Book Review: Mesopotamian Chronicles
by Jean-Jacques Glassner, 2004, 365pp
This volume from the Society of Biblical Literature is a translation and update of a previous work by the author published in French. It's a survey of the published chronicles (a particular genre of literature that concerns itself with the documentation of events over time) which were originally written in the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian languages. Their writing spans a period of about 2000 years from the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur (c.2100 BC) to the Seleucid period (c.300 BC). The time periods that these chronicles purport to cover are the same, but in some cases they stretch back to the dawn of humanity, before the mythical flood.
About two-thirds of the book is devoted to the translations and transliterations of some 53 unique texts, most of which are fragmentary - many extremely so. The remaining third is devoted to a discussion of the nature of the texts (how they're classified, what characteristics they share, who wrote them, and why), and to a discussion of Babylonian and Assyrian thought on the nature of origins.
Most interesting in this first third of the book, though, is the author's thesis on the Babylonian view of the nature of history, and why they considered it valuable. According to Glassner, Babylonians didn't see history as linear, but cyclical. Their chronicles, and especially the earliest, the Chronicle of the Single Monarch, which attempts to relate for the first time the earliest history of the people going back thousands of years, is predicated on the idea of cycles.
The greatest cycle was that of the 'flood', for which original Sumerian word apparently refers to a 'meteorological event that is a weapon of the gods' and could relate to both a great storm or an invasion. 'Deluge' might be a better translation. In any case, it refers to a wiping clean of the land by something of divine origin that flows over the land. The mythical 'Flood' is one example. The invasion of the Gutians barbarians at the end of the Akkadian dynasty is another.
Within the flood cycles are dynastic cycles, in which the high kingship of the ruling city is passed to another king of the same city. When the dynastic cycle ends, rulership is passed to a new dynasty in the next city. Within each dynasty is another another nested cycle - that of individual of kings. Kings rule for cycles of years, which are made of a cycle of months, which are made of days, which are made of hours.
Babylonian linear history therefore looks something like this:
Hours are nested within
Days, are nested within
Months, are nested within
Years, are nested within
The Reigns of Kings, are nested within
The Dynasties of Cities, which are nested within
The purpose of knowing the cyclical history (which is more important than the linear history) is so that any given king can figure out if he's going to be the one at the end of a cycle or not. Because nobody wants to be that guy.
When I review these books on ancient history, I like to provide a few excerpts to show what I find so fascinating. Here are some things that particularly caught my eye:
REPLICATING THE CITY
From the discussion of page 87:
"The Replica of Babylon: Two chronicles explained the tragic end of Sargon of Akkade by reference to a sacrilege he had committed by removing soil from Babylon and reconstructing a replica of the city elsewhere. Should we see here an allusion to the Assyrian practice of transporting soil from conquered territories to be trampled daily under the feet of its conquerors? Rather, the comparison with Nabonidus seems more likely, as he was reproached for wanting to construct at Tayma, in the north of the Arabian peninsula, a replica of the palace of Babylon."
Both of these suggestions are compelling to me. The former is basically the epitome of an act of what we would consider an evil empire - adding injury to defeat by importing their soil to be 'trampled daily underfoot'. The latter is interesting for a different reason. This is a society where cities are thought to belong to their gods - so for a human king to want to build a replica of a divine city would be seen as the height of hubris. This might be the act that causes the 'deluge' which takes the form of the invasion by someone who would trample your soil daily - that's an interesting cycle in and of itself.
THE SUBSTITUTE KING
Here's an actual chronicle entry. This was written in the late Babylonian period (7th century) but refers to a much earlier event in the 20th century BC. This instance, which takes place during cycle of the first dynasty of the city of Isin on the Euphrates river, describes the practice of the substitute king, in which a king receives a warning by omen or prophecy that he will die, and so places a courtier or some other poor sap on the throne for a short time, while he takes the position of 'gardener'. Usually, if nothing happens naturally to the substitute king, he is killed and the prophecy is fulfilled. Then the rightful king retakes his place. In this instance though, events unfolded otherwise:
"King Erra-imitti ordered Enlil-bani, the gardener, to sit on the throne as royal substitute and put the crown of kingship on his head. Erra-imitti died in his palace while swallowing soup in little sips. Enlil-bani sat on his throne, did not resign, and was elevated to the royal office."
In this case, the rightful king died while he was playing the gardener. The substitute refused to step aside, and kept the throne. I have no idea what the significance of the 'little sips' is, but I love the detail. Imagine if you were sent on a diplomatic mission to a distant kingdom with the mession of negotiating with the foreign king, only to find that the king you were supposed to treat with had been replaced by a temporary substitute. Would you treat with the substitute, or try to find the real king, who is hiding as a 'gardener'? Then, when you do find the real king, he dies, choking on soup. right if front of you. Please tell me you have a 'plan b'!
ACTS OF A DERANGED KING
In another late chronicle, we are treated to the events that chronicle the mental or moral breakdown of a king of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylon, Nabu-shuma-ishkun. He commits all kinds of acts that would be considered atrocities today - maybe they were then, too, but people felt powerless to stop them.
"Unshaven, he mutilated (the fingers of) his apprentice scribe, and, wearing fine gold, he entered into Bel's (Marduk's) cella of offering..."
"A leek, a thing forbidden (taboo) in the Ezida (temple), he brought to the temple of Nabu and gave to the one "entering the temple" (a temple functionary)."
"In (only) one day, he burned alive sixteen Cutheans (citizens of the city of Cutha) at Zababa's gate in the heart of Babylon."
"The man Itagal-il of the town of Dur-sha-Karhi , which is on the banks of the Euphrates, came into his presence and swore agreements and oaths, but he committed insult and unspeakable slander that are forbidden of princes against him and counted his town as booty."
"In the sixth year, he turned his attention toward the Esagila , the palace of Enlil of the gods, with a view to restoring it, but the possessions of the Esagila (as much as was there, that earlier kings had donated) he took out, gathered them into his own palace, and made them his own: silver, gold, choice and priceless stones, and everything that befits a deity, as much as was there. According to his good pleasure, he made offerings of them to the gods of the Sealand, or the Chaldeans, and of the Aramaeans. He would adorn the women of his palace with them and would give them to the kings of Hatti and Elam as signs of respect."
Stealing from the gods, cursing, and bringing leeks into the temple! Now there's a king just asking for a deluge!
Like so many books that survey ancient literature, this book has some serious gems - the kind of things that make history seem stranger than fiction. You have to sort the wheat from the chaff, but here the author helps us do that and gives us some synthesis. This book is not for the uninitiated, though. I'd strongly suggest getting familiar with the general history of the period before tackling it. Or just let someone like me tell you what was cool about it.