Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.50

Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John M. Steele (ed.), 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. Classica et Orientalia, 5.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013.  Pp. vii, 332.  ISBN 9783447067287.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by André Heller, University of Bamberg (

Table of Contents

With the fifth volume of the series Classica et Orientalia, Harrassowitz Verlag publishes 18 contributions of several scholars from a conference on Berossus held at Durham in July 2010. In the first half of the third century BCE, the Babylonian priest Berossus wrote a history of Babylonia (Babyloniaká) in three volumes. It is only transmitted by citations of later authors, e.g. Flavius Josephus or Eusebius (both using a digest of the Babyloniaká by Alexander Polyhistor).1 The volume concludes with a discussion of “Berossos in modern scholarship” by K. Ruffing (pp. 291-308), which testifies to an increased interest in this author in recent decades, and an exhaustive bibliography by B. Gufler and I. Madreiter (pp. 309-323).

J. Haubold introduces the topic (pp. 3-14) while G. De Breucker presents author and work (pp. 15-28). De Breucker persuasively argues that the astronomical fragments ascribed to Berossus are not authentic but rather reflect Greek conceptions (pp. 19-20). J.M. Steele (The ‘Astronomical Fragments’ of Berossos in Context, pp. 99-113) takes the opposite position citing parallels from the Babylonian creation myth Enūma eliš that show similarities to Berossus’ fragments. He concludes “that in the model for the moon (…) we have a mixture of Babylonian and Greek ideas” as “an attempt perhaps to clothe the Babylonian cosmology (…) in Greek garb to make it understandable, or palatable, to a Greek audience” (p. 109). On the other hand, J. Haubold (‘The Wisdom of the Chaldaeans’: Reading Berossos, Babyloniaca Book 1, pp. 31-45) sees pre-Socratic and stoic elements in Berossus’ first book, suggesting that the Babylonian knew about Greek philosophical concepts. However, this argument loses its validity if the astronomical fragments are not authored by Berossus. For M. Lang (Book Two: Mesopotamian Early History and the Flood Story, pp. 47-60), one of the functions of the “Flood Story” is that Berossus himself emerges as a cultural hero bringing “the beginning of a new cultural history” (p. 54-55). There are deviations from the so-called standard versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the “Flood Story” in Berossus’ narration, e.g., the hiding of the tablets containing all wisdom of humanity at Sippar or the description of the Ark. A remarkable peculiarity, obviously due to Berossus’ intended readership, is that he gives an exact date for the flood. However, S. Dalley (First Millenium BC Variation in Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, the Flood Story and the Epic of Creation: What was available to Berossos?, pp. 165-176) shows that there were different versions of the Babylonian epics which prove that Berossus’ variations derived from cuneiform texts available to him in the libraries. A newly deciphered cuneiform tablet even describes the Ark as a gigantic round coracle.2

G.B. Lanfranchi (Babyloniaca, Book 3: Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, pp. 61-74) points to the fact that Berossus could not neglect Assyrian domination over Babylonia. Therefore, he included those Assyrian kings ruling as “king of Babylon” and portrayed them either as good (Tiglath-Pileser III) or bad kings (Sennacherib). Berossus mentions a battle between “Ionians”/Greeks and the Assyrian king Sennacherib in Cilicia. By that, without explicitly referring to it, he corrected the Greek tradition on Sardanapalus.3 However, the Assyrian inscriptions know of hostilities in Cilicia under Sennacherib, but fighting with “Ionians” had taken place under Sargon’s reign (pp. 64-69). “Berossos conflated originally separate traditions” to construct Greek opposition to world domination, already dating back to the Assyrians, who were forerunners of the Persians. Thus, he set up “a long-standing opposition between the Greeks and the Persian empire” (p. 68). Berossus reported on the Assyrian occupation of Egypt under Esarhaddon (Axerdis); as the Babylonians followed the Assyrians as masters of the world, they also held sway over Egypt. This explains Berossus’ absurd statement (BNJ 680 F9a.2.220) that Nebuchadnezzar’s victory over the Egyptians restored Babylonian rule after the rebellion of the Babylonian governor over Egypt and Syria. Thereby, “Berossos might also have offered Antiochus an ideological justification for taking action against the Ptolemies” (p. 70). For Lanfranchi, Berossus’ knowledge about the Assyrian connection of Nabopolassar strengthens Ctesias’ testimony that the Babylonian Belesys rebelled against Sardanapalus and became master of Babylonia.4

J. Dillery (Berossos’ Narrative of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II from Josephus, pp. 75-96) observes the differences between the wording of the Babylonian chronicle and Berossus regarding the battle of Carchemish and the accession of Nebuchadnezzar II after the death of his father Nabopolassar in 605 BCE. Apart from being more detailed, his story contains anachronistic words as philoi and satrap, typical for the Hellenistic world (pp. 83-85). The description of the smooth transition of power from Nabopolassar to his son Nebuchadnezzar may serve as an example for the Seleucids, especially with the highly problematic succession of 281 BCE in mind. P. Kosmin (Seleucid Ethnography and Indigenous Kingship: The Babylonian Education of Antiochus I, pp. 199-212) further elaborates these Seleucid connections. Unlike the Ptolemies, the Seleucids never attracted scientists, poets or historians, although under the reign of Seleucus I Demodamas, Patroclus, and Megasthenes excelled as authors. Especially the latter’s work on India is supposed to have been known to Berossus. It is remarkable that Megasthenes styled Nebuchadnezzar as a conqueror king surpassing the exploits of Heracles, while Berossus underscores his activities as a builder king. As Berossus legitimises Seleucid claims on Syria, Megasthenes does the same for Seleucus’ conclusion of peace with Chandragupta, because India always had -withstood foreign invaders. R. Rollinger (Berossos and the Monuments: City Walls, Sanctuaries, Palaces and Hanging Gardens, pp. 137-162) draws attention to Berossus’ statement that Cyrus destroyed the walls of Babylon, which finds no corroboration in the cuneiform sources, but aims at undermining Cyrus’ legitimacy while the last Babylonian ruler Nabonidus is portrayed as good king. Rollinger offers an explanation for the name “Hanging Gardens”, which were first mentioned (by Clitarchus?) after Alexander’s conquest of Babylon. As Akkadian lacks an equivalent for “hanging”, he persuasively suggests that κρεμαστός “hanging”, also bearing the connotation of “high above”, reflects the phrase “high as a mountain”, used in Nebuchadnezzar’s inscriptions and by Berossus himself (p. 151-155; cf. Dillery pp. 88-90).5 B. Jacobs (Berossos and Persian Religion, pp. 123-135) pins down the carnivalesque feast of the Sakaia (BNJ 680 F2) to the first book of the Babyloniaká and also rejects the historicity of the controversially discussed religious reforms of Artaxerxes, introducing the empire-wide worship of Anahita (BNJ 680 F12), as the testimony of Clemens of Alexandria is based on false premises.

At first glance, according to C. Tuplin (Berossos and Greek Historiography, pp. 177-197), Berossus’ work fulfils all criteria of historiography; although there are traces of Greek influence, e.g. the introduction of Median and Arabian dynasties ruling over Babylonia and his criticism of Semiramis as founder of Babylon, there is a clear Babylonian stance (pp. 186-189). Berossus’ style is closely related to the chronicles, though more detailed; Kosmin (p. 210) interprets these additions as an attempt to underline parallels between the Neo-Babylonian and the Seleucid history of his days. However, except for Megasthenes, there is no proof that he knew other Greek authors such as Ctesias or Herodotus – contra Rollinger’s postulation in his contribution (p. 150). I. Moyer (Berossos and Manetho, pp. 213-232) refutes the assertion that Manetho was inspired by Berossus to compose his Aigyptiaká. Alexander’s conquest led to direct confrontation between Greeks and indigenous cultures, provoking a desire to correct Greek conceptions by the likes of Herodotus or Hecataeus of Abdera. However, in Berossus’ case it is unclear whether he was influenced by them at all. On the other hand, Hellenism made the indigenous material accessible to later Christian authors. I. Madreiter (From Berossos to Eusebius – A Christian Apologist’s Shaping of ‘Pagan’ Literature, pp. 255-275) cautions against using Eusebius to reconstruct Berossus as interest determined the church historian’s choice and length of citations. In her opinion, both authors share the same intention in proving the superiority of their respective culture/religion but the main reason for Eusebius’ choice were the parallels to the Old Testament.

F. Schironi (The Early Reception of Berossos, pp. 235-254) examines a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus5 which contains a glossary explaining foreign words in Greek. For this purpose, the unknown author scoured the works of many, often little-known writers of the Hellenistic age, among them Berossus. This leads Schironi to some general remarks on the transmission of the Babyloniaká and its genre. She argues that a copy of Berossus’ book came to the libraries of Alexandria, where Alexander Polyhistor digested it, and, later on, to Pergamum; an exemplar might even have come to Rome by the 80s BCE. Berossus never became a “point of reference” against the preferred Ctesias; when authors like Polyhistor and Juba of Mauretania approached him as source for mirabilia, this was his “final death sentence” (p. 252). In the eyes of ancient historians, he was not an author they would use as source for Near Eastern history. An oddity of Berossus’ reception is the subject of W. Stephens (From Berossos to Berosus Chaldaeus: The Forgeries of Annius of Viterbo and Their Fortune, pp. 277-289). At the end of the 15th century, the then highly esteemed scholar Annius of Viterbo fabricated a new version of the Babyloniaká and, by that means, brought the neglected Babylonian author to prominence anew.

Nearly every contribution in this volume strives to underscore the importance of Berossus’ work for the Greek understanding of Near Eastern history. Some stress his close relations with the Seleucid court and detect, in the third book, tendencies to legitimise Seleucid rule in Syria or to create Nebuchadnezzar II as role model for Seleucid kings. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the contributors, there are good reasons to doubt the impact on Greek historiography and Berossus’ importance. Haubold rightly emphasises (p. 8) that the fragmentary nature of an author’s work says nothing about his relevance, e.g. Ctesias’ nowadays partly lost Persiká; yet, there is a huge difference: Ctesias’ work was extensively cited throughout Antiquity, whereas Berossus was only used by paradoxographers such as Alexander Polyhistor or specialist historians such as Flavius Josephus and Eusebius. After its publication, Berossus’ work went unnoticed for nearly 200 years until Alexander Polyhistor read and digested it in Alexandria, as Schrioni demonstrates. Neither Pompeius Trogus nor Nicolaus of Damascus, composing “World Histories” in the time of Augustus, made use of the Babyloniaká. More importantly, no ancient author followed Berossus’ distinction between Assyria and Babylonia and his concentration on Babylon. If we accept that Berossus wrote his work as an introductory book for Antiochus I, the ignorance becomes fully understandable. Moreover, is it really surprising that the Greeks, would prefer not to replace an idea of the Orient, exuberant with rulers such as Ninus, Semiramis and Sardanapalus, by a sober world with unknown rulers?

Thematically, some contributions overlap each other but this is more than compensated by the different views offered thereby. However, there is Berossus aplenty but to a lesser extent “His World”. Apart from T. Boiy’s short comments on “Babylon during Berossos’ Lifetime” (pp. 115-122),6 there are no essays on the Babylonian temples or even the impact of Seleucid rule on Babylonia. Some aspects are mentioned in the articles, though, but the non-specialist might miss them for clarity’s sake. On the whole, the volume provides a perfect starting point for those daring to engage with Berossus and his work.


1.   The standard edition with commentary, replacing F. Jacoby’s FGrHist 680, is now Brill’s New Jacoby (BNJ) by G.E.E. De Breucker; ibid., De Babyloniaca van Berossos van Babylon. Inleiding, editie en commentaar, Ph. D. Groningen 2012.
2.   I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, London 2014.
3.   There are no traces in Berossus to prove that he knew about the Greek tradition on Sardanapalus at all although he is mentioned once (BNJ 680 8c).
4.   Cf. M. Jursa, Die Söhne Kudurrus und die Herkunft der neubabylonischen Dynastie, in: Revue d’Assyriologie 101, 2007, 125-136.
5.   Edition by F. Schironi, From Alexandria to Babylon: Near Eastern Languages and Hellenistic Erudition in the Oxyrhynchus Glossary (P.Oxy. 1802 + 4812. Sozomena 4. Berlin/New York 2009.
6.   In the table of contents, Steele’s and Boiy’s contributions are in the wrong order.

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