Home » Type » Blog, Language/Literature » Iron Men

Iron Men

Hello again, I’m just back from giving papers at Bryn Mawr and Yale, which is why this blog is a little late. In between preparing for those papers, I have been grappling with an interesting passage from the Chronicle of Ptolemy III. This is an Akkadian text that describes Ptolemy’s invasion of Mesopotamia in 246/5 BCE. The event is reported also in Greek sources, but, in my Akkadian chronicle, it goes like this:

…the Hanaean troops, who did not fear the gods and were clad in iron armour, transferred battle equipment [and] numerous [siege en]gines, from the city of Seleucia, the royal city which is on the Euphrates, to Babylon. On day 19th they did battle with the commander of the Bêlet-Ninua Citadel. The people who were in the citadel, became frightened and left it. They arrived at the palace of the king. That day, the people were slaughtered with iron weapons [b]y the Hanaean troops.

Who are these ‘Hanaean troops who did not fear the gods, and were clad in iron armour’? To us, they are quite simply Greek hoplites. But in the Chronicle, they are described as ‘Hanaeans’, and that term deserves some thought.
There were various ways of describing the Greeks and their armies in the Babylonian chronicles. The Seleucid king of Babylon was often said to be a ‘Macedonian’ (lúMa-ak-ka-du-na-a-a), but he also quite simply became ‘the king of Babylon’. Similarly, the Seleucid army was sometimes described as ‘the army of Akkad’ (i.e. Babylonia), without further qualification. Distinctions between proper Babylonians and their Greek, i.e. Seleucid, conquerors were made only in some contexts: for example the king was sometimes said to perform rituals ‘in the Greek fashion’, to mark departures from Babylonian practices. In the text I have just quoted ‘the king’ was in fact the Seleucid Greek ruler of Babylon. The invading Hanaeans were also Greeks, but at the command of Ptolemy III. The term ‘Hanaean’ originally referred to a nomadic tribe that repeatedly threatened Mesopotamian cities. By the Hellenistic period, it was above all used of invading Greeks. What we have in the Chronicle, then, is a description of one Greek invading army, that of Ptolemy, pitted against another Greek army belonging to the current Seleucid ruler of Babylon. Those two armies, who were fighting each other for the control of Babylon in the wake of Alexander the Great, are described in a way that makes issues of legitimacy quite clear. The Seleucid king is simply ‘the king’, whereas the invading troops of Ptolemy are the ultmimate barbarians, ‘Hanaean troops, who did not fear the gods and were clad in iron armour’.

New rulers and enemies are inserted into templates that crystallized over millennia. The legitimacy of Seleucid rule is expressed by reference to terms that applied to quite different and earlier historical contexts. What this inscription offers, beyond the intricacies of the conflicts between Alexander’s successors, is a novel perspective on the Greeks. In some circumstances, they could become the ultimate other: iron-clad men who did not fear the gods. Terrifying. Not quite human. Classicists can profit from keeping in mind that perspective on the Greeks – and that perspective emerges clearly when paying close attention to the language and discourse of ancient Babylon.

Leave a Reply