Neo-Assyrian Women Revisited

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Sarah C. Melville



In her recent book, Svärd uses theories of hierarchical and heterarchical power to reveal how women wielded power within the highest echelons of the Assyrian Empire. Svärd determines that the queen occupied a distinct position in the state hierarchy, separate from the king, and that only one woman at a time could be queen. The queen could retain her post even after the king died, though the new king could replace her if he deemed it necessary. The king decided the queen mother’s role, depending on political circumstances. Both queens and queen mothers ran large, lucrative estates and participated in religious ceremonies. During the Sargonid period, military units were attached to their households. In some official spheres of action, their power could be qualitatively similar to that of the king, and in a crisis, they could even act for him. Other women associated with the palace, such as royal daughters, female administrators, and workers, were more apt to develop power heterarchically, through petitions, negotiation, or communication networks.

Wishing to expand upon her theoretical approach, Svärd has studied diachronic changes in Assyrian queenship, concluding that the office developed to meet the needs of family and dynasty. In addition, I argue here that the demands of an expanding empire required the king to delegate authority to trusted relatives. Thus, as the empire reached its peak under the Sargonid kings, royal women naturally gained power and prominence, and kings benefited. For example, the queen’s prosperous estates and business ventures allowed her to help fund the military as well as some temples and building projects, and so defray the costs to the throne. All of this shows that Assyrian women had individual agency and authority, and could influence the king’s decisions. Despite the value of theory, it is also necessary to consider women individually, in the context of their times, and as they responded to unique circumstances.

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