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Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

by Dominique Charpin, Jane Marie Todd (Translator)

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Ancient Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now western Iraq and eastern Syria, is considered to be the cradle of civilization—home of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, as well as the great Code of Hammurabi. The Code was only part of a rich juridical culture from 2200–1600 BCE that saw the invention


Ancient Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now western Iraq and eastern Syria, is considered to be the cradle of civilization—home of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, as well as the great Code of Hammurabi. The Code was only part of a rich juridical culture from 2200–1600 BCE that saw the invention of writing and the development of its relationship to law, among other remarkable firsts.

Though ancient history offers inexhaustible riches, Dominique Charpin focuses here on the legal systems of Old Babylonian Mesopotamia and offers considerable insight into how writing and the law evolved together to forge the principles of authority, precedent, and documentation that dominate us to this day. As legal codes throughout the region evolved through advances in cuneiform writing, kings and governments were able to stabilize their control over distant realms and impose a common language—which gave rise to complex social systems overseen by magistrates, judges, and scribes that eventually became the vast empires of history books. Sure to attract any reader with an interest in the ancient Near East, as well as rhetoric, legal history, and classical studies, this book is an innovative account of the intertwined histories of law and language.

Editorial Reviews

Bibliotheca Orientalis
“The author has succeeded in presenting diverse studies on writing, law, and kingship as a coherent whole. The very reader-friendly, yet still precise, language; well-organized structure; and succinct, clear manner of describing complex relationships make this informative book a pleasure to read.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia


University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10158-3

Chapter One

Reading and Writing in Mesopotamia: The Business of Specialists?

Mesopotamian documentation, written in cuneiform signs, displays several noteworthy characteristics. First, let me insist on its longevity: it originated in about 3200 BCE, and the last dated text was written in 75 CE. From the start, clay was the privileged support. The term "cuneiform," in fact, refers to the appearance of the signs, resulting from the arrangement of wedges (in Latin, cunei) formed by the impression of a reed calamus on a clay tablet. There were considerable advantages to that support, beginning with its low cost, despite the length of time it took to prepare the clay. The plasticity of the material allowed for a great variety of forms, depending on the era and the kind of text. But clay also had disadvantages. The first was its weight: the larger a tablet, the thicker, and thus heavier, it had to be. Scribes also had to know in advance the length of the text to be inscribed so that they could fashion a tablet of the appropriate size. Finally, no corrections or additions could be made once the tablet had been dried in the sun.

Cuneiform writing is a mixed system, entailing both logograms (one sign representing one word) and phonograms (one sign representing one syllable). There were about six hundred signs in the repertoire, and they usually had several logographic and phonetic values. Seen from outside, that system appears very complicated. Traditionally, Assyriologists have maintained that its use was reserved for a caste of specialists, namely, scribes, who alone could master cuneiform, and only after a long training period. I shall situate my analysis within the context of recent studies of the phenomenon of literacy, which is currently the object of a debate in Assyriology, as delineated in the excellent overview edited by Jack Sasson. Some authors continue to embrace the traditional view. Laury Pearce, for example, notes that "scribes functioned in a society in which the vast majority of people were illiterate"; and Piotr Michalowski claims that "literacy was always highly restricted in the Ancient Near East, and only an elite, scribes as well as government and temple officials—could read and write." A more nuanced position is expressed by Hermann Vanstiphout, who begins by declaring that "a first structural aspect of literacy can be said to consist in the social function fulfilled by literati. We know from the mass of documents that almost every aspect of life was subject to a detailed administration, much of which was, of course, kept in writing and, therefore, by literates." He continues, "The spread and rate of literacy ... is very uncertain. But the overwhelming importance of written documents in all walks of life suggests that literacy was more extensive than primary sources report." J. N. Postgate goes even further in that direction. In his overview Early Mesopotamia (1992), he points out that widespread literacy at the beginning of the second millennium BCE can be demonstrated on the basis of several indications: the private and often trivial content of letters as well as the frequency of inscribed clay labels, attached, for example, to the necks of animals who died accidentally. He concludes, "Writing had reached to the most mundane levels of society."

1. Who Could Read and Write?

For a long time, the focus was placed on a few exceptions to what was believed to be the exclusive realm of professional scribes. I shall therefore examine, first, the case of kings, the clergy, and merchants. Next, I shall indicate what arguments Claus Wilcke has developed to show that, in the late third and the second millennia BCE, writing was more widespread than is usually believed. Finally, I will set out the arguments recently advanced in light of discoveries in the Mari archives that confirm this way of seeing things.

1.1. The Exceptions Traditionally Recognized

Three rulers in Mesopotamian history are known to have laid claim to the status of "literates": Shulgi, king of Ur, in the first half of the twenty-first century BCE; Lipit-Eshtar, king of Isin, in the second half of the twentieth century BCE; and, much later, Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, in the mid-seventh century BCE.

Let me begin with Shulgi. In Hymn A, he exclaims, "I am the sage scribe of the goddess Nisaba!" Hymn B exalts the king's mastery of writing but also of divination and music.

The literacy of Lipit-Eshtar, king of Isin, is also celebrated in Hymn B, where the ruler is addressed as follows: "The goddess Nisaba, the woman who radiates joy, / The reliable woman-scribe, lady of all knowledge, / Guided your fingers over the clay, / She made your writing on the tablets beautiful, / She made your hand resplendent with a calamus of gold." The case of Ashurbanipal is the best known. In a famous inscription, the neo-Assyrian king sketches his self-portrait. He claims to excel in all realms of the written word:

The god Marduk, the sage among gods, offered me as a present vast understanding and profound intelligence. The god Nabu, scribe of the universe, gave me as a gift the precepts of wisdom. The gods Ninurta and Nergal endowed my body with heroic power and physical strength without equal. I studied the art of the sage Adapa, the hidden knowledge of the entire art of the scribe. I know the ominous signs of heaven and earth. I can discuss them in the assembly of scholars. I am able to debate the series "If the liver is the reflection of heaven" with the expert diviners. I can solve the complicated divisions and multiplications that have no solution. I have read complex texts, the Sumerian version of which is encrypted, and the Akkadian version, difficult to clarify. I have examined inscriptions on stone from before the flood, whose meaning is hidden, obscure, and murky.

Ashurbanipal presents himself as an expert in divination, mathematics, ancient languages, and epigraphy, but also as a sage and an accomplished sportsman. In other words, what we have here is a heroic description of the ruler, which in itself might inspire skepticism about the king's real proficiency in reading and writing. There are also other, more conclusive types of evidence, however, such as the colophons on tablets recopied for his library of Nineveh: "Ashurbanipal, great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Asharhaddon, king of Assyria, son of Sennacherib, king of Assyria. In accordance with the content of the clay tablets and wooden polyptychs, versions of Assyria, Sumer, and Akkad, I wrote, verified, and collated this tablet in the assembly of scholars; and in order that it shall be read by my Majesty, I placed it in my palace. Whoever shall efface my inscribed name and inscribe his name, may the god Nabu, scribe of the universe, efface his name!"

In addition, the letters he received from an astrologist named Nabuahhe-eriba contain many glosses. Pierre Villard revisited this case a few years ago and drew a moderate conclusion regarding Ashurbanipal's skills: "There is no reason to place in doubt his interest in the scribal disciplines; conversely, we must refrain from exaggerating the importance of the theme of the literate king in royal propaganda. The motif is, for example, totally absent from the bas-reliefs, though their programs were elaborated in accordance with the ruler's directives."

Does this evidence, limited to three kings, mean that the other Mesopotamian rulers were illiterate? That is the claim of the famous Assyriologist Benno Landsberger: "In the long history of Mesopotamia only these three kings even claimed to know how to read and write. This emphasizes, I believe, both the closed character of the scribal corporation and the dependence of the palace on the specialized services that the scribes provided." There are serious reasons for calling that conclusion into doubt. Let me note at this point that, in one of his inscriptions, Asharhaddon, father of Ashurbanipal, also claimed to know how to write. It was he who began to assemble tablets in Nineveh; Ashurbanipal, in constituting his library, was only continuing his father's work.

Then there is the case of the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus. In one of his inscriptions it is claimed that "the god Nabu, administrator of the universe, gave him the art of writing." But in a satirical tract (the Verse Account), likely compiled by the priests of Marduk in Babylon against their king, he is made to say the opposite: "Even though I don't know how to write cuneiform, I have seen secret things." It is obvious that this "confession" was aimed at discrediting the ruler and casting aspersions on his religious reforms, and surely this polemical text must not be taken seriously. On one hand, then, is the topos of royal rhetoric inherited from Ashurbanipal, on the other, polemics. It is therefore impossible to know whether Nabonidus was really able to write cuneiform or not. We may at least suspect that he had mastered Aramaic writing.

The second category of potential literati, apart from the scribes, was composed of the clergy. Their mastery of writing has long been placed in doubt, as attested by this categorical view, once again put forward by Landsberger: "One must castigate as false romanticism the conception of the so-called Priesterweisheit, still to be found in secondary handbooks. The scribes, although a great number of them were deeply religious, were completely a lay group. The priests as well as the kings (not counting some exceptions among the latter), and the governors, and the judges were illiterate."

I believe I have demonstrated in my book on the clergy of Ur what an overstatement this is. In reality, epigraphic discoveries in the houses of certain priests in charge of the main local temple attest to the writing exercises they engaged in at home. It is now possible to cite more recent evidence, provided by a house in Sippar-Amnanum, from which nearly a hundred school tablets have been recovered. In all probability, the teacher was the scribe who often worked for Inanna-mansum, chief lamenter (gala-mah) of the goddess Annunitum; the pupil must have been his son and successor, Ur-Utu. That son, therefore, was given an education in literacy. But an analysis of the curriculum revealed by these tablets shows that the level of proficiency he reached was not very high. It was enough that he know the basics: how to read and write.

The case of the Old Assyrian merchants is the best known. These were traders from Assur who, in the first quarter of the second millennium BCE, established trading posts in faraway Anatolia, the most important and best known being that of Kanesh, near present-day Kayseri. Landsberger believed they had used scribes: "Private use of scribes was quite limited. The only exception was the Assyrian colonies, where all the merchants had scribes." But since the 1970s, a consensus has been reached that most of these businessmen were able to read and write. The first author to my knowledge to have made the claim was Johannes Renger. Studying the Akkadian syllabary, Renger noted that the Old Assyrian repertoire was particularly limited, which suggests that the mastery of writing by the merchants themselves must not have raised tremendous difficulties. That point of view was elaborated by Mogens T. Larsen: "There are indications that a great many Assyrians knew how to read and write so the need for privately employed scribes may not have been so great. The system of writing was highly simplified with only a limited number of syllabic signs and quite a few logograms, and many of the outrageously hideous private documents constitute clear proof of the amateurishness of their writers. We know for certain that some of the sons of important merchants were taught scribal art in Assur ... In spite of these observations it must be assumed that the big firms did have their own scribes."

The Old Assyrian merchants were in no way an exception, as Larsen himself has shown. In particular, we know of merchants from Larsa, in southern Iraq, who in about 1780 were visiting the kingdom of Eshnunna, east of present-day Baghdad. Leemans has noted that the letters they wrote at the time all had the characteristics of the letters from Larsa, not those from Eshnunna. Hence these merchants did not make use of the services of local scribes. Leemans concluded that they had taken a scribe with them; Larsen argued, with much more likelihood, that this was proof that they themselves wrote their correspondence.

1.2. A New Approach

Most Assyriologists, therefore, believe that writing in Mesopotamia was the privilege of a tiny minority, though some concede a few special cases. In a book written in 2000, Wilcke called that consensus into question. His study, which deals primarily with the period from the end of the third to the beginning of the second millennium BCE, rests on three inquiries. First, he examines the archaeological data. His view is that if the residents of ancient Mesopotamia were able to read and write, traces must have been left in the settlement areas. Unfortunately, most of our documentation comes from illicit or old excavations, undertaken at a time when little care was taken to observe and record the archaeological context. Wilcke tries to collect all the cases where tablets were found in houses. He shows that in every era, the proportion of residences where tablets were preserved was large, between one quarter and one third in Assur, more than half in Ur, and so on. It seems to me that this inventory must be qualified in two ways. On one hand, the districts excavated were those inhabited by the elite. On the other, preserving one's property deeds, debt records, and so on in one's archives does not necessarily mean one could read these texts, much less write them.

Wilcke's second approach consists of identifying in the texts themselves evidence that they were written by the interested parties. He cites a few documents that use the first person in a way that he argues is revealing. He also systematically studies two expressions frequently found in letters—"upon seeing my present tablet" alternates with "in listening to my present tablet"—and argues that the permutation is significant. In the first case, we may deduce that the letter's recipient was able to read it himself without resorting to the services of a scribe.

The third part of Wilcke's study is devoted to the deviations from the norm found in the texts, deviations he considers a sign that they were written by a nonprofessional. He is especially interested in phonetic notations of Sumerian in the contracts of the Ur III period (end of the third millennium BCE). His conclusion is twofold. On one hand, he maintains that the mastery of writing was not confined to professionals alone, that is, to scribes: it was also exercised by members of the social elite, both men and women. But Wilcke qualifies his assertion by arguing, on the other hand, that a passive knowledge of writing (knowing how to read) was certainly more developed than an active knowledge (knowing how to write).

1.3. The Data from Mari

Up to now, the data from the royal archives of Mari have rarely been put to use in support of this matter. Yet they provide a great deal of information on the subject. One of the first questions to resolve is how letters were put in writing. Were they dictated to scribes? Were the main lines of the message given to scribes, who themselves composed the text? And more generally, who was able to read and write letters?

For a long time, the prevailing view was that the upper echelons of society were fundamentally illiterate. That is the belief of Jack Sasson, an expert on the Mari archives. He writes, concerning the reading of letters, "Written statements were read aloud by scribes to illiterate officials."

It is not possible, of course, to give an exhaustive list of the officials who knew how to read. But the idea that, in this kingdom on the Middle Euphrates in the eighteenth century BCE, the possessors of power depended entirely on professional scribes to have their mail read to them is manifestly inaccurate. Several texts show that high officials in Mari—administrators, members of the military, diviners, and kings—were able to read and write letters on their own.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the top administrators at the Mari palace knew how to read and write. Hence, in the era of Yahdun-Lim, in the late nineteenth century BCE, the highest palace official, Hamatil, was described as a "scribe" on his seal. It is known that, a few decades later, under Zimri-Lim, Yasim-Sumu, described on his latest seal as "chief bookkeeper" (šandabakkum), had originally had a seal on which he bore the title of scribe (tupšarrum). The steward Mukannishum, whose importance for the management of artisanal products is well known, is called "scribe" in one text, "steward" (šatammum) in another, and his was not an isolated case. It is an open question, however, how far their proficiency went. No doubt an initial distinction must be made regarding the type of text: it is very probable, given the great difference in literary genres, that some people were able to read and write administrative texts but not letters. In fact, the archives of Shemshara, a city located on the Little Zab in Iraqi Kurdistan, have very clearly demonstrated the cultural cleavage existing between scribes of letters and those who wrote bookkeeping documents, who were clearly less well educated.


Excerpted from Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia by DOMINIQUE CHARPIN Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dominique Charpin is directeur d’études, section des Sciences historiques et philologiques, École pratique des hautes études at the University of Paris. He is the author of Lire et Ecrire à Babyloné, most recently, among several other books. Jane Marie Todd is the translator of numerous books for the University of Chicago Press.

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