Skip to main content

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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Persia and Babylonia (Persia and Babylonia: Creating a New Context for Understanding the Emergence of the First World Empire)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-12-31

The Persian Empire (539-330 BCE) was the first empire of its size in history. At its height, it united a territory stretching from present-day India to Libya. 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.

The emergence of the Persian Empire as the first world empire is both a source of fascination as well as an obstacle to scholars: how did the Persians keep their vast empire together? And how does one study such a super-size state? Historians of the Persian Empire have often opted for a ‘mosaic’ approach: bits and pieces are taken from all over the region and combined in integrated, globalised visions of the Persian state. Those visions are important as they reveal the problems of scale, translation and adaptation that an empire of this size generated; however, they also tend to produce homogenized narratives that flatten out the local experiences of subject populations. The PERSIA AND BABYLONIA project seeks to enrich and nuance this traditional approach by focusing on the specific experiences in a single satrapy — Babylonia.

Why Babylonia? There are several reasons why we think that a focus on southern Mesopotamia is both valid and warranted. Many of the most-used sources on Persian history were produced by ancient “others” who wrote either from outside or after the Empire, e.g. in Greece, Judea, and Rome. This literature tells us about perceptions of the Empire but less about internal historical processes. From within the Empire, many valuable sources are available but they survive in pockets. They tend to be isolated, limited in number, and difficult to compare in date, type, provenance, and context. Babylonia offers us a unique opportunity to study the Persian Empire in a single context. Southern Mesopotamia represents the single best documented region of the Empire. Thousands of cuneiform texts have been preserved, from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC, that allow for an informed evaluation of Persia’s achievements within the long history of the region. Both the great density of information and the long temporal sweep are ideal for an appreciation of the Persian Empire’s local impact and how the Persians changed the fabric of Babylonian society.

A second reason to focus on Babylonia is its geo-political significance in the Empire. As the place where Persian imperial hegemony first materialized, and also eventually ended, Babylonia holds a special position in the history of the Empire, based not only on its location near the Persian heartland but also on its vast resources and cultural distinction. This makes Babylonia a good testing case to study how imperial rule shaped, and was shaped by, local communities.

In our project we adopt a three-pronged approach. In a first phase, we collect person and network data from cuneiform texts written in Babylonia under and before the Persian Empire. This data will be made available to the public in an online, freely accessible database (“prosobab”). In a second phase we use this data to analyse how Persian rule worked within and impacted on Babylonian society. Third, we compare modalities of Persian vs. Assyrian governance in Babylonia in order to draw out differences between these empires. The long diachronic approach focused on a single satrapy and based on documentary evidence drawn from real-life transactions sets this project apart from other research initiatives on the Persian Empire.
At midterm, the project has been set up with a threefold structure, in accordance with our overall objectives. Each of the subprojects is advancing and producing results. Our team consists of the PI, a postdoctoral researcher, three PhD students, four part-time research assistants, and a part-time project coordinator. Phase one has been concluded and we are now engaged in phase two and three. This includes studying political action against Persian rule, cultural production under empire, archival literacy, and political culture under the Assyrians and Persians.

We communicate our results through various channels targeting different audiences. The academic community is addressed through scientific publications (journal articles, monographs, database) and at conferences and expert meetings where we present posters and papers in a peer setting. We organize training sessions and workshops at higher education institutions, museums and schools in order to allow students of all levels and ages to engage with our methodologies and research results. Our public engagement website introduces the general public to various aspects of our work on cuneiform texts. We released our online database prosobab under a creative commons license and designed it in such a way that both experts and non-experts can access and use our data. Video tutorials introduce users to the database. All team members write blogposts about their research activities and we use social media to draw attention to events organized by the project.

Our websites can be found here:
online prosopography of Babylonia under Persian rule
our project website featuring information about the team, events organized, publications, blogs etc
our public engagement website about ancient Mesopotamia, Persia and our research methodology
a page on the university of Leiden website about our project
facebook page where events relating to the project are advertised
Our first major achievement is the design, implementation and publication of our online prosopographical database ( Prosobab is an open access database of the recorded inhabitants of Babylonia between c. 620 and 330 BCE. Its main focus is on individuals who lived in southern Mesopotamia under Persian rule (539-330 BCE), but it also includes the preceding period of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in an attempt to contextualize their lives and those of their family members. In addition to person data, Prosobab collects information on the texts and archives in which the individuals are recorded. The database is expected to become a major research tool in the fields of Assyriology, Ancient History and Iranian Studies. Its flexible search options guarantee user-friendliness. Released under a creative common license, it is freely accessible to all.

We expect to draw on prosobab to study the social processes that accompanied imperial rule in Babylonia. This will shed light on the extent as well as the limitations of control in urban vs. rural communities. By studying cultural production under empire we hope to shed light on the perception of imperial rule by subject (literate) society within the established traditions of the region. Finally, the Assyrian empire offers a comparative setting to study Persia: how can we explain the apparent ease with which the Persians ruled Babylonia while Assyria never managed to subdue its southern peer?