Sunday, September 19, 2010

Those Wacky Hittites: Postscript

I launched a fairly wild notion in the course of my text explosion on the Hittites t'other day.
[Yes! I will consider the possibility that lithium might be right for me!] Which is that historical linguistics might be radically wrong about what Proto-Indo-European (PIE!) looks like, essentially because we've put Sanskrit in the wrong place in its development. There's actually much more substantive critiques of older reconstructions of PIE, and competing new ones, not that you'd know it from the sorts of places where most people learn about ancient Aryans, which is still trapped in the tar pits with Georges Dumezil. Hating on certain people is reason enough to make my point as starkly as possible.

Sanskrit was invented out of "Prakrit" by a guy named Panini, who probably wrote after 100AD.

Hey, look! I just got a billion Indians, a hundred historical linguists, and 10 very old PIEists mad at me!

But, dudes, seriously. The first dated Sanskrit texts are the Buddhist modified Sanskrit literature produced in Kashmir about 100AD. This is called "Buddhist modified" because it doesn't follow Panini's grammar. So, the first "modified" Sanskrit comes prior to the first "orthodox" Sanskrit, an inscription commemorating the building of a dam in about 150AD. BMS looks a great deal like the variety of "Prakrits," i.e., dialects, that are documented prior to 150AD. The Prakrits are all, of course, derived from Sanskrit. And we know this because.... well, because!

Okay, no. The "proof" is that the Vedic literature that forms one of the bases of the Hindu religion dates to 1500BC. Well, how do we know that? The earliest copy of the Vedas is in a manuscript written in 1450, and the first Vedic text dates to the mid-1100s. So we need to find a way to push this back another 2500 years. The claim is that the Vedas were handed down by an oral tradition. Anyone who has ever played "Telephone" will find that hard to swallow, but the advocates say that the Vedas were sacred, and the super-important-importantness of religion trumps all human frailty. (Wendy Doniger's excelllent recent book has a less-than-excelllent shaggy dog story about how Vedic ritual practitioners needed to keep every word of it secret from the impure --who, what, weren't allow to eavesdrop on the rituals?-- and so didn't write it down, or only wrote it in code, or something. Until they just stopped doing it.) Note that this theory also needs to explain the textless propagation of a massive commentary on the original Vedas. What, apart from not wanting to offend people (a noble objective, but one that can only be carried so far) obligates us to believe this, centuries after we abandoned the idea that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses?

And it is wrong at another level. There is language change in the Rigveda. The (European) author who compiled it says that the different manuscripts before him rarely had variant readings, but then we are looking at manuscripts coming out of a four-century written tradition by this point. And, reluctant as they are to face the issue, modern scholars acknowledge that extended portions of the Rigveda are incomprehensible gibberish. It may not necessarily "Telephone" gibberish, but that's the way to bet. Here's a brief (and old) summary of some arguments about reading the Rigveda.

But back up here to the whole "1500BC" thing. Where do we get this date? Wikipedia maintains the pure pull-it-out-of-your-assness of the actual date. I've already mentioned that it is a backdating from the Trojan War. Which we don't even think happened any more! And the backdating happened like this: the great Nineteenth Century Indologist Max Mueller was asked whether this dating made sense in the light of his work. Mueller replied that the last possible date for the composition of the last of the Vedic literature (the Upanishads) was the date of the Buddha, who was clearly reacting to them. Buddha lived about 550BC. And there were 5 or so major generational stages to be detected in the Vedic literature, and 200 years was a perfectly reasonable length of time for the changes in each stage, so 1500BC was A-OK in his book!

Dudes: you don't even have a date. You have a guy who says that the date isn't inconsistent with the numbers. Except he's wrong. The modern accepted account puts the Buddha ahead 150 years from Mueller. And yet that's only because they're choosing to use something. We could easily go later, although that provokes continuing scholarly resistance, even though archaeology suggests 400BC as an earliest limit. And then there's the uncomfortable fact that if we put the Buddha after the date of the Persian, never mind Macedonian invasions, we change the cultural context completely.

Moving on, it is observed that the Rigveda reads a great deal like Zoroaster's Gathas, the authentic original core of the Zoroastrian holy texts, the Avestas. I'd be less impressed if it weren't for that bit about the Bible. But more than that, the Book of Mormon reads just like the King James Bible. So clearly the Book of Mormon dates to 1000BC! Well, no. The KJV is a recent translation, the Book of Mormon a deliberate imitation. Is this a valid comparison? Well, the Avestas as we have them come from manuscripts collected in Bombay in the late 1700s. They can be physically dated to about 11ooAD, and the tradition, is that they were compiled by a commission set up by Ardashir I (226--241). The language here is a little complicated. We usually refer to the eastern Indo-European languages as forming two larger families of Indo-Iranian (spoken in Iran-like places), and Indo-Aryan, spoken in India. The fact that Urdu-speaking Pakistani truck drivers can make themselves understood in Teheran and Delhi suggests that the border distinguishes these languages less than nationalism (see further: talking to Croatian linguists about "Serbo-Croatian"). So I am going to go with the eminently scholarly Indo-Whatsit to describe a grab-bag of languages and dialects, of which Sanskrit is attested in 150AD, Avestan about the same time. And when we go earlier, we learn surprising things.

Now, there is every reason to be suspicious of Ardashir's motives. He was the founder of a new, Sassanian state, and needed to formulate an appropriate ideology for it. In doing so, he had to sideswipe the Arsacid (Parthian) dynasty/regime that had ruled in Iran for over 400 years by his time, because they were still around, his rivals, and Roman allies. That gave him a motive for skipping back to the Achaemenians as a model, and notwithstandinghis traditional prominence in the story, a Sassanian state religion of Zoroastrianism only comes into clear focus along side the Arsacid official state church in 301AD. If Zoroastrianism had not existed, the Sassanids would have had to invent it. Only, both can be true.

That is, the Achaemenians were a natural alternative source of legitimacy, and even if the Sassanians knew nothing else of them (or knew things that did not work for them), they would have had the same Greek literature that we have. So they would have the names, some stories, and the figure of Zoroaster. That's not saying that these are the only sources. It's just saying that these are the sources that we know they had. What we do not have is any doxology, nor the slightest evidence that the Parthians had any doxology. Zoroaster is mentioned by Plato. So is Pythagoras. Does Zoroastrianism have anything more to do with Zoroaster than neo-Pythagoreanism to Pythagoras?

So what is the actual earliest-evidence of --well, let's not call it "Sanskrit," or "the Vedas," but something more neutral, such as "Indo-Iranian context?" The answer goes back to the Hittites, again. In about 1380BC, Suppililiuma III signed a treaty with King Shattiwaza of the neighbouring Mitanni state. Treaties were a big deal, so you called on as many gods to witness them as you could:

"[T]he Storm-god, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Moon-god and the Sun-god, the Moon-god of Harran, heaven and earth, the Storm-god, Lord of the kurinnu of Kahat, the Deity of Herds of Kurta, the Storm-god, Lord of Uhušuman, Ea-šarri, Lord of Wisdom, Anu, Antu, Enlil, Ninlil, the Mitra-gods, the Varuna-gods, Indra, the Nasatya-gods, Lord of Waššukanni, the Storm-god, Lord of the Temple Platform (?) of Irrite, Partahi of Šuta, Nabarbi, Šuruhi, Ištar, Evening Star, Šala, Belet-ekalli, Damkina, Išhara, the mountains and rivers, the deities of heaven and the deities of earth."

Varuna, Indra, and the Mitra and Nasatya-gods appear in the Rig-Veda! We also have Indo-Whatsit names for both Mittani and Kassite (the guys in charge at Babylon in these days) kings, and some Indo-Whatsit vocabulary is used in the horse-training manual of Kikkuli the Mittanian, a Hittite-era bestseller preserved in multiple copies in Bogazkoy archives. Clearly, then, the Mittani had been conquered by an Indo-Whatsit speaking tribe of expert charioteers! The Indo-Whatsit vocabulary in Mittani is a superstrate. Curiously, the Hittite gods mentioned immediately previously are all "Hattic." The Hittites used this unique language in some religious texts, adopted their gods, and even gave Hattic names to their kings. This, of course, proves that invading Indo-European Hittites conquered the Hattic people, and their language is presumably a substrate74.

Opposite conclusions from identical datum suggest that the conclusion is dictating the explanation. In this case, the Indo-Europeans as invaders. Now, there is precious little reason for this a priori. Besides the Hittites and the Indo-Whatsit rulers of the Mittani and perhaps Kassites, we have more Indo-European languages attested in this part of the world. West and south of the Hittites, various independent states speak the near-Hittite Luwian language. Across the cozy Aegean Sea, in Greece and down to Crete, we have an early dialect of Greek recorded in the famous Linear B tablets. Looking up the Euphrates and Tigris as they break into the mountains through one tributary valley and satellite mountain spur after another, we find unexcavated city states everywhere receiving strings of horses raised on the mountains on either flank, some carrying tin carried down by road. Somewhere in here, there is no reason that PIE could not have been first spoken, somewhere near where the Hurrian-speaking kingdom of Urartu/Armenia emerged.

But that's not what we argue. The invasion happened. And re-happened. For example, the Hittites must have invaded and overthrew the Hattians about 2200BC. and some Anatolian cities were burnt at about this time! What other possibly explanation is there than a migrant horde? Trevor Bryce supports my snark, but allows for another invasion, about 1800BC. And about 1500BC, the Linear A writing people of Knossos in Crete were supplanted by those afore-mentioned early Greek writers, the "Mycenaeans." Clearly they invaded from the north, and would soon get civilised enough to appear in Hittite records as a recognisable form of Homer's Achaeans. More Greeks would in turn overthrow the Mycenaeans and much else about 1150BC in a "Sea Peoples" invasion. We also have a preinvasion in the east, where history used to usher the "Persians" onto the stage about 800BC, leaving the Indo-Whatsists of Mitanni to be a precocious offshoot, although people don't do that any more. (For an approach to early Iranian history I like much better, see here.) Invasion: it happened, and they came from the Black Sea.

You would think that no-one ever proposed an alternative. But there is one, the one I've already noted, the "Anatolian homeland." It is even Colin Renfrew's version. Renfrew now admits that he's wrong in imagining a scenario in which agriculture, after being invented in Iraq, crossed the mountains to Anatolia, hooked up with some PIE-speakers, and spread with them all over Europe, perhaps at the same time that neighbours speaking Ural-Altaic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Afro-Asiatic speakers were making for the territories in different directions, spreading agriculture with their language families over all the Earth. Although nearly Biblical, the dates (c. 6000BC) are too early to be plausible, and clearly at least the regions at the extremes of the language-family range came to feature these languages as a result of adoption rather than physically replacement.

This does not, however, dispose of the hippy-uncle-car-trip issue. Where better to put the PIE homeland than in the middle of the road, as opposed to the muddy, uncrossable ditch that we mean when we vaguely point to the Pontic steppes, and which has always directed traffic north and south, rather than east and west? This leads to J. P. Mallory's disproof, which is almost proof masquerading as disproof. Mallory says that Anatolia can't be the homeland, because language families can only evolve in geographic spaces large enough to avoid contamination by other language families, and the ancient Middle East was filled to the brim with lnguage families and isolates. (It's in here somewhere.) Seriously? How did Hattic, Hurrian, Kassite, Sumerian, Elamite and Afro-Asiatic come to evolve? Do we need to find vast, remote language-spaces for each of them? Of course not: Mallory's implicit claim is that Indo-European is special. And he's right.

But not the way he wants to be. The discovery of Indo-European led to a rush of other language family discoveries. that culminated with Edward Sapir (1884--1939) travelling from one reserve to the next and finding vast, sprawling Indian language families wherever he looked, and making vast claims about language and human consciousness. Many of Sapir's families now look like confirmation bias, and what followed made this blatant to the point where there's been something of a reaction, and linguists now argue that Indo-European in particular is the exception to the rule. "Language families" are not a generalisable heuristic. The majority of languages do not belong to language families. Those that do require special explanation. Colin Renfrew is right, but the fact that most "isolate" languages are identified in non-agricultural societies does not mean that agriculture is the explanation.

Now, I've already supplied an explanation for the spread of Indo-European, that is hardly original to me. That it was entangled with the spread of a prestige technology, the war chariot, and the necessary prerequisites, bronze and the domesticated horse is clear, the residual question being the nature of the entanglement. I say the language was spread by the technology, in the form of migrating specialists teaching local charioteers. The invasion thesis holds that the language was spread by the technology in the form of proto-Nazi panzer divisions, chariot-riding conquerors. This is the so-called "Kurgan hypothesis," based on Marija Gimbutas' reformulation, where the spread of Indo-European could be linked to the spread of a particular kind of burial that is much more archaeologically visible than chariots. More recently, we have this formidable iteration of these ideas.

Why do I disagree with this? I have no problem with the idea that languages "migrate." I speak English, which migrated to North America along with English speakers. Clearly, people migrate, and when they get to their new home, they have to speak some language, and the one they already speak is one option. But that assumes the homogenous movement of large numbers of speakers of the same language, and that is not the usual rule. In my own region, early migrants came speaking many languages. To bride the gap between native and imported languages, they began speaking a mixed languages, or "pidgin," called Chinook. Chinook soon gave way to English, the written language of government and education. This happens in most places, but there are a number of cases where it has not, enough that we can study creoles. What kind of a language is a creole?

The stakes here for linguistic theorists are big. Imagine two tribes, each using a different range. For one or another reason, one range has a few bad years. that group faces starvation. Meanwhile, the other tribe can exploit the resources that the failing tribe can't. So the lucky tribe invites the tribe to live with them. They camp together, the children play and intermarry, and, a generation later, the camp splits to cover the old ranges. If creoles can rapidly evolve into a new language, then a Martian ethnologist who visits at intervals of a century will suppose that the old tribes are extinct, and replaced by two new tribes (likely with new names, but quite possibly adopting older ones) who speak different dialects of an entirely new language. Now, there is no question that this process happens. We can point to the Kiowas and Seminoles and enough other cases to need a technical term: "ethnogenesis." Ethnogenesis also generates new languages by "Creolisation," and if this happened routinely, the language map will not only contain few language families, but we will be able to say much less about history on the basis of studying language families. To dispense with the argument, we will need to argue that Creolisation is a self-limiting phenomena. This is pretty clearly wrong. Creoles are just normal language that emerge through non-genetic processes.

So what makes language families? A specific technological package spread Indo-European, but other packages do not have their own language. There is just precisely no "agricultural revolution" language family. But then most of our evidence is written, and we still have not taken this seriously. The texts are not incidental. They are what we need to study.

In the Middle East, writing starts out in Egypt and lower Iraq at about the same time (3100BC) and the same context of state building. The evidence of contact-era Peru is that this cultural contexts will have possessed multiple symbolic inventories matched to their storage media. The problem lay in stabilising reference, so that any given symbol reliably meant something specific. The choice made, inevitable or not, was that at least two symbolic inventories, of cuneiform scratches on clay tablets and heiroglyphs (painted cartoons), were linked to specific spoken language by rendering some symbols as words, others as syllables. Egyptian and Sumerian have been described as the languages of Egypt and lower Iraq respectively, but I see no reason not to problematise this. All three languages fit a syllabic writing system better than many others, notably Hittite and Indo-Whatsit. The script might well have chosen the language.

Under the first imperial state of which we have written records, the Sumerian written system was formalised to write an Afro-Asiatic language called Akkadian, after the Akkadian rulers of what is now Baghdad, in about 2300BC. The rise of the Akkadian state has been plausibly linked to the "Amorites," who are either the first barbarians to trouble a civilised state, or, more likely, an economic classification. By this argument, the success of city-level organisation has led tothe rise of industrial-scale textile production, which has in turn led to large scale sheepherding on the margins of early civilisation. The new economic context generates new political forms, and Akkadian spreads up and down the rivers to other city states, but not over the mountains into Turkey. If I were pressed for a reason for this, I would suggest that the practice of writing things down on anything as cumbersom as a dry clay tablet may have seemed a little more trouble than it was worth absent a coercive managerial apparatus. (So speaks the sometimes middle manager, all-too often exhausted in his attempts to impose ill-considered top-down iniatives. Hey, consultants and clueless top-level management, quit it!)

That said, Akkadian represents the first script-language problem. It, too, is a syllabic language, and the script can directly borrow the syllable-symbols of written Sumerian. But it does not do so universally. Many Sumerian words are adopted directly into Akkadian. By the time the next empire falls (Neo-Babylonians, c. 1595BC), the world is finally ripe for the idea of adapting cuneiform to new languages. Thus we get the menagerie already encountered, of written Hittite, Elamite, Hurrian, Hattic, Aramaic and Greek, while the Egyptians made limited use of cuneiform Akkadian in diplomacy.

This is interesting because it is easy to imagine a context that was nothing but Akkadian specialists writing letters for kings. The "serious" literature of medieval Europe is all in Latin, even though there were no more Latin speakers in a way in which it would have been unthinkable for the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age to use Akkadian. On the contrary, on the periphery of the great power system we find archives written in native languages in adapted scripts, such as Linear A and Linear B.

This is not the case for the Hittites, obviously. They wrote a great deal of Hittite in cuneiform, to the point where the main problem we have in understanding the language is the use of "Sumerograms," and syllable symbols where they are not quite appropriate. Thus, written Hittite contains many superfluous letters, and we lack some pretty basic words, including the numbers! (Of note here is that one of the key pieces of evidence that Kikkuli was translating out of Indo-Whatsit into Hittite was that he uses ordinal forms [i.e. "eighth"] that look Indo-Whatsit. If we lack the words for Hittite numbes, do we also lack Hittite ordinals?) Of Greek, we have even less. Fortunately, Greek developed into one of the best-attested languages on Earth. Hittitte, not so much. It vanished, buried in the archives of its abandoned cities. That, however, should not be melodramatically overinterpreted. The Hittite state did heiroglyphics, too, and it chose to use Luwian, not Hittite in them. For, like all empires before nationalism, the Hittite regime saw that to favour any of the many languages of its subject peoples was bad politics. To the extent that there was a "family" language used within the ruling family, it could be an exception. But, as far as we know, that language was Hattic for the Hittites. In any case, Luwian was related to Hittite, and had a posthumous relationship with the Hittite state. For by 7/600BC, there were "neo-Hittite" states in northern Syria and adjacent parts of Turkey that claimed the legacy of the old Hittite Empire, and they wrote in Luwian. Our first Greek historian, Herodotus may not "remember" the Hittites, but others can.

That said, historical memory is an interesting thing here. The Neo-Hittite states were gone by Herodotus' time, destroyed by the Assyrians and absorbed by the Persians. He would have known Luwian through its use in another, more present power, an empire that stretched from its capital at Sardis on the Aegean coast of Turkey deep inland --the tyranny of Asia, Lydia. The Lydian form of Luwian is distinctly its own language of "Lydian, and" closely related to Carian, a language Herodotus knew the the Lydian "tyranny" well. He was fascinated with it. All the Greeks were. It had been overthrown by the Persians sixty years before Herodotus' birth, an event that shaped all subsequent Greek history, since it brought many "Greek" city states under Persian rule. Herodotus was in no position to delve into the ancient past of Lydia, since he couldn't read heiroglyphic Luwian or get a reading of them, or at least did not bother to seek one out. Yet Herodotus was not entirely bereft of curiosity. He tells us at least one story that intimates that he was on the same path as we are right now.

This story has it that Pharaoh wishes to learn which is the first human language. It is a curious question to consider, given that he speaks the language of the gods, but on the other hand there is the interests of science to consider. Pharaoh does not order the compilation of massive vocabularies and grammars. How we wish he had! Instead, he has some children raised without any human contact, hard as that is to imagine before the invention of the Gameboy. Eventually, the children come to spontaneously demand "bekos," or bread in the language of the Phrygians of west-central Turkey. Phrygian, language of King Midas, is thus the original language of humanity. We know that this is wrong, but more importantly, we know why Herodotus says this. "Phrygian origins" are a way of getting at the idea that the political legitimacy of the state can be derived of origins and first things. (Midas was a great and ancient king who was a great lover, perhaps of his mother or sister. Thus, he "fathers" the state. Or something like that.) This has nothing to do with the actual history of the Phrygians. Which is not to say that we should not inquire.

Phrygian is an Indo-European language. We know it because the Phoenicians spread the idea of alphabetic scripts in the early 700sBC. It was an excellent way of writing Indo-European languages, and came attached to reasons for wanting to write them that gave rise to a new literature. From the Greek tradition we get the Iliad and the Odyssey. . From the Aramaics of northern Iraq, we get a large literature winnowed down in time pretty much to Biblical texts. (Aramaic-writing scribes got around.) From Phoenicians, Aramaics, Lydians, Carians and Phrygians we get a few surviving fragments. Chances are, this is an accident of preservation. The Phrygians did it earlier and were a bigger deal than the Greeks, as at the time they were a major player, and even get mentioned in the Assyrian archives. Then, they were devastated by a Cimmerian invasion about 700AD or so, and overshadowed by their Lydian neighbours, while going forward Greek-writing states would do better than either.

So who were the Phrygians? They are usually brought onto the scene as invaders from Europe during the dark years iof the early Iron Age, but this strikes a suspect narrative in its own right (it makes these teachers and relatives of the Greeks into Europeans rather than "Asiatics") and entirely unsourced, except in one of the multitude of internally contradictory migration tales the old Greek authors liked to tell. Phrygia sits on old Hittite territory, and short of their running some preliterate Einsatzgruppen, assimilated Hittite elements and so are in some sense inheritors of the Hittite state. I'm sure that historical linguists have solid reasons for not arguing that Phrygian is descended from Hittite, and perhaps one could explain. (Though if the two languages are related, that would open up a can of worms, because Greek is often said to be related to Phrygian, and possibly also Armenian and Old Persian(!))

So, about Old Persian, which is in fact the next major piece of textual interest. Sometime between 522 and 486, the Persian emperor Darius commissioned a great inscription by the side of a major road coming down from the Iranian plateau to the Iraqi plain, at a place called Bisitun. It contains a lengthy trilingual, or text in three languages: Aramaic, Elamite, and Old Persian. The former played much the same part in the Persian Empire as elsewhere in the Middle East, as a language of learned comment and administration that overshadowed lol tongues. The second is an isolate language spoken in Khuzistan, the appendage of the Iraqi plain squeezed into the escarpement of the Iranian plateau down in the southwest of modern Iran. The third is ...well, let's not get ahead of ourselves!

So Darius is known to us from Gree history as the third Persian emperor, and the first not (closely) related to the empire's founder, and he has a fascinating tale to tell. He knows, we all know how the Persian Empire was founded. Even two thousand years later a full account could be dug up in old Babylon, called the Nabonidus Chronicle, while Herodotus has his own version. So we know that a man called Cyrus launched a series of campaigns in which he conquered Lydia and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. (Herodotus adds a third victim, the kingdom of the Medes. We certainly have no reason to doubt that Darius ruled the Medes. It's just that the conquest is not corroborated by the incomplete Chronicles.) Anyway, Cyrus campaigned in various directions until he died in battle. Since kings and generals die in battle far less often than one might suppose, this might cause me to suspect something, were my reserves of suspicion not needed at the next turn in the story. Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, an equallly effective campaigner who soon added Egypt to the collection. Unfortunately, there is a well-established axis of relations between the Aegean coastal states and Egypt. From now on, revolution in Egypt will stir things up in the Greek-speaking world.

Cambyses, Darius tells us, died soon after conquering Egypt. At this point, a sinister usurper emerges and takes the throne, and General Darius overthrows him, defeats rebels in all directions, and assumes the throne of the empire, which he will rule for 36 years, creating, as in all long reigns, considerable historical inertia down a certain path. But which path? Even if we did not have Herodotus's account, which says that it was Darius who was the illegitimate usurper, the way that Darius dwells on being born a king and a son of a king would tell us something. The Bisitun inscription is not meant to be read by mortals (although of course everyone at the time would know what it said), but by gods, and gods can be awfully gullible at times. Darius was saying these things to make them so. Conclusion: the whole story that Darius belongs to the Achaemenian family of Cyrus is wrong, because Cyrus was not an Achaemenian.

So what has this to do with language? Since Darius was a Persian, it is, of course, logical that the Bisitun text was in Old Persian, a major language of his empire. Right? Wrong. The major languages of the old Persian Empire, by count of surviving documents, were Aramaic and Elamite. The Persepolis Archives have as many documents in Old Persian as they have in Phrygian (one each, so this is hardly a statistically interesting comparison.) Old Persian is used on coins, on a few royal monuments, and carved, probably after the fact, onto some images associated with Cyrus. Backing up to the Nabonidus Chronicles, we find Cyrus described as the "King of Anshan," a traditional label for Elamite players in lowland politics. If Cyrus were to fill out a Census form, I suspect that he would tick the box for "Elamite," and while Darius would tick the box for "Persian," there would not be that many of them.

Not that Cyrus would situated himself in ethnic terms, for all that the greater part of his army would have been Elamite speakers. On the contrary, he was located within great power politics. His mother was a daughter of the King of the Medes, his grandmother a sister of Croesus, last king of Lydia. These were the alliances that the ancient powers had to make to rid themselves of the shadow of Assyria and overwhelm its cities in 620--605BC. Sardis seems like a long way away from Khuzistan, to be sure, but there is a sense in which the Median Empire was in the middle of them.

But wait. Hold up for a moment. You can get out your ancient history map and see the Median Empire illustrated. What you cannot find is independent evidence that it existed. There was an anti-Assyrian confederacy of "Medes," but, such as it was, it consisted of all the highland tribes arrayed in a semi-circle around the Assyrian homeland, assembled into one great coalition of grievances after the eruption of the Cimmerians --whom the Assyria identify as an Indo-European speaking people up there in the mountains of Kurdistan. This might not be an ethnic label, any more than "Tea Partiers" represents a rebellious tribe living in Teapartia. So who were the kings of the Medes from whom Cyrus was descended? Go forward a bit into Herodotus, and we find Croesus again, making war on the Medes by besieging their great city of Pteria. Herodotus is a little vague about where Pteria was, but until recently no-one doubted that it was in central Turkey. Go back far enough and Bogazkoy used to get singled out. More recently, another very large hilltop city not too far east of Bogazkoy, but destroyed and abandoned at the right time, has been singled out: Kerkenes. The problem that has led scholars to retract their identification? Kerkenes was a Phyrgian city.

Woo. Spooky. Phyrgians, Greeks, Hittites, Medes, Persians, Lydians, Cimmerians --they're all blurring together into one composite Early Iron Age entity, exchanging influences, princesses, and presumably words and jargon. It sure was much simpler when we could derive them all from the Pontic Steppe and assume that the Greeks went west to heroic, virtuous Europe, while the Persians went east, to servile, decadent Asia!

But there are a couple of other curiosities about the Bisitun inscription. First of all, it barely mentions "India," even though "India" was a key part of the early Persian conquests according to Herodotus. Either this land of millions of square miles and vast wealth hardly even impinged on the consciousness of the king, or, more likely, he is referring to the region on the right bank of the Indus --Afghanistan, Baluchistan and parts of eastern Iran that get often get that label later. The idea of Indian would be transferred to the whole subcontinent much later. This opens up the possibility that the Greeks thought the same way, which is very interesting, because after Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenian empire, the eastern parts fell in to the hands of the Seleucid dynasty and various "satraps." In about 255BC, the remote but important province of Bactria (it's on the only practical road for bringing elephants out of India) rebelled under the leadership of a "Greek satrap" named Diodotus. Actually, ethnic labels aren't very helpful here. All we know directly is that the "Greco-Bactrian" state had Greek-style cities, used Greek on its coins. It might have been a racially-pure garrison apartheid state, or something more congenial. Anyway, Diodotus defeated Arsaces, semi-legendary founder of the Parthian state, the Seleucids, and a bunch of others who got in his way in the course of establishing this Greco-Bactrian state, which lasted for several hundred more years, and is well known from archaeology and Indian tradition, as well as to an extent in the classics.

What makes this interesting is that at the same time, and in the very places that Diodotus claimed to rule, we know of another empire: that of the man who calls himself Priyadarsi and sometimes Devadutta in a series of monumental inscriptions in Aramaic and also the "Prakrit," ie. dialect of Sanskrit, called Kharosthi. Buddhist sources of the so-called Mahayana tradition especially call this king "Ashoka," and describe him as a virtuous ruler living a hundred years after the Buddha (that is, 250BC, in this tradition.) He founded many stupas, spread the Buddhist word, and in various ways was the prototype Buddhist world emperor, or Cakravartin ("Wheel-Spinning King.") And now that we have the Kharosthi manuscripts recovered around Ghandhara in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, we know that this is not mere legend. Or, rather, it is a legend that goes back almost to 100BC. And as with Herodotus' slightly more ancient world, it is hard to believe that there were not more symbolically stored historical traditions accessible to them than there are today. Just as the Sassanian kings destroyed a huge Elamite inscription and mural in order to make their own at Nashq-i-Rustam, so history was lost as history was made.

The names are also direct Kharosthi translations of "Diodotus." Were Diodotus and Asoka the same person? Probably: it's a less interesting question than some have supposed, because having a Greek name doesn't make the Beloved of the the Gods any more a Greek than having a Kharosthi name makes him an Indian. What is interesting is that we have linked the first manifestation of Indo-Whatsit languages in the Indian subcontinent not to some unspeakably ancient oral tradition, but to the royal propaganda of a powerful and successful ruler on the edge of the Greco-Persian continuum, embedded in a tradition of using the purposeful creation and manipulation of languages and scripts in the interest of establishing historical legitimacy. Here is a language of writing, law and power, a language that can displace local tongues and creoles and, in time, become the language and literature of two great world civilisations.

Because it would be naive to think that these developments will have no effect on the further development of Greek or Latin. Indeed, it would be a mistake to think that these developments have any centre, except perhaps in the Anatolian middle. Rather, ideas, words, scripts and grammars are moving east and west, north and south along the artery roads throughout this period to create the Indo-European continuum.

Sorry about the abruptness of the ending. I've got to put this to bed --it's taken far too much of my time already.

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