Elite knowledge and imperial power in the ancient Middle East, Part II of II

Posted on December 03, 2019 by Alison Fox

Ancient Knowledge Networks is a book about how knowledge travels, in minds and bodies as well as in writings. It explores the forms knowledge takes and the meanings it accrues, and how these meanings are shaped by the people who use it. Here I continue to look back on how I came to write it, the big ideas in it, and the unexpected directions it led me in.

Babylonian scholars, royalty and revolt
In Chapters 5-6 I move down to Babylonia, southern Iraq, where the evidence set is different—an important historical fact in itself—so we can't tell an exactly parallel story. But I try. 

Chapter 5 again charts the long relationship between king, Nabu and scholarship. It's not the same as Assyria! Simply put, for Babylonian kings, Nabu was never god of wisdom; he was the divine crown prince, son of dynastic god Marduk. And Babylonian scholars did not universally embrace Nabu as they had in Assyria. But kings supported scholarship and scholars supported the crown—or they did until Persian king Cyrus invaded in 539 BC.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he needed the support of the local elite, i.e., the families that ran the big temples which supplied the temples and court with scholars. Simply put, he over-promised and within twenty years the relationship had broken down irreparably.  Babylonian elites felt deeply betrayed and exploited. They rebelled again and again.

As Caroline Waerzeggers showed 15 years ago, by 484 BC the Persians had had enough of revolting Babylonians and systematically removed the troublemakers. (We don't know how exactly but it can't have been pretty.) Loyalists prospered. Some temple communities collapsed completely, precipitating another survival bottleneck. The Persians couldn't allow Marduk's temple in Babylon to fail entirely — they needed its tax income — so they disempowered it instead.

Resistance, revival and a slow decline
In short, the year 484 BC marks the end of systematic royal patronage of cuneiform scholarship. Local worshippers and private clientele had always mattered to temples and scholars, but now they became almost entirely dependent on them. Somehow this reinvention worked, at least in some places, and cuneiform scholarship, related to temples in complex ways, hung on until the mid-1st century BC. But asû-healers and bārû-diviners didn’t make the cut. Their writings survived as heritage compositions, but the professions themselves disappear from the historical record. 

In Chapter 5 I also focus on how scholars in 4th-3rd century BC Uruk, the first generations under Greek-Seleucid rule, reacted to the loss of royal patronage. On the face of it they thrived on local support, building a new temple, Resh, which dwarfed Marduk's now derelict temple in Babylon. But, keenly aware of their own history, they were furious at royal neglect. Nevertheless, they continued to hope that one day they would once again get the king they deserved.

Chapter 6 digs into the micro-geographies of this grand narrative: where did different scholarly professions operate in Babylonia, before and after this second survival bottleneck of 520-484 BC? Which cities? In and/or out of temples? For how long? How far did scholarly knowledge travel at this time? It's no news to specialists that the last surviving cuneiform-literate communities were in Uruk and Babylon in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. But does this reflect historical reality or the happenstance of archaeological discovery? I think, by tracing shrinking communication networks, that I can show it's real.

A web of research and writing
Finally, to Chapter 7 (no coincidence! Cuneiform scholars loved the number 7 as the smallest co-prime integer to 60—but that's a story from an earlier book). Here I draw out some implications for historical practice. I won't go into that here but point to some of the other directions that writing Ancient Knowledge Networks has led me in. 

  • Very early on, the cuneiform-editorial work needed in the first phases of the project led me, my colleague Steve Tinney and many others to develop org ,the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, back in 2010. It's grown like Topsy since! I've used it to make a companion website with little corpus of all the cuneiform texts featured in the book at
  • Thinking hard about social & political geographies of knowledge production in antiquity led me to think about them in modern times too. So in 2013-2015 I led another AHRC-funded research project focused on knowledge production in and about the Assyrian city of Kalhu/Nimrud in antiquity and modernity:
  • And that work more or less led to what I'm mostly doing now (when I’m not being Head of UCL History): directing the Nahrein Network (2017–21). This AHRC-GCRF-funded research network seeks to redress the geographical balance of knowledge production about the Iraqi past, bringing Iraq itself back in.
  • Relatedly, I’m working with UCL’s Research Software Development Group to make Oracc more Arabic-friendly.
  • I'm also (slowly) finishing editorial work on 150 cuneiform tablets excavated in 2013-17 at the small archaeological site of Tell Khaiber in southern Iraq, for the Ur Region Archaeology Project led by Dr Jane Moon and colleagues at the University of Manchester. The material is from a different millennium, and a very different socio-political and intellectual context, but it can be analysed in intriguingly similar ways.
  • Finally, next year I'll be writing a short book called The Library: from Ashurbanipal to Alexandria and Beyond. I've promised my editor that this one will take considerably less than fifteen years from proposal to delivery.

    Eleanor Robson, December 2019 
Previous Next
Scroll to top