Writing tablets from ancient Palmyra
A chance record from days long past
Palmyra has been in the news of late due to the destruction wrought by Islamic State. In this post Judith Weingarten takes us back to a bar in happier days…
One story is good, till another is told
Two men, by the names of Aesop and Babrius, and a schoolboy walked into a wine bar in ancient Palmyra. Aesop ordered three cups of date-palm wine and toasted his companions, telling a fable about an eagle and a jackdaw (Aesop 2). Babrius laughs, buys another round of wine, and says, “Aesop, best of fabulists, truly you are an eagle but I’ll show you I’m no daw.” With barely a pause, he renders Aesop’s prose into verse (Babrius 137):
An eagle with his talons lifted a sleek lamb from the flock and carried it off to give to his young ones for a meal. A jackdaw started to do the same, swooped down and fastened on the back of a lamb. Unable to lift the lamb, his claws became entangled in its fleece, there boys caught him and clipped his wings.
The schoolboy - probably similar in age and appearance to Zebida son of Taimamed, the scholarly child whose portrait is on the left - was eagerly writing down Babrius’ words on a tablet covered with wax.1
Now, he piped up with the moral of the story:
I pay a just penalty for my folly, he said.
Why did I, who am only a jackdaw,
try to imitate the eagle?
And all that he said was written in Greek.
From Palmyra to Leiden
And here (below right) is the actual wax tablet that the schoolboy scribbled on. His writing looks as if he had inbibed a little too much wine: most lines are not straight, spacing is irregular and there are spelling errors in his Greek. But, in truth, given that his own language was Palmyrene and he was just learning Greek, the result isn’t really bad at all.
What is amazing, however, is that this tablet still exists: in fact, seven wax tablets (probably once bound together as a polyptych - a diptych + five) - were bought by a Dutch naval officer, Mr H. van Assendelft de Coningh, in Palmyra in 1881 (“During my brief visit to Palmyra I acquired these wooden tablets”). What amazing luck: these are the only inscribed tablets known to have come from ancient Palmyra. After Van Assendelft de Coningh’s death, his brother donated the tablets to the Leiden University library which gave them the name of Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae in honour of the family. The tablets are still to be found in that library and, even better, they can now be viewed online.2
When is a fable not a fable?
In 1893, Leiden professor Dirk Hesseling published the tablets. He had discovered “after great effort and repeated squinting” that they contained 13 fables by Babrius, a Greek-speaking Roman poet living in Syria in the second half of the first century CE. Babrius is the author of almost 200 fables that were traditionally attributed to Aesop. In fact, Babrius himself tells us in his book’s introduction that he was the first to put Aesopic prose into verse:
You may learn and fully understand from wise old Aesop, who has told us fables in the free manner of prose. And now I shall adorn each of these fables with the flowers of my own Muse. I shall set before you a poetical honeycomb, as it were, dripping with sweetness….
In antiquity, the fables of Babrius were commonly used as an easy reader for young children when they were first learning to speak and write Greek. “Let them learn,” Quintilian says (I,9,1) “first to tell the fables orally in clear, unpretentious language, then to write them out with the same simplicity of style….” Such stories featuring anthropomorphised animals and containing moralistic wisdom were a good way to teach Greek to school children. The somewhat older lad pictured (left) is proud of his Greek: his open stack of waxed tablets displays the last five letters of the Greek alphabet – but written in Palmyrene (Aramaic) order, from right to left.
The empire was multilingual, and learning Greek as a second language was a necessity in the eastern empire - and nowhere more so than in Palmyra, especially for its merchants who travelled far and wide, often to the very edges of the known world. The many monumental inscriptions of the city carved on its pillars and walls, reflect their cosmopolitan ways: many hundreds are bilingual, written in both Palmyrene and Greek. The ability to use Aramaic and Greek alphabets seems not to have been uncommon at Palmyra.
That’s why our Palmyran schoolboys started learning the Greek alphabet and language at a young age, perhaps soon after having learnt to read and write the entirely different Palmyrene (Aramaic) script. All seven Tabulae ceratae Assendelftianae were written by a single schoolboy who lived in the city in the early third century CE (as can be determined from the form of his letters). On some tablets, he practiced his hand in both book-script - printing his letters - and cursive - joining them up (as bottom right). It’s very likely that his teacher was dictating the fables while the boy wrote them down as he thought he heard them - with all the errors and smudges, deletions and guesswork that you would expect.
There is something very tender in the thought that we have retrieved the halting efforts of a young Palmyran in the early stages of learning the Greek language; we can almost picture him as he hurried to school on the streets of Palmyra with wax tablets tied by strings. But, in all truth, it is disappointing, too, that the surviving texts on these tablets are only the rather banal fables of Babrius - already known to us from many sources throughout the Roman Empire.3 Can you imagine if instead they had recorded epic battles in the wars against Sasanian Persia, or hymns to the gods of Palmyra, or records of a merchant’s far-away travels? Alas, that was not to be.
Yet there is one more inscribed wooden tablet written by a Palmyran, and it only came to light a dozen or so years ago. It was found far from the city, on the distant and dangerous route that merchants took on their way to India. This tablet deserves to be better known. I’ll tell you about it in the next post.
Read Part II of this post here.
1 Wax tablets – small wooden boards covered in a layer of wax were used throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The wax surface used to write on could be easily wiped clean and reused. It allowed erasure and reuse of the writing surface, making them suitable for use at schools, taking notes, etc. Tablets are very rarely found with wax layer and writing intact.
2 Recently cleaned and restored by Karin Scheper of the Leiden Univ. Library: Over the years fungus had grown on the wax layers, rendering the texts illegible. Scheper removed the fungus by carefully rolling a cotton swab, saturated with demineralised water and ethanol, over the wax layer. She then cut and folded new cassettes out of cardboard, allowing the tablets to ‘breathe’, eliminating the breeding conditions for fungi. See Greek Wax Tablets from Palmyra Restored.
3 In all fairness, though the tales are known elsewhere in prose, four of the thirteen fables (Babrius 136-9) on these tablets are nowhere else preserved in verse.
This post was first published on Judith’s website, Zenobia: Empress of the East.
D. C. Hesseling, “On Waxen Tablets with Fables of Babrius (Tabulae Ceratae Assendelftianae)”, JHS Vol. 13 (1892 - 1893), 293-314.
B.E. Perry, Babrius and Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library, 1965.
Łukasz Sokołowski, “WRITING ATTRIBUTES IN ICONOGRAPHY OF THE PALMYRENE FUNERARY STELA AND THE LOCAL SOCIAL IDENTITIES EXPRESSED,” 18th CIAC: Centro y periferia en el mundo clásico/Centre and periphery in the ancient world, Mérida 2015, 1237-1240.
Idem, “Portraying Literacy of Palmyra, 2014” Etudes et Travaux XXVII, 2014,376-403.
Greek Wax Tablets from Palmyra Restored, NINO 28 February 2016.
Top left: Zebida son of Taimamed holding polyptych and a wide tablet. Palmyra,Palmyra Museum, inv. no. 1973/7065. Photo credit: Sokołowski 2014, Fig. 16.
2nd left: Wax tablet from Palmyra. Photo credit: Tabulae ceratae graecae quae vocantur Assendelftianae, Leiden University.
3rd left: Unnamed boy holding stylus and polyptych with Greek inscription. Late 2nd-early 3rd century CE. Photo credit: Louvre Museum, inv. no. AO 18174.
Lower left: Wax tablet from Palmyra. Photo credit: Tabulae ceratae graecae quae vocantur Assendelftianae, Leiden University.
Header image Filip Gierlinski, ‘Palmyra Views’. Creative commons license.