ancient economy, Mesopotamia, economic history, Old Assyrian, Anatolia


With one foot on the Tigris and the other on the Anatolian plateau, Assyrian merchants conducted a brisk trade in tin, textiles, and silver in the late twentieth and early nineteenth centuries BCE. The structural aspects of the shipment and sale of tin and textiles in exchange for silver in caravan cycles have been the subjects of many excellent studies with methodologies including lexical studies and text-type studies. In addition, archival studies have been helpful in giving a sense of the variety of organization and involvement in the trade among different individuals. However, approaches that focus on structural activities like transporting, or on archives spanning a generation of activity, inevitably sublimate the context of merchants’ short-term interests—interests that drove the creation and retention of the surviving documents. This is particularly so with the richest group of documents from the Old Assyrian trade, namely, the business letters sent between coordinating merchants scattered throughout the locales of the trade. Like most cuneiform missives, the Old Assyrian letters were not explicitly dated and few contain references that permit them to be secured confidently in the chronology of a merchant’s life or in relation to other letters. As a result, many letters must often be read for structural patterns of the trade or as anecdotes, connecting most directly to recognizable contours of the human condition. Some correspondence can be recognized as pieces of a particular epistolary conversation. Such conversations are most easily recognized when the circumstances are most unusual, for example, when letters discuss an ongoing legal dispute. When such an epistolary conversation is recognized, an opportunity arises to read the documents in a way that, at least in part, escapes the limitations of an anecdotal frame.

Original Publication Citation

Edward Stratford. Make Them Pay: Charting the Social Topography of and Old Assyrian Caravan Cycle. Journal of Cuneiform Studies Vol. 66 (2014), pp. 11-38. DOI: 10.5615/jcunestud.66.2014.0011.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Journal of Cuneiform Studies




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor

Included in

History Commons