Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.02.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.02.02

Johannes Haubold, John M. Steele, Kathryn Stevens, Keeping Watch in Babylon: The Astronomical Diaries in Context. Culture and history of the ancient Near East, volume 100.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2019.  Pp. vi, 315.  ISBN 9789004397750.  €160,00.  

Reviewed by Erlend Gehlken, Universität Frankfurt/Main (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Babylon has always exerted a magical charm on everyone who has been told of its splendour and grandeur. Nobody who has succumbed to this charm, whether he is a layman who just wants to browse a little in his search for old secrets, or a scholar who wants to inform himself about the latest academic research, will be disappointed by this volume.

The so-called “Astronomical Diaries” (henceforth “Diaries”), whose last known exemplar was written in 61 BC, record in cuneiform astronomical events (partly precalculations corrected in accordance with actual observations), commodity values, river levels und historical events over a period of about 500 years. We owe the publication of these texts to Abraham J. Sachs and Hermann Hunger.1

The book is a collection of articles by scholars from various disciplines. Numerous facets of the Diaries are illuminated, ranging from astronomical to historical aspects, by way of astrological, religious, geographical and economic to social features; there is even a reference to the relevance of the astronomical observations for the present day. The introduction to the volume contains all the necessary background information. The first contributions are about the Diaries in their “intellectual context”, followed by those in their “institutional context”. The last four articles cannot be assigned to any particular group.

Together with the bibliography attached to each article, this book is a compendium containing references to almost everything worth knowing about the Diaries.

In the first article John Steele examines the early history of the Diaries. There are only a few examples from the time before 400 BC. According to common doctrine, the first Diary was written at the beginning of the reign of King Nabonassar (747–734 BC). Nabonassar has given his name to a whole era – the so-called “era of Nabonassar”. Not only is the compilation of the Diaries (and also the “Babylonian Chronicles”) supposed to have been started in this period by order, systematic observational astronomy is believed to have originated in it. Steele carefully balances the arguments of individual scholars for the introduction of an “era of Nabonassar”. The results are impressive: that era is definitively a modern fiction (as is mentioned by the author, this was postulated as early as 1968 by J. A. Brinkman, but not proven in detail2). The first preserved “standard” Diary was only written under Nebuchadnezar II, in 568 BC.

Mathieu Ossendrijver examines Babylonian market predictions. Omens in which predictions are made about the state of the economy constitute his starting point. The author then illuminates what he considers to be implicit evidence in the Diaries for market predictions. Finally, the texts BM 47494 und SpTU 1,94, in which rules for predicting market rates are listed, are discussed. SpTU 1,94 already contains calculation rules that are typical for late astronomical “procedure texts”. For the “astrological” procedures the author postulates a two-step approach: starting from the desired prediction date, one searches for a suitable period of time before which a recorded periodic astronomical phenomenon occurred (compare the well-known pentagram of Venus), and then applies “correlation rules” between that phenomenon and market rate developments. The fact that methods which work in astronomy do not necessarily work in economics was not only experienced by the Babylonians: “What is lacking thus far are analogous tablets with predictions of market rates [instead of astronomical phenomena]” (p. 73). For weather forecasts, Hermann Hunger made a similar observation in his study “Astrologische Wettervorhersagen” considered here by Ossendrijver: “Daß solche [astronomischen] Methoden auf das Wetter nicht anwendbar sind, ist geradezu bedauerlich; die Babylonier hätten sonst bestimmt ein raffiniertes Verfahren dafür ersonnen.” Science often produces strange ideas. Since future market prices will always and everywhere be weather-dependent, the above-mentioned astrological procedures can also only be so assessed.

Christopher Tuplin dedicates himself to the historical entries in the Diaries. The text corpus is meticulously evaluated according to statistical, structural, and linguistic criteria while critically analysing the content. The majority of the entries concern royal, military, and religious matters, all of which are objectively listed in the Diaries. Unusual events such as a price-check for lettuce (271 BC) do not make the reading boring. It should be emphasised that Tuplin always illustrates developments by comparing Diaries from different epochs. The article concludes with a revealing comparison between the political entries in the Diaries and the Chronicles (see above). One senses at every turn that Tuplin is a classicist and ancient historian: the contribution reads like a refreshing walk under expert guidance through the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian periods, during which historical events, anecdotes and comparisons with the Greco-Roman world operate in a lively interplay.

The second section of contributions opens with an article by Eleanor Robson, who investigates the question of the authorship of the Diaries. This question cannot be answered definitively, but Robson is not to blame for this: only six colophons are preserved, and other sources do not provide enough evidence. Robson assumes that the authors should be sought among the priests. She goes far afield, studying the history of priesthood and the sinecure system from Neo-Assyrian to Parthian times (the Diaries were only written after 400 BC, see above). While the sacerdotal scholars who made astronomical observations (but did not necessarily write the Diaries) were originally supplied by the temples (often by means of sinecures), at the latest after the uprisings under Xerxes I they became wage earners without any political influence. The volume “Letters from Assyrian ... Scholars”, which is addressed by Robson, was written by Simo Parpola at another time from another point of view. Robson's attack on him (note 23) is unjustified and ends, ironically enough, with caveat lector!

To shed light on questions of faith in Seleucid and Parthian times, Lucinda Dirven uses the example of the one-off report on the prophet of the goddess Nanāya, a sailor, who in 133 BC had many followers on the streets of Babylon and Borsippa. The article is clearly structured and captivatingly written. The temples have long since lost their role as religious centres. Foreign influences are spreading. Neglect of religious duties, such as the non-participation of the contemporary rulers in the New Year festival, inevitably leads to a disturbance of the balance between temple, court, and society, which in the traditional view is necessary for the well-being of the land. It is only against this background that a prophet can make his influence felt on the open road. The recording of unusual historical events exemplifies the crisis of a changing society. From the point of view of the Babylonian priests, who have meanwhile become a religious minority in their own country, order can only be re-established by a return to past values. The recording of sacrifices offered up by the king is no longer an everyday occurrence, but something special, which shows that people still tried (in vain) to adhere to the traditional world order.

The Diaries were excavated in the 19th century. Since almost all of them were acquired on the antiquities market, nothing can be said about where they were found or originally archived. Hoping to still be able to find clues, Reinhard Pirngruber excavates the texts for a second time in a “museum-archaeological approach”. He refers to a study by Philippe Clancier, in which the Diaries are placed in the wider context of the library of the Esagila, the main temple in Babylon. The Diaries are allocated to only a few collections in the British Museum, which means that they come from only a few sites. In this context, Pirngruber quotes Eleanor Robson, who aptly characterises the collections as “coherent lots, in which tablets from larger archives remained more or less clustered”. The chronological distribution of the Diaries among the British Museum’s individual collections is thus a reflection of their original locations in the store-rooms of antique libraries.

In the last group the first article, “From Babylon to Baḫtar: the Geography of the Astronomical Diaries”, is a cornucopia full to bursting with information by Kathryn Stevens. It is a pleasure to follow the explanations, which are accompanied with many maps. The Diaries are Babylon-centred, Babylonia plays a subordinate role, the world outside Mesopotamia almost none at all. Places other than Babylon itself are almost only mentioned when historical events took place there (which usually implies the presence of the ruler). The choice of the place names reflects the change of the imperial borders, whereby the designations of the countries with partly archaic names, for ideological reasons, is reminiscent of military campaigns in the past. The preference for selectively recorded events is to a certain degree location-dependent. This patterning could have been influenced by the older omen literature. Stevens’ examination of the place of the Greek world in the Diaries deserves special mention.

For Babylonian priests, even under foreign rule, Babylon is still “felt” as the centre of the world, and the king, who was expected to reside in Babylon, remains the most important person for the land, even when he is not present. Marijn Visscher shows convincingly how the writers of the Diaries skilfully managed to transform the king’s absence into an “indirect presence”. Only the visits of Alexander the Great and Antiochus III to Babylon are recorded in the Diaries. Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela is acknowledged as an event of worldwide significance, while a cloak of Nebuchadnezzar II is presented to Antiochus to make the Seleucids feel part of the Babylonian world. The bond of Parthian kings to Babylon is emphasised by quotations in the first person singular from their letters. Apart from that, the royal presence is symbolically represented in the form of messengers, foreign and indigenous local officials, and garrisons. All officials participate in the “ritual life” as representatives of the king. Victories, such as the one in 125 BC against the Elamites, are interpreted as victories for Babylon, because it shows that the (Parthian) ruler cares for the country.

Johannes Haubold notes that the Diaries generally conveyed an “impression of timeless stability,” and their authors did not develop “historical interests, or a historiographical style of their own”; however, there were exceptions, e.g. in the turbulent period from 141 BC (conquest of Babylon by the Parthians) to about 120 BC (consolidation of Parthian rule). Haubold concentrates on this period. After the death of Antiochus IV, geo-political power relations change, new powers spring up, Babylon is no longer in the centre of the empire, the king fights far away and can no longer protect Babylon, and many battles – invasions of the Elamites, lootings by the Arabs – now take place on Babylonian soil. This can no longer be reconciled with the Babylonian view that the king must protect and enlarge the empire. The consequence of these chaotic circumstances is social unrest. The authors of the Diaries try to explain Babylon’s conspicuous decline through a targeted selection of the recorded events in a historical narrative – sometimes with a marked ironic or dramatic undertone.

Yasuyuki Mitsuma provides a contribution which is in every respect exemplary. It deals with the relationship of the Greek “citizens” (puli/īṭē,-ānu; πολῖται), attested in Babylon, Seleucia on the Tigris, and Kār Aššur, to the board, traditionally translated as “(Council of) Elders” (peliga/ānānu; πελιγᾶνες). First Mitsuma treats the Babylonian and Greek sources in detail, then he presents a fragmentary Diary (join of three pieces), which had previously only appeared in his own publication in Japanese,. After consideration of all aspects, he concludes this Diary must have been written between 96 and 90 BC. It confirms for the first time the assumption, hitherto mainly based on Greek sources, that the “Council of Elders” was a body of the “citizens”.

There is little to be criticized in this volume. It is, however, a little disturbing that the second Babylonian quotation (and not only this one) contains a slip of the pen (SÚ instead of ŠÚ). All in all, this is a commendable volume, which can be recommended to anyone interested in the ancient world who shares our cultural background.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1. The Early History of the Astronomical Diaries, John Steele 19
2. Babylonian Market Predictions, Mathieu Ossendrijver 53
3. Logging History in Achaemenid, Hellenistic and Parthian Babylonia: Historical Entries in Dated Astronomical Diaries, Christopher Tuplin 79
4. Who wrote the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries? Eleanor Robson 120
5. The Astronomical Diaries and Religion in Seleucid and Parthian Babylon: the Case of the Prophet of Nanāya, Lucinda Dirven 154
6. The Museum Context of the Astronomical Diaries, Reinhard Pirngruber 186
7. From Babylon to Baḫtar: the Geography of the Astronomical Diaries, Kathryn Stevens 198
8. Royal Presence in the Astronomical Diaries, Marijn Visscher 237
9. History and Historiography in the Early Parthian Diaries, Johannes Haubold 269
10. The Relationship between Greco-Macedonian Citizens and the “Council of Elders” in the Arsacid Period: New Evidence from Astronomical Diary BM 35269 + 35347 + 35358 Yasuyuki Mitsuma 294


1.   Astronomical Diaries (...), Vols. 1–3, Wien 1988, 1989 and 1996.
2.   J.A. Brinkman, A Political History of Post Kassite-Babylonia: 1158–722 B.C., Rome, p. 226–227.

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