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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

a monument to all fictional victories

There’s a nice article by Matthew Neujahr in the April Journal of Near Eastern studies about an odd Persian text called the Dynastic Prophecies. What is odd about the text is the account it gives of the war between Alexander the Great and Darius III. As all historians know, Alexander defeated Darius, pillaged his capital, and advanced to the boundary of India. But this is what the Dynastic Prophecies have to say about what all historians know:

“The most remarkable element of the passage follows: according to lines 13-17, the defeated Persian king retools his army and then defeats the Macedonians! The bald inaccuracy of this account is all the more striking in the face of the historically accurate, and occasionally quite specific, accounts contained earlier. (13) The text is further complicated by the fact that, following this account, the first six preserved lines of the final, fourth column (after which the composition proper ends) are divided into three sections by two horizontal lines drawn across the column width. Judging by the use of such dividing lines in this and the other exemplars of Akkadian ex eventu prophecies, this would seem to indicate three more significant reigns. Caution should, however, be urged in the interpretation of these six lines, as only fifteen cuneiform signs are at all legible; further, the use of dividing lines to separate reigns is consistent neither in this text nor in the other texts of this type....

Yet any understanding of the text that posits the inclusion of reigns by Alexander's successors simply serves to problematize further the reference to Alexander's defeat. As Grayson states, "It is extremely unlikely that the 'prophet' would deliberately falsify the outcome and aftermath of such a famous and well-known battle" as Gaugamela.”

Neujahr considers the various opinions of the archaeologists about this. The fact that a kingdom is overthrown seems to be a hard thing to simply reverse. So archaeologists, being rational people, have tried to reinterpret the text to change the meaning. Maybe the Macedonians referred to are some other group. Maybe it is some other Darius. But as Neujahr shows, these versions aren’t very convincing. We like his idea:

Some scholars have defended ignoring the problematic passage in Dynastic Prophecy III by claiming that this text, and other Akkadian works like it, are not intended to be histories. And this is quite true: there is nothing behind the authoring of the Dynastic Prophecy--nor for that matter any other text, Mesopotamian, Levantine, or Egyptian, that employs extended vaticinia ex eventu [prophecy after the event]--which could be mistaken for the ideology of the modern critical historiographer. In so dismissing the bizarre episode of Alexander's defeat at the hands of Darius III, however, these scholars fail to consider carefully the purpose for which these texts were in fact composed. The fact is that the Dynastic Prophecy is not history but propaganda. Everyone who has studied the text recognizes this. Saying that this text is not "history," however, is not enough; one must consider in detail why the composers of the text should have structured their propaganda in such a way. Framing political propaganda as a prediction of the future seals the position of the propagandist with the approval of the gods, those who control the fate of humankind. The trick is to have the audience believe that the prediction is reliable. This is done by "predicting" historical events. If the audience believes that the text is authentically old, then they are led to conclude that the "history" in the text was legitimately predicted, assuring them of the reliability of all the predictions in the text.”

This sounds very much like the newsgathering ideology of the Washington Post and the NYT, doesn’t it?

We are reminded of a poem by Robert Graves: The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon/ The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon./ As for the Greek theatrical tradition /Which represents that summer's expedition/ Not as a mere reconnaissance in force/ By three brigades of foot and one of horse/ Their left flank covered by some obsolete /Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)/ But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt /To conquer Greece---they treat it with contempt;/ And only incidentally refute /Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute/ The Persian monarch and the Persian nation /Won by this salutary demonstration: /Despite a strong defence and adverse weather/ All arms combined magnificently together.

PS -- a friend who read this post reports that it is much too dense for a mere post. Oh oh! We've shortened some of the quotes. The problem, my readers, lies not in ourselves but in our easy cut n paste tools. Apologies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Much too dense"? Bah! It was quite magnificent.