Darius the humble, or, using ancient texts to reconstruct ancient societies

A goodly number of those who seek to reconstruct the politics, history and economics of the ancient Near East rely on texts (and style themselves ‘historians’). You know, the clay tablets found in royal archives or perhaps in the vaults of a ruling class clan. For some reason that is beyond me, these are often read rather naively, as reflecting how things actually were in everyday life, as expressing the sentiments of the people as a whole – Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians or Israelites. Here’s a humble example, from a statue of Darius, king of the Persians, originally made in Egypt:

The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, master of the Two lands, Daraywesh, may he live forever! The great king, the king of kings, the supreme lord of the earth [in its totality, the son of the] father-of-a-god Wishtapa [Hystaspes], the Achaemenid, he who appeared as king of Upper and Lower Egypt on the seat where Horus reigns over the living, like Ra at the head of the gods, eternally!

That’s just after the objective observation that the gods had made him just like them and that they had generously stated:

I give you all the countries of plain and mountain united under your sandals. I give you Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, who address adorations to your handsome face, as to Ra’s, eternally.

Correct me if I am wrong, but this sounds suspiciously like ruling class ideology, let alone grand claims that ever so slightly exaggerate his power.

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3 thoughts on “Darius the humble, or, using ancient texts to reconstruct ancient societies

  1. Totally agree, except that was for Egyptian consumption. In the Old Persian text Darius wasn’t that grandiose. He’s merely “Darius, great king, king of kings, king of lands-peoples, king of this great earth-empire, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian.” And of his power in Egypt: “he … shall make known that a Persian man held Egypt.”

    So really, Egyptians went in for that stuff. Persians didn’t make such claims for themselves. Except that he was king of kings. And there weren’t any other kings, because he was the only king. OK, maybe a bit grandiose.

    1. A humble lad, even in Persia: ‘king of this great earth-empire’. But my point is that documents from royal and ruling clan archives give a rather skewed picture, from the perspective of the ruling class.

      1. Well, of course. I did an undergraduate degree in archaeology with a prof who worked on domestic architecture of the Iron Age. That was good grounding for all my later study of texts and discourse: nothing like other people’s garbage to remind one of the grandiosity of the claims of the ruling elites.

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