Troublesome Topic: An Example of the Components of Suzerain Vassal Covenants

Lesson 2 of 12

The summary statement carved in stone followed a very recognizable, almost universal pattern, a set formula that was recognized by all cultures of the ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East). One very good example of this pattern is the covenant that has been unearthed between Suppiluliumas, king of Hatti, and Aziras, the subdued king of Amurru. We will use it to illustrate several of the components of a typical covenant of this type.

1. An Introduction. This always included the identity of the sovereign and the reasons the vassal should submit to him.

Suppiluliumas states his identity in this way: “These are the words of the Sun, Suppiluliumas, the great king, the king of Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of the storm-god.”

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The reason for the vassals to submit to this ruler often included his treatment of this particular group, i.e., he had shown mercy to them and did not destroy them as he had all the neighboring nations. In the case of Suppiluliumas and Aziras it was stated that the king of Hatti had waged war against 10 other nations who had been hostile against him. But of Aziras it is recorded, “but Aziras, the king of Amurru land, parted from the gate of Egypt and became subservient to the Sun, the king of Hatti land.”

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So in this case it was a weaker king seeking coverage and protection from a greater king and being willing to submit to a covenant relationship in order to prevent annihilation.

2. The conditions of the covenant. Usually these included such things as providing some form of income to the ruler, like gold, a tax or tribute, providing soldiers for his army, being loyal to him and not making a treaty or alliance with any other nation, and in general seeking the well-being of the ruler. Here especially is where there could be numerous additions and explanations which would be included in the less durable written record (usually parchment). If he chose to, the new ruler could rewrite the entire legal code of the subjugated nation. However, only the primary conditions, the most fundamental conditions, were mentioned in the summary statement carved in stone.

In the case of Suppiluliumas and Aziras, the first demanded from the latter 300 shekels of refined gold each year. There was also an entire section given to military clauses, outlining how Aziras was to act in military situations and what his role was to be.

In this type of covenant both parties were obliged to follow the stipulations established in this covenant relationship. However, the emphasis was placed upon the responsibilities of the weaker party, and failure to follow covenant stipulations was assumed to result in death.

3. Blessings for obedience to, or curses for violation of, the covenant conditions.  In a suzerain/vassal type of covenant the conquering ruler was the one to pronounce the curses on his new subjects should they choose to violate the covenant conditions. If the people of the subject nation would be loyal to their new ruler, he would protect them, but if they formed an alliance with another nation, he would come himself and destroy them totally.

The majority of the text in the covenant between the kings of Hatti land and Amurru land was filled with “if” statements—what they must do “if” a given situation should arise, or the consequence they could expect “if” they did something that would transgress the covenant.

There were always witnesses named as guarantors that would ensure that each party fulfilled their obligations. Often the pagan rulers would call on several of their gods as witnesses to a covenant relationship, with the idea that their gods would constantly observe if the other party violated the covenant’s conditions, and if a violation had occurred, would affect the curses uttered. In this way they served as guarantors of the covenant. In the Suppiluliumas covenant, the document closes with a list of gods called to serve as witnesses of the covenant.

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5. There were often one or more signs demanded of the subjects that would indicate to any observer that this person was under a covenant with that particular ruler. It could be something like a visible mark placed somewhere on the body, or one or more rituals that were practiced according to desired specifications. The use of a sign was often a part of covenants between equals as well, and was something they both desired to do, the details being mutually agreed upon. In the case of a suzerain/vassal covenant the ruling king imposed the sign of his choice upon the subjugated people according to his will; they had no part in the decision, except to say, “we will.”

The next lesson in the Full Series on Covenants is: The Ten Words Were the Summary of the Covenant.



James B. Prichard., The Ancient Near East, a New Anthology of Texts and Pictures,       Vol. 2, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1975), p. 42.


Prichard, p. 42.


Prichard, p. 43.