M. Jursa with contributions by J. Hackl, B. Janković, K. Kleber, E.E. Payne, C. Waerzeggers and M. Weszeli, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. AOAT 377. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010.
Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC is a weighty academic tome 900 pages long full of charts of prices and case studies based on unpublished tablets, but it also grapples with one of the great dramas of the ancient world: the time when silver money came to Babylonia. People in Babylonia, Syria, and Egypt had kept accounts in weights of bronze and silver or baskets of barley for thousands of years, but for most people most of the time this was an accounting convenience. Most families had enough land to produce most of what they needed, and the kings and gods just had bigger estates and more dependants, so people kept track of who owed what in their heads and every so often exchanged some bronze or barley to balance their accounts. But then, in the cities of Babylonia in the sixth century BCE, we see another world: a world where almost any good or service could be had for silver in the hand. Wet-nursing, fringed cloaks dyed commercial red, substitutes to fulfill your service obligation, chalcedony seals carved with goats in the tree of life, laundry services at a convenient yearly rate, bowcases full of Kimmerian arrows … in the sixth century, it was hard to live for a month in a Babylonian city without exchanging goods or services for silver.
Jursa and his co-authors suspect that this began when Nabopolassar sacked the Assyrian cities around 612 BCE and his successors marched into Syria and launched vast construction projects in Babylonia. They found that they did not have enough slaves and dependants to do all of this work, and the literati were always telling them that the gods became angry if they imposed too much service on the citizens of Babylon. So they started hiring workers with the silver stolen from Syria, and as silver flowed into their hands, other people in the cities thought of things to do for the workers. From 610 to 540 BCE, prices fell and wages rose. These changes bewildered many of the magnates. Since the Flood, life had been good when a shekel of silver could buy 180 litres of barley and support a family for a month, but now male workers were demanding 2, 4, and even 10 shekels a month. One letter complains that the writer is besieged by men seeking employment, but if he refuses them the work will not be done (p. 680). Another laments that he is out of barley, so if he brings serfs they get hungry and run away, but it is the month of the date harvest, so hired workers are not to be had for less than six shekels a month. Readers of David Graeber or good books on Shakespeare’s England can imagine how this upset old values and old ways of doing things.
These changes do not appear in the chronicles of the day. Instead, they appear in the everyday business and administrative documents which happened to survive the periodic discarding of old records and be excavated. This book cites about 2600 tablets, some of them still unpublished. While these documents are formulaic and difficult to understand, they give us glimpses of social history as bright as the Sun peeking through a slit in a mud-brick wall. From a letter to the wife of a businessman explaining that the writer is at court and cannot leave and could she please lend him some silver for interest (p. 624), to the switch from drinking barley beer to date wine in the first millennium BCE (p. 212: beer continued to be brewed for sacramental purposes: apparently they were not sure whether the gods would accept this new beverage), to the dimensions and weight of a mountain garment (TÚG.KUR.RA) in different cities, this book is spotted with interesting details. (For my own research, there is very helpful information about the archives of Zēru-ukīn, a rab hanšê “chief of fifty” of Nippur, and of Itti-Šamaš-balāṭu of Larsa who kept hiring the same substitute whenever Nabonidus or Cyrus conscripted him).
There are all kinds of things which we cannot know about ancient history: Keith Hopkins once wrote that he had no idea what a Roman marriage ceremony in the first century CE involved, because the sources just focus on the legal implications or imitate Greek poets from hundreds of years earlier. But there are some things about Babylonia which we can know very well, and more where the sources plus comparison with other cultures suggest some tantalizing possibilities. I hope that specialists in Late Babylonia continue to study material culture and social history, and continue to move towards a synthesis rather than being intimidated by the many difficult and interconnected problems.
Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia is available on academia.edu
Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)
Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.
“Ktesias ‘Korrigiert’ Herodot” is an article which is widely cited, but it first appeared in a Festschrift rather than a downloadable journal, and it is written in beautiful academic German and a somewhat associative style which makes it difficult for foreigners to follow. I recently made my way through it and thought I would write down my thoughts.
Bichler is interested in how to evaluate the Persica of Ctesias of Cnidus, who was very influential and disagrees with our other sources on many points. Ctesias’ work is lost except for one scrap of papyrus containing 27 lines, but he seems to have presented himself as a serious historian, interested in seeing things himself or hearing them from witnesses, and eager to criticize earlier writers for errors. He spent 17 years in the Persian empire as a prisoner and court physician, much of that time at court in Babylonia, Media, and Persis, and his presence is explicitly acknowledged by a contemporary (whereas the only evidence for Herodotus’ travels is Herodotus’ own words, and Herodotus never claimed to have travelled east of Sidon). And the problem is that most of what he says contradicts our other major sources like Herodotus and Xenophon. Since we have few ways to check the things which he and Herodotus say, a lot depends on who we decide to believe and what we think they were trying to do.
A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.
For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.
I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.
Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.
At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:
But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.
– Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)
Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?
Specialists in the Achaemenid Empire don’t like to talk about Stefan Bittner. His Doktorarbeit is the only monograph on the Achaemenid army which has ever been published, but it takes exactly the approach which was inspiring another group of scholars to organize conferences and rethink the field: it relies almost completely on Greek literature and artwork, and treats these sources as a precious collection of facts to be worked into a coherent whole. In the decades which followed, those other scholars knocked so many holes in this approach that it is hard for them work with a book like his, so they tend to cite his thesis and say nothing more. I don’t think that this is really fair, since nobody can predict how academic fashion will shift or what new evidence will become available. People who try too hard to ride the crest sometimes find themselves flailing in midair as the wave below them crashes down. There is a sad joke that farming is a simple job where you just have to predict the weather, fuel costs, and food prices a year in advance; PhD students have to predict the job market 3 to 10 years in advance. And in the early 1980s, it was not so easy to hear about conferences and intellectual movements in other countries as it is today. So this week, I would like to mention one of his good ideas which seems to have been ignored.
Academics get very excited when we find typos, perhaps because it gives us a break when reading through hundreds of pages like this:
*baudāspa- N. pr. el. bu-da-áš-ba-, bu-da-iš-ba (H 746) = ‘Duft-Pferd’. Gersch. 1969a, 224 liest *buda-aspa ‘having intelligend horses’, zu ai. budha. M. Mayrhofer erwog (Fs. Scherer  60) *būtāspa- …
– W. Hinz, Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen (Otto Harrasowitz: Wiesbaden, 1975) p. 65
Having intelligend horses! That feels like the spelling from another language has slipped into his English, but I can’t think of which. Studying Old Iranian requires dealing with sources written down in Avestan, Elamite, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Greek, and reading commentaries in English, French, Russian, and German, so it is easy to slip up. I can’t speak intelligently about whether this name means “fragrant horse” (Hinz’ favourite theory) or “having intelligent horses” (which another philologist suggested) but I can wonder about how this mistake came to be.
The times when I end English words in -isch instead of -ish, or mix up schießen and scheißen, are completely different of course. Those times should be consigned to oblivion, not noticed by cheeky graduate students.
At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:
And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.
It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?
In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.
I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.