The Neo-Babylonian Letters of Sargon's and Sennacherib's Reigns

The realities of the Neo-Assyrian empire caused the correspondence of Sargon II (721-705), Sennacherib (704-681 ), Esarhaddon ( 680-669) and Assurbanipal (668-627) with their officials in Assyria in the conquered territories bpth near and far to be written (according to current finds of clay tablets) in the most common Akkadian dialects of this period, Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian. But these finds are accidental and unrepresentative. We come to this conclusion because of the pictorial depictions and linguistic elements. These show without any doubt that even the population of the core area of the Neo-Assyrian empire (Assyria and Babylonia) was on the contrary multiethnic, and consequently was more likely to be multicultural than homogenous. Among these differing population groups, the heterogenous group of the Arameans played the most important role.[[1]] Arameans were in the Royal service and were even employed in the administration, yet they were ordered not to use their own language and script in official writings -as Sargon points out to Sin-iddina (no. 2 r. 15-22):

15) ...] k[i-i IGI LUG]AL mah-ru ina ŠÀ si-ip-ri 16)[KUR]Ár-m[a-a-a lu-u]s-pi-ir-ma a-na LUGAL 17)[l]u-še-bi-la mi-nam-ma ina ši-pir-ti 18)ak-ka-da-at-tu la ta-šaṭ-ṭar-ma 19)la tu-šeb-bi-la kit-ta ši-pir-tu 20) šá [[]] ina ŠÁ-bi ta-šaṭ-ṭa-ru 21)ki-i pi-i a-gan-ni-tim-ma i-da-at 22)lu-ú šak-na-at ...
"If it is acceptable to the king, let me write and send my messages to the king on Aram[aic] parchment sheets" - why would you not write and send me messages in Akkadian? Really, the message which you write in it must be drawn up in this very manner - this is a fixed regulation!

If royal servants used Aramaic contrary to this order — and the 3300 letters of Assyrian correspondents (a small number considered in the absolute) provide reason for such an assumption — we ought to expect that they are irretrievably lost. Documents written in the alphabet script did not survive into our times because they were written with a brush on perishable materials like parchment, papyrus or bark.[[2]] Aramaic words and sentences in alphabetic script written on clay tablets are rare for the time of the Sargonids.

If we study the correspondence of the Neo-Assyrian kings with their subjects, we find mostly documents written in the dialects of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian language. We must not, however, ignore the Aramaic. For those who were the correspondence partners of the kings used Aramaic as their everyday language, and consequently lexical and grammatical elements of Aramaic considerably influenced their written language.

From the diverse archives of the Neo-Assyrian period between 750 and 610 BC, 3300 letters are known. Their condition of preservation varies. It is possible that there are still more letters from the originally far more voluminous correspondence sitting unrecognised in museums or attics. Of these nearly 3000 are now published; the following linguistic and chronological distribution should be noted:

Concerning the language of the letters: it is noteworthy that two-thirds of them are written in the NA dialect, i.e. in the diplomatic language of the Nee-Assyrian empire, and a third in NB.[[3]] The high percentage (close to 50%) of NB letters, which with a few exceptions originated in the cultural and political centres of the neighbouring country to the south-east, emphasises the well-known fact that for the Sargonid NA rulers the area of Babylonia was both very demanding and also unruly, either when it was a part of the Empire or when it was a neighbour.

The chronological distribution of the documents is determined by the archive in which they were found: as S. Parpola has shown in detailed studies, the letters from the Kalhu archive witness the time of Tiglatpilesar III, those from the Nineveh archive witness the time of the Sargonids; however here the concentration varies: 800 of them throw light on the first or the last 10 years of Sargon II (720 to 719, 715 to 706) and 750 illuminate Esarhaddon's last years and the first years of Assurbanipal (674 to 666).[[4]]

In his studies S. Parpola repeatedly emphasises that pieces of writings that normally are dated to the last years of Sargon II might possibly date to the early reign of Sennacherib.[[5]] Since it is hardly possible to doubt that several of the NB letters from Kouyunjik date to the reign of Sennacherib, one should tackle the difficult question of how many and which NA letters belong to this period. As these letters are usually not dated, only unique stylistic characteristics can help us with this question. We can safely assume that the authors of these letters who were active during the last years of Sargon's reign survived the transition of power and continued in their roles during the first years of Sennacherib's reign. Thus they continued to do their duties as transmitters of news from the south (as long as the political circumstances allowed them to do so) — an important role in this context was played by the commander ll-iada' in the Assyrian-Babylonian border region.

In the three volumes entitles The Correspondence of Sargon II (Parts I-III), Simo Parpola published 956 of the Nee-Assyrian letters which he identified from the time of Sargon. In SAA I (1987), 265 letters out of Assyria and the West; in SAA 5 (1 990) together with G. B. Lanfranchi, 276 letters from the Northern and Northeastern Provinces along with 24 letters as an addendum to SAA 1 (nos. 277-300); and in SAA 15 (2001) together with A. Fuchs, 273 letters from Babylonia and the Eastern Provinces, which also includes 1 18 letters as addenda to SAA 1 and 5 (nos. 274-391). This — for the time being? — last volume of NA letters from the time of Sargon bridges the gap to the corpus of NB letters whose oldest documents date to the last two decades of the eighth century. Since they originate without exception from Babylonia, they elucidate the time of Sargon's rule over Babylonia between 710 and 705 as well as the relationship of Sennacherib to Babylonia.

Assigning NB letters to the reigns of Sargon and Sennacherib has been controversial; so also has been the percentage of these two kings in the entire corpus of Neo-Babylonian letters. The reason for this is the lack of dates and the omission of the names of the royal addressees. Hence it is difficult to assign senders to a certain king, and we can only achieve this indirectly by using formal and linguistic indicators or those concerning the contents. In this context the most important requirements for an attribution are, for example, the names of the addressee and the sender, and (if possible) specifically identifiable historical events which refer to definite geographical and/or prosopographical facts. If a letter contains such details — unfortunately, there are only very few of these — then it can be the starting point for a description of individual, formal information about diction, style, way of writing of a certain sender and his scribe; and then finally facts such as the menti oning of persons and their occupations at a given time can add to this. Such a letter offers therefore (if one follows its information consistently) a wide range of details which can be correlated with each other and which so to speak constitute the tip of the iceberg whose dimensions must be thoroughly explored beneath the surface of the sea.

Attempting to analyse meaning indicators, however, holds the danger of stressing individual facts either too much or too little. In reconstructing the correspondence of one sender, one should avoid on the one hand reading more out of a single piece of writing than might actually be there; on the other hand we should avoid dismissing a letter as unimportant because it might have been badly preserved or because its language is difficult at first glance.[[6]]

According to my research under the above outlined principles, I assigned at least 207 letters of the corpus of NB letters to the time of Sargon II and Sennacherib, i.e. the last decade of the 8th century.[[7]] I would cautiously suggest the following distribution: 127 (±) can be dated to the reign of Sargon; and 65 (±) to the reign of Sennacherib — 15 fragments can be dated neither to the reign of Sargon nor his son. If we assume that approximately 200 letters (or fragments thereof) belong to the reign of Sargon and Sennacherib, then it implies that they make up only 20 percent of the entire corpus of NB letters. This percentage is rather modest compared to the 66 percent that letters of Sargon (and Sennacherib) take up in the corpus of Neo-Assyrian letters. Instead, the letters in the corpus of Neo-Babylonian letters originate in the time of Assurbanipal, and refer mainly to the time just before and during the war between him and his brother Šamaššumukin, i.e. in 648 when there was a lively correspondence between the Assyrian ruler in Nineveh and his representatives in Babylonia.

In the following paragraphs I will briefly outline the arguments for assigning a Neo-Babylonian letter to the reign of Sargon or Sennacherib.

1 Cf. among others S. Parpola, SAA 1 (1987), xv-xvi; W. Mayer, Politik (1995), 82-85.

2 Cf. e.g. S. Parpola, ARINH (1981), 122-123; id., SAA l, xv-xvi.

3 Cf. S. Parpola. ARINH (1981), 134: chart 1.

4 S. Parpola, ARINH (1981), 118-122.

5 S. Parpola, ARINH (1981), 119 n. 1 ("... it is also possible that some of the letters assigned in this article to the reign of Sargon actually date from the begining of the reign of Sennacherib") and SAA 1, xxi-xxii ("... it is possible that some ot the letters assigned to Sargon may actually date from the beginning of the reign of Sennacherib (c. 705-704 BC).").

6 For these questions see M. Dietrich, AOAT 7 (1970), 3.

7 Cf. (however with some differences), M. Dietrich WO 4/1 (1967), 61-103, and WO 4/2 (1968), 183-206.

Manfried Dietrich

Manfried Dietrich, 'The Neo-Babylonian Letters of Sargon's and Sennacherib's Reigns', The Neo-Babylonian Correspondence of Sargon and Sennacherib, SAA 17. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 2003; online contents: SAAo/SAA17 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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SAAo/SAA17, 2014-. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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