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Category: Geert de Breucker

The Three Books of the Babyloniaca

“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.
http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/chronicles/antiochus_cylinder/antiochus_cylinder1.html

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.

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.

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