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A contemporary account of the battle of Gaugamela

Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). On 1 October 331, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great defeated a large Persian army at Gaugamela, commanded by king Darius III Codomannus. The only contemporary source describing the event is the Astronomical diary, a day-by-day account of celestial phenomena, written by the officials of the Esagila temple complex.

The diary mentions other events as well, e.g., the level of the Euphrates, the weather, the food prices, incidents concerning Babylon and its temples, and political events - after all, the celestial phenomena were omens of important political changes.

The following text, a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum in London, is damaged, but the account is clear: there were terrible omens and the battle -which is described after the astronomical observations- was truly important. (A more scholarly edition can be found here.)

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Astronomical diary describing the battle of Gaugamela. British museum, London (Britain).
Astronomical diary describing the battle of Gaugamela (British Museum)
[Year five of Artašata who is called Darius, Month Six]

[The first part is missing.]

The thirteenth [1], Moonset to sunrise: 8º. [There was a] lunar eclipse, in its totality covered. 10º night [lacuna] Jupiter set; Saturn [lacuna] during the totality the west wind blew, during clearing the east wind; [lacuna] during the eclipse, deaths and plague occurred in [lacuna].

[The fourteenth:] All day clouds were in the sky.

Night of the fifteenth: Sunset to moonrise: 16º. [There were] clouds [in the sky]. The moon was 32/3 cubits [below Alpha Arietis], the moon having passed to the east; a meteor which flashed, its light was seen on the ground; very overcast, lightning flashed.

Night of the seventeenth: [lacuna] rain; last part of the night, the moon was behind Alpha Tauri. Clouds were in the sky.

Night of the eighteenth: A 'fall of fire' [2] occurred in the district [lacuna] entered opposite of the Nabû temple and a dog was burned.

Night of the nineteenth: First part of the night, a 'fall of fire' occurred [lacuna]; last part of the night, the moon was twenty fingers behind Gamma Geminorum. Venus was [lacuna] above Beta Virginis, Venus having passed [lacuna] fingers to the east.

Night of the twentieth: Last part of the night, the moon was [lacuna] cubits below Beta Geminorum, the moon being 2/3 cubit back to the west.

The twenty-first: Equinox. [3] I did not watch.

Night of the twenty-second: Last part of the night, the moon was six cubits below Epsilon Leonis, the moon having passed ½ cubit to the east.

Night of the twenty-third: Last part of the night, the moon was 1 cubit behind Alpha Leonis.

Night of the twenty-fourth: Clouds were in the sky.

Night of the twenty-fifth: In the morning, clouds were in the sky.

Night of the twenty-sixth: Last part of the night, the moon was [lacuna] below Gamma Virginis, the moon being 2.3 cubit back to the west, it stood 1 cubit 8 fingers behind Venus to the east.

Night of the twenty-ninth: Solar eclipse which was omitted; it was expected for about 1º night after sunset.[4]

Night of the thirtieth: Last part of the night [lacuna]

[5] [That month, the equivalent for 1 shekel of silver was: barley] [lacuna] kur; mustard, 3 kur, at the end of the month [lacuna]; sesame, 1 pân, 5 minas.

At that time, Jupiter was in Scorpio; Venus was in Leo, at the end of the month in Virgo; Saturn was in Pisces; Mercury and Mars, which had set, were not visible.

That month, the river level [lacuna].

That month, the eleventh, panic occurred in the camp before the king [6] [The Macedonians] encamped in front of the king.

The twenty-fourth [7], in the morning, the king of the world [8; erected his] standard [lacuna]. Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops [of the king he inflicted].[9]. The king, his troops deserted him and to their cities [they went] They fled to the land of the Guti.[10]

[Month seven, the first of which followed the thirtieth of the preceding month;] sunset to moonset 13º30' [lacuna].

Night of the second: The moon was above Jupiter [lacuna]

Night of the seventh: Beginning of the night:

[End of the tablet. On the reverse side, the astronomical observations of the month Tašrîtu are illegible. At the end of the tablet, the following can be read:]

[That month, the equivalent] for 1 shekel of silver was: [lacuna]

That month, from the first to the [lacuna; 11], came to Babylon, saying: 'Esagila [will be restored] and the Babylonians to the treasury of Esagila [their tithe will give.']

On the eleventh, in Sippar an order of Al[exander to the Babylonians was sent as follow]s: 'Into your houses I shall not enter.' [12]

On the thirteenth, [the vanguard advanced to the Sikil]la gate, to the outer gate of Esagila and [the Babylonians prostrated themselves].

On the fourteenth, these Ionians [13] a bull [lacuna] short, fatty tissue [lacuna]. Alexander, king of the world, came into Babylon [lacuna], horses and equipment of [lacuna] and the Babylonians and the people of [lacuna] a message to

[end of tablet]

20 September 331 BCE: Pisces, the eclipsed moon, and the planet Saturn (Starry Night).
20 September 331 BCE: Pisces, the eclipsed moon, and the planet Saturn (Starry Night)
Note 1:
The lunar eclipse took place in the evening of 20 September 331 BCE, and started immediately after the moon had risen in the east (and some forty minutes before Jupiter set in the west). The omen was not hard to explain: it meant the eclipse of an eastern power, Persia. According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Magians regarded the moon as the symbol of Persia (Histories 7.37). The eclipse took place in Pisces, close to Saturn, the planet that was always interpreted as a very, very bad omen. Moreover, it happened in the sixth month, which was bad for the king of Persia; the western wind suggested that his end would come due to an intruder from the west.

Note 2:
It is not known what this expression means. A similar portent is mentioned by Curtius Rufus.

Note 3:
In fact, the equinox was one day earlier.

Note 4:
The Babylonian astronomer had predicted a solar eclipse that would have been visible in the countries west of Babylon, but he received no reports about it. Not so strange: the eclipse was only visible in northern America.

Note 5:
Having described the celestial phenomena, the author of the Astronomical diary describes the consequences of the omens. The first item consists of the prizes of important commodities.

Note 6:
The date is 18 September. The nameless king must be Darius, who was at Arbela; Alexander had crossed the Tigris on the seventeenth and had won a cavalry skirmish, which explains the panic in the Persian army.

Note 7:
1 October. The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea calls the day 26 Boedromion, which proves that the Greek calendar was two days behind the true lunar month.

Note 8:
The king of the world is Alexander. The title is not very usual in the Babylonian literature of this age and may have been used as a translation of Alexander's Greek title 'lord of Asia'.

Note 9:
The lacuna is not large enough to contain the missing verb and a new date. In other words, Darius' men left him on the day of the battle.

That Darius' troops left their king, obviously creates embarrassment among classicists, because it contradicts what is written by the ancient Greek and Roman historians Curtius Rufus, Plutarch of Chaeronea and Arrian of Nicomedia - that Darius fled from the battle field. The author of this note has seen the lines of the Astronomical Diary translated as 'the king deserted the troops'; this error may have been caused by the odd sequence of the words of the Babylonian author, 'the king, his troops left him'.

The only Greek author who describes Darius as a powerful warrior is Diodorus of Sicily. He writes:

The Persian king received the Macedonian attack and fighting from a chariot hurled javelins against his opponents, and many supported him. As the kings approached each other, Alexander flung a javelin at Darius and missed him, but struck the driver standing behind him and knocked him to the ground. A shout went up at this from the Persians around Darius, and those at a greater distance thought that the king had fallen. They were the first to take flight, and they were followed by those next to them, and steadily, little by little, the solid ranks of Darius' guard disintegrated. As both flanks became exposed, the king himself was alarmed and retreated. The flight thus became general.
[Diodorus, Library, 17.60.2-4;
tr. C. Bradford Welles]
Note 10:
The land of the Guti is the valley of the Diyala. It is the shortest way to Ecbatana.

Note 11:
The words in the gap must have been a date and an indication of the person(s) who came to Babylon. They may have been refugees who hoped to find asylum at the Esagila temple; or it may have been the Persian general Mazaeus, who surrendered the town on the twenty-first.

Note 12:
Alexander announced that his men would not plunder the Babylonian houses on 18 October 331 BCE and entered Babylon on the twenty-second (more...). Sippar is just north of Babylon. The 'houses' may be temples.

Note 13:
Ia-ma-na-a-a is the usual name for Greeks (cf. Greek Ionia and Persian Yaunâ). It is remarkable that Alexander sent Greeks, not Macedonians to Babylon. The bull was probably a sacrifice.


  • Paul Bernard, 'Nouvelle contribution de l' épigraphie cunéiforme à l' histoire hellénistique' in: Bulletin de correspondance Hellénique 114 (1990) pages 514-541
  • Abraham Sachs and Hermann Hunger, Astronomical diaries and related texts from Babylon, volume I, 1988 Vienna
  • Bert van der Spek ‘Darius III, Alexander the Great and Babylonian scholarship’ in: Achaemenid History XIII (2003), 289-346

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