Said Ashurbanipal, King of Assur, King of the Universe, Strong King, King of the Four Quarters:
"Gyges, king of Lydia, a district which is across the sea, a remote place, of which the kings my fathers had not heard word. The account of my kingdom was related to him by Assur, the God my creator, in a dream, thus: [text destroyed]. . . The day he dreamed, his messenger he sent, to recount that dream he dreamed, and pray for my friendship. From the midst of the day when he took the yoke of my rule, the Cimmerians, masters of his people, who did not fear my fathers and me, and did not take the yoke of my kingdom, he captured, in service of Assur and Ishtar of the Gods my lords. From the midst of the chiefs of the Cimmerians whom he had taken, two chiefs in strong fetters of iron and bonds of iron, he bound, and with numerous presents, he sent to me.
[Later] [Gyges] wilfully discontinued his messengers, and disregarded the will of Assur, the God my Creator; to his own power he trusted and hardened his heart. His forces to the aid of Psammitichus, (king) of Egypt, who had thrown off the yoke of my rule, he sent; and I heard and prayed to Assur and Ishtar thus: "Before his enemies his may they cast, and may they carry captive his attendants."
When thus I had prayed to Assur, he requited me. Before his enemies his corpse was thrown down, and they carried captive his attentands. The Cimmerians whom by the glory of his name he had trodden under him, conquered and swept the whole of his country, and Ardys his son sat on his thrown. . By the hand of his envoy, [Ardys] sent word that he would take the yoke of my kingdom." *
Is there a way of capturing what Conan the Cimmerian means to us? Not, I think, without developing the idea of Conan as an erotic fantasy in an extremely inappropriate direction, or writing about Conan in his context and producing a very long essay about the 1934 midterm elections and the associated California Governor's race, expanding on why Franklin Roosevelt is Conan, Upton Sinclair is Xaltotun of Acheron and Kull the Barbarian is Herbert Hoover.
So I'll just go with some sons of Cymru. Because, obviously, "Cimmerian" is the root of "Cymru," or perhaps "Cimbri," and since they are the "Gimmeru," or Sons of Gomer, it follows that the Cimmerians, after making trouble in the Middle East for a few years, wandered off west, carrying the blessed seed of Moses to Britain (or northern Denmark), and God's blessing with them. Their cousins, the sons of Japtheth, meanwhile, took a right turn headed north, ending up in India, ruling over the Hamitic peoples, in much the same way that the current Mughals --What I'm saying here is that, obviously, the ruling class in Delhi right now in 1786 is related to elements of the ruling class in Britain, and it's all because of the Cimmerians. Who are Welsh. Or Danish. And the Lost Tribes of Israel. Because they're the same thing as the sons of Gomer, right?
Don't believe me? Here's the map in the presentation Bible given to my great-grandfather on the occasion of his departure from Ireland for "America," actually central Saskatchewan.
Setting off down the path of understanding Cimmerians seems to be taking us in crazy directions, so I will shift to Assyrians and move on to Lydians before suggesting that the actual story of the Cimmerians probably is as crazy as this old map suggests.
In 1847, British adventurer, Sir Henry Austen Layard, arrived in the city of Mosul. Five years before, Paul-Emile Botta, French Consul-General in the city, getting tired of looking out from the window of his office in Mosul at sights like this
Photographs following from Joan and David Oates, Nimrud: An Imperial City Revealed (London: British School of Archaeology in Iaq, 2001). The Oates took this photograph in 1955.
got tired of asking himself what they were. So he took a ferry across the river, to one of them, at the confluence of the Tigris and the Greater Zab
hired some workmen, and began digging at a site ---which turned out to be Dur-Sharrukin, "The Fortress of Sargon." Way to pick 'em, M. le Consul!
Mr. Layard, by way of contrast, had a hunch that the seven square kilometers of terraced ground under the massive citaxel, raised above the often-marshy plain opposite Mosul might be a more promising location for excavation.
He was right. The prodigious site was nothing less than the Biblical city of Nineveh, "house of the Fish [ie, Ishtar]," one of the world's great cities from approximately 6000BC to 612.
This is not necessarily that big a deal. We have known where Sardis ("Sparda by the bitter sea") is since forever, and Mario Liverani does not brook a shade of doubt in identifying Tell Fekheriye, near Ras el- 'Ain as the lost city of Washukanni. Two percent of the vast site of Sardis has been excavated over the years, but it is frustrating work, since no monumental structures crammed with nice things and surviving texts have been found, while the controversy over Tell el Fakhariya persists because most of the location is under the water table.
The difference is that within two years, Layard found Sennacherib's "palace beyond compare," the "Laughing House" of my title, although I haven't been able to find the particular translation that I am shamelessly using here. The translations I found while bumming around the other week use the distincly less lyrical "joyful palace" instead. A few years after that, he found the Palace of Ashurbanipal, with its library of 22,000 tablets. Shalmaneser put up three thousand square meters of bas-relief to illustrate his works, allong with numerous colossal statues, while Ashurbanipal preferred to present himself, like the Qianlong Emperor or Leopold I, as a scholar-king, collector of texts, reader of dead languages, and master of the editorial pencil. The tablets were jumbled in their collection, and there is a colourful story about some of the statues from Dur-Shurrakin being lost in the Tigris during a battle with river pirates,** but, in the main, the self-presentation of the Neo-Assyrian kings was recovered and presented to a world obsessed with things Biblical, its religiosity threatened ostensibly by the German Higher Criticism, in fact by the deeper currents of social secularisation as the clerisy lost its control of the public sphere to a new breed of "scientific" intellectual. (Although it would be a mistake to imagine this as happening entirely outside the English church, at least in my humble opinion.)
There is something a little romantic about the idea of lost Nineveh. Kipling (in fact refracted through either Gordon Dickson or Poul Anderson, I forget which), manages to suggest that England will share its fate if it chooses the wrong national security policy/forgets about Jesus with elegaic lyrics that I've quoted here before ("On dune and headland sinks the fire/Lo all our pomp of yesteryear/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre"). So you can tell how much of an influence Dickson and/or Anderson were to me as a boy.
There is, on the other hand, nothing romantic about the actual fate of Nineveh. The Wikipedia article to which I have already linked makes the story a twenty-two-year-long saga, from the death of Ashurbanipal to the defeat of a joint Egyptian-Assyrian army fighting at Carchemish, but that city, at the crossing of the Euphrates on the Turkish-Syrian border, is a long way from the heartland of Assyria, whose cities in fact fell in rapid succession in 612BC. At the other extreme, the years between 627 and 615 look pretty bleak for the Assyrians in retrospect, but civil wars and usurpations are an old story for this empire by that time, and have been in empires ever since.
From what we know, it is perhaps as easy to frame the fall of Assyria as a social collapse. Looking at the evidence, and, often the lack of evidence, a conference in Turin in 2003, chaired by Gioovanni Lanfranchil, focussed on a much shorter period of time, from the 616 rebellion of Cyaxares through to the fall, in rapid succession, of Nineveh, Nimrud/Kalhu, Assur, and Dur-Shurrakin in 612. Cyaxares is understood as a King of the Medes, and from near-contemporaenous Neo-Babylonian sources from the reign of Nabonidus (wow --and this does not even get into the crank who thinks that Nabonidus is the original of the Guatama Buddha), we know that Cyaxares led an army consisting of Scythians, Medes, Cimmerians and other, less identifiable figures. At the same time, the collapse of 612 could not have been an exogenous military event, since massive quadrilaterals of poweful fortresses due not normally fall in a single campaigning season, and neither was it an endogenous political event. Far too many people were killed in the sack of these cities, and too much was destroyed, so thoroughly that the Nineteenth Century excavations found extraordinary treasures still awaiting discovery. The discovery of, for example, the skeletons of at least 200 adult males, still bound in iron fetters, in a dark and subterranean temple (prison?) at Nineveh testifies to the brutality of the events of 612.
The conclusion of the Turin conference, which was especially interested in the ephemeral character of the supposed "Median Empire" that followed the Neo-Assyrian state in northern Iraq and Syria, is that this episode is to be better understood as a mutiny of the Neo-Assyrian cavalry, raised, we know, from tribal levies. What remains to be understood is why this mutiny was so lethal.
It seems to me (I think, to the conference as well), that we can start down the line of investigating a military mutiny with issues of pay. This is, of course, a liminal moment in the actual history of pay. We are facing the borderline of a world without coinage, and a world with one, and the Lydia of Sardis, the purported place where this transition took place, has already appeared in this story.Traditionally, Croesus of Lydia (r. 560--547), son of Alyattes, was the first to coin gold (or to make coins). There is room for ambiguity in the ancient sources, but actual stamped coins, perhaps uttered by Alyattes, survive as concrete evidence of the origins of this momentous change at a specific moment in time and a specific place. Hans van Wees, in his recent treatment of the fiscal history of ancient Athens, presents a strong argument that, building on the primordial basis of public finance, near forgotten Athenian politicians put in place the skeleton of the system required to pay regular wages to what we would now call "professional soldiers" in the 590s. Van Wees' focus is on the navy, but we might just as easily look at the Athenian "knights." Usually treated as an ancient institution going back to a monarchical golden (or leaden, as you may prefer) age, the "knights," if horse cavalry is an innovation of precisely the era of the establishment of the Neo-Assyrian empire, must in fact have been a profoundly disruptive social innovation.
Back up here: the central, and controversial claim here is the late development of horse cavalry, and, correlated with this, classic "steppe nomadism." The lateness of this development is more to be insisted upon at the other end of Eurasia, where the Chinese imperial state is held to have emerged in reaction to this development. Enough, then, said about something about which I have blogged before, except to note the lateness of the date, well into the fourth century BC, and consonant with some kind of wave-of-advance of the new technology from origins in the Jazira.
Now, back up again. Having already signalled it, I should admit, here, deep into a blog posting, that, besides van Wees, this post is inspired by a far-too-slow reading of the magisterial The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy of Mario Liverani. No edition for old men, it combines faint and small text with a translation which is more functional than elegant. But it is noteworthy for presenting bold and well-argued explanations for some of the most controversial events in ancient history. Here, I circle around again to the Late Bronze Age collapse, with an apology for conflating events of 1200 with those of 600, which is that the "collapse" was delayed and protracted east of the Euphrates in general. A six hundred year delay might be a bit much, but here's the argument:
i) The Late Bronze Age is, per Liverani, from its beginning a phase of intensified social struggle. On the one hand, military service is taken out of the hands of a corvee of farmers, and placed in the hands of a military aristocracy of "Young Ones," the maryannu. On the other, Liverani reads the increasing frequency of a clause excepting debt slavery contracts from royal jubilees as a phase of intensification of social exploitation of the poor farming class. The LBA sees the emergence, in Liverani's interpretation, of an increased separation between palatial and village society. The palaces are concerned to maintain long range trade at all costs, and do so through taxation of the villages. The villages, seeking compensation, "tax" merchants and caravans. The palace, needing to maintain its credibilty within the congress of the great powers, assumes responsibility for retributive justice. Unable to insert itself in village society to the point where it can actually identify and punish wrongdoers, it simply falls on the villages. People respond by fleeing into the wastes and the mountains, and the state, in turn, responds with ever more coercive attempts to bind the villagers to their communities.
ii) The end of the LBA, the collapse or abandonment of the palaces, necessarily coincides with the end of long range trade. Without palatial protection, the caravans cannot travel the necessary long distances. Except. . .
iii) Against frequent attempts to push the archaeology of domestication and discovery back in time, Liverani wants to make the post-Collapse era central to the widespread domestication of the camel, and of olive and grape (and fig-) based arboriculture. The former brings the deep oasses into the picture --or, rather, the cienegas that will become oasses under more intensive cultivation. This last turns Liverani's attention to the qanat/foggara, which, again, appears to emerge on the fringes of the Jazira and spread from there. The one post-LBA technology upon which Liverani does not have to make a stance against archaeologists eager for ever earlier dates is, of course, iron founding. Iron did not have to be discovered so much as a society built around ironmaking had to be created, and this is legitimately a case in which darkness is needed for the owl of Minerva to fly. Only under the cover of the LBA Collapse can we get the society of the upright and simple village smith on the one hand, and the mysterious carbonari, flitting through the mountain forests, seeking the bare ridges where they can dig their windy cupolas. (Or the villages of ironmakers, with their precious flux and worship of the genitive power of the Earth manifested through the Phrygian dactyls or Ogun.)
So, there you go: a picture of, west of the Euphrates, the collapse of an oppressive and dysfunctional social order into an era of 'flattened,' egalitarian techno-utopia. Ancient techies, iron axes over their shoulders, walking the cool paths of the spring line to bring the liberating news of a tool metal that is everywhere at hand to the salt mines of Austria, the pig runs of Bologna, and the eel traps of England.
East of the Euphrates, not so much. Liverani sees an era of social distrust, in which one begins to question kings. His leitmotif is the "Advice to Princes," a Kassite Babylonian text which instructs kings in all the ways in which they should not abuse their powers. (Mainly, in trying to exert the royal justice before that of the cities of the plain. One may wonder just how much the author is really interested in protecting the common man from tyranny.) It is,perhaps, not accidental that when kingship really begins to regain its footing, it is in Assur, the city named, impiously(?) for its native god, and ruled, or perhaps presided over, by limitu, officials selected by lot each year, the first of whom gives his name to the year. For approximately a million years, ever since the limitu-lists have been discovered, classical historians have wondered just how much, and how far, the example of Assyria has penetrated to the cities of the goddesses Roma and Athena, with their eponymous officials and democractic or republican constitutions originally rooted in selection by lot, rather than by election.
Fascinating questions, of course. I would say, pretty extensively. But then we have this: the Cimmerians. Let's leave aside the question of whether they were migrants into Anatolia from the Pontic steppes. As difficult as it is for our ancient informant (Herodotus, again) to imagine, a few centuries before him, there was no such thing as pastoral horse nomads.
Nomadism, of course, was old --people had been going out from the river valleys of the Jazira into the high desert with their flocks to take advantage of the winter rains for better than 2000 years by the time of the fall of Nineveh. It is not a lifestyle that makes sense without towns to weave the surplus of wool so produced, but those have been around long enough that we have only a vague idea when this intensified use of the high plain began. Seasonal movements into the mountains are also old. The intensification of deforestation in the sub-LBA presumably signifies the coming of iron axes, but iron axes just makes it easier and more profitable to clear highland pasture.
What we are talking about here is something quite different. Horsebreeding, and the herding of other profitable species from horseback, requires a complex set of skills and techniques, and, probably, iron as a necessary toolmaking material. It is a set of social technologies that, at the risk of repeating myself, must be pushed late in history to 700BC. This is not an economy that works in isolation from agricultural society. Steppe and sown are related. The nomad needs goods that can only be produced in urban, proto-industrial communities, and it procures them by selling the animals it raises, and with cavalry service --or by conquest and plunder, of course.
And now it is time for a crank. (And for a classic example of library science doing its best to prevent footnotes.***)
Sargon II is an ...interesting figure. He took power after the death of Shalmaneser V, probably usurping the throne in a coup. Probably, because he advertises himself as a new man, and renames himself after the legendary Sargon of Akkad, a name to be conjured with as the first emperor of recorded history, and also the cursed king who, sacrilegously, established a new city as his capital. He is also the approximate origin of the story of a lowly gardener being made king.
As for Sargon II, his own foundation of Dur-Shurrakin may or may not be the origin of the Roman military fort, and of the cosmologically-significant idea of a planned, square city. If so, he is a very important figure in the origins and development of cosmological kingship, though it would be a very bold and speculative historian who asserted this as uncotroversial fact.
What we know is that he campaigned constantly throughout his life, and told the world about it in unusual and picturesque detail, going so far as to relate how he had his chariots disassembled and carried through the trackless forest of the high Zagros to defeat the Mannaeans and Urartuans in his campaign of 716. In 712, his armies returned to the highlands, this time with a corps of Cimmerians ""Gimmeru") in attendance. In 709, the Cimmerians overran Phrygia, apparently in Sargon's name, causing the death of Midas, he of the golden touch, insofar as Greek legend is not entirely detached from a specific "Midas,"
Finally, in 705, Sargon fell in battle in ignominious circumstances in a skirmish with the Cimmerians in 705. His body was not retrieved, and his son abandoned his palace and never mentioned him in official inscriptions. It is even possible that the idea of Sargon of Akkad as an accursed king begins with Sargon II. Something went very, very wrong in the last days of Sargon.
Now for the crank: Kristensen's contribution to scholarship is to note that the "homeland" of the Cimmerians seems to be the line of fortresses taken in the campaign of 716, that there is reason to think that the land of Gimmer is in the vicinity, and that the Cimmerians show up for the first time in history in 712. The Assyrians frequently "settled" or relocated deported/mercenary peoples in places like this Gimmer. It makes sense, then, that the "Cimmerians" of 712 are mercenary cavalry of 716, an ethnogenesis in situ of a new nation. (The crackpot part starts when Kristensen decides that the mercanries/deportees must be the Twelve Lost Tribes.) Some years later, not content with making trouble in Phrygia, the Cimmerians show up on the doorstep of Gyges of Lydia, as Assurbanipal tells us.
|Once again, I am stealing the graphics prepared by a hardworking scholar and not giving proper credit. From Christopher H. Roosevelt, The Archaeology of Lydia from Gyges to
Alexander (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).|
This. Is. Sparda. To put it another way
An arc of mountains surrounds this inland basin, which communicates with the nearby sea through the lower valley of the Patroclus River, the stream from which the electrum, gold and perhaps silver coins of Lydia originate. According to C. H. Roosevelt's recent summary of the longstanding archaeological work at Sparda/Sfardis/Sardis, the city at this site is actually quite recent, not predating "Gyges" by very long. In fact, there is the question of whether "Gyges" and "Alyattes" are real people at all, since the names appear to mean nothing but "Senior" and "Junior." What we know is that, in 700, the area has gone through a very recent linguistic (at least) transformation, that a new city has been founded as its capital, and that it is very rich. Oh, and that it is good horse country. According to Assurbanipal, it is "subject" to the Cimmerians in 656, overcomes them with the assistance of Assyria (and of Assur and Ishtar, to give credit where credit is due). Shortly thereafter, it is drawn into the murky circumstances of the fall of Assyria. The topless towers are felled, and two thousand years of history come to an end.
For Kristensen, not content with reaching out to the Lost Tribes, the Cimmerians, their work well and truly done, then make their departure from the scene, heading out onto the drove roads of Old Europe to become, eventually, good Danes.
Again, a little crackpoted. But what if it is right in a useful way? What if the ethnogenesis of the Cimmerians in 712 is nothing less than the very moment and time when the horse-nomad is invented. To be sure, the technology already exists, embodied in human hands. What remains is it for to be socially embedded, given a name, a tribe, a culture. Where better than bouncing between the coiners of the Aegean coast and the ideologically innovative core of the Neo-Assyrian Empire? From here, in some essential way, the "Cimmerians" are outward bound, to all the places that horse nomadism is going to influence history. Wales and north Denmark are a bit far-fetched as destinations. But, on the other hand, the margins of China are most definitely not.
And in the burning ruins of the King's Laughing House, the scattered survivors, picking over the ruins, perhaps they picked up some hard-baked tablet and read their own words of just a few years before, in which they had praised the King of Assyria, King of the Universe, Strong King, King of the Four Quarters, for filling the streets with people and the houses with children with his beneficient rule.
And in that moment, they knew what the cause of this failure, this end of their world was. When push came to shove, when Assyria was willing to use its power to push the Cimmerians against the Lydians, the Lydians did what they had to do, and the Assyrians would not: coin.
The end of Assyria comes down to bad fiscal policy.
*The quoted text is from a decagon cylinder recovered from the palace of Ashurbanipal, son of Esarheddon, grandson of Sennacherib, great-grandson of Sargon III and donated to the British Museum by its discoverer. Apparently, it's listed as Cylinder A, Column III, for those who can read Akkadian cuneiform, and here rendered into English by George Smith, with some intermittent intervention by yours truly with Smith's attempt to render the king's old-timey diction.
**Given Sargon II's mysterious fate, someone should really should take this episode up as "hidden history." From what Lovecraftian horrors out of that abandoned palace were human eyes preserved?Etc
. ***Anne Katrine Gade Kristensen, Who Were the Cimmerians and Where Did They Come From? Sargon II and Riusa I. Translated by Jorgen Lussae. The Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters.Historike-filosofiske Meddelesler 57. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1988. Yeah. You guys know that publishing costs are related to the number of letters you put in stuff, right?