Back in 1967, the scholar A. Leo Oppenheim published a book filled with more reader-friendly samples of ancient Mesopotamian letters, which go some length toward bringing to life the everyday commotion, raiding, warfare, religion, commerce and political wrangling of those times. These letters were written in ancient Mesopotamia and beyond, in old Assyrian trading colonies in Anatolia and by kings in Canaan and Syria exchanging word with their liege, either the Hittite king or the Egyptian Pharaoh (Akkadian cuneiform was the universal diplomatic language of the bronze age).
Here’s the free PDF from the Oriental Institute of Chicago:
The amount of cuneiform tablets (not to speak of petty fragments) uncovered by archaeologists during the last two centuries amount to well over 100’000, with probably more than a million tablets still in the ground. The sheer information preserved is enormous, and Assyriologists will have translation work to keep them occupied for many hundreds of years to come. However, vast though this clay treasure is, it is not the liveliest of ancient source material by a long shot. Writing started out as book keeping, and it shows in the Mesopotamian letters. When writing became used for more versatile tasks than keeping count of wares, it retained a stilted and formal manner, upheld by rigorous tradition in prestigious scribal schools over many centuries. The sheer age of Mesopotamian writing means that it’s boring, dry and business-like, but pretty interesting at times nonetheless. You will have to search out ancient Greek authors to find some sort of lively language developed in old writing!
I would like to share some of the more interesting Mesopotamian letters with you, should anyone wish to read it.
Letters from Mesopotamia presents a cherry-picked collection of more or less intact clay tablet letters. There are a lot of bureaucratic stuff, some law cases, omen-gazing and lots of merchant letters. There are royal correspondence and military letters. There are glimpses of disease and calamities, of convoluted ritual practices and There are also personal disputes where the heated tempers of folk shine through the formal words.
And there are some astonishing amount of flattery from the Pharaoh’s Canaanite vassals to their boss. How would you like it to be addressed like this at the start of a letter?
Excerpt from letter 60: Envelope: A letter of Kalbu to his lord (the guenna-official of
Tell my lord, the perfect, the gorgeous, the offspring of heaven,
our protective angel, the expert and effective warrior, the light
among his brothers, the shining gem, the trust of all important
persons, endowed with nobility, the provider for scholars, the
table laden for all people, outstanding among his peers, to whom
the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea, and also the goddess Belet-ili, have
granted a treasure of graces and riches—tell my lord: Kalbu, who
is dust and but your favorite slave, sends the following message. …
Or like this? Sufficiently crawling in the dust?
Letter 67: To the king, my lord, my god, my sun: A message of your servant
Abi-milki (of Tyre):
Seven times and again seven times I prostrate myself at the
feet of Your Majesty—I, the dust under the sandals of Your
Majesty. My lord is the sun (god) who rises over all the countries,
day after day, according to the ordinance of the sun god his gracious
father, whose sweet breath gives life and (which one)
craves(?) when he is hiding, who makes the entire country rest
under (the protection) of his mighty arm; who thunders in the
sky like the storm god so that the entire country trembles at
the sound of him.
This is the message of a slave to his master after he had heard
what the kind messenger of the king (said) to his servant upon
arriving here, and (felt) the sweet fragrance that came out of the
mouth of Your Majesty toward his servant. And he was craving(?)
the king’s fragrance before the arrival of the messenger of Your
Majesty. How should one not crave(?) for a fragrance which one’s
(text: my) nose remembers (so well)? And indeed, I was extremely
glad when the fragrance of the king wafted towards me
and there was a festival(?) every day because I was so glad. Is not
the entire world happy when it hears the kind messenger (who
comes) from the very presence of my lord. Also the entire country
was in awe of my lord when it heard about the sweet fragrance
and the kind messenger who had come to me. If Your
Majesty would have said “Rise up against a great army!” this
servant would have said to his master: “Aye, aye!” I am carrying
on my heart and my back the command of Your Majesty. The
sun rises over anybody who listens to Your Majesty and obeys
him in his place of office, and who craves(?) the sweet fragrance
from the mouth of his master, but the city of him who has not
listened to the command of your Majesty is (as good as) lost and
his house is lost; his fame is gone forever in the entire country.
Now look (at me), a servant who has listened to his master, his
city is fine, his house is fine, his fame is to endure forever.
You are the sun that rises above me and the wall of bronze
that towers (around me). And for this very reason and on account
of the mighty arm of Your Majesty, I rest secure.
This is what I have (still) to say to the Sun, my father, Your
Majesty: When will I see Your Majesty face to face?
Now I am guarding for Your Majesty Tyre, the great city,
waiting until the mighty arm of the king extends over me to give
me (from the mainland) water to drink and wood to warm me.
As to other matters: Zimrida, the king of Sidon, has been writing
every day to that criminal Azira, son of Abdi-Asratu about
everything he hears from Egypt. This I had to write to my lord
for it is proper that he know about it.
An important form of taxation in ancient Mesopotamia was corvée labour: Digging canals, building structures and doing other work for the state. Several letters are for fighting the bureaucracy:
Letter 8: Tell the governor of the Inland Region, whom the god
Marduk keeps in good health: Dingir-saga sends the following
May the gods Samas and Marduk keep you forever in good
I was very pleased when the god Marduk elevated you to high
office. I said to myself, "A man has been elevated who knows
me; he will do for me what I want. Even those officials around
here who do not know me personally will now do what I want
when I send them a message.
As to the case of the temple singer Nabium-malik, a native of
the town of Habuz, the man made the following deposition to
me. I quote him: "Nobody ever issued a summons for me
to do service as a porter. Now the governor of the Inland Region
has sent me notice, and (after I refused) they took a slave of mine
as a pledge."
This man, Nabium-malik, is a member of my household; he
is not a stranger. He is already performing six other work-obligations,
and he pays the fees incumbent on a high priest and a temple
I am sending you herewith this tablet of mine; if you truly
care for me, nobody must issue a summons for this man’s
Others are plain old nagging:
Letter 16: Tell the Lady Zinu: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:
May the gods Samas, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in
good health for my sake.
From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here
become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to
year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and
more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like
bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam,
whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets
of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes
for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only
adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love
Some bear witness to the despair of human misery:
Letter 17: Tell my master: Your slave girl Dabitum sends the following
What I have told you now has happened to me: For seven
months this (unborn) child was in my body, but for a month now
the child has been dead and nobody wants to take care of me.
May it please my master (to do something) lest I die. Come visit
me and let me see the face of my master! [Large gap ] Why did
no present from you arrive for me? And if I have to die, let me
die after I have seen again the face of my master!
Hardship, indeed, on a large scale. It is easy to imagine the chaos, the fear, the sweaty efforts and the barking masters during raids and warfare:
Letter 23: Tell Belsunu: Qurdusa sends the following message :
May the god Samas keep you in good health.
As you have certainly heard, the open country is in confusion
and the enemy is prowling around in it. I have dispatched letters to
Ibni-Marduk, to Warad-…, and to yourself. Take a lamb from the
flock for the diviner and obtain a divination concerning the cattle
and the flocks, whether they should move into my neighborhood;
if there will be no attack of the enemy and no attack by robbers
the cattle should come to where I am—or else bring them into
the town of Kish so that the enemy cannot touch them. Furthermore,
bring whatever barley is available into Kish and write me
a full report.
What is the worth of a man? Back in those days, they could give the exact market value!
Letter 25: Tell Ahu-klnum: Awll-Amurrim sends the following message:
Immediately after you left for the trip, Imgur-Sin arrived
here and claimed: “He owes me one-third of a mina of silver.”
He took your wife and your daughter as pledges. Come back
before your wife and your daughter die from the work of constantly
grinding barley while in detention. Please, get your
wife and your daughter out of this.
Theft is eternal:
:Letter 33: Tell Nur-Samas, Awel-Adad, Sin-pilah, Silli-Adad, and the overseer
of the ten-man team: Samas-nasir (the governor of Larsa)
sends the following message:
This is really a fine way of behaving! The orchardists keep breaking
into the date storehouse and taking dates, and you yourselves
cover it up time and again and do not report it to me.
I am sending you herewith this letter of mine; bring these men
to me—after they have paid for the dates. And also the men from
the town Bad-Tibira [end broken]
Vehicle worries are no novelty:
Letter 40: Tell my lord Yasmah-Addu: Your servant Ila-Salim sends the
The king gave me a chariot; this chariot broke at its middle
section due to my constant traveling from the flatlands to the
mountains and back. So now there is no chariot available for me
to ride in when I have to go places. If it so pleases my lord, may
my lord give me a chariot.
I shall surely bring order into the land before my lord arrives.
I am the servant of my lord. May my lord not withhold a chariot
And neither is human cruelty. Anyone else think of Hobgoblins upon reading this?
Letter 43: Tell my lord: Your servant Bahdi-Lim sends the following message:
The body of a small child which was hardly one year old was
found lying in front of the old dike which is upstream from the
lower ditch openings(?) on the embankment of the river (Euphrates).
The body of the child was cut open at its waist and the [contents]
of its chest were placed on its head and it was [mutilated]
from head to foot. Nobody can tell whether it was male or female.
Nothing is left from its middle down to its lower end. The very
day I heard this report, I resorted to strict measures; I questioned
the overseers of the city quarters, the craftsmen and the harbor(?)
people, but neither any owner of this child nor its father or
mother nor anybody who could [shed light] on this incident came
forward. The very same day, I sent Bell-lu-dari to my lord with
this news. Also during the seven days since I sent Bell-lu-dari, I
have done much questioning but [end broken]
War was always a popular pastime:
Letter 48: Tell Yasmah-Addu: Your brother Isme-Dagan sends the following
The men of the Awlanum tribe assembled here, their entire
contingent, under Mar-Addu, in order to give battle. We fought
at Tu[.]wi and I inflicted a severe defeat on them. Mar-Addu and
all the tribesmen of the Awlanum are dead; also their slaves and
their clients are killed. Not even one of the enemy escaped with
his life. Rejoice!
Enjoy your luxury fridge! Having ice for drinks was the mark of wealthy and important families, since it had to be extracted with simple hand tools in mountainous areas during winter, then be packaged to minimize melting and then be transported to the customer. Activities of this sort might well take place in the lower reaches of the northwesterly Mountains of Mourns to provide Chaos Dwarf palaces with chilly drinks:
Letter 53: Tell Yasmah-Addu: King Aplahanda (of Carchemish) sends the
There is now ice available in Ziranum, much of it. Place your
servants there to watch over it so they can keep it safe for
you. They can bring it to you regularly as long as you stay
there. And if no good wine is available there for you to drink,
send me word and I will have good wine sent to you to drink.
Since your home town is far away, do write me whenever you
need anything, and I will always give you what you need.
Sometimes the Pharaoh has need of your daughter and your possessions:
Letter 65: Tell [. . . ] the man in charge of the country Ammia: The King
(of Egypt) sends the following message:
I am sending you herewith this letter to command you: Be on
guard, hold the city of the king which is your responsibility.
Send your daughter straightaway to your king and lord; also
send your presents: twenty healthy slaves, silver-coated chariots
(and) fine horses. Then I, as your king and lord, shall address
you, saying: What you have given to the king as a present in addition
to your daughter is good.
Be assured that the king is as well as the sun god in the sky;
his soldiers and his chariotry are in very, very good condition.
Better keep those solders and chariotry in good order, or else…!
Letter 80: A message from the King of Carchemish: Tell Ibiranu, the king
Good health to you!
Here is Talmi-TeSup, the charioteer of the Sun (the Hittite
king), coming to you. He will inspect your infantry and your
chariotry to establish how many there are. Put all the soldiers
and the chariots which have been assigned to you by the palace
in good order. The Sun will make a count. The Sun must under
no circumstances be angered—(this is a matter of) life and death.
Kingly wrath clad in sayings:
Letter 116: An order of the king (Esarhaddon) to the “Non-Babylonian” inhabitants
I am fine.
There is a proverb often used by people: "The potter’s dog,
once he crawls into the (warm) potter’s shop, barks at the
potter/3 There you are, pretending—against the commands of the
god—to be Babylonians, and what unspeakable things you and
your master have devised against my subjects! There is another
proverb often cited by people: “What the adulteress says at the
door of the judge’s house carries more weight than the words of
her husband.” Should you ask yourselves after I sent back to you,
with seals intact, your letters full of empty and insolent(?) words
which you had dispatched: “Why did he return the letters to us?”
I am telling you that I would have opened and read whatever
message my loyal and loving Babylonians had sent me but. . .
Rule of arms and fear:
Letter 120: To the lord of all kings, my lord (Assurbanipal), from your servant
May the gods Assur, Samas, and Marduk bestow upon the lord
of all kings, the king of all countries, my lord, happiness, wellbeing,
a long life, and a long reign.
The day I left the Sea Land, I dispatched five hundred men,
subjects of Your Majesty, to the town of Zabdanu with the order:
“Guard the outlying command posts in the region of Zabdanu,
make attacks against Elam, kill, and take booty.” When they
made an attack against the town of Irgidu—that town is four
hours’ march this side of Susa—they killed the sheikh of the
Yasil tribe, Ammaladin, two of his brothers, three of his uncles,
and two of his nephews; also Dalail, the son of Abiyadf, and two
hundred citizens of that town, and, although this was a long distance
for them, they took 150 prisoners. As soon as the sheikhs of
the town Lahiru and the Nugud tribesmen saw that my police
troops were making more and more attacks on the other side,
their (own), they became afraid, pledged themselves, and entered
into an agreement of vassalage with Musezib-Marduk, my sister’s
son, a servant of Your Majesty, to whom I have entrusted an
outlying command post, declaring: “We are now servants of the
King of Assyria.” They started moving all their available bowmen,
[joined] with Musezib-Marduk, and marched against Elam. They
put their hands on their [break], they arrived at the command
post which I has assigned (to them), and I sent them on to Your
Majesty, together with the booty(?) they had taken. They have the
following news about Elam: “Ummanigas, son of Amedirra, has
rebelled against King Ummanhaldasu, and the country from the
town of Hudhud as far as the town of Hadanu has sided with him.
Ummanhaldasu has assembled his armed forces. Now they are
encamped opposite each other along the river.”
The man Iqisa, whom I have sent to the palace, knows all about
their news; one should question him in the palace.
Paying homage to Assyrian overlords carried its share of dangers:
Letter 121: To my lord the king (Esarhaddon[?]), from your servant the
guenna-official of Nippur:
May the gods Enlil, Ninurta, and Nusku bless Your Majesty.
The king knows that I am very sick. Had I not been sick, I
would have gone to the king to inquire about his health. So I am
sending herewith my brother Bel-usatu and ten well-born citizens
of Nippur to inquire about the health of Your Majesty.
The king well knows that people hate us everywhere on account
of our allegiance to Assyria. We are not safe anywhere;
wherever we might go we would be killed. People say: “Why
did you submit to Assyria?” We have now locked our gates tight
and do not even go out of town into the . . . We are (still) doing
our duty for the king; the envoy and the officials whom the king
has sent here have all seen this and can tell the king about it. But
the king must not abandon us to the others! We have no water
and are in danger of dying for lack of water. The king, your father,
wanted to give us the water rights for the Banitu-canal under this
condition: “Dig an outlet from the Banitu-canal toward Nippur.”
[The . . . ], however, refused us the water. The king should now
send an order to Ubar, the commander of Babylon to grant us an
outlet from the Banitu-canal so that we can drink water with
them from it and not have to desert the king on account of
lack of water. They must not say everywhere: “These are the inhabitants
of Nippur who submitted to Assyria—and (when) they
became sick and tired of the lack of water (they deserted).”
A glimpse of the administrated recruitment that kept the Assyrian war machine churning:
Letter 123: Order of the king (Assurbanipal[?]) to Mannu-ki-Adad:
To you have been assigned as your charges 1,119 men together
with their families, amounting to 5,000—not counting how many
among them have died in the meantime and how many are still
alive—they are destined for the infantry of the palace. Why then
are you yourself transfering some to the fully equipped soldiers,
others to the elite soldiers, and still others to the cavalry, making
them part of your own regiment? Do not think that when
those come who are to check on the soldiers, you will be able
to make arrangements(?) with them! I am now sending this message
to you: “Summon them even if many of them are elsewhere,
everybody whom you have sent out for a special task, they all
have to be present for my officer when he checks on them!” I
am now sending my officer; he will muster them.
To be a subject king to a greater king was often a stormy affair where one wrong step could plunge the underling to his doom, and never more so than when the very guts of the overlords you had to serve were commonly hated, with that bile spilling over on you for subjecting yourself to their yoke:
Letter 127: [beginning destroyed] Nabu-[. . . ] said as follows: " [ . . . ] the king
of Urartu. Why does Your Majesty constantly send me messages
full of ill-temper, reproach, and anger; your father did not give
me orders in such a manner even when they spoke unrepeatable
slanders (about me) and were committing crimes right and
left, up and down. Yet the king of all gods, sublime and noble,
has handed over to you, his worshipper, the full extent of the
As to the lapis lazuli concerning which Your Majesty has written
me as follows: “They should requisition it!”—does Your
Majesty not know that lapis lazuli is now high in price and that
the country would rebel against me if I had actually requisitioned
it? Rather—if it pleases Your Majesty—let a large body of troops
come here and let them requisition the lapis lazuli. And then
the king must not consider it a crime (of mine) when I will not
eat with them (the Assyrian soldiers), nor drink water with them,
nor accompany them, nor even rise before your messenger, nor
inquire of him about Your Majesty’s health, when they come
PS: Written down from an oral deposition of [. . . ].
Likewise, fire was a danger that would not go away:
Letter 139: A letter from Madanu-[ . . . ] and Labasi-Marduk: To our lords,
the administrator and [ . . . ] :
May the gods Bel and Nabu, the Lady of Uruk, and the goddess
Nana ordain well-being and good health for our lords.
Fire broke out on the second day of the month DuDuzu, during
the night, in the temple of Nergal. The secretary and Nabu-nasir
went there to see about it, and, thanks to the protection granted
by the gods, everything in the temple is in good condition. We have
transferred the images to the temple of Lugal-Marad. All the
personnel of the temple of Nergal in Udannu have run away.
Guzanu, the son of Nabu-mukin-apli, who was in charge as guard,
has likewise run away. There is nobody there to serve the sacrificial
meal to the two Nergal images, and nobody to stand guard
in the temple Eanna and in the temple of Nergal. Our lords should
send a message to Nana-eris to dispatch here all of the temple
personnel, especially Ah-iddina and Sum-iddina, [the sons] of
Arad-Nana. May the lords [act] quickly; there is nobody in
charge of the temple guard. Let us hear promptly an order issued
by our lords.
Interpreting omens were part of how people conducted their everyday business:
Letter 150: A letter of Kudurru to his brother Bel-rimanni:
A cloud appeared just when I was observing (the moon). Did
the eclipse take place? Please, send me an exact report. Find out
what (prayers) are to be said (on account of the eclipse). Write
down for me your well-considered opinion.
Send me an exact report concerning the finances(?) of Zerutu.
The best letter of them all is however one where the formal introduction of diplomatic letters is turned on its head by the stark tidings next presented, courtesy of Nergal. Is all well?
Letter 66: Tell the King of Egypt, my brother: Your brother the King of
Alasia (Cyprus), sends the following message:
I am well, my household, my wife, my sons, my officials, my
horses, my chariots—also everything in my land—are very well.
And so may my brother be well, also your household, your wives,
your sons, your officials, your horses, your chariots—and everything
in your land—be very well.
Dear brother, herewith I send to you, to Egypt, my messenger
together with your own messenger. My brother should not take
it to heart that I am sending herewith only five hundred pounds
of copper—I am sending this solely as a present for my brother—
because, my brother, it is so little. I swear that pestilence, the disease
of my lord Nergal, was in my land, and has killed all the
people of my land, so there was nobody to produce copper. So
my brother should not take it to heart (that it is so little copper).
Send back quickly your messenger together with my messenger,
then I will send you, my brother, all the copper which my brother
wants. Dear brother, you used to send me (ordinary) silver in
great quantity, but now give me fine silver, my brother—then I,
in turn, will send to my brother whatever my brother wants.
Now to another matter: Give me, my brother, the bull my
messenger will ask for, and dispatch to me, my brother, oil that
is perfumed, two kukkubu-jars of it, and, my brother, also send
me a diviner who is an expert in the behavior of eagles.
Now to another matter: People of my country are complaining
about my timber which the King of Egypt is taking away.
Would that my brother [pay(?)] its price(?).
Now to another matter of a similar nature: A man from Alasia
died in Egypt; his belongings are in your land but his son and wife
are here with me. My brother, collect(?) the belongings of these
people from Alalia, and give them to my messenger.
Do not take it to heart, my brother, that your messenger has
been staying in my country for three years; (it was) because the
“hand” of Nergal (i.e., pestilence) was in my country; even in my
family, there was a child of my wife’s who died. My brother, now
dispatch your messenger and mine, unharmed and quickly, since
I have sent my brother a present.
Now to another matter: My brother, please send me the silver
for which I asked you, and there should be a lot of it, my brother.
My brother should also release the belongings for which I asked
you, and my brother should fulfill all my wishes; then I will
fulfill all the wishes which you, my brother, will express to me.
Do not align yourself with the King of the Hatti land and the
King of Sanhar. I, on my part, have returned twofold to you whatever
presents messengers have brought to me. Your messenger
has always come to me in safety(?), and my messenger to you
also in safety(?).