BMCR 2014.10.32

The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy. (Translated by Soraia Tabatabai; first published 1988)

, The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy. (Translated by Soraia Tabatabai; first published 1988). London; New York: Routledge, 2014. xxiv, 619. ISBN 9780415679060. $59.95 (pb).


Twenty-six years after the 1988 publication of Antico Oriente: storia società economia, Mario Liverani and Routledge have provided an English translation and a “fully revised” edition of this classic work. In the preface to the original edition, Liverani asserted that a history of the ancient Near East (ANE) should be written anew, “requir[ing] radical revisions at least every generation or so” (xxii). The present review evaluates whether this new, updated edition of Liverani’s history adequately accomplishes this task. Moreover, I assess the volume both as a work of historiography and a potential pedagogical standard for courses on ancient Near Eastern history for the English reading classroom.

On the whole, Liverani’s history of the ANE is a model of historiography, a well-rounded treatment of the variegated sources, languages, kingdoms, and peoples. The narrative is readable, with adequate sprinklings of illustrative primary sources. The first two chapters, “The Ancient Near East as a historical problem” and “The geography of the Ancient Near East,” should be required reading. In these initial chapters, Liverani discusses the particular problems which an ancient Near Eastern historian faces and lays out his own methodological approaches. Specialists working in the ANE and their students, as well as general historians, who must wrestle with the gaps between the source material and idealistic reconstruction, would benefit from Liverani’s discussion of historiographical method. Liverani weds the details of political, economic, and social history through the narrative of each chapter without losing either the broader historical framework or his readers. With few exceptions, the methodology remains as fundamentally valuable in 2014 as the original edition in 1988. In some of the details and arguments, however, the volume’s quarter century old origins are exposed.

Liverani’s history examines the Near East chronologically from the Neolithic until the Persian Empire (500 B.C.E.) and geographically from the Iranian plateau to Anatolia, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. These choices leave the Alexandrian Empire and subsequent kingdoms to Classical historians and largely ignore the history of the Arabian Peninsula, except for occasional points of contact with the peoples and kingdoms with which Liverani deals more extensively. Such arbitrary restrictions are, of course, necessary, if unfortunate.

In the former case, the Near East in the Hellenistic world has much to offer about which many modern Classical historiographies remain biased or ignorant. One thinks of the many intellectual advancements cultivated during the period, such as the explosion of mathematical astronomy in Babylonia or the inscribing of some biblical literature. The myriad ways in which Near Eastern societies accommodated, adapted to, and interacted with Hellenistic cultures has been the subject of much literature. The political history of the Ptolemies and Seleucids, the re-founding of Nineveh and Assur, the establishment of Selucia on the Tigris, and late Babylonian temple economy would have been worthy subjects for an additional chapter. Since the two other standard English language histories of the ANE (Kuhrt, 1995 and van de Mieroop, 2007) similarly end at the coming of Alexander, the need remains for an updated history of this period from a Near Eastern, rather than Classical viewpoint for English readers.1

The volume alternates between a chronologically and geographically oriented structure. This move is absolutely necessary to allow for a unity in the narrative, uninterrupted by shifting to other regions. Liverani can thus discuss, for example, the political history and society of the Neo-Assyrian Empire as a whole, without needing to discuss the Levantine tributary states as background to the military campaigns in Syria and Palestine. At times, however, the structure forces the inclusion of historical events and characters before they have been properly introduced or could be adequately discussed. The Battle of Qarqar is mentioned in passing as an important military encounter six different times, but is never actually described nor its significance substantiated.

Liverani’s analysis is strongest in the late second millennium and early first millennium. His familiarity with the primary material for the Late Bronze Age states and the Neo-Assyrian Empire stands in contrast to his overviews of the early second millennium and late third millennium. For the former, he is much more transparent in his sources, indicating when he relies on royal inscriptions or a single literary source. For the Middle Bronze Age and earlier, he is reliant on the work of others and so is less forthcoming with his source material. This occasionally results in assertions without explicit grounding, such as his contrast of the role of the palace against the private sector during the Old Babylonian period (242–43). Liverani’s approach may simply reflect the nature of the evidence for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. The historical reconstruction of the late third millennium and early second millennium in Mesopotamia is heavily reliant on hundreds, even thousands, of archival documents and therefore may involve too much documentation for a historical overview. Some of the same issues emerge in Liverani’s discussion of Neo-Babylonian economy and culture due to similar numbers of archival sources.

An added side effect of Liverani’s lack of source transparency is a tendency to rely too much on later developments to interpret the data from earlier periods, especially when extensive and clear data is lacking. Such is the case particularly for the late fourth and early third millennia. Note, for example, his discussion of kingship in the Early Dynastic period (108–109), which draws on literary sources known from the early second millennium or later, such as the myth of Adapa. Other errors emerge from the process, such as a reference to the royal management of the palace ( e 2 -gal) in the Late Uruk period (80), despite the lack—to my knowledge—of any clear reference in the Late Uruk texts to e 2 -gal as a royal palace.2 This tactic has the effect of flattening source material across centuries and millennia. The approach, while not uncommon in Assyriology or other fields of antiquity, exposes a lack of historiographical meticulousness in an otherwise fine work of historical reconstruction.

Similarly, his discussion of multilingualism in the Old Babylonian period provides another example of Liverani’s occasional failure to differentiate historical periods for the reader. He references a trilingual list (the so-called Emesal vocabulary) with columns for words in regular Sumerian dialect, the alternative Emesal dialect, and Akkadian (202). This list, however, is not attested until later in the second millennium at Middle Assyrian Assur. Liverani does not intend to write an intellectual history of the sources from Babylonia and Assyria, so perhaps he can be forgiven such a lapse. His decision in this revised edition to largely ignore the contextualization and development of Babylonian and Assyrian intellectual contributions disregards some of the more important developments in Assyriology since the original edition.

Other aspects of the volume overlook recent advancements in the field, reflecting the lack of radical revision that Liverani demanded for a new history of the ANE. His discussion of the Middle Assyrian kingdom makes no mention of the hundreds of texts published since 2000 or the resulting alterations to our understanding of the period. Liverani’s brief allusions to the Sealand dynasty also indicate no interaction with Stephanie Dalley’s 2009 publication of nearly 500 texts that help to fill some of our historical ignorance of the post-Old Babylonian record. In his discussion of the Ur III state economy, there is no discussion of recent debates regarding the role of merchants acting within the economy and the repercussions on our understanding of the socio-economic history of the Ur III administration.3

Perhaps the most obvious indication of the volume’s original publication date is Liverani’s handling of cultural change or differences. Too often, he defaults to rudimentary ethnically based conventions for what are certainly more varied and complicated factors. In years past, the field erected dichotomies such as Sumerian/Akkadian, Sumerian/Amorite, Kassite/Babylonian, Babylonian/Assyrian, Judean/Moabite, Hattic/Indo-European, or Aramean/Hittite. Liverani’s volume maintains these distinctions, attributing tendencies toward social structures such as tribalism to homogenous ethnic populations, namely the Amorites or Arameans. Studies over the last two decades offer alternative explanations for cultural shifts based on, for example, the anthropological concepts of identity and hybridity.4

From a pedagogical viewpoint, the text is logically organized and written for the non-expert reader. Maps at the beginning of each chapter or section showing all toponyms referenced would have been extremely helpful. Too often, Liverani discusses cities as though the reader has an innate knowledge of ancient geography. The lack of reference is more frustrating when the narrative indicates locations in relation to others, but offers no spatial orientation for the reader. The Google satellite images are excellent additions; dates of accession should have been included given the changing landscape of some of the sites. The illustrative primary sources are uneven and relatively sparse, but nonetheless practical. The charts for rulers of the Late Bronze Age states and Neo-Hittite and Neo-Assyrian empires are effective, although the indications for attested parallel rulers are not user-friendly.

While I am incapable of judging the whole of the translation, I can attest to the overall fluidity of the text. There are a few infelicities. For example, the frequently used “contraposition” is a calque from contrapposizione which, in most cases, would have been better-translated “contrast.” The translation maintains the typical way of indicating sides of a tablet in Italian with the terms recto and verso (analogous to papyri), rather than using the terms obverse and reverse. Although I never read the original edition in entirety, I have referenced it enough in previous years that I regard the present edition a worthy and faithful translation.

The few blights I have indicated here should not take away from Liverani’s The Ancient Near East as a whole. There is much that should be lauded. Very few scholars can handle the wealth of data so adroitly as Liverani. He effortlessly moves between archaeological reports, textual data, and historical interpretation in reconstructing the economies, societies, and political histories of a wide geographical area. Liverani is worthy of every accolade for not only attempting but also largely successfully navigating this task. He correctly models an approach of “reading between the lines,” attempting to access the ideological, subliminal messages of the extant data in formulating a believable and overall accurate reconstruction of the states and peoples he covers. While charges of subjectivism may be leveled against his approach, he recognizes that we cannot naively accept a positivistic reading of our textual sources. Moreover, he is explicit in his own methodologies, elaborating on what can be labeled a Marxist materialist approach to ancient economy, most obvious in his regular appraisal of modes of production. The methodological approach modeled in this volume reaffirms Liverani’s status as a world-class historian.

Liverani, the translator Soraia Tabatabai, and Routledge have gifted us with an excellent tool for the continued reconstruction and education of the ancient Near East in English. While not without its faults and not revised as thoroughly as it could have been, The Ancient Near East provides an exemplary treatment of historiographic erudition. I recommend the volume for use in university classrooms for overviews of the history of the ancient Near East, provided the deficiencies in the details are taken into consideration.


1. Such as Francis Joannès, La Mésopotamie au 1er millénaire avant J.-C. (Paris: Armand Colin, 2000).

2. Liverani is much more careful in his presentation of the early state in his Uruk: La Prima Città (Roma: Laterza, 1998; translated as Uruk: The First City [Sheffield: Equinox, 2006]). While he briefly mentions a palace, he does not construct an administrative organization surrounding the king and palace.

3. See further Steven J. Garfinkle, Entrepreneurs and Enterprise in Early Mesopotamia (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2012). Although Garfinkle’s volume was only recently published, the discussion is represented in several articles beginning in the early 2000s.

4. See e.g. Feldman, Marian. Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an ‘International Style’ in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200 BCE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).