Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XI: Ancestral Voices

As a city gradually dissolves under the pressure of a labour shortage About-Which-Nothing-Can-Be Done-And-I'm-Sorry-There-Are-Too-Many-Employers-For-"Monopsony"-To-Be-An-Explanation, this ends up being a truncated and slapped-together post; but at least there is some interesting scholarship to report. Part of it veers close to a new version of linguistic determinism that I'm dubbing "Calligraphic Determinism. (Basically it's about how speculative thinking within a knowledge community requires a script that can support new concepts by generating new words. You can compound them all you like; they need to generate spoken words, and that means some kind of rules of grammar? I think?

This might suggest to you the direction of a post put together all too quickly under pressure of loss of free time to overtime pay, coffee intoxication, and some scholarship about Sumerian and the emergence of the Mediterranean oecumene. But first, in due deference to the stimulative effects of morning coffee on top of all-too-little-sleep, a digression about sibyls.

They're the ancestral voices prophesying war, by the way. First, "ancestral." I continue to be struck by Niall Sharples' picture of Early Iron Age Wessex reviving the pre-Bronze Age tradition of ancestors of whom they in fact knew exactly nothing, and who were probably not their ancestors at all. (Since the current hot take is that the Beaker People replaced Neolithic Britons in the Early Bronze Age. Colour me skeptical, but the Beaker People did gussy up Stonehenge. Maybe they were appropriating the ancestors, too?) Second, "prophesy," because, in spite of what seems obvious about oracles and sibyls, sibyls don't do prophecy. Something much, much more interesting is happening. I guess that should be obvious from the fact that sibyls have been a big thing in literature ever since Virgil made the Cumaean Sibyl into Aeneas' guide to the underworld. That Sibyl admittedly did then predict the rise of the prototypical early Iron Age state, the Rome of the monarchy, but that is where literature differs from reality, and that distinction is possibly even at least glimpsed in Iron Age writing.  
The story of the Cumaean Sibyl is wrapped up in the story of the Sibylline Books she sold to the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (d. 495BC). Stored in a chamber underneath the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter, under the care, from 367BC, of a board of ten decemvirs, later quindecemvirs, the Books were an invaluable resource for the Roman Senate. Their importance is reflected in the honoured status of the quindecemvirs. Their value lay in the knowledge they contained --ostensibly-- but also odd and apparently incidental aspects of their use and text. The first oddity is that they had to be kept secret to be useful, which seems strange and adolescent. Yet surely even naive Ancients remembered childhood "Get Rid of Slimy Girls" clubs and noticed how strange this was? Second, it mattered that the books were in Greek, and that the authentic prophecies were written in acrostic hexametric verse. 
Third, and I really will come back to this in the end, the Sibylline Books become plausibly comparable to the Iguvine Tablets, and whatever we might eventually be able to compare to them.

Beyond that, the Books were used in non-obvious ways. Given a set of oracles about the future in which they apparently believed implicitly, the Senate might have been expected to consult them before making important decisions, but only nine episodes are identified (in Wikipedia, because Me r researcher!) in which the Sibylline Books were consulted between between 399BC and 83BC. It seems reasonable to resort to the Books after the disastrous battle of Cannae, even if the Book's recommendation that the Senate sacrifice two Gauls and two Greeks by burying them alive in the Forum seems of less than obvious efficacy, apart from being useful for much later archaeologists attempting to explain odd burials in hillforts. Yet, Cannae apart, the usual cause of consultation was a plague, either of lightning strikes, meteors, or actual plagues, and the most common solution was some kind of expiatory ritual or cult practice, most notably the translation of "foreign" gods to Roman temples, notably the Great Mother, Apollo and Ceres. None of this will be surprising once you've hit your head on Francesca Rochberg's Before Nature for a few grim hours, because this is exactly what Iraqi collections of ominous portents. Innumerable tablets organised into extended works are to be found there, following the formula, "If portent A is observed, then Rite B must be performed." That observation will be enough for now, but it does hide something important.  

Other things seem odd, and strange. Most notably, when the temple of the Capitolline Jupiter was destroyed by fire in 83BC, the Roman Senate sent out a book-buying party to purchase a replacement collection of random oracular wisdom. These new Sibylline Books were then consulted numerous times by the quindecemvirs, whose inability to enforce fire prevention measures was evidently not held against them. 

Firefighters do many things, but one of the things they do is get very bored waiting around the hall for a fire to happen, and another is train very hard. (Speaking of very hard, try doing your own "firefighter" image search and look for men who own a shirt.) This no doubt explains why parties of firefighters come into the grocery store every morning and buy food. Cashiers appreciate this, because social roles are gendered. I suspect that none of these men would qualify as quindecemvirs.

There's a cynical observation to be made here about the social function of collections of oracles, but I suspect that, for a change, the cynic isn't justified. This complete loss of continuity with the ancient wisdom only seems like a problem if the specific content of the books followed. If, on the other hand, the represent an ongoing and international research programme, a much more reasonable take is that the Senate's R&D effort has obtained for it a new set of "If Then" Ominous Event>Rite instructions. These are, again, not prophecies as literature presents them; and not necessarily even answers to ominous events successfully observed, as such. Something more complicated is going on, and it is possible that we don't understand it because the participants are at their limits in explaining just what is going on. 

In any event, it is interesting that, after multiple consultations in the Late Republic, the Empire inaugurates a new regime of Book consultation. When the Tiber overflowed its banks in 15AD, and the Emperor Tiberius was petitioned to consult the Books, he refused, on the grounds that the secrets of the gods should remain holy. Nero consulted them in 64AD, but we know what happened to him. After that, the Sibylline Books disappear from notice until 271AD, by which time they appear as more-or-less an antiquarian concern. Consulting the Sibylline Books seems to be a thing that is just not done under the Empire. 

The strange and spotty history of the Sibylline Books is obviously not the ill-digested scholarship I am offering here in lieu of the mature reflection that was swallowed up in maintaining a produce department or leading a grocery store for a few hours. Instead I will bring it to Antonio Capizzi. The Persee review of Capizzi's Cosmic Republic: Notes for a Non-Peripatetic History of Philosophy announces that Capizzi will be the subject of long-running controversy. That has not been my  observation, which is that it sank like a stone. A few scholars were impressed, but the Bryn Mawr Classical Review is scathingly dismissive. Unfortunately, it has vanished from the Internet, leaving only the title, "Some Reasons Not to Read This Book."  

We can probably sidestep the controversy by agreeing on what is agreeable, which is that the pre-Socratic "philosophers" were aristocratic travellers, well known in their home cities, who gathered "knowledge" from around the known world and collected it in strange works, of which Empedocles' poems are best known, and which were long available in collections at an Athenian public institution (I think the Treasury), for consultation. Aristotle's "doxology" reconstructs these works as the origins of philosophical inquiry. Capizzi sees them as something closer to the Sibylline Books, and deduces their core content to have been the reconstruction of the former "Cosmic Monarchy" with a "Cosmic Republic." This might have something to do with Baruch Halperin's theories about the emergence of the geocentric worldview (although it sits uneasily with Halperin's interpretation of Assyrian geocentrism as an ideology of universal monarchy), and the consequent emergence of astrology as a challenge to earlier ways of knowing the universe/future. 

Or it may not. Here is a map of the distribution of eastern Mediterranean (Greek, East Greek, Levantine) imports into Italy at the beginning of the western European Iron Age, just after 800AD.  It was compiled from a database collected by R. N. Fletcher, available in his Patterns of Imports in Iron Age Italy. As can be seen, the map approximately follows the approach routes, with a secondary concentration in Etruria and a tertiary one in Sardinia. The classical explanation is of a search for metals. Italy is the periphery of an Assyria-centred world system, source of metals to feed the vacuum of the Assyrian state. 

I had no idea that I was groping towards an idea that was actually a cliche, long overdue for overturning. Here is a map of the distribution of Levantine finds, thus the material that paid for all that copper/silver/iron presumably going off to Assyria. The distribution is best explained by Phoenician traders knowing exactly where they were going. 

This map, of Egyptian glass goods, presumably carried by Phoenicians, makes the point more clearly, showing that the goods were concentrated in the most populated parts of Italy, not the most (peripheral goods) productive ones.

Fletcher draws a clear conclusion: We need to stop looking at supply-oriented approaches and look at demand-oriented ones. It was not wealth that lead to status; but status that led to wealth, as hero-aristocrat-traders came from far away to participate in guest-friendship relations with "Volterran" elites and gift-exchange prestigious goods with them. Phoenicians at first, the Levantines rapidly drew Euboeans from East Greece into the relationship; and were finally forced out of it as the rise of Corinthian and then Attic goods signalled a transition into an era in which wealth lead to status. 

As to what was traded, given that it was archaeologically invisible and probably not metals (there is no evidence of the Etruscan mines being worked this early), then it must have been "textiles, dyes, slaves and many other things." Given the recent focus around here on the preparation of high-quality textiles, it might be of interest to see what the Internet is saying these days, and tah-dah!

From the source, and courtesy of Dr. Margarita Greba. Dr. Greba's research is at an early stage, but she believes that she can say that early Iron Age Italian textiles are in a central European tradition associated with the Hallstatt culture, and quite different from Greek textiles, which are more closely associated with the Middle East. The "Orientalising" phase of Italian culture coincided with the convergence of Greek and Italian textiles (in the Middle Eastern tradition), but the earliest phases of Levantine contact with central Italy, in the emergence-of-the-state phase, offered the wily trader an opportunity to arbitrage the relative value of "Central European" and "Middle Eastern" textile traditions.

Not, of course, in the context of a capitalist search for value, but rather in a pre-modern search for social capital. Because those are different. 

Enough said about that, then: Finally, on Sibylline Books, social capital, guest friendship and wander (pre-?)philosophers, I need to report that my dubious "insight" into Sumerian as perhaps a text-driven creole for a multilingual southern Iraq turns out to be the misremembered work of Jens Hoyrup, published twenty-four years ago to the sound of a lead balloon flying. (Although it got into Wikipedia, from whence I discovered, and rediscovered it. pdf.) Those who care about linguistic scholarship will find the apparently less-than-conclusive argument there, complete with the inevitable reference to the Chinook Jargon. (It's back to wet here on the Raincoast today . . .) 

In spite of being controversial and not well received, I am going to lean more heavily on Hoyrup than on Capizzi because it seems to me that a core insight here does a great deal more than Rochberg's flailing around in modern Social Studies of Science theory to explicate the central mystery of the Sibylline Books, which is that they are apparently most useful when they describe things that cannot possibly happen, but do; and prescribe specific ritual solutions for them that can't possibly have been in the original oracles. Rochberg, trying to sort out the omen collections, notes that "impossible omens" are fairly common there, just as they are in reported incidents in which the Sibylline Books were consulted. In the case of archaic Roman "history," we need to explain rivers running red with blood, which does not seem to be a thing --rationalist approaches to Fortean literature aside-- that can actually happen. In Neo-Assyrian literature, we wonder why such incidents are listed, complete with apotropaic measures. (I used a big word!) On the other hand, the omen collections (and related medical/exorcism texts) do not  prescribe measures like importing novel gods. 

Collections, whether of ominous events, of rites, or of astronomical observations tie in with the fundamentals of Iron Age Iraqi scholarship, which was obsessed with lexicography, or, more nearly, word lists. The literature originates with Sumerian-Akkadian bilinguals, and if one is to write in Sumerian, with no native Sumerian speaker to guide one, then word-for-word translation out of Akkadian is the way to go: especially if Sumerians' grammar rules have to be inferred from the lists, which show us which determinative prefixing a word tells us what about all those grammarly categories of tense and voice and technical-word-things like that. Which is how it works, I think? 

But if the Creole explanation holds, Sumerian was never anything but word lists. Grammar is imposed from outside, from the socially hegemonic language, I think, mostly? Eventually, of course, the Creole generates its own grammar and becomes a spoken language in which the native speaker can express complicated thoughts. But if that day ever came for Sumerian, it seems to be lost to us, and to the later 2nd Millennium scholars who are caught between their tool (the cuneiform corpus), and their problem, which is to find proper apotropaic solutions to ominous events. 

To know what an ominous event is, you have to start with a list of ominous events. Is this list to be produced by endless observation? That seems like the best, most empirically solid way of doing things, but a rule generating ominous events seems to force itself out of the whole ruling hypothesis that events are "signs," in much the same way that words are. That is, they contain meaning, put there by the author, in this case, the gods. The rule that Rochberg plumps for is that ominous events are out-of-the-norm events, and that forces the scholar to define the norm, the usual: What we dare not call the "natural," since all things authored by the gods are natural, by definition. 

In this case, absurd and impossible events, perhaps as simple as lunar eclipses happening in the middle of the lunar month, are part of the gods' language. (Also, this case isn't as clear cut as it seems, since the calendar was constantly coming unglued due to the incomprehensible lack of synchronisation between solar and lunar years.) Anything can happen, and the signs are not necessarily an indication that something has gone wrong. An extraordinary event is the gods' way of signing to us that something extraordinary, one-of-a-kind, must happen. 

We can still be struck by the suspicious coincidence that an "impossible" ominous event comes along just when the Senate needs to justify the translation of the Great Mother to a Roman temple. But when we look at how our catalogues of events are constructed, out of recondite word lists that do not, and cannot be made sense of without grammatical rules that no-one can agree on, we can see how observation might be lost in the shuffle. The issue here is the construction of authority from claims of knowledge. The Sibylline Books, and their contemporaries, are tools for this; and if Capizzi is right, we can directly trace their gradual development into philosophical inquiry in the Athenian case. 

So at this point --and I can hardly say that I am satisfied to end here-- we've come back to Wilkins on the Iguvine Tablets, and some kind of anodyne observation that received language and comprehensible text are an epiphenomenon of the state, somewhere in line with James Scott rejecting literacy if it means being subject to the state. Okay, sure: But what about the quest for meaning as a driver of the rise of the early state? What of the guest-friendship-exploiting-hero-trader as a scholar?


  1. Hoyrup's speculations about the origin of Sumerian strain credulity; as far as I know, there is no attested creole with ergativity. (Gurindji Kriol, despite the name, is not a creole.) But I do like your ideas about omens here: if we see omen lists giving the consequences of omens that have manifestly never been seen in real life, then that suggests they were generated from some sort of broader theory of omen consequences capable of generating predicted effects for unattested omens. If so, figuring out that theory from the attested texts would make a good PhD project, very comparable to figuring out Sumerian grammar from wordlists and bilingual texts. Of course, they could also just be writing down whatever they saw in last night's dream, in which case that PhD would be a wild goose chase. Perhaps the prospective grad student should double-check this in advance by inspecting an appropriately sacrificed liver before embarking on the thesis...

  2. Three livers, inspected by members of three different priestly colleges. You don't want to be any less scientific than Ashurbanipal!

  3. In fairness, here's a case I would never have expected, where a bilingual community really does seem to be choosing which language to write on the basis of how easy it is to represent on paper:

  4. Now what happens when you put grammar back in?