The Senders of the Letters

The majority of the letters come from the king's closest associates, what might be called his personal staff, located in Nineveh either at the royal palace itself or nearby; a minor group originates from teams of scholars stationed in other major cities of Assyria (Assur, Calah, Kilizi and Arbela, see nos. 122-145). The latter group consists almost exclusively of eclipse and calendric reports, and probably largely owes its existence to the need to calibrate inconclusive lunar and solar observations made at the capital.[[49]]

This basic division of the senders into Ninevites and non-Ninevites does not imply that all the letters authored by the former would have been written in Nineveh. On the contrary, many of them were certainly dispatched while the sender was on a mission outside the capital (see, e.g., no. 24; the entire jossier of Mar-lssar belongs to this category).

Almost all the letters are addressed to the king (or to the "Farmer," the ceremonial title of the king during the substitute king ritual);[[50]] five letters nos. 136, 180, 182, 186 and 195) are addressed to the crown prince, who acted as the regent during the king's illness, four (nos. 16, 17, 154 and 313) to the queen mother. Only three letters from king to scholar(s) are included in the corpus (see nos. 216, 295 and 378); one of them was not found in Nineveh but was purchased. Three letters (nos. 183, 372 and 384) seem to be from scholar to scholar.

The "Inner Circle"

By their relationship to the king, the Ninevite scholars can be divided into two groups: the "inner circle," and the "outer circle" of scholars. The "inner circle" consists of 17 men engaged in a more or less regular correspondence with the king, all but one of them Assyrian (see Table I). The "outer circle" mainly consists of random petitions by lesser scholars seeking admission to court or complaining about their living conditions. Most of the Babylonian letters of the correspondence belong to the latter category.

The survey in Table I suffices to make it clear that the "inner circle" was made up of high-ranking men. Eight of them bear titles showing them to be the supreme scholars of the realm in their special disciplines; two of them were important enough to deserve a place in the Assyrian king list.[[51]] The rest were no small fry either. Mar-Issar was the key figure in the reorganization of the cultic services and the rebuilding of the destroyed temple areas of Babylon, Borsippa, Akkad, Uruk and other Babylonian cities under Esarhad­don. Akkullanu held the extremely influential position of the "temple enterer" In the temple of Aššur, empowering him to supervise the celebration of traditional festivals, check the conduct of the Assur clergy and to impose loyalty oaths on other nations.[[52]] Balasî was the teacher of the crown prince Assur­banipal and evidently a personal friend and favourite of the king himself (see no. 43). His colleague and close associate Nabû-ahhe-eriba enjoyed a similar position;[[53]] RMA 55 (= SAA 8 83) shows that he was in no way considered inferior to the mighty chief scribe Issar-šumu- ereš.[[54]] The exorcist and former deputy chief physician Urad-Gula enjoyed special privileges (cf. no. 294) as one son of the venerable Adad-šumu-uṣur, who as the personal exorcist and close confidant of Esarhaddon ranked even higher at court than the chief exorcist Marduk-šakin-šumi.[[55]]

Nothing certain is known about the positions of the remaining two men, Nabû-naṣir and Ikkaru. But it should be noted that in the introductory section of no. 297, the name of Nabû-naṣir precedes that of the chief physician

TABLE I. The Inner Circle

NameTitle or PositionReignLettersRemarks
Nabû-zeru-leširchief scribe, king's ummânuEsh.3father of Issar-šumu-ereš, brother of Adad-šumu-uṣur
Issar-šumu-erešchief scribe, king's ummânuAsh./Asb.35son of Nabû-zeru-lešir
Balasîcrown prince's ummânuAsh./Asb.27associate of Nabû-ahhe-eriba
Nabû-ahhe-eribaastrologerEsh./Asb.17associate of Balasî
Akkullanutemple-enterer of AššurEsh./Asb.25
Bel-ušezib-Esh.13Babylonian scholar
Marduk-šumu-usurchief haruspexEsh./Asb.5
Adad-šumu-uṣurking's exorcistEsh./Asb.56brother of Nabû-zero-lešir, father of Urad-Gula
Marduk-šakin-šumichief exorcistEsh./Asb.39
Nabû-nadin-šumichief exorcistEsh./Asb.15successor of Marduk-šakin-šumi
Urad-GulaexorcistEsh.7son of Adad-šumu-uṣur
Urad-Nanayachief physicianEsh.14
IkkaruphysicianEsh.5predecessor of Urad-Nanaya?
Urad-Eachief chanterEsh.7father of Nabû-zero-iddina
Nabû-zeru-iddinachief chanterAsb.2son of Urad-Ea
Mar-IssarscribeEsh.24royal "eye and ear" in Babylonia

Urad-Nanaya - a convention usually connoting superiority in rank. The physician Ikkaru may well have been the predecessor of Urad-Nanaya in the office of the chief physician: in no. 330, he appears in charge of other physicians, and none of his letters appear to postdate 672 (while no letters of Urad-Nanaya appear to antedate 671).

Thus, even though the Assyrian court housed a great many scholarly experts specializing in the same disciplines as the "inner circle," and even though many more similar experts were scattered all around the empire, it is clear that only a very few select "wise men" could be engaged in any sort of "regular" correspondence with the king. And while lesser scholars could occasionally write a letter to the king or occasionally even receive a letter from the king, such an exchange of letters was bound to remain highly restricted and exceptional. Revealingly, only one letter from the deputy chief physician Banî is extant, and there are no letters at all from the deputy chief scribe Nabû-mušeṣi, even though that man has left us as many as 17 omen reports. The situation is thus exactly parallel to that observable in the correspondence of Sargon II: it consists virtually exclusively of letters exchanged between the king and his magnates (provincial governors and other officials of comparable or superior rank), with only occasional letters from deputy governors and other lower level officials.

Men Versed in the Scriptures

It is easy to see how men with such responsibility and the power that came with it might have been tempted to overstep all limitations and attempt to manipulate the king through their craft. However, there is very little evidence to that effect.[[56]] By and large the scholars appear to have executed their office applying to themselves the same high moral standards they were imposing on the king. Some of them, like Bel-ušezib, seem to have attempted to direct national policy through their interpretations and suggestions, but such attempts easily fit within the confines of their advisory role.

Under no circumstances are we justified in characterizing the Sargonid kings as fearful and "superstitious" men completely under the sway of the court "magicians" and "soothsayers," or the men who advised them as opportunistic charlatans who took advantage of the kings' ignorance and fear to direct affairs of state for their own benefit, as has been done in the past.[[57]] Far from acting out of fear or ignorance, the kings were following the highest dictates of contemporary religion and state ideology, while the men who advised them truly believed in the importance and efficacy of their craft and its "scientific," even divine, basis.

In their professional work the scholars appear to have been, in the highest degree of the term's implication, "men versed in the Scriptures." Everything in their correspondence makes it patently clear that their learning, way of thinking and professional competence were based on and moulded by an intensive study of the "Scriptures," the professional lore accumulated by earlier generations of scholars. This lore, which consisted of innumerable disconnected observations noted down over the centuries, had gradually grown into a coherent system of interpreting and coping with the world conceived as a place dominated by gods and demons. Much of it would have to be dismissed today as unscientific, but there is no question that the "Scriptures" were regarded by these scholars and their contemporaries as the ultimate source of wisdom, the validity of which was never seriously questioned. It is good to keep this basic fact in mind while reading the letters, since an attempt to evaluate their technical contents without recourse to the "Scriptures" easily leads to misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions.[[58]]

49 Cf. nos. 114, 151 and 225.

50 For a detailed discussion of the substitute king ritual see LAS II pp. XXII-XXXII.

51 See LAS II, App. N 1.

52 See LAS II, App. N 56.

53 Cf. nos. 68 and 69.

54 See the commentary under LAS 12 in LAS II.

55 See the commentary under LAS 164 in LAS II.

56 See LAS II p. XVIIff and LAS II A p. 23f.

57 See, e.g., A.T. Olmstead, History of Assyria (1923), p. 347; W. von Soden, Herrscher im alten Orient (1964), p. 125; B. Landsberger, Brief des Bischofs von Esagila an König Asarhaddon (1965), p. 148; R. Labat, Fischer Weltgeschichte 4 (1967), p. 81.

58 See, for a warning example, the commentary on the "dental diagnosis" of LAS 216 in LAS II.

Simo Parpola

Simo Parpola, 'The Senders 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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