Were people in the royal court, particularly Ashurbanipal himself, literate or not?Â This is the question that Alasdair Livingstone addresses in his article, Ashurbanipal: literate or not? (Zeitschrift fÃ¼r Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische ArchÃ¤ologie 97 (2007): 98-118).Â Previous scholars have been on both sides of this question (e.g. Parpola and Lieberman are more optimistic about royal literacy while Pongratz-Leisten is more pessimistic).
Livingstone believes that Ashurbanipal and others within the royal court were literate (we must keep in mind that there are different levels of literacy and Livingstone does not advocate that the royal court were all top-notch expert scribes).Â Livingstone brings some very fascinating new collations and texts to his treatment of this topic.
One of the most fascinating new collations of this article concerns a “royal memo” from the king’s eldest daughter, Sheru’a-etirat to her sister-in-law, Libbi-ali-sharrat:
Why don’t you write your tablets and recite your exercise, or people will say “Is this the sister of Sheru’a-etirat, the eldest daughter of the succession palace of Assur-etel-ilani-mukinni, the great king, the legitimate king, king of the world, king of Assyria?”Â And you are a daughter-in-law, the lady of the house of Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince of the house of succession of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria.
This new translation indicates that there was not court rivalry between these two women at this time (as Amelie Kuhrt indicates in her ANE history).Â Also, according to Livingstone:
Libbi-ali-sharrat is letting her sister-in-law and her husband down by not studying, by not writing her tablets and reciting her lesson.Â This is of course negative evidence of literacy.Â The princess was not writing her tablets or reciting her lesson.Â But the memo demonstrates extremely clearly that there was an expectation that she should be doing lessons.Â And if this was the case, it would be surprising if other young people at the royal court were not similarly expected to learn to read and write.
I have a feeling that literacy, while certainly not something that the average person attained, was more common in the royal court, priestly caste, and military ranks than the scholarly consensus.Â Every now and then evidence seems to bubble up to give hints to this and I think that Livingstone’s article is the latest example.
What do you think of ancient literacy in general and the Neo-Assyrian court in particular?