The Origins of Tribute
The Egyptian kings are not the only ones to view the acquisition of goods from abroad as implying the superiority of the receiver. The boast of Tukulti-Ninurta to be ‘one who receives the burdensome contributions of the four quarters in the city Ashur’ 1 is in the same vein. Are all the contributions recorded in the middle-Assyrian royal inscriptions regarded as real tribute? Or, to be more precise: do the suppliers also regard them as such? This is difficult to ascertain from the stereotyped language and unifying ideology of the inscriptions. In reality it seems that sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. For instance, in a text of ‘Tiglat-pileser I’ we find three passages (in close sequence and using the same terminology) each of which must be evaluated differently.
In the first case the existence of some kind of tributary relationships seems obvious: ‘I subdued at my feet 30 kings of the Nairi lands. I took hostages from them, received their tribute (madattu) of teams of horses in harness, and imposed upon them tax and impost.’ 2 This is a summary of more detailed accounts in earlier inscriptions, where military pressure is given emphasis and the conquest is described as a real fact.
But the same text continues with a quite different episode: ‘I conquered the entire land of Amurru. I received tribute (madattu) from the lands of Byblos, Sidon and Arwad.’ 3 Here a tributary relationship cannot be realistically imagined. The area is far away from the military reach of Assyria, and the expedition remains isolated and driven more by ideological and commercial than military concerns. No military encounter is mentioned and the ‘tribute’ is not established as a regular obligation in the future. Other features of the text also suggest that this expedition was conceived as a largely peaceful one which would be more likely to issue in trade relations than in compulsory tribute. These include the details of the tribute itself (‘I received a crocodile and a large female ape of