Friday, January 19, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, V: The Sin of Sargon

This post comes out of the reading I did for this one. I had the vague impression that "Assyrian"-style haruspical bronze liver models were widespread in Etruscan contexts. This, combined with the similarities between the Assyrian Eponyms and Roman consuls, seemed to make a relatively strong case for the dissemination of prestige knowledge practices from the Neo-Assyrian sphere of influence to the Latin periphery in the Early Iron Age.

Instrument of prophecy, scientific tool, cosmological model and it's a desert topping!

All of this collapsed under closer inspection. The model above turns out to be a unique find. Its closest parallel is with clay models found around Mari, dating a millennium before the Neo-Assyrian Empire. No doubt there is some continuity of tradition, but we have no idea what it is. Modern scholarship also puts the consular office much later than the traditional account. Athenian archons seem much less problematically connected with the eponym tradition.

On the other hand, John Wilkins' polemical argument that the  Iguvine Tablets  should best be seen as largely deliberate mystification in support of the social hegemony of some kind of college of diviners was stimulated and triggered a chain of associations with some work, disseminating from "Biblical archaeological" circles that I didn't cite at the time because I couldn't remember, and wasn't sure that I could find the citation. Shameful, I know. The basic idea is that King Josiah's well-known religious reforms, which were directed at local cult (he burned the bones worshipped in the "high places of Israel" on their own idols) were not just intended to build up a centralised state worship of a single god, and, hence, of the state itself. It had astronomical or cosmological implications, and, most interestingly, was a response to the Neo-Assyrian policy of deportations that had previously aimed to break local power by transplanting elites, notably of diviners ("knowledge workers"). I'll have more to say about that below, since it's all so perversely amusing. For now, I will just link to the chapter in question, uploaded to, presumably by the author, Baruch Halpern. (Not found without exposing my mind to the sanity-blasting ancient teachings of the Enochians. What I do for my blog! Though maybe the Enochians have had uncritical press. They seem a bit flaky to me.)

Elamites crushing the bones of their ancestors under the close supervision of Assurbanipal's troops.The question is whether this really is a more severe punishment than being flayed alive. Because if you think it is, and you implement it, and you discover that it isn'tyou might find that you've done more damage to your own regime than to the rebels.
The Sin of Sargon

Said Isaiah, who was a prophet, and judged over Israel:

 "See how the oppressor has met his end and his frenzy ceased! The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked, the sceptre of the ruler who struck down peoples in his rage with unerring blows, who crushed nations in anger and persecuted them unceasingly ... How you have fallen from heaven, bright morning star, felled to the earth, sprawling helpless across the nations! You thought in your own mind, I will scale the heavens; I will set my throne above the stars of God ( ... ), I will rise high above the cloud-banks and make myself like the Most High. Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the abyss. Those who see you will stare at you, they will look at you and ponder: Is this ( ... ) the man who shook the earth, who made kingdoms quake, who turned the world into a desert and laid its cities in ruins, who never let his prisoners go free to their homes, the kings of every land? Now they lie all of them in honour, each in his last home. But you have been flung out unburied, mere loathsome carrion, a companion to the slain pierced by the sword who have gone down to the stony abyss ... " ((Isaiah 14: 4b-6, 12-19a, New English Bible translation)
 Said Sennacherib, The Great King, Mighty King, King of Assyria, King of the Four Quarters:

(Obv.1) [I am Sennach]erib, the [devout] kin[g, ...... ] who revered the gods of heaven and the go[ ds of Assyria]. (3) [In] my devoutness and righteous[ ness, I daily spoke with my heart], saying: "Who [can comprehend] any of the deeds [of the gods]? Let me introduce into myself the fear of [their godhead], seize their shaft [ ...... ], frequent [their holy places], and I[ et me ...... ]". (7) While thus [reverently] pondering [in my heart] over the deeds of the gods, the death of Sargon, [my father, who was killed in t~e enemy country] and who was not interred in his house, oc[curred] to my mind, [and I said to myself]: (10) "[Let me examine] by means of extispicy the sin of Sargon, my father, let me then determine [the circumstances] and le[ arn the ...... ; let me make] the sin he committed against the god an abom[ination to myself], and with the god's help let me save myself". (13) 1 w[ent and collected the haruspices], who guard of the secret of god and king, the courtiers of my palace, divided them [into several (lit. three or four) groups] so that they could not ap[proach or speak to one another], and [investigated] the sins of Sargon, my father, by extispicy, [inquiring of Samas and Adad] as follows: (17) "Was it because [he honored] the gods off Assyria too much, placing them] above the gods of Babylonia [ ...... , and was it because] he did not [keep] the treaty of the king of gods [that Sargon my father] was killed [in the enemy country and] was not b[uried] in his house?" (21) [ '" ... ] The haruspices whom [I had divided] into [several groups] unanimously [gave me a firm positive answer]. [ ...... I opened the pal]ms of my hands and lifted [my hands, and prayed in supplication and humility on account of Sarg]on, [my] fat[her: " ...... ] (Break) (32) [ ...... ] plac[ed ...... ] (33) [ ...... ch ]eckings ... [ ...... ] (34) [ ...... ] of the temple, the shrine of the assem[bly of gods] (35) [ ...... After] 1 had inqui[red (the will of)] Samas and Adad, [I lifted my hands and prayed on acco]unt of the statue of Marduk, saying: "May it be d[one]!".(37) IThe gods ...... acce ]pted my prayer, and how radiant was [my mood! I said: "Let them make pea]ce and [ ...... ] to him; let the gods of Babylonia set their minds [ ...... ]. (40) [By Assur, the divine king, the god who c]reated me; (by) queen Mullissu, [the divine empress; (by) IStar, who vanquishes all] enemies; (by) Sin, who glorifies [my exalted priesthood; (by) Samas '" ], who stabilizes my royal throne: (Rev.1) [Should] anyone, [my son, ...... give you] an ill- considered [counsel] and (try to) change your mind without either [having performed] an extispicy or [ ...... , be on your guard]: (3) [Perhaps ...... wh]at Samas and Adad have revealed in extispicy [ ...... ] he has concealed [like] a rejected [ ...... ] and has [not] announced you [ ...... ]. (5) My father, too, [who/after he] had made up his m[ind to ... (Break) (10) [ ...... ] you anything [ ...... ] (11) [Just as I], when I was ,to a[ sk] Samas and Adad, [ ...... ], listened to th[ eir ... , so you too make] the haruspices [to rep]ort [to you!] (13) [Just as I], when I was to make [the statu]e of Assur, the great lord, and the statue of [Marduk, the great lord], and to set aright the rites and ordinances of Assyria and [Babylonia], in performing the extispicy divided the ha[ruspices into sev]eral groups, so you too, like me, divide the har[uspices] into several groups, announce your query to [the haruspices] who stand [at the site], and have them [perform] the extispicy [and look at the features]. (19) Let (then) the remaining haruspices who were divided as a separate group study the features, [ find out] the will of Samas and Adad, [and tell it to you]. (21) As for me, after I had made the statue of Assur my lord, Assyrian scribes wrongfully prevented me from working [on the statue of Marduk] and did not let me make [the statue of Marduk, the great lord], and (thus) [shortened my lilfe. [ ...... ] (24) (However), I have (now) communicated to you the grand scheme of mine which from times immemorial none of my r[oyal predecessors] had realized; [ ...... ]. (26) Take heed of what I have explained to you, and reconcile [the gods of Babylonia] with your gods! Assur, the king of the god[ s], has victoriously marched [from sunrise to sunset]; the gods of heaven and [the gods of Assyria will prolong] your reign; the shaft of Samas and [Ad ad ...... ] (30) the creation of gods [ ...... ] (31) above all the [kings ...... ] (32) will be extolled [ ...... ] (33) will let you know [ ...... ] (34) relief [ ...... ] (Rest destroyed)
 [Original text and critical apparatus found the same place I copy-pasted from: Tadmor, Landsberger and Parpola [[pdf]]

On his last day, Ishtar of the Evening and the Morning Star forsook Sargon, King of Battle, and left his body to lie, unrecovered, upon the field where he fell.

The Sin of Sennacherib

Sargon's ignominious end, in contrast, was clearly his own fault. He had sinned against the gods.  But how? Sennacherib, not being born yesterday, was aware of reproducibility issues and concerned that far too many liver readings devolved into hunts for significant p-values. So he divided the haruspices into colleges and set them to work independently of each other. (Sargon had already had to separate his Anatolian diviners from others in his camp, mainly because of ethnic frictions.) The diviners concluded that Sargon had been disrespectful to the Babylonian gods, but when Sennacherib set out to remedy Sargon's sin, his scribes, concerned that his charge to his haruspices betrayed a lack of sensitivity to issues of confirmation bias, prevented him from making a proper status of Marduk. Guilty of the same sin as his father, Sennacherib can only look forward to his own punishment and ignominious death.

I am going to ask the wisest man of the era. The situation is not precisely analogous, but there was a earlier case in which the corpses of seven heroes were left unburied before seven-gated Thebes.
Seven-gated Dur-Sharrukin, City of Sargon. (Reconstruction by Giacomo di Giacomo and Giuseppe Scardozzi.)The size of the city was dictated, Sargon tells us, by a numerological relationship between his name and the perimeter length. He doesn't explain what the significance is, unfortunately.

As events escalated, city administration called in a consultant, Tiresias. His report, helpfully translated by some Victorian dude, follows:

Princes of Thebes, we have come with linked steps, both served by the eyes of one; for thus, by a guide's help, the blind must walk. Thou standest on fate's fine edge. If thou wouldst learn the meaning of my words, heed the warnings of mine art. As I took my place on mine old seat of augury, where all birds have been wont to gather within my ken, I heard a strange voice among them; they were screaming with dire, feverish rage, that drowned their language in jargon; and I knew that they were rending each other with their talons, murderously; the whirr of wings told no doubtful tale. Forthwith, in fear, I essayed a burnt-sacrifice on a duly kindled altar: but from my offerings the Fire-god showed no flame; a dank moisture, oozing from the thigh-flesh, trickled forth upon the embers, and smoked, and sputtered; the gall was scattered to the air; and the streaming thighs lay bared of the fat that had been wrapped round them. Such was the failure of the rites by which I vainly asked a sign, as from this boy I learned; for he is my guide, as I am guide to others. And 'tis thy counsel that hath brought this sickness on our state. For the altars of our city and of our hearths have been tainted, one and all, by birds and dogs, with carrion from the hapless corpse, the son of Oedipus: and therefore the gods no more accept prayer and sacrifice at our hands, or the flame of meat-offering; nor doth any bird give a clear sign by its shrill cry, for they have tasted the fatness of a slain man's blood . . .  Read more
There's a danger in presenting the state of scientific knowledge "in or before" 441BC as the scientific consensus of a period two-and-a-half centuries earlier, but progress was slower in those days, and Tiresias seems to know what is going on, his shameless attempt to pad his consultant fees with a salary for an unpaid intern notwithstanding.  This is outcome, however. It doesn't tell us why Ishtar got so upset, in the first place. (We know what the gods' issues with Thebes were, but eww.)

Bright goddess of victory and love, not exactly as pictured.
Sargon's Sin

What did Sargon do wrong, as opposed to Esarhaddon's interpretation of Sennacherib's interpretation of the sin of Sargon? This is kind of important, inasmuch as Sargon's ten year effort to build up an army capable of conquering Babylon is (this series is arguing) the motor of the Sacred Spring, the Early Iron Age revival and rise of the state and its associated population explosion. We might, or might not learn much about that in this inquiry, but learning about the wisdom of the diviner, "wisdom," as it was seen by elites, might eventually give us --via ideological inversion-- some idea about how ironsmithing and equestrianship spread.

It might be as well to talk about sources, as these are, as always tangled up. Our textual sources, "primary sources," as it were, are astonishingly numerous. There are three domestic historical traditions: The annals integrated into the Eponym Lists are relatively independent of the royal power. Sargon's numerous inscriptions, often set up at or even beyond the limits of his power, were royal propaganda, but beyond subsequent redaction.  The Royal Annals, inscriptions from the walls of Sargon's palaces, are the final, highly polished word. Numerous other states set up their own inscriptions. We also have a surviving independent official history (the Old Testament), and the sources exploited by ManethoBerossus and Josephus, whatever we make of them. We also have some literary texts, including a campaign commentary on Sargon's eighth campaign, against Urartu. Then, on top of that, we have real primary sources: 1,115 administrative letters preserved from his reign, slightly more than for his next three successors put together. Taken together, we know rather more about Sargon than Julius Caesar, the literary impact of his Commentaries aside.

Even though this is objectively true, it still seems strange. The Latin literature is well known to us, while the cuneiform literature of the ancient Middle East fell into neglect late in the first millenniumAshurbanipal's library, which was excavated in Nineveh in 1851, promised to make that up, but it was promptly jumbled up by the receiving authority (the British Library, ironically enough). Anyway, it was a very early experiment in library science to start with. We gained a sense of its potential value at a very early date thanks to its convergence with interests of the day, specifically, in the way that it saved the historical books of the Old Testament from the assault of various modernists with their disturbingly skeptical perspectives. The problem is that we might have lit into this rich literature too naively in the first instance, and got a few things confused.

Hugo Winckler's was the first modern scholar to read the Last Will of Sennacherib, and also the first to make the connection with Isaiah. Informed by the Sargon oracle literature, which specifically says that the long-ago Sargon I sinned by building an imitation Babylon at Agade. This now seems problematic, both in terms of interpreting the oracles, and, more importantly, possible far-from-innocent explanations for resonances between the oracles and the actions of the Neo-Assyrian kinds. In an extreme case, the famous Epic of Sargon, formerly read as a propagandistic defence of Sargon I's rise to power, is now more likely to be interpreted as a project of Sargon II's court.  Both Sargons, once seen as usurpers engaged in vast projects of self-justification, now seem to be legitimate heirs who repudiated or at least de-emphasised their roots, perhaps creating "a new Heaven and a new Earth" in the form of a new capital city.

In that sense, Winckler might be right, in the end. Dur-Sarrukin was Sargon's sin, if not the sin of Sargon. That sin isn't necessarily related to Sargon I in any way, and even the oracles could be retrospective. But the sin might be related to Sargon II's obscure rise to power, and his choice of a throne name recalling distant monarchs, rather then recycling the royal names that came before him. Sargon II came to power, chose a throne-name that repudiated his father, Tiglath-pileser III, and his older brother, Shalmaneser V, and set out to build Dur-Sarrukin as a new city, independent of Assur and the other old Neo-Assyrian cities. This break with the Neo-Assyrian elite is Sargon's "sin," and by this highly speculative interpretation, comes to haunt him on the battlefield many years later, when his army collapses around him in his first field campaign since the inauguration of Dur-Sarrukin.

The Babylon Problem

Maybe, maybe not. Tadmor, Landsberg and Parpola's buzz-killing contribution takes Sargon out of the Sargon problem. Their reconstruction of the Last Will makes it a contribution to ongoing discussions of the "Babylon Problem." Sargon conquered Babylon in the twelfth year of his reign, after ten years of preparation following his first, failed campaign against it. His son, Sennacherib, had to reconquer Babylon after Sargon's death, and then again after a rebellion, after which, perhaps understandably, he destroyed it. Esarhaddon reconquered Babylon yet again, and then rebuilt the city.  Sennacherib's Last Will is presumably a product of Esarhaddon's court, and is about the sin of Sennacherib, even if the "sin of Sargon" sets it in motion. Finally, in 652, after the extraordinary campaign in which Assurbanipal punishes the Elamites by making them destroy the bones of their own ancestors, Babylon rebels and is crushed, one final time, by Neo-Assyrian power.
Assurbanipal/Ashurbanipal celebrates a triumph. Detail of a wall-carving from the British Museum. 

This is all very disappointing. Apart from the focus on desecrating the bodies of the dead, the connection between the "Sin of Sargon," as a chain of events leading to a battlefield death far away in Anatolia in 705 and great historical events seems to boil down to the vulgarly economic effort to build up an army adequate to the challenge of defeating the Babylonian-Elamite alliance. Where is the cosmology, the divination, the elite knowledge practices?

The answer is that they can only recede so far. All Neo-Assyrian monarchs after Sargon are "Sargonids," in the same way that the Akkadian world-kings were. Former Assyrian royal naming convention is set aside in favour of new birth names, and no collateral branch of the royal family gets within sight of power. Even the original Sargonid "birth epic" now seen as a Neo-Assyrian invention, is telling. The original Sargon's disinclination to name his father in his proclamations led scholars to suspect that he was an usurper as early as the Ur II period, but Ur II scholars did not go around digging up administrative documents and doing prosopography, which is too bad, because their sources were probably better! We know know that not naming yourself by your father, while wildly unusual for Iraqi society from earliest times, was typical of the Akkadian elite. There are enough later periods when this same behaviour is seen that we can come up with some kind of general theory about it being a way of making a break with the past, and in that respect Sargon II is zeroing in on something important.

So, yes, the "Babylonian Problem" is a vulgar, worldly problem. This is no surprise, as it was the central problem of Neo-Assyrian foreign politics from before the time of. Sargon's father, Tiglath-Pileser III, to the destruction of the Neo-Assyrian state by a hostile coalition led by the Babylonians in the 610s. Josette Elayi provides an elegant explanation. The domestication of the camel (or, perhaps, the intensification of camel-herding under Iron Age conditions) has caused the trans-Middle Eastern trade to shift south from the route that Assyria has dominated for millennia to a direct through route to the Levant and Egypt via the Arabian oases, terminating in Babylonia.  Assyrian power is doomed.

Even so, we can only get so far from elite knowledge production. I like Tiresias'/Sophocles' explanation for why unburied bodies get in the way of divinatory science. In the light of the usual interpretation of the Iguvine Tablets as laying out, in part, rules for a templum --Tiresias's "observatory," it is very tempting to see this as some kind of key to the problem, neglected by scholarship. On the other hand, it has been neglected by scholarship, and that's the kind of thing that cranks think, and it would probably be safer to rely on what Baruch Halpern says, as he is a brilliant and well-respected scholar with tenure, and those guys are never cranks.

That takes us back, very quickly, to elite knowledge production. Sennacherib's sin was that he was unable to prevent the "scribes" of Assyria from forestalling his effort to make a new statue of Marduk. We do not know why they opposed it, and Stephen Holloway thinks that the story was made up by Esarhaddon's scholars.  Holloway is an expert, and I am not; but I do wonder why it is simply taken for granted that Neo-Assyrian kings were too powerful to brook any opposition. Their atrocities do not speak to strength, but rather a certain desperation --and not an unreasonable desperation.

Tiglath-Pileser III, father of Sargon II, actually, as, opposed to hypothetically, seized the throne. He conquered widely and introduced the characteristic neo-Assyrian policy of deportation, moving populations back and forth throughout his empire to break the authority of local elites, as well as mobilise labour. He, and subsequent monarchs, used deported populations as everything from cavalry to builders to sailors. Most importantly, he used them as diviners. Granted that oracle-reading, dream interpretation, haruspicy, horoscope casting, and so on, actually produced knowledge, it made sense to consult different national traditions.

Beyond that, though, there was an obvious political agenda, once you had bought into the fundamental inversion, and supposed that philosophy was to explain the world, and not change it. Diviners gained their knowledge through interaction with the ancestors. Not abstract "ancestors," but the literal ancestors of their clan elders. Divination was linked to local cult, local tombs, to the "high places of Israel," and to ancestral relics --above all, bones, properly interred in ancestral tombs. (Meaning that they were accessible for show and manipulation.) By removing communities of diviners from their native lands, the Neo-Assyrian kings separated them from this source of power, and substituted for it, another. For Assur the god and king is a solar deity, which means that every night, after coursing across the sky, Assur descends into the Underworld to be with the ancestors.

And so, separated from the physical remains of their ancestors, the diviners brought into the king's court depended on the royal power for access to the spiritual mana that fueled their undertakings. Statues of the king, praying, set up in local temples, provided an equivalent access to diviners were resettled in remote provinces, instead of accompanying the king on his campaigns.

If Baruch Halpern's argument is correct, the final crisis of the Neo-Assyrian state ideology is described in the Book of Kings, when it explains that Josiah was forced to purge the high places of Israel of the cult of these transplanted foreigners, who were exhibiting the bones from the associated tombs. In other words, after the lapse of a reasonable grace period, foreign priests settled right in, appropriated local ancestors, and kept right on in their familiar social role as country gentry, resisting taxation and opposing centralisation.

Halpern goes on to link the response to this to two astronomical cosmologies that can be picked out of the earliest Iron Age texts. The first, clearly laid out by Xenophanes and laid out more allusively in the Bible, is a radical flat Earth cosmology, in which the Earth is infinte, the heavens a "veil" set over them, and the solar god a sole and infinite power that lights the Earth through vents in the veil corresponding to the celestial bodies. This single and solar god no longer descends beneath the Earth. The link between celestial and chthonic is broken. The second cosmology is the familiar, geocentric one, which once again breaks the link between celestial and Underworld, but allows for the existence of a pantheon of planetary gods. It is in the name of this cosmology that the last neo-Assyrian kings, and their Babylonian and Judaean successors, toy with the idea of exposing the bones of the ancestors to the sun, and destroying their chthonic, evil power. (Perhaps it is also the position that Tiresias rejects. Anyone up to read Antigone's obscurities in a novel way?)

The difference between an astronomical cosmology, and the astrology that flows from it, and the older divinatory practices, is that astronomy/astrology has considerable predictive power. It might not actually be able to tell you whether the day will be auspicious for people with a Leo or Ares birth sign, but Thales of Miletus predicted a solar eclipse in 585, and set the Ancient World on its ear.

John Wilkins' argument that the Iguvine Tablets are intended to be incomprehensible gibberish --jargon, as Tiresias, as translated by that Victorian dude says-- flows pretty directly from the lack of objective content to haruspical "knowledge." This isn't just a challenge to historical linguistics: it undermines the use of the liver model above as proof of the transmission of knowledge. Because there's no knowledge to be transmitted, you see. 

Which is why it is interesting that most of the liver models for instructing diviners come from a limited context in Mari, circa the 19th Century, BC. The sheer number of them suggests that the diviners of Mari might have seriously believed in their craft, and been slowly disillusioned. (A similar sense of disappointment is construed from the increasingly vague questions posed by the bone-crack diviners at Anyang.)

And one more point: One attempt to use these models leads to a genre in which the perimeter of the liver models are marked off by the names of the Akkadian, or Sargonid kings of old Akkad. That has a great deal to do with Mari's claim of Akkadian legitimacy, but we assume it is also some kind of call-back to the oracles associated with the Akkadian kings --the same oracles exploited by Sargon II in structuring his kingship around that of the original Sargon.

Of course, the neo-Assyrian-modelled Etruscan livers are not marked off by Akkadian kings. As near as we can tell, they are marked off by an early zodiac. Unlike omens and liver interpretation, astronomical knowledge can be transmitted.    olitics. 


  1. Which is why it is interesting that most of the liver models for instructing diviners come from a limited context in Mari, circa the 19th Century, BC. The sheer number of them suggests that the diviners of Mari might have seriously believed in their craft, and been slowly disillusioned. (A similar sense of disappointment is construed from the increasingly vague questions posed by the bone-crack diviners at Anyang.)

    There should totally be a weird existentialist novel about this. Not sure if it should be French or German.

  2. The comment about their atrocities speaking to a certain desperation rings true. The Assyrians never seem to have got beyond the "me smash" theory of empire. There is neither the older Mesopotamian appeal to the supremacy of one's city-god coupled with claims to rule under Shamash, nor any inkling of the later Persian claim to offer to all the mercy and justice of Ahura-Mazda.

  3. Assyrian propaganda is also at odds with the private correspondence, which sometimes exudes an element of resigned desperation as governors try to scrounge up the labour they need for even the most basic tasks. Of course, they're also always finking on each other.