Written Language and Political Legitimacy
The relationship between written language and political legitimacy stretches deep into antiquity. Just as the earliest literate cultures had invented fables to explain the spellbinding power of the written word, later civilizations would invoke mythologies to assert the bond between writing and the political authority of the state. Ancient Romans attributed the prosperity of their empire in part to the purchase of three divine books by the ancient King Tarquin. According to the story, Tarquin bought the volumes from the Prophetess Sibyl only after spurning her original offer of nine books, six of which she proceeded to burn out of spite. Realizing his mistake, Tarquin quickly came to his senses and snapped up the remaining volumes. Those books would later occupy a place of honor in the Roman forum, providing a tangible bridge from the mythic world to the present, until they were finally destroyed along with the empire during the great sieges. The Assyrians assigned a similar mythological significance to the power of writing in their tale of Zu, a lesser god who steals a divine tablet from the ruling god Enlil and brings it to Assyria. The tablet is said to reveal the fate of the gods, thus granting the Assyrian kingdom a measure of power over the gods themselves.