BMCR 2019.04.15

L’économie de la Babylonie à l’époque hellénistique. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern records, 14​

, L'économie de la Babylonie à l'époque hellénistique. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern records, 14​. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. xvii, 577. ISBN 9781501510670 €189,95.


The study of the economy of Babylonia in the first millennium BC has received a great boost in the past decade. The abundance of source material is indeed crying out for such research. Basic for this research area is the START project on the “long” 6th century Babylonian economy conducted by Michael Jursa in Vienna, which among many publications resulted in a major book of nearly 1000 pages.1 The Hellenistic period has also received much attention, mainly triggered by the abundant evidence concerning commodity prices mentioned in the so-called Astronomical Diaries from Babylon, but also by the increasing availability of other administrative documents on clay (projects carried out at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.2) Also on Hellenistic history what one might call the French school is very prolific.3 In this review I discuss the latest product of this: the published dissertation of Julien Monerie.

The book starts with a description of the Babylonian economy on the eve of the Macedonian conquest, and then discusses a number of major issues: I. The direct consequences of the Macedonian conquest (331 – 305 BC); II. The Seleucid empire and the question whether it can be considered a new “oriental” empire or rather something new (305-187 BC); III. The economy of the Babylonian sanctuaries (3rd century BC); IV. Discussion of the character of the Babylonian economy: open market economy or not? The chapters find a general conclusion at the end, which is in fact a kind of summary. The book also contains seven very valuable and informative appendices on money and prices, a bibliography, an Akkadian glossary and various indices.

It is impossible to give an overall discussion of the book within the scope of this review. I wish instead to focus on three subjects: the continuity and change from the Achaemenid to the Hellenistic period; the role of money; the role of cities.

Continuity and change
In the past, the arrival of Alexander the Great has been seen as a deep rupture in the history of Greece as well as in the history of the Near East. In Greece it would have marked the end of the independent city-state, in the Near East the end of the former Mesopotamian civilizations. Most textbooks on the history of the Near East end with Alexander the Great. In a more recent past this picture has changed. It was observed that Alexander the Great left many institutions unchanged and the Seleucid empire was considered a direct successor to the former Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Monerie correctly takes now a more nuanced stance. Although there is a lot of continuity, changes are considerable. Monerie points to the introduction of money, the foundation of many cities and the political innovations in existing cities, the shift of the gravity of Babylonia from the Euphrates (Babylon) to the Tigris and Diyala area (Seleucia); the gradual weakening of the temples; the reduction of royal domain in favor of cities.

Money and currency
One of the main innovations of the Hellenistic period is the introduction of coinage. Until Alexander the Great payments were mainly made in pieces of silver bullion (Hacksilber). Coinage existed in the Persian empire, but in Babylonia and Persia it was hardly used. Both Hacksilber and coins are money ( monnaie); coins ( numéraire) are a special kind of money in that coins can be counted, while Hacksilber is weighed. Until recently I defended the idea that coins were still weighed nonetheless, since the prices in cuneiform texts are still recorded in shekels (a weight measure of 8.33 gr.) of silver, rather than in coins, although the proviso was often added that the money had to be paid in staters of king So-and-so (most often the reigning king) and that there was a conversion rate (Babylonian manûtu ša Bābili, ‘the counting of Babylon’, in Monerie’s words ‘taux de Babylone’ or ‘the rate of Babylon’) between shekels and coins, viz. drachmas. As a rule of thumb I gathered (in view of the near identical weight of the didrachmon, 8.6 gr.) that one shekel represented two drachmas.4 There is indeed one text which confirms this (discussed pp. 155-6). Monerie went one step further and argued correctly that the shekel represented exactly two drachmas and that coins were not weighed, but counted (pp. 144-173; 390-414). He assumes that a shekel always represents two drachmas, even if it concerns local coinages such as the elephant and lion staters, which are in fact lighter than the “imperial coins” which follow the Attic weight standard.

The expression manûtu ša Bābili proves that Monerie is right, more than he himself realized. The expression does not mean that the shekels were paid at “the rate of Babylon”, but in “the counting system of Babylon” or perhaps simply in “the manû system of Babylon”. Both the Greeks and the Babylonians knew and used the mina (Akkadian manû, Greek mnâ), but the Greek mina was divided into 100 drachmas (i.e. 50 shekels), while the Babylonian mina consisted of 60 shekels.5 It also means that the prices in the Astronomical Diaries, expressed as the purchasing power of one shekel, are in fact referring to the purchasing power of two drachmas. It is thus understandable that in the so-called price lists sometimes the purchasing power of two shekels is at stake, which corresponds with the statēr, the standard coin of the Seleucid and later the Parthian empire.6 This also means that the price lists, as presented in A History of Market Performance in grams of silver, is in fact misleading as after Antiochus IV the coins were increasingly debased.

Political developments in Seleucid cities. Babylon a polis ?
One of the major innovations of the Hellenistic period is the founding of new cities in the whole of Asia, and also in Babylonia. The most important one was of course Seleucia on the Tigris, founded by Seleucus I. This was destined as a major royal residence of the Seleucid empire. It also meant that Seleucia now became the new capital of the satrapy of Babylonia, the seat of the satrap. This had economic consequences for the region as well, as we saw above. Monerie follows the idea of Makis Aperghis7 that the Seleucids tried to make the cities stronger by granting them land and giving them a major position in the collection of taxes. Babylon profited from this policy.

Another interesting aspect is what Monerie calls “la création de poleis à Babylon et Uruk” (pp. 382-3). In this he follows the terminology of Clancier.8 This refers to the development that Babylon and Uruk like various other cities in the empire got Greek- like institutions. In Babylon a gymnasium was built at some point, and from Antiochus IV (or possibly already since Antiochus III) the term puliṭē or puliṭānu, probably representing the Greek word polītai, “citizens”, pops up in the Astronomical Diaries and two chronicles. One Babylonian chronicle, BCHP 14,9 even expressly says that a king Antiochus settled “Greek” puliṭānu, in Babylon, thus introducing a new ethnic group. As a corollary, new institutions, such as an assembly of these “citizens”, were introduced. In earlier publications I have expanded on this topic suggesting that two communities lived separately, each with its own institutions.10 However, as was observed by Roberto Sciandra,11 we see that these citizens, headed by a governor, gradually became the main addressees of royal messages at the expense of the traditional Babylonian local authorities, the head of the temple administration ( šatammu) and the temple board ( kiništu). Clancier has now criticized my idea of segregation, as there is probably some overlap in persons with a multiple identity of Hellenized Babylonians. My terminology “segregation” and “apartheid”, I admit, is too strong, as could be inferred already from my application of the term “multiple identity” of Hellenized Babyloninas; in South Africa it was impossible to have a multiple identity as black and white.

What I still find most confusing is the use of the word polis for Babylon and Uruk. What does this mean? Neither Clancier, nor Monerie provides a definition. They seem to suggest that a polis is a city (or even part of a city) with Greek governmental institutions. This is highly unlucky, as a glance at the evidence shows us that Greek authors use the word polis for all kinds of city.12 I think that Herodotus, Xenophon and Polybius would be surprised to read that Babylon was not a polis prior to Antiochus III or IV. Another objection is that it suggests that the Seleucid administration recognized “city status” of certain cities. This is a medieval concept, not applicable to the Seleucid empire. What kings did in some cases is granting in a new politeia, “citizenship; constitution”, with registered citizens (“Antiochenes” in Jerusalem [2 Macc. 4:9]). So Babylon, just like Seleucia, had a group of citizens set apart from the rest of the population. These constitutions, however, could differ widely and sometimes were hardly Greek, as is exemplified by Jerusalem, where the main authority remained with the Jewish high priest and the temple board ( gerousia, sanhedrin), and by Babylon where the new citizens might be of Greek descent but probably also included Hellenized Babylonians, and where Esagila remained the city’s main sanctuary. The foundation of a new Greek temple is not recorded, either in excavations, or in texts, and that is probably not accidental.

Despite these few critical remarks, I want to congratulate Monerie for the publication of his PhD-dissertation, which will become a standard study of (Babylonian) economic history for years to come. ​


1. M. Jursa et al., Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth. (Münster: 2010).

2. R. Pirngruber , The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. (Cambridge: 2017); R.J. van der Spek, B. van Leeuwen & J.L. van Zanden (eds.), A History of Market Performance. From Ancient Babylonia to the modern world. (London & New York: 2015); R.J. van der Spek & Bas van Leeuwen (eds.), Money, Currency and Crisis: In Search of Trust, 2000 BC to AD 2000. (London; New York: 2018).

3. F. Joannès, Textes économiques de la Babylonie récente. (Paris: 1982), and many publications since then; L. Capdetrey, Le pouvoir séleucide. Territoire, administration, finances d’un royaume hellénistique (312-129 avant J.-C.). Rennes: 2007; Ph. Clancier, Les bibliothèques en Babylonie dans la deuxième moitié du I er millénaire av. J.-C.. (Münster: 2009); Laetitia Graslin-Thomé, Les échanges à longue distance en Mésopotamie au I er millénaire.. (Paris: 2009).

4. Still in Van der Spek, Van Leeuwen, Van Zanden, Market Performance, 6-8.

5. More elaborately discussed in: R.J. van der Spek, ‘ Manûtu ša Bābili = ‘The Babylonian subdivision of the mina’, Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 2017: 33-7 (no. 20).

6. A.L. Slotsky & R. Wallenfels, Tallies and Trends. The Late Babylonian Commodity Price Lists (Bethesda MD: 2009), texts 5-9 and 12-13.

7. G.G. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy. The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire. (Cambridge: 2004), 99.

8. Ph. Clancier, ‘The Polis of Babylon. An Historiographical Approach’, in: B. Chrubasik and D. King (eds.), Hellenism and the Local Communities of the Eastern Mediterranean: 400 BCE-250 CE. (Oxford: 2019), 53-82.

9. Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period 14: Greek Community Chronicle BCHP 14.

10. R.J. van der Spek, ‘The Babylonian City,’ in: Amélie Kuhrt & Susan Sherwin-White, Hellenism in the East. The Interaction of Greek and non-Greek civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander. (London: 1987), 57-74; idem. ‘Multi-ethnicity and ethnic segregation in Hellenistic Babylon’, in: T. Derks & N. Roymans (eds.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. (Amsterdam: 2009), 101-116.

11. R. Sciandra, ‘The Babylonian Correspondence of the Seleucid and Arsacid Dynasties: New Insights into the Relations between Court and City during the Late Babylonian Period’, in: G. Wilhelm (ed.), Organization, Representation and Symbols of Power in the Ancient Near East.. (Winona Lake: 2012), 225-56.

12. Van der Spek, “The Babylonian City”, 57-9. ​