Persian Period (539-330 BC)

More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.

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“Magi from the East”

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”[1] The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?

The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]

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The Quest for Herakles

The Greek historian Herodotus left us one of the earliest and most popular works of ancient history. While focused on the history of the Persian Wars, he digressed far and wide, covering the cultures, history and customs of many regions. He even visited some of these regions, such as Egypt. Other regions, such as Scythia, he described based on the accounts of others but does not claim to have visited the regions himself.

Herodotus traveled to Egypt sometime in the mid 400s BC. “I conversed with the priests of Hephaistos,” he later wrote. “And I also went to Thebes and Heliopolis, since I wanted to see if they agreed with what was said in Memphis. For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition.”[1]

Herodotus did not mean that the Egyptians had a temple to worship the Greek god Hephaistos. Rather, Herodotus, like many Greeks, saw all polytheistic religions as worshiping the same gods, just under different names. In a way, they were correct. The gods of all ancient polytheistic religions were anthropomorphic manifestations of various natural phenomena, emotional states and other forces which acted upon individual humans.

Obelisk of Senusret I in Heliopolis. Senusret I reigned from 1971 to 1926 B.C., so this monument had already been standing for almost 1,500 years when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Religious mythology sprung up around each of these characters, and a series of rich and complex stories took shape in various cultures. Rituals, offerings and temples developed to please the gods and gain their goodwill. These myths were not meant to be taken literally, rather, they served as a way to understand the complex, often destructive  and seemingly random world. Ancient religious thought was generally abstract and not meant to be taken literally. It’s not that the ancients believed these events did or didn’t happen, it’s just that the question of actual temporal existence was altogether unimportant. Since all cultures observed things such as water, storms, rage, the wind, knowledge, war, and so on, they tended to develop similar deities. Herodotus credited the Egyptians with being the first to develop this, saying that “They said that the Egyptians were also the first to establish the tradition of identifying names for the twelve gods, and that the Hellenes [Greeks] adopted this practice from them. They were also the first to assign altars, statues, and temples to the gods and to carve their figures in relief on stone.”[2]

When Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, he visited one of the most important centers of Egyptian religious thought. The Heliopolitan priests had worked out a series of complex myths to explain the origin of the gods and the origin of the world. Herodotus doubtless learned of their myths, but declined to relate them in his history, explaining that “I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so.”[3]

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The Persian Royal Mail

In 500 BC, the Persian Empire was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Its territory stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea and the coast of North Africa. Within its borders, the empire ruled over as much as 20% of the world’s population.

The empire contained dozens of formerly independent states and dozens of languages. Administering this massive realm required new systems of control than anything that had been used before. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians had each controlled a small fraction of the territory now ruled by the Persians. To administer the empire, Cyrus the Great created and Darius I refined the division of the empire into 23 satrapies. Each satrap was a viceroy of the Shahanshah (“king of kings”) who ruled in the capital. The satraps exercised the authority of the king in governing and managing the provinces.

The satraps were not kings or vassal rulers, rather, they served at the pleasure of the Persian monarch. Administering the provinces, therefore, required the ability to send rapid communications between satraps and the capital. The king needed to be kept abreast of the situation in all parts of the empire in order to make well-informed decisions in a timely manner. Conversely, the king needed to be able to rapidly send orders back to different parts of the empire. If the satraps were given too much autonomy to take independent action without waiting for a word from the king, they could develop separatist tendencies and become rebellious. [1]

A typical letter from the late Assyrian Empire with its clay envelope, found at Ziyarat Tepe in Anatolia. This letter dates to around 611 BC.

Previous empires in the ancient Near East had operated messenger systems for official business. The Assyrian mail system dated back to 1800 BC as evidenced by numerous letters found at Karum Kanesh in southeastern Anatolia. The Hittites and Egyptians also operated relay systems of messengers to transmit official business.[2]

The more immediate antecedent, however, was the mail service of the neo-Assyrian empire. The Assyrians had built an empire larger than any that had come before, and therefore faced some of the same communications problems on a smaller scale which the Persians would later face. The Assyrians created a system of stations along major roads, situated about a day’s journey apart from each other where messengers could stop, rest and change horses. This relay system allowed messages to be rapidly carried throughout the empire. It took a courier from Nineveh only a few days to reach the Levant with a message.[3]

First, the Persian Empire needed roads to enable communications. Previous civilizations had built plenty of roads to varying degrees of complexity, but no road network ran the distance of the Persian empire. Cyrus the Great’s solution to this problem was to connect segments of pre-existing roads into a massive highway which ran from Sardis on the Aegean coast of Anatolia to Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire. Constructed in much the same way that smaller highways are expanded and connected to form interstates in the modern United States, the Persian highway was dubbed the Royal Road.[4]

Darius I, who likely completed Cyrus' work on the Royal Road and mail system.

The Royal Road’s route can be traced based on the descriptions of it left by Herodotus as well as remains of ancient roads and bridges. Beginning in Sardis, the first sections were based on an earlier Phrygian road which ran across the central plains of Anatolia. From Phrygia, the road crossed the Halys River into Cappadocia. A “huge guardhouse” and gates were built at the river to control access to the road. The other end of the Cappadocian leg was guarded by two more guardhouses and accompanying gates. From there, the road crossed the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and ran on to the Persian capital of Susa.[5]

There was also a southern route which has been traced but was not mentioned by Herodotus and may have been added at a later date, which ran from Sardis through southern Anatolia, into Cilicia. This route passed through the Cilician Gates, a narrow mountain pass guarded by two massive fortresses. According to Xenophon, who traveled the southern route in 401 BC, “A river, called the Carsus, a hundred feet in breadth, runs between the two fortresses. The whole space between the fortifications was six hundred yards, and it was out of the question to force a way through, since the pass was narrow, and the walls extended to the sea, and above them were sheer cliffs.”[6]

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On the Possible Near Eastern Origins of the Catapult

The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts as dictator were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing. Dionysius planned to go to war with Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.

In order to do this, the Syracusans sought new weapons. Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on new technology. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which had superior range to a manually drawn bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created arrow and stone-throwing machines to be used in assaulting Carthaginian fortifications.[1]

An early Greek catapult, basically a scaled-up crossbow.

These early catapults developed into the double-armed torsion catapults used all over the ancient Mediterranean world (the Chinese developed catapults independently at around the same time). They were used by the Romans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians and all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Some catapults grew to very large sizes and packed enormous destructive power.

Yet, there are indications here and there that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. Several vague clues from ancient writers indicate that the idea of the catapult might have a more eastern origin.

The first comes from the Biblical book of Chronicles’ record of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah. Uzziah reigned for 52 years in the mid 8th century BC. During his reign Judah undertook a large-scale military buildup, including improving the fortifications of Jerusalem. As part of the fortifications, he “made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.”[2]

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