GIS 22/2/2013 – No Puns in Persian Punishment

Classics is all very well. I mean, who doesn’t like a nice bit of Greek stuff? Who won’t grudgingly admit that the Romans might have done something vaguely worthwhile? But the simple fact is that the earlier and the further east you go, the more interesting everything gets. Greeks are better than Romans; Mycenaeans are better than Classical Greeks, Minoans are better than Mycenaeans and Phoenicians are better than everybody. Once more people accept it, the happier everyone will be.

So the dose of Near Easternness in this week’s GIS was particularly welcome. Former leader (praetor?) Stephen Harrison, under whose benevolent rule the GIS prospered in the days before consuls, returned to present a paper entitled ‘No Puns in Persian Punishment’, or ‘Generic Title Slide’, as his Powerpoint alternatively proclaimed. Stephen talked about the Bisutun Inscription and relief of the Persian king Darius I. In particular, he was interested in how people characterised as rebels were punished. Stephen argued that the inscriptions portray punishment which was far less severe than we might expect. Revolts were portrayed as the people being led astray by the lies of individual wrong-doers, and while these black-hearted villains could expect the damn good impalement that was coming to them, most of the population did not share in their culpability or punishment. This was, Stephen argued, designed to preserve the ideological view that Persian imperial rule was founded not upon the imposition of hegemony by force, but on the voluntary support of the people themselves.

abb025While many aspects of the Bisutun relief can be seen to draw heavily on earlier Mesopotamian and Near Eastern traditions, this leniency seems to be a Persian innovation. Indeed, Stephen suggested that a change in the rhetoric is apparent even in the relatively few years between the Babylonian and Old Persian inscriptions on the Bisutun Relief itself.

The paper stimulated an enthusiastic discussion among attendees, with topics including the influence of Persian religion and how much that can be reconstructed from later Zoroastrian beliefs; what the relationship was between the multilingual inscriptions and the pictorial relief and how they worked together, and what the intended audience for the monument was. There was also further discussion of Near Eastern traditions and parallels for monuments of this kind, and how they work within traditions of kingship.

For the second week running we had no formal Snippet, so we talked about the future of this very blog. If you’re reading this now, congratulations! You’ve found it. Now go and seek out the various weird and wonderful articles in our archives. Discussion centred around whether and how we should seek to widen the blog’s audience, and in particular how to attract more regular readers from outside Cambridge. While it was generally felt that at present the blog is working well and there’s nothing wrong with the kind of discussions it attracts, many people did agree that there were several relatively straightforward things we might do to widen awareness of it and better serve its original goal of being a form of outreach. These include better advertising, increased engagement with other parts of the internet where Classicists congregate, and thinking more about what kinds of things we want to say to the World Beyond. If you’re reading this and haven’t written for the blog before – or have, but only rarely – you’re heartily encouraged to take part. Hannah Price can set you up with access.

As usual, after the seminar we adjourned to the pub for further discussion in the more convivial setting of the Red Bull. Cheery topics of consideration included whether we should fear a repeat performance of the First World War next year (general consensus was ‘probably not’) and when it’s inappropriate to play Rachmaninoff.

This week’s award for outstanding achievement in post-seminar discussion again goes to Fran, for a delightful fairy-tale about a little book travelling through the big wide world.

5 thoughts on “GIS 22/2/2013 – No Puns in Persian Punishment

  1. I’m glad to hear another First World War is not in imminent danger of breaking out, I’ve been worrying about that lately.
    Also, why aren’t we all studying ancient China?


    • Morose Drunk Fran worries about impending world conflict…

      Maybe we *should* be studying China? But I think there might be a sweet spot after which eastern things get too unfamiliar for us classically-educated sorts. After that interestingness starts being outweighed by having to get to grips with all that stuff we haven’t ever been taught. It won’t surprise you to learn that I feel this sweet spot lies somewhere around the Levantine littoral in the MBA-EIA.


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