Monday, January 2, 2017

Review of The Age of Agade

The Age of Agade by Benjamin R. Foster, 2016. Glossy's rating: 7/10.

This is a book about the Akkadian Empire, which was established more than 4,300 years ago in parts of what's now Iraq, Syria and Iran, and survived for roughly a century and a half before disintegrating.

In Mesopotamia writing was invented by the Sumerians, who lived in what's now southern Iraq. It was very quickly borrowed by the Semitic people living upstream from them, in central Iraq and Syria, who used it to write their completely unrelated language. I've seen several contradictory estimates of when Semites arrived in Mesopotamia, from 3000 BC, right before the dawn of the written record, to the 7th millennium BC, a date which appears in this book.

Early on Kish was the political center of the Semitic north, but then a man named Sargon, who was presumably from the northern city of Akkad, conquered all of Mesopotamia and several adjoining regions, creating the largest state seen in the area up to that time. Akkad was its capital and eventually, as creators of this empire, all Semitic Mesopotamians became known as Akkadians.

I'm very curious about the differences between the Sumerian and Akkadian peoples and cultures. Both regions practiced irrigation agriculture and animal husbandry, but there was somewhat more of the first in Sumer and somewhat more of the second in Akkad. It's natural to expect the tillers of the earth to be tamer and more civilized than shepherds, and the history of this region supports this stereotype. According to this book the art of the Akkadian empire was more martial in subject matter than the early Sumerian art which preceded it.

Akkadian language gained at the expense of Sumerian during and after the imperial period, eventually replacing it completely. Genetics might tell us if this was accompanied by much demographic change, but I'm not aware of anyone having studied this.

Foster writes that "letters composed in Akkadian show a tendency to be more florid than those in Sumerian, introducing oaths, exclamations, and rhetorical questions to an extent unusual in Sumerian epistolography." More than 4,000 years later Semitic speakers still like florid verbal bombast.

Early Sumerian politics and economy were dominated by temples to a larger extent than in the Semitic area.

"In the pre-Akkadian Semitic-speaking world"... "a king ruled like a strong, resourceful, clever, and protective tribal leader, but had no special connection to the gods, as he did in Sumerian thought."

Yet Akkadian rulers claimed intimacy with the gods and divine support. Foster implies that they borrowed this from the Sumerians. By the late Akkadian period Semitic kings were worshipped as Gods.

Foster writes that in Akkad inferiors were more likely to identify themselves by their dependency on someone else, such as "he of..."

Slavery existed but wasn't common. Slaves were mostly used as rich men's servants, not agricultural laborers. The Sumerian word for them was of Akkadian origin, which implies that the practice might have been brought to the south by Akkadians.

This contradictory information makes it difficult for me to say which of these two societies was more egalitarian. Foster says that some scholars have talked about popular assemblies in ancient Mesopotamia, but that they were wrong to do this. He sees no evidence of any democratic institutions in that world.

You would think that Sumerian culture would have had some prestige in the Semitic north, similarly to how Greek culture was looked up to at Rome and British culture is looked up to in modern America, and there is in fact some evidence for this:

"At pre-Akkadian Mari, a significant proportion of the musicians had Sumerian names, as opposed to the rest of the palace population. Perhaps these were professional or stage names, rather than an indication that Sumerian musicians were particularly favored there."

"Their repertory probably included love songs, perhaps the erotic type later termed “bosom songs.”

My opinion of Mesopotamian civilization would have taken a serious dive if its love songs turned out to have been called "ass songs" instead.

This book has chapters on most aspects of Mesopotamian life of that period. A couple of unrelated things that I found interesting:

"Marriage was overwhelmingly monogamous, though men occasionally had more than one wife and concubinage was known among the elite and ruling class, among whom large families are documented. People of lower status, who appear most often in administrative lists of workers, did not usually have more than two or three children."

"Roast pork was an esteemed delicacy served to visiting dignitaries and, in post-Akkadian times, a treat for the gods and for members of the royal family. The first evidence for a taboo on pork consumption in Mesopotamia comes much later, from the ninth century BCE."

Sargon's empire is not the earliest known large state. Egypt was unified about seven centuries before his birth, and there was a trend for progressively larger states in Mesopotamia before Sargon. But through his conquests and reforms he made an enormous impression on Mesopotamian historical consciousness. For more than 2,000 years after him, until the demise of cuneiform culture, Sargon was Mesopotamia's chief hero, comparable to Alexander and Charlemagne in Europe of later ages.

I was surprised to learn that Mesopotamian rulers of the 1st millennium BC conducted archeological digs in the city of Akkad, which was by then abandoned, looking for inscriptions and other artifacts of the Sargonic period. A Babylonian king of the 6th century BC thought that Naram-Sin, Sargon's grandson, ruled 3,200 years before him, an error of 1,500 years.

An Akkadian king, probably Naram-Sin. All extant likenesses of Akkadian rulers were mutilated in antiquity, after the fall of the dynasty.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
Besides conquering and ruthlessly suppressing revolts Sargon and his heirs reformed Mesopotamia's weights and measures. Two millennia before China's first emperor and the Roman emperor Claudius, Naram-Sin ordered a spelling reform, making the Mesopotamian writing system more logical and visually attractive. There is a record of one of Naram-Sin's sons, a governor of a province, being literate. I'm always curious about the question of whether or not literacy was limited to the scribal profession in past eras. For example, it's known that the above-mentioned Charlemagne could read, but not write.

"No other medium conveys the calm self-assurance of the period so well as its elegant, elaborate, carefully laid out script."...

"As they did with so many other aspects of Mesopotamian civilization, the Akkadian ruling class took a venerable inheritance and gave it a new form in which a love of beauty and harmony for their own sake was paramount, the first instance of a culture in which the art of calligraphy proclaimed its values and pride."

"For outsiders, the Akkadian aesthetic aroused envy, fear, wonder, and grudging respect. For the Akkadian elite, however, it proclaimed their pride and self-confidence in having reshaped the four quarters of their world and crushed all resistance. This may be why even the closest student of Akkadian arts and letters feels at once near and far from the spirit they convey."

This stuff makes me think of the Napoleonic, Hitlerite and Stalinist visual styles. Empires often go for grandeur in the arts. Nietzsche would have loved this.

The scale of the imperial enterprise was of course much smaller in the ancient world. Sargon boasted in one of his inscriptions that he fed a standing army of 5,400. Foster is inclined to believe Akkadian kings' figures because they swore to the gods that they were true. I'm more skeptical. They never mentioned any defeats or listed their own casualties.

"On the whole, Akkadian notables saw themselves as dominating local populations, rather than working pacifically with them. In a letter sent by one notable to another, the writer addresses his compeer, perhaps playfully, as “The Yoke of Ishtar.”

The royal inscriptions, listed in an appendix of this book, bear this out:

"Sargon, as Enlil revealed, showed mercy to no one…"

"Rimush, king of the world –Enlil verily gave kingship to him –was as many as three times victorious over Sumer in battle! He slew 11,322 men. He took 2,520 captives. Further, he expelled 14,100 men from the cities of Sumer and put them in camps. Total: 54,016 men, including the slain, including the captives, including the men whom he put in camps, the campaign is not lies! ? By Shamash and Ilaba I swear no lies but truthfully!

Whoever shall remove the name of Rimush, king of the world, and set his own name there, saying “My statue!” –may Enlil, owner of this statue, and Shamash tear out his foundations and take away his seed."

Foster says that the Iraq and Syrian wars have had a terrible impact on the study of the ancient Near East. Museums have been looted. Archeological sites ceased to be guarded and were excavated by treasure hunters who do not record the context of their finds like professionals do, and who will easily break unique and priceless tablets which they can't read in search of a pretty vase or statue.

It's enough to make one want to cry out to Enlil and Shamash, imploring them to tear out the foundations and take away the seed of the imbeciles responsible for neocon foreign policy.

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