Friday, 9 November 2018

Transcendental Thought in Ancient Assyria

Transcendental thought in Assyria? The conventional view is that there is no transcendental or rational thought worthy of the name before the rise of Greek philosophy. That is the settled view of western scholars. A new anthology of transcendentalist thought *1, compiled by David LaRocca, published in February 2017, begins only with the writings of the Greeks, and without a trace of embarrassment about having nothing to say about earlier times.   

This view, which is dependent on the notion of intellectual and cultural progress, has been growing ever firmer since the European Enlightenment. The philosopher Karl Jaspers saw the Greeks in terms of a transition from one way of thinking, mostly alien to us, to another, which is the root of the way we understand our reality now. He termed the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E. as 'the axial age'. His 'axial age' marks the transition from what is essentially irrational thinking, to rational thought. 

So now this period has a name. And because it has a name, it serves a function. That function is, in practice, to close off detailed consideration of what went before it, since it is not worth looking at as part of the history of of rational thought. Before the axial age, there was no rational thought. People lived and died in a miasma of irrational ideas, in a world peopled with gods and demons, and who had strange ideas concerning causality and meaning.

In practice ancient Assyria (and the whole Mesopotamian oikumene) is largely studied in terms of the things we think we know and understand, such as power, propaganda, and ideology. These things we assume to be universals in history, applicable to ancient societies, as much as to our own. We treat power, propaganda and ideology as the only intelligible rational drivers in the culture of Assyria. Assyria therefore is held prisoner within the presumptions of a historical and sociological school of scholarship which is a little more than a century and a half old. Very little effort is made to enter into the intellectual world of ancient Assyria, and  that intellectual world is treated (more or less) as an irrelevance to our understanding. 

The new exhibition, 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria', it appears, does not challenge the scholarly approach to ancient Assyria which was developed during the twentieth century, and which persists today. That is not what the exhibition is for. It celebrates the British Museum and its extensive Assyrian collections, put together since the beginning of the excavations in the near East, halfway through the nineteenth century. It is also a way of cementing the established view of ancient Assyria in the public imagination. It is, to a significant extent, an exercise in propaganda.The British Museum is guarding the status quo. 

To look at Assyria in any other way is essentially an act of cultural subversion. Nevertheless, the established view is untenable. It has been untenable for years. 

Sometimes academic disciplines get stuck in a particular place, or become trapped in a set of approaches which once seemed to make sense, but no longer serve to advance the discipline. Assyriology is unfortunately in that position today. This is despite the work of a small number of scholars who have published on the transcendentalism which can be detected in the religion, art and literature of ancient Assyria. 

Assyriology is a discipline which is very dependent on a number of other subjects (Classics, Anthropology, Sociology, and Philosophy in particular). It does not stand on its own. An Assyriologist does not need to ask a classicist or a philosopher whether the Greeks pioneered philosophy and abstract thought in the middle of the 1st Millennium B.C.E., since he already knows their answer, and defers to it. As a result, a serious challenge to the validity of the concept of an 'axial age' is unlikely to start in Assyriological circles.

For a period of a hundred and fifty years, the Assyrian Empire is the best documented ancient civilization available for study, as the Ashurbanipal exhibition shows. If we are ever going to gain a real insight into the nature and sophistication of ancient thought in the Near East, that insight will emerge from the close study of all aspects of ancient Assyria, and not just those aspects of their culture which can be used to support modern theories about how the human story unfolded. 

Here is a selection of fourteen articles (mostly book chapters and chapter extracts) which explore an alternative Assyria to the the one promoted by the Assyriological profession, and by the current exhibition. A few of these articles draw on Babylonian records, which also illuminate Assyria thought and culture. Those who have studied Mesopotamia in any depth know that Assyria and Babylonia belonged to a Mesopotamian cultural oikumene.There were many significant differences, but also many similarities, right down to their respective gods, and languages (mutually intelligible dialects of Akkadian, as well as common use of Sumerian).  

1. 'Greece and the cultural Impact of the Assyrian Empire' (full article) 

Keywords: Assyria, Greece, Cyrus, Pythagoras, Sennacherib, Babylon

It has been argued for some considerable time that there was a significant Assyrian impact on the culture of Greece, and the development of philosophy.*2 Simo Parpola published a paper in 2004 *3 (buried in a Festschrift), which argued that Assyria influenced Ionia, on the western coast of what is now Turkey, through its interactions with the kingdom of Lydia. This argument was made on the basis of Assyrian administrative documents. At about the same time, with no knowledge of Parpola's paper, I compiled the following document, largely on the basis of Greek accounts, mostly buried and unregarded in the writings of Eusebius. Our papers arrived at broadly the same conclusion, but the Greek references to Assyria are the more startling in their implications for the cultural history of Greece and the beginnings of western philosophy.*4

2. 'The Threshold in Ancient Assyria' (full article) 

Keywords: Assyria, Threshold, Border, Liminal, Carpets, Cones, Garlands, Sacred Tree 

Pauline Albenda studied (in detail) the threshold designs in Assyrian places from a phenomenological point of view, and published her important account in 1978 in the Journal of the Ancient Near East.*5 I reviewed her work in the following article, but from the point of view of the ritual and cultic significance of the threshold and the associated designs in Assyria. The designs are associated with the Assyrian sacred tree, which is itself associated with the idea of an ultimate limit. *6

3. 'The Idea of Being in Israel' (full article)

Keywords: Bible, Philosophy, Religion, Theology, Israel, Assyria 

Close examination of passages in the Old Testament show an intimate understanding of Mesopotamian ideas of divinity, and a great deal of borrowing of these ideas. Divinity was associated with the concept of the limit. The passages also show that these descriptions of divinity have a philosophical aspect. In the book of Malachi for example, God is made to say 'I do not change', which is an explicitly philosophical conception of what the divine is. YHWH also declares his identity with Being: ‘I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.' This article draws heavily on a discussion published by Michael Dick and Christopher Walker.  *7

4. 'The Making and Renewal of the Gods in Ancient Assyria' (full article)

Keywords: Making Gods, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Divine Images, Sumer, Shamash, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal, Plato, Astronomy 

There are some extraordinary documents present in the library of Ashurbanipal, which give us great detail about the ideas lying behind the creation of gods, and their refurbishment. To do their work, the craftsmen are allotted a temporary divinity themselves, which was removed once the work is done. How and why was this conceived to be possible? Temporary divinity was possible only if ritual action was conceived to establish connection with transcendent divinity itself *8. . 

5. 'Installing the Gods in Heaven: the Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual' 
(extract from article) 

Keywords: Babylon, Divinity, Installation,  Mis Pi, Palm, Quay, Ritual, Rivers, Statues, 

And we have the ritual. The ritual for the installation of the Gods in Heaven survives in more than one copy. One of the best is Babylonian, but it reflects Assyrian thought and practice also. The idea of men being able to create gods runs counter to what we think we understand about ancient cult. But it is quite clear that they had reasons for thinking that they had the power to create gods.*9 

6. 'Who Will Appear Before the City? (Divination in Sargonid Assyria)' 

Keywords: Assyria, Divination, SunGod, Haruspicy 

The sages of the kings of Assyria conceived that it was possible to divine the mind of the gods, and therefore to know about the future. They thought this because they conceived of reality (that is, a reality which transcends physical reality) as something which already contained all things which were possible, though not already revealed to the mind of man. The information could be accessed if a commonality was established between the inquirer and the god (in this case Shamash, the Sun god). That commonality could be established by completing the life of a sacrificial animal, and examining its entrails, which were understood to reflect divine knowledge at the point of the completion of its life. This is a compilation of twenty such enquiries about the future, presented here without commentary. The texts are taken from The State Archives of Assyria, vol. 4..*10

'Standing in the Place of Ea: The Adapa Discipline and Kingship in the Neo-Assyrian Empire' (full article)

Keywords: Ashurbanipal, Assyria, Adapa, Mesopotamia, Mythology, Enki, Abzu, Kingship, Neo-Assyrian Empire, Sargonids

An overview of the role of the king in the Assyrian Court and State, and an analysis of the Adapa myth in Ashurbanipal's education. The King is responsible for upholding not just the state, but the universe itself.*11

 Keywords: Mesopotamia, Philosophy, Abstraction, Cult  

What is the intellectual core idea which energised the Assyrian state? It is the idea of eternity, of reality itself, which stands behind physical reality. The king's role is to connect both worlds, through his excellence in this world. It is essentially the same concept which allowed the divine (coterminous with reality itself) to be questioned about the future in 'Who Will Appear Before the City?' *12

9. 'Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree' (extract from article) 

Keywords: Assyria, Kabbalah, Perfection, Sacred Tree, Abstraction, Mesopotamia 

The Jewish Kabbalah has been understood by historians to be a body of ideas and practices which were developed from the early middle Ages onwards, and which perhaps owe something to the influence of Gnosticism. There is the concept of an absolute without limit in Kabbalism (the 'En Sof'), which is not a problem if Kabbalism was developed in the middle Ages. However, there is a striking resemblance to the Assyrian Sacred Tree, if the Mesopotamian God numbers are inserted into the structure. If this identification is accurate, then the 'En Sof' may have been a living concept as far back as the middle of the 2nd Millennium B.C.E. *13

10. 'The Fifty Names of Marduk' (extract from article)  

Keywords: An, Babylon, Enuma Elish, Marduk, Mesopotamia, New Year,Festival

The idea of an axial age in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E. divides historical, cultural and archaeological time into two epochs: the first is (for us) an epoch which is deeply irrational in nature. Rationality only emerges after the rise of philosophy among the Greeks. This is a deeply problematic notion, because the Assyrians and Babylonians defined themselves as rational beings. The idea is quite clearly expressed in the section of the Babylonian New Year festival, where the supreme god (Marduk in Babylon) is described as the totality of the characteristics of the other gods, who provide for good order in the world. These gods came into existence at Marduk's call, and replaced the disorder of the first and irrational creation.*14 

11. 'The Concept of the Plenum in Babylon' (full article) 

Keywords: Babylon, Ancient History, Plenum, Creation

The concept of a transcendent and unlimited reality containing all possibility, standing behind the creation, and all generation and manifestation in the physical world, was an absolutely key idea to both the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The following article discusses the two creations which form part of the New Year Festival liturgy, and how the double nature of the creation points to to the presence of such a conception (an undifferentiated 'plenum' containing all possible things as potencies).*15

12 'Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria' (full article)  

Keywords: Forms, Idolatry, Philosophy

Several of the foregoing articles are chapters in the book The Sacred History of Being (2015), which discusses a shared (or borrowed) substratum of ideas, both in Greece, and in Assyria. This article reviews some of the major parallels, and the implications of such a shared cultural substrate.*16 

'Oannes and the Instruction of Mankind' (full article) 

Keywords: Berossus, Telos, Origins, Civilization, Apkallu

The nature of the Mesopotamian understanding of reality is reinforced by the story of the first sage, who instructed mankind in knowledge of cultivation, and knowledge of seeds and plants. We have the account from the Babylonian writer Berossus, who describes an amphibious creature (capable of living in two worlds) with the head of a fish, which emerged from the sea and imparted his knowledge in the daytime, before returning to the deep at night. The symbolism of this is clear: water is one of a number of images which can symbolise the plenum, in that it is formless, without colour, and which exists in abundance. Living in the sea, Oannes has access to the knowledge which the plenum holds. *17

14. 'Ocean and the Limit of Existence' (full article) 

Keywords: Generation, Abundance, Myth, Creation

The symbolism of water and ocean is a feature of poetry and literature around the Mediterranean and the Near East. It is widely associated with ideas of creation, generation, and abundance.*18


*1 The Bloomsbury Anthology of Transcendental Thought, edited by David LaRocca, Bloomsbury, 2017.
*2 Parpola, S., 1993c “The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy”: Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52, 161-208. See also: Parpola, S., 2000a “Monotheism in Ancient Assyria,” in Barbara Nevling Porter, ed., One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World (Transactions of the Casco Bay Assyriological Institute 1, Casco Bay), 165-209. 
*3 Parpola, S., 2003b “Assyria’s Expansion in the 8th and 7th Centuries BCE and Its Long-Term Repercussions in the West,” in W. G. Dever and S. Gitin, eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel and their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palestine. Proceedings of the Centennial Symposium, W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and the American Schools of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, May 29-May 31, 2000 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns), 99-111.
*4 Yaeger, T., 'Greece and the Cultural Impact of the Assyrian Empire', in The Origins of Transcendentalist Thought in Ancient Religion, Anshar Press, 2019.  
*5 Albenda, P., ‘Assyrian Carpets in Stone’, in JANES [the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University], vol 10, 1978
*6 Yaeger, T. 'The Threshold in Ancient Assyria' in The Origins of Transcendentalist Thought in Ancient Religion, Anshar Press, 2019.
*7 Yaeger, T., 'The Idea of Being in Israel' in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015. The rituals for the installation of gods are discussed in two books: 
Dick, M, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East,  Eisenbrauns, (Winona Lake, Indiana), 1999, and 
Walker, C, and Dick, M., The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Mesopotamian Mis Pi Ritual, State Archives of Assyria Literary Texts vol. 1, The Neo Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2001. 
*8 Yaeger, T., 'The Making and Renewal of the Gods in Ancient Assyria' in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
*9 Yaeger, T.,'The Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual' in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
* 10 Starr, Ivan, Queries to the Sungod: Divination and Politics in Sargonid Assyria, SAA (State Archives of Assyria) vol 4, Helsinki University Press, 1990. Ritual life reveals a great deal about the minds of the royal court, and many of the rituals survive and are collected together in Parpola's Assyrian Royal Rituals and Cultic Texts, SAA vol 20, The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2017
*11 Yaeger, T., 'Standing in the Place of Ea: The Adapa Discipline and Kingship in the Neo-Assyrian Empire', in Understanding Ancient Thought, Anshar Press, 2017,
*12 Yaeger, T., ''Shar Kishati' and The Cult of Eternity', in Understanding Ancient Thought, Anshar Press, 2017,
*13 Yaeger, T., 'Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree', in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
*14 Yaeger, T.,  'The Fifty Names of Marduk', in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
*15 Yaeger, T., 'The Concept of the Plenum in Babylon' in Understanding Ancient Thought, Anshar Press, 2017, 
*16 Yaeger, T., 'Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria', in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
*17 Yaeger, T., 'Oannes and the Instruction of Mankind', in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015
*18 Yaeger, T.,'Ocean and the Limit of Existence', in The Sacred History of Being, Anshar Press, 2015

Thomas Yaeger, November 11, 2018

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Greece and the cultural Impact of the Assyrian Empire

In 'The Threshold in Ancient Assyria' I discussed Pauline Albenda's work on pavement slab designs, which seem to have been derived from originals in carpet form. The designs may have originated in Egypt, and perhaps these may have been adopted as the result of cultural interaction beween Egypt and Assyria. 

This particular pattern of ornamentation was present in a Greek context of a similar period, somewhere between the later 8th century B.C.E., and the end of the 7th century B.C.E. Plate 295 of Richter's A Handbook of Greek Art *1 reproduces a photograph of the rear of a breastplate, found in the river Alpheios at Olympia [now in the national Museum, Athens], which is dated to the middle of the 7th century B.C.E.. The text on p 211 suggests that it is engraved with ‘animals and monsters and with a group perhaps to be interpreted as Zeus greeting Apollo’.

This is quite likely, but there is so much more of interest to the design. The Greek figures walk on a palmate border of a ‘fleur-de-lys’ type repeating pattern, and between Zeus and Apollo there is a form of open blossom. These figures occupy the bottom half of the backplate: above them are designs which are of largely Mesopotamian origin. Behind each shoulder of the backplate there are two crescent motifs, each facing outwards; between them are opposing sphinxes rampant; and below these, what appear to be opposing lions rampant. Inside the left crescent (from the back) there is a lion figure, apparently trotting, and looking back over its shoulder. The open area of the crescent is divided into two major spaces by a line, and below the line there is an image of a bull, looking forwards, with its head held low. Within the crescent on the right there is the same division of space, and above the line there is a similar lion to the first, and it too faces back, away from the centre of the design. Beneath the line, there is another similar bull figure, likewise with its head held low, and opposing the first bull. The final space within the crescents shows a palmate design, of alternating buds and blossoms. There are also traces of the palmate design behind the hind legs of the lions, running along the line of the armour’s armholes.

This does not seem to me to be a symbolically empty appropriation of foreign design elements. Any of the elements could have been used by the creator of this armour, but the elements used and the arrangement of those elements speak of a degree of understanding of the symbolism of these images, since both the foreign iconography and the native Greek images are arranged according to the same logic which we have seen in the context of Assyria. The rampant sphinxes are directly above the meeting of Zeus and Apollo, as the open blossom is directly below. The two figures behind Apollo are arranged very much as in Mesopotamian iconography: a handmaiden reaches forward and touches the shoulder of Apollo, and holds the wrist of the figure behind, in the manner which establishes proximity and contact with the divine in Mesopotamia. The line of figures on the left, headed by Zeus, are connected by their overlapping shields and robes.

Richter tells us that: ‘Several shields found in the Idaean cave in Crete are conspicuous examples of early Orientalizing art (c. 700 B.C. ?); they are decorated in embossed relief with monsters and animals in so marked an Eastern style that they are thought by many to be importations;…’ ,*2

This rear breastplate comes from what is known as the ‘orientalising period’ in Greece, generally agreed to be about 720 to 550 B.C.E.. This was ‘a period of change all over the Mediterranean world. Colonies were being founded east and west; intercommunications were improved; and contact with the ancient Oriental civilisations – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Phoenicia – was established. The resultant Oriental influence is shown by the adoption of Eastern floral motifs, such as the lotus and palmette, and of Oriental monsters and beasts, such as sphinxes, panthers, and lions’. *3

 According to the evidence at present available, substantive stone sculpture, that is, statues and reliefs approximately life-size and over, were not produced in Greece before about the middle of the seventh century B.C.E. Before that time even cult images were apparently more or less small in size and mostly of wood. It evidently was contact with the East that initiated the making of large stone sculptures in Greece.  *4 

In 681 B.C.E. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, was murdered while praying in a temple *5 Sennacherib marks a potential high-water mark for Aegean/Assyrian contact. Cory’s Ancient Fragments records a statement by a Greek writer (Abydenus) that Sennacherib (or more likely his generals) once captured Athens. *6  The capture of Athens is not attested by any other source.

Sennacherib was succeeded by Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s youngest son, after a short violent dynastic crisis. The first act of the new king was to rebuild Babylon in atonement for the 'sin of Sennacherib' in destroying it. There was an abortive attempt in 680 B.C.E. by Merodach-Baladan’s son to capture Ur, and in 677 B.C.E. the King of Sidon, Abdi-Milkuti, revolted, was caught and beheaded. Sidon was ‘torn up and cast into the midst of the sea’, its inhabitants deported to Assyria, and its territority given to its rival, Tyre. Esarhaddon then had to deal with problems along the eastern and northern borders, principally the Scythians (Assyr Ishkuzai), who had crossed the Caucasus and joined the Cimmerians who were already in Asia Minor, Armenia and Iran.

The Medes, located north of Elam, became a problem around 680 B.C.E. – Esarhaddon tried to prevent them becoming a serious difficulty for Assyria, partly through dividing them against each other. He put a friendly prince on the throne of Elam in 675 B.C.E. (Urtaki). Ultimately Esarhaddon’s goal was the invasion of Egypt – already in 679 B.C.E. he had captured the city of Arzani ‘on the border of the brook of Egypt’. He was met by the resistance of the Pharaoh Taharqa in the spring of 671 B.C.E.… ‘

I laid siege to Memphis, his royal residence, and conquered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches and assault ladders. His queen, the women of his palace, Ushanahuru, his ‘heir apparent’, his other children, his possessions, horses, large and small cattle beyond counting I carried away as booty to Assyria…. Everywhere in Egypt, I appointed new (local) kings, governors, officers, harbour overseers, officials and administrative personnel. I installed regular sacrificial dues for Ashur and the (other) great gods, my lords, for all times… 

In May 672 B.C.E. Esarhaddon proclaimed his son Ashurbanipal as his legitimate heir (Esarhaddon died in Harran in 669 B.C.E.). He fought Taharqa as his father had done. Egypt remained under Assyrian control until about 655 B.C.E., when Psametik expelled the Assyrians with the help of Ionian and Carian mercenaries.*7

Traditionally much of the orientalising influence is ascribed to Egypt, partly because some of the Greeks said the Egyptians had influenced the development of their country (though it is denied by scholars for later periods), but mainly because the evidence is unequivocal: the sculptures, ivories and other items are plainly the product of Egyptian influence. However, while agreeing with the importance of Egyptian aesthetic influence on the development of Greek civilisation at this time, I would like to argue for an equally important influence on Greek civilisation over a much longer period, stretching from the late 2nd millennium,  to the sixth century B.C.E. By this I mean the influence of Mesopotamian culture in general, and the influence of the culture of Assyria in particular.

In the Laws, Plato argues that a hostile relationship similar to that which the Greeks experienced with the Persians,  had existed in the past with Assyria: ‘…the inhabitants of the region about Ilium, when they provoked by their insolence the Trojan War, relied upon the power of the Assyrians and the Empire of Ninus, which still existed and had a great prestige; the people of those days fearing the united Assyrian Empire just as we now fear the Great King. And the second capture of Troy was a serious offence against them, because Troy was a portion of the Assyrian Empire.’*8 

We are also told by Plato that the constitutions of Greek states were framed in order to meet this danger. If this statement by Plato is correct, the implications are huge, and it is perhaps surprising that there has been so little discussion of it by scholars. The Laws is however a philosophical and literary work, and not automatically a source you would consult for accurate historical information. 

If Plato's suggestion is in fact correct, what it means is that political developments in Greece from the Trojan War onwards,  were shaped, to a degree hard to determine at this distance, by the nature and the political ambitions of the Assyrian Empire. Plato's view is that the influence was negative,  in the sense that the  Greek constitutions were created to counter the power and influence of the Assyrian Empire by means other than direct military action against it. 

If the Greek anti-Assyrian confederation (we need to give it a name) deliberately shaped their political arrangements to counter the influence of Assyria, such a strategy implies that the Greeks had, or very quickly developed, a strategic understanding of the power of Assyria sometime in the twelfth century B.C.E., at a time proximate to the Trojan War. But having that knowledge of Assyrian culture and intentions, could have had unexpected consequences. Some aspects of the Assyrian empire, for example, might have been adopted by the Greeks, rather than being rejected. Perhaps including the idea of a form of  empire itself - a quasi-imperial structure which could be opposed to the Assyrian threat. But an imperial structure with important differences. 

Interestingly, the three persons of the dialogue are an un-named Athenian stranger, Cleinias, a Cretan, and Megillus, a Lacedaemonian – representing the three cultural groups explicitly named by Protagoras as practising philosophy in Plato’s dialogue of the same name. *9. These three cultural groups were perhaps the core of a Greek confederation against the 'empire of Ninus'.

The translation of this passage in the Laws, published by Thomas Taylor, is slightly different, suggesting that the time spoken of was later than the Empire of Ninus, and contemporary with the Heraclidae: ‘…those that dwelt about Ilion, who, trusting to the power of the Assyrians descended from Ninus, dared to excite war against Troy. For the form of that government, which was still preserved, was by no means despicable. And as we at present fear a mighty king, in like manner all at that time feared that collected coordination of people. For the destruction of Troy a second time raised a great accusation against them; because the Trojan power was a portion of the Assyrian government’ *10

There was some fairly accurate information available about the Assyrian Empire to the Greek speaking world, though some sources available to us severely garble some of the details. These accounts were collected by Isaac Preston Cory in the early years of the Nineteenth century, when there were no contemporary documents available, and only the Bible and Classical literature contained relevant information. This collection is not much consulted now, though still occasionally reprinted, since we have access to a large number of original documents, inscriptions, and other artifacts. *11

Diodorus Siculus reports the years of the empires existence reasonably accurately: ‘…the empire of the Assyrians, after having continued from Ninus thirty descents, and more than 1400 years, was finally dissolved by the Medes. *12 . Whereas Herodotus says, quite inaccurately, that: 'The Medes were the first who began the revolt from the Assyrians after they had maintained the dominion over Upper Asia for a period of 520 years'.*13 Herodotus mentions more than once in his Histories that he would write a history of Assyria. We can be fairly sure therefore that it would not (or did not, if it was actually written) cover Assyrian history more than 520 years before its fall between 612 and 609 B.C.E. – that is, not much earlier than 1120 B.C.E..

On Sennacherib, through a quotation which survives in Eusebius, Alexander Polyhistor, whose accounts are of variable quality, says:

After the reign of the brother of Senecherib, Acises reigned over the Babylonians, and when he had governed for the space of thirty days, he was slain by Marodach Baladanus, who held the empire by force during six months: and he was slain and succeeded by a person named Elibus. But in the third year of his reign Senecherib king of the Assyrians levied an army against the Babylonians; and in a battle, in which they were engaged, routed, and took him prisoner with his adherents, and commanded them to be carried into the land of the Assyrians. Having taken upon himself the government of the Babylonians, he appointed his son Asordanius (Ashur-nadin-shumi) their king, and he himself retired again into Assyria. *14

This pretty much squares with what we know from recovered contemporary sources. Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apal-iddina)  was an old adversary of Sargon II and former king of Babylon. He returned from refuge in Elam in the first year of Sargon’s reign, and ‘assisted by Elamite officers and troops raised the entire Aramean population of southern Iraq against the Assyrians, entered the capital-city and proclaimed himself King of Babylon’ *15 The armies of Assyria marched against him, and he was defeated at Kish. However Merodach-Baladan escaped and hid ‘in the midst of the swamps and marshes’. Roux continues: Sennacherib plundered his palace, captured innumerable prisoners, deported 208,000 persons to Assyria and gave Babylon a king of his choice, Bêl-ibni, ‘the son of a master-builder’ who had grown up in Nineveh ‘like a young puppy’.

‘Elibus’ may be a Greek rendering of Bêl-ibni (‘Belibnus’). Between the chaotic years 703 and 700 B.C.E. there were three kings of Babylon. If they are the same, he is, as Polyhistor’s account says, successor to Merodach-Baladan, but he did not slay him (he survived to fight another day). Bêl-ibni seems to have been trouble – Roux suggests that he was ‘more than suspect of collusion with the rebels’ and was himself taken away and replaced by Sennacherib’s son, (Asordanius).

So in many of the details in this account, Polyhistor is clearly relating broadly accurate data from sources available to him. And some of the information is more detailed (though we cannot be sure that it is more accurate) than we have even now from contemporary documents painstakingly dug from the earth.

Which makes the following part of the quotation, of particular interest to us, so interesting: he says that, during the reign of Sennacherib, the Greeks, directly or indirectly, mounted an expedition against the Assyrian Empire.

When he received a report that the Greeks had made a hostile descent upon Cilicia, he marched against them and fought with them a pitched battle, in which, though he suffered great loss in his own army, he overthrew them, and upon the spot he erected the statue of himself as a monument of his victory; and ordered his prowess to be inscribed upon it in the Chaldæan characters, to hand down the remembrance of it to posterity. He built also the city of Tarsus after the likeness of Babylon, which he called Tharsis. And after enumerating the various exploits of Sinnecherim (Sennacherib), he adds that he reigned 18 years, and was cut off by a conspiracy which had been formed against his life by his son Ardumusanus. *16

So the Greeks mounted an expedition against the Assyrian empire around 700 B.C.E., and engaged Sennacherib in battle in Cilicia.* 17 Locating the statue of himself which he erected as a monument to his victory over the Greeks would be a remarkable discovery, if it still survives.

Burn says of the colonisation of the Eastern Mediterranean by the Greeks: ‘As early as the foundation of Cumae, Ionians were beginning to trade and settle in the Levant. There were new settlements in the plain of Tarsus and one, called Poseideion, at Al Mina north of Ras Shamra. Geometric pottery reached Hamath (Hamah), which was sacked by the Assyrians in 720; but the Assyrians also severely checked Greek aggression. King Sargon, in a famous boast, says that he ‘dragged the Ionians like fish from the sea’, in operations near Tarsus, and ‘gave peace to Cilicia and Tyre’. *18  Greek trade with the Levant remained important, and influenced Greek culture….’ *19  Tarsus was clearly the key point on the coast of Cilicia during the late 8th and early 7th century B.C.E, and the engagement with Sennacherib was probably close by. His enhancement of Tarsus into an Anatolian Babylon suggests the conscious creation of a semi-autonomous centre of power in a place regularly threatened by various groups. [Tarsus was the chief city of Cilicia, standing near the centre of the Cilicia Campestris, on the river Cydnus, about twelve miles above its mouth. *20

But there is more extraordinary information to come. Another fragment relating to Sennacherib surviving in the pages of Eusebius is by the historian Abydenus, a disciple of Aristotle according to I. P. Cory’s introduction. He says that Abydenus wrote an Assyrian History, and was also a copyist from Berossus, a Babylonian by birth and a priest of Bel, with access to the literature of his own country. Berossus flourished during the reign of Alexander the Great, and resided at Athens for some years. He does not seem to think much of Sennacherib in terms of kingly qualities. But he tells us that the Cilician military engagement involved a sea battle. This may not surprise us: it is more likely than that the Greeks marched across Anatolia. However what follows is not to my knowledge mentioned any where else, and therefore is surprising. Abydenus suggests that the defeat of the Greeks was so severe that Sennacherib was in a position to build a temple at Athens.

At the same time the twenty-fifth who was Senecherib can hardly be recognized among the kings. It was he who subjected the city of Babylon to his power, and defeated and sunk a Grecian fleet upon the coast of Cilicia. He built also a temple at Athens and erected brazen statues, upon which he engraved his own exploits. And he built the city of Tarsus after the plan and likeness of Babylon, that the river Cydnus should flow through Tarsus, in the same manner as the Euphrates intersected Babylon.
A Sargonid temple in Athens, and the erection of bronze statues, with a portion of his annals inscribed upon them, is an extraordinary thought [the annals of Sennacherib’s campaigns found in Assyria on prisms do not contain an account of a campaign which extended to Attica, but they are not complete]. I am not aware of any archaeological discoveries in Athens which would support the contention that Sennacherib or his armies were ever on Athenian soil, but the statement comes from someone who was a student at Aristotle’s Lyceum, and is so extraordinary that it is hard to imagine it being made unless there was some basis to it. One could argue that the parallelling of the Assyrian experience with the Persian experience (in Plato’s Laws) is employed here too – the Persians had come to Athens, and had forced the Athenians to abandon their city. However the Persians had looted Athens, destroying much of the city – there is no parallel with this for Sennacherib's visit. The Persian attack would probably have accounted for the destruction of a surviving Assyrian Temple, if such existed, along with much else of interest in pre-Periclean Athens.

After the defeat of the Assyrians at the hands of the Babylonians and the Medes (somewhere between 612 and 609 (the exact details are unclear), Babylon became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The following years concerning Babylon are also unclear in the record, and the details are sometimes contradictory, but these details are not of importance to this argument.

Astyages reigned over the Medes from 585 –550 B.C.E., followed by Cyrus (Axerdis). Cyrus eventually became the first Great King of the Persian Empire (formerly he had been known as the King of Anshan). We are told by Abydenus that Axerdis was the first that levied mercenary soldiers, and that one of whom was Pythagoras, a follower of the wisdom of the Chaldæans:

Can this be the famous Pythagoras who stands close to the beginnings of Greek philosophy? The remark is made by a member of Aristotle’s Lyceum, and is made without any fear that a mis-identification might be made. The dates are about right – Pythagoras flourished about 540-510 B.C.E., which would place him at the right time to be such a mercenary soldier, sometime after 560 B.C.E. (Cyrus became king of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.). He would not be the first soldier in the world whose horizons were broadened by travel in the service of a king. * 21

 Chaldaea is often used in a vague geographic way, but Xenophon refers to Chaldaeans in the mountains North of Mesopotamia. Effectively this is the land which is known to the Greeks as ‘Syria’, encompassing Cappadocia and Cilicia, as well as the northern Levant and Mesopotamia [the term also refers to lands in the south of Mesopotamia, (for reasons which are not clear within the contemporary model of the distribution of power and influence in the Levant of the 1st Millennium B.C.E.). Merodach-Baladan thus is counted as a Chaldaean]. It is interesting that here no mention is made of Pythagoras as a follower of the wisdom of the Egyptians, which might be taken to suggest an understanding that Levantine and Mesopotamian sources were of significance for his doctrines as much as those later assumed to be important in late antiquity, i.e., Egypt.

In the account of Pythagoras by Diogenes Laertius, a letter is quoted (from Pythagoras to Anaximenes) which contains some lines which show Pythagoras to be aware of Median power and its dangers, though he is clearly in Italy at the time of writing: 

….if you, the best men, abandon your cities, then will their good order perish, and the peril from the Medes will increase. For always to scan the heavens is not well, but more seemly is it to be provident for one’s mother country. For I too am not altogether in my discourses but am found no less in the wars which the Italians wage with one another. *22

Clearly Pythagoras was no stranger to political disputes, and indeed seems to have perished in the course of one. It is not inconceivable that he was once a soldier, and his interest in the Medes may be the result of mercenary service in the Median army in the early sixth century, as the remark by Abydenus claims. *23

‘…[Axerdis] also reduced under his dominion Egypt and the country of Cælo-Syria, whence came Sardanapallus.’ *24

Pythagoras would have found himself in both Egypt and in Caelo-Syria (i.e., ‘upper Cilicia’ - Cilicia and Cappadocia) if he was in the service of Cyrus for any length of time, and in a position to explore the philosophy and theology of these cultures. ‘Sardanapalus’ is ‘Ashurbanipal’, who appears in the Old Testament as ‘Asnapper’. If he came from Caelo-Syria, this would very likely make him a Chaldaean. In fact Alexander Polyhistor explicitly describes Sardanapalus as ‘the Chaldaean.’*25

If Ashurbanipal is Chaldaean, and his lineage is clear, then either or both his father and mother count as Chaldaean also. Going back in time, the first clear break in the continuity of the lineage is Sargon II (Sharru-kin, or ‘true king’). His name invites suspicion, and his ancestry is not known. He arrived on the throne in the same year that Merodach-Baladan mounted the throne of Babylon (721 B.C.E.). This suggests a degree of instability across the whole of Mesopotamia, suitable for the purposes of usurpers. In which case Assyria had been run by Chaldaean kings for nearly two hundred years by the time Pythagoras encountered Chaldaean ideas.

If Assyria was as powerful and as long-lasting an entity as it was, and a major factor in the development of Greek constitutional arrangements, why do we have no history of the Assyrian Empire written by a Greek writer? Herodotus said he would write one - we get some information about Assyria from his Histories, but the main focus of his book is the later conflict between Greece and Persia. Abydenus apparently wrote one, but it is no longer extant. Another history of Assyria was written by John of Mauretania, but that has gone too. So they did once exist. Plato's information perhaps comes from the history written by Herodotus.

All that survives from Greek writers however is quotations and fragments here and there, often embedded in the pages of Eusebius. It is possible that these histories did not survive because they revealed more about the reactive nature of the Greek relationship with the Assyrian empire than was comfortable. Particularly as the years passed, and they were confronted with a new threat from the East. The development of the Greek constitutions, and the development of the institution of the polis, may have owed a very great deal to the challenge presented by Assyria. And if Sennacherib did inflict a severe defeat on the Ionians near Cilicia in the seventh century, and conquered Athens, it is likely to have been an experience they were only too happy to forget. 

Notes and references.

1. Richter, G.M, A Handbook of Greek Art, Phaidon, 1959, fourth impression 1994, pbk  Plate 295
2  Richter, G.M, A Handbook of Greek Art, Phaidon, 1959, fourth impression 1994, pbk p210-11,
3  Richter, G.M, A Handbook of Greek Art, Phaidon, 1959, fourth impression 1994, pbk. p297 - 
4.  NB:  Richter states incorrectly that:‘Egypt had conquered Assyria in 672 B.C., and from then on the East was opened to Greece’. [p56].
5 See also: the ‘Babylonian Chronicle’ (ABC, pp 81); ARAB, II, sect.795. See: E.G Kraeling, ‘The death of Sennacherib’, JAOS, LIII (1933), pp. 335-46; S. Parpola, ‘The murder of Sennacherib’ in B. Alster (ed.), Death in Mesopotamia, Copenhagen, 1980, pp. 171-82). [Roux in his Iraq, p323, says ‘Sennacherib….. met with the end he deserved: he was stabbed to death by one of his sons or, according to another version, crushed by the winged bulls that protected the sanctuary.’ (n 15 Ch 20 ‘The House of Sargon’;  see also II Kings xxx. 36-7.)
6  Cory, I.P., Ancient Fragments, 1832.
7 Roux, G., Iraq p323-332  Penguin Books, new edition, 1992.
 8 Plato, Laws, translated with an introduction by T.J. Saunders. Penguin Library. 1970.
9 Plato, Protagoras and Meno. translated by W.K.C. Guthrie, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1956 (various printings).
10 Works of Thomas Taylor, Plato's Laws. Prometheus Trust, 1996 [first ed., 1804]
11 Cory, I.P.,  Ancient Fragments, 1832.
12 Diodorus Siculus, lib. II. p. 81.
13 Herodotus, The Histories Lib. I. c. 95
14 Alexander Polyhistor, quoted in  Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 1832.
15 Roux, G. Iraq, Ch 20 ‘House of Sargon’, p321. new edition 1992.
16 Alexander Polyhistor, quoted in Eu. Ar. Chron. 42. [Armenian Chronicle of Eusebius].
17  Burn mentions that ‘Greeks and Assyrians clash in Levant’ in his 2nd Chronological Table ‘The Growth of Greek Civilization c 780-480 B.C E'. (Burn, A. R,  A History of Greece, p88-9, 1965, rev. ed. 1979).
18 . Cilicia was Quê to the Assyrians - Roux, G. Iraq, ‘The Assyrian Empire’, p31.
19 Burn, A. R., A History of Greece, p88-9, 1965, rev. ed. 1979.
20 Smith, William, A Smaller Classical Dictionary of biography, mythology, and geography. Abridged from the larger dictionary. Lond., 1852
21 Abydenus,  quoted in Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 1832. So much to discuss here! It is unlikely that Astyages was the first to levy mercenaries, but Greek hoplite soldiers were certainly serving in armies around the near East. They can be identified in a number of wall reliefs, including some in the British Museum's Assyrian galleries. They are quite distinctive in the reliefs illustrating the siege of Lachish.
22. Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk VIII 49-50 In this passage it is clear that it is the city (the polis) and how it functions and is organised, that was understood to be a bulwark against Median and Assyrian influence. If the city was neglected, then good order would perish.
 23 see Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers, bk 2 for his account of Pythagoras
24 Abydenus, quoted in Eu. Ar. Chron. 53.
25 Alexander Polyhistor, quoted in Eu. Ar. Chron. p 44.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Bringing the Divine to Earth. Writing to the Poet Leona Esther Medlin

I wrote to Leona Esther Medlin on the 26th of January 2018, and headed the letter, 'After the Bronze Age Wreck'. The letter is an update on where I was with my research. The original (rather squibish) article 'The Bronze Age Wreck' was shared only with one archaeologist in May 2013, since it depended very much on an understanding of the arguments in 'The Sacred History of Being'. That book was not published for another two and a half years. 


The focus of The Sacred History of Being is the presence of the idea of Being in cultures around the Mediterranean from the eighteenth century BCE onwards. Particularly in Mesopotamia. The date was chosen because it marks the earliest appearance in the archaeology of a standard symbol for divine Being in Mesopotamia.

It was obvious from Egyptian iconography (and from elsewhere) that the idea of Being is much older. I chose not to go back before this date however, for the purposes of argument. Or to go anywhere near Egyptian stuff, for obvious reasons.

I found in 2013 that it might be possible to identify the (functional) presence of the idea of Being in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age in Britain. How? There is no writing. Just lots of big stones in lines and circles. But as Alexander Thom’s surveys from the 1930s onwards showed, the circles betray a profound interest in various Pythagorean triangles, and in whole numbers (the circles are not strictly circular, and the circumferences are expressed in whole numbers). This is a form of writing, just writing in terms of number and geometry.

There are several ways of talking about Being, and one of the terms often used in antiquity to reference Being was ‘totality’. I wrote about this way of thinking extensively in The Sacred History of Being (hereinafter SHB). It was a major part of Pythagorean doctrine, and also in Mesopotamian thought. Plato discusses the idea, and in fact his whole argument about ascending to the Good and returning depends on the significance it was supposed to have.

I also wrote extensively in SHB about the installation of divine statues in Mesopotamia, and the connection between the idea of totality and divine Being. The installation process lasted three days, during which time the statues were pointed at the heavens, which was regarded as an image of eternity or totality. The rite was a rite d’aggregation. The statue did not embody the divine without the performance of this ritual: the statue need to participate in totality to be divine.

After seeing the documentary ‘Cracking the Stone Age Code’ in early 2013, it occurred to me that the mathematical and geometrical aspects of stone circles may have served the same sort of function as divine statues in Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The hypothesis was that in their construction the circles embodied aspects of divine Being on earth, and they therefore established a bridge between earth and eternity. 

In just a few days in May 2013 I wrote an extensive essay arguing this case. It had the title ‘The Bronze Age Wreck’. I called it that because the body of ideas which lay behind the building of the megalithic circles was lost to us, apart from a few clues. It seems also to have been lost to those living in the British Bronze Age itself, since the building of the circles more or less ceased around 1400 BCE (I’ve not written about that, but I think I know what happened. For another time).

The essay depended very much on a reading of SHB, so it wasn’t much use to circulate it. What I’m writing now is based on that essay, but readers are not required to have read SHB first.

In November 2016 I wrote another essay, called: ‘Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind’. It discussed the archaeological evidence, Plato’s arguments about the heavens as an image of divine Being, and Mesopotamian ritual for the installation of gods, both in heaven and on earth. The essay was published on my website, and it received significant attention. It resulted in a commission in November 2017 to write about these ideas for the journal Time and Mind.

This article of 10.5 thousand words was written and delivered in four weeks, and it has the title ‘Patterns of thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain.’ It was quite different from the first, largely as the result of a conversation with the philosopher Adrian Moore across the year, which moved from ideas of Being in antiquity to Greek discussion and understanding of irrational numbers. This discussion prompted a general review of Pythagorean mathematics, and the sources. In the end, the new article suggested that there was a connection between mathematical and geometrical puzzles and paradoxes, and the idea of a transcendent reality (divine Being) standing behind appearance. The article also argued that Pythagoras travelled widely, borrowing much of what later became known as Pythagoreanism from priestly establishments in Babylonia, Egypt, Phoenicia, and other places. What he was doing involved looking for a universal substructure of number, mathematics and geometry which pointed to the nature of Being.

Shortly after this paper was completed in December 2017, I wrote a post for my website which discussed the two papers on stone circles and Pythagoreanism from 2016 and 2017. It is titled: ‘Thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain’. It contains the abstract for the paper intended for the journal, and thirteen section headings, but no actual quotations from the body of the text.

Earlier in 2017 I was asked for a copy of a paper – ‘The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World’, published in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica Newsletter in December 2015. The inquirer was Nico Bader, who runs the Pythagoras Foundation in Amsterdam. I wrote to him sometime after forwarding the paper, suggesting that he might be interested in looking at the two posts on the web concerning stone circles and their significance. He found this line of research to be interesting. Yesterday he offered to summarise the argument in these posts for the Pythagoras Foundation’s Newsletter (number 23), which will be published in March. The newsletter (it is a bit more than that) is read by everyone who is seriously interested in Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism. If Time and Mind publishes ‘Patterns of Thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain’ in their upcoming issue, both will items will appear in March.

January 26, 2018.

Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind:
‘Cracking the Stone Age Code’ (the original BBC Chronicle documentary, broadcast in October 1970, which I didn’t see until early 2013. Worth 50 minutes of your time on a wet Sunday:

[The article 'Patterns of Thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain' was rejected  by the editorial board of the journal 'Time and Mind'. It is available here. All about what a pre-pythagorean pythagoreanism might have meant in the context of the British Neolithic. Nico Bader, on the other hand, did follow through with publishing his summaries of my posts. At:

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Time to Move On (Writing to Josephine Quinn)

A response to the article 'Time to Move On', published in the TLS in September 2018.

Dear Dr. Quinn,

Eleanor Robson referenced your TLS article of 18 September on her Twitter feed. I couldn't agree more with your argument, though I might quibble (minorly) with some of the details. The term 'classics' is long past its sell-by date.

 I studied classics myself, but because I was studying in London in the early 90s it was possible for me to study the languages, history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia at the same time. As a result I saw a different picture of the relationship between ancient Greece and Mesopotamian civilization than the one I was being taught. I've been studying that relationship ever since.

I self-published a book about that relationship in 2015 ('The Sacred History of Being'). Some classicists have read it, but most are disinclined, possibly because the argument seems to them to be too fantastic to be given serious consideration. Even the very idea of such an argument seems often to be beyond the pale.

It upends a number of constructs in our understanding of cultural development in antiquity, both east and west, which is a hard thing to swallow. But the evidence is there. The core argument of the book is that the same key ideas appear in the context of religion in Greece, Assyria, Babylonia, and also in Israel.

It is possible that Pythagoras brought these ideas back to Greece, after military service with the Persians (there is an account of this in existence). Which suggests that both abstract ideas and philosophical thought were not first developed by the Greeks. For most classicists of course, it is axiomatic that philosophical thought first began in Greece. The fact that Plato contradicted this, and said that philosophy was of a very great age, seems to cut no ice at all. Scholars (to generalise) are stuck in an episteme, which simply will not allow the idea into conversation, even if it is there in the text.

I've argued for a long time that the Greek Enlightenment of the 5th century B.C.E., is to a large extent a product of the European Enlightenment. And as you say, that is where 'classics' saw the light of day in the form we recognise. But the construct of classical civilization, as something aloof from other cultures around the Mediterranean, has been seen through a number of times during the past seventy years. Richard Broxton Onians saw through it, and knew the connections with Mesopotamia were there, and possessed a good understanding of their significance. I first read his book about thirty years ago, and I still think of it as one of the great unexploded bombs in scholarship.

Thanks very much for writing the article, and for your clarity of thought.

Best regards,

Thomas Yaeger

The original article, published in the TLS on September 18, 2018. A set of reviewer notes for The Sacred History of Being (with chapter listings) is available.