BMCR 2024.02.50

La Babylonie hellénistique

, , , La Babylonie hellénistique. La roue à livres, 98. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2023. Pp. 336. ISBN 9782251454139.

Forty years ago, relatively little was known about Sumerian and Akkadian texts. Much work has been done since and this new collection of translations of, and commentaries on, documents from Hellenistic Babylon opens up to a much wider audience up-to-date information about a range of Akkadian documents that survive from this period. The edition contains four major sections: (1) historical events (Histoire événementielle); (2) the role of temples (la place des temples); (3) the inroads of Greek institutions; (4) the world of scholars (le monde savant).

The vast majority of the documents from Babylon included in this collection were composed in Akkadian. The population spoke primarily Aramaic. The sources presented here thus represent the compositions of highly specialized scribes who could still command an ancient language that virtually no members of the larger society had spoken or understood for centuries. Thus, while these documents provide us with a local response to the presence of Greeks in Babylon, this local perspective is highly specialized and reflects the views of a tiny religious and technological elite. But if we do not have a clear window onto ideas circulating among the society as a whole, these sources do give us an opportunity to observe continuities of cultural and (scholarly) linguistic practice that extend back more than fifteen hundred years (if not longer). This book largely focuses upon these later periods, not long before cuneiform finally disappeared, but the authors do give us a good sense of continuities and discontinuities.

Students of Greco-Roman culture may find the 7 chapters illustrating historical events to be the most immediately relevant. Each chapter contains translations for one or more Greek primary sources, with rich, but not excessive, discussions of what can be teased from the often fragmentary sources. Chapter 1 describes a document, dated to July 25, 497 BCE, that describes how Greeks (Iamanâya) had received measures of barley and thus testifies to Greek presence years before Marathon. Such precise dates, typical of documents in this collection, will appear as an unexpected luxury to many of us who work on Greek history while the date 497 provides us with evidence from a local source that Greeks were already present at Babylon in the same year that Darius began to suppress the Ionian revolt of 499. Chapter 2 takes us more than a century and a half forward to an Akkadian document referencing the Battle of Gaugamela. Where the Greek sources waver between September 30 and October 1, 331, as the date for the battle, the cuneiform source specifies October 1. It also dates the eclipse that preceded the battle to September 20, a date confirmed by astronomical calculations. The account also quotes Alexander as stating that he would enter Babylon but not private houses, allowing us to see not only Alexander’s reported strategy for engaging with the population but how that strategy was represented in a local, non-Greek source. Chapter 3 introduces fragments of a chronicle, produced c. 309, that names and dates several events from November 320 to October 317, the period just after the death of Alexander. With chapter 4, we move to an astronomical journal that sheds light on the opening year (274/273) of the first Syrian war (274-271). In chapter 5 a somewhat better-preserved document sheds light on the opening of the Third Syrian War, a generation later (December 246/245). Chapter 6 extracts from astronomical chronicles items about the Sixth Syrian War (August/September 169), the march up-country of Antiochus IV (October 165), the return of Antiochus IV’s body (163) and details about his death (August-September 163). Chapter 7 ends this section with extracts from astronomical journals that describe the shift from 170 years of Seleucid rule to Parthian control (141/140).

Part 2 includes a dozen chapters about the role of temples under Greek rule. Chapter 8 shows how Alexander quickly began contributing to the established Babylonian cult, recording his intention to rebuild the Tomb of Belos which Xerxes had destroyed a century and a half before. The cuneiform document called the Bellino text (chapter 9) records the terms of an agreement reached around 307, following a dispute between the satrapal administration of Seleucus and a sanctuary dedicated to the sun god Šamaš, the Ebabbar. With chapter 10, we move to a set of letters translated from Greek into Akkadian, shedding light on topics such as the refoundation of the Sanctuary of Bît Rêsh, work supervised by Kidin-Anu, who belonged to a powerful clan from Uruk, and the contributions of the first Seleucids to local cultural institutions. The chapters in this part show how Greek rulers framed themselves as supporters of the temples and institutions of Babylon in much the same way as rulers had since the beginning of the second millennium. “Meet the new boss,” these documents imply, “– same as the old boss.” Students of ancient colonialism will find these documents a rich mine of information. Some of these documents are also particularly well preserved and would be useful texts for those who wanted to learn or teach this form of Akkadian.

Where Part II allows us to see how Greek rulers fostered continuity, Part III describes how Greek rulers also imprinted their own cultural forms upon the territory around Babylon. Alexander founded many Alexandrias, but fewer probably remember that Seleukos I founded a city named after himself, Seleucia on the Tigris c. 305. Chapter 20 provides Akkadian documents from 290 and 273 that reveal something of how this city appeared to the local priestly community. A document recording a translation into Akkadian of a donation by Antiochus II (Chapter 21) includes some typical Akkadian expressions, but its atypical format shows how the language and structure of Greek antecedents was not fully assimilated into Akkadian practice. With chapter 24 we see references to the creation of a polis of Babylon, thus suggesting a Greek reimagination of this ancient and quintessentially Mesopotamian city. This includes two inscriptions in Greek, one a Greek honorary inscription (c. 166) and the other a chronicle from the Greek community (163). Even actions with traditional antecedents (such as the dedication of enslaved people to a temple in Chapter 25) introduce unusual features drawn from Greek practice. Even when Greek rule had ceased, Greek cultural influence remained: chapter 26 includes a Greek inscription about participants in a Gymnasium with Greek names from the Parthian period (120/119 BCE).

Part IV provides documents on divination (chapter 27), astronomical records (chapter 28), the writing of history (or, at least, chronicles: chapter 29), and lists of sages and technical experts (chapter 30). This part may have the least appeal to many students of Greco-Roman culture but, for those of us who are fascinated by the changing uses of writing as an information technology, insights into the intellectual world (le monde savant) will be particularly interesting. We need to remember that written culture assumes a fairly mature form in Mesopotamia by the late third millennium — probably more than 1500 years before the Homeric and Hesiodic poems begin the continuous tradition of European literature.

Chapter 31 concludes the collection with an example of Akkadian transliterated into Greek. These were perhaps developed for students of Greek to learn this ancient language, but more probably, for native Babylonian students,[1] but opinions on this matter are indeed varied). A list of succinct appendices follow, including a map of the Near East, a visualization of the location and genre of surviving tablets, a map of Hellenistic Babylon, a plan of the Sanctuary of Bît Rêsh, information about administrative structures, names of the months, and a summary of key dates extracted from this corpus.

The publication is in French (and at a very reasonable price as is common with publications by Les Belles Lettres). Students with some French will be able at least to check passages and vocabulary with which they are not familiar while those with no knowledge of French will still be able to make use of this work with digital assistance.[2]

All thirty-one chapters have their own bibliographies. Citations to publications in English seem to outnumber those in French, but readers will be directed also to some publications in German and Italian. Anglophone readers who are not comfortable with French may find this collection useful because of the English bibliography.

This collection of sources is a masterful contribution within the practices of print culture. The presence of digital editions allows us to move a bit beyond print, enabling searches and simple cutting and pasting sentences and phrases into machine translation systems. That said, these documents should be published as part of the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus ( This edition may be anchored in print culture but it does cite data available on at least one website ( and I am assuming therefore that none of its materials are also in ORACC.

Readers accustomed to the bilingual editions of Greek and Latin texts that Les Belles Lettres publishes in the Budé series may feel, as I did, disappointed not to see the original Akkadian. Admittedly, few will be able to use the Akkadian if published as simple text, and this is a strong argument for publishing these documents in the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus ( ORACC version of these editions would include linguistic explanations and glosses for each word, making it quite feasible for readers to begin comparing translation with source text. I make this observation not as a criticism of the highly useful work that the editors have produced. Rather, I would argue that this book, by making this long neglected subject more visible to those who are not Assyriologists, makes the case for others to add these sources to ORACC as part of a new project.

Summing up, this is a wonderful collection that begins to make more accessible an extraordinarily rich and understudied world where Greek and Mesopotamian cultures interact.[3]



[1] A. Westenholz made this argument in his article “The Graeco-Babyloniaca Once Again” in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 97 [2007], 262–313.

[2]Those who are not Francophones will find the Kindle version particularly helpful, and online machine translation services have grown rapidly more powerful (with services based on Large Language Models that appeared in 2022 and 2023 and often outperform dedicated machine learning systems).

[3] I would like to thank the reviewer for the reference to Westenholz 2007.