“He lied to the people, saying ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar’”: Some modern problems in controlling ancient names

By Gabriel McKee

One of the fundamental principles of cataloging is the concept of “authority control.” As all of us who have studied or done research in the ancient world know, an individual person, thing, or concept may be described with different terms, in different languages, or with variations in spelling. On the other side of the coin, the same name may describe different individuals from different regions or periods in history. Libraries (and other entities) overcome this multiplicity by tying related versions together under a single, “authorized” form of the name, which is used in cataloging materials related to that topic or individual. But choosing which name to use can be challenging, particularly when it comes to figures from ancient history.

The ISAW library recently received a copy of Nebukadnezar III/IV by Jürgen Lorenz (ISLET Verlag, 2008). A revision of the author’s thesis, the book assembles scattered primary sources regarding two little-known political upstarts from the early Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE). They both arose in the midst of the upheaval surrounding Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE)’s accession the throne. In late 522 BCE, a man named Nidintu-Bêl declared himself Nebuchadnezzar III, King of Babylon. He claimed to be a son of Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BCE), the final king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, whom Cyrus II (r. 559-530 BCE) had defeated in 539 BCE. Nidintu-Bêl seems to have actually ruled Babylonia for about two months, until Darius defeated him in two battles that December. Darius then besieged Babylon and put him to death. The following year, an Armenian known as Arakha staged another rebellion, also claiming to be a son of Nabonidus and also adopting the name Nebuchadnezzar. Arakha’s rebellion lasted from May to November of 521 BCE, when Darius’ subordinate Intaphernes reduced the city and crucified the rebels.

The primary source of information for both figures is the Behistun Inscription (pictured above; full transcription here), which records Darius’ own biased account of several revolts against his early rule. The source is (of course) less than fully reliable, as Darius seems to have engaged in some creative fabrication in order to magnify his own stature as a military leader. Several of the rebels he claims to have defeated do not seem to have been able to raise an army: what sort of “kings” or “rebels” were they, then? And the chronology of Darius’ victories is also unclear: he seems to have shifted dates in order to be able to claim that he suppressed all of the revolts against him within a single year. But Darius is crystal clear in this inscription about their claims to legitimacy: “[Nidintu-Bêl] lied to the people, saying ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar’.”

The two rebel Nebuchadnezzars (and all the other rebels against Darius) pose a problem for libraries or any organization that wishes to create a unified data set, like Google. That is to say, they pose a problem for authority control. Though these rebels’ real names are known, they are also known—perhaps even better known—by their adopted royal names. And yet, for good reason, most reasonable people would hesitate to class them among the true or legitimate kings of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, with the likes of Nabonidus (556-539 BCE) and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE). The Persians had effectively destroyed the Empire, and so each would-be king had, at best, limited control for a matter of months over a besieged Babylon.  Ancient politics, oddly enough, resurface when one creates metadata for works about figures like Nebuchadnezzar III and IV. What do we call these people? How and in what way, or at what level, do we recognize their pretensions to power?

In the library catalog, we must choose which name we will use in referring to a usurper or pretender, and this sometimes even means revisiting the question of their claims to legitimacy. Nidintu-Bêl’s claim to be a son of Nabonidus was almost certainly false, and yet he actually held some degree of power in Babylon, however briefly. Should the librarian therefore accept his title as legitimate, and choose Nebuchadnezzar III as his authorized name? If not, should the claimed title be used as a variant term, which will point people searching for “Nebuchadnezzar III” to his original name? Any answer requires librarians and catalogers to choose a side. Should we side with the winners, who, as they say, write history? Should that version of history extend to the very names by which the losers are cataloged, recorded, indexed, and searched for today in our information age? At stake in the choice of name is the discovery of these figures. If we don’t provide some kind of access to the claimed titles, those searching for them will not find the materials they need. But if we use the royal name as the authorized form, we risk confusing the historical narrative, providing inaccurate information where accuracy is most needed.

There are hundreds of cases throughout history of pretenders to the throne and failed usurpers. Most are figures so minor as to have no authorized name headings at all; but the more notable claimants, the ones who receive scholarly attention as important historical also-rans, the ones people might look for, these are cataloged in no discernible pattern, making them losers not only in their age, but ours, since they are difficult to find. The rules for formulating headings in the current guidelines used by most academic libraries, Resource Description and Access (RDA), are very clear about the order of elements in a name, but they remain silent on establishing the legitimacy of a claim to a royal title. And so the treatment for historical pretenders who never succeeded in realizing their claims to a title varies. James Stuart, “The Old Pretender,” does not have a variant heading for his claimed titles, namely James III of England and James VIII of Scotland. (His authorized heading grants him his legitimate and accepted claim of Prince of Wales, however.) On the other hand, the Victorian author Frederick Rolfe, who invented for himself the title “Baron Corvo,” does receive an entry for his claimed noble status (and a good thing, too, since he is best known by that title, however false its origins).

A coin minted in Antioch bearing the image of Pescennius Niger. BMC 297.To return to the ancient world, Rome’s "Year of the Five Emperors" (193 CE) offers some interesting points of comparison. The title “Emperor of Rome” is listed on the authority records for Didius Julianus (r. 193 CE), who reigned for three months after the death of CommodusPertinax (r. 193 CE), who bought the title and reigned for nine weeks; and Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 CE), who triumphed in the chaos and reigned for over a decade. But the title also appears on the record for Pescennius Niger (r. 193-194 CE), whose bid for the purple resembles that of the upstart Nebuchadnezzars: he controlled the eastern provinces for about a year, but never cemented his status as Caesar.  (Clodius Albinus (r. 193-197 CE), appointed co-Caesar by Severus, currently has no authority record at all). This fracturing of practice is in part due to the very different historical circumstances of each of these figures, but to some degree it also reflects a gap in our existing rules for choosing the name and title by which to refer to figures whose role in history is ambiguous. What’s needed is a solution that acknowledges a usurper’s claim to a royal title without appearing to validate its legitimacy. In most cases, this means including the royal title as a variant form of the claimant’s name.

The ISAW Library has undertaken a project to create authority headings for ancient rulers who do not currently have headings in the Library of Congress Name Authority File (LCNAF). We hope that this project will improve access to materials on lesser-known but no less important figures in ancient history, for whom the historical record may be sparse but who are of great interest to anyone studying the ancient world. We’ve already provided greater access to materials on figures like Adad-Nirari II of Assyria (r. 911-891 BCE) and Seuthus III of Thrace (r. 331-300 BCE). But we have also expanded this project to include other notable figures like Nidintu-Bêl and Arakha-- figures who failed to rule with much authority or control in their own times, but whose historical stories cry out for authority control in our own. As part of this project, we hope establish a best practice for the treatment of usurpers, rebels, and others who claimed titles that history has not confirmed. (And see here for recent similar work by Junli Diao on the lack of standardized transliterations in Chinese historical names: "Lost in Translation" [Dec. 1, 2014].)