Berossus

Berossus

Berossus, 3d cent. B.C., Babylonian priest-historian; contemporary of Manetho. His work, in Greek, preserved Mesopotamian myths regarding creation and history. It survives in fragments quoted by Josephus and Eusebius of Caesarea.
Berossus (also Berossos or Berosus; Greek: Βήρωσσος) was a Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer and astronomer who was active at the beginning of the 3rd century BC.

Life and work

Berossus published the Babyloniaca (hereafter, History of Babylonia) some time around 290-278 BC for the Macedonian/Seleucid king, Antiochus I. Certain astrological fragments recorded in Pliny the Elder, Censorinus, Flavius Josephus, and Marcus Vitruvius Pollio are also attributed to him, but are of unknown provenance, or indeed where they might fit into his History. Vitruvius credits him with the invention of the semi-circular sundial. A statue of him was erected in Athens, perhaps attesting to his fame and scholarship as historian and astronomer-astrologer. A separate work, Procreatio, is attributed to him in the Latin work, Commentariorium in Aratum Reliquiae, but there is no proof of this connection. However, a direct citation (name and title) is exceedingly rare in antiquity, and it may have referred to Book 1 of his History.

He was born during or before Alexander the Great's reign over Babylon (330-323 BC), with the earliest date suggested as 340 BC. It is suggested that his native Akkadian name was Bēl-rē'ušu, which means, "Bel is his shepherd." "Berossos" is one of several Greek transliterations of his name. According to Vitruvius' work de Architectura, he eventually moved to the island of Kos off the coast of Asia Minor and set up a school of astrology there, under the patronage of the king of Egypt. However, scholars have questioned whether it would have been possible to work under the Seleucids and then move on to a region under Ptolemaic control late in life. It is not known when he died.

History of Babylonia

The History of Babylonia as a complete text is now lost in antiquity, and what remains comes from secondary sources of classical writers. The reasons why Berossus wrote the History have not survived, though other contemporaneous Greek historians did give reasons for the publication of their own histories. It is suggested that it was commissioned by Antiochus I, perhaps desiring a history of one of his newly-acquired lands, or by the Great Temple priests, seeking justification for the worship of Marduk in Seleucid lands.

Transmission and reception

Berossus' work was not popular in the Hellenistic period. The usual account of Mesopotamian history came from Ctesias of Cnidus's Persica, while most of the value of Berossos was seen to be his astrological writings. Most pagan writers probably never read History directly, and appear to be dependent on Posidonius of Apamea (135-50 BC), who cited Berossos in his works. While Poseidonius's accounts have not survived, the writings of these tertiary sources do: Vitruvius Pollio (a contemporary of Caesar Augustus), Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), and Seneca the Younger (d. 65 AD). Seven later pagan writers probably transmitted Berossus via Poseidonius through an additional intermediary. They were Aetius (first or second century AD), Cleomedes (second half of second century A.D.), Pausanias (ca. 150 AD), Athenaeus (ca. 200 AD), Censorinus (3rd century AD), and an anonymous Latin commentator on the Greek poem Phaenomena by Aratus of Sicyon (ca. 315-240/39 BC).

Jewish and Christian references to Berossus probably had a different source, either Alexander Polyhistor (c. 65 BC.) or Juba of Mauretania (ca. 50 BC-20 AD) Alexander's numerous works included a history of Assyria and Babylonia, while Juba wrote On the Assyrians, both using Berossos as their primary sources. Josephus' records of Berossus include some of the only extant narrative material, but he is likely dependent on Alexander Polyhistor, even if he did give the impression that he had direct access to Berossus. The fragments of Berossus found in three Christian writers' works are probably dependent on Alexander or Juba (or both). They are Tatianus of Syria (second century AD), Theophilus Bishop of Antioch (180 AD), and Titus Flavius Clemens (ca. 200 AD).

Like Poseidonius, neither Alexander's or Juba's works have survived. However, their material on Berossus was recorded by Abydenus (second or third century AD) and Sextus Julius Africanus (early third century AD). Their work is also lost, possibly considered too long, but Eusebius Bishop of Caesaria (ca. 260-340 AD), in his Chronicle preserved some of their accounts. The Greek text of the Chronicle is also now lost to us but there is an ancient Armenian translation (500-800 AD) of it, and portions are quoted in Georgius Syncellus' Ecloga Chronographica (ca. 800-810 AD). Nothing of Berossus survives in Jerome's Latin translation of Eusebius. Eusebius' other mentions of Berossus in Praeparatio Evangelica are derived from Josephus, Tatianus, and another inconsequential source (The last cite contains only, "Berossus the Babylonian recorded Naboukhodonosoros in his history.").

Christian writers after Eusebius are probably reliant on him, but include Pseudo-Justinus (third-fifth century AD), Hesychius of Alexandria (fifth century AD), Agathius (536-582 AD), Moses of Chorene (eighth century AD), an unknown geographer of unknown date, and the Suda (Byzantine dictionary from the tenth century AD. Thus, what little of Berossus remains is very fragmentary and indirect. The most direct source of material on Berossus is Josephus, received from Alexander Polyhistor. Most of the names in his king-lists and most of the potential narrative content have disappeared or been completely mangled as a result. Only Eusebius and Josephus preserve narrative material, and both had agendas. Eusebius was looking to construct a consistent chronology between the pagan and Christian worlds, while Josephus was attempting to refute the charges that there were people older than the Jews. However, the ten ante-diluvian kings were preserved by Christian apologists interested in the long lifespans of the kings were similar to the long lifespans of the ante-diluvian ancestors in Genesis.

Sources and content

The Armenian translation of Eusebius and Syncellus' transmission (Chronicon and Ecloga Chronographica respectively) both record Berossus' use of "public records" and it is possible that Berossus catalogued his sources. This did not make him reliable, only that he took some care with the sources and his access to priestly and sacred records allowed him to do what other Babylonians could not. What we have of ancient Mesopotamian myth is somewhat comparable with Berossus, though the exact integrity with which he transmitted his sources is unknown because much of the literature of Mesopotamia has not survived. What is clear is that the form of writing he pursued was dissimilar to actual Babylonian literature, writing as he did in Greek.

Book 1 fragments are preserved in Eusebius and Syncellus above, and describe the Babylonian creation account and establishment of order, including the defeat of Thalatth (Tiamat) by Bel (Marduk). According to him, all knowledge was revealed to humans by the sea monster Oannes after the Creation, and so Verbrugghe and Wickersham (2000:17) have suggested that this is where the astrological fragments discussed above would fit, if at all.

Book 2 describes the history of the Babylonian kings from creation till Nabonassaros (747-734 BC). Eusebius reports that Apollodorus reports that Berossus recounts 430,000 years from the first king, Aloros, to Xisouthros and the Babylonian Flood. From Berossus' genealogy, it is clear he had access to king-lists in compiling this section of History, particularly in the kings before the Flood (legendary though they are), and from the 7th century BC with Senakheirimos (Sennacherib, who ruled both Assyria and Babylon). His account of the Flood (preserved in Syncellus) is extremely similar to versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh that we have today. However, in Gilgamesh, the main protagonist is Utnapishtim, while here, Xisouthros is likely a Greek transliteration of Ziusudra, the protagonist of the Sumerian version of the Flood.

Perhaps what Berossus omits to mention is also noteworthy. Much information on Sargon (ca. 2300 BC) would have been available during his time (e.g., a birth legend preserved at El-Amarna and in an Assyrian fragment from 8th century BC, and two Neo-Babylonian fragments), but these went unmentioned. Similarly, the great Babylonian king Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC) merits only passing mention. He did, however, take the time to point out that the queen Semiramis (probably Sammuramat, wife of Samshi-Adad V, 824-811 BC) was Assyrian. Perhaps it was in response to Greek writers mythologising her to the point where she was described as the founder of Babylon, daughter of the Syrian goddess Derketo, and married to Ninus (the legendary founder of Nineveh, in Greek eyes).

Book 3 relates the history of Babylon from Nabonassaros to Antiochus I (presumably). Again, it is likely that he followed king-lists, though it is not clear which ones he used. The Mesopotamian documents known as King-List A (one copy from the sixth or fifth centuries BCE) and Chronicle 1 (3 copies with one solidly dated to 500 BC) are usually suggested as the ones he used, due to the synchronicity between those and his History (though there are some differences). A large part of his history around the time of Naboukhodonosoros (Nebuchadrezzar II, 604-562 BC) and Nabonnedos (Nabonidus, 556-539 BC) survives. Here we see his interpretation of history for the first time, moralising about the success and failure of kings based on their moral conduct. This is similar to another Babylonian history, Chronicle of Nabonidus, and differs from the rationalistic accounts of other Greek historians like Thucydides.

The achievements of History of Babylonia

Berossus's achievement may be seen in terms of how he combined the Hellenistic methods of historiography and Mesopotamian accounts to form a unique composite. Like Herodotus and Thucydides, he probably autographed his work for the benefit of later writers. Certainly he furnished details of his own life within his histories, which broke with the Mesopotamian tradition of anonymous scribes. Elsewhere, he included a geographical description of Babylonia, similar to that found in Herodotus (on Egypt), and used Greek classifications. There is some evidence that he resisted adding information to his research, especially the earlier periods of which he was not familiar with. Only in Book 3 do we see his opinions begin to enter the picture.

Secondly, he constructed a narrative from Creation to his present day, again similar to Herodotus or the Hebrew Bible. Within this construction, the sacred myths blended seamlessly with history. Whether he followed Hellenistic skepticism about the existence of the gods and their tales is unclear, though it is likely he believed them more than the satirist Ovid, for example. The naturalistic attitude found in Syncellus' transmission is probably more reflective of the later Greek authors who transmitted the work than Berossos himself.

During his own time and later, however, the History of Babylonia was not distributed widely. Verbrugghe and Wickersham argue that the lack of relation between the material in History and the Hellenistic world was not relevant, since Diodorus' equally bizarre book on Egyptian mythology was preserved. Instead, the reduced connection between Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman world under Parthian rule was partially responsible. Secondly, his material did not contain as much narrative, especially of periods he was not familiar with, even when potential sources for stories were available. They suggest:

"Perhaps Berossos was a prisoner of his own methodology and purpose. He used ancient records that he refused to flesh out, and his account of more recent history, to judge by what remains, contained nothing more than a bare narrative. If Berossos believed in the continuity of history with patterns that repeated themselves (i.e., cycles of events as there were cycles of the stars and planets), a bare narrative would suffice. Indeed, this was more than one would suspect a Babylonian would or could do. Those already steeped in Babylonian historical lore would recognize the pattern and understand the interpretation of history Berossos was making. If this, indeed, is what Berossos presumed, he made a mistake that would cost him interested Greek readers who were accustomed to a much more varied and lively historical narrative where there could be no doubt who was an evil ruler and who was not." (2000:32)

What is left of Berossus's writings is useless for the reconstruction of Mesopotamian history. Of greater interest to scholars is his approach to historiography, tied as it was to both Greek and Mesopotamian methods. The affinities between it and Hesiod, Herodotus, Manetho, and the Hebrew Bible (specifically, the Torah and Deuteronomistic History) as histories of the classical world give us an idea about how ancient people viewed their worlds. Each begins with a fantastic creation story, followed by a mythical ancestral period, and then finally accounts of recent kings who appear to be historical, with no demarcations in between. Blenkinsopp notes:

"In composing his history, Berossus drew on the mythic-historiographical tradition of Mesopotamia, and specifically on such well known texts as the creation myth Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and the king lists, which provided the point of departure and conceptual framework for a universal history. But the mythic and archaic element was combined with the chronicles of rulers which can lay claim to being in some degree genuinely historical." (1992:41)

This early approach to historiography, though preceded by Hesiod, Herodotus, and the Hebrew Bible, demonstrates its own unique approach. Though one must be careful about how much can be described of the original work, his apparent resistance to adding to his sources is noteworthy, as is the lack of moralising he introduces to those materials he is not familiar with.

"Pseudo-Berossus"

In 1498, an official of Pope Alexander VI named Annius of Viterbo claimed to have discovered lost books of Berossus. These were in fact an elaborate forgery. However, they gained great influence over Renaissance ways of thinking about population and migration, because Annius provided a list of kings from Japhet onwards, filling a historical gap following the Biblical account of the Flood. Annius also introduced figures from classical sources into the biblical framework, publishing his account as Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus. One consequence was to lead to sophisticated theories about Celtic races with Druid priests in Western Europe.

Footnotes

References

  • Blenkinsopp, J. 1992. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Anchor Doubleday.
  • Verbrugghe, G.P. & Wickersham, J.M. 2000. Berossos and Manetho Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  • K. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 2. Paris: Didot, 1841‑1870, frr. 1‑25.

External links

Search another word or see berossuson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature