Any payment exacted by a superior power, usually a state, from an inferior one. The weaker state, called a vassal state, normally contributed a specified amount of gold, silver, or other commodities on a yearly basis. The imposition of tribute demonstrated the subservient status of the vassal state, thus undermining political autonomy and often causing financial weakness. Powerful nations collected tribute from both hostile states and allies. Refusal to render tribute by either was regarded as rebellion and normally resulted in military reprisals.
Imposing tribute was practiced widely and can be tracked back to before 2000 B.C. The tell el Amarna Letters from Canaanite kings after 1400 B.C. clearly reveal their vassal status to Egypt. During a few periods of strength Israel took tribute from neighboring peoples. David and Solomon exacted tribute from several smaller states (2 Samuel 8:14;
1 Kings 4:21). Later, Moab payed a tribute of 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams to Ahab of Israel (2 Kings 3:3-4).
After the division of Solomon's Kingdom in 922 B.C., the relatively weaker states of Judah and Israel more often were forced to pay tribute to the large powers which increasingly dominated the Near East. This was especially true of the Assyrian Period (850-600 B.C.) as both biblical and archaeological evidence attests. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (about 841 B.C.) shows Jehu of Israel paying tribute prostrate before the Assyrian king. Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:19) and Ahaz of Judah (2 Kings 16:7-9) rendered tribute to Tiglath-pileser III (Pul) for different reasons. The heavy tribute paid by Hezekiah to Sennacherib about 701 B.C. was recorded in both biblical and Assyrian texts (2 Kings 18:13-16).
The Jews later paid tribute in one form or another to Babylon, Persia, the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and Rome. The Roman tributum was a form of taxes. In effect the famous question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees about taxes (Matthew 22:15-22) was about tribute. See Assyria; Babylon; Egypt; Roman Empire.