Late Babylonian Private Letters
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Categories: Ancient

Late Babylonian Private Letters

Photo of a book from Ugarit-Verlag bound in bright blue cloth

Before Christmas a senior colleague recommended that I should read the new volume of Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe from Ugarit-Verlag. I am grateful that they did. The orientalists in Vienna are working on a project on Babylonia from the end of the seventh century BCE to the end of cuneiform writing on clay, and as part of this project they are editing the many letters which survive from this period. For some reason few school texts and libraries of literature have been found from this period, so private letters are our best view of the living language and everyday life. This volume contains 243 of which eighty have never been published and 58 never transcribed and commented upon. Every one is translated, and there is an introduction to the dialect of the letters and a dictionary with entries for every Babylonian word with references to use. Most of these letters are 100 to 200 words long and deal with instructions, property, and travel. A reasonable number, however, deal with military affairs and strong emotions.

The following letter is written on one tablet and only half a dozen signs are illegible. On the basis of the individuals and titles mentioned it seems to date between the 25th and 28th years of Darius I (498-494 BCE). I translate from the German translation rather than the Babylonian original. The square brackets mark content which the Babylonian text does not give but which is required for a fluid English translation.

Letter from Gūzānu to Širku, my brother. May Bēl and Nabû cause it to be so, that my brother is well and healthy. Daily you relate to me unbelievable things in Babylon. You have said to me “Libluṭ, the chariot driver, and your chariot soldiers are really present with you.” Since the fortress commander has come, he has withdrawn Libluṭ and all the chariot drivers from my reserve unit [saying] “They belong to me!” Additionally he has taken away the chariot soldiers which are with me. You should represent my interests to him, but instead you have accepted my assets from him. The chariot driver Libluṭ has been given responsibility over the boats which have already gone away. Write to Danipinu: you should not let him have the chariot drivers, the chariot soldiers, or the city militia soldiers. He should not slander my people to the fortress commander. Speak about this to Atkal-ana-Mār-Esangila! Alot him soldiers as substitute for the soldiers [which the fortress commander is holding back]. You are responsible to Darius the King! Release the gardu-soldiers, about which I have informed you. As you see, the gate guards and all the chariot drivers stand ready for you. The soldiers of Bīt-Dakūru, which are staying in Babylon, stand ready for you. You should not speak to the soldiers of my bīt-narkabti.

The commentator says that this has been so often treated that he only cites two articles for further reading. Yet have you ever seen a study of the Achaemenid army which discusses this text? I have not, and I have read most of what has been written on the subject in English or German since Hans Delbrück. While it is hard to understand this letter as Akkadian, and equally hard to understand the events which it reflects, it certainly gives a military historian something to work on.

Further Reading: Johannes Hackl et al., Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe, AOAT 414/1 (Ugarit Verlag: Münster, 2014) link

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