Why did Mesopotamian rulers plunder their own donkey caravans?

This one is a bit of a puzzle. A Mesopotamian ruler sends out a donkey caravan, headed by a dodgy tamkar (grovelling merchant) or two. Great outlay to equip the caravan; armed guard; promise of handsome rewards for the delivery of certain preciosities; reminder to engage in some diplomacy, since the tamkars were part of the court’s indentured service. Yet, time and again, the ruler would plunder such caravans. Why? We may be able to understand the looting of someone else’s caravan passing through territory a potentate claimed as his own, although even this would have the negative effect of deterring other caravans crossing the same ground. But one’s own? It reflects the profound suspicion of the merchants. Not only did they engage in the acquisition of preciosities for a ruler, but they also doubled up as tax-collectors and lenders of last resort. And they would invariably make sure they made a killing on the mission in question. Hence the suspicion: these merchants are working for me anyway, so let’s make sure they don’t keep too much for themselves.


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