BMCR 2007.10.41

Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians. Translated by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia. Dictionaries of Civilizations

, , Mesopotamia. Dictionaries of civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 367 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780520252660. $24.95.

This book is an attempt to provide an overview of Mesopotamian culture and, to a lesser extent, history for the non-specialist. As the title suggests, Ascalone limits his study of Mesopotamia to the Assyrian, Sumero-Babylonian cultures. Other ‘cuneiform cultures’ such as the Hurrians and Hittites are not considered. The major feature of the book is the copious, splendid photographs and drawings, making it more of an ‘illustration’ of Mesopotamia rather than a ‘dictionary’ as the series title claims. While Ascalone has attempted to include a great deal of information in Mesopotamia, one fears that due to its compact format the non-specialist might struggle to extract much of what is contained. Despite this, Mesopotamia is a concise and useful work for the general public.

Mesopotamia has seven chapters organized thematically, rather than chronologically or by culture (i.e. Assyrian, Sumero-Babylonian): “Between History and Literary Tradition”, “Historical Figures”, “Power and Public Life”, “Divinities and Religion”, “Daily Life”, “The World of the Dead”, and “The City”. The book closes with a number of maps, tables, an index, museum list, and bibliography. The book’s structure reflects Ascalone’s aim to present the homogeneous aspects of the civilizations of Mesopotamia (pp. 6-7). The merits of this endeavor are discussed below. The subject of each chapter is elucidated by representative figures in a case study manner comprising of a short description, photograph and subsequent illustrations with detailed comments. Ascalone has uniformly formatted each case study giving the work a consistent appearance, which makes it easier for the reader to engage with the information. This paperback edition has a key on the back cover outlining how the book’s formatting can be utilized in the best way.

The work is part of the series Dictionaries of Civilizations. However, given the format of the work, the term ‘dictionary’ is not the most accurate description. The subject matter is not organized according to a series of entries alphabetically ordered like the works of Bienkowski and Millard,1 and Leick.2 Nor does the term ‘handbook’ adequately fit since Mesopotamia is not as encompassing as Fossey’s Manuel d’assyriologie would have been at the time of its publication in the early 20th century.3 Rather, in terms of size and content, Ascalone has produced a book comparable to a pocket-sized ‘coffee table’ book.

The first chapter, “Between History and Literary Tradition”, introduces the reader to one of the vexed questions of Mesopotamian studies: how do we interpret the legends about the earliest historical figures? Ascalone draws on the Sumerian King List, Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Enmerkar to illustrate this dilemma. The second chapter, “Historical Figures”, features a select number of the best known Mesopotamian kings in chronological order from Sargon of Akkad to the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus. The third chapter, “Power and Public Life”, looks thematically at points of royal ideology raised in the previous chapter ranging from the king’s function in Mesopotamian religion, his responsibility as an architect and builder, the king’s relationship to the divine, and his image as a warrior-hero. The fourth chapter, “Divinities and Religion”, offers the reader an interesting mixture of profiles of major gods, less well known spirits, and the religious practices of the Mesopotamians. The fifth chapter, “Daily Life”, covers the impact of war on society, economics, fashion and leisure. The sixth chapter, “The World of the Dead”, focuses on two royal necropolises, Ur and Nimrud, and the psychological topics of the Nether World and the Cult of the Dead. The Seventh and final chapter, “The City”, features case studies of Uruk, Nippur, Ur, Ashur, Kalakh, Dur-Sharrukin, Nineveh and Babylon. Here the reader will find a very useful series of aerial photographs and archeological plans of each city. Ascalone states in the introduction that, with difficulty, he has made an “attempt to single out those segments of cultural continuity whose variants would run through the Mesopotamian world for more than two thousand years” (p. 7). The reader will note however, that this aim has not been achieved—such a task is largely impossible when dealing with three different cultures. The sections that deal with kingship and royal ideology illustrate this point well. Ascalone draws on images such as the basket-bearing monarch in the Sumerian and Old Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian Periods. However, these motifs are anything but constant in Mesopotamian royal ideology. For example, there is a gap of approximately 1000 years in the application of the basket bearing motif between the Old Babylonian Period and the Neo-Assyrian Period.4 Indeed, the second chapter highlights the significant political and ideological changes that occur from monarch to monarch in the Neo-Assyrian Period alone. A similar criticism can be made in that the discussion of Gilgamesh is based only on the Standard Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Surely the reader should be informed of the varying traditions concerning this figure. Alas the only hint of variant tradition is found in the list of versions, without commentary (p. 14).

There are a few points where the book could be improved. For starters each chapter would have benefited from a general introduction. This would better orientate the reader with each chapter’s case studies. One also feels that “Historical Figures” could have consisted of more than just kings. While the best documented individuals in Mesopotamian history are the kings, it would have been of benefit if Ascalone offered the reader non-royal historical figures such as the Assyrian officials Shamshi-ilu and Bel-harran-bel-usur, or even the Assyrian queens Sammu-ramat (the legendary Semiramis of the Classical authors) and Naqia / Zukutu. The inclusion of these figures would have provided the reader with more variety of what the study of Mesopotamian history has to offer. Curious too, is the inclusion of a Jericho decorated skull in the discussion of the Mesopotamian cult of the dead (p. 271). While it is noted that this practice occurred on the Middle Euphrates, it is far better attested in the Levant.

A final quibble is that there are two photographic errors that need to be corrected before a second edition or reprint. The first is on page 98 where Nebuchadrezzar II’s brick inscription is upside-down. The other is on page 110, where the relief is identified as the Tell al-Rimah stele of Adad-nirari III, however it is the Banquet Stele of Assurnasirpal II.5

This book would be a useful starting point for the lay-person or high school student looking for a light introduction to Mesopotamian culture. The broad subject matter and wonderful illustrations will entice the novice to pursue the Mesopotamian civilizations further. However, the information and significance of the topics covered may escape many readers because of the format and the lack of topic summaries.


1. P. Bienkowski and A. R. Millard, Dictionary of the Ancient Near East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

2. G. Leick, Who’s Who in the Ancient Near East. London: Routledge, 1999.

3. C. Fossey, Manuel d’assyriologie: fouilles, écriture, langues, littérature, géographie, histoire, religion, institutions, art, 2 vols. Paris: 1904-1926.

4. See R. Ellis, Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

5. For a discussion of the Banquet Stele see J. Oates and D. Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed. London: BSAI, 2001, 40-42, and fig. 18; for the Tell al-Rimah stele see S. Page, “A Stela of Adad-nirari III and Nergal-Eresh from Tell Al Rimah” Iraq 30 (1968), 139-153.