The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

by Esteban

“Jewish and Christian users even manipulated Berossos’ account in order to accommodate it to Biblical history.

Josephus claims that a Babylonian mentioned by Berossos could be identified with Abraham (BNJ 680 F 6), which is obviously a Jewish misinterpretation.

Eusebius adduces an alleged synchronism between the Babylonian and Judean kings in the account of Polyhistor in order to settle Old Testament chronology (BNJ 680 F 7c).

It is, however, certain that this synchronism was a later Jewish or Christian creation. The parallel number of ten Babylonian antediluvian kings and Biblical patriarchs is very probably a Jewish or Christian forgery too.

In Mesopotamian tradition there were no more than nine antediluvian kings, as e.g. in the Dynastic Chronicles, which was very likely an important source of Berossos. Moreover, the name of one of the kings is in fact that of a postdiluvian ruler (Ammenon = Enmenunna). This suggests that a later user inserted a tenth name in Berossos’ list in order to create the correspondence with the Old Testament tradition.

Apart from links with Biblical tradition, several fragments contain references to stories in classical literature. Sennacherib’s erection of a monument in Cilicia and the foundation of Tarsus (BNJ 680 F 7c // 685 F 5) recalls the classical story of the epitaph of the Assyrian king Sardanapallos, who boasted to have built Tarsus and Anchiale in one day (Strabo 14.5.9).

The fall of Nineveh and the death by fire of the Assyrian king Sarakos (BNJ 680 F 7d // 685 F 5) parallels the end of Sardanapallos in Ctesianic tradition (BNJ 688 F lb and lq). Berossos also gives a version of the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 8a), in classical tradition one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The close connections to classical tales very probably explain why these stories survived in the fragments.

It must be emphasised, then, that due to the particular interests of our main sources — Josephus and the Christian apologists — we only have a partial and biased view of Berossos’ original composition. A few fragments clearly show that Berossos’ work was broader in scope than may appear at face value.

Athenaeus describes a Saturnalia-like festival celebrat­ed in Babylon (BNJ680 F2), which demonstrates that Berossos also wrote about Babylonian customs. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of the Persian goddess Anaitis in Babylon (BNJ 680 F 11).

This shows that Berossos treated the Achaemenid period in some detail and did not confine himself to the brief summary in BNJ 680 F 10. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that Sarachero was the female adorner of the spouse of Bel (BNJ 680 F 13), but we do not know in which context Sarachero had been mentioned.

Antiochus Cylinder BM36277

The Cylinder of Antiochus I Soter from the Ezida Temple in Borsippa (the Antiochus Cylinder) is an historiographical text from ancient Babylonia. It describes how the Seleucid crown prince Antiochus, the son of king Seleucus Nicator, rebuilt the Ezida Temple and prays for divine protection. The cuneiform text itself (BM 36277) is now in the British Museum.
The Antiochus cylinder is the latest such cylinder extant. Another late example is the Cyrus Cylinder, commemorating Cyrus’ capture of Babylon in 539 BCE (Schaudig 2001: 550-6). This cylinder, however, was written in normal Neo-Babylonian script.
The document is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, which was buried in the foundations of the Ezida temple in Borsippa. This form of foundation document is common since the second millennium. The script of this cylinder is deliberately archaic, using a ceremonial Babylonian cuneiform script that was also used in the Codex of Hammurabi and adopted in a number of royal inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings like Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus (cf. Berger 1973). The script varies from the cuneiform that was used for chronicles, diaries, rituals, scientific and administrative texts.
The Antiochus Cylinder was recovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1880 in Ezida, the temple of the god Nabu in Borsippa, from its original position “encased in some kiln-burnt bricks covered over with bitumen,” in the “doorway” of Koldewey’s Room A1. Rassam (1897: 270) mistakenly records this as a cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II (Reade 1986: 109). The cylinder is now in the British Museum in London.

Let us now turn to the Babyloniaca itself. Tatian states that the work consists of three books (BNJ 680 T2). Fragments from each book have been preserved. As far as we can judge, the contents of the books can be outlined as follows:

Book 1 opens with a prologue, in which Berossos presents himself and his sources. In this prologue he probably also explained his dedication to Antiochus I. After the prologue he describes the geography of Babylonia, the country’s fauna and flora and its multiethnic popu­lation.

Berossos then proceeds to primeval history: the ‘fish-man’ Oannes, in Mesopotamian tradition Uan(na), the first antediluvian and most important sage, brings civilisation to hu­mankind in Babylonia in the very first year of kingship. Thereupon, the sage narrates how the universe was created by Belos and how this god formed man (BNJ 680 F la-b and 685 F la-b).

Athenaeus’ testimony that Berossos describes the celebration of a festival in his first book (BNJ 680 F2) is the only indication that this book also dealt with Babylonian customs. Although I concluded that the astronomical / astrological fragments preserved under the name of Berossos are not genuine, this does not exclude the possibility that Berossos wrote in his work on this Babylonian science par excellence.

As a rule, a Greek ethnographical work, the genre Berossos followed, presents the intellectual achievements of the people treated. If Berossos wrote on Babylonian astronomy / astrology, Book 1 — and more specifi­cally in the section of Babylonian customs — was the most likely part of his work to do it.

Book 2 gives an overview of Babylonian rulers, starting with the antediluvian kings (BNJ 680 F 3a-b – F 6 and 685 F 2-3; Aelian records the tale of King Euchoros, or Enmerkar in the cuneiform, whose guards hurled the infant Gilgamesh (Gilgamos) from the height of the citadel in the History of Animals, 12.21).

The book probably ends with the reign of Nabonassar (747-734). For the most part, this section of Berossos’ work was very likely an enumeration of kings, dynasties and year numbers and did not provide elaborate information — at least for the early periods.

This can be deduced from Eusebius’ remark that Berossos gave hardly any information on the kings’ deeds or even omitted them (BNJ 680 F 3a). This very likely reflects the dearth of sources Berossos could rely on: many of the early rulers were no more than names in long king lists. The overview of kings and dynasties is interrupted by the story of the Flood and its aftermath (BNJ 680 F 4a-c and 685 F 3a-b).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to Alexander the Great (BNJ 680 F7-11 and 685 F5-7). From this book more narrative episodes have been preserved and although Berossos’ treatment of the Achaemenid period is almost completely lost, the notice that Artaxerxes II introduced the cult of Anaitis demonstrates that Berossos elaborated on this period too.”

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. 22-3.