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Benjamin Fortson

Cuneiform denotes any of at least three writing systems of ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas. It is characterized in its classical form by signs consisting of one or more wedge-shaped strokes (cf. Latin cuneus, “wedge”). The first such script to emerge, and the one most widely used, was Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, which developed in what is now southern Iraq in the late 4th millennium bce. Its antecedents were more primitive methods of mercantile record-keeping using pictograms and tally marks. The earliest stages of the script contained patently pictographic signs drawn in clay with a pointed stylus. A later shift to the use of a reed with the end cut at an oblique angle produced the classic wedge-shaped impressions. The breaking-up of images into sets of wedges together with a gradual reduction in the number of strokes plus a ninety-degree rotation of the signs increased their abstractness and elevated the wedges (initially just an accidental byproduct of the writing technology) to an important design element. It became aesthetically prized in its own right and was carried over onto other media such as stone. The wedges were also imitated in the two other unrelated scripts that are also called cuneiform: Old Persian and Ugaritic.


John Z. Wee

Cuneiform medical manuscripts are found in large numbers, mostly from 1st-millennium bce sites throughout ancient Mesopotamia. Included in the therapeutic tradition are pharmacological glossaries, herbal recipes with plant, mineral, and animal ingredients, and healing incantations and rituals. A Diagnostic Handbook created at the end of the 2nd millennium bce maps out a blueprint for medical practice that sketches out how a healer progresses in his knowledge of the sickness—initially interpreting bodily signs in ways reminiscent of omen divination, and only later arriving at a settled diagnostic verdict and treatment of the kind depicted in the therapeutic tradition. Mesopotamian aetiologies focused on malevolent agents external to the body, encouraging concerns for contagion, prophylaxis, and sanitation, while omitting significant roles for dietetics and exercise aimed at rectifying internal imbalances. Operative surgery was limited, because of the inadequacy of available analgesics and antiseptics. Suppliants seeking a cure visited temples of the healing goddess Gula in the cities of Isin and Nippur, while, among the professions, the “magician” and the “physician” were most associated with medical practice. After the 5th century bce, Calendar Texts and other astrological genres linked various ingredients to each zodiacal name, indicating certain days when a particular ingredient would become medically efficacious.


Jason M. Schlude

Founded and ruled by the Arsacid royal family, the Parthian empire (c. 250 bce–227 ce) was the native Iranian empire that filled the power vacuum in the Middle East in the midst of Seleucid decline. Arsacid interaction with the Roman empire began in the mid-90s bce, eventually established the Euphrates river as a shared border, and was peaceful in nature till 54 bce. In that year, the first of four cycles of Parthian-Roman wars began. Since the Romans carried out the initial large-scale mobilization of troops that introduced most of these wars, it is appropriate to associate these four cycles with the various Romans who coordinated the Roman military efforts: (a) Crassus to Antony (54–30 bce); (b) Nero (57–63 ce); (c) Trajan (114–117 ce); and (d) Lucius Verus to Macrinus (161–217 ce). The fundamental causes for these conflicts were Roman imperialism, which was well ingrained by the 1st century bce, and Parthian imperialism, which accelerated in the 2nd century bce, probably accompanied by the Arsacids’ attempts to present themselves as successors to the Achaemenid dynasty.