The Age of Empires:
Mesopotamia in the First Millennium BC

Francis Joannès

translated from the French by Antonia Nevill
Edinburgh University Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
In The Age of Empires Joannès presents an overview of Mesopotamia — Assyria and Babylonia — in the first millennium BC. He begins with an introduction which touches on the geography of ancient Mesopotamia and its historical traditions, the modern "rediscovery" of Assyria and the decipherment and use of cuneiform texts, and topics in historiography, from the Bible to oriental despotisms and universal empires.

Three chapters cover the neo-Assyrian Empire from 934 to 610 BCE, looking at political history, military and imperial organisation, and the court political system. Three chapters cover Babylonia from 900 to 539 BCE, looking at politics, economic and social life, and religion and scribal culture. And two chapters cover the satrapy of Babylonia under the Achaemenids and Seleucids. This material gives an outline of the political and military history, the apparatus of imperial rule, and the life and economics of the great religious sanctuaries. It also reveals something of urban life, especially in Babylonia, and of the religious and scholarly cultural traditions that continued throughout the period.

This is a broad overview and The Age of Empires largely avoids details of specific sites or archaeological digs. Each chapter, however, concludes with one or two documents (in translation) along with a detailed analysis. These include:

These are some of the most interesting parts of Age of Empires and give it immediacy as well as conveying a feel for the kinds of documentary sources that exist.

Joannès also avoids using anachronistic or potentially misleading modern terminology for occupations, legal terms, and so forth, instead using contemporary terms and providing a ten page glossary. This runs from adê — "a sworn covenant binding his subjects or vassals to the king by an oath of absolute loyalty. Used chiefly in the Assyrian empire, the term was current until the beginning of the Persian period in Babylonia" — to urâšu — "Service due to the king or his government in Achaemenid Babylonia by certain holders of lands, in the form of offers of service (hauling boats) or deliveries of farm produce." The other supplementary material consists of a few maps and dynastic king lists.

One drawback is that, apart from the sources of the document excerpts, no references are provided and the bibliography contains just one page of general works — volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History, Georges Roux's Ancient Iraq, and suchlike. These are all in English, so perhaps the French original had references and a more substantial bibliography.

The Age of Empires is an excellent survey, suitable for students or general readers approaching first millennium Mesopotamia for the first time, or for those wanting some understanding of the documentary sources for the period.

April 2008

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%T The Age of Empires
%S Mesopotamia in the First Millennium BC
%A Joannès, Francis
%M French
%F Nevill, Antonia
%I Edinburgh University Press
%D 2004 [2000]
%O paperback, glossary, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0748617566
%P 292pp