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The Chaldaica and the Babyloniaca

“Before I focus on the work itself, I first discuss the text as it has come down to us, because this is essential for our understanding of the work. Berossos’ history of Babylonia has only been preserved in fragments. Two titles have been transmitted: Chaldaica and Babyloniaca.

It is almost certain that the latter is authentic, as this is the title used in antiquarian and lexi­cographical literature and is more in tune with Berossos’ subject, the history of Babylonia. The extant fragments have come down to us by a very complex process of transmission. Most of them derive from Jewish and Christian authors.

In this process the pagan polymath Alexander Polyhistor played a pivotal role, as the bulk of the fragments derives from the epitome he made of Berossos’ work in Rome between 80 and 40 BC. This ‘summary’, how­ever, also survives in fragments.

Flavius Josephus (2nd half 1st c. AD) almost certainly used it in his Jewish Antiquities and Contra Apionem. The Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 265-340 AD) excerpted Polyhistor’s epitome for the first book of his Chronicle.

This first book being lost too, the excerpts are known by an Armenian translation of the Chronicle (after 6th c.) and by the Byzantine monk Syncellus, who inserted them in his own chronographical work (around 810). A comparison of the Armenian translation and Syncellus shows that the Armenian text contains quite a number of corruptions and mistranslations. In gen­eral, Syncellus’ text is more reliable.

To these excerpts we can add the fragments transmitted under the name of Abydenus, an obscure historian, probably living in the 2nd or 3rd c. AD (BNJ 685). Although he mentions neither Berossos nor Alexander Polyhistor, it is clear that Abydenus did no more than rework Polyhistor’s epitome of the Babyloniaca and give it an Ionic veneer.

The fragments ascribed to Abydenus have come down to us through Eusebius, either directly — in his Praeparatio Evangelica — or indirectly — by the aforementioned Armenian translation and Syncellus, each using Eusebius’ Chronicle in this case too.

Another set of fragments survived through Greek learned literature: Athenaeus (BNJ 680 F2), Hesychius (BNJ 680 F 13) and the Oxyrhynchus Glossary (BNJ 680 F23a-b).

Josephus and the Christian authors were mainly interested in Berossos’ work for apologetic rea­sons. They aimed to prove the veracity of the Biblical account and Old Testament chro­nology. It is, therefore, no surprise that most fragments have a link with Biblical history, such as the Flood, the important period of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II and the beginning of its reconstruction under Cyrus.

Other fragments deal with Assyrian and Babylonian kings mentioned in the Old Testament: apart from Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, Tiglath-pileser III (Pulu), Merodach-Baladan II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Amel-Marduk.

Even the long excerpt on Babylonian primeval history (BNJ680 F la-b), which has appar­ently no connection to Biblical history, has been transmitted for apologetic reasons — but in another sense. Eusebius used this fabulous story in order to refute Berossos’ chronology of the antediluvian period.

On the one hand, Berossos’ number of ten antediluvian kings agreed with that of the Biblical generations and patriarchs before the Flood — and thus confirmed Genesis. On the other hand, Berossos’ chronology of 432,000 years for the antediluvian period completely disagreed with the Old Testament and was thus problematic.

In his refutation, Eusebius discredits the Babylonian chronology by pointing to Berossos’ account of the primeval period, which was evidently fabulous. Those who accepted the Babylonian antediluvian chronology, Eusebius pointedly suggested, should also accept this nonsense as truth.

This refutation also explains why Eusebius treats the antediluvian kings first and then gives the excerpt on primeval times.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 20-2.

Berossus and a Sibyl

“Since these fragments do not express Babylonian astronomical or astrological doctrines, the obvious conclusion is that their attribution to Berossos is not genuine. In a way, this as­tronomical / astrological material can be compared with the work which Annius of Viterbo fabricated under the name of Berosus Chaldaeus.

Since these fragments are not genuine, I assume that the testimonies describing Berossos as an ‘internationally’ renowned astro­loger are also fabricated. The creation of a ‘Berossos the astrologer’ is not a unique case in Greek and Roman literature. The aforementioned Egyptians, pharaoh Nechepso and his sage Petosiris, under whose names several works circulated, are merely Hellenistic creations.

Likewise, the life of the famous philosopher Pythagoras was quickly surrounded by legends: he travelled across the Orient and was taught by native sages. A Roman tradition even held that he taught the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who is traditionally dated some 150 years before the historical Pythagoras, at the end of the 8th c. BC.

The character of ‘Berossos the astrologer’ was very likely created in order to give astronomical / astrological doctrines a Babylonian origin. The story of his school on Cos might have been invented in order to explain how ‘Chaldaean’ lore reached the Greek world.

For later generations Berossos the historian and the astrologer were obviously one and the same person. This explains why Josephus mentions Berossos’ role in transmitting Babylonian as­tronomical and philosophical lore and continues by paraphrasing and citing from his history (BNJ 680 T 3, F 8a and F 9a).

The reason why Berossos was chosen to become an astrologer is easy to find: he was a ‘Chaldaean’, a Babylonian priest himself, for Greeks and Romans great experts in astronomy and astrology. Moreover, he had written a history based on arcane native sources.

Some testimonies, finally, report that Berossos was the father of the Hebrew-Babylonian Sibyl called Sabbe (BNJT 7a-c, In the Suda this Sibyl is called “Sambethe,” Σ 361 s.v. Chaldaean Sibyl). This is undoubtedly a legend.

Its origin may be connected to the insertion of a story ascribed to the Sibyl in the epitome which Alexander Polyhistor made of Berossos’ work (BNJ 680 F4a-b). That Sibyl too can very likely be identified as the Hebrew-Babylonian one. The inserted paraphrase in Polyhistor’s epitome derives from the Third Sibylline Book, which implies that the Sibyl in Polyhistor is the same as the pseudepigraphic Sibylline author of this book.

The latter can be labelled as ‘Hebrew-Babylonian’, as she is said to be a relative of Noah and to have dwelt in Babylon after the Flood. Berossos’ fatherhood of a prophetess might also be related, in one way or another, with Pliny’s testi­mony that he made divine predictions (BNJ 680 T 6).”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, p. 20.

The Historicity of Berossus

“Some sources suggest that Berossos had, as it were, an international career as an astronomer. According to those sources, he left Babylon and migrated to the Greek world after the publi­cation of his history.

Vitruvius states that he moved to the island of Cos and opened a school there (BNJ T 5a-b). Vitruvius also ascribes the invention of a specific type of sundial to Berossos (BNJ 680 T 5c).

The Bull of Heaven, Taurus, is drawn on an "esoteric tablet" dated to the Seleucid era. See Textes cuneiform du Louvre by Francois Thureau-Dangin, Tome VI (Tablets d'Uruk, a la usage des pretres du temple d'Anu au temps des Seleucides), (Plate 91), 1922. The same plate is reproduced in Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Herman Hunger, 1992, p. 40.  http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

The Bull of Heaven, Taurus, is drawn on an “esoteric tablet” dated to the Seleucid era. See Textes cuneiform du Louvre by Francois Thureau-Dangin, Tome VI (Tablets d’Uruk, a la usage des pretres du temple d’Anu au temps des Seleucides), (Plate 91), 1922. The same plate is reproduced in Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Herman Hunger, 1992, p. 40.
http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Josephus agrees with the Roman architect that Berossos propagated Babylonian lore: he says that the Chaldaean was famed among those who were engaged in learning, because he published for the Greeks works on astronomy and on the philosophy of the Chaldaeans (BNJ 680 T3).

Pliny the Elder presents Berossos as the most important scholar of astronomy/astrology and adds that the Athenians honoured him with a statue with a gilded tongue because of his divine predictions (BNJ 680 T 6).

The historicity of these biographical data is subject to debate. Burstein and Verbrugghe / Wickersham accept the ‘second’ life of Berossos as historical. Schwartz rejects the testimony according to which Berossos opened a school on Cos, because he thinks it unlikely that the Babylonian priest would have abandoned his prebendary income in Babylon.

Leo with Corvus standing on Hydra (VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) VAT 7847, Obverse.  A Seleucid era astrological tablet. Two astrological texts from Uruk, VAT 7847 and Louvre Museum's AO 6448, have long been recognized as two pieces of one large tablet (zodiac compilation tablet). The tablet deals with the division of Zodiac into subzodiacs, and the connection of these subzodiacs to different cities/towns, temples plants, trees and stones. (In tabular form, for each constellation of the zodiac, a tradition of the connection of each constellation of the zodiac with a certain city, temple name, and the designations for wood and stones are dealt with.) AO6448 has drawings of the constellations Corvus and Virgo with the planet Mercury in attendance.   VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) contains drawings with names of stars/constellations.  VAT 7847, Obverse. Constellation depiction on a Seleucid astrological tablet (from 2nd-century BCE Uruk). The depiction shows a lion standing on the back of a winged serpent. The two constellations depicted are Hydra and Leo. (They are shown "from the other side" - facing left instead of right.) The eight-pointed star to the left is captioned dingirSAG.ME.GAR (Jupiter). (However, some persons have mistakenly identified the bright star as Procyon.) VAT 7847 is a part of a larger tablet that had broken into two parts. The join for VAT 7847 appeared in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome XII (Tablettes d'Uruk, à l'usage des prêtres du temple d'Anu au temps des Séleucides), 1922, catalogued as AO 6448. VAT 7847 is in the State Museum, Berlin, and AO 6448 is in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Both sides show in their upper part drawings of labelled drawings of constellations. As a completed tablet VAT 7847 and AO 6448 form an astrological calendar. The text contains omens and hemerological predictions. The tablet deals with the Babylonian zodiac and depicts 12 divisions corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac and is concerned with lunar eclipses near zodiacal constellations. The tablet is dated to the Hellenistic period circa 200 BCE by one source and circa 323-363 by Klaus Wagensonner, University of Oxford, and originates from Uruk (modern Warka). http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Leo with Corvus standing on Hydra (VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
VAT 7847, Obverse.
A Seleucid era astrological tablet. Two astrological texts from Uruk, VAT 7847 and Louvre Museum’s AO 6448, have long been recognized as two pieces of one large tablet (zodiac compilation tablet). The tablet deals with the division of Zodiac into subzodiacs, and the connection of these subzodiacs to different cities/towns, temples plants, trees and stones. (In tabular form, for each constellation of the zodiac, a tradition of the connection of each constellation of the zodiac with a certain city, temple name, and the designations for wood and stones are dealt with.) AO6448 has drawings of the constellations Corvus and Virgo with the planet Mercury in attendance.
VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) contains drawings with names of stars/constellations. VAT 7847, Obverse. Constellation depiction on a Seleucid astrological tablet (from 2nd-century BCE Uruk). The depiction shows a lion standing on the back of a winged serpent. The two constellations depicted are Hydra and Leo. (They are shown “from the other side” – facing left instead of right.) The eight-pointed star to the left is captioned dingir SAG.ME.GAR (Jupiter). (However, some persons have mistakenly identified the bright star as Procyon.)
VAT 7847 is a part of a larger tablet that had broken into two parts. The join for VAT 7847 appeared in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome XII (Tablettes d’Uruk, à l’usage des prêtres du temple d’Anu au temps des Séleucides), 1922, catalogued as AO 6448. VAT 7847 is in the State Museum, Berlin, and AO 6448 is in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Both sides show in their upper part drawings of labelled drawings of constellations. As a completed tablet VAT 7847 and AO 6448 form an astrological calendar. The text contains omens and hemerological predictions. The tablet deals with the Babylonian zodiac and depicts 12 divisions corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac and is concerned with lunar eclipses near zodiacal constellations. The tablet is dated to the Hellenistic period circa 200 BCE by one source and circa 323-363 by Klaus Wagensonner, University of Oxford, and originates from Uruk (modern Warka).
http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Some judge it impossible that Berossos would have migrated to an island that was under control of the Ptolemies, bitter enemies of the Seleucids. These are not convincing arguments to discard the historicity of the biographical information. In itself, it is not impossible that Berossos migrated to the west and taught Babylonian astronomy / astrology.

The question of historicity should, however, be connected with the question of whether the astronomical / astrological fragments transmitted under the name of Berossos are authentic (BNJ 680 F 15-22). As Kuhrt and the present author have shown, these fragments reflect Greek, not Babylonian doctrines and are, therefore, not authentic.

Babylonians believed that gods grouped the stars into constellations and gave them names, not men, as BNJ 680 F 17 states. There are no indications that they believed in a cyclical destruction of the universe by fire or water (BNJ 680 F21), whereas this was a popular doctrine of the Stoics.

A drawing of VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).

A drawing of VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).

Several ancient authors ascribe a lunar theory to Berossos that explains the lunar phases and lunar eclipses (BNJ 680 F 18-20). In short, this theory asserts that the moon has its own light and consists of a luminous hemisphere and a dark one. It rotates around its own axis. The lunar phases are the result of the attraction of the moon’s luminous hemisphere by the sun, which depends on the distance between both celestial bodies.

The closer the moon is to the sun, the more the fiery hemisphere is attracted by the latter and is turned toward it. The moon’s dark side is correspondingly turned towards the earth. So far, there is no evidence in the cunei­form sources that this theory, which other classical authors attribute to the Babylonians in general (Lucretius, De rerum natura, 720-7 and Apuleius, De deo Socratis, 1.1), has a Babylonian background; it seems that it is a Greco-Roman creation.

Finally, no astrological cuneiform texts have been preserved that determine the maximum lifetime of a human being by calculating the sum of the rising times of the zodiacal sign in which that person was born, and of the two subsequent signs (BNJ 680 F22).

On the other hand, it was a popular doctrine in Greek and Roman astrology. Pliny the Elder, who mentions Berossos’ calculation (BNJ 680 F22a), ascribes the origin of this theory not to the Babylonians, but to two Egyptians Nechepso and Petosiris, themselves fictitious characters.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, 19-20.

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