Backwards Babylonian History reversed (1): late 2nd c. BC

Inspired by Carolyn Harris (@royalhistorian) and Vanessa Heggie (@HPS_Vanessa) I'm tweeting events from Babylonian history, going back in time one year for each follower I gain. But that's rather confusing chronologically so here they are again in the right order. Comments and contributions welcome!


  1. This is a useful intellectual exercise for me, to see if there really is something interesting and succinct to say about every single year of ancient Babylonian history, and the sources to back it up. Historians of the ancient Near East too often lump whole centuries, even millennia, together. (I could write a whole other essay on why I think this is problematic.) 

    I hate not having the space to cite my sources on Twitter — not that anyone but me seems to mind that I'm not doing it — so here, as well as putting everything in the right order, and filling in bits I might have missed, I've added references to relevant online and print publications. 

    If you think I've got something wrong, or missed something out, please let me know, by Twitter or by email.
  2. Cuneiform Diary for 150 BC (ADRT 3: no. -149) source A lines 7'-12' reads: "That month, I [heard ...] king Demetrius with 25 elephants and the troops [...] went out from Antioch and [... (someone else)] brought about their defeat. On the 23rd, the troops [...] elephants defeated each other."

    The so-called Astronomical Diaries provide an enormously useful, if dry, chronological framework for the later first millennium BC, because they make terse political observations as well as a complex series of celestial observations. The standard edition is A.J. Sachs and H. Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia (= ADRT), vols. 1-3, 5-6 published so far (not online). There are also a couple of useful articles by Bert Van Der Spek on their political content. 
    Although the diaries are rather fragmentary, they can usefully be correlated with — and thereby corroborate or correct —classical sources. The chapter "Political history" (pp. 99-192) in Tom Boiy's book Late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon (Peeters 2004) is useful for this sort of fine-grained chronological work.
  3. Normal Star Almanacs, as I hinted here, predict the movement of the planets over the course of a year, in relation to a standard set of stars on the ecliptic. Jennifer Gray at Durham wrote her 2009 PhD thesis on these and other classes of Babylonian predictive astronomical texts. 

    But in fact it looks as though I've misread Gray's list (confusing dates BC with Seleucid dates, which start at 311 BC, so 149 BC = SE 163 and SE 149 = 163 BC), as there are, in fact, no surviving NSAs for this year... 

    There's pretty much nothing else in cuneiform from this year, either, apart from three legal documents from Uruk.
  4. The lamentation is called am-e bara2-na-ra in Sumerian, and it's attested on G. Reisner, Sumerische-Babylonische Hymnen (1896) no. 14. The colophon was re-edited by H. Hunger, Babylonisch-Assyrische Kolophone (1968) no. 167. The copyist was one 

    Bel-bullissu, son of Bel-ana-bitišu, son of Mardaya, of the Miṣiraya family. 

  5. This tablet has been published in cuneiform only (Cuneiform Texts in the British Museum, vol. 51 no. 72), and is listed in Philippe Clancier's book, Les bibliotheques en Babylonie (2009). I made a rough translation. It's from one Nur to Iddin-Bel, and it talks of "The leather roll that was the work of my own hand that is in the royal archive, the marriage gift of Adirtu, daughter of Nabu-šum-ibni and wife of Nabu-uṣuršu, son of Nabu-uballiṭ, which we sought in the royal archive and could not find."
  6. That's just a comment on the previous entry.
  7. Another astronomical text, this time from Neugebauer's Astronomical Cuneiform Texts (1955), vols. 2-3 no. 302. It's a highly complex table covering the years SE 166-189 = 146-122 BC.
  8. Back to the Astronomical Diaries (see above). ADRT 3 no. -144 obv, 36'-37' reads: "That month, at the command(?) of Ardaya, the general of Babylonia, they made a counting [...] of the Babylonians, the slaves of the king [... and] the (Greek) citizens who were in Babyl and Seleucia(-on-the-Tigris)".
  9. A mixture of classical sources and fragmentary cuneiform diaries record this event: see Boiy's LAHB (2004), p. 166 (full reference above). I visited the sit of Apamea in the spring of 2006. It was badly looted early in the Syrian uprisings, some time in 2011-12. 
  10. Another Goal Year Text (Pinches and Sachs, Late Babylonian Astronomical Texts (1955), nos. 1277-8): strictly speaking I should have said prediction/calculation rather than observation... The corresponding Astronomical Diary for this month does not survive. 
  11. Astronomical Diary ADRT 3 no. -141, source C obv. 11'-12': "On the 17th (of Month II), on the order of a citizen of Nippur who performed instead of [...] of the lamentation priests (kalû) and [another sort of cultic official ...] a purification rite like the one at the time of [...]".
  12. Lots of evidence for this event, not surprisingly, both cuneiform and classical: see Boiy, LAHB (2004), pp. 166-8.
  13. Another Astronomical Diary for this one (ADRT 3, no. -140, rev. 29'-34': "That month, I heard as follows: on the 4th day, the citizens of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris set up a curse on General Antiochus ... because he made common cause with Elamites; they had provided .(unclear) for the general and sent many troops with him to fight the Elamites. They detained this Antiochus but he escaped with a few troops, and the people of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris plundered his possessions which he had left in the land, and the king's troops who were with him plundered the possessions which were in [...]." Serves him right, I say.