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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter September 3, 2007

Ashurbanipal: literate or not?

Alasdair Livingstone
From the journal


Although many rulers and monarchs in the Ancient Near East lay claim to various kinds of wisdom, relatively few claim literacy, and of these Shulgi and Ashurbanipal were by far the most vociferous. While it may never be possible to actually test the veracity of Shulgi's assertions, the purpose of this article is to present and discuss for the first time some evidence that has direct bearing on the question of Ashurbanipal's literacy. Serious commentary on this issue commenced almost twenty-five years ago with some observations by S. Parpola, who wrote that the literacy claims “can well have more truth in them than a critical modern reader would a priori be inclined to think”. More recently S. J. Lieberman returned to the matter and pointed out the proliferation of phrases in colophons of tablets in the king's libraries that insist that the tablets were for his own use, such as ana tāmarti šitassīya, “for my review in reading”, ana tāmarti šarrūtīya, “for my royal review”, ana tasisti tāmartīšu, “for study in his reviewing”, ana tasisti šitassīšu, “for study in his reading”, and ana tamrirtīya, “for my examining”. Lieberman considered that this and other evidence demonstrated clearly that the king was making intelligent use of individual tablets that were “gathered in his palace for his own (Lieberman's italics) study”. The matter was returned to by Beate Pongratz-Leisten in her study entitled “Herrschaftswissen in Mesopotamien”. In the context of a broadly based study of Mesopotamian royal Selbstbehauptung she takes a sceptical view of the possibility of royal literacy at the Neo-Assyrian court, dismissing the well known letter in which Balasî, one of the most prominent scholars attached to Esarhaddon's court thanks the king for having appointed him as Ashurbanipal's tutor as simply belonging to a phase when Ashurbanipal was to have been trained as a priest before it became clear that he would become crown prince. This view does not accord with commonly accepted dates for the relevant parts of the royal correspondence discussed below. Pongratz-Leisten regards the literacy claims and the very formation of the royal libraries in Nineveh as belonging to a “Wissensverwaltung” which should be seen “als eigener Komplex neben Bürokratie und politischer Verwaltung […], der unabhängig von einer angenommenen zunehmenden Kenntnis der Schrift existierte”. Most recently Jeanette Fincke has had the opportunity of giving consideration to the Ashurbanipal literacy question in her report on the British Museum's Ashurbanipal Library Project. Under the subheading ‘Ashurbanipal's interest in the scribal art’ she emphasises the king's concern with that art, including an actual preoccupation with old tablets as claimed in his inscriptions and she cautiously allows the possibility that he could read cuneiform tablets, albeit perhaps not with the much flaunted expertise. She refers to simple writings and explanations in some scholarly letters, suggesting that this was to make them easier for the king to understand. These writings, and especially the glosses in the correspondence of the astrologer Nabû-aē-erība, are part of the subject matter of a discussion by P. Villard of Ashurbanipal's education. The purpose of the present contribution is to bring the debate on the literacy question further by presenting and discussing some new evidence.

Published Online: 2007-09-03
Published in Print: 2007-06-19

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