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The Utility and "Hellenization" of Personal Names in Hellenistic Uruk

Christopher Bravo

University of California, Berkeley

My project is an investigation of the names and identity markers from the city of Uruk during the Hellenistic period (the 4th–2nd centuries BCE). Uruk, an ancient city in southern Babylonia (modern Iraq), was a vibrant community near the center of the Seleucid Empire, a kingdom founded after the conquests of Alexander the Great and ruled by a line of Macedonian kings. This kingdom serves as an instructive case study of multiculturalism and cultural hybridity, since the ruling class adapted and incorporated their own societal practices with those of the local communities. My project looks at one corpus of documents from within this large empire and yields insights into the phenomena of cultural interactions. As a result of archaeological excavations in Uruk that took place during the late-19th and 20th centuries, scholars have access to nearly a thousand clay tablets from Hellenistic Uruk. The contents of these tablets include not only administrative and legal records of the day-to-day activities of the city’s populace, but also the religious, literary, and astronomical practices of the city’s literate elite. Within these Akkadian-language documents are the names of people living, working, and conducting business within Uruk, and as I demonstrate in this project, a name can say a lot.

In this period, typical Babylonian name formulations included a person’s personal name, their father’s name, their grandfather’s name, and their clan name. In exceptional cases, these formulations also included more generations of ancestors, an ethnic designation, or an occupation (e.g. priest or fisherman). Most legal texts included up to fifteen individuals with this degree of personal and familial data. In my project, I catalog every individual named in each document from Hellenistic Uruk. My corpus, which includes over 700 texts, contains nearly 10,000 individuals whose professional and economic activities spanned two centuries. I catalog each of these personal names in a digital database, and with the completed dossier of personal names, I reconstruct family trees that span several generations of the city’s elite and merchant classes. These reconstructions require the restoration of damaged texts, the discernment of people with identical names, and the association of analogous individuals who appear in multiple scattered documents. This work requires the untangling of thousands of people, but benefits greatly from the use of a digital database, which allows for instantaneous filtering and indexing of data.

This project results in a prosopography, or a catalog of the numerous individuals that made up Hellenistic Urukean society. A person’s economic activities, documents composed, and familial relations are included in each entry. Every person’s entry also includes the name’s variant orthographies, text and line citations, and associated seal impressions. This foundational work allows me to investigate more fully the diachronic trends of cultural change, which not only comprises my project's analysis, but also the starting point for much of my future research. Given names in this period included several linguistically Greek names in addition to the more expected dossier of Babylonian and West Semitic names. Although name-giving practices are almost never explicitly described in these documents, through the careful analysis of family lines and their wider kin groups, I deduce patterns of name-giving and name preferences. With this information, I illuminate issues of cultural hybridity as they are reflected in the realm of identity creation. Did Urukean society reflect the notion of “Hellenization” (the wholesale adoption of Greek culture by non-Greek cultures) that some previous scholars have positioned as the de facto mode of cultural interaction in the Hellenistic period in western Asia? I demonstrate that more complex and variable modes of identity creation occurred in Hellenistic Uruk. In essence, my project allows for a fuller look at a society in a period of transformation through its people’s most basic marker of identity––their names.

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What's in a Name?

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