From what I have gathered I believe there are currently no examples of Akkadian literature, written on cuneiform tablets, being translated into other languages onto papyri outside the Mesopotamian area (there are examples of Akkadian cuneiform script being translated into other languages within Mesopotamia such as old Aramaic: e.g the Behistun Inscriptions) during the Hellenistic period. My question is why?

Was there anything that prevented Akkadian cuneiform script being translated into other more common languages, such as cultural/political conflict?

Were cuneiform tablets available/accessible for anyone who wished to review them within the places where they were kept such as Mesopotamian temples and libraries?

Was it simply because there was no real reason for anyone from other cultures, such as Greek, to bother translating?

  • 2
    Interesting question! Do you have any evidence that the Greeks knew Akkadian? That anyone living at that the time knew it? (Your question implies that people in Mesopotamia were translating Akkadian written in cuneiform into then-modern languages in Classical times.)
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 22 at 12:02
  • Might transport of cuneiform texts have been an issue? Clay tablets are considerably more heavy than e.g. papyrus or parchment.
    – Jan
    Jan 22 at 12:14
  • 2
    I don't know enough about the topic to really write a proper answer, but some en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graeco-Babyloniaca do exist. Jan 22 at 15:37
  • Thank you. Graeco-Babyloniaca is about the cuneiform script being TRANSLITERATED, not TRANSLATED, into Greek.
    – user329957
    Jan 22 at 16:48
  • Graeco-Babyloniaca don't provide evidence one way or the other as to translation projects. But they do seem to demonstrate that during the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic period, at least some people literate in Greek were also studying cuneiform texts in Sumerian and Akkadian -- which provides some information interestingly relevant to @Mark Olson 's question above, as to whether "anyone (of the Greek-speakers) living at that time knew" Akkadian. Jan 23 at 1:18

2 Answers 2


Most likely there just wasn't a lot of Akkadian (Cuneiform) "writing" to be found outside of Mesopotamia, and particularly not what one would consider "literature".

Cuneiform was a logographic (1 glyph per word) system, that over time acquired syllabary (1 glyph per syllable) characteristics. Logographic languages, while pretty, can be very difficult to learn since they require a symbol for every word in the language. That makes popular "literature" more difficult to generate for them, and less rewarding, as only the very highly trained could generate or understand your novel. However, by the time the Akkadians got hold of it, it was more like a syllabary with some common pictographs kept. That's much more feasible.

The other issue Cunieform has is that its designed for use on clay or stone. A good size novel or even short story written in that medium obviously isn't very portable. A paperback of the Epic of Gilgamesh online appears to be about 128 pages. That much writing in fired clay tablets would probably weigh in the tons. Moving even a single copy would require an entire train of wagons. So you wouldn't expect to often find it very far from where it was generated.

So where would Akkadians have been generating their writings? Well, here's a map of the Akkadian Empire, and as you see its pretty much limited to the Tigris and Ehuphrates valleys, although they did do some campaigning towards Lebanon and Elam (SW Persia).

enter image description here

To be fair, they were the dominant power in the Near East at the time, so it would have been a common second language. However, literature isn't usually generated for an intended audience of largely second-language readers. They'd typically want to use their own language for that.

Of course by the Hellenistic Era, even better Alphabetic (1 symbol per vowel or consonant) systems has been developed and in use for nearly a thousand years. So anybody wanting to translate something like the Epic of Gilgamesh would have to go to where all copies of it existed, which would be somewhere in the area above. Since that's where all copies were, that's necessarily where nearly all Akkadian Cuneiform experts were too. (Can't learn a system you can't see).

  • Akkadian cuneiform script is not syllabic (one glyph per syllable) but pseudo-syllabic, e.g. šarrum can be written šar-ru-um (three glyphs for two syllables).
    – fdb
    Jan 25 at 17:35
  • 1
    @fdb - The Cuneiform system is logo-syllabic. The point I was trying to make is that when applied to its original Sumerian language it leaned more toward the "logo". When later applied to Akkadian (an unrelated Semitic language), it leaned more toward the "syllabic". Normally I wouldn't bother diving in to that level of detail, but there's a gigantic difference in efficiency between the two, so for the purposes of generating popular literature it matters.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 25 at 20:13

Is there (if I may reformulate your question a bit) evidence for ancient translations of texts in cuneiform (Akkadian, Babylonian, Old Persian, Elamite) script into other writing systems? There is, but not very much. You mentioned already the translation of the Babylonian version of Darius’s Bisitun inscription into Imperial Aramaic (in the Achaemenid, not the Hellenistic period). We also have from the same period the Aramaic endorsements on some of the Elamite tablets from Persepolis. This is evidence, if not for translation, then at least for the paraphrasing of cuneiform texts in a non-cuneiform writing system. The most substantial evidence is the fragments of the “Babyloniaca” of Berosus in the early Seleucid period. Berosus was a priest in the temple of Marduk in Babylon and he clearly derived his information from Babylonian tablets preserved in his temple. This work does not survive as such, but it is quoted by various later authors. It does show that there was not in principle any reason to reject the reality of translations from Akkadian to Greek.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.