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Categories: Ancient


A stone relief of a bare-headed beardless man holding six writing boards and a stylus
A tomb relief depicting a man in a toga with six writing boards, Archaeologisches Museum, Schloss Eggenburg, Graz. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

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)

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