An Echo of an Aramaic Story in Five Greek Texts
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An Echo of an Aramaic Story in Five Greek Texts

A new article by myself and Jack Schropp has just appeared in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigrafik. It concerns a well-known story that as Tigranes the Great of Armenia saw the Romans advance to challenge him outside Tigranocerta in 69 BCE, he quipped “if they are come as an embassy, they are too many, if as an army, too few.” Needless to say, the Roman army proved big enough. This story is known from contemporary writers like Memnon of Heraclea, writers of the Roman imperial period like Plutarch (Life of Lucullus 27.4), Appian of Alexandria, and Cassius Dio, and even the Suda (lambada 688) in the tenth century CE, all of whom wrote in Greek.

What is less well known is that the Aramaic Papyrus Amherst 63 in the J.P. Morgan Library, New York, has another story about an arrogant king: Šamaš-šum-ukin who rebelled against his brother Assurbanipal the king of Assyria in 652 BCE. This story presents Assurbanipal as a just and moderate ruler, his sister Saritra as a peacemaker, and their brother as lead astray by bad advisors. Whenever Assurbanipal sends someone to Babylon to reason with his brother, the story contains the following lines:

The watchman climbed
The wall of Babylon.
The watchmen answered and said:
‘The force that is coming ḥyl(ˀ) d(ˀ)t(y/h)
Is too great for messengers, sg(y) mn-ṣyrn/
Too small for warriors. zgyrn mn-ˁbdy ḳrb*

In this case the words are in the mouth of an anonymous ‘watchman’ rather than the king himself, but just like in the story about Tigranes, the oncoming force proves great enough. We argue that this allusion must come from a contemporary who was both fluent in Greek literature and familiar with Near Eastern stories, whether one of Tigranes’ critics who wished to show he was a Bad King, or the king himself who made a truly unfortunate joke.

The papyrus dates to the fourth or third century BCE and comes from Egypt. Since it strongly defends Assurbanipal and criticizes his brother, it probably descends from Assyrian propaganda of the seventh century BCE.

Scholars have often postulated that between surviving Greek and Latin texts and Akkadian and Sumerian texts stood lost intermediaries in local languages in Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. Since most texts in these regions were written on vulnerable writing boards, skins, or papyrus not durable clay, their existence and contents were hypothetical. This is a rare case where we can compare an early text in Aramaic and the later, Greek stories which it inspired. Far from being unworthy of serious discussion, Tigranes’ joke deserves close attention.

Further Reading: Jack Schropp and Sean Manning, “’Too Many for an Embassy, too Few for an Army’: On the Origin and Scope of a Tigranic Dictum.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 212 (2019) pp. 83-88

* In this blog post, I give the normalized Aramaic text from Steiner and Nims’ article The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script: Text, Translation, and Notes For the article we compared different editions of this hard-to-read text. ↑ back to top ↑

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4 thoughts on “An Echo of an Aramaic Story in Five Greek Texts

  1. Pen Name says:

    Copyright is a modern concept. With oral retelling of tales it was easy to conflate characters and deeds, but even with a written language what started out as the straightforward tale of a young fellow with a name something like Bilbames being an inspirational leader of a successful revolt against oppression by another city morphed into supernatural encounters and epic quests over time.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Its always hard to sort out information which passes from person or person (or on broadcast media these days) and never gets formally acknowledged. Ancient Greek writers really don’t like acknowledging information in other languages, except when they need to invent some authority that nobody was ever going to check. But that does not mean that information did not pass between cultures

  2. ashimbabbar says:

    Fascinating how the sentence navigates from culture to culture !

    Incidentally and concerning the battle at Tigranocerta, I recently came across a pretty interesting article on a now-defunct wargaming site

    1. Sean says:

      I remember Luke U-S’s website! His articles on the organization of the Macedonian phalanx get cited every so often. Another example of how the text-centred, decentralized, open web has value.

      I will have a look at his wargames scenario.

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