An Historical Screw Up
|Map of Mesopotamia|
In the early part of the third century B.C.E., two priests of local long established civilizations attempted to introduce to the Greeks the culture and history of their respective civilizations. They were the Egyptian Priest Manetho and the Babylonian Priest Berossus. Both wrote short books giving an outline of the histories of their respective cultures going back to mythological times. In the case of Manetho, who I have discussed in an earlier posting,1 despite the apparent lack of interest by most Greco-Romans in his book enough survived, mainly because Christian writers preserved large sections of Manetho’s chronology. This gave to modern Egyptologists the familiar outline Egyptian history has a series of dynasties and it turned out to be reasonably accurate.2 Despite the fact that Manetho’s account used Ancient Egyptian records his short book was generally ignored by the Greco-Romans and in fact what was preserved by the later Christian writers, i.e., Manetho’s dynastic list was from summaries. It appears that the actual book had swiftly become a rarity and disappeared fairly rapidly. It appears for their history of Ancient Egypt the Greeks and the Romans preferred the mess of Herodotus or the fantasies preserved by Diodorus. So what the pagan writers preserved were cute stories and interesting anecdotes; only later Christian writers with a different mindset preserved much of the dynastic list provided by Manetho.3
With Berossus it is much, much worst. What we have is summaries of summaries of summaries etc., and the information is even more garbled than that of Manetho.
Berossus was a priest of the god Marduk in Babylon, probably of the great ziggurat (Esgalia), to the god in that city. His name in Akkadian was probably Belreusu, which means “Bel is his shepherd”. Bel, which means Lord, being one of the alternative names of the god Marduk.4
The date of Berossus’ birth is a contentious matter. Since one account claims that he was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, it is suggested that Berossus was born around 350 B.C.E. Other accounts suggest that he was born between 330-323 B.C.E. During the time Alexander reigned in Babylonia.5
The bottom line is that we do not know for sure when Berossus was in fact born, but it appears to be the case that a later date of birth is more likely. We also know that later in his life Berossus moved to the island of Cos and opened a school where he taught Chaldean Astrology. Which is the basis for modern Astrology, which had and still has an enormous impact on Western, Middle Eastern culture and society, much of it pernicious. If Berossus was the main conduit by which Mesopotamian Astrology entered into Greco-Roman culture and thus subsequently Western / Christian and then Middle-Eastern / Islamic then he was one of the most influential persons who ever lived and also one of the least well known.6
The writer Vitruvius in his On Architecture, (9.6.2) says:
Concerning Astrology: In determining what effects the twelve signs, the five planets, the sun, and the moon have on the course of human life, the calculations of the Chaldeans must hold first place, because they have the ability to cast horoscopes so that they can explain the past and the future from their calculations of the heavens. They have moreover, left their findings, and those who are descended from the Chaldean nation have the greatest skill and wisdom in these matters. The first of these was Berossus who settled in the city of Cos on the island and opened a school. Afterward, Antipater was a student there, as was Athenodorus, who had a method to cast not only horoscopes based on birth dates but also horoscopes based on conceptions dates.7
The book that Berossus wrote, while he was still a priest of Marduk in Babylonia is called the The Babyloniaca, or “Things concerning Babylon”. The dates given for its “publication” it are variable usually given as either 290 B.C.E., or 281 B.C.E.8
The Babyloniaca is not history in the strict sense or even in the sense of Greek historical writing of the time period it is instead a short rough guide to Babylonian culture with a brief summary of its history. Thus the book was only three books or scrolls long. Rather short, considering its subject matter, for a book about Babylonia. It is unlikely to have been longer than about 140 pages of a modern book. That the book was about more than the history of Babylon is made clear by the opening section which was a an account of the creation of the world with interpretation and events associated with the creation of man and the coming of civilization from the gods.9
Berossus called his first section “Genesis”, and in it he recounted the old Babylonian creation myth of Enuma Elish; in which Marduk defeats and kills the monster Tiamat and from her remains creates the world and Universe.10 Thus a fragment of Berossus’ first book says:
Over all these a woman had control, named Omorka, who in Chaldean is named Thalatth, (Tiamat) but in Greek her name is translated as Thalassa (i.e., Sea) or, with the same value of the letters in the name, Selene (i.e., Moon).
While the world was in this state, Bel [Marduk] rose up against the woman and cut her in half (53) Out of the first half he made the earth and out of the second the heavens. The animals who were in her he destroyed. (This is from George Syncellus’ Chronology s.52-53)11
Although Berossus also gave an allegorical treatment of the myth, apparently to please his Greek readers his story concedes little to Greek culture.12
Berossus frames his story in terms of civilization being given to man by the part man. Part fish creature called Oannes, who was apparently the first of several creatures who taught the civilized arts to men. One of the things he told men of was the creation of the world.13
Actually what Berossus has to say about Oannes and the other creatures like him who in Mesopotamian myth brought civilization to man is important because we have found very little about such myths in the archaeological record or in inscriptions.14
After book I, Berossus turns to “history” in books 2 and 3. It appears that Book 2 was called the book of kings and much of it consisted of a lengthy list of kings, much like Manetho’s listing of dynasties. Although in book 3 it appears that Berossus was more narratively oriented and provided some real narrative. Book 3 seems to have covered the period from c. 740 B.C.E. to his own day.15
Book two has I mentioned above seems to have consisted of a bare bones king list with a description of the flood and some further details of the civilizing mission of Oannes and his successors.16
Now what survives from Berossus’ king lists in book 2 is a bare list of numbers with some brief detail and no names with one exception.
We have from our surviving sources a list of 10 kings who ruled before the flood. This list of kings can be compared to the list that exists in the Sumerian King list. The two lists basically agree, except the following. The order is slightly different. Some of the kings are made kings of the different cities and two kings are added. And the insanely long reign lengths differ.
The list is as follows:
Berossus Sumerian King List
Aloros of Babylon Alulium of Eridu
Alaparos of Babylon Alagar of Eridu
Amelon of Pautibiblon En-men-lu-Anna of Badtibira
Ammenon of Babylon
Amegalaros of Pautibiblon En-men-gal-Anna of Badtibira
Daonos of Pautibiblon Dumu-zi of Badtibira
Euedorankhos of Pautibiblon En-sipa-zi-Anna of Larak
Amempsinos of Larankhos En-Men-dur-Anna of Sippar
Otiartes of Larankhos Ubar-Tutu of Shuruppak
Xisouthros of Larankhos
Ammenon of Babylon may be a duplicate of Amelon of Pautibiblon. Xisouthros seems to be a version of the Sumerian name Ziusudra, who was basically the Sumerian Noah and in the surviving remnants of Berossus we get Ziusudra as a Noah figure. Also in surviving Mesopotamian sources Ziusudra is referred to has a king of Shuruppak, (Which is a variation of Sippar), although the Sumerian King list does not mention him as a king.18
From the surviving remnants of Berossus it appears that En-sipa-zi-Anna is Amempsinos, and Euedorankhos is En-Men-dur-Anna. Pautibiblon is Badtibura and Larak is Larankhos. As for Eridu becoming Babylon, it seems and what happened to Shuruppak / Sippar well that is a mystery which we can only speculate about. Perhaps a different tradition or confusion in the transmission.
Also has mentioned above Berossus seems to have preserved a tradition of mankind being taught the civilized arts by kindly monsters like the part fish Oannes, who visited the various pre-deluge kings. A tablet found in ancient Assyria lists some of the (7) of the pre-deluge kings with the associated “monsters”. There is a correspondence of the list in the tablet and the list of Berossus that has been preserved in two versions, one in Syncellus’ Chronology, s. 68, the other in Eusebius’ Chronicle, p. 18 Line 18.
King Monster King Monster
Aloros Oannes Aloros Oannes*
Amelon Amillaros 2nd Annedotos
Ammenon Annedotos Ammenon
Daonos 4 Monsters Daos Anementos#
Euedorankhos Odakon Euedorreskhos Anodaphos
Aialu U An
Alagar U Anduga
Ammelu Anna Enmeduga
Ammegal Anna Enmegalamma
Enme Ushumgel Anna Enmebulugga
Aialu U An
Alagar U Anduga
Ammelu Anna Enmeduga
Ammegal Anna Enmegalamma
Enme Ushumgel Anna Enmebulugga
(*Presumed) (# the three other monsters listed are Euedokos, Eneugamos, Eneuboulos)
Needless to say an Assyrian list is not the same as a Babylonian list. There are gaps and some lacuna. Still there is some correspondence, which indicates that there was a tradition that Berossus was using.
What this indicates is that Berossus was basing himself on traditional sources, i.e., the cuneiform tablet texts that existed in the various libraries of Babylon and further that these sources included documents in both Akkadian and Sumerian both of which Berossus could probably read. In other words Berossus was using the best sources available to him and was not inventing stuff out of whole cloth. Sadly all we get is a severely truncated series of excerpts and summaries of what Berossus wrote. We do not even get the dynastic tables that survived in summary form from Manetho which have been invaluable to Egyptologists. And considering that Berossus seems to have available to him good sources many of which do not seem to have survived that is a tragedy. For has indicated above when we can compare what has survived with surviving cuneiform writings it is clear that Berossus was conversant with them.20
The survival of Berossus writings was a pretty chancy operation it appears that Berossus actual book was little read and consulted instead people relied on summaries and other people’s notations of what was in it, rather than consulting it directly.
Thus for Berossus’ astronomical and astrological views, some of the ancient authors who refer to them apparently took them from the philosopher Poseidonios (135-50 B.C.E.), whose writings have not survived. Three authors who refer to the Astronomical and Astrological knowledge of Berossus apparently got it from Poseidonios, not from Berossus directly. They are Vitruvius Pollio, Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger.
Seven other later pagan authors apparently take their Astrological and Astronomical knowledge of Berossus from Poseidonios not from Berossus directly. They are Cleomedes, Aetius, Pausanias, Athenaeus, Censorinus, Palchus, and an anonymous Latin author of a commentary of a poem by Aratus of Sikon (Phaenomena).21
Pagan authors seem to have had little interest in the historical sections of Berossus’ book. Christian authors seemed to have been more interested. However even the Christian authors did not consult the book directly. Instead they relied on summaries prepared by two pagan writers.
The two pagan writers were Alexander Polyhistor, (c. 65 B.C.), who wrote apparently an Assyrian and Babylonian history and used Berossus. Juba of Mauretania, (50 B.C.E. – 20 C.E.), wrote a work in two books called On the Assyrians which used Berossus. Neither of these works survived. However we now get to someone whose works have survived.
The Jewish historian Josephus cites Berossus in his works and apparently used Alexander’s account and not Berossus directly in part of his historical works, generally related to the flood story.
Three Christian apologists used Alexander’s and Juba’s work while citing Berossus. Their works have survived. They are Tatianus, Theophhilus and Titus Flavius Clemens.22
It appears that Juba’s and Alexander’s work was too long and boring, or thought so, so that in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E., Abydenos wrote down a summary of it. Then a Sextus Julius Africanus, (3rd century C.E.) who wrote a Chronology wrote in it a summary of Juba and Alexander. Well they haven’t survived either. Apparently they too were thought to be too long?!
The Christian Eusebius (c. 260-340 C.E.), wrote a work called The Chronicle, which had excerpts from Abydenos and Sextus. Well the work is lost also?!! However! An Armenian translation of the whole work exists and we have Jerome’s translation into Latin of Eusebius’ tables, which however contain nothing from Berossus directly or indirectly. So we have the just the Armenian translation of The Chronicle.
Finally we have the Chronology of George Syncellus (9th century C.E.) which quotes and refers to Berossus using the works of Eusebius, Abydenos and Sextus.20 Other, later writers who mention or refer to Berossus and are probably using Eusebius’ Chronicle are. Agathias, Moses of Chorene, Hesychius, Pseudo-Justinus, The Suda, a Byzantine dictionary Encyclopedia, and an anonymous geographer.23
Thus what we have is that no surviving writing is from an author who read Berossus directly. What we have is an excerpt made from person A who made an excerpt from Berossus at best. And in some cases we have summaries of summaries of summaries! It doesn’t take much to guess that a lot could be garbled and or lost in this process!
It appears that Berossus was little read in the original. Why? Well it does appear that Berossus’ book was written in poor Greek and that it made few concessions to its Greek readership. It was in other words strange, exotic and different. It also violated the way that Greeks had come to regard the East. The book frankly contradicted the Greek / Roman received wisdom of the history of the East. The book dispensed with the fantasies of Ktesias and rejected the Greek romance of Semiramis, the warrior Assyrian Queen. The book further gave an exotic history of a place the Greeks were unfamiliar with, Babylonia outside of the familiar if largely fanciful Assyria.
The Greeks and Romans also quite frankly preferred to read histories by Greeks and later Greeks and Romans and preferred to base their histories etc., on writings in Greek and Latin. In other words they were culturally arrogant and placed less value on writings produced by “natives”. Even when it was in Greek.24
There was enough interest to cause some historians to write summaries, but not enough to make the original work widespread. In fact it seems to have become rare rapidly. Few could it seems to have been bothered to read it in the original after two centuries or so. In fact even the original summaries were deemed to be too long and further summarized! Even though the original book was quite short as it is.
Despite the abundance of prime source material in the original languages of Babylonia and Egypt. There was no movement by Greek and later Roman writers to master the languages, scripts and literature of those places and thus produce more reliable histories of those places. Instead the Greeks and Romans preferred to read the fantasies of Ktesias and the distortions of Herodotus and Diodorus. Thus there were no eager Greek or Roman polymaths going through the temples of Egypt recording inscriptions or delving into the cuneiform libraries of Babylonia to find out the history. This vast corpus remained utterly foreign to them. For it appears that only writings in Latin and Greek were worth consideration. Thus they and eventually we lost out. Manetho of Egypt and Berossus of Babylonia, the subject of this post, deserved better. They obviously knew a lot more about the history of their own countries than the Greek and Roman writers who pontificated on them and had made a valiant attempt to communicate some of its richness to the new ruling class. It appears they largely failed.
In the process of summarization and excerpting what survives of Berossus was hopelessly garbled. Thus in the kings after the flood we get the following:
Alexander Polyhistor adds the following to the narrative. After the flood Euckhios ruled over the Chaldean land four neroi. After him, his son Khomasbelos took over and ruled four neroi and five sossoi.
From Xisouthros and the Great Flood until the Medes took Babylonia, Polyhistor counts in all 86 kings. He mentions by name each of them from Berossus’s books. Their reign he calculates altogether as lasting 33,091 years.
And after this, after these great dynasties, the Medes, having assembled a large army, took Babylonia and established themselves as its lords. Here he adds the names of the kings of the Medes, eight in number who reigned 244 years. And again eleven kings and 28 years, then the Chaldeans, 49 kings for 458 years, and then the Arabians, nine kings for 245 years. After these years he records the reign of Semiramis over Assyria. Then he once again lists only the names of individual kings, forty-five of them, and their total regnal years, 526. After these, he says, the king of the Chaldeans was Phulos (Tiglath-pilser III),…(Eusebius Chronicle, Armenian translation, p. 12, line 17 – p. 13 line 9.)25
It appears that the process of summarizing the summarizers made a hash of Berossus’ account. The above account for example just doesn’t work with surviving records from Babylonia. And since we know that Berossus was using reliable sources and apparently tried faithfully to reproduce them the resulting mess above must largely the fault of the summarizers who apparently didn’t understand the material too well.
If we had more names perhaps we could make more sense of the resulting mess, however we don’t. We do have one important indication that Berossus was using something like the Sumerian King List if not that List itself. If we remember that Berossus like the Sumerian King List seems to have assumed that there was only one king over Babylonia / Sumer at a time, which was actually wrong a lot of the time then the long lists of names become more understandable. The above list mentions the “Medes” conquering Babylon seem to actually refer to Gutians from the Zargos Mountains who conquered Babylonia c. 2140 B.C.E. In this mess of a list this seems to be the only firm peg to hang anything on.26
There are some further details about the Gutians / Medes. First the Sumerian King List gives them 21 and not 8 kings, and interestingly excerpts in Syriac of Eusebius also give 21 kings to the Medes / Gutians. It appears likely that the translators into Armenian of Eusebius made a mistake here. Also although the above quote gives 244 years for the rule of the Medes the Sumerian King List gives the figure has 91 years. Obviously a problem. Yet 91 years does turn up in the above quote. The quote gives the total years from the flood to the Medes as 33,091 years. Note the 91 years tagged on to 33,000! It appears someone added badly. So it appears that Berossus was indeed using something like the Sumerian King List and the Summarizers screwed up, but here not enough for us not see to what is underneath.27
If it appears that Berossus seems to have actually gotten the Gutians right can we make any more sense of the rest?
Well maybe. The above quote mentions that 86 kings ruled for 33,091 years before the Medes and the Sumerian King List lists 92+kings after the flood, and before the Medes / Gutians, who ruled 31,776 years. That seems reasonably close. Well not really first given that the figure of 33,091 seems to include the Gutian time of rule it appears that the 86 kings include 21 Gutians. This leaves in actual fact just 65 kings. However there is a solution it appears that Berossus may have left out the entire first dynasty of Kish. That is 23 kings and leaving us with 69 kings. Why is it suspected that this may be the case? Well the two Kings, father and son, listed has ruling after the flood Euckhios and his son Khomasbelos seem to be kings of the dynasty of Uruk, Enmerkar and his son Lugalbanda which is listed in the Sumerian King List right after the First Dynasty of Kish. The first king of the dynasty Meš-ki-aĝ-gašer is not mentioned by Berossus possibly because he did not found Uruk and thus was not considered a dynastic founder.28
Why Berossus would leave out the first dynasty of Kish is a mystery, assuming he did in fact do so. Although that seems likely.
One other detail is possibly important. The above account gives a dynasty numbering 11 kings for 28 years. Now the first dynasty of Babylon numbered 11 kings and its placement in the list is roughly chronologically accurate. The only problem is the 28 years which could be the reigning period of one king or a transcription error. Again the summarizers strike.29
I will leave the rest of sorting out this chronological nightmare for another time. The bottom line is that it requires that the figures be juggled around to make a lot of sense and even so leaves a lot to be desired. We simply lack the necessary information to make full sense of this mess and at best can only make partial sense of it.30
In the end it appears that lack of real interest combined with reckless summarizing, condensing damaged an invaluable historical resource. The glories of Greece and Rome had a price, that of cultural arrogance and Berossus and his book paid it. The book was little read in antiquity in the original and possibly may have disappeared completely within a few centuries after publication. It had little impact on how the Greeks and the Romans saw Babylonia and did little to dispel the cultural arrogance that consigned much of the learning of the east to the too be ignored box. It is possible by 1 C.E., all copies of the original had been lost and the book only survived in summaries and excerpts. Certainly it appears that authors that tried to use Berossus did not even try to find the original but were content to rely on summaries and excerpts. Perhaps that was all that existed by then. The book was too outside the “official” parameters of the way the Greeks and Romans looked at the world and was thus largely ignored.31
Sadly this was to their and our detriment. Interestingly Babylonian and Egyptian culture continued to exist under the radar so to speak, but has it was not Greek or Latin it was largely also ignored.
The loss and subsequent garbling of the information in and from the book is a warning against insularity in learning and culture.
2. Verbrugghe, Gerald P., Wickersham, John M., Berossos And Manetho, Introduced and Translated, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MICH, 1996, pp. 119-120.
3. IBID, pp. 115-120.
4. Verbrugghe et al, p. 13.
5. IBID, pp. 13-14, Burstein, Stanley Mayer, The Babyloniaca of Berossus, Undena Publications, Malibu CA, 1978, pp. 5-6.
6. IBID, Burstein and Verbrugghe et al, pp. 35-36.
7. Verbrugghe et al, p. 35.
8. Burstein p. 4, Verbrugghe et al, p. 13-14.
9. Burstein, p. 6-7, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 43-46.
10. A translation of the Enuma Elish can be found in Dalley, Stephanie, Myths From Mesopotamia, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp. 228-277.
11. Verbrugghe et al, p. 45. See also Burstein, p. 15.
12. Burstein, pp. 8-9, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 27-31.
13. Burstein, pp.14-15, Verbrugghe et al, p. 44.
14. Bustein, pp. 7-8, 13 (Footnote 8).
15. Verbrugghe et al, pp. 53.
16. Burstein, pp. 18-19, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 46-49.
17. Verbrugghe et al, pp. 70-71. For the Sumerian King List see Glassner, Jean-Jacques, Mesopotamian Chronicles, Society for Biblical Literature, Atlanta GA, 2004, pp. 119-126, Sumerian King List, Electronic Corpus of Sumerian Literature Here.
18. Burstein, pp. 19-20, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 49-50.
19. Verbrugghe et al, p. 71.
20. Burstein, pp. 3-10, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 15-27.
21, Verbrugghe et al , pp. 27-28.
22. IBID, 29-30.
23. IBID, pp. 30-31.
24. IBID, pp. 31-34, Burstein, pp. 8-10.
25. Verbrugghe et al, p. 52.
26, IBID, pp. 52, Footnote 25, 26, p. 75, Burstein, pp. 21 -22, Footnote 64.
27, Burstein, p. 33.
28. IBID, p. 21, Footnote, 61, pp. 33-34, Sumerian King List, Electronic…
29. Burstein, p. 34. See also Verbrugghe et al, p. 75.
30. See Burstein, pp. 33-35, for a systematic attempt to make sense of this that in the end concedes that it is to some extent an intractable problem and that a lot of twisting has to be done. See also Verbrugghe et al, p. 52, Footnotes 25 and 27, and p. 72-75.
31. Burstein, pp. 8-10, Verbrugghe et al, pp. 31-34.