Epigenes and Berosus

by Esteban

“Like Aristarchus, Berosus was interested in sundials. His dial is said to have been semicircular, hollowed out of a square block, and cut under to correspond to the polar altitude. The Babylonian was also interested in astrology, for Vitruvius (Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, 9.8.1) declares that Berosus founded an astrological school in Cos, and a remark by Pliny (Natural History, 7.160) confirms that he had a knowledge of technical astrology. According to Pliny, Epigenes held that a man could not live as long as 112 years, but Berosus claimed that a man could not live more than 116.

We have here an allusion to the astrological doctrine that the number of years in a human life can never exceed the maximal possible number of degrees which is necessary for one quarter of the ecliptic to rise.

As Neugebauer has shown, Epigenes’s remark applies to the latitude of Alexandria, but Berosus is speaking of Babylon. It is just, I think, to regard Berosus as an astrologer who brought his doctrines to Cos, but there is no sign that he helped to advance the study of astronomy amongst the Greeks.

He belongs rather to the genethlialogists at Babylon, whom, Strabo reports, the geniune astronomers did not admit to their number. Yet there may still be some truth in the statement of Josephus that Berosus introduced astronomical doctrines of the Chaldaeans to the Greeks, as well as their philosophical doctrines; just as there is perhaps a sound basis for the remark of Moses of Chorene that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (in whose empire Cos lay) incited Berosus to translate Chaldaean records into Greek.

By Georgios Synkellos also the same Ptolemy, who reigned from 283 to 247 B.C., is said to have had Chaldaean works collected for his library and to have had them translated.

If Berosus was not the bringer of Chaldaean astronomical knowledge to Aristarchus, then a possible intermediary is Epigenes. This scholar, who came from Byzantium, is almost certainly a near contemporary of Aristarchus and Berosus, though various views about his date have been held.

His views are twice mentioned next to those of Berosus, once on the antiquity of Babylonian astronomical records and once on the greatest length of human life. His remark that a man could not live more than 112 years applies to the latitude of Alexandria, and shows that Epigenes had worked there.

From Seneca we learn also that he and Apollonius of Myndus had studied amongst the Chaldaeans, in Babylon itself presumably, as Epigenes’s reference to astronomical cuneiform texts–observationes siderum coctilibus laterculis inscriptas–suggests.

His statement that the astronomical records went back 720 years, not 480, looks like an attempt to correct Berosus. When we add that Epigenes believed that children could be born in the seventh month, a view also held by Strata, Aristarchus’s teacher; and find that Epigenes was, like Strata, interested in comets, the case for dating him early in the third century looks strong, if not conclusive.

But it is pointless to speculate about any ties he may have had with Aristarchus.”

George Huxley, Aristarchus of Samos and Graeco-Babylonian AstronomyGreek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Duke University, Vol 5, No 2 (1964), pp. 127-9.