Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

Via Joel at Far Outliers, this quote from A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. […] Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

(Lots of Wikipedia links at Joel’s site, which I haven’t bothered to copy here.)

Comments

  1. ə de vivre says:

    What a strange argument… It seems like the author is trying to have their cake and eat it too (“The Achaemenids didn’t write history because of this, but then again no one else did either, so maybe there’s nothing to my argument after all.”). Is there really anything unusual in that the Achaemenid Persians, a confederation of illiterate horse-riding tribes who conquered civilizations with longstanding literate traditions, adopted the literary traditions of the places they conquered rather than immediately elaborate a new tradition of their own? The monumental inscriptions they left are very much in keeping with the Elamite tradition (some Persian monuments were even carved over existing Elamite ones). There’s an argument to be made that the Persian state’s attitude towards “history” is pretty consistent with other cultures with a long history of literacy. But, by the author’s own admission, it’s anachronistic to expect to find an Achaemenid Herodotus in the first place. And weren’t all literary cultures strongly associated with a class of scribes until the Early Modern Era?

    It also seems odd to compare the Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian history-writing traditions with the Greek. There are certainly many things about Ancient Greek literate culture that are specific to that context, but Ancient Greek has the advantage of benefiting form an unbroken chain of transmission until the present day. In order for any Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian texts to reach us, the physical texts themselves have to have survived thousands of years—not just the tradition of copying the text. Exceptional archaeological finds like the library at Nineveh show that there were non-Greek traditions of writing narratives about the past. Heck, the Kings of the Neo-Babylonian Empire had ancient (even to them) sites excavated and exhibited artifacts.

  2. Their Aryan cousins in India also had similar dislike of writing history. Indian history is much less known than history of the Mediterranean because of this reason.

    Fortunately there was Herodotus to write history of Persians.

    Lesson of the story: nation which doesn’t write its history, will have it written by its enemies.

  3. ə de vivre says:

    Also, I think it’s tricky to use the word “history” to refer to both writing about the past in general and to the specifically Ancient Greek genre of writing that gave us the word (I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, only that it’s tricky). It encourages an uncomplicated equivalence between contemporary historical writing and Ancient Greek historical writing, which makes the Ancient Greek genre appear uniquely modern in contrast to other cultures’ traditions of writing about the past. If “history” means “the practices of contemporary university history departments”, then Herodotus didn’t write history either.

  4. ə de vivre: I figured I’d lure you in with this!

  5. David Marjanović says:

    And weren’t all literary cultures strongly associated with a class of scribes until the Early Modern Era?

    Not quite. Literacy was very widespread among the ancient Greeks (and surroundings; some of the graffiti of Psammetich’s soldiers are Carian) and Romans (nec nare nec litteras novisti?!?), and among the Vikings and in contemporary Novgorod for example.

  6. ə de vivre says:

    Fair enough, but is graffiti a part of the literary culture that the author intends when he’s talking about history writing?

    There’s also a complication in that, with a heavily logographic script “literacy” can include a much wider range of textual practice than in an alphabetic script. The Old Assyrian letters indicate that literacy was pretty common among merchants, but they used an unique orthography that was (entirely? I’d have to double check…) syllabic. There’s also evidence that during the Ur III period, when there was a relatively strong and centralized state, literacy was mostly monopolized by state officials, but after the Ur III empire fell apart, literacy became much more widespread and plurivocal (I forget what point I was trying to make with this example, but it’s neat isn’t it?).

  7. is graffiti a part of the literary culture that the author intends when he’s talking about history writing?

    I would argue that inscriptions of Assyrian kings which depict criminal activity (usually listing numbers of they people killed, maimed or kidnapped) and are scribbled illegally in foreign lands without property owner’s permission are, in fact, both a form of graffiti and history writing at the same time.

  8. ə de vivre says:

    That’s graffiti as a value judgment placed on public writing. I mean graffiti as an informal vernacular practice.

    Also, most Assyrian reliefs come from palace or temple walls. I guess you’re using “scribbled” to express your moral disapproval of the Assyrian Empires, but the reliefs took a lot of skilful labour by specialized craftsmen to complete, which distinguishes them from the vernacular inscriptions that normally fall under the term “graffiti.”

  9. Reading about Persian polities, I’m always impressed by their linguistic versatility with the use of Elamite, Aramaic and Greek among others. I’ve been wondering about Imperial Aramaic in particular: was its use limited to the western parts of the empire, or did they also spread it to eastern areas that didn’t have a prior Semitic presence?

  10. If Old Persian script was alphabetic while Elamite, syllabic with frequent logograms, then perhaps the couriers simply used the most efficient way to utilize the limited bandwidth of the tablets? Every time you see the two scripts side by side, it looks like one can save 50% of the tablet space by using Elamite.

    Also I wouldn’t be surprised if Persian wasn’t even spoken by the lower-rank bureaucrats of Darius’s empire. There may have been too few Persian speakers early on, and those may have been disproportionately military and religious personnel?

  11. How much of this is due to durability of the materials used and lack of cultural continuity? I’m guessing Arsacid era Persians already couldn’t read cuneiform and wouldn’t copy hypothetical Achaemenid manuscript literature, unlike contemporary Greeks.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Also I wouldn’t be surprised if Persian wasn’t even spoken by the lower-rank bureaucrats of Darius’s empire. There may have been too few Persian speakers early on, and those may have been disproportionately military and religious personnel?

    Well, there’s one clay tablet in Old Persian that was found in Persepolis (detailed blog post with link to the pdf), but that’s among thousands in Elamite.

    The Old Persian script can be interpreted as a defective syllabary or as a Tibetan-style alphabet in which short /a/, by far the most common sound (unlike in Tibetan), wasn’t written.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    From the paper (indirectly linked to in the comment that’s currently in moderation): “In the reign of Darius I, at least one Persian in Persia wrote Persian language in Persian script and expected someone else to know, if not how to read it, then at least where to file it.”

    There’s also one tablet in Greek and one in Phrygian. The paper goes on to paint a picture of a mostly bilingual bureaucracy (Elamite & Aramaic; some Elamite tablets have Aramaic remarks written on the side in ink), where more or less everyone probably also spoke Old Persian or something close; the names of scribes are 1/3 each Elamite, Semitic and Iranian.

    As for the Greek Fortification tablet, to understand it required no real knowledge of Greek language. The number duo is glossed with a numeral, 2; the unit of measure, maris, is transcribed from Persian; the month name, Tebēt, is Babylonian-Aramaic; even the word for the commodity, oinos, ‘wine,’ is a Kulturwort, perhaps recognizable to an Aramaic speaker. To understand it required no great skills of language, only the skills of literacy.

    Further:

    As for the Persian tablet, literate personnel of the Fortification institution already knew Persian language. For people who were already literate in Elamite and Aramaic, neither Greek nor Old Persian writing would have been difficult. Models of Old Persian, equipped with Elamite counterparts, were visible as the first inscriptions of Darius went up at Persepolis and on his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam. For a modern student, to learn the Old Persian script is a work of scarcely an hour. For a literate ancient speaker of the language, for whom the ambiguities left by the orthographic rules were not an obstacle, it would have been a work of minutes.

    Eat that, King Sejong!!!1!1

    It is not necessary to adopt Walther Hinz’s touching interpretation of the Fortification records of rations for Persian “boys” who were copying texts, that they refer to young Persian nobles dragged away from learning to ride, shoot and speak the truth and compelled to learn the unpopular new script with which Darius shaped the truth (PF 0871, PF 1137; PF-NN 1485, PF-NN 1588; see Hinz 1976, I: 32, but for an explanation closer to a present consensus, see Lewis 1994: 26 and Henkelman 2006: 278-80). Most scribes working around Persepolis could easily have written the Old Persian tablet.

  14. Is there really anything unusual in that the Achaemenid Persians, a confederation of illiterate horse-riding tribes who conquered civilizations with longstanding literate traditions, adopted the literary traditions of the places they conquered rather than immediately elaborate a new tradition of their own

    Sounds like successive conquerors of China… Although we know that in China some of the illiterate horse-riding tribes did try to develop their own literacy (Khitans, Mongols, Manchus…), not to mention the Tanguts. Of course, these people generally used Chinese to govern Chinese, which ensured that Chinese literacy and tradition remained entrenched.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    or as a Tibetan-style alphabet in which short /a/, by far the most common sound (unlike in Tibetan), wasn’t written

    IIRC, Tibetan is an Indic abugida, and the whole “default /a/ not written” thing goes back to the origins of the Indic script family (though in most of the respective languages it is the most common sound). I wonder if they could have taken the idea from Persian…

    That said, isn’t something similar going on in modern Armenian with short /ə/?

  16. Indian scripts are derived ultimately from Aramaic script via contact with the Persian empire which occupied part of north-western India for two centuries.

    It was the beginning of a strange master-disciple relationship when India – mighty and sophisticated civilization of its own – found itself in a role of a diligent student learning from her smaller western neighbor.

  17. >I’ve been wondering about Imperial Aramaic in particular: was its use limited to the western parts of the empire, or did they also spread it to eastern areas that didn’t have a prior Semitic presence?

    It did spread to the western parts, since both Parthian and Sogdian used Aramaic-based scripts.

  18. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Early Slavs, even christianized ones, also seem to have been relatively reluctant to write, compared to their Germanic and Celtic contemporaries. Certainly they weren’t keen to record their myths or epic poetry – no Slavic Edda or Book of Invasions exists. We can infer their existence from later folklore, though.

  19. January First-of-May says:

    Certainly they weren’t keen to record their myths or epic poetry – no Slavic Edda or Book of Invasions exists.

    The closest we get, IIRC, is Lay of Igor’s Campaign, which is already so unique that only recent linguists were finally able to properly prove that it is not, in fact, a forgery.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    There were centuries between the introduction of writing and the recording of the Edda. The old myths were well past their sell-by-date as sacred traditon, and what was still around in oral form among had to be written down so that the allusions in old poetry — and in the written prose quoting it — could be understood by a reading audience.

  21. Early Slavs, even christianized ones, also seem to have been relatively reluctant to write

    Anyone interested in this topic should read Simon Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300 (see this LH post).

  22. ə de vivre says:

    was its use limited to the western parts of the empire, or did they also spread it to eastern areas that didn’t have a prior Semitic presence?

    It got all the way to India. In the 3rd century BC, Ashoka included Aramaic versions of his inscriptions in the northwest of his empire. Later on, the Syriac script becomes the reference point for writing in Central Asia (aside from the Kushans who used the Greek alphabet to write Bactrian). The Sogdians used no less than three Syriac-derived alphabets at one time or another.

    I’m guessing Arsacid era Persians already couldn’t read cuneiform and wouldn’t copy hypothetical Achaemenid manuscript literature, unlike contemporary Greeks.

    It’s a little more complicated than that. Akkadian cuneiform writing survived into the Seleucid era. But Elamite died out before the end of the Achaemenids. Even Akkadian was losing out to Aramaic by the Neo-Assyrian period. The Achaemenids patronized the literary culture of Mesopotamia (The Akkadian-language Cyrus Cylinder places Cyrus as the Marduk-appointed king). But for whatever reason, despite other cultural continuities, the accumulated Akkadian literary culture didn’t make the transition from cuneiform on clay to pen-on-paper Aramaic. In any event, by the time of the Sassanids, there was a tradition of Persian literature, but it didn’t survive the Muslim conquest. Or rather, some of it reemerged, but there was a discontinuity in the tradition unlike the case of Greek.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    it is not, in fact, a forgery

    As opposed to the Book of Veles for example.

    Elamite died out before the end of the Achaemenids

    “A late survival may have been Khuzi, characterized as the private language of the nobles of Khuzistan by Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ (d. 757 C.E.), cited by Ebn al-Nadim (d. 995 C.E.) in his al-Fehrest (q.v.; comp. ca. 987, ed. Tajaddod, p. 15; cf. Lazard, 1971, p. 363).”
    Encyclopædia Iranica

  24. ‘Their Aryan cousins in India also had similar dislike of writing history. Indian history is much less known than history of the Mediterranean because of this reason. ”

    SFReader is on to something. In Buddhism texts have to be transmitted orally before a student starts to study them, even if that oral transmission is reading a written text aloud. usually it isn’t – relays of monks who’ve memorized the texts recite them in an incomprehensible blur at twice normal speech speed.

    And this echoes the Druids’ reluctance to write any of their material down that the Romans noted. The Druids said they were concerned that written documents could be taken and read – basically a concern about operational security – but it always seemed as though there was a stronger basis for that reluctance, that writing a text down diminished it. in other words the Indo-Europeans refusing to reduce a text to writing didn’t have to be Aryans to have this same attitude.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    I think the Druids and others were concerned that the sacred texts that they had to memorize, analyze, etc for years under the guidance of masters, might fall into ignorant and irresponsible hands if they were written. The few writings in Gaulish (written with Latin or Greek letters) are mostly tombstones, drinking cups and the like, and at least one calendar recording ceremonial dates, but nothing of truly religious or philosophical importance.

  26. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    In Buddhism texts have to be transmitted orally before a student starts to study them, even if that oral transmission is reading a written text aloud. usually it isn’t – relays of monks who’ve memorized the texts recite them in an incomprehensible blur at twice normal speech speed.

    This made me think about East Slavic priests-magi called волхвы, which has been etymologized as “mumblers” (there’s a verb влъснѫти “to mumble” in OCS). Probably due to them reciting spells/sacred formulas/texts in an incomprehensible way.

    Anyone interested in this topic should read Simon Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300

    Sounds like it’s worth checking out!

  27. ə de vivre says:

    So is the hypothesis that Indo-Aryans don’t like writing history, or that they don’t like writing at all, or that restrictions on writing are characteristically Indo-European? Because the recurring theme seems to be that restricting what’s written is a useful way to control (or at least to attempt to control) the diffusion of information that many cultures have adopted—especially in conservative institutions like religious ones in an illiterate society suddenly coming into contact with a literate one.

  28. “So is the hypothesis that Indo-Aryans don’t like writing history, or that they don’t like writing at all, or that restrictions on writing are characteristically Indo-European?”

    The author’s last statement seems to shift this towards “it’s actually the Greeks who were exceptional about writing it all down, in the context of the 5th century BC…” But as an above observer cautioned, we can’t take for granted this assumption of a widespread distaste for writing. We know of the Greek literary tradition because they successfully passed it down; the others, not so much.

    Perhaps it is better to ask, instead: why were the Greeks so successful at passing down their writings, when they were surrounded by other literate cultures, who were not so fortunate? Is it because the Greek language more or less survived in its home territory, while that of the Egyptians, Elamites, Assyrians, etc. did not?

  29. I don’t think that the survival of Greek as a spoken language is a significant reason; the most important reason is that the Greeks sufficiently impressed the Romans and the Arabs (among others) to make their literature part of their own heritage and pass it down. And the fact that the Middle Eastern cultures were strongly hellenized and later arabised together with the spread of Christianity and Islam is the main reason that only scraps of older Middle Eastern traditions survived until the old libraries were excavated. (My understanding is that e.g. the Parthians were rather hellenized and that the lines of tradition in Persia were broken except for purely religious traditions, so that the Sassanid “restoration” had to rely on what were basically folk tales for their knowledge of the Achaemenid empire.)

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