At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.
While some of my publications are stuck at stages between “handing in the manuscript” and “opening the package with my author’s copy,” my latest article for Ancient Warfare is now available.
It has ostraca! Bored clerks! Desperate bandits! Bedouin! A map of the Levant which actually tells you where the fresh water is! Rebel Pharaohs! The Third Diadoch War! If any of that sounds interesting, you can buy Ancient Warfare X.4 from Karwansarai Publishers.
I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.
A good long time ago, Julius Caesar faced the problem of how to boast about military achievements so great and so numerous that one war threatened to blend into another. Fortunately, Caesar had people who could rise to the occasion:
Suetonius, Divus Julius §37: Pontico triumpho inter pompae fercula trium verborum praetulit titulum VENI·VIDI·VICI non acta belli significantem sicut ceteris, sed celeriter confecti notam.
In the Pontic triumph among the litters of the parade was a label of three words I CAME – I SAW – I CONQUERED, not a description of the events of the war like in the other triumphs, but a reminder of how quickly it had been finished.
A bit earlier than that, Darius the son of Hystaspes faced a similar problem.
Darius the Great, Behistun Inscription (Babylonian Version) §15-17:
Darius the king speaks as follows: Not only did I kill Gaumata the Magus, but after that there was a man, Atrina was his name, the son of Upādaramma, a man from Elam; he made an uprising in the land of Elam, he spoke as follows: ‘I am the king of Elam!’ After that the men of Elam became hostile and went over to this Atrina. He became king of Elam. Not only that, but there was a man Nidintu-Bēl, the son of Kin-Zeri the royal secretary; he made an uprising in the land of Babylonia. He lied to the people-in-arms as follows: ‘I am Nabu-Kudurrī, the son of Nabonidus, king of Babylonia.’ The people-in-arms which was in Babylonia went over to him. Babylonia became hostile. He seized the kingdom of Babylonia.
Darius the king speaks as follows: After that I sent a son of the sending. They seized this Atrina and sent him before me. I killed him.
Darius the king speaks as follows: I went to Babylon and came head-to-head with this here Nidintu-Bēl who lied as follows: ‘I am Nabu-Kudurrī.’ … (the story of how Nidintu-Bēl was defeated, captured, and executed fills three long paragraphs and is followed by stories about seven other revolts and their suppression).
Darius’ scribes did not think of a way to alliterate like Caesar’s did, but they managed to use one word šapāru three times in three sentences. And whether we see their patron as a hero or an usurper, I think we can rightly admire their cunning.
(All translations are my own; I thank Robert Rollinger for pointing out the wordplay).
Further Reading: Samuel A. Meier, The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World (Scholars’ Press: Atlanta, 1989), Elizabeth N. von Voigtlander, The Bisitun Inscription of Darius the Great: Babylonian Version Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum (Lund Humphries: London, 1978)
I am still sick, so this week I will be brief and talk about some of the papers which were read at the conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea in St. Petersburg. Abdoula Souvadar did his best to argue that a sheet of silver containing an inscription in Old Persian which claims to be the word of Otanes announcing that Darius has become king is not a modern forgery. Askold Ivantchik discussed 235 arrowheads found in the ruins of a small fort near Gordion in Phrygia which seems to have been destroyed by Cyrus’ armies. So far, most of the physical remains of Persian battles and sieges which have been found come from Anatolia. And Vakhtang Licheli talked about an Iron Age site which he is excavating on the hills above a main highway in Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Most of this site appears to date roughly to the Achaemenid period in the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. For most of his paper he discussed the sorts of details of interest to specialists, but in the last few minutes he mentioned something else. Some of the stone altars at this site have deep marks like letters carved in them, but none of the marks looks like a known script such as the Imperial Aramaic or Attic Greek alphabets. Several people in the audience whipped out cell phones and cameras to catch Dr. Licheli’s slides, but it turned out that the photos of the possible text is available online.
I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and see some things which I had wanted to see for very many years. One of these was the shield excavated by S.I. Rudenko from the barrows at Pazyryk in the Russian part of the Altai mountains where Russia, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhistan come together. The structure of the barrows and the local climate caused permafrost to develop beneath them, preserving some of their contents despite the intrusion of grave-robbers. Shields made in a similar way appear in Greek paintings of Persian soldiers from just over another border of the Achaemenid empire. The barrows (Russian singular kurgan) at Pazyryk are usually attributed to the fourth or third centuries BCE, but many of the objects found in them are older. To the best of my knowledge, the next surviving examples come from the siege of Dura Europos at least 500 years later (a photo is available in Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, p. 21).
Last week I discussed how two cuneiform tablets in the British Museum preserve an account of Alexander’s invasion of Babylonia. These tablets are very important, because they are contemporary (not written hundreds of years later like the surviving Greek and Latin accounts) and by Babylonians (also unlike most of our written sources). Yet just like any ancient text, their contents must be interpreted, and scholars with different backgrounds can interpret them in different ways.
It is notorious that few stories about Alexander the Great written during his lifetime survive. The embroidered narratives by Greek and Latin writers which form the basis of most modern accounts were written 300 to 500 years later. A few of Alexander’s coins and inscriptions have been preserved, but they naturally give his point of view. A few chance references in Greek literature give a sense of the shock which many contemporaries felt that the king of a land on the edge of civilization suddenly overthrew the greatest power which had ever existed and conquered places which were little more than legends. One of the few long stories about Alexander which does survive in a version written during his lifetime is a cuneiform text, the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela. This week I thought that I would write an introduction to the Diary and what is involved in reading such a text. Next week I will talk about two different ways of reading them as represented in articles by R.J. van der Spek (English: Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship) and by Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing (German: ‘Panik’ im Heer: Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 vor Christ). I hope that the second will be helpful for readers who are interested in ancient history but not comfortable reading German.
In Southwest Asia in the first millennium BCE, most names meant something. Iranian, Babylonian, and Greek names tended to be meaningful phrases or adjectives in their native language. This leads to some moments of enlightenment as one learns the languages after getting to know the characters. Pharnabazus, for example, was “the gift of majesty,” and Alkibiades was “mightily forceful,” while Gadaljama’s fellow-tennant Rimut-Ninurta, the son of Murašȗ was “Gift-of-Ninurta, the son of the Wildcat.” Ninurta was a warlike god, so I wonder if the son lived up to his parents’ expectations, and how choosing a name for a new child worked when the parents didn’t need name-books to tell them what different possibilities meant.