Berossus was a Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer, a priest of Bel Marduk and astronomer who wrote in the Koine Greek language, and who was active at the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Versions of two excerpts of his writings survive, at several removes from the original.
Life and work
Using ancient Babylonian records and texts that are now lost, Berossus published the Babyloniaca (hereafter, History of Babylonia) in three books some time around 290–278 BC, by the patronage of the Macedonian/Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter (during the third year of his reign, according to Diodorus Siculus). Certain astrological fragments recorded by Pliny the Elder, Censorinus, Flavius Josephus, and Marcus Vitruvius Pollio are also attributed to Berossus, but are of unknown provenance, or indeed are uncertain as to where they might fit into his History. Vitruvius credits him with the invention of the semi-circular sundial hollowed out of a cubical block. A statue of him was erected in Athens, perhaps attesting to his fame and scholarship as historian and astronomer-astrologer.
A separate work, Procreatio, is attributed to him by the Latin commentaries on Aratus, Commentariorium in Aratum Reliquiae, but there is no proof of this connection. However, a direct citation (name and title) is rare in antiquity, and it may have referred to Book 1 of his History.
He was born during or before Alexander the Great's reign over Babylon (330–323 BC), with the earliest date suggested as 340 BC. According to Vitruvius's work de Architectura, he relocated eventually to the island of Kos off the coast of Asia Minor and established a school of astrology there by the patronage of the king of Egypt. However, scholars have questioned whether it would have been possible to work under the Seleucids and then relocate to a region experiencing Ptolemaic control late in life. It is not known when he died.
History of Babylonia
Versions at several removes of the remains of Berossos' lost Babyloniaca are given by two later Greek epitomes that were used by the Christian Eusebius of Caesarea for his Chronological Canons, the Greek manuscripts of which have been lost, but which can be largely recovered by the Latin translation and continuation of Jerome and a surviving Armenian translation. The reasons why Berossus wrote the History have not survived, though contemporaneous Greek historians generally did give reasons for the publication of their own histories. It is suggested that it was commissioned by Antiochus I, perhaps desiring a history of one of his newly acquired lands, or by the Great Temple priests, seeking justification for the worship of Marduk in Seleucid lands. Pure history writing per se was not a Babylonian concern, and Josephus testifies to Berossus' reputation as an astrologer. The excerpts quoted recount mythology and history that relate to Old Testament concerns. As historian and archaeologist W.G. Lambert observes: "Of course Berossus may have written other works which are not quoted by Josephus and Eusebius because they lacked any Biblical interest". Lambert finds some statements in the Latin writers so clearly erroneous that it renders doubtful whether the writers had first-hand knowledge of Berossus' text.
Transmission and reception
Berossus' work was not popular during the Hellenistic period. The usual account of Mesopotamian history was Ctesias of Cnidus's Persica, while most of the value of Berossus was considered to be his astrological writings. Most pagan writers probably never read the History directly, and seem to have been dependent on Posidonius of Apamea (135–50 BC), who cited Berossos in his works. While Poseidonius's accounts have not survived, the writings of these tertiary sources do: Vitruvius Pollio (a contemporary of Caesar Augustus), Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), and Seneca the Younger (d. 65 AD). Seven later pagan writers probably transmitted Berossus via Poseidonius through an additional intermediary. They were Aetius (1st or 2nd century AD), Cleomedes (second half of 2nd century AD), Pausanias (c. 150 AD), Athenaeus (c. 200 AD), Censorinus (3rd century AD), and an anonymous Latin commentator on the Greek poem Phaenomena by Aratus of Soloi (ca. 315–240/39 BC).
Jewish and Christian references to Berossus probably had a different source, either Alexander Polyhistor (c. 65 BC) or Juba II of Mauretania (c. 50 BC–20 AD). Polyhistor's numerous works included a history of Assyria and Babylonia, while Juba wrote On the Assyrians, both using Berossus as their primary sources. Josephus' records of Berossus include some of the only extant narrative material, but he is probably dependent on Alexander Polyhistor, even if he did give the impression that he had direct access to Berossus. The fragments of the Babylonaica found in three Christian writers' works are probably dependent on Alexander or Juba (or both). They are Tatianus of Syria (2nd century AD), Theophilus Bishop of Antioch (180 AD), and Titus Flavius Clemens (c. 200 AD).
Like Poseidonius', neither Alexander's nor Juba's works have survived. However, the material in Berossus was recorded by Abydenus (c. 200 BC) and Sextus Julius Africanus (early 3rd century AD). Both their works are also lost, possibly considered too long, but Eusebius Bishop of Caesaria (c. 260–340 AD), in his work the Chronicon, preserved some of their accounts. The Greek text of the Chronicon is also now lost to us but there is an ancient Armenian translation (500–800 AD) of it, and portions are quoted in Georgius Syncellus's Ecloga Chronographica (c. 800–810 AD). Nothing of Berossus survives in Jerome's Latin translation of Eusebius. Eusebius' other mentions of Berossus in Praeparatio Evangelica are derived from Josephus, Tatianus, and another inconsequential source (the last cite contains only, "Berossus the Babylonian recorded Naboukhodonosoros in his history").
Christian writers after Eusebius are probably reliant on him, but include Pseudo-Justinus (3rd–5th century), Hesychius of Alexandria (5th century), Agathias (536–582), Moses of Chorene (8th century), an unknown geographer of unknown date, and the Suda (Byzantine dictionary from the 10th century). Thus, what little of Berossus remains is very fragmentary and indirect. The most direct source of material on Berossus is Josephus, received from Alexander Polyhistor. Most of the names in his king-lists and most of the potential narrative content have been lost or completely mangled as a result. Only Eusebius and Josephus preserve narrative material, and both had agendas. Eusebius was looking to construct a consistent chronology across different cultures, while Josephus was attempting to refute the charges that there was a civilization older than that of the Jews. However, the ten ante-diluvian kings were preserved by Christian apologists interested in how the long lifespans of the kings were similar to the long lifespans of the ante-diluvian ancestors in the story of Genesis.
Sources and content
The Armenian translations of Eusebius and Syncellus' transmissions (Chronicon and Ecloga Chronographica, respectively) both record Berossus' use of "public records" and it is possible that Berossus catalogued his sources. This did not make him reliable, only that he was careful with the sources and his access to priestly and sacred records allowed him to do what other Babylonians could not. What we have of ancient Mesopotamian myth is somewhat comparable with Berossus, though the exact integrity with which he transmitted his sources is unknown because much of the literature of Mesopotamia has not survived. What is clear is that the form of writing he used was dissimilar to actual Babylonian literature, writing as he did in Greek.
Book 1 fragments are preserved in Eusebius and Syncellus above, and describe the Babylonian creation account and establishment of order, including the defeat of Thalatth (Tiamat) by Bel (Marduk). According to him, all knowledge was revealed to humans by the sea monster Oannes after the Creation, and so Verbrugghe and Wickersham (2000:17) have suggested that this is where the astrological fragments discussed above would fit, if at all.
Book 2 describes the history of the Babylonian kings from Alulim down to Nabonassar (747–734 BC). Eusebius reports that Apollodorus reports that Berossus recounts 432,000 years from the first king Aloros (Alulim) to the tenth king Xisouthros and the Babylonian Flood. From Berossus' genealogy, it is clear he had access to king-lists in compiling this section of History, particularly in the kings before the Flood, and from the 7th century BC with Senakheirimos (Sennacherib, who ruled both Assyria and Babylon). His account of the Flood (preserved in Syncellus) is extremely similar to versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh that we have presently. However, in Gilgamesh, the main protagonist is Utnapishtim, while for Berossus, Xisouthros is probably a Greek transliteration of Ziusudra, the protagonist of the Sumerian version of the Flood.
Perhaps what Berossus omits to mention is also noteworthy. Much information on Sargon (c. 2300 BC) would have been available during his time (e.g., a birth legend preserved at El-Amarna and in an Assyrian fragment from 8th century BC, and two Neo-Babylonian fragments), but these were not mentioned. Similarly, the great Babylonian king Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC) merits only passing mention. He did, however, mention that the queen Semiramis (probably Sammuramat, wife of Samshi-Adad V, 824–811 BC) was Assyrian. Perhaps it was in response to Greek writers mythologising her to the point where she was described as the founder of Babylon, daughter of the Syrian goddess Derketo, and married to Ninus (the legendary founder of Nineveh, according to Greek authors).
Book 3 relates the history of Babylon from Nabonassar to Antiochus I (presumably). Again, it is likely that he used king-lists, though it is not known which ones he used. The Mesopotamian documents known as King-List A (one copy from the 6th or 5th centuries BC) and Chronicle 1 (3 copies with one confidently dated to 500 BC) are usually suggested as the ones he used, due to the synchronicity between those and his History (though there are some differences). A large part of his history around the time of Naboukhodonosoros (Nebuchadnezzar II, 604–562 BC) and Nabonnedos (Nabonidus, 556–539 BC) survives. Here we see his interpretation of history for the first time, moralising about the success and failure of kings based on their moral conduct. This is similar to another Babylonian history, Chronicle of Nabonidus (as well as to the Hebrew Bible), and differs from the rationalistic accounts of other Greek historians like Thucydides.
The achievements of the History of Babylonia
Berossus' achievement may be seen in terms of how he combined the Hellenistic methods of historiography and Mesopotamian accounts to form a unique composite. Like Herodotus and Thucydides, he probably autographed his work for the benefit of later writers. Certainly he furnished details of his own life within his histories, which contrasted with the Mesopotamian tradition of anonymous scribes. Elsewhere, he included a geographical description of Babylonia, similar to that found in Herodotus (on Egypt), and used Greek classifications. There is some evidence that he resisted adding information to his research, especially for the earlier periods with which he was not familiar. Only in Book 3 do we see his opinions begin to enter the picture.
Secondly, he constructed a narrative from Creation to his present, again similar to Herodotus or the Hebrew Bible. Within this construction, the sacred myths blended with history. Whether he shared Hellenistic skepticism about the existence of the gods and their tales is unknown, though it is likely he believed them more than the satirist Ovid, for example. The naturalistic attitude found in Syncellus' transmission is probably more representative of the later Greek authors who transmitted the work than of Berossus himself.
During his own time and later, however, the History of Babylonia was not distributed widely. Verbrugghe and Wickersham argue that the lack of relation between the material in History and the Hellenistic world was not relevant, since Diodorus' equally bizarre book on Egyptian mythology was preserved. Instead, the reduced association between Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman lands during Parthian rule was partially responsible. Secondly, his material did not include as much narrative, especially of periods with which he was not familiar, even when potential sources for stories were available. They suggest:
Perhaps Berossos was a prisoner of his own methodology and purpose. He used ancient records that he refused to flesh out, and his account of more recent history, to judge by what remains, contained nothing more than a bare narrative. If Berossos believed in the continuity of history with patterns that repeated themselves (i.e., cycles of events as there were cycles of the stars and planets), a bare narrative would suffice. Indeed, this was more than one would suspect a Babylonian would or could do. Those already steeped in Babylonian historical lore would recognize the pattern and understand the interpretation of history Berossos was making. If this, indeed, is what Berossos presumed, he made a mistake that would cost him interested Greek readers who were accustomed to a much more varied and lively historical narrative where there could be no doubt who was an evil ruler and who was not.
What is left of Berossus' writings is useless for the reconstruction of Mesopotamian history. Of greater interest to scholars is his historiography, using as it did both Greek and Mesopotamian methods. The affinities between it and Hesiod, Herodotus, Manethon, and the Hebrew Bible (specifically, the Torah and Deuteronomistic History) as histories of the ancient world give us an idea about how ancient people viewed their world. Each begins with a fantastic creation story, followed by a mythical ancestral period, and then finally accounts of recent kings who seem to be historical, with no demarcations in between. Blenkinsopp (1992:41) notes:
In composing his history, Berossus drew on the mythic-historiographical tradition of Mesopotamia, and specifically on such well known texts as the creation myth Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and the king lists, which provided the point of departure and conceptual framework for a universal history. But the mythic and archaic element was combined with the chronicles of rulers which can lay claim to being in some degree genuinely historical.
This early approach to historiography, though preceded by Hesiod, Herodotus, and the Hebrew Bible, demonstrates its own unique approach. Though one must be careful about how much can be described of the original work, his apparent resistance to adding to his sources is noteworthy, as is the lack of moralising he introduces to those materials he is not familiar with.
In 1498, Annius of Viterbo (an official of Pope Alexander VI) claimed to have discovered lost books of Berossus. These were in fact an elaborate forgery. However, they greatly influenced Renaissance ways of thinking about population and migration, because Annius provided a list of kings from Japhet onwards, filling a historical gap following the Biblical account of the Flood. Annius also introduced characters from classical sources into the biblical framework, publishing his account as Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium (Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity). One consequence was sophisticated theories about Celtic races with Druid priests in Western Europe.
- The suggestion was made by Heinrich Zimmern; cf. Lehmann-Haupt, "Neue Studien zu Berossos" Klio 22 (1929:29)
- Seneca Nat. Questiones III.29: "Berosus, qui Belum interpretatus est...", "Berossus, who expounded the doctrine of Bel/Marduk" (interpretatus as rendered by W. G. Lambert, "Berossus and Babylonian Eschatology" Iraq, 38.2 (Autumn 1976:171-173) p. 172.
- A. Kuhrt, "Berossus's Babyloniaca and Seleucid Rule in Babylonia," in A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White (eds.), Hellenism in the East (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press) 1987:55f.
- Diodorus Siculus, Library 3.42.1.
- Vitruvius, De architectura, viii.8.1; in ix.2.1 he notes Berossus teaching that the moon was a ball one half luminous, the rest of a blue color.
- Vitruvius, ix.6.2.
- Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer, 2008:81, who gives his sources in note 49.
- The authority on Eusebius' Chronicle is Alden Mosshammer The Chronicle of Eusebius and Greek Chronographic Tradition, 1979.
- Lambert 1976:171.
- "Eusebius' Chronicle (or Chronography), Translated from Classical Armenian, Public Domain Work. Eusebius, Chronicle, Table of Contents". Rbedrosian.com. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Verbrugghe and Wickersham (2000:32)
- Krebs, C. B. 2011. A Most Dangerous Book. Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 103f.
- Morse, Michael A. How the Celts Came to Britain. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2005. page 15.
- Blenkinsopp, J. 1992. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Anchor Doubleday.
- Verbrugghe, G.P. & Wickersham, J.M. 2000. Berossos and Manetho Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
- K. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 2. Paris: Didot, 1841‑1870, frr. 1‑25.
- Berossus, and Stanley Mayer Burstein. 1978. The Babyloniaca of Berossus. Malibu: Undena Publications.
- Krebs, C. B. 2011. A Most Dangerous Book. Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 98–104.
- Haubold, Johannes; Lanfranchi, Giovanni B.; Rollinger, Robert; Steele, John, eds. (2013). The World of Berossos. Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on "The Ancient Near East between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions", Hatfield College, Durham 7th-9th July 2010. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz. ISBN 978-3-447-06728-7.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. .