4443 entries. 93 themes. Last updated September 1, 2014.

1,000 BCE to 300 BCE Timeline

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The Oldest Known Evidence of the Phoenician Alphabet Circa 1,000 BCE

The Ahiram Sarcophagus, discovered by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in 1923 in Jbeil, Lebanon (the historic Byblos), is the oldest known evidence of the Phoenician alphabet. It is preserved in the National Museum of Beirut

"Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels"(Wikipedia article on Phoenician alphabet, accessed 08-06-2009).

The low relief carved panels of the Ahiram Sarcophagus

"make it 'the major artistic document for the Early Iron Age' in Phoenicia. Associated items dating to the Late Bronze Age either support an early dating, in the thirteenth century BC or attest the reuse of an early shaft tomb in the eleventh century BC. The major scene represents a king seated on a throne carved with winged sphinxes. A priestess offers him a lotus flower. On the lid two male figures confront one another with addorsed [back to back] seated lions between them, read by Glenn Markoe as a reference to the father and son of the inscription. Egyptian influence that is a character of Late Bronze Age art in northwest Canaan is replaced here by Assyrian influences in the rendering of figures and the design of the throne and a table" (Wikipedia article on Ahiram, accessed 08-062009).

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Possibly the Earliest Hebrew Inscription Circa 1,000 BCE

A shard of ancient pottery found in the Elah Fortress, bearing Proto-Canaanite script which might compose the earliest known Hebrew inscription. (View Larger)

An ostracon shard found in October 2008 about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem at the Elah Fortress in Khirbet Qeiyafa, the earliest known fortified city of the biblical period of Israel, and written in ink in Proto-Canaanite script, could be the earliest known Hebrew inscription, according to biblical archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. Other scholars urge caution in accepting that interpretation. The shard is one of only a dozen or so examples of Proto-Canaanite that have survived.

"The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning to do, a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

" 'That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found,' he said.

"Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.

"Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was very important, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far" (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1032929.html, accessed 08-30-2009).

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The Gezer Calendar Circa 950 BCE

A tablet of soft limestone inscribed in a paleo-Hebrew script, the Gezer Calendar is one of the oldest known examples of Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BCE. It was discovered in excavations of the Biblical city of Gezer, 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, by R.A.S. Macalister in his excavations between 1902 and 1907, and it is preserved in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

"The calendar describes monthly or bi-monthly periods and attributes to each a duty such as harvest, planting or tending specific crops.

"It reads:

"Two months of harvest

"Two months of planting

"Two months are late planting

"One month of hoeing

"One month of barley-harvest

"One month of harvest and festival

"Two months of grape harvesting

"One month of summer fruit

"Scholars have speculated that the calendar is either a schoolboy's memory exercise or perhaps the text of a popular folk song, or child's song. Another possibility is something designed for the collection of taxes from farmers."

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The Cascajal Block, the Earliest Precolumbian or Mesoamerican Writing Yet Discovered Circa 950 BCE – 600 BCE

On September 15, 2006 María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, and colleagues described the Cascajal Block, a serpentine slab about the size of a writing tablet dated to the early first millenium BCE. The block or slab is incised with characters previously unknown that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. The block was named for its find spot in the village of Cascajal, municipality of Lomas de Tacamichapa, Jáltipan, Veracruz, Mexico.

"The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm."

"The Olmec flourished in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, ca. 1250–400 BCE. The evidence for this writing system is based solely on the text on the Cascajal Block.

"The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and 'there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information'. All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows" (Wikipedia article on Cascajal Block, accessed 01-16-2013).

"Writing [in Mesoamerica] was more than likely invented in the Early or Middle Formative period (ca. 1200-600 BC) with the evolution of politically complex societies of the Olmec in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, in addition to Guerrero, Oaxaca, central Mexico, and Central America. Olmec civilization had large settlements, herditary elites, interregional trade, and elite art, all of which provided important pre-conditions for the development of writing. Numerous greenstone plaques and celts owned by elites, such as the 'Humboldt Celt' and Tlaltenco Celt,' exhibit iconography and short inscriptions. Unfortunately all early writing in Mesoamerica remains undeciphered, but the signs probably include noble titles, god names, and calendar dates" 

"A few years ago, scholars reported an inscription on a serpentine block discovered during modern construction at Cascajal, Veracruz, near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. Recent studies of the stone support its antiquity, and it may be associated with Middle Formative-period pottery and iconography. But the stone's exact provenance and date are unknown. The incised signs resemble other Olmec hieroglyphs, they repeat in obvious patterns, and the text possibly has a top-down, left to right reading order similar to other Mesoamerican scripts. Ceramic figurines found by archaeologists at the site of Canton Corralito, Chiapas, Mexico, dated to about 1300-1000 BC exhibit similar writing" (Joel W. Palka, "The Development of Maya Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 226).

María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, et al "Oldest Writing in the New World," Science  313 no. 5793 (September 15, 2006), 1610-1614 

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The "Chicago Syllabary" Circa 900 BCE

The "Chicago Syllabary," a cuneiform lexical list of unknown provenance, dating from the first millennium BCE, is thought to contain content compiled earlier in the second millenium. 

"The text gives the Sumerian and Akkadian pronunciations of various cuneiform signs along with their names. As such, the text provides unique insights into how the ancients understood and analyzed their languages and the cuneiform script. The list is organized by sign shape. The table consists of two halves, with each half divided into four columns. The first column gives the pronunciations of a given sign and the second column gives the corresponding graph. The third column gives the name of the sign as given by the Babylonian compilers (in some cases a descriptive designation that blends Sumerian and Akkadian), while the fourth column gives the corresponding Akkadian pronunciation. In addition to the importance of its content, the text examplies the development of the cuneiform script in the first millenium BC" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 60).

 The Chicago Syllabary is preserved in The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Tablet with a European Alphabet Circa 800 BCE

A writing tablet in Greek/Phoenician dating from this time may be:

"the oldest European alphabet, the oldest writing tablet extant, and part of the world's oldest book in codex form. The other old writing tablets are 2 from Nimrod [Nimrud], one ivory, the other walnut wood, dated 707 - 705 BC., in addition to a 8th c. BC Neo-Hittite wood tablet. (Roberts/Skeat: The Birth of the Codex, pp. 11-12.) Apart from the present MS the oldest Greek inscription of any length is the Dipylon oinochoe from Athens, ca. 740 BC. The oldest short inscriptions are dated ca. mid 8th c. BC. A tablet originally bound with the present ones is: "The Würzburger Alphabettafel", published by A. Henbeck: Würzburger Jahrbücher für Altertumswissenschaft, 12, pp. 7-20, 1986. The codex originally consisted of at least 5 tablets. . . .The Alphabet is repeated over and over, and contains the North Semitic (Phoenician) number of letters (22), ayin/aleph to taw/tau in Phoenician and Greek order, written in continuous retrograde lines. It represents the earliest and most complete link between Greek letter forms and the North Semitic parent forms. . . ." (Schøyen Collection MS 108, accessed 02-19-2014).

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A Pulley Depicted in a Bas-Relief from Nimrud, Assyria Circa 800 BCE

In Nineveh and its Remains: with an Account of a Visit to tile Chaldaean Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis, or Devil-worshippers; and an Inquiry into the Manners and Arts of the Ancient Assyrians (2 vols., 1848–1849) British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard illustrated on Vol. II, p. 32 a bas-relief "originally in the most ancient palace of Nimroud," showing a bucket that appeared to be attached to a rope passing over a pulley, revolving on an iron or wooden pin, and "precisely similar in form to those now in common use."

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The First Olympic Games 776 BCE

According to ancient Greek records, which also represent the adoption in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet, from which all other Western alphabets are descended, the first Olympic games took place in 776 BCE. The date is based on inscriptions, found at Olympia, of the winners of a foot race held every four years, starting in 776 BCE.

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Standardization of the Homeric Texts Possibly Begins Circa 750 BCE

Homer

Many scholars believe that the Iliad is the oldest extant work of literature in the ancient Greek language, making it one of the first works of ancient Greek literature. It is believed that the Odyssey, sequel to the Iliad, was composed after the Iliad. Both epic poems, products of the oral tradition, may have undergone a process of standardization and refinement out of older material around 750 BCE. The standardization of the Homeric texts may have been caused by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos (d. 527/8 BCE) who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival, which he initiated. This reform may have involved the production of a canonical written text. A tradition concerning the role of Peisistratos in the standardization of Homer was current in the ancient world; however, T. W. Allen, in his classic work, Homer: The Origins and Transmission (1924) refuted this theory in his chapter "Pisistratus and Homer."  

When the Homeric poems would have taken on a fixed written form is debatable. According to the traditional 'transcription hypothesis', a non-literate 'Homer' dictated his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century or earlier. However, in view of the way that texts were written on papyrus before the Hellenistic period, a canonical text would probably have been impossible at this time. Reynolds & Wilson wrote:

"Finally it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts (in a few Latin texts of the classical period a point is placed after each word). The system of accentuation, which might have compensated for this difficulty in Greek, was not invented until the Hellenistic period, and for a long time after its invention it was not universally used; here again it is not until the early middle ages that the writing of accents becomes normal practice. In dramatic texts throughout antiquity changes of speaker were not indicated with the precision now thought necessary; it was enough to write a horizontal stroke at the beginning of a line, or two points one above the other, like the modern English colon, for changes elsewhere; the names of the characters were frequently omitted. . . . Another and perhaps even stranger feature of books in the pre-Hellenistic period is that lyric verse was written as if it were prose; the fourth-century papyrus of Timotheus (P. Berol. 9875) is an instance, and even without this valuable document the fact could have been inferred from the tradition that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE) devised the colometry which makes clear the metrical units of the poetry (Dion. Hal. de comp.verb. 156, 221). It is to be noted that the difficulties facing the reader of an ancient book were equally troublesome to the man who wished to transcribe his own copy. The risk of misinterpretation and consequent corruption of the text in this period is not to be underestimated. It is certain that a high proportion of the most serious corruptions in classical texts go back to this period and were already widely current in the books that eventually entered the library of the Museum of Alexandria" (Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed. [1991] 4-5).

"Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BCE, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but Alexandrian editors stabilized the text in the second century BCE, from which all modern texts descend" (Wikipedia article on Homer, accessed 11-27-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 05-03-2014.)

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The "Fatal Letter" in the Iliad: Introduction of Written Language to the Greeks Circa 750 BCE

Achilles

In the mid-eighth century BCE the Greeks are thought to have developed their own writing system based on the Phoenician alphabet, along with the use of wax tablets, and the leather roll for writing. The Phoenicians, whose culture was at its peak from circa 1200-800 BCE, were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet; the Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally considered the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. However, it did not contain any vowels; those were added by the Greeks. From a traditional linguistic perspective, the Phoenicians spoke Phoenician, a Canaanite dialect. However, due to the very slight differences in language, and the insufficient records of the time, whether Phoenician formed a separate and united dialect, or was merely a superficially defined part of a broader language continuum, is unclear. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks later passed it on to the Etruscans, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans. In addition to many stone inscriptions, the Phoenicians are believed to have left numerous other types of written sources, but most have not survived.

The earliest surviving examples of writing in Greek are on tablets made of metal. The first reference in written Greek literature to writing tablets appears in Homer, and in one place in the Iliad only: the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203), which introduced the trope of the "fatal letter," with its message sealed within the folded tablets that read "Kill the bearer of this." As Homer was the product of the oral tradition, the reference to written tablets was an anachronism in a narrative of an event that had transpired generations before the Trojan War, and long before the Greeks had a written language. However, the "fatal letter" story helps date the earliest possible recension of the epic to the mid-eighth century, when writing was introduced to Greece. 

In his Histories Herodotus wrote:

"So these Phoenicians, including the Gephyraians, came with Kadmos and settled this land, and they transmitted much lore to the Hellenes, and in particular, taught them the alphabet which, I believe, the Hellenes did not have previously, but which was originally used by all Phoenicians. With the passage of time, both the sound and the shape of the letters changed. Because at this time it was mostly Ionians who lived around the Phoenicians, they were the ones who were first instructed in the use of the alphabet by them, and after making a few changes to the form of the letters, they put them to good use; but when they spoke of them, they called them 'Phoenician' letters, which was only right since these letters had been introduced to Hellas by Phoenicians. Furthermore, the Ionians have called papyrus scrolls 'skins,' since long ago, when papyrus was scarce, they used the skins of goats and sheep instead. In fact, even in my time many barbarians still write on such skins" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus [2007] 5.58, 391).

(This entry was last revised on 03-19-2014.)

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Using Carrier Pigeons to Communicate the Results of the Olympic Games Circa 750 BCE

"By the eighth century B.C., Greeks were using pigeons to send the results of Olympic Games from town to town" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/science/pigeons-a-darwin-favorite-carry-new-clues-to-evolution.html?hpw, accessed 02-04-2012).

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One of the Two Oldest Records of the Greek Alphabet Circa 740 BCE

The ancient Greek wine jug bearing the Dipylon inscription.

The Dipylon inscription, a short text written on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, is, along with the  Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, one of the two oldest known examples of the use of the Greek alphabet.

"The text is scratched on a wine jug (oenochoe), which was found in 1871 and is named after the location where it was found, the ancient Dipylon Cemetery, near the Dipylon Gate on the area of Kerameikos in Athens. The jug is attributed to the Late Geometrical Period (750-700 BCE), and it has been dated to ca. 740 BCE. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. 192)" (Wikipedia article on Diplyon inscription, accessed 04-25-2009).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Known Examples of Writing in Greek Circa 740 BCE – 720 BCE

The Cup of Nestor. (View Larger)

The so-called Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, a clay drinking cup (kotyle) was found in 1954 at excavations in a grave in the ancient Greek site of Pithikoussai on the island of Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. It bears a three-line inscription that was scratched on its side at a later time. This inscription, and the so-called Dipylon inscription from Athens, are the oldest known examples of writing in the Greek alphabet.

The inscription is fragmented, as some shards of the cup are lost. It is written in the early Euboean form of the Western Greek alphabet, written from right to left in three separate lines. The text runs:

ΝΕΣΤΟΡΟΣ:...:ΕΥΠΟΤΟΝ:ΠΟΤΕΡΙΟΝ
ΗΟΣΔΑΤΟΔΕΠΙΕΣΙ:ΠΟΤΕΡΙ..:AΥΤΙΚΑΚΕΝΟΝ
ΗΙΜΕΡΟΣΗΑΙΡΕΣΕΙ:ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΕΦΑΝΟ:ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤΕΣ

This is usually transcribed (in later classical orthography, with the missing parts in brackets) as:

Νέστορος [εἰμὶ] εὔποτ[ον] ποτήριο[ν]·
ὃς δ’ ἂν τοῦδε π[ίησι] ποτηρί[ου] αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερ[ος αἱρ]ήσει καλλιστ[εφάν]ου Ἀφροδίτης.
Nestor’s cup I am, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.

Pithikoussai was one of the earliest Greek colonies in the West. The cup is dated to the Geometric Period (c.750-700 BCE) and is believed to have been originally manufactured in Rhodes. It is preserved in the Villa Arbusto museum in the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia, Italy.

Both the Cup of Nestor and the Dipylon inscription have been linked to early writing in the island of Euboea.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 1.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium 700 BCE

The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

It is not clear whether the process of adaptation of the Old Italic or Etruscan alphabet from the Greek alphabet took place in Italy in the city of Cumae, the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, or in Greece/Asia Minor. The Etruscan alphabet was a precursor of the Old Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin alphabet.

"It was in any case a Western Greek alphabet. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value [ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202-209).

"The earliest Etruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna (near Grosseto) tablet which dates to c. 700 BCE, lists 26 letters corresponding to contemporary forms of the Greek alphabet which retained san and qoppa but which had not yet developed omega.

 In transliteration: "A B G D E V Z H Θ I K L M N Ξ O P Ś Q R S T Y X Φ Ψ"


"21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adopted for Old Latin from the 7th century BCE, either directly from the Cumae alphabet, or via archaic Etruscan forms, compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet retaining B, D, K, O, Q, X but dropping Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, F (Etruscan U is Latin V, Etruscan V is Latin F).

In translieration: "A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X"

(Wikipedia article on Old Italic alphabet, accessed 08-02-2009).

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The Babylonian Map of the World, the Oldest Usable Map Circa 700 BCE – 500 BCE

The Babylonian Mappa mundi or world map (British Museum 92687), a diagrammatic labeled depiction of the world, was probably created between 700 and 500 BCE, in Sippar, southern iraq, where it was discovered. It was first published in 1899. The map was written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet, of which only the major portions survive, measuring 12.2 x 8.2 cm.

"Babylon is shown in the centre (the rectangle in the top half of the circle), and Assyria, Elam and other places are also named. The central area is ringed by a circular waterway labelled 'Salt-Sea'. The outer rim of the sea is surrounded by what were probably originally eight regions, each indicated by a triangle, labelled 'Region' or 'Island', and marked with the distance in between. The cuneiform text describes these regions, and it seems that strange and mythical beasts as well as great heroes lived there, although the text is far from complete.

"The regions are shown as triangles since that was how it was visualized that they first would look when approached by water.

"The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world"(http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/m/map_of_the_world.aspx, accessed 03-08-2014).

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The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism 689 BCE – 691 BCE

The Taylor Prism, ME 91032 of the British Library. (View Larger)

The Taylor Prism, a six-sided baked clay document (or prism) was discovered at the Assyrian capital Nineveh, in an area known today as Nebi Yunus, now Iraq. It was acquired by Colonel R. Taylor, British Consul General at Baghdad, in 1830, after whom it is named. The British Museum purchased it from Taylor's widow in 1855.

One of the first major Assyrian documents discovered, the Taylor Prism played an important part in the decipherment of cuneiform script.

"The prism is a foundation record, intended to preserve King Sennacherib's achievements for posterity and the gods. The record of his account of his third campaign (701 BC) is particularly interesting to scholars. It involved the destruction of forty-six cities of the state of Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. Hezekiah, king of Judah, is said to have sent tribute to Sennacherib. This event is described from another point of view in the Old Testament books of 2 Kings and Isaiah. Interestingly, the text on the prism makes no mention of the siege of Lachish which took place during the same campaign and is illustrated in a series of panels from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_taylor_prism.aspx, accessed 12-26-2009).

♦ Another version of the same text, produced in the same prism format, and known as the Sennacherib Prism, was purchased by James Henry Breasted from a Baghdad antiques dealer in 1919 for the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where it is preserved. The two known complete examples of Sennacherib's inscription are nearly identical, although the dates on the prisms show that they were written sixteen months apart, the Taylor Prism in 691 BCE and the Oriental Institute prism in 689 BCE. There are also at least eight other fragmentary prisms preserving parts of this text, all in the British Museum, and most of them containing just a few lines.

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Knowledge as Power: The Earliest Systematically Collected Library as Distinct from an Archive 668 BCE – 627 BCE

In an effort to collect all knowledge, Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, collected a library at his capital city Nineveh, containing, it has been estimated, 20,000–30,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform script

"Ashurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the scribal arts—by one Balasî , a senior royal scholar " (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 75).

"Recent cataloguing in the British Museum has enumerated some 3,700 scholarly tablets from Ashurbanipal's Library written in Babylonian script and dialect—about 13 percent of the entire library. Ashurbanipal's obsession with Babylonian books did not, then, completely overwhelm indigenous production, but he did view them as highly valuable cultural capital; their forced removal to Nineveh undermined Babylonian claims to the intellectual heritage of the region and thus pretensions to political hegemony, while reinforcing Ashurbanipal's own self-image as guardian of Mesopotamian culture and power" (Robson, op. cit., 77).

The library was discovered at Nineveh by archaeologist/explorer Austen Henry Layard in 1849, and is considered the earliest systematically collected library, as distinct from a government archive. Clay tablets such as those in Ashburbanipal's library, or other cuneiform archives, were not typically fired in kilns for preservation. However, it is thought that a significant portion of Ashurbanipal's library survived to the present because the clay tablets were baked in fires set during the Median sack of Nineveh in 612 CE. 

"The tablets have been sorted under the following heads: History; Law; Science; Magic; Dogma; Legends: and it has been shewn (1) that there was a special functionary to take charge of them; (2) that they were arranged in series, with special precautions for keeping the tablets forming a particular series in their proper sequence; (3) that there was a general catalogue and probably a class-catalogue as well" (Clark, The Care of Books (1902) 4). 

To deter thieves, Ashurbanipal had the following curse written on many or all of his tablets. It is the earliest known book curse, and because it was also a means of identifying his property it might also be considered an early ex-libris, albeit a verbose one:

“I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it existeth [in writing]. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land" (Drogin, Anathema! [1983] 52-53).

The surviving portion of Ashurbanipal's library includes 660 cuneiform tablets that concern medicine. These were published in facsimile for the first time, but without translation, by Reginald C. Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923).

Layard published an account of his discovery of the library in Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (2 vols., 1853) from which Clark, op. cit. 2, reproduced the floor-plan of Ashurbanipal's record rooms.  

Menant, La bibliothèque du palais de Ninive (1880). 

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The Constitutional Law of Dreros: The Earliest Surviving Greek Law on Stone Circa 650 BCE – 600 BCE

The Constitutional Law of Dreros was carved on a block of grey schist at the temple of Apollo Delphinios at Dreros (Δρῆρος, Driros), a post-Minoan site near Neapoli in the regional unit of Lasithi, Crete, around 650-600 BCE. Apollo Delphinios was a sea-god especially worshiped in Crete and in the Greek islands; his name indicates his connection with Delphi, and the holy serpent Delphyne ("womb"). The inscription may be the earliest surviving Greek law on stone, and, it is certainly the earliest which survived complete. The law is one of a group of eight, of which one was written in Eteocretan, excavated from the same temple. It may provide evidence of the existence within the ancient Greek world of non-Athenian experiments in government by assembly.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 2 (pp. 2-3 provide the following translation of the law:

"May God be kind (?). The city has  thus decided; when a man has been kosmos, the same man shall not be kosmos again for ten years. If he does act as kosmos, whatever, judgements he gives, he shall owe double, and he shall lose his rights to office, as long as he lives, and whatever he does as kosmos shall be nothing. The swearers shall be the kosmos (.e. the body of kosmoi) and the damioi, and twenty of the city."

Meiggs & Lewis p. 3 provide the following technical commentary on the law:

"The ratification formula with its use of πóλις against the normal Cretan ethnic may reasonably be claimed as an early piece of evidence for the concept of the polis. The word does not appear elsewhere epigraphically until the late sixth century Kyzikos, Thasos, Arkesine, Poseidonia. . . .We have no means of telling whether the word implies the participation of the assembly as Willetts claims, or merely the authority of the city's officials (Ehrenberg).

"The law forbids the repeated tenure of the office of kosmos, presumably, as elsewhere in Crete, the chief magistracy, before ten years have elapsed. The provision is paralleled at Gortyn. . . sixth century, and it has generally been explained there by the need to make a break in the financial and legal immunity of a magistrate. The length of time which has to elapse in Dreros, however, suggests strongly that the motive was rather to limit the possibilities of using the office as a stepping-stone to tyranny (the first editors) or to bolster the power of an individual family (Ehrenberg, Willets). How severe the penalty involved was depends on whether ακρηστος implies total deprivation of civic rights or deprivation merely of the right to hold certain magistracies. Dispute over the implications of the word involves the interpretation of the phrase χρηστους ποîεν in the archaic treaty between Sparta and Tegea (Plutarch, Greek Questions, 5. . . . ).

"The list of those who swear the oath, presumably every year, includes two unknown offices. The δαμιοι have been generally identified with the Gortynian τιται as financial supervisors. 'The twenty of the city' have been identified as a committee of the assembly (Willetts) a committtee of the council (the first editors), the council itself (Ehrenberg).The last seems the most probable."

 According to Maria Fout and John Keane of thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org, the inscription, which was formerly preserved in the Dreros Museum, was, as of 2009, preserved in the  Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Crete.

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The Skytale: An Early Greek Cryptographic Device Used in Warfare Circa 650 BCE

The skytale (scytale, σκυτάλη "baton"), a cylinder with a strip of parchment wrapped around it on which was written a message, was used by the ancient Greeks and Spartans to communicate secretly during military campaigns. It was first mentioned by the Greek poet Archilochus (fl. 7th century BCE), but the first clear indication of its use as a cryptographic device appeared in the writings of the poet and Homeric scholar, Apollonius of Rhodes, who also served as librarian at the Royal Library of Alexandria. 

Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, provided the first detailed description of the operation of the skytale:

The dispatch-scroll is of the following character. When the ephors send out an admiral or a general, they make two round pieces of wood exactly alike in length and thickness, so that each corresponds to the other in its dimensions, and keep one themselves, while they give the other to their envoy. These pieces of wood they call scytalae. Whenever, then, they wish to send some secret and important message, they make a scroll of parchment long and narrow, like a leathern strap, and wind it round their scytale, leaving no vacant space thereon, but covering its surface all round with the parchment. After doing this, they write what they wish on the parchment, just as it lies wrapped about the scytale; and when they have written their message, they take the parchment off and send it, without the piece of wood, to the commander. He, when he has received it, cannot otherwise get any meaning out of it,--since the letters have no connection, but are disarranged,--unless he takes his own scytale and winds the strip of parchment about it, so that, when its spiral course is restored perfectly, and that which follows is joined to that which precedes, he reads around the staff, and so discovers the continuity of the message. And the parchment, like the staff, is called scytale, as the thing measured bears the name of the measure.
—Plutarch, Lives (Lysander 19), ed. Bernadotte Perrin (quoted in Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 04-05-2014).

From Plutarch's description we might draw the conclusion that the skytale was used to transmit a transposition cipher. However, because earlier accounts do not confirm Plutarch's account, and because of the cryptographic weakness of the device, it was suggested that the skytale was used for conveying messages in plaintext, and that Plutarch's description is mythological. Another hypothesis is that the skytale was used for "message authentication rather than encryption. Only if the sender wrote the message around a scytale of the same diameter as the receiver's would the receiver be able to read it. It would therefore be difficult for enemy spies to inject false messages into the communication between two commanders" (Wikipedia article on Scytale, accessed 08-05-2014).

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The God of Writing. . . . Circa 646 BCE

ABout 646 BCE King Ashurbanipal recorded his rebuilding of Ezida, the temple of Nabû, the god of writing in Nineveh, on a limestone slab in Neo Assyrian cuneiform script:

"TO NABÛ, EXALTED LORD, WHO DWELLS IN EZIDA, WHICH IS IN NINEVEH, HIS LORD: I ASHURBANIPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA, THE ONE LONGED FOR AND DESTINED BY HIS GREAT DIVINITY, WHO, AT THE ISSUING OF HIS ORDER AND THE GIVING OF HIS SOLEMN DECREE, CUT OFF THE HEAD OF TE'UMMAN, KING OF ELAM, AFTER DEFEATING HIM IN BATTLE, AND WHOSE GREAT COMMAND MY HAND CONQUERED UMMAN-IGASH, TANMARIT, PA'E AND UMMAN-ALTASH, WHO RULED OF ELAM AFTER TE'UMMAN. I YOKED THEM TO MY SEDAN CHAIR, MY ROYAL CONVEYANCE. WITH HIS GREAT HELP I ESTABLISHED DECENT ORDER IN ALL THE LANDS WITHOUT EXCEPTION. AT THAT TIME I ENLARGED THE STRUCTURE OF THE COURT OF THE TEMPLE OF NABÛ, MY LORD, USING MASSIVE LIMESTONE. MAY NABÛ LOOK WITH JOY ON THIS, MAY HE FIND IT ACCEPTABLE. BY THE RELIABLE IMPRESS OF YOUR WEDGES MAY THE ORDER FOR A LIFE OF LONG DAYS COME FORTH FROM YOUR LIPS, MAY MY FEET GROW OLD BY WALKING IN EZIDA IN YOUR DIVINE PRESENCE"

(Schøyen Collection MS 2180, accessed 02-19-2014).

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Construction of the Etemenanki Ziggurat, Later Known as The Tower of Babel 604 BCE – 562 BCE

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The tower of Babel, ca. 1556

Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament, the restoration and enlargement of the Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon was completed after 43 years of labor. The ziggurat was originally built around the time of Hammurabi. It has been calculated that for its construction at least 17 million bricks had to be made and fired.

Some of these bricks were stamped with inscriptions in cuneiform. Eventually the ziggurat became known as the Tower of Babel, and the few bricks from this that survive are known as "Tower of Babel bricks" or Nebuchadnezzar II bricks. In his Typographia: an historical sketch of the origin and progress of the Art of Printing (1825) 2-7 printer and historian of printing Thomas Curson Hansard called these bricks "the first step toward the art of printing." 

“Babylon with the ziggurat was captured by Kyros 538 BC, Dareios I 519 BC, Xerxes ca. 483 BC, and entirely destroyed by Alexander I the Great in 331 BC. It is this tall stepped temple tower which is referred to in Genesis 11:1-9, and became known as ’The Tower of Babel’. The bricks are specifically mentioned in Genesis 11:3: ’Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire. — For stone they used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen’. The black bitumen is still visible on the back of the present baked brick. These bricks are considered so important and interesting that British Museum had their copy on exhibit with special handout descriptions, from where parts of the present information is taken. For a stele illustrating The Tower of Babel, see MS 2063. Nebuchadnezzar II was the founder of the New Babylonian empire. He captured Jerusalem in 596 and 586 BC, burnt down the temple and all of Jerusalem, carried its treasures off to Babylon, and took the Jews into captivity (2 kings 24-25). Nebuchadnezzar II is the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament. Daniel 1-4 is almost entirely devoted to the description of his greatness and reign, his rise and fall, and submission to God” (Schøyen Collection MS 1815/1).

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The Tower of Babel Stele 604 BCE – 562 BCE

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Nebuchadnezzar II completed the restoration of the Etemenanki ziggurat which was originally built around the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE). The Tower of Babel Stele, of which two of the original three parts are preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2063), presents an image of the Etemenaki ziggurat contemporary with Nebachadnezzar's restoration, along with a simple building plan.

"The missing part of the stele's back, was in a religious institution in U.S.A., the present whereabouts unknown. The stele was found in a special hiding chamber, broken into 3 parts in antiquity, at Robert Koldewey's excavations of the site of the Tower of Babel in 1917. Its importance was immediately recognised. A photograph was taken with 3 archaeologists standing next to the stele. With the imminent danger of war breaking out in the area, they decided to rescue it, and each archaeologist carried one part out of the war zone. One part was taken to Germany, one part to Jordan and then London, the third part to U.S.A." (http://www.schoyencollection.com/babylonianhist.htm, accessed 02-19-2010).

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A Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian Cylinder Sets an Auction Record Circa 604 BCE – 562 BCE

On April 9, 2014, Doyle New York auctioned a Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur) Babylonian cuneiform cylinder that described the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II, and dated to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BCE. Measuring 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, it was the largest example to come to market in recent times. The cylinder was described as, "double-tapered barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, tapering from 3 1/4 inches (8 cm) at center to 2 1/4 inches (6 cm) at the ends. Text in two columns, approximately 35 lines. Very light wear to the surface but with no apparent loss of legibility; a short and minor fissure, apparently created at the time of forming or firing, visible on a blank area of the cylinder, overall in sound condition." 

It was customary for the kings of Babylon to cement their relationship with the gods by restoring their temples. These accomplishments were then recorded in cuneiform on clay cylinders prepared by a court scribe, which were buried in the foundations of the restored temples. The cylinders were enduring commemorations of the king's fealty to the gods. This very public act also helped to create the appearance of legitimacy for the ruler. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, extols Cyrus as a benefactor. He had attained the throne by deposing the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and he apparently believed that this and similar ritual acts would legitimize his standing with both the gods and his subjects.

The cuneiform cylinder sold by Doyle came from Sippar, a great complex of temples, the cult site of the Akkadian sun god Shamash, and the home of his temple E-babbara. The text was in two columns, and followed text number 16, published both in Babylonian and German, in Langdon, Die neubabylonischen Konigsinschriften (1912) 141 et seq. Berger, in Die neubabylonischen Konigsinchriften (1973) listed seven extant examples of this cylinder, of which five are in the British Museum, and two in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. The specimen auctioned by Doyle was slightly larger than any others recorded.

The auction house published this approximate translation of the text of the cylinder:

"Column I. 
"NEBUCHADNEZZAR, King of Babylon, the Wise, the Provider, Favorite of Marduk, Sakkanakku of the lands of Sumer and Akkad, who established the foundation of the lands; the Venerated Ruler whom Marduk, the Great Lord, has chosen to renew the Holy Sanctuaries and maintain the cities as his calling: into whose hands Nebo, the Victorious Son gave the scepter of prosperity to extend the lands for Man's guidance; the understanding and reverent, the maintainer of E-sagila and E-zida; the first-born Son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon am I. 
When Marduk, the Great Lord, joyfully created me and called me into the Kingship with an eternal name, I thought reverently of Him and of His Divinity. But I continue humbly to worship Nebo, His legitimate Son, patron of my kingdom; I praise his glory. 
I endowed E-Sagila and E-zida, their favored palaces, with gold, silver, precious jewels and tall cedars, and made them shine forth like the innermost heavens. I beautified in splendor the holy sanctuaries of the great Gods, according to the wish of their hearts. E-barra, the radiant abode of the Gods, the dwelling-place of Samas, the Judge, which had long ago fallen into disrepair in Sippar; which no previous king had built, Samas the Lord ordered me, the Ruler, His favorite, to rebuild. I found its old cornerstone, and took notice of it. Over its old cornerstone I laid its foundation. I erected E-barra as it was of yore and completed it. I caused it to shine like the bright day, I caused Samas and Ai to return in gladness and rejoicing to their exalted dwelling. At that time, since time immemorable little had been left at E-ulla, the temple of Ninkarrak in Sippar. 

"Column II. 
"The temple building was in disrepair, the outer walls had crumbled, the foundation was no longer recognizable; it was buried in the dust; it was no longer numbered among the Holy Sanctuaries of the Gods; the tithes had ceased; they had vanished from the speech of the peoples; the offerings were no longer being made. 
Because I held the hem of the garment of Marduk, My Lord, and he was gracious unto me, He entrusted unto my hands the renewal of the Holy Sanctuaries, the restoring of the Edifices. 
During my legitimate reign, the merciful Marduk chose to look with favor upon that temple, and Samas, the exalted Judge, ordered its renewal. They ordered me, the shepherd who worships them, to build; I found its old cornerstone and took notice of it. The name of Nikarrak, whose throne is in E-ulla, was inscriped on the image of a dog and was there plainly to be seen. Over the old cornerstone I established the foundation for Ninkarrak, my beloved Mistress, Guardian of my soul, who brings prosperity to my kinsmen; for her I rebuilt E-ulla, her temple in Sippar. Its tithes I enriched and its offerings I restored. O Ninkarrak, Exalted Mistress, look graciously upon the work of my hands. May my acts of devotion be made known to Thy lips. Grant unto me long life, many descendants, good health, and a joyful heart. Present my deeds favorably unto Samas and Marduk; speak in my behalf." 

Provenance being essential for the authenticity and title of archaeological artifacts, this cylinder had belonged to Ellen Shaffer, Rare Book Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and had been sold to Archie P. Johnston in 1953. The hammer price was $500,000, which with the buyer's premium, meant that the price realized was $605,000. This was the highest price realized for a Babylonian Cylinder to date.

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The Oldest Surviving Texts from the Hebrew Bible Circa 600 BCE

The larger of the two silver scrolls, discovered in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, which have been deemed the oldest suriving texts from the Hebrew bible. (View Larger)

In 1979 two tiny silver scrolls, inscribed with portions of the well-known apotropaic Priestly Blessing of the Book of Numbers, and apparently once used as amulets, were found in one of a burial chambers at Ketef Hinnom,  an archaeological site near Jerusalem. The delicate process of unrolling the scrolls, while developing a method that would prevent them from disintegrating, took three years. Even though very brief, the two tiny silver scrolls are the oldest surviving texts from the Hebrew Bible.

"The scrolls were found in 1979 in Chamber 25 of Cave 24 at Ketef Hinnom, during excavations conducted by a team under the supervision of Gabriel Barkay, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. The site appeared to be archaeologically sterile (the tomb had last been used for storing rifles during the Ottoman period), but a chance discovery by a 13-year-old "assistant" revealed that a partial collapse of the ceiling long ago had preserved the contents of Chamber 25.

"The chamber contained approximately 60 cm. of material with over a thousand objects: many small pottery vessels, artifacts of iron and bronze (including arrowheads), needles and pins, bone and ivory objects, glass bottles, and jewelry including earrings of gold and silver. The tomb had evidently been in use for several generations towards the end of the First Temple period, and continued to be used after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE. KH1 was found in Square D, the middle of the repository, 7 cm above the floor, while KH2 was found while sifting dirt from the lower half of the deposits in Square A, the innermost portion of the repository. Both amulets were separated from Hellenistic artifacts by 3 meters of length and 25 cm of depth, and embedded in pottery and other material from the 7th/6th centuries BCE.

"Barkay initially dated the inscriptions to the late-7th/early-6th centuries BC (later revised downward slightly to the early 6th century) on palaeographic grounds (the forms of the delicately-incised paleo-Hebrew lettering) and on the evidence of the pottery found in the immediate vicinity. This dating was subsequently questioned by Johannes Renz and Wolfgang Rollig (Handbuch der Althebraischen Epigraphik, 1995), who argued that the script was in too poor a condition to be dated with certainty and that a 3rd/2nd century BCE provenance could not be excluded, especially as the repository, which had been used as a kind of "rubbish bin" for the burial chamber over many centuries, also contained material from the fourth century BCE.

"A major re-examination of the scrolls was therefore undertaken by the University of Southern California's West Semitic Research Project, using advanced photographic and computer enhancement techniques which enabled the script to be read more easily and the paleography to be dated more confidently. The results, published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) in 2004, confirmed a date immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586/7 BCE.](An innovation in the report was the simultaneous publication of an accompanying "digital article," a CD version of the article and the images). Dr Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in ancient Semitic scripts, has said the study should "settle any controversy over [the date of] these inscriptions" (Wikipedia article on Ketef Hinnom, accessed 09-01-2009).

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The Diolkos Paved Trackway for Ships Across the Isthmus of Corinth Circa 600 BCE – 50 CE

Between about 600 BCE and 50 CE the Diolkos, a paved trackway for ships, or rutway, was in operation across the Isthmus of Corinth, enabling ancient vessels to avoid the long and dangerous navigation of the Peloponnesos.  As the Diolkos was open to all boats upon receipt of payment, the 6 km (3.7 mi) to 8.5 km (5.3 mi) long roadway, which used cut stone tracks to haul boats pulled by animals, has been viewed by historians as a kind of public railway.

The main function of the Diolkos was the transfer of goods, although in wartime it also became a preferred means of speeding up naval campaigns.

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Filed under: Transportation

More than 10,000 Stone Inscriptions Were Excavated from the Ancient Agora of Athens 600 BCE – 267 CE

During twentieth century excavations of the Ancient Agora of Athens more than 10,000 stone inscriptions were identified and inventoried. The texts included diplomatic agreements, commemorative plaques for athletic victories, records of court judgments, boundary stones identifying different buildings, and fragmentary inscriptions featuring names of over 30,000 individual Athenians. 

Thompson & Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape, and Uses of an Ancient City Center (1972).

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Destruction of Solomon's Temple 586 BCE

Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were exiled into the Babylonian Captivity

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The Duenos Inscription Circa 550 BCE

The DUENOS inscription, found by Heinrich Dressel in 1880 on a vase on Quirnal Hill in Rome, is the second earliest known Old Latin text. It is inscribed on the sides of a kernos, in this case a trio of small globular vases adjoined by three clay struts. The kernos is preserved in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (inventory no. 30894,3).

Old Latin, the precursor of classical Latin, is known from non-book writing, such as stone inscriptions.

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The Oldest Known Work on Military Strategy Circa 550 BCE

The Yinqueshan bamboo strips, the earliest manuscript of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' on exhibition in a Chinese museum. (View Larger)

About 550 BCE it is believed that the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Wu ( 孙武, 孫武, Sūn Wǔ), style name Changqing (長卿), better known as Sun Tzu (孙子, 孫子, Sūn Zǐ]) wrote The Art of War (孫子兵法; Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ). Later called one of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China, The Art of War is the oldest and most influential work on military strategy.

"Sun Tzu suggested the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.  

"The book was translated into the French language in 1772 by French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, and into English by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905. It likely influenced Napoleon,and leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, and General Douglas MacArthur have claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work. The Art of War has also been applied to business and managerial strategies" (Wikipedia article on The Art of War, accessed 01-30-2010).

Because of the destruction of information that took place in 213 BCE at the instigation of the Qin Emperor, the earliest known manuscript of Sun Tzu's text consists of 13 fragments of chapters among the 4942 bamboo strips known as the Yinqueshan Han Slips, which were discovered in April 1972 in Yinqueshan Tombs no. 1 and 2 at the foot of Yinqueshan (Sliver Sparrow Mountain) southeast of the city of Linyi in the province of Shandong, China. Each bamboo strip is about 28 centimeters long, 0.7 centimeter wide and 0.2 centimeter thick. The characters on the bamboo slips were written in lishu, a clerical script from the Han Dynasty.

"The time of burial for both tombs had been dated to about 140 BC/134 BC and 118 BC, the texts having been written on the bamboo slips before then. After restoration and arrangement, the slips were organised into a sequential order of nine groups and 154 sections. The first group included 13 fragment chapters from Sunzi's The Art of War, and 5 undetermined chapters; the second group were the 16 chapters of Sun Bin's Art of War, which had been missing for at least 1,400 years; the third included the 7 original and lost chapters from the Six Strategies (before this significant find only the titles of the lost chapters were known); the fourth and fifth included 5 chapters from the Wei Liaozi and 16 chapters from the Yanzi; the rest of the groups included anonymous writings" (Wikipedia article on Yinqueshan Han Slips, accessed 01-30-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 05-24-2014.)

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The Greek Origin of Monumental Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 550 BCE

In his classic series of lectures, Politics and Script, delivered in 1957, typographer and historian of typography and calligraphy Stanley Morison traced the monumental stone inscriptions of the Romans, from which many of the classic Roman typefaces descend, to a gravestone from Melos (Milos), Greece.  He wrote concerning an inscription carved in marble on a gravestone from Melos preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (I.G. xii. 3. 1130) that

"the shapes of its letters are those upon which all others depend. It will be seen that they are 'square'. That is not to say that the letters are all perfectly square, but they may be said to be generally 'square' in comparison with handwriting. This is the only sense in which it can be said that Greek, and for that matter Latin, letters are 'quadrate'. It must be noted that, although in the still earlier inscriptions this could not be said, from the sixth century and throughout the classical period it became the rule.

"There are four primary characteristics of early Greek letter design in the classical period. First, the apparent squareness of the shapes; secondly, the unformity of the stroke; thirdly, the consistence of the complete structure; lastly, the rationality of the shapes in having no unnecessary parts and nothing supurfluous. Thus the script is square, unform, rational, and perfectly functional. . . .

"In describing the scripts and letterings of later periods, different places and other languages, reference will be made to relative plainness of design and equality of width of stroke. If the stroke in the Melos inscriptions appears to us as 'thin' it must be considered that it looks so to us because we are accustomed to a thicker stroke. Among Greeks of the sixth or fifth century B.C. the stroke that we may consider thin was normal. The Latins, as will be seen, used a different method of stroking. This does not yet concern us except to remember constantly that is the Latin stroke that is normal to us in the West. The main element in the design, however, is not the stroke's width but its uniformity. The Greek stroke is not merely thin (for it can be thickened) but it is invariably uniform. This is the first great distinction of fundamental importance to the criticism and classification of Graeco-Roman scripts" (Morison, Politics and Script. Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. The Lyell Lectures 1957. Edited and Completed by Nicolas Barker [1972] 5-7, plate 1 ).

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A Block Printed Gold Magic Amulet from Ancient Greece or Asia Minor Circa 550 BCE

MS 5236 in the Schøyen Collection in Oslo, Norway, is the only known ancient Greek magic amulet printed with a text that was stamped rather than incised. It is also the only extant speciment of Ephesia grammata made of gold. It contains a partially comprehensible invocation of the god Phoebus Apollo, and may have been composed in central Greece or Asia Minor.

"The special significance of MS 5236 lies in the way the inscription was created. A close examination shows that a blind-stamping process was used to reproduce the Greek text on the lamella, with a single matrix carrying the whole text. In this, MS 5236 differs fundamentally from other amulets of the time, where the magic formulas were incised by hand, such as with a stylus, into the metal foil.

"The entire process is reconstructed by [Herbert] Brekle as follows: First, the inscription's text was engraved with an iron stylus into an even copper or bronze block, with its letters facing the opposite direction and running from right to left. The displaced material rose up on both sides of the letter grooves forming two sharp, parallel ridges. In the second step, the inscribed side of the stamp block was placed on the plane gold sheet and sufficient pressure, either manually or by hammering onto a plate laid on top, was exerted from above to transmit the text. What produced the print image were the ridges caused by the material displacement; these left shallow double lines in the foil, thus creating the text. The actual, sunken letter lines were not transferred during the imprinting procedure, since they did not enter the surface of the foil.

"It is the existence of these fine double grooves on the gold lamella which provides the key for identifying MS 5236 as being stamped and not written. Because it is a matter of mechanical necessity that the engraved letters appear with their raised double edges on the substrate as parallel, sunken lines when being printed, as can be observed on the amulet. Thus, the inscription is a bas-relief, which was produced by a bas-relief stamp.

If the text had been carved directly into the foil as with other amulets, the stylus could have left only simple lines. According to Brekle, the applied printing technique has much in common with the later method of drypoint etching, by which an image is incised into a copper plate; however, unlike drypoint, MS 5236 is a colourless blind print.

"A further indication for the use of a printing technique is the varying strength of the letters, which suggests that the surface of the lamella was not completely flat during printing. Thus, the outline of the letters, as to be expected with a print, appear in the slightly more elevated regions of the sheet (darker areas in the photo), more distinct than in the slightly deeper regions (lighter areas) that were not affected by the full force of the stamp. This can be observed particularly along the folds and in the last line where the edge of the foil was apparently slightly bent downwards while being printed. Consequently, the impressions of the letters appear less marked here. If the text had been directly inscribed with a stylus into the foil, these variations would not have occurred.

"Regarding the stroke order of the letters on the stamp, it can be said that the Hasta, the mostly vertical main line, was normally executed before the Coda figures. MS 5236 is an overall rare and possibly unique print from the early Greek era. Despite this, the widespread use of magical amulets indicates that such block prints were, at least from the present prototype, mass-produced at that time" (Wikipedia article on MS 5236, accessed 01-19-2013)

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The Cyrus Cylinder, the Earliest Known Document in the History of Religious Toleration 539 BCE

The front side of the Cyrus Cylinder. (View Larger)

 

In 539 BEC, after conquering Babylonia, Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) permitted various religious groups, including perhaps 40,000 Jews, to return to their native land. Cyrus also issued a declaration inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay cylinder. The cylinder, which has become known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was discovered in March, 1879 in the foundation of the Ésagila temple in Babylon by the Assyrian Christian Assyriologist and archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam

"The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city's main temple. Rassam's expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan's decree authorised Rassam to "pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found ... provided, however, there were no duplicates." A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered. 

With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself" (Wikipedia article on Cyrus Cylinder, accessed 03-08-2014).

On the cylinder Cyrus announced a number of reforms that he made after conquering the country. These include arranging for the restoration of temples and organizing the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. For these reasons the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the earliest known document in the history of religious toleration. It is preserved in the British Museum. (BM 90920).

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Ezra Introduces Public Reading of the Torah Circa 536 BCE

Ezra the Scribe

After the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity abpit 536 BCE Ezra the Scribe introduced public reading of the Torah.

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Disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments 535 BCE

Having taken 4 months to walk from Babylon to Jerusalem, the Jews began construction of the Second Temple. Missing from the Second Temple was the Ark of the Covenant which, according to legend, contained the Ten Commandments. The loss eventually resulted in extensive speculations concerning the Ark's disappearance and archaeological efforts to locate the Ark. Some of these efforts were caricatured in: 

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The "Rosetta Stone" of Cuneiform Script 522 BCE – 486 BCE

The Behistun Inscription. (View Larger)

The Behistun Inscription (also Bisitun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون ; Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the god's place or land"),  a multi-lingual stone inscription approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, located on Mount Behistun in  Kermanshah Province, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, was written by Darius I, the Great sometime between his coronation as Zoroastrian king of kings of the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire in the summer of 522 BCE and his death in autumn of 486 BCE.

" . . . the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius I, the Great including his ancestry, lineage etc. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the death of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December of 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. Darius' inscription states in detail that the rebellions, which had resulted from the deaths of Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses II, were orchestrated by several impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed kinghood during the upheaval following Cyrus the Great's death. Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during the period of upheaval, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahuramazda (God)".

"The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Babylonian was a later form of Akkadian: unlike Old Persian, they are Semitic languages. In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script.

"Translation of the text was a multi-step and multi-national effort based on earlier work done on the decipherment of the Old Persian script by Georg Friedrich Grotefend in the late 1700's when Grotefend discovered that, unlike Elamite and Babylonian texts, Old Persian text is alphabetic. In the following years, the efforts of [Eugène] Burnouf, [Christian] Lassen, and [Henry] Rawlinson (who had the remainder of the inscription transcribed in two parts, in 1835 and 1843) contributed to translating the Old Persian cuneiform text using the Zoroastrian book Avesta as a key, in addition to cross referencing with modern Persian and Vedic languages. With the Old Persian text deciphered, Rawlinson and others were able to then translate the Elamite and Babylonian texts (both of which were ancient translations of the Old Persian text) after 1843.

"The Inscription is . . . 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The prostrate figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and ten one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king" (Wikipedia article on Behistun Inscription, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Earliest Surviving Athenian Decree: The Cleruchy on Salamis 510 BCE – 500 BCE

The earliest surviving Athenian decree concerns the status and obligations of men living on Salamis, an ancient Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus. The "Salaminian Decree" may be the earliest example of the stoichedon style of epigraphy. This style, named from στοιχηδόν, a Greek adverb meaning "in a row", was the practice of engraving ancient Greek inscriptions in capitals with the letters aligned vertically as well as horizontally. Texts in this form were composed as if in a grid with the same number of letters in each line and each space in the grid filled with a single letter. There were no spaces between words, and no spaces or punctuation between sentences. This was the dominant style of inscription in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and was the preferred style for official state proclamations. 

In translation the Greek text reads:

"Decided by the demos. Th[ose in S]alam[is who are cleruch]s
shall be allowed to reside on Salamis [-15- to the Athe]ni-
ans to pay taxes and provide milit[ary service]. [But] what is theirs [on Salamis] shall not
be leased, unless a kinsmen(?) is the lessor. [I]-
f someone should lease it, [the lessee and the] l-
essor shall pay a penalty, each [of them -19-]
to the public treasury. [And the transaction shall be handled by the a]-
rchon, if [not, he shall be held accountable at his euth]y[na. The]-
ir weapons they shall f[urnish themselves]; the cost is th]-
irty dr[achmas. Having been armed]
the archon [shall review their weapons.]
The B[ou]le, [in] the year [- c.11 -]"

"In the aftermath of the reforms of Cleisthenes of 508/7 BCE, the new Athenian democracy sought to establish a presence in the Saronic Gulf against its Peloponnesian (led by Sparta) and Isthmian (led by Corinth) opponents. The nearby island of Aegina and the city-state of Corinth adjacent to the Isthmus, the narrow land that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese was controlled by Corinth, both had spheres of interest in the Saronic Gulf. These and other poleis or city-states were active members of the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta and included Athens. The island of Salamis, which Athens had seized from Corinth's neighboring polis Megara in the age of Pisistratus the tyrant ca. 560 BCE (Paus1.3.39.6.2), provided the ideal base for such a presence. This, the earliest extant decree of the Cleisthenic demos, addresses the rights and responsibilities of kleruchoi or cleruchs (Athenian citizens dwelling outside of Athens who retain their citizenship) settled by Athens on the island: cleruchs must pay taxes and provide military services to Athens, they may lease the land only to kinsmen (the text here is fragmentary and may refer instead to a dweller) on penalty of a fine, and they must provide their own weapons. Athenian citizens transplanted to Salamis ensured a visible, physical manifestation of Athenian control of the western entrance to the northern Saronic Gulf" (http://www.skidmore.edu/academics/classics/stoa/salamisdecree.html, accessed 04-15-2014.)

"The main evidence for the date of this important decree lies in the letter forms and the arrangement of the text. The stoichedon character ll. 1-6 shows an early stage in the development of the style, which by 485-4 was mature in Athens. . . . The letter forms might be found at any time between c. 520 and c. 480. They are probably cut by the same craftsman as a dedication on the Acropolis of a statue by Hegias . . ., who is presumably the teacher of Pheidas. This does not, however, compel a date after 490, and, if Salamis is the first Athenian cleruchy, the decree should be dated before the cleruchy sent to Chalkis after the Athenian victory of 506. . . . The period immediately following the reforms of Cleisthenes offers a good context. Athens had broken with Sparta; it would have been a sound precaution to establish a permanent garrison on the island which Megara, with Spartan support, might attempt to recover" (Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 14, p. 27).

Excavated from the Acropolis, the stone fragments are preserved in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens.

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The Persepolis Administrative Archives 509 BCE – 457 BCE

Between 1933 and 1934 excavations directed by Ernest Herzfeld for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago discovered the administrative archives of the Persian city of Persepolis, consisting of the Persepolis Fortification Archive and the Persepolis Treasury Archive. Persepolis (Old Persian: Pārśa, New Persian: پرسپولیس) literary meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The modern name of the location is Takht-e Jamshid in Fars near Shiraz in southwestern Iran. 

The thousands of clay tablets, fragments and seal impressions in the Persepolis archives are a part of a single administrative system, representing continuity of activity and flow of data over more than fifty years from 509 to 457 BCE. These records contain information on the geography, economy, administration, religion and social conditions of the Persepolis region, the heartland of the Persian Great Kings from Darius I the Great to Artaxerxes I.

The Persepolis Fortification Archive was found at the northeastern corner of the terrace of Persepolis, in two rooms in the fortification wall in March 1933. The entrance to the rooms were bricked up in antiquity. The tablets had been stored in a small space near the staircase in the tower in the fortification wall, arranged in order, as if in a library. The upper floor of the fortification wall may have collapsed at the time of the Macedonian invasion, in the process partially destroying the order of the tablets while protecting them until 1933. Paradoxically, the burning of Persepolis by Alexander the Great in 330/329 BCE contributed to the preservation of the Achaemenid administrative archives that might have been lost due to passage of time by natural and manmade causes. Herzfeld estimated that the find included about 30,000 or more inscribed and sealed clay tablets and fragments.

"Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA), also known as Persepolis Fortification Tablets (PFT, PF), is a fragment of Achaemenid  administrative records of receipt, taxation, transfer, storage of food crops (cereals, fruit), livestock (sheep and goats, cattle, poultry), food products (flour, breads and other cereal products, beer, wine, processed fruit, oil, meat), and byproducts (animal hides) in the region around Persepolis (larger part of modern Fars), and their redistribution to gods, royal family, courtiers, priests, religious officiants, administrators, travelers, workers, artisans, and livestock.

"But before Persepolis archives could have offered any clues to the better understanding of the Achaemenid history, the clay tablets, mostly written in a late dialect of Elamite, an extremely difficult language still imperfectly understood, had to be deciphered. So, in 1935, Iranian authorities loaned the Persepolis Fortification Archive to the Oriental Institute for research and publication. The archive arrived in Chicago in 1936 and has been under studies since 1937. It was not until 1969 when Richard Hallock published his magisterial edition of 2087 Elamite tablets [in] Persepolis Fortification Tablets leading to the renaissance of Achaemenid studies in 1970s. The long term project spanning over seven (7) decades is far from completion.

"153 tablets, approximately 30,000 fragments and an unknown number of uninscribed tablets were returned to Iran in the 1950s. So far about 450 tablets and tens of thousands of fragments have already been returned to Iran in total" (Wikipedia article on Perepolis Administative Archives, accessed 04-26-2014.)

The Persepolis Treasury Archive was found on the southeastern part of Persepolis terrace in the block of buildings identified as the "Royal Treasury" where small pieces of gold leaves were found. The find consisted of 746 clay tablets and fragments, covering 35 years from 492 to 457 BCE, from regnal year 30th of Darius I the Great, to regnal year 7th of Artaxerxes I, with the largest concentration from regnal years 19th and 20th of Xerxes

In April 2014 a history of the excavations and study of the Persian Achaemenid Administative Archives entitled Persian.ology. Gate-keepers of (clay) dinosaur bones by A. J. Cave was available from academia.edu at this link. The book was presented in an imaginative illustrated and typographic format.

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The Earliest Known Work on Descriptive Linguistics Circa 500 BCE

An Indian postage stamp, released in 2004, in honor of Pannini.

About 500 BCE Panini, an Indian grammarian from Pushkalavati (Sanskrit: पुष्कलावती), an ancient site situated in the Peshawar valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly NWFP) of Pakistan (then Gandhara), composed his formulation of 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology known as Ashtadhyayi. This was the earliest known work on descriptive linguistics. It included the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root, and metarules, transformation, and recursion.

"Sometime around 500 B.C., the ancient scholar Panini analyzed the Sanskrit language at a level of complexity that has never been matched since, for any language. His grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, comprises some 4,000 rules meant to generate all the possible sentences of Sanskrit from roots of sound and meaning — phonemes and morphemes. The rules include definitions; headings; operational rules, including “replacement, affixation, augmentation and compounding”; and “metarules,” which call other rules recursively. Sound familiar? Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit bears more than a family resemblance to a modern programming language. As Chandra says, the grammar is itself “an algorithm, a machine that consumes phonemes and morphemes and produces words and sentences.” This is not a coincidence. American syntactic theory, Chomsky channeling Panini, formed the soil in which the computer languages grew" (James Gleick, "A Unified Theory. [Review of] 'Geek Sublime' by Vikram Chandra," The New York Times, August 22, 2014, Accessed 08-21-2014).

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The First Known Description of a Binary Numerical System Circa 500 BCE

In Chandaḥśāstra (also Chandaḥsūtra), the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody,  “Pingala presented the first known description of a binary numeral system. He described the binary numeral system in connection with the listing of Vedic meters with short and long syllables. His work also contains the basic ideas of maatraameru (Fibonacci number) and meruprastaara (Pascal’s triangle.)”

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The Roman Census Circa 500 BCE

Servius Tullius. the sixth legendary king of ancient Rome, and the second king of the Etruscan dynasty, introduced the Roman census to determine taxes. Conducted every five years, it provided a register of citizens and their property.

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Paper in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Circa 500 BCE

Around 500 BCE natives of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica manufactured Amatl (Nahuatl: āmatl, Spanish: amate or papel amate) during the first millenium BCE. This was a form of paper made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genus Ficus) such as F. cotinifolia and F. padifolia. The resulting fibrous material was pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper, colored light brown with corrugated lines

"Iconography (in stone) dating from the period contains depictions of items thought to be paper. For example, Monument 52 from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán illustrates a personage adorned with ear pennants of folded paper." (Wikipedia article on Amatl)

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The Royal Road Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

King Darius I

By the time of Herodotus (circa 484-425 BCE) the Persian Royal Road ran some 2,857 km from the city of Susa on the lower Tigris to the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey) on the Aegean Sea.  A highway built by the Persian king of kings Darius I to facilitate rapid communication and intelligence gathering throughout the Persian Empire,  the Royal Road was protected by Persian rulers and later used by the Romans. On this road couriers, riding in relays, could travel 1,677 miles (2,699 km) in seven or nine days.

Herodotus wrote:

“There is nothing that travels faster, and yet is mortal, than these couriers; the Persians invented this system, which works as follows. It is said that there are as many horses and men posted at intervals as there are days required for the entire journey, so that one horse and one man are assigned to each day. And neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night keeps them from completing their appointed course as swiftly as possible. The first courier passes on the instructions to the second, the second to the third, and from there they are transmitted from one to another all the way through, just as the torchbearing relay is celebrated by the Hellenes in honor of Hephaistos. The Persians call this horse-posting system the angareion" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories [2007] 8.98, p. 642). 

By having fresh horses and riders ready at each relay, royal couriers may have carried messages the entire distance in 7 to 9 days, though normal travelers, or an army on foot, might have taken about three months. This Royal Road linked into many other routes in the overall trade network known as the Silk Road. Some of these roads, such as the routes to India and Central Asia, were also protected, encouraging regular contact between India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. There are accounts in the Old Testament Book of Esther of dispatches being sent from Susa to provinces as far out as India and Cush (Kush) during the reign of Xerxes (485-465 BCE).

"The postal system during the reign of Xerxes I is also described in the Biblical Book of Esther. While the historical details of the Book of Esther are difficult to verify, it would appear that a swift messenger system connecting all provinces of the Persian Empire was at the disposal of the ruler. In this case, the system was used not to gather information about provincial affairs but to send royal decrees throughout the realm. Thus, when Hāmān secured the King’s permission to kill the Jews of the empire, ‘Letters were sent by courier to all the King’s provinces with orders to destroy, slay and exterminate all Jews’ (Esther 3: 13). When, through the efforts of Mordecai and Esther, the King agreed to spare the Jews, ‘Letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on horses from the royal stable. By these letters the King granted permission to the Jews in every city to unite and defend themselves …’ (8: 10); thus ‘the couriers, mounted on their royal horses, were despatched post-haste at the King’s urgent command; and the decree was issued also in Susa the capital’ (8: 14).

"In this case, the Achaemenid postal system was employed to circulate royal decrees throughout the provinces of the empire, using riders ‘on horses from the royal stable’. The English translation of these verses is deceptively readable and cannot be seen as loyal to the complexities of the original Hebrew text. For instance, the term aḥashtranīm (Esther 8: 10, 14) used to describe the royal mounts has conveniently been ignored in the English version. In fact, this word is a hapax legomenon and has generated exegetical controversy" (Silverstein, Postal Systems in the Pre-Islamic World [2007] http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521858687&ss=exc, accessed 01-14-2010).

Until the development of effective optical telegraph systems at the end of the 18th century, messengers on horseback, riding over a good road system, remained the fastest method of sending a message overland.

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The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Greece Circa 450 BCE

"It is not until the middle of the fifth century or a little later that a book trade can be said to have existed in Greece: we find references to a part of the Athenian market where books can be bought  (Eupolis fr. 327 K.-A.) and Socrates is represented by Plato as saying in his Apology 26D that anyone can buy Anaxagorus' works for a drachma in the orchestra. All details of the trade, however, remain unknown" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd. ed. [1991] 2).

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How Herodotus Used Writing and Messages in his Histories Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

As Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) was the founder of historical writing, references to written or archival records in his Histories (The History) are of particular interest. By the mid-fifth century BCE writing in Greece had existed for only about 300 years. Because writing was relatively new, and only a small portion of society was literate, it may not be surprising that Herodotus appears to have consulted few written sources in compiling his Histories. From Herodotus's own account it seems that most often he did not find it necessary, or perhaps practical, to verify information that he compiled from personal observation through the consultation of written records. Herodotus also expected his Histories to be read aloud, in which case citing written sources within the Histories might have been a kind of distraction.

Herodotus begins his Histories with a sentence that has been translated in various ways: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time."  Another translation of the same sentence reads, "What follows is a performance of the enquiries of Herodotus from Halicarnassus." According to Robert Strassler, editor of The Landmark Herodotus (2007) 3, Proem.b, "This almost certainly implies that Herodotus performed (read aloud) his text, in whole or in part, to an audience gathered to hear him."

Herodotus usually refers to records in the context of government, law, or communication. He often refers to dispatches sent by leaders as part of political or military negotiations, such as dispatches sent in the context of war. He describes attempts to send secret messages. He also refers to records used for the enforcement of laws, which were, of course, in written form. He is aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of writing over oral communication.

"Herodotus recognized the usefulness of writing for interpersonal communication, but he also knew that it could be problematic. Because writing fixed a message in time and space, a written document that seemed objective and straightforward could also be full of paradoxes. In the generation after Herodotus, Socrates would complain (in the dialogue Phaedrus, set down by Plato) that writing represented 'no true wisdom, . . . but only its semblance.' Written words 'seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent,' the philosopher said, 'but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.' Even worse, once something is put in writing it 'drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. '  

"Like Socrates, Herodotus knew that writing was full of ambiguities. Since a written document could not be cross-examined as a speaking person could, it might be used not to inform but to deceive. Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes. knew this too. Both sides in the war were vying for the help of the Ionians, descendants of Greek settlers who had colonized the Aegean islands and the adjacent mainland coastal areas of present-day Turkey. Most Ionians sided with the Persians, their powerful near-neighbours, but the Greeks sought their aid on the grounds of common ancestry. Themistocles used the ambiguity of writing to enlist their help, or at least to minimize the potential harm they might do to the Greek cause. He sent men to the "drinkable-water places" where Ionian ships put in for resupply, and he had them cut written messages into the rocks there, urging the Ionians to abandon Xerxes and join the Greek side. His plan was clever: either the Ionians who read the messages would be persuaded to rebel against the Persians, he reasoned, or Xerxes himself would see the messages and distrust his allies, withholding them from the order of battle (8.22). As it happened, only a few Ionians defected to the Greeks (see 8.85), but a more important point had been made: writing could send a deliberately confusing message as well as a direct one. Writing was not always so straightforward as it appeared to be.

"Writing could also be useful for sending messages in secret, and Herodotus provided several examples of how written records promoted secrecy. There was a danger in committing anything to writing since, if the document were intercepted, secrecy would be lost. Histiaeus, who had been made Despot of Miletus by Darius, learned this lesson when he sought through secret messages to stir up a revolt against his benefactor. The King's brother intercepted these letters, read them, and then sent them on to their original destination, having meanwhile profited from knowing what plans were afoot. When the revolt came, the loyal forces 'killed a great number ... when they were thus revealed' (6.4). Still, writing out a message and smuggling it to a confederate could be safer than entrusting it orally to a messenger, who could be bribed or tortured into talking if apprehended. Because of the possibility of such discovery, special care was needed over secret communications, and Herodotus found several instances of such security precautions.

"These stories present the historian at his anecdotal best, and we may well doubt whether any of them actually happened. Their very dramatic content, however, highlights the problem Socrates complained of; namely, writing drifting 'all over the place' and getting into the wrong hands. In one case, a Mede named Harpagus plotted with Cyrus to overthrow the King and install the young man in his place. 'Because the roads were guarded,' a secret message had to be smuggled through by some 'contrivance.' Harpagus took a hare and split open its belly, leaving the fur intact. Next, he inserted "a paper on which he wrote what he wanted," stitched the animal back together, and entrusted it to a servant, disguised as an innocuous huntsman. The servant made it past the guards along the road and delivered the message to its intended recipient (1.123; the text of the message itself is at 1.124)" (O'Toole, "Herodotus and the Written Record," Archivaria 33 [1991-92] 153-54).

Whatever Herodotus's ideas regarding the written record, his Histories survived because he wrote them down, and because they were re-copied. According to Roger Pearse, tertullian.org, 18 papyrus fragments of Herdotus survived, all fragments of a page, with little overlap. Most of these fragments date from the first or second centuries CE. Pearse cites nine medieval manuscript exemplars. The earliest, Laurentian 70, 3, known as Codex A, dates from the 10th century C.E. This was carefully written by two scribes in succession. The text contains marginal summaries and the remains of scholia, copied from its exemplar, as well as much later marginal notes, especially in book 1.

Pearse provides the following general comments on the surviving sources for Herodotus: "The manuscripts and papyri do not give us information on all the forms of the text of Herodotus that were known in antiquity. This we can see from the quotations of the text in other ancient authors. . . . Both the manuscripts and papyri appear to derive from a common ancient edition which was widely circulated in the early centuries AD. Who made this is unknown. . . ."

(This entry was last revised on 04-24-2014.)

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The Elephantine Papyri: One of the Most Ancient Collections of Jewish Manuscripts Circa 450 BCE

One of the oldest collections of Jewish manuscripts, dating from the fifth century BCE, the Elephantine papyri were written by the Jewish community at Elephantine (Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين‎, Greek: Ελεφαντίνη) , then called Yeb, an island in the Nile at the border of Nubia. The Jewish settlement of Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation about 650 BCE, during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, to assist Pharoah Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan). Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri survived, written in hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, and consisting of legal documents and letters, spanning a period of 1000 years. 

"Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495-399 BCE. The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names...." (Wikipedia article on Elephantine papyri, accessed 12-09-2013).

Porten, Bezalel et al, The Elephantine Papyri in English. Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996). 

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The Egyptians Reckon with Pebbles and Probably Use the Sandboard Abacus Circa 440 BCE

Herodotus of Halicarnassus. (View Larger)

Because the numbering systems of the Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were not convenient for extensive calculation, it is believed that they used some sort of mechanical calculating device. The simplest form of calculating device was a kind of table or tablet on which calculation couls be written in sand or dust, and then easily erased. This is the "sandboard abacus". One derivation of the Latin word abacus comes from the Greek abakos from the Hebrew word abaq, meaning dust.

In his Histories Herodotus of Halicarnassus, written about 440 BCE stated that the Egyptians "write their characters and reckon with pebbles, bringing their hand from right to left, while the Greeks go from left to right." D.E. Smith, in his History of Mathematics II, p. 160 quotes this statement by Herodotus and writes, "Right to left order was that of the hieratic script and there is probably some relation between this script and the abacus. No wall pictures thus far discovered give any evidence of the use of the abacus, but in any collection of Egyptian antiquities there may be found disks of various sizes which may have been used as counters."

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One of the Earliest Images of Someone Reading a Papyrus Roll 440 BCE – 435 BCE

One of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll, preserved in the Louvre. (View Larger)

A tondo, or circular work of art, from the inside base of an Attic red figure cup depicts the teacher Linos (named on the right) reading from a papyrus roll while his pupil Mousaios (named on the left) reads from writing tablets.

Preserved in the Louvre (G457), this school scene is one of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll. The tondo shows Linos reading the roll vertically, perhaps because of the demands of the artistic composition; the usual method of reading a papyrus roll appears to have been in the horizontal position with the roll rolling to the right and left. To the left of Linos the boy, Mousaios, stands reading from the wood tablets he holds in his left hand. Behind Mousaios the chest depicted is thought to be a storage container for papyrus rolls.  The cup, attributed to the "Eretria Painter," is 9.9 cm high x 25.4 cm in diameter and 33.9 cm wide.  

Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity (1974) Plate 8 and caption 8 (p. 152).

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The Derveni Papyrus, The Earliest Surviving European Manuscript Circa 420 BCE

On January 15, 1962 during the widening of the national road leading from Thessaloniki to Kavala in Greece workers discovered several large cist graves at Derveni, roughly 10 km to the north of Thessaloniki. Among the remains of the funeral pyre on top of the covering slabs of what was designated tomb A a charred papyrus roll was discovered. This ancient Greek papyrus roll, dating from around 420 BCE, is the earliest surviving European manuscript, as distinct from papyri found in Egypt or the Middle East. Designated the Derveni papyrus, it is "a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras in the second half of the 5th century BC." It has also been called "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance."  

Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (2004).

In April 2014 the Greek text and English translation of the Derveni papyrus were available from the IMOUSEION Project at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard at this link.

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Possible Libraries in Ancient Greece Circa 410 BCE

"The increase of the book trade made it possible for private individuals to form libraries. Even if the tradition that sixth-century tyrants such as Pisistratus of Athens and Polycrates of Samos possessed large collections of books is discounted (Anthenaeus I.3A), it is clear that by the end of the fifth century private libraries existed. Aristophanes pokes fun at Euripides for drawing heavily on literary sources in composing his tragedies (Frogs 943), and his own work, being full of parody and allusion, must have depended to some extent on a personal book collection.

"There is no trace of any general library maintained at the public expense at Athens, but it is likely that official copies of plays performed at the leading festivals such as the Dionysia were kept at the theatre or in the public record office. Pseudo-Plurarch (Lives of the ten orators 841F) ascribes to the orator Lycurgus (c. 390-324 BCE) a proposal to keep official copies in this way, but the need would probably have arisen earlier. We know that after the original performance plays were revived from time to time. New copies of the text must have been needed for the actors, and if they had been obliged to obtain these by a process of transcription from private copies it would be surprising that an almost complete range of plays survived into the Hellenistic age" (Reynolds & Wilson, Texts and Transmission, 3rd ed. [1991] 5).

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Arabic Numerals are Invented in India by the Hindus Circa 400 BCE

Arabic numerals and their equivalents in the ancient Indian Brahmi. (View Larger)

What we call Arabic numerals were invented in India by the Hindus. Because the Arabs transmitted this system to the West after the Hindu numerical system found its way to Persia, the numeral system became known as Arabic numerals, though Arabs call the numerals they use “Indian numerals”, أرقام هندية, arqam hindiyyah.

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Filed under: Mathematics / Logic

The Pronomos Vase: Pictorial Evidence for Theatre in Ancient Greece Circa 400 BCE

The Pronomos Vase from Naples shows the performers of a Greek satyr play. (View Larger)

The Pronomos vase, a red-figure volute-krater was created circa 400 BCE. Depicting an entire theatrical chorus and cast along with the celebrated musician Pronomos, in the presence of their patron god, Dionysos, it is considered the single most important surviving piece of pictorial evidence for theatre from ancient Greece. It was discovered in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy in 1836, and is preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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A Wooden Dove Automaton Circa 400 BCE

About 400 BCE Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, statesman, and strategist Archytas (Ἀρχύτας ο Ταραντίνος or Archytus of Tarentum, now Taranto, Southern Italy) "was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown some 200 meters. This machine, which its inventor called The Pigeon, may have been suspended on a wire or pivot for its flight" (Wikipedia article on Archytas, accessed 12-25-2011).

Nocks, The Robot. The Life Story of a Technology (2008) 11.

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Export of Papyrus Rolls from Greece to the Euxine Coast 399 BCE

A bust of Xenophon. (View Larger)

In his Anabasis, describing events that occurred between 401 and 399 BCE, Greek historian and soldier Xenophon reported in Book Seven, Part V, line 14, that books (papyrus rolls) formed part of the cargo of ships wrecked off Salmydessus on the north coast of Thrace. This is evidence that books were exported from Athens (?) to the Euxine coast by this date, reflective of an international book trade.

Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed. (1991) 244.

(This entry was last revised on April 14, 2014.)

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The Gauls Sack Rome and Destroy Most Records 390 BCE – 387 BCE

A statue of Brennus by an unknown French artist. (View Larger)

Around 390 to 387 BCE the Gauls, under their chieftain Brennus or Brennos, defeated Roman armies in the Battle of the Allia and sacked Rome. With the exception of the Capitoline Hill, the Gauls plundered the city and destroyed nearly all records.

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The Library of Aristotle: Basis for the Royal Library of Alexandria? 384 BCE – 321 BCE

The library of Aristotle is the first private library concerning which there is considerable discussion among early commentators. Writing more than 300 years after Aristotle's death, in the first decades of the first century CE, the geographer Strabo provided one of the most detailed early accounts in his Geographia XIII, 1, 54-55, stating, among other things that Aristotle was "the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library." Strabo's account in English translation is below. The Egyptian kings were referred to were probably the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The translation is by H. L. Jones (London, 1929); the links are, of course, mine:

"From Scepsis came the Socratic philosophers Rastus and Coriscus and Neleus the son of Coriscus, this last a man who not only was a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. At any rate, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis [at the present site of the village of Kurşuntepe, near the town of Bayramiç in Turkey] and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard how zealously the Attalid kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum, they hid the books underground in a kind of trench. But much later, when the books had been damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus. But Apellicon was a bibliophile rather than a philosopher; and therefore, seeking a restoration of the parts that had been eaten through, he made new copies of the text, filling up the gaps incorectly, and published the books full of errors. The result was that the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works, and were therefore able to philosophise about nothing in a practical way, but only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions, whereas the later school, from the time the books in question appeared, though better able to philosophise and Aristotelise, were forced to call most of their statements probabilities, because of the large number of errors. Rome also contributed much to it; for immediately after the death of Apellicon, Sulla, who had captured Athens carried off Apelicon's library to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarion, who was fond of Aristotle, got it in his hands by paying court to the librarian, as did also certain booksellers who used bad copyists and would not collate the texts— a thing that also takes place in the case of the other books that are copied for selling both here [Rome] and at Alexandria.".

"Another account relates that Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) acquired Aristotle’s library directly from Neleus and brought it to Egypt to become a part of the great Alexandrian library. It is possible that both stories are partially correct, and it is quite probable that copies at least of Aristotle’s library reached Alexandria eventually” (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed. [1999] 41).

Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography, tr. by H. Wellisch (1991) 2.6."The Library of Aristotle," 53-64.

(This entry was last revised on 08-05-2014).

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Socrates on the Invention of Writing and the Relationship of Writing to Memory Circa 370 BCE

In the Phaedrus, written circa 370 BCE, Plato recorded Socrates's discussion of the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. In the process Socrates faulted writing for weakening the necessity and power of memory, and for allowing the pretense of understanding, rather than true understanding.

From Plato's dialogue Phaedrus 14, 274c-275b:

Socrates: [274c] I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. 

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved.  

"The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.  

"For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." 

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Plato Compares Human Memory to Wax Tablets Circa 369 BCE

"Socrates

"Please assume, then, for the sake of argument, that there is in our souls a block of wax, in one case larger, in another smaller, in one case the wax is purer, in another more impure and harder, in some cases softer.

"Theaetetus

"I assume all that.

"Socrates

"Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or [191e] cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know.

"Theaetetus

"Let us assume that.

"Socrates

"Now take a man who knows the things which he sees and hears, and is considering some one of them; observe whether he may not gain a false opinion in the following manner. Theaetetus In what manner? Socrates By thinking that the things which he knows are sometimes things which he knows and sometimes things which he does not know. For we were wrong before in agreeing that this is impossible.

"Theaetetus

"What do you say about it now?" (Plato, Theaetetus, 191c-e)

Plato's complete discussion in the Theaetetus of false judgment as the inappropriate linkage of a perception to a memory – the mind as a wax tablet– appears in lines 191a–196c of the dialogue.

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The Hydraulic Telegraph 350 BCE

Polybius (View Larger)

According to Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, Aeneas Tacticus, one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war, invented the hydraulic telegraph about 350 BCE. It was a semaphore system used during the First Punic War to send messages between Sicily and Carthage.

"The system involved identical containers on separate hills; each container would be filled with water, and a vertical rod floated within. The rods were inscribed with various predetermined codes.

"To send a message, the sending operator would use a torch to signal the receiving operator; once the two were synchronized, they would simultaneously open the spigots at the bottom of their containers. Water would drain out until the water level reached the desired code, at which point the sender would lower his torch, and the operators would simultaneously close their spigots."

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The Earliest Example of Shorthand Writing Circa 350 BCE

The Acropolis stone.

The earliest known example of a shorthand writing system is the Acropolis stone (Akropolisstein) discovered in the Athenian Acropolis in 1884, and preserved in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. Add. Ms. 33270).  The marble slab shows a writing system using primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants.

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The Lead Tablet Archives of the Athenian Cavalry Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

While information has survived concerning ancient Greek library and archive buildings from excavations of ruins, most information concerning library and archive holdings, and library and archive operation, is based on third party accounts, or is fragmentary or speculative. Dramatic exceptions to this overall lack of surviving archives from ancient Greece are the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry from the fourth and and third centuries BCE preserved on lead tablets. An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry was excavated in 1965 from a water well within the courtyard of the Dipylon, the double-gate leading into the city of Athens from the north. It included 574 lead tablets from the third century BCE. Six years later, in 1971, another hundred or so lead tablets from the fourth and third centuries BCE were excavated from a well at the edge of the excavated section of the Agora in Athens.

Historian of ancient archives Ernest Posner characterized these finds as

"by far the largest name file of ancient times. Tightly rolled or folded up, they contain the following information: the name in the genitive of the owner of a horse; the horse's color and brand, if any; and its value stated in drachmas, with 1,200 drachmas as the highest valuation given. Normally, only the name of the owner appears on the outside; the other data is relegated to the interior of the tablet and could not be read unless the tablet was unrolled or unfolded. A number of tablets are palimpsests; that is, the original entries were erased and replaced by new data"  (Posner, "The Athenian Cavalry Archives of the Fourth and Third Centures B.C.", The American Archivist (1974) 579-82).

The wide range of pottery as well as lead tablets excavated from the Dipylon were described by Karin Braun in "Der Dipylon-Brunne B¹ Die Funde," Mitteilungen des Deutschen archäologischen Instituts Athenische Abteilung, Band 85 (1970) 129-269, plates 53-93. Plates 83-93 illustrate lead tablets unfolded to show the writing and tablets rolled up.

From the extensive information available, John H. Kroll, author of the primary paper on the 1971 excavation, developed a theory of the purposes and operation of the Athenian Cavalry Archives, of which I quote a portion:

"The continual turnover of the horses explains, I think, why the records of the horses' values were kept as they were-individually on lead tablets. Official annual records at Athens were normally kept in list form on papyrus or whitened boards. But since a cavalryman was likely to have changed his horse at any time in the course of a year, a more flexible system of records was called for-the equivalent of the modern card-file system-whereby the record of a given horse could be pulled out and replaced if the horse itself was replaced. For such individual records, lead had obvious advantages over paper or wood, and, becatuse it was cheap and could be erased and re-used repeatedly, it would have been less costly in the long run. The re-use of the tablets, incidently, must surely be a factor in the low survival rate of tablets in most series and the loss of other entire series. There is one other respect in which the tablets stand apart from most annual records. I assume that they were rolled or folded simply to facilitate storage and not because the evaluations they contain were to be kept secret. But the fact that they were folded or rolled up, many of them as tightly as they could be, indicates that no one expected them to be referred to on a regular basis. Indeed, since all of the unbroken tablets were recovered from the Kerameikos and Agora wells in their original folded or rolled state, it appears doubtful that any of the extant tablets had ever been consulted. This of course does not mean that the evaluations were never consulted, merely that the records were made up annually and filed away to be consulted only in rare, though anticipated, cases. If the occasion did not arise in the course of the year, they expired, were replaced with the next year's evaluations, and were put aside, eventually to be erased and re-used" (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI [1977] No. 2, 94-95). Kroll's extensive article occupies pp. 83-140 of the journal issue and includes numerous drawings and photographs.

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Writing on Lead Tablets in Antiquity Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

"Lead seems to have been employed for writing in antiquity more commonly than is usually recognized. Because of its baseness and assumed affinities with the underworld, it was the standard medium for curse tablets (A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris 1904, pp. xlviii-xlix). Otherwise its cheapness, permanence, and ease of inscribing made it suitable for private papers (e. g., Plutarch, De mul. virt. 254 D; Frontinus, Strategemata III, 3. 7= Dio, XLVI. 36. 4; SIG3, 1259, 1260; G. R. Davidson and D. B. Thompson, Hesperia, Suppl. VII, Small Objects from the Pnyx: I, Cambridge, Mass. 1943, pp. 10-11, no. 17; Zeitschrift fir Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17, 1975, pp. 157-162), for the writing out of queries to the oracle at Dodona (H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Oxford 1967, pp. 100-102, 126, note 18, 259-273), and for public documents, such as the 6th century B.C. records of loans from a temple archive at Corcyra (BSA 66, 1971, pp. 79-93). Pausanias (IX. 31. 4) saw a text of Hesiod on lead on Mt. Helikon. Unspecified public lead documents are mentioned by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XIII. 68-69, and " lead paper " (plumbea charta) by Suetonius, Nero. 20. H. A. Thompson has called my attention to a series of lead strips of the 8th century B.C. from central Anatolia inscribed with various official records and published by T. Ozgiic in Kultepe and its Vicinity in the Iron Age, Ankara 1971, pp. 111-116; reference is there made to similar lead plaques found at Assur (Bibliotheca Orientalis 8, 1951, pp. 126-133). An exhaustive account of Greek inscriptions on lead has been compiled by Anne P. Miller in her University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph. D. dissertation, "Studies in Early Sicilian Epigraphy: An Opisthographic Lead Tablet," 1973 (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, no. 73-26, 213), to which I owe several of the above references. A new private letter on lead, of the early 4th century B.C., was found in the same well as the present cavalry tablets. . . ." (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI (1977) No. 2, 83-140, footnote 29).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Papyrus of a Greek Text Circa 350 BCE

A papyrus fragment of The Persae by the Greek musician and dithyrambic poet, Timotheus (Timotheos) of Miletus, discovered in Abusir, Egypt, is probably the earliest surviving papyrus of a Greek text found in Egypt. It is preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (P. Berol. 9875).

The text was first edited and published by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff as Timotheos, Die Perser, aus einem Papyrus von Abusir im Aufrage der deutschen Orientgesellschaft (1903).

Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) 11, pl. 8 describes the Greek writing on the papyrus as "Formal book-script; square; monoline; unserifed."

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The First Description of Book Scorpions, by Aristotle Circa 350 BCE

Among the many original descriptions in Aristotle's  De historia animalium, the founding work of descriptive zoology, was the first to description of pseudoscorpions. These Aristotle probably found among book rolls in a library where they would have been feeding on booklice. Pseudoscorpions are generally beneficial to humans since they prey on clothes moth larvae, carpet beetle larvae, booklice, ants, mites, and small flies. They are tiny and inoffensive, and are rarely seen due to their size. Aristotle wrote in Book V, Chapter 26 of his De historia animalium:

"1. There are also other minute animals, as I observed before, some of which occur in wool, and in woollen goods; as the moths, which are produced in the greatest abundance when the wool is dusty, as especially if a spider is enclosed with them, for this creature is thirsty, and dries up any fluid which may be present. This worm also occurs in garments. There is one which occurs in old honeycombs, like the creature which inhabits dry wood; this appears to be the least of all creatures, it is called acari, it is white and small. Others also are found in books, some of which are like those which occur in garments; others are like scorpions; they have no tails, and are very small. And on the whole, they occur in everything, so to say, which from being dry, becomes moist, or being moist, becomes dry, if it has any life in it" (Aristotle's History of Animals, In Ten Books, Translated by Richard Cresswell [London, 1862] 135). 

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The Oldest Map Clearly Marked with Distances 343 BCE – 313 BCE

A quarter-inch thick copper plate in the Hebei Provincial Museum at Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, bears the world’s oldest map clearly marked with distances.

"The 2,300-year-old map marks the locations of buildings in the five mausoleums of Wang Cuo (344-313 BC), his queen, and his concubines. It is called the Zhao Yu Tu (“map of the area of the mausoleum”). “It is not only the oldest map ever found in China but the oldest numeral-bearing map in the world,” says Du Naisong, a researcher with the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Thirty-seven inches long and 19 inches wide, the map marks more than 70 locations, and symbols, numerals, and epigraphs are inlaid with gold and silver. Unlike modern maps, the Zhao Yu Tu has south on top and north on the bottom. One-half inch equals 16.5 feet on the map’s scale" (http://www.archaeology.org/9803/newsbriefs/map.html, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Earliest Datable Appearance of the Serif in Stone Inscriptions 334 BCE – 330 BCE

The earliest datable stone inscription incorporating consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals in the lettering— later called serifs— is the Dedication of the Temple of Athena Polias in Priene, Asia Minor, by Alexander the Great (British Museum GR 1870.3-20.88 (Inscription 399 and 400).

"The distinctive feature of this consists of consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals. This thickening is often very slight in dimension but obviously always deliberate—despite the evidence in this example that the sculptor, though a first-class workman, was hurried in his execution. His deliberation is more clearly visible in a rubbing of certain characters which display this distinction (it may be rash to describe it as an innovation) to as clear a degree as possible. His speed is suggested in the lack of precision. In many respects the lettering has the appearance of a free hand rather than a geometrically regulated inscription" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Nicolas Barker ed. [1972] 7-8, pls. 2-3).

"In 336 BC Alexander the Great embarked on a programme of territorial expansion, which would eventually extend the boundaries of the Greek world to Egypt in the south and to India in the East. In 334 BC Alexander crossed the Hellespont, the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia, and went first to Troy. There he dedicated his armour to Athena and laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles, the legendary hero and champion of the Greeks in the Trojan War. This act prefigured Alexander's role as a new Achilles liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Asiatic rule.  

"That same summer of 334 BC, a successful engagement with the Persian army at the river Granicus, east of Troy, opened the gates of Asia Minor, and Alexander proceeded to tour the Greek cities of the west coast, expelling their Persian garrisons.  

"On reaching Priene, he made a further dedication to Athena. There the townspeople were laying out their new city and building a temple to its patron goddess. Alexander offered funds to complete the temple, and the inscription on this wall block, cut into a block of marble, records his gift. The inscription was found in the nineteenth century by the architect-archaeologist Richard Pullan leading an expedition on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti. It reads: 'King Alexander dedicated the Temple to Athena Polias' (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/d/dedication_by_alexander.aspx, accessed 08-18-2014).

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A1 b (p. 14).

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)

 

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The Earliest Surviving Letter Written in Greek Circa 325 BCE

The Greek historian Philochorus of Athens (Φιλόχορος) is credited with the invention of the "typically scientific letter and the polemical pamphlet." A letter by Philochorus written on lead plates, μολυβδινη επιστολη, survived from the early fourth century CE and was preserved in the Kgl. Museen, Berlin. 

Adolf Wilhelm, "Der älteste grieschische Brief," Jahreshefte des oesterreichen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, 7 (1904) 94-105 (with illustrations of the original letter written on lead).

Jenö Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries with the Testimonia (1968) 29. 

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Euclid's Elements: "The Founding Document of Mathematics" 323 BCE – 283 BCE

Between 323 and 283 BCE mathematician Euclid of Alexandria, a teacher at the Alexandrian Library under the reign of Ptolemy I, wrote the Elements, in which he summarized and codified the preceding two centuries of mathematical research. Considered the founding document of mathematics, the Elements was the standard textbook for mathematical education in the ancient world, in the Islamic world, and in Europe through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and until almost the present time. "The system of thought presented by the Elements, in which knowledge was distilled in the form of theorems and then given a written proof, inspired fields as diverse as law and physics. Indeed, Newton’s Principia, which marked the beginning of modern physics, took Euclid’s work as its intellectual and stylistic model.”

♦ For numerous related entries in this database about the transmission and publication of Euclid, and its influence, please search under Euclid in the keyword search.

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