Late Babylonian

Late Babylonian

Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

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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... Continue reading: VENI VIDI VICI


A black and white photo of Pluto silhouetted against the emptiness of the outer solar system
The last photo broadcast by New Horizons as it approached Pluto and concentrated all its resources on collecting data rather than transmitting it. Photo by NASA/APL/SwRI

About 2550 years ago, the latest king of Babylon deposited a cylinder in the foundations of a building which proclaimed to the Babylonian literati that he was just the kind of king that all the best Babylonian literature said a king should be. Building and renovating monuments was one of the basic responsibilities of a Babylonian king, and Cyrus wished to be accepted by his new subjects. Cyrus expected that every few centuries workers in the service of another king would dig up his cylinder, read it, and deposit it again with appropriate honours. In fact, Cyrus assures his audience that he has done just that as he restored walls and temples:

(43) ši-ti-ir (Erasure) šu-mu ša2 {m}AN.ŠAR2-DU3-IBILA LUGAL a-lik mah-ri-[-ia ša2 quer-ba-šu ap-pa-a]l-sa(!) (44) […] (45) [… a-na d]a-ri2-a-ti3

“A cuneiform text in the name of Assurbanipal, a king who went before me, which appeared within it [… to] immortality.” (Cyrus Cylinder ed. Schaudig tr. Manning)

Until recently, only one example of this cylinder was known, and that was excavated from the foundations of that building (exactly where has since been lost as excavations in 1880-1881 were not documented to modern standards). But in December 2009 and January 2010, W.G. Lambert and Irving Finkel identified two fragments of a transcription of the cylinder onto a tablet which was signed by one Qishti-Marduk son of Marduk or Iqish-Marduk, son of X. While the cylinder was buried in the earth, its message could circulate in copies, and perhaps in speech as well.
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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

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.
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A Three-Year Campaign

A line drawing of a cuneiform tablet with the lines numbered in the margins
J.N. Strassmeier’s sketch of tablet Dar. 253 from 1892

[number lost] minas 4 shekels of silver, loin-girdling for the horse troops who are going to the encampment of the king [for] three years: 1 donkey which was bought for 50 shekels of silver in the hands of Ina-Esagil-Liša; 1/2 mina 6 shekels of silver, donkey-fodder; 12 mountain garments; 12 coats; twelve caps; 12 leather bags; 24 leather shoes; 1 PI oil; 2 PI salt; 1 PI cress, travel provisions for three years from the month Nisannu 9th year which are given to … [one name lost], Rīmūt-Bēl, Itti-Šamaš-balaṭu, and Akkadaia who are going to the encampment / Month Abu 10th day 9th year of Darius King of Babylon King of Lands.

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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.

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A Weather Report from 651 BCE

Photo of a cloudy grey sky over dark hills with a perfectly square cloud in front of the others
A cloud like this would definitely belong in an astronomical diary (taken 11 October 2014 on the Universitätsbrucke in Innsbruck)

… thunder … The 5th, Mercury’s first appearance in the east in Pisces … towards the south … It rained slowly. The 12th, a halo … The river level rose … The troops of Babylonia fought against the troops of Assyria; the troops … The 13th, the river level rose a little. The 14th, a cloud bank lay to the right of the sun. Night of the 15th, overcast. Three ra[inbows], one in the west, one between north and west, and one in the north, were seen. Rain, lightning, thunder, … clouds. The 15th, one god was seen with the other. Gusty south wind, haze crossed the face of the sky. Night of the 16th, the moon was surrounded by a large halo. The 16th, the sun was surrounded by a halo. The 18th, the sun was surrounded by a … halo; the south wind blew. The 19th, Venus stood in the region of Aries, 10 fingers behind Mars; the moon was surrounded by a halo, and α Scorpii stood in it. The 20th, Mars was 1 finger to the left of the front of Aries; it came close. The moon was surrounded by a halo, Jupiter stood in it. The south wind blew. The 27th, a rainbow whose brightness was very great stretched in the east. … in Hiritu in the province of Sippar the troops of Babylonia and Assyria fou[ght with each] other, and the troops of Babylonia withdrew and were heavily defeated. … [The no]rth wind blew. The 28th, a little rain. In the afternoon, a very red rainbow stretched in the east.

Sachs and Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, Volume I (Vienna, 1988) No. -651. All lacunae marked with /…/ are gaps in the tablet; all square brackets indicate damaged signs which could be reconstructed from context.
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