What if writing letters were an insurmountable struggle? This was the obstacle faced by Assyrians whilst their lingua franca was Assyrian, a Semitic language etched in a difficult cuneiform script onto clay. Writing was a critical tool for transactions, forcing Assyria’s pre-Aramaic marketplaces to subsist primarily on a small range of cuneiform symbols. The onset of Aramaic in the first century BC was a watershed event, introducing a new language that was alphabetic and could be written quickly with ink These two new features allowed Aramaic a quick learning curve (countless cuneiform symbols were notoriously difficult to learn, via tedious jabs on clay no less) that precipitated its quick displacement of Assyrian. The popularization of Aramaic was a huge linguistic development that pervasively impacted the business life of a free Assyrian male.

Language in Assyria began as a dialect of Akkadian, written in a difficult cuneiform script. Scribery was not a field for writers to express themselves, but rather was an industry that was largely just the stringing together of normalized phrases in order to convey a message (Contenau 1954, pg. 175). This standardization was necessary, as reading and writing was very difficult and many symbols had multiple meanings that could only be distinguished by their context (Contenau 1954, pg. 169) A scribe's education consisted of memorizing vast numbers of lexical lists (symbol lists) relevant to a specific sector of either: temple, business, military, medicine or priesthood (Contenau 1954, pg. 175). The term for markings of cuneiform is represented by the same symbols as dapples of a panther’s hide (Contenau 1954, pg. 175). To an ordinary Assyrian, most of the dizzying sea of cuneiform symbols was surely as understandable as a fur spot.

Writing was relevant to a free Assyrian hoping to engage in commerce. Business was not just confined to the very wealthy. A free male, freed slave or even captive slave could open a business branch and nurture it into an expansive trade network that sometimes extended into overseas banking (Contenau 1954, pg. 80). The term for a seller meant he who gives, who delivers; the term for a buyer meant he who fixes the price (Contenau 1954, pg. 79). With the purchasing party responsible for setting the price, he needed an understanding of basic arithmetic in order to pay for transactions. While it is possible that an ignorant person could master basic conversion and arithmetic in their head amidst an environment of fixed prices and small units, this was impossible in Assyria's wild and broad economy. After developing an awareness for oft-used units to measure fundamental materials and foodstuffs — he, shiklu, manu, biltu, sila, massikut, imeru, ubanu, ammatu, kanu, gar, ashlu, beru, musaru, iku and buru — the buyer needed to be aware of respective prices (Contenau 1954, pg. 88-89). Price records reveal tremendous volatility (Contenau 1954, pg. 93). The relative value of gold and silver was constantly shifting, with a single shekel of gold worth anywhere between 8 and 15 shekels of silver within the range of a single year (Contenau 1954, pg. 90). Commodities also fluctuated in valley hugely, based on harvest season, availability, quality and other factors (Contenau 1954, pg. 90-91). A hundred baked bricks were 1 shekel, and 600 minas of asphalt were also 1 shekel. These were not small units of that could be counted on one’s hand, or even multiples of ten that could be manipulated through intuition (Contenau 1954, pg. 91). There are even records of fractional prices (five talents of cedar wood cost ½ mina) that clearly evidence the use of arithmetic and the precision of transactions that necessitated basic knowledge of math and the writing that would have been required to record such vast transactions (Contenau 1954, pg. 91).

In addition to the role of writing in computation, seals and bullae are two examples of the necessity for persons on both ends of a deal to know how to write. Seals were a pervasive and indispensable feature of life, as they gave a document authenticity (Contenau 1954, pg. 68-69). Every free Assyrian male owned a seal (Contenau 1954, pg. 69). The seal was used at home as a means of security; by tying his door with two threads united by a sealed piece of clay, a man could make sure that his home had not been trespassed. In the market, the seal was used to impress various items to denote ownership. This was particularly important for containers, which were marked by a seal so that the manufacturer and possessor of an item could be readily identified (Contenau 1954, pg. 69). Impressing one’s name onto an item was not just a passive way to label it. Writing had a sacred permanence and a tangible representation of one’s name carried particular importance (Contenau 1954, pg. 162). In fact, sometimes Assyrians would use false names in anticipation of a reader trying to retaliate by placing a curse on the writer (Contenau 1954, pg. 164). Related to seals are bullae, which ensured against tampering (Robinson 1995, pg. 60). Retailers needed a safe way to perform transactions without risk of looting, and thus used clay envelopes (the bulla) within which tokens were stored. The outside of the bulla was impressed with a seal and given an inscription to describe the details of the transaction. The inside of the bulla was filled with additional details. In the event of a dispute, the bulla could be broken open and its inner contents could be inspected. The seals on the outside ensured that opening of the bulla (and thus potential tampering with the contents) would be clearly evident. From buying the materials to build a house, to purchasing food to eat within that house, a buyer needed to understand computations and the records upon which those computations were kept. This was a two-way transaction; both buyer and seller were known to sign documents with their seals. In Assyria, the seller did not control the entire transaction and the buyer did not just offer money; this was an environment where the two entities worked together to establish a fair exchange amidst a fluid market.

It is unsurprising that when Assyria finished conquering all the Aramean kingdoms at the end of the 8th century BC, the easier-to-learn alphabetic Aramaic language was adopted into Assyrian life (Millard & Bordreuil 1982, pg. 137). Aramaic penetrated as deep as the palace itself, with inscriptions prepared bilingually to represent both Assyrian and Aramaic (Millard 1972, pg. 131; Millard & Bordreuil, 139). A 729 BC Assyrian relief depicts an Aramean scribe with a clay tablet and stylus, indicating that records were kept in Assyrian and Aramaic (Stinespring 1958, pg. 300). Also, Ashurbanipal’s palace reliefs from Nineveh included epigraphs written in Aramaic (Millard 1972, pg. 131). The Aramaic scribes of Assyrian kings prepared many non-religious documents such as treaties in Aramaic (Olmstead 1923, pg. 392; Contenau 1954, pg. 171). As shown in 2 Kings 18:26, Aramaic was not just useful as a new mode of writing for Assyrian officials, but was also incorporated into spoken language:

Then Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the Rab-shakeh, Will you kindly make use of the Aramaean language in talking to your servants, for we are used to it, and do not make use of the Jews’ language in the hearing of the people on the wall

Aramaic eventually overtook Assyrian, with mentions of the Assyrian language actually becoming synonymous with Assyrian-style Aramaic (Stinespring 1958, pg. 300). The dockets of even cuneiform documents (a docket was a brief inscriptions on the side of the tablet for easy shelf reference) began to be written in Aramaic (Stinespring 1958, pg. 300). This was no small transition between two similar Semitic languages: an Aramaic stele refers to Ashur-Nirari V of Assyria as King Brg'yh of Ktk (Contenau 1954, pg. 172). While syllabic cuneiform included vowels, the translation to Armaic (and its neglect of vowels) required creativity that often completely changed the pronounciation of the word in question. This huge lingual transition diluted Assyrian culture, something noted by Ashurbanipal while he fighting against Babylonia, his own brother in a cultural and literal sense (Olmstead 1923, pg. 399). Also, Assyrian hegemony over Egypt began to collapse as Thebes was reclaimed from Assyria (Loessoe 1963, pg. 1230. Ashurbanipal undoubtedly felt that he needed a vessel instead of a vassal in order to carry on Mesopotamian thought and thus formed an unprecedented corpus of Assyro-Babylonian literature. Ashurbanipal's formation of a comprehensive Assyro-Babylonian library was an indication that he sensed Assyria's looming collapse (Olmstead 1923, pg. 397; Loessoe 1963, pg. 123). All these factors attest to the importance of Aramean, not only in the immediate sense of its usage as a new language but in the indirect way that is heralded a shift from traditional Assyrian culture.

Aramaic had a very important role in the booming Neo-Assyrian economy. Aramaic could be written with ink onto impermanent materials or carved into wax, something that was impossible with cuneiform and which revolutionized the ease of writing (Contenau 1954, pg. 7). This was essential during transactions, as it avoid wasted time spent jabbing cuneiform onto a clay tablet. Even more permanent elements of a transaction incorporated Aramaic, however. The seal, equivalent to a signature in the modern world, incorporated Aramaic (Stinespring 1958, pg. 300). Not only was Aramaic easier to read and write, but also its alphabetic nature allowed seals to be distinguished by differences in their letters (thus heightening security) which had been impossible with cuneiform. Even bullae were not immune to Aramaic, a feat that indicates that Aramaic was not just a localized phenomenon (Millard 1972, pg. 132). Caravans carried bullae along with their cargo, and the bullae gave the recipient knowledge as to whether his goods had been looted during transport. The use of nature in inter-region trade illuminates the spreading role of Aramaic. In addition, even dishes and other objects were inscribed in Aramaic, something which had been much more difficult during the reign of cuneiform (Stinespring 1958, pg. 300). The permanent nature of writing (as opposed to the fleeting nature of audition) extended to religion, where writing the name of a person or god imparted that item with the life of the (Contenau 1954, pg. 1954, pg. 161 & pg. 133). Thus, being able to quickly inscribe everyday objects, and have a larger audience to read them, was another important manner in which Aramaic impacted the Assyrian economy. An object could be more easily inscribed with the name of a deity to give it the importance of that god, or it could be detailed with the name of an ancestor to give it relevance as a way of remembering an ancestor.

In Assyria, the tight relationship between literacy and a free man’s business was impacted by the rise of the Aramaic language. Assyrian had been the predominant language in Assyria for over a thousand years, but by the Neo-Assyrian period it was displaced by Aramaic, a language acquired from conquered regions. This was not merely a small shift in the words people used, but a gateway that from which Aramaic poured into every facet of life. Its learnability (something which had hindered the average Assyrian male’s ability to write in Assyrian) allowed Aramaic to be quickly adopted into business, administrative and royal spheres. Its impact in business, however, was particularly remarkable because writing is entrenched every step of the way: from the ability to calculate and write down units for establishing a price; to verifying that deliveries have not been looted en route to their destination. While the royal administration had long relied upon writing for its indulgent palace reliefs and for its enormous corpus of letters, it was only in business that an average free Assyrian male encountered and harnessed the power of writing. For that man in particular, an entirely new world was opened when he found himself suddenly able to learn more, read more and write more. From there, he had a stronger set of tools to set foot in the world and be a business.


Contenau, G. 1954. Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Loessoe, J. 1963. People of Ancient Assyria. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Millard, A.R. 1972. Some Aramaic Epigraphs. London: British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Iraq, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 131-137

Millard, A.R. & Bordreuil, P. 1982. A Statue from Syria with Assyrian and Aramaic Inscription. Boston: The American Schools of Oriental Research. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1982), pp. 135-141

Olmstead, A. T. 1923. History of Assyria. New York & London: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The Story of Writing. London: Thames and Hudson

Stinespring, W.F. 1958. History and Present Status of Aramaic Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1958), pp. 298-303