BMCR 2023.05.29

Before and after Babel: writing as resistance in ancient Near Eastern empires

, Before and after Babel: writing as resistance in ancient Near Eastern empires. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 360. ISBN 9780197634660.



Marc Van De Mieroop has come into his own as a historian of writing. Several of his previous books can be seen as steps in this direction, including Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History, which discusses the kinds of information that can be extracted from written sources, and Philosophy Before the Greeks, which argues that the epistemology of Babylonian scholars was shaped by the written word. But with his latest book, Before and After Babel, Van De Mieroop homes in on the history of writing, and the result is arguably his most impressive book to date.

The historical narrative of Before and After Babel is propelled by a simple claim: that the nature of writing in the ancient Near East changed radically during the “Dark Age” that separates the late second and the early first millennium BCE, yielding two epochs in the pre-Classical history of writing that are treated separately in each of the book’s two parts. The straightforwardness of this claim lends the book a clarity of structure and argument, but it is also balanced in each chapter by a wealth of details and nuance that prevent the claim from falling into oversimplicity.

Briefly put, Van De Mieroop argues that before the Dark Age, the cuneiform script served as a cosmopolitan system of communication across the Near East that was primarily used to represent the “twin tongues” of Sumerian and Akkadian, though it was occasionally adopted to render other languages as well. After the Dark Age, the ancient Near East was dominated by a welter of scripts, such as Aramaic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Greek, that were mainly alphabetic and tied to one language each.

The cuneiform script thus lost its cultural hegemony at the exact time when the empires that upheld the cuneiform tradition, the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian, spread their influence most widely across the ancient Near East. Van De Mieroop suggests that this is not a coincidence. It was precisely when the previously cosmopolitan system became imperial—that is, when cuneiform no longer represented a shared sphere of cultural connection, but the overbearing might of repressive states—that non-cuneiform scripts rose to prominence. The alphabets helped articulate local identities in the face of imperial domination, serving as forms of cultural resistance that gained strength and meaning from their dialogue with the cuneiform tradition.

An important premise of the argument was spelled out by Van De Mieroop in an article from 2016 entitled “A Babylonian Cosmopolis,” in which he argued that throughout the second millennium BCE, scribes and scholars throughout the Near East were not merely passive recipients of, but also active participants in the cuneiform tradition.[1] The generic conventions, scribal practices, and literary tropes of this tradition were adapted to fit local demands. For example, in the early second millennium, the king of Elam wrote his letters in a Babylonian style that had been adjusted to fit his local tastes and convey his sense of superiority: he began his letters not with his name, as was the norm in Babylon, but his title (p. 44). There were similarly “localized” systems of cuneiform practice across Syria and Anatolia, and, later, in the Levant and Egypt.

In the second millennium, then, “to be a literate person meant to take part in the Babylonian system, which was not the creation of people from a single region but from all over the Near East,” meaning that “people considered the system to be their own instead of an imported one” (p. 91). The most controversial aspect of this claim is that scribes in what is conventionally conceived of as the “periphery” of the cuneiform world—Anatolia, Syria, Elam, etc.—also contributed to the formation of cuneiform literature, rather than merely disseminating creative works produced by the “center.” As Van De Mieroop acknowledges (p. 98–99), the evidence for this claim is scant, and more research on the topic is needed.

What is clear, however, is that until the end of the second millennium the cuneiform script dominates the written record of Western Asia, and the Sumerian and Akkadian languages dominate that script. Van De Mieroop treats those languages as one bilingual tradition, to the point of referring to “the cosmopolitan language, Sumero-Akkadian” in the singular (p. 96). At this time, cuneiform was occasionally used to write other languages, but this was done almost exclusively to render ritual speech, in which the language and exact wording of a sentence mattered a great deal; otherwise, “alternatives to Babylonian writing existed but were of marginal importance” (p. 43). The Amorite-Akkadian bilingual texts recently published by Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik must have appeared too late to be included in the book, but if anything, their exceptional status confirms Van De Mieroop’s broader point.[2]

The “pivot point” of Van De Mieroop’s historical narrative is the last centuries of the second millennium, at which time the cuneiform tradition grew both more cosmopolitan and more varied.[3] In the “international” system of communication that characterized the late Bronze Age, Babylonian cuneiform came to be more frequently used to represent other languages, such as Hittite, and even occasioned new scripts, such as Ugaritic cuneiform, a situation that led to “cracks in the cosmopolitan idea” (p. 94). As such, “the cosmopolitan system may have become a victim of its own success” (p. 101), in that the adaptation of the cuneiform script to represent languages other than Sumerian and Akkadian extended its geographical reach but also yielded a less coherent, less transregional system of communication.

This transitional period gave way, after the intervening Dark Age, to the new reality of the first millennium, in which “numerous scripts, most of them alphabetic, coexisted, with each script used for a single language alone” (p. 106). The scope of this development is partly obscured by the fact that many of these non-cuneiform scripts were written on more perishable material than the clay of cuneiform, skewing the distribution of preserved material. But the direction of travel is clear, and the alphabetic tradition that rose to prominence during the first millennium remain prominent to this day.

Van de Mieroop is insistent that this change was not occasioned by the comparable simplicity of the alphabetic systems. Tellingly, he begins the second part with Luwian, a non-alphabetic script that displays the same historical dynamics as e.g. Aramaic and Phoenician. What the case of Luwian suggests, and what the other examples bear out, is that the construction of regional identities by local powerholders was a much more important driver in the promotion of new scripts than any innate feature of the writing system (p. 141–42). The vernacular scripts were not inherently simpler or more “democratic” (and certainly not more “national”) than the cosmopolitan system they replaced; rather, they were spread by provincial courts who sought to express their significance in the face of imperial oppression: “Resistance was part of their identity” (p. 228), and writing was part of that resistance.

In short, the value of the alphabet was not its phonemic simplicity but its subversive potential. To explain this potential, Van De Mieroop draws on the concept of mimicry as it has been developed in postcolonial studies: the term designates a mode of resistance in which the dominant narrative is simultaneously emulated and undermined, yielding an “always ambivalent” (p. 226) relation between power and resistance. A crisp and well-known example of this dynamic is the statue of Hadad-yith‘i, which contains a bilingual Akkadian-Aramaic inscription. In the Akkadian version, Hadad-yith‘i calls himself “governor of Gozan”; in the Aramaic and less clearly visible version, he calls himself “king of Gozan.” It is telling that this is the earliest known Aramaic text: the new script thus began to appear both as a translation of the cuneiform tradition (including its time-tested templates for royal inscriptions) and as an act of political defiance.

The literary traditions that emerged in the vernacular scripts were therefore not bursts of ex nihilo creativity but dialogues with the cuneiform heritage. The case of the Biblical subversion of Babylonian stories is well-known and much-studied (and much, much debated); for the Greek case, Van De Mieroop leans heavily on Johannes Haubold’s illuminating analysis of how Greek writers formulated their regional identity in opposition to the Persian empire, which empire in turn inherited its views of Greece from Babylonian tropes about “the people beyond the sea.”[4] That does not mean that Greek or Biblical literature was merely an unthinking transposition of cuneiform tropes, but that “we cannot understand vernacular writings without the cosmopolitan background” (p. 232).

The terms of this argument—including the key contrast between “cosmopolitan” and “vernacular”—are drawn from Sheldon Pollock’s landmark study of cosmopolitan languages, in which he argued that, while Latin became a lingua franca in the wake of the Roman empire, the spread of Sanskrit across South Asia was not predicated on imperial domination.[5] The surprising implication of Van De Mieroop’s argument is that the spread of the cuneiform script differs from both cases. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires did not facilitate a system of cosmopolitan writing, but neither was the latter unaffected by the former. Instead, it was the rise of the first-millennium empires that occasioned the fall of the second-millennium cosmopolitanism.

Van De Mieroop’s claim is convincing, and the evidence he marshals in support of it is often a delight to discover, since he repeatedly brings unpublished or little-studied texts into the limelight. For example, to illustrate the literary creativity of “peripheral” areas of the cuneiform cosmopolis, he discusses the Zimri-Lim Epic, persuasively arguing that it is an overlooked gem of Akkadian narrative poetry. I would have liked to see a more detailed engagement with the other great script of the ancient Near East, Egyptian hieroglyphs, which puts in only a timid appearance in Van De Mieroop’s argument, but the book already brims with examples.

My main reservation concerns the question of causality. Van De Mieroop repeatedly insists on the agency of local scribes and regional powerholders in first adapting the cosmopolitan tradition to their needs and then resisting the imperial powers through acts of creative copying, yet the claim he wishes to make concerns a sweeping, transregional, century-long transformation with profound consequences for the history of writing and literature over the following millennia. Could such a change really be brought about by a series of localized, independent interventions?

Perhaps, but I am reminded— both in the scope and in the narrative structure of the argument—of Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddess, which likewise pointed to a massive cultural shift that unfolded between the early second and first millennium BCE. (In Frymer-Kensky’s case, the shift concerned the demotion of women in the religious sphere.) In both books, the shift pointed to is clearly there, but the causes, agents, shape, timing, and exact details can all be debated. In other words, I expect Van De Mieroop’s book to provoke a plethora of reactions, but I also expect his core claim to survive the criticism of individual cases.

Van De Mieroop’s prose is crisp and easy to follow; his argument is clearly stated and always grounded in concrete case studies. Whether as an intervention in the history of writing—both cuneiform and alphabetic—or as a mine of fascinating case studies, Before and After Babel is sure to reach a wide audience.



[1] Marc Van De Mieroop, “A Babylonian Cosmopolis,” in Problems of Canonicity and Identity Formation in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, ed. Kim Ryholt and Gojko Barjamovic, Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications 43, 259–70. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2016.

[2] Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik, “Two Remarkable Vocabularies: Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale vol. 116, no. 1: 113–66.

[3] I take the term “pivot point” from the historiographical theories of J.H. Hexter, who argues that historical narratives tend to be structured around highly significant moments that catalyze a broader change.

[4] Johannes Haubold, Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[5] Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.