The Story of a Cuneiform Text

30 September 2010

A Babylonian Brick

About two years ago, my friend Ellen contacted me. She had obtained a fragment of an ancient Babylonian brick, which one of her friends had given to her. Was I interested? Certainly, and I became even fascinated when I noticed that it contained an inscription.

How did a Babylonian brick come to Holland? It turned out that the father of Ellen’s friend had been working in the off-shore in the mid-1960s, and had on one occasion visited Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon. He had bought the brick in Hillah and had left the object to his son, who contacted Ellen.

The Leiden Brick

My friend Bert van der Spek identified the signs as archaizing Babylonian, which means that the brick dated to the glory days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He told me to ask another assyriologist for more information, but she never replied to my request, and I did not really know what to do. I offered it to a museum, which didn’t reply either, and decided to offer it to the Leiden Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, which immediately accepted it after I had told them about the way I had obtained it. (A museum cannot buy antiquities that have come to Europe after 1970 or 1971.) Today, I traveled to Leiden and left the brick at the museum.

When I returned home, there was already an e-mail from the director, who had immediately handed over the object to the curator. He must have been amused when he read the text, because it turned out to be a copy of a much better preserved brick that was already in the museum (more…). It is now also possible to restore the full text, which is not really surprising: “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, keeper of Esagila and Ezida, oldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon”. A standard text, but it’s nice for Ellen and her friend to know what they have had in their hands, and what, thanks to their care, now is where it belongs: in a museum.

Babylonian Exile: New Sources

17 July 2009
The Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II or Jerusalem Chronicle or ABC 5 mentions the deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

The "Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II" or "Jerusalem Chronicle" or "ABC 5" mentions an early deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

When I started this blog, I wanted to use it to announce what was new on LacusCurtius and Livius, occasionally adding a review of a book or a museum. What I never wanted to do, was “recycle” other people’s content. I’ve always found that a bit cheap. However, here is an interesting newspaper article that summarizes cuneiform research on the exile of the Jews in Babylonia, which is usually dated to 587/6-539 (the return may in fact have taken place three or four generations later). The article discusses exiled Jews mentioned in the Murashu Archive, who apparently lived near Nippur. This confirms a statement by Ezekiel, who calls this settlement Tel Abib.

There’s something to be added to that newspaper article. The Talmud refers to another Jewish settlement, more to the northwest, near Sippar, called Nehardea. At the moment, we can not establish whether this Jewish town, which certainly existed in Parthian times, dates back to the Exile. The Talmud was written more then a millennium after the events it describes, and contains many old legends, so we may be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.

Other Jews lived in Babylon. The article refers in passing to tablets that record Jehoiachin’s stay in that city. You can find translations online on my website: here. Other evidence for the Jewish presence in Babylon can be found in Josephus and a tablet that may mention a man named Baruch: both refer to the reconstruction of the Etemenanki during the reign of Alexander.

On two occasions, my friend Bert van der Spek, coeditor of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Age, told me that one of his colleagues had discovered tablets that refer to Jewish temple in Babylonia. I would like to know more about those tablets.

Common Errors (20): Hanging Gardens

28 June 2009
Artists Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Artist's Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Babylon was the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. Many monuments have become famous, like the Ištar Gate, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the temple tower named Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel”. Equally famous are the Hanging Gardens that king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562) created for his queen, a young lady from Iran who longed back to the mountains of her fatherland.

The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, are mentioned by several Greek authors: the geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the orator Philo of Byzantium, and Cleitarchus, who wrote a biography of Alexander the Great that is now lost. This book, however, is quoted by the Sicilian historian Diodorus and his Roman colleague Curtius Rufus. So, we have a great many sources, and we get the impression that the complex was about two hectares large, as high as the city walls, and resting on heavy foundations of natural stone.

So far, so good. The problem is that all these sources were written in Greek or Latin. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablet from Babylon, not even in the list of monuments that is known as TINTIR is Babylon. Archaeology has not been helpful either: when the city was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Koldewey (1855-1925) was unable to establish the site of the Hanging Gardens, and in the end pointed at the only natural stones he could find. He admitted that he was not convinced himself.

It has been suggested that there must be a misunderstanding: the gardens may have been in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Although this assumes an error that is as big as placing the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, it is not impossible: Greek authors often confused Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was even capable of making Babylon the capital of Assyria. An alternative explanation is that the Hanging Gardens are simply a description of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar: we know that it had gardens – so roof garden may have been there too. If this is true, the original mistake may have been made by Cleitarchus, who was not above exaggerating and delighted in stories about wonderful things.

Is Cleitarchus the inventor of the Hanging Gardens? All sources directly or indirectly quote him, except one: Josephus refers to a list of monument by Berossus, a Babylonian author from the third century BCE, who was known to Josephus through Alexander Polyhistor. However, there is something weird with Berossus’ list: it enumerates a series of monuments in exactly the same sequence as the East India House Inscription that is now in the British Museum. The only monument mentioned by Josephus that is not mentioned by Berossus, is the final one: the Hanging Gardens.

The similarity between the Berossus fragment quoted by Josephus through Polyhistor and the East India House Inscription is so striking that it is impossible that Berossus does not quote (a copy of) it. This leaves us with only three possibilities:

  1. Josephus added information from Cleitarchus to information he found in Polyhistor (unlikely: he had no motive for this fraud);
  2. Polyhistor added information from Cleitarchus to Berossus (likely: we know that Polyhistor had a rather loose way of dealing with texts);
  3. Berossus added information from Cleitarchus to the East India House Inscription (which raises the question why the inscription ignores a major monument).

We can not be completely certain, but it seems very likely that the Hanging Gardens are in fact Cleitarchus’ fantastic description of the royal palace in Babylon. All our sources can, directly or indirectly, be connected to his biography of Alexander.


R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (3): Herodotus in Babylon

21 April 2009
Herodotus (Agora Museum, Athens)

Herodotus (Agora Museum, Athens)

It is often assumed that the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429) visited Babylon, the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. His description of sacred prostitution is believed so widely that the word “Babylon” has become synonymous with sexual liberty. However, this custom is not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablets that have been discovered in the nineteenth and twentieth century – and although we may one day find a tablet that confirms Herodotus’ story, this becomes increasingly unlikely. There is a point where absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence.

And there are more details that are simply wrong. No one who had visited the city could have said that it had hundred gates, had a wall that was 88 kilometers long, 100 meters high and 25 meters thick. In the eighteenth century, the British historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his copy of the Histories:

These dimensions, which have been devoutly swallowed by the voracious herd, are gigantic and incredible … Thirteen cities of the size of Paris might have stood within the precincts of Babylon … I much doubt whether he ever saw Babylon.

Many modern scholars agree, but we should be honest: Herodotus does not claim to have visited the city. He does write things like “people who have not been there, will find it hard to believe that…” and “this was still there in my days”. Highly suggestive, but there is not a single explicit statement that he actually visited the place.


  • A. Kuhrt, “Babylon”, in:  E.J. Bakker, I.J.F. de Jong, H. van Wees (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Herodotus (2002)
  • R.Rollinger, Herodots Babylonischer Logos. Eine kritische Untersuchung der Glaubwürdigkeitsdiskussion (1993)

<Overview of Common Errors>

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Vindicated

5 April 2009
Antiochus IV

Antiochus IV

In the Biblical book of Daniel, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r.175-164) is presented as a monster and a blasphemer: ‘the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods’ (11.36). The Greek author Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118) offers a similar judgment: ‘Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes gained the name of Epimanes [madman] by his conduct’, he writes (World History, 26.1), and continues with a catalog of mad acts.

There must of course be another side to the man, and the German historian Peter Franz Mittag has recently written an admirable book on the Seleucid king: Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (2006). It is a historical study as it should be. The author knows his sources – especially literary and numismatic – and also knows how to present them well.

After two introductory chapters and a chapter on Antiochus’ stay in Rome and coup, the fourth chapter deals with the empire at the beginning of his reign. It offers an interesting analysis of the (sometimes conflicting) political aims of the Seleucid administration, and an overview of its financial means. Mittag suggests that the yearly income was about 15,000 talents, which helps us understand that famous figure: that, according to the terms of the Peace of Apamea, the Seleucid Empire had to pay 1,000 talents to Rome every year. It was an immense sum, but it did not cripple the Seleucid economy. The Romans sheared their flock but did not skin it.

In the next two chapters, we read about the way in which Antiochus Epiphanes’ stabilized his power. Gifts to Greek towns created sympathy, which could be useful; embassies to Rome were equally important; Antioch benefitted from some building projects; and there were several cultic measures (there is no evidence for the forced introduction of a cult of Zeus Olympius). The assassination of Antiochus’ nephew, who might have claimed the throne, and a trip to the Phoenician cities are also presented as stabilizing measures.

No less than four chapters are devoted to the Sixth Syrian War. The first of these chapters describes Antiochus’ invasion of Egypt in 169, in which he reached Alexandria, which he found impossible to take. Next, we read about the ways the Seleucid king made his empire benefit from his victory: for example, a monetary reform served to improve conditions for trade. There is also a discussion of the status of Babylon in this chapter. The two remaining chapters deal with the second invasion of Egypt and Rome’s ruthless intervention. Mittag stresses that, although Antiochus was humiliated, it was not the disaster that Polybius says it was: the terms of the Apamea treaty appear to have been suspended – Rome did not complain about the Seleucid navy and Antiochus’ war elephants, even though they were forbidden.

The Maccabean revolt is the subject of the eleventh chapter. Mittag argues that Antiochus was – as always – especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening the empire, and supported the high priest Menelaus, who promised more tribute but was unable to keep this promise. When Antiochus realized his mistake, it was too late, but his consequent policy shows that he tried to restabilize the area. It might have worked, Mittag argues: general Lysias was able to pacify the area, and Judaea might have remained a province of the Seleucid Empire. However, Antiochus died and Lysias had to go to Damascus, which made it possible for the Maccabees to obtain their independence.

The festivities in Daphne (Polybius, World History, 30.25) receive a full chapter, and after this, we read about Antiochus’ anabasis to the east: he regained control of Armenia, visited Babylon, refounded Charax, visited Elam and Persis. The stories about his (unsuccessful?) looting of a temple are discussed, and presented as an attempt to regain arrears of tribute. Mittag finds no evidence for plans to attack Parthia and Bactria, and thinks that the town where Antiochus died was not Gabae/Isfahan, as is always believed, but a town with the same name in eastern Persis.

Cuneiform sources may one day settle this problem, which is important, because a visit to Gabae/Isfahan can be seen as a preliminary to a war against the Parthians, and a visit to Persian Gabae suggests that Antiochus was more interested in the Persian Gulf area.

The fourteenth chapter deals with Antiochus’ death and succession; the last chapter offers a general assessment of this king’s rule. In Mittag’s view, he was especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening his kingdom – or, as Appian says, ‘he governed Syria and the neighboring nations with a firm hand’ (Syriaca, 45).

As I already said, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie is excellent. I would have liked to learn more about the introduction of the Roman-style soldiers that Mittag mentions in his account of the festival in Daphne, but that is only a minor quibble. Generally speaking, Mittag has reduced the biblical monster to more human proportions and reintroduced him into history as one of the most capable and efficient rulers of the Hellenistic age.

  • Peter Franz Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (= Klio: Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte, neue Folge Band 11) Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2006.  ISBN 3-05-004205-2; €69.80.

An Important Source from Babylon: The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7)

21 January 2009
The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle is one of the most important historiographical texts from the ancient Near East. It documents the main events of the reign of the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus. It does so without bias: the king’s defeats are mentioned, no attempt is made to hide the fact that he did not really care for the Babylonian cult. Of course, the text was written during the reign of Nabonidus’  successor, Cyrus, but the chronicle also records how this Persian king kills citizens after a battle. So, although this text is limited in outlook, it is a valuable source.

We learn that during his first regnal years, Nabonidus campaigned in the west, and then settled in Tema, an oasis in the western desert; although no explanation is offered, the consequences are repeatedly stressed: the Akitu Festival could not be celebrated. As the bottom of the tablet is missing, we do not know under which circumstances Nabonidus returned to Babylon, but on the reverse of the tablet, we find the king at home again.

The tablet also describes the rise of Cyrus the Great, who is first presented as the ruler of Anšan who subdued the Median leader Astyages (550); we also learn that Cyrus conquered Urartu in 547; and we read how -in October 539- he outmaneuvered the Babylonians in a battle at Opis, which was followed by the killing of citizens. Babylon is captured, Nabonidus is taken captive, and Cyrus enters a peaceful city. The final remarks of the tablet deal with Cambyses, who appears to have made a mistake during the Akitu Festival.

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

I have put online the well-known edition by A.K. Grayson, with two important changes. In the first place, I have inserted his own “Addenda et Corrigenda”, which are too often neglected by students of his Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975, 2000). The consequences are disastrous: it is, for example, time and again stated that the Nabonidus Chronicle dates Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia to 547, which is simply untrue, and was already corrected by Grayson himself.

The fact that almost nobody seems to check the additions and corrections, has allowed an erroneous chronology of Anatolia and Greece to survive for more than a generation. And I am afraid it will continue to bedevil us, because it has been accepted in Asheri e.a., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (2008), which may become the commentary on Herodotus for some time.

In the second place, I took the liberty to invite my friend Bert van der Spek, who is one of the authors of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period, to add several other notes to make the commentary up to date. Of course, they have been indicated, so that no one will be in doubt about the authorship of the comments – they may be Grayson’s original ones, his own corrections, or additions by Van der Spek or myself. (I think that Grayson, who used the second edition of his book to correct himself, would not have objected.)

The text is here.

Mesopotamian Olympics?

14 August 2008
A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

The modern Olympics are not the subject of ancient history and under normal circumstances, I would not have mentioned the Games at all. But here’s a subject that I like to mention: Mesopotamian influences on the origins of the Greek Olympic Games. This is the link to a new website that presents the evidence for cultural borrowing; the author, David Chibo, claims to have found eleven parallels between oriental and Greek athletic contests.

He points at a key text from Babylonia: the Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was known throughout the ancient Near East and has jumped to Greece as well (it is referred to by Aelian, who also knows the name of “Gilgamos”). The idea that the archaic Greeks, who accepted oriental artistic motifs, were inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, is by no means far-fetched, especially since Gilgamesh and Heracles (the mythological founder of the Olympic Games) closely resemble each other.

As I said, Chibo claims to have found eleven parallels. I was not convinced by all of them, but yes, athletic contests, in July/August, to honor the gods, awarding wreaths, ending with a victory banquet – well, five parallels is at least quite suggestive.

The remaining six parallels I find unconvincing and I think that the author overstates his case when he suggests that it is still necessary to prove “that civilisation evolved naturally at the confluence of three continenents rather than miraculously in the isolated mountainous terrain of Greece”. I think only very old-fashioned scholars still make the last-mentioned claim: no scholar worthy of that title denies, for instance, that the Alexandrine Library was inspired by Babylon or that Alexander the Great ordered the Mesopotamian astronomical texts to be translated into Greek. At least on my website, Livius, I have never excluded the ancient Near East, and I think Chibo is putting up a strawman.

That being said, he has found five parallels, and I think his article is worth reading.