“The Age of Agade” by Benjamin Foster

Benjamin R. Foster. The Age of Agade: Inventing Empire in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York NY: Routledge, 2016, 438 pp..

Renowned Assyriologist Benjamin R. Foster provides a comprehensive overview of the Akkadian Period in Mesopotamian history. As opposed to arguing for a particular point, the “work is intended to be documentary and descriptive, rather than analytic or constructivist” (xvi). Naturally some scholars are skeptic of the Akkadian era; yet, as Foster is not skeptic of the Akkadian era, he recognizes the role of skepticism: it “is always useful in keeping the fervent imagination in check” (xvi). On the other hand, notes Foster, venture is necessary for gain of historical knowledge. He approaches the Akkadian era with four guiding questions, each of which “marshal a coherent choice of facts or interpretations” (xvi), not generalized explanations of cause and effect.

ageofagadeChapter One exquisitely overviews the rise and fall of Akkad, from Sargon up to Sharkalisharri. Because Foster presents the history with such clarity, resulting is a solid framework by which the reader may more successfully grasp the rest of the work, as it offers a solid, well-grounded historical framework. He then offers an overview of the people and land of Akkad, incorporating socio-religious structure and how various polities, subjected to Agade, resisted imperial, Akkadian power (Chapter Two). Incorporating archaeology into his comprehensive overview, Chapter Three succinctly summarizes a variety of centers and settlements relevant to the Akkadian Empire. With this, Foster presents his understanding of ‘”Empire”:

“”Empire” is used here in its conventional sense of supreme and extensive political dominion, presided over by dynastic rulers, who claimed extraordinary, even superhuman or divine powers. It was an entity put together and maintained by force, with provinces administered by officials sent out from the capital in the heartland” (83).

Within his discussion of Akkadian centers and settlements, two maps (51, 81) provide excellent visuals for conceptualizing the geography of the Akkadian Empire and where various important centers stood in relation to each other. The focus on geography, thus, is very valuable for readers attempting to fully understand the Akkadian era. Like Chapter One about the overview of the rise and fall of Akkad, Chapter Three, about the Akkadian centers, provides a physical framework, namely geographical, for the remainder of the book.

Zooming into everyday life in the Akkadian era, Chapter Four overviews agricultural work and diet during the period. In particular, Foster illustrates how the production of agriculture was the “gears” of the Empire. Detailing specialized practices, outside of agriculture, he presents how a variety of raw materials were utilized to propel industries and crafts. Going into nuanced details of the types of ceramics, the cost of materials, metal ratios in materials, etc., the wealth of data is fantastic for beginning any research from a perspective of materiality (Chapter Five).

Chapter Six overviews religion in the Akkadian era, seemingly covering all major issues, such as deities, temples and their workings, holy objects, oaths, festivals, and magic. As much as Fosters presentation of religion in the Akkadian era is helpful, there are two problems. First, Foster never defines “religion” or explains how the overlap of religion, government, social, economic, etc., impact how we understand religious practices in the Akkadian era. This is a consistent struggle throughout the work. While it is a comprehensive overview, readers would benefit by understanding how Foster defined terminology, especially terms which tend to have so many nuances. Additionally, Foster propels a classic argument that “Ishtar’s cultic staff included performers of rites… who in some cases cut themselves or other performers as part of the rite” (151). His argument is rooted in statements like “I have given the cult-players their daggers and goads” (346). Nothing in this statement, though, even implies some sort of self-mutilation. This is important to Ilan Peled (Ugarit-Verlag, 2016: 187-188) who argues throughout his book, Masculinities and Third Gender, that claims for self-mutilation are often too far-reaching.

In Chapter Seven, Foster describes the structure of Akkadian politics and military, consistently highlighting the Akkadian king as the head of state and military matters. Through politics and military advances, the Akkadian Empire enabled trade, business, and economic growth (Chapter Eight). Transitioning more to abstract Akkadian ideas, Foster overviews art in the ancient world, art subsuming the categories of letters and numeracy (Chapter Nine). In a similar vein, Foster examines (Chapter Ten) Akkadian human values and expression of identity.

Finally, Foster focuses on the reception of the Akkadian era (Chapter Eleven), examining how literature and legend influenced later Mesopotamian ideals and cultures. He concludes with part II of reception history: Akkadian period in modern historiography (Chapter Twelve). While the wealth of knowledge and succinct summary by Foster are absolutely notable, the most intriguing details revolve around Tyumenev, Diaknoff, Nikolski, and Van der Meer. Being written in Dutch and Russian, ideas proposed by these four scholars are relatively inaccessible. Fosters inclusion of these scholars, consequently revealing them to other scholars, will hopefully propel their inclusion in future studies of the Akkadian era. After Chapter Twelve, Foster includes three Appendixes: Akkadian royal inscriptions, works attributed to Enheduanna, and two Sumerian poems about the Akkadian period. These texts are some of the main sources for Foster. Thus, their availability is helpful to the reader.

Needless to say, Benjamin R. Foster’s comprehensive overview of the Akkadian Empire, The Age of Agade, is indispensable. Beyond important summaries of Soviet historians in the book, Foster’s wealth of knowledge as a leading scholar in Assyriology marks The Age of Agade as a must-read, especially for beginning scholars or those beginning to research the period. While the book claims to be “accessibly written”, it should be noted that, at least for the general public or non-specialists, Foster writes at a very high-level. Even so, I highly recommend this work to scholars working in the field of Assyriology or Mesopotamian history and to non-specialists looking for an comprehensive understanding of the Akkadian era.


(Typographical error on page 301: “Tymenev” instead of Tyumenev.)


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