The Contents and Chronology of the Letters

While the letters primarily relate to the advisory and prophylactic function of the scholars and thus largely deal with astrological, magical, medical and religious matters, this does not imply that their contents would be one-sided, monotonous or dull. Far from it. Set in the milieu of the royal court, in the immediate vicinity of the king, the letters take us to the very heart of the Assyrian empire and offer us a unique opportunity to watch the great drama of the Sargonid dynasty from a ring-side seat.

We see the king struggle with problems of succession and agonize at the teething pains and diarrhoea of his grandchildren; we see him fall seriously ill and turn into a misanthrope after barely surviving a conspiracy by his closest men; we see him return triumphantly from a victorious campaign to Egypt, and in the next instant bow down at portents calling for his death. We follow how he is rescued through the substitute king ritual and continues his plan to reconcile Babylonia with Assyria through a grandiose national reconstruction program. Many of these developments can be followed in detail through clusters of letters sometimes extending over a long period of time and viewing the same topic from several different angles.[[59]]

The content of the letters has been thoroughly analyzed and discussed in LAS II, and it would be pointless to duplicate these discussions here. It seems, however, worth pointing out that the letters contain a great deal of valuable information from the viewpoint of the history of science, particularly as regards the development of mathematical astronomy. Much of the effort of the contemporary astrologers appears to have been directed towards predicting astronomical phenomena in advance, evidently with an eye to capitalizing on the king's desire to attach to his service the best prognosticators available. Some of these predictions can be shown to have been based on primitive methods directly derived from the "Scriptures,"[[60]] but many turn out to involve more sophisticated methods not to be found in the "Scriptures."[[61]] The astronomical knowledge making such predictions possible can only have been acquired through systematic and intensive study and recording of astronomical phenomena.[[62]] Systematic collection of observational data had already been prescribed for practicing astrologers in the treatise Mul Apin dating from the second millennium B.C.; and there can be little doubt that the drive for further research was much intensified in the Sargonid period owing to the vehement scholarly competition for court positions at that time. This development continued under the Neo-Babylonian kings, and eventually led to the birth of mathematical astronomy at the turn of the 5th century B.C.[[63]]

Considered as a whole, the present correspondence can without exaggeration be said to illuminate virtually every aspect of the life and activities of ancient Mesopotamian scholars: their family background and social position, their schooling, professional work and "research," their role at the royal court, their political influence and relation to the king, and last but not least, even their life, personality and way of thinking. The variety and abundance of detailed information contained in the letters, the countless problems they still pose, and the possibility of resurrecting some of the scholars as living individuals makes this corpus a truly fascinating object of study. In containing a great deal of information taken directly from Mesopotamian scholarly lore and at the same time focusing attention on its practical application and on the men involved in the transmission and further development of that lore, these letters form a bridge between the monotonous scholarly texts and real life whose value for the history of religion, philosophy and science hardly needs stressing.

The Chronology of the Letters

The chronology of the letters and the problems related to their dating have been fully discussed in LAS II, and the reader is referred to that study for many details omitted here.

As far as can be ascertained, all the letters, with the exception of a single letter datable to 621 B.C. (no. 149), belong to a period of about 35 years (680-648) spread over the reigns of Esarhaddon (680-669) and his son Assurbanipal. Within this 35-year period, there is a long hiatus of some 13 years from 664 through 652, with sporadic letters from years 657 to 655, and a period with many letters spanning the years 672-666, with a clear peak of more than 150 letters during the years 671-669 (See Table II). The Babylonian letters follow the distribution of the Assyrian ones, with the exception of the letters of Bel-ušezib (nos. 109-121), which date from the early part of Esarhaddon's reign, from which few Assyrian letters are extant.

The reasons for this chronological distribution, which largely agrees with that of the haruspical and astrological reports (see SAA 4, pp. LVI-LXV, and SAA 8, p. XXII), are not known. The fact that virtually all letters dealing with

TABLE II. Distribution of Letters in Time

DateNumber of Letters

medical and exorcistic matters (which account for more than 40% of the whole correspondence) can be securely dated to Esarhaddon's reign would seem to indicate that this part of the correspondence was largely a product of Esarhaddon's failing health,[[64]] and should accordingly be considered as exceptional. The numerous astrological letters addressed to Esarhaddon may also have been partly occasioned by the personality of that ruler.[[65]] However, this still does not explain why there are so few letters addressed to other Sargonid kings in the corpus, even though incidental passages in the corpus prove that the other kings (especially Sennacherib) also regularly received letters and reports from scholarly experts.[[66]]

Considering further the institutional status of court scholarship, firmly anchored in royal ideology, there simply is no way getting around the fact that many more letters of this type, addressed to different Assyrian rulers, must have once existed. Where all these letters are now can only be guessed. Many of them may have been destroyed already in antiquity as part of normal administrative housecleaning; many may simply not yet have hit the spade of the archaeologist.

59 For a detailed discussion of such clusters of letters see LAS II p. XIIIff.

60 Cf., e.g., RMA 30 (= SAA 8 251) r.6-7, based on the omen quoted ibid. obv. 8.

61 Knowledge of planetary and lunar periods, understanding of the variations in lunar velocity and latitude etc.; see commentaries on LAS 41, LAS 42, LAS 53 and LAS 62-66 in LAS II, and cf. RMA 155 (= SAA 8 293), RMA 33 (= SAA 8 387), RMA 272 (= SAA 8 502) and especially no. 114 in this volume.

62 Cf. the discussion sub LAS 105 (here no. 149) in LAS II.

63 Cf. J.P. Britton, "Scientific Astronomy in Pre-Seleucid Babylon," in H. Galter (ed.), Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens (Graz 1993), p. 61ff.

64 See commentary on LAS 246 in LAS II.

65 See commentary on LAS 41 in LAS II.

66 Cf. LAS II, App. Q, and note the astrological report to Sargon mentioned in ibid., App. J, as well as the remarks of A.L. Oppenheim in Centaurus 14 (1969), 120f.

Simo Parpola

Simo Parpola, 'The Contents and Chronology of the Letters', Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, SAA 10. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1993; online contents: SAAo/SAA10 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2021 []

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SAAo/SAA10, 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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