You are here

Writing in the Achaemenid Empire

Elspeth Dusinberre

University of Colorado, Boulder

Writing in the Achaemenid Empire was not necessarily used for the same purposes as in contemporary Greece. Herodotus famously mentions “the learned men of the Persians” and implies a rich tradition and practice of oral history, and the similarities in the stories of Cyrus preserved in Herodotus and Xenophon suggest such histories might be widely known even if not written down. Instead, writing in the Empire filled a wide range of particular functions that were at least sometimes distinct from the literatures of contemporary Greece.

Some of the oldest writing of the Achaemenid Empire is found on the Cyrus Cylinder, a fired clay cylinder about the size of a rugby football that was buried at the foundation of a building in Babylon shortly after 539 BCE. This artifact was inscribed in cuneiform and describes Cyrus' actions after conquering the city. The Cylinder conforms to earlier Babylonian chronicles in its shape and presentation, and it describes practices that link the new Achaemenid king Cyrus to time-honored traditions of good kingship.

The public royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid Empire begin with Darius I and fall into two major categories. The first is represented only by the inscription of Darius at Behistun, a trilingual narrative dating ca. 513 that describes Darius' rise to power. It draws on Assyrian historical annals in many ways but departs from those narratives in its presentation of Darius as a king of harmony and balance. It is perhaps the closest representative in the Achaemenid Empire to a Greek notion of “literature.” By far the majority of the royal inscriptions proclaim the kings' connection to the gods, the broad reach of their righteous rule, and the splendor of their reigns' effects. These public proclamations are often multilingual and not infrequently supported by visual representation of the sentiments they express verbally.

Another major extant category of writing in the empire is found in the form of archives. Of these, one of the earliest and largest yet excavated is the Persepolis Fortification Archive, dating to the years around 500, that documents disbursements made in food and beverages to those engaged in imperial business at and around Persepolis. It is but one of the imperial archives found so far, and the presence of family record-keeping in addition to imperial is documented in the Murashu Archive, the records of a fifth-century family agricultural business situated in Nippur. The Elephantine Archive, written on papyrus, documents the life of a Jewish military colony in upper Egypt in the fifth century. These various archives provide extraordinary records of actions, transactions, people, economic and legal systems, religion, language, gender, and much more. The seal impressions found on the clay documents provide opportunity to trace individual users and their actions even beyond what the texts alone can show.

Beyond the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, other public writings provide insight into additional aspects of life. Within Achaemenid Anatolia alone, inscriptions are used to mark graves, dedicate statues, document religious behaviors and ideas, record financial transactions, and report punishment of transgressors. From these sources we gain rich understanding of the concerns and public identities of the Empire's inhabitants.

This brings us full-circle to Herodotus and the “learned men” — although there was a formal educational context in the Achaemenid Empire, it served practical ends rather than “literary”. The written sources provide us with a notion of “arta,” or “straightness,” that pervaded elite male education even as we can follow evidence for education in accounting, religion, history, and much more. Although “literature” as we think of it may not have been expressed in writing in the Achaemenid Empire, written documents provide fertile sources for understanding human practices and thought across the vast tracts of land bound together under the imperial umbrella.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Mediterranean Literatures

Session/Paper Number

67.2

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy