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Persia and Babylonia: Creating a New Context for Understanding the Emergence of the First World Empire

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Persia and Babylonia (Persia and Babylonia: Creating a New Context for Understanding the Emergence of the First World Empire)

Reporting period: 2021-07-01 to 2022-06-30

The Persian Empire (539-330 BCE) was the first state of its size in history. At its height, it stretched from present-day India to Libya. Although it would take 2,000 years before significantly larger empires emerged in early modern Eurasia, imperial rule was to be a lasting experience of communities around the world, until the present day. Like other historical empires, the Persian Empire has mostly been studied from the viewpoint of the imperial elite, with little attention for the impact of structural inequality on colonized populations.

How does one study such a super-size state? Historians of the Persian Empire have often opted for a ‘mosaic’ approach, combining all available information from all subject regions into a synthetic history. This method tends to flatten the variety of local experiences. The Persia & Babylonia project is part of a wider effort seeking to nuance such grand narratives.

Why Babylonia? There are several reasons why a focus on southern Mesopotamia is valid and warranted. Thousands of cuneiform texts have been preserved from this region. The great density of information allows us to study how the fabric of Babylonian society and its cultural production changed under colonial rule. A second reason to focus on Babylonia is its geo-political significance in the Empire, close to the imperial heartland and rich in resources.

As the first "world empire" in history, the Persian Empire has the dubious honour of being the first of a string of colonial systems that emerged in the broader Eurasian region. Our societies continue to experience the effects of the inequality (social, cultural, economic) that was the mainspring of such polities. Understanding the historical contexts in which such systems emerged helps to raise awareness of their historically determined nature.
The project adopted a three-pronged approach towards these research questions.

In a first phase [P1], we collected information on individuals who lived in southern Mesopotamia under and before Persian rule. Historical depth is necessary to contextualize the emergence of the Empire. We disseminated our results in an online database (prosobab), a scientific article and an online manual. We set up an international work group and showcased prosobab at training sessions, conferences and workshops.

In a second phase we exploited data collected in prosobab to analyse how Persian rule worked within, and impacted on, Babylonian society. We did so in three workpackages. P2 focused on the intersections between imperialism and archivality. It critically investigated the social and cultural conditions that shaped the text corpus with which we study Persian control of the Babylonian satrapy. We applied archival turn theory and postcolonial criticism in a twofold reading strategy of our sources—along and against the grain. Moreover, we used innovative digital methodologies (distant reading, aggregate corpus study, network analysis). Work in P2 resulted in three international conferences, multiple conference papers, invited lectures, blogposts, and training initiatives. We developed and maintained a public outreach website dedicated entirely to the fascinating world of cuneiform archives. A PhD dissertation on archival literacy and a monograph on archival culture will be finalized in the near future.

P3 studied the extent of Persian control on Babylonian society. Central in this subproject was the question how rebellion spread in society and how the empire responded to such challenges. We developed a comparative research line on resistance, combining evidence from Babylonia and Egypt. We presented results of P3 at conferences and in invited lectures, and published them in a dissertation, a monograph and several peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and review articles. We also spoke about anti-imperial resistance at outreach events, incl. major science fairs, podcasts and radio interviews, reaching many tens of thousands of people interested in the history of anti-colonialist emancipation.

P4 studied responses to Persian rule in literate society. The workpackage drew its inspiration from the effort at de-hellenising Persian-Achaemenid historiography (Sancisi i.a.). We examined how Persian rule was legitimized, questioned and rejected by contemporary and subsequent audiences, inside and outside Babylonia. We organised multiple panels at international scientific meetings and workshops, and published our results in peer-reviewed journal articles and co-authored monographs, conference papers and invited lectures. A dissertation on a political pamphlet from the early Persian period is nearly completed.

In a third phase, we compared modalities of Persian vs. Assyrian governance in Babylonia in order to draw out differences between these empires (P5). The long diachronic approach, focusing on a single satrapy and based on documentary evidence from real-life transactions, sets this project apart from other research initiatives on the Persian Empire. This work package resulted in a monograph, several journal articles and a lecture series on comparative court studies.

We communicated our results through various channels targeting different audiences. The academic community was addressed through scientific publications, conferences and expert meetings. We organized training sessions and workshops at higher education institutions, museums and schools, engaging students at all levels of learning with our research questions, methodologies and results. Our public engagement website introduces the general public to various aspects of our work on cuneiform archives. We designed our online database prosobab in such a way that both experts and non-experts can access and use our data. All team members wrote blogposts about their research activities and we used social media to draw attention to events organized by the project. We were interviewed for national public radio and TV, newspapers and podcasts.
Our first major achievement was the design, implementation and publication of our online prosopographical database ( Prosobab anchors the digital infrastructure that has been developed for the Neo-Babylonian text corpus so far and significantly improves its accessibility for science and civic society. Released under a creative common license, prosobab is freely available to all, reusable and interoperable, in compliance to FAIR data standards.

Second, our project went beyond the state of the art by combining two fields of research—ancient history and Assyriology—that developed strong mutual boundaries due to their separate academic pedigrees. This schism led Pierre Briant to remark that the history of the Persian Empire was deserted by Assyriologists (1996: 12), a lacuna that this project tried to fill.

Third, our work on archivality led us to engage more thoroughly with the materiality of cuneiform tablets. These clay objects have their own physical properties and life courses that are determined by past as well as current conditions. We set up a cross-disciplinary consortium to start working on a "total" history of the cuneiform tablet, from the sourcing of the clay and its manufacture into a writing surface, to its deposition, excavation, conservation and digital afterlife.
logo of the Persia & Babylonian project (by U.Z. Wijnsma)