A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 7

[91] This was very clearly seen by the ancients. It could not be put better than by Cicero: "Principio Assyrii, propter planitiem magnitudinemque regionum quas incolebant, cum caelum ex omni parte patens et apertum intuerentur, trajectiones motusque stellarum observaverunt."--_De Divinatione_, i. 1, 2.

[92] "Chaldaei ... diuturna observatione siderum scientiam putantur effecisse, ut praedeci posset quid cuique eventurum et quo quisque fato natus esset."--CICERO, _De Divinatione_, i. 1, 2.

[93] This has been clearly shown by LAPLACE in the _Precis de l'Histoire de l'Astronomie_, which forms the fifth book of his _Exposition du Systeme du Monde_ (fifth edition). He gives a _resume_ of what he believes to have been the chief results obtained by the Chaldaean astronomers (pp. 12-14 in the separate issue of the _Precis_ 1821, 8vo). It would now, perhaps, be possible, thanks to recent discoveries, to give more precise and circumstantial details than those of Laplace.

[94] AUReS, _Essai sur le Systeme metrique assyrien_, p. 10 (in the _Recueil de Travaux relatifs a la Philologie et a l'Archeologie egyptiennes et assyriennes_, vol. iii. Vieweg, 4to, 1881). We refer those who are interested in these questions to this excellent paper, of which but the first part has as yet been published (1882). All previous works upon the subject are there quoted and discussed.

[95] "Sixty may be divided by any divisor of ten or twelve. Of all numbers that could be chosen as an invariable denominator for fractions, it has most divisors."--FR. LENORMANT, _Manuel d'Histoire ancienne_, vol. ii. p.

177, third edition.

[96] AUReS, _Sur le Systeme metrique assyrien_, p. 16. A terra-cotta tablet, discovered in Lower Chaldaea among the ruins of Larsam, and believed with good reason to be very ancient, bears a list of the squares of the fractionary numbers between 1/60 2 and 60/60 2, or 1/60, calculated with perfect accuracy (LENORMANT, _Manuel_, &c. vol. ii. p. 37). See also SAYCE, _Babylonian Augury by means of Geometrical Figures_, in the _Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology_, vol. iv. p. 302.

[97] LENORMANT, _Manuel_, &c. vol. ii. p. 177, third edition.

[98] _Ibid._ p. 37.

[99] LENORMANT, _Manuel_, vol. ii. pp. 175, 178, 180. G. SMITH, _Assyrian Discoveries_ (London, 1876, 8vo), pp. 451, 452. RAWLINSON, _Ancient Monarchies_, vol. i. pp. 100, 101, fourth edition. We know that the _Astronomical Canon_ of Ptolemy begins with the accession of a king of Babylon named Nabonassar, in 747 B.C. M. Fr. LENORMANT thinks that the date in question was chosen by the Alexandrian philosopher because it coincided with the substitution, by that prince, of the solar for the lunar year.

Astronomical observations would thus have become much easier to use, while those registered under the ancient system could only be employed after long and difficult calculations. A reason is thus given for Ptolemy's contentment with so comparatively modern a date. (_Essai sur les Fragments cosmogoniques de Berose_, pp. 192-197.)

[100] See the paper by M. T. H. MARTIN, of Rennes, _Sur les Observations astronomiques envoyees, dit on, de Babylone en Grece par Callisthene_, Paris, 1863.

[101] The texts to this effect will be found collected in the essay of M.

Martin. We shall be content here with quoting a phrase from Cicero which expresses the general opinion: "Chaldaei cognitione siderum sollertiaque ingeniorum antecellunt." _De Divinatione_, i. 91.

[102] PLINY, _Natural History_, vii. 57, 3. The manuscripts give 720, but the whole context proves that figure to be far too low, neither does it accord with the writer's thought, or with the other statements which he brings together with the aim of showing that the invention of letters may be traced to a very remote epoch. The copyists have certainly omitted an M after the DCCXX. Sillig, following Perizonius has introduced this correction into his text.

[103] LENORMANT, _Manuel_, &c. vol. ii. p. 175.

[104] G. SMITH, _Assyrian Discoveries_, p. 407.

[105] LENORMANT, _Manuel_, &c. vol. ii. p. 181.

[106] LAYARD, _Nineveh and its Remains_, vol. i. p. 124. These storms hardly last an hour.

[107] Some Assyriologists believe this to represent Merodach.

[108] _History of Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. i. pp. 56, 57, and figs.


[109] RAWLINSON, _The Five Great Monarchies_, &c. vol. i. p. 139.

[110] TIELE, _Histoire comparee des anciennes Religions de l'egypte et des Peuples Semitiques_, translated by Collins, p. 222. The first volume of an English translation, by James Ballingal, has been published in Trubner's Oriental Series.--ED.

[111] _Ibid._ p. 224.

[112] TIELE, _Histoire_, &c. p. 237.

[113] Hence the name Babylon, which has been handed down to us, slightly modified, by classic tradition. The true Chaldaean form is _Bab-Ilou_, literally "The Gate of God."

[114] _History of Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. ii. pp. 399-400 and figs.


[115] TIELE, _Manuel_, &c. pp. 77, 78.

[116] HERODOTUS, i. 99.

-- 7.--_The People and Government._

We have already explained how it is that the religions of Chaldaea and Assyria are less well known to us than that of Egypt; the insufficiency of our knowledge of the political and social organization of the two kingdoms is to be explained by the same reasons. The inscriptions, prolix enough on some subjects, hardly touch on others that would be much more interesting, and, moreover, their interpretation is full of difficulty. The Greek travellers knew nothing of Nineveh, while their visits to Babylon were paid in its years of decadence. They seem to have been chiefly struck with the sort of sacerdotal caste to which they gave the name of Chaldaioi.

The origin of this priestly corps has been much discussed. Some see in it the descendants and heirs of the primitive population, of those whom they believe to have been Turanians; others believe them to have been Semitic immigrants, coming from the north and bringing with them arts and doctrines of which they constituted themselves the guardians and expounders in the new country. We are hardly qualified to take part in the controversy. It is certain, on the one hand, that the influence of these quasi-clergy began to make itself felt at a remote period in the national history, and, on the other, that they had become, like the population that bowed before them, Semitic both in race and language at a very early date. The idiom employed by the Chaldaeans belongs to the same family of languages as Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaean; their gods are to be found, with slight modifications of name and attributes, from Yemen in the south to the north of Syria and as far west as the table-land of Cappadocia.

It is, no doubt, upon the authority of Ctesias, his favourite guide in matters of oriental history, that Diodorus talks of the _Chaldaeans_.

Ctesias may have seen them at Babylon, in the exercise of their functions, in the time of Artaxerxes Mnemon. "The Chaldaeans," writes the historian, "are the most ancient Babylonians ... (and) hold the same station and dignity in the commonwealth as the Egyptian priests do in Egypt; for, being deputed to divine offices, they spend all their time in the study of philosophy, and are especially famous for the art of astrology. They are mightily given to divination, and foretell future events, and employ themselves either by purifications, sacrifices, or other enchantments to avert evils, or procure good fortune and success. They are skilful, likewise, in the art of divination by the flying of birds, and interpreting of dreams and prodigies; and are reputed as the oracles (in declaring what will come to pass) by their exact and diligent viewing of the entrails of the sacrifices. But they attain not to this knowledge in the same manner as the Greeks; for the Chaldaeans learn it by tradition from their ancestors, the son from the father, who are all in the meantime free from all other public offices and attendances; and because their parents are their tutors, they both learn everything without envy, and rely with more confidence upon the truth of what is taught them; and being trained up in this learning from their very childhood, they become most famous philosophers, being at the age most capable of learning."[117]

Centuries were required for the growth of such a corporation and for the firm establishment of its power upon a well-knit system of rites and doctrines. The institutions described by Ctesias would hardly show any sensible change from those in force in the same country before the Persian conquests. In their double character of priests and astrologers the Chaldaeans would enjoy an almost boundless influence over both kings and private individuals; the general belief in their powers of divination made them in a sense the masters and arbiters of every destiny. Under the national kings "members of their caste led the national armies and occupied all the chief posts in the kingdom." The royal houses that succeeded one another at Babylon sprang from their ranks both in the days of vassalage to Assyria and in those of full independence. Their hierarchy was headed by an archimagus; we do not know his title in the national language, but we do know that, after the king, he was the chief person in the empire. He accompanied the sovereign wherever he went, even to the wars, in order to regulate his actions according to the rules of his art and the indications of the heavens. When the king died and his successor was not on the spot to assume the reins of government, the archimagus was regent during the interregnum, as, for instance, between the death of Nabopolassar and the accession of Nebuchadnezzar.[118]

The almost theocratic character of this regime had both its advantages and its inconveniences. These priests were the savants of their time. The honours that were paid to them must have had their effect in stimulating intellectual culture and material well being, but, on the other hand, the constant intervention of a sacerdotal body in public affairs could not but do something to enfeeble the military spirit and the energy and responsibility of the commanders. Not that the priests were less penetrated by the national sentiment than their fellow countrymen. Proud of their ancient traditions and of the superiority of their science, they added contempt to the detestation they felt for a foreign master, whether he came from Babylon or Susa. The priests were the ringleaders in those risings against Assyria, and, in later years, against Persia, which cost Babylon so dearly. Once only was the success they promised achieved, and that was in the time of Nabopolassar, when Nineveh was exhausted by its long succession of wars and victories. On every other occasion the upper hand remained with races less instructed, indeed, and less refined, but among whom the power concentrated in the hands of the sovereign had been utilized to drive all the vital forces of the kingdom into the practice of war and preparation for it.

On the other hand, Babylon enjoyed certain elements of prosperity and guarantees of a long national existence which were wanting to those rivals under whose yoke she had more than once to pass. The ruling classes in Chaldaea were quicker in intellect and far better educated than elsewhere.

Their country lent itself to a wide and well-organised system of cultivation better than the hilly districts of Assyria or the narrow valleys and sterile plains of Iran. Communication was more prompt and easy than among the terraces which rise one above another from the left bank of the Euphrates up to the high lands of Persia and Media: in order to pass from one of these terraces to another, the bare rock has to be climbed in a fashion that brings no little danger to the traveller and his patient beasts of burden.[119] In Chaldaea, on the other hand, the proximity of the two rivers to each other, and the perfect horizontality of the soil, make the work of irrigation very easy. The agriculturists were not exposed to the danger of a complete failure of crops, a misfortune which overtook the upper regions of Mesopotamia often enough. There the Euphrates and Tigris are wide apart, and the land between them is far from being a dead level.

Many districts had to depend almost entirely upon the rainfall for irrigation. Again, when it was a question of journeying from one city to another or transporting the produce of the fields, the Chaldaean could choose between the land routes that lay along the banks of the canals, or the waterways that intersected each other over the whole surface of the country. In these days the journey between Bagdad and Bassorah, a distance of some three hundred miles, involves a long detour to the east along the foot of the mountains, in order to avoid impassable marshes and bands of wandering Arabs devoted to murder and pillage. The flat country is infested with mounted brigands who strip unprotected travellers, but in ancient times it swarmed with traffic, every road was encumbered with the movements of merchandise and the march of caravans, the fields were crossed in every direction by canals, and the tall sails of the boats that moved between their banks rose over the waving crops as they do to-day in the deltas of the Meuse and the Rhine, for Chaldaea was a southern Holland.

The incomparable situation of Babylon was sure to lead to great industrial and commercial activity in spite of any shortcomings in her rulers. She stood in the centre of a marvellously fertile region, between upper and western Asia. Two great rivers were at her doors, bringing her, without cost or effort, the products of their upper basins, while, on the other hand, they placed her in easy communication with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The merchants of Babylon had communication with the people of the Levant by easy and well-worn roads crossing the fords of the middle Euphrates. Less direct roads farther to the north were used nearly as much.

Some of these traversed the Cilician passes, crossed the Amanus and Taurus into the plateau of Asia Minor, and ended at the coasts of the aegaean and the Euxine; others passed through Assyria into Media, and through the Caspian passes up to the central plateau of Asia and into distant Bactria, whence easy passes led down into the upper valley of the Indus. Babylon was thus an _entrepot_ for caravans both from the east and west, and for navigators coming from the ports of Africa, Arabia, and India.

There are, if we may use the expression, natural capitals and capitals that are artificial. The sites of the first are determined by the configuration of the earth. When they perish it is but a temporary death, to be followed by a life often more full and brilliant than the first. The second owe their prosperity to the caprice of a sovereign, or to political combinations that pass away and leave no trace. Thebes and Nineveh were artificial cities; both have disappeared and left behind them nothing but their ruins; they have been replaced only by villages and unimportant towns. On the other hand, Memphis lives again in Cairo, and, when the depopulation of Babylon was complete, Seleucia and Ctesiphon, Kouffa and Bagdad sprang up to carry on her work.

The centre of a refined civilization and of wide-stretching commercial relations, Babylon could not have been without an original art, and one marked with the peculiar characteristics of the national genius. Unhappily, the materials at her command were far inferior to those of which the Egyptians and Greeks could dispose. From this it has resulted that, on the one hand, her productions never passed a certain level of excellence, and, on the other, that they have been ill preserved. The Babylonians were not among those happy peoples whose artists could exercise their tools upon the one material that gives birth to great sculptors and great architects--a stone soft enough to yield kindly to the chisel, but hard enough to preserve to eternity the suggestive forms impressed upon it by the hand of man.

Our knowledge, therefore, of Chaldaean art will bear no comparison with what we have discovered as to the art of Egypt and Greece, of Etruria and Rome.

So far as we can form a judgment from the remains that have come down to us, it was an art much less varied and comprehensive than that of Egypt.

The tombs of Memphis and Thebes, with their pictured walls, reflect, as in a faithful mirror, the most interesting and most amusing of all spectacles, the daily life of the oldest of all civilized societies. In Chaldaea there is nothing of the kind. The Chaldaean tomb gives us, by its arrangement and furnishing, glimpses of a faith similar at bottom to that of Egypt, but we find nothing parallel to the representations of daily work and pleasure which fill the mastabas and the Theban sepulchres; there is nothing that can be compared to those animated forms and images that play over again on the tomb walls the long drama of a hundred acts whose first performance occupied so many centuries and filled a stage stretching from the swamps of the Delta to the cataracts of Syene. We are more especially grateful to these funerary scenes for handing down to us, in a safe niche in the temple of the arts, those poor and humble folk who count for so little in this world where they bear the heaviest burdens, who depend for remembrance after death upon the services they render to the great. We shall search in vain among the scanty remnants of Babylonian sculpture for the attitude, gestures, and features of the laborious workmen upon whom the prosperity of the country was built. We shall find neither the tradesmen and artisans of the towns, nor the agriculturists who cultivated the fields and gave them the water for which they never ceased to thirst. No hint is given of those fishermen of the Persian Gulf who lived entirely, according to Herodotus, upon dried fish ground to powder and made into a kind of cake.[120] The naive, picturesque, and anecdotic illustrations of common life, which are so plentiful in Egypt, are almost completely wanting to the art of Chaldaea.

On the other hand, we find, as we might have expected from what we know of Chaldaean society, continual traces of the sacerdotal spirit, and of the great part played by the king with the help and under the tutelage of the priesthood. Upon the walls of palaces, temples, and towns, on the statuettes of bronze and terra-cotta which were buried under the thresholds of buildings and placed as votive offerings in the temples, upon cylinders and engraved stones, we find only complex and varied emblems, fantastic and symbolic forms, attitudes suggestive of worship and sacrifice (Figs. 20 and 21), images of gods, goddesses, and secondary genii, princes surrounded with royal pomp and offering their homage to the deity. Hence a certain poverty and monotony and the want of recuperative power inseparable from an absorbed contemplation of sacred types and of a transcendental world.

[Illustration: FIG. 20.--Chaldaean Cylinder.]

[Illustration: FIG. 21.--Chaldaean Cylinder; from the British Museum.[121]]

Assyrian society was different in many respects from that of Chaldaea. The same gods, no doubt, were adored in both countries, and their worship involved a highly-placed priesthood; but at Nineveh the royal power rested on the army, and the initiative and independence of the sovereign were much greater than in the case of Babylon. Assyria was a military monarchy in the fullest sense of the word. Almost as often as the spring came round the king led his invincible legions to the conquest of new subjects for Assur. He traversed deserts, crossed trackless mountain chains, and plunged into forests full of hidden dangers. He destroyed the walls and towers of hostile cities, in spite of the rain of arrows, stones, and boiling pitch that poured upon himself and his hosts; he was at once the skilful captain and the valiant soldier, he planned the attack and never spared himself in the _melee_. First in danger, he was the first in honour. In person he implored the good will of the god for whom he braved so many dangers, in person he thanked him for success and presented to him the spoils of the conquered enemy. If he was not deified, like the Pharaohs, either alive or after his death, he was the vicar of Assur upon earth, the interpreter of his decrees and their executor, his lieutenant and pontif, and the recipient of his confidences.[122]

There was no room by the side of this armed high priest for a sacerdotal caste at all equal to him in prestige. The power and glory of the king grew with every successive victory, and in the vast empire of the Sargonids, the highest places were filled by men whom the monarch associated with himself in the never-ending work of conquest and repression. First of all came a kind of grand vizier, the _Tartan_, or commander-in-chief of the royal armies. This is the personage we so often find in the bas-reliefs facing the king and standing in an attitude at once dignified and respectful (see Fig. 22). Next came the great officers of the palace, the _ministers_ as we should call them in modern parlance, and the governors of conquered provinces. Eunuchs were charged with the supervision of the harem and, as in the modern East, occupied high places at court. They may be recognized in the bas-reliefs, where they are grouped about the king, by their round, beardless faces (see Figs. 23 and 24). The _Kislar-Aga_ is, in the Constantinople of to-day what more than one of these personages must have been in Nineveh. Read the account given by Plutarch, on the authority of Ctesias, of the murderous and perfidious intrigues that stained the palace of Susa in the time of Artaxerxes-Mnemon. You will then have some idea of the part, at once obscure and preponderant, that the more intelligent among these miserable creatures were able to play in the households of the great conquerors and unwearied hunters by whom the palaces at Khorsabad, Kouyundjik, and Nimroud, were successively occupied.

[Illustration: FIG. 22.--The King Sargon and his Grand Vizier. Bas-relief from Khorsabad; in the Louvre. Alabaster. Height 116 inches. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

[Illustration: FIG. 23.--The suite of Sargon, _continued_. Bas-relief from Khorsabad; in the Louvre. Alabaster. Height 90 inches. Drawn by Saint-Elme Gautier.]

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