Ancient Office Politics – with perilous consequences

To inspire you on your historical fiction journey, I am going to introduce you to some real-life ancient Near Eastern stories. Today we will explore the inner office drama of the priests of the brutal Neo-Assyrian empire. 

The Neo-Assyrian (911 – 609BCE) empire extended at its peak from Egypt in the west, Susa to the east, and Lake Van to the north. At the time it was the largest empire the world had ever seen. Its power was likely as a result of its cruel and murderous military expeditions which often ended in mass deportations of local populations and inhumane prisoner treatment. 

However, Assyrian dominance relied on several factors. Kingship was important, most of the kings put significant emphasis on their image as military commanders but also as city builders, controllers of the critical rivers the Tigris and the Euphrates, and faithful patrons of the gods. Many of these themes we see illustrated on palace reliefs in Nineveh, Dur-Sharrukin, and Nimrud, or on rock reliefs throughout the Assyrian empire. 

Patronage of the gods was not just celebrated on reliefs, in Neo-Assyria the temples served at the behest of the king (unlike neighbouring Babylon). Armies of ‘priests’ looked after the gods in their temples, they read their messages by interpreting omens from a multitude of sources including sheep livers and the night sky, and sung lamentation songs to soothe their hearts.

Holding a ‘priestly’ office therefore came with a significant amount of responsibility and they could easily find themselves out of a job if they upset the king. In the Neo-Assyrian archives, we have access to letters which give us an insight into the struggles and desperation of those who found themselves out of favour with the Assyrian royalty.

One unnamed priest writes to the Assyrian king (likely Esarhaddon, 680-669BCE, or Assurbanipal, 669-631~BCE) to complain about the actions of Pulu, a lamentation priest (kalû) working at the temple of Nabû at Kalhu (Nimrud). 

“Without the permission of the king, he tore out doorposts, fastened others, and cut down the … in the Akitu house of N[abû] and the Akitu house of Tašmetu.” 

Alongside this accusation of arbitrary and reckless behaviour, this disgruntled letter writer takes aim at changes in the rituals of the temple. 

“Moreover, the king’s father set up golden bottles of …-liter capacity (with) royal images on them. They would fill with wine the one in front of Bel and the one in front of Nabû. They would be decanted. The wine was the palace allotment. Now this has been stopped. He himself measures out the wine and carries it in.” 

The writer is clearly unconvinced by Pulu’s bohemian approach to the sacred traditions and cleverly invokes the king’s father to try and convince him of Pulu’s indiscretions.  The complainer may be using the connection as a way of tugging at the king’s heart strings and familial connections or perhaps he is emphasising that this is a tradition that should not be abandoned. It could also be a subtle way of questioning the king’s judgement by suggesting that, unlike his father, he can’t control the whims of a rebellious priest. We can’t be sure of the exact reason, but it is certainly evidence that this letter of complaint was not written in haste but was composed with significant attention. 

The letter of complaint against Pulu (SAA 13 134)

The following paragraph may provide insight into the true motivations behind this letter. 

“And formerly, when my father supervised the house of eunuchs ordinary beer from groats was decanted, and he used to inspect [new] and old (beer) at the same time.”

Here we realise that the father of the person writing this letter used to occupy the position that Pulu now holds. In Babylon, priestly roles were often inherited by their sons, likely as a result of education, but also because families would own ‘prebends’ which essentially paid them for completing a cultic duty. However, the Neo-Assyrian kings controlled who had roles in the temple, therefore, a family of talented priests could find themselves destitute very quickly. The complainer is trying to convince the king that the writer’s father did the job much better than Pulu, the earlier invocation of the ‘king’s father’ is therefore likely a way of emphasising the duty the author’s family has shown in serving the royalty. He is painting the writer’s family as someone who can be trusted to uphold the ancient traditions of the gods and presenting Pulu as someone who is acting above his station and threatening the sanctity of the office. He is effectively telling the king that ‘it is irresponsible to keep Pulu in office, he stands for chaos, whereas my family brought (and will bring) order and respect to the position.’

The letter lists more of Pulu’s behaviour. 

“All the precious stones and jewelery are under his custody; he does not show them to anybody with him.”

“He also does the work of the woman who carries out the lighting ceremony for Tašmetu. Nobody with him sees (her), neither the deputy priest, nor the temple steward, nor the king’s official know.”

We do not have the king’s reply and we have no more tablets that suggest Pulu was removed from office and it seems that he had a good relationship with the king. There are several tablets where Pulu warns or advises the king (he even sends a sheep’s kidney for the king’s extispicy priests to inspect). Therefore, we are safe to assume that this letter was ignored or at least no significant action was taken. 

It is clear to see the desperation of the tablet’s author in some of the final lines of the text. 

“Why does [NN] serve [in] my father’s [o]ffice while I am dying of hunger?”

For whatever reason, the king believed that the tablet’s author’s family should no longer occupy the office of the lamentation priest at Kalhu and replace them with Pulu. It is not hard to imagine the hatred that the author might harbour for Pulu, who has taken over the role that would have kept his family fed and comfortable. Without any income the author claims destitution and pleads with the king to help him, his accusations against Pulu are likely fabricated or exaggerated out of desperation. A daunting reminder that ancient priestly office politics often had disastrous consequences for the losers in 1st millennium BCE Assyria. 

There are thousands of letters to read in the Neo-Assyrian archives – go search for them here: 

To read the above letter in full go here:

For more priestly drama, SAA 10 or SAA 13 are the best sections to look at. Here are some of my favourite letters: 

The king is sad about his ill child:

A priest tells the king to not stay in bed all day:

A priest apologises for not writing sooner:  N.B → It is interesting as it reveals how fast the communication and delivery of tablets may have been. 

A priest is frustrated by an incompetent astrologer: 

Keep coming back to this blog as I will be sharing more fascinating Mesopotamian and Near Eastern real-life stories in the coming weeks. 

If you want to take part in our inaugural historical fiction competition follow this link to find out more.

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