of the argument is that Phoenicia and Assyria operated as a 'core' with a westward-moving 'periphery', beginning with Cyprus and the Aegean and moving to the western Mediterranean as the demands of the Assyrian state increased. To begin with, the Phoenician cities put themselves in positions of importance to the Assyrians, thereby gaining advantageous treatment from them, not only by producing valuable commodities and luxuries, but also by supplying the demands of the Assyrian 'war machine' for iron (Frankenstein 1979: 272). With time, however, "the Assyrian demands forced the Phoenician cities to become suppliers of raw materials for the production centres of trading partners and in order to obtain these raw materials the Phoenician cities had to enlarge their trading sphere"; thus the Phoenicians had to expand into the western Mediterranean in search of ever more resources and more profitable rates of exchange (Frankenstein 1979: 273).

The argument is attractive and has remained so for more than 30 years, but however much it is rephrased or reprised, it remains flawed in irs essence. The core-periphery model entails that peripheries are placed in positions of dependency upon 'dominant' core areas, and not only did Frankenstein originally fail to demonstrate this, but it is arguable whether such a relationship could have existed. Most importantly, however, the model is chronologically unsound. The movement of both Phoenicians and Greeks began in the late ninth and early eighth centuries, at the precise moment when Assyrian power in the east underwent a decline from the succession of Shamshi-Adad V (824 BC) until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC).

For both Phoenicians and Greeks (Frederiksen 1979: 284), the "search for metals" is generally accepted as a prime mover, simply because it provides a convenient, almost mechanical correlation between mineral rich resources in the west and the commercial expansion in the Mediterranean, as evidenced by Levantine and Greek material from the eighth century onwards. The traditional strength of such ideas ultimately derives from the deeper influence of the homo economicus image which lies at the heart of neoMarxist conceptions of 'trade', according to which the primary motivation for trade is exclusively economic (rather than also social and/or political) and social structure is dictated by economic activities driven by exploitative relations of power.

However, changing perspectives have led to the consensus that the Early Iron Age Mediterranean was intricate and multifarious, and probably consisted of largely static regions very much dependent upon their connectivity with each other. One of the foremost scholars on the orientalising phenomenon in the Aegean, Sarah Morris, recently appreciated that "at least we have outgrown the lame use of 'trade' as a self-explanatory force" in the analysis of the Early Iron Age (Morris 2006: 67). There is, in fact, a growing emphasis in current scholarship upon context, consumption, the role of native peoples, and an understanding of the sheer complexity of the Mediterranean world (in particular in Riva & Vella 2006).

With this in mind, there should be better explanations for the expansion of Levantines--and for the development of interconnectivity in the Early Iron Age Mediterranean, matters that are to be explored in what follows. …