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An Astronomical Diary mentioning Gaugamela
Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre.
title "Astronomical Diary concerning month VI and VII of the fifth year
of Artašata who is called Darius" may not sound very exciting, but this
is one of the most important cuneiform sources for the eastern campaign
of the Macedonian
the Great. Not only does this Astronomical
Diary describe the omens before the battle of Gaugamela
and the fight itself (on 1 October 331), but it also tells how the "king
of Asia" entered Babylon.
The cuneiform tablets (BM 36761 + BM 36390) are in the British Museum. On this website, a new reading is proposed by Bert van der Spek of the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Please notice that this is a preliminary version. This web publication is therefore intended to invite suggestions for better readings, comments and interpretations (go here to contact Van der Spek).
refers to the battle of Gaugamela
and the entry of Alexander
the Great into Babylon.
III Codomannus is referred to as "the king", Alexander as "the king
of the world". In the beginning of this tablet the astral phenomena discussed
above are recorded.
For a general discussion, see: Bernard 1990, Kuhrt 1990 and Van der Spek 2003.
Names of stars: According to a system proposed by Johannes Bayer in 1603, the brightest star in a constellation is called alpha, the second-brightest is called beta, et cetera. However, many stars already had proper names that are still popular: e.g., Alpha and Beta Gemini are called Castor and Pollux. In the scientific edition of the AD, the Bayer system has been used.
32 minutes. The Babylonian has 8 (UŠ) = 8 degrees. Hunger comments: “time intervals shorter than a day are measured in the diaries by the unit UŠ, which corresponds to 4 of our minutes. An appropriate translation for UŠ is “time degree” because the celestial sphere moves 1º in right ascension in the time of 1 UŠ. 1/60 of one UŠ is called 1 NINDA.” (AD I, p. 16)
Lunar eclipse. The lunar eclipse took place on 20 September 331 BC one hour and 10 minutes after sunset, while Saturn was present and Jupiter had set shortly before the eclipse was complete. A lunar eclipse while Jupiter was invisible was considered a bad omen for the reigning king. The presence of Saturn was also a bad sign.This will have added to the panic in the camp of Darius III. The eclipse was also recorded in the classical sources: Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis, 3.7.6:
There was an almost total eclipse of the moon, and Alexander sacrificed to the moon, Sun and Earth, who are all said to cause an eclipse. [Alexander's diviner] Aristander thought that the eclipse was favourable to the Macedonians and Alexander, that the battle would take place that month, and that the sacrifices portended victory for Alexander.This procedure reminds us of an old Mesopotamian divinatory practice: the eclipse was merely the announcement of a divine message, the contents of which could be discovered by extispicy. Cf. Van der Spek 2003: 289-296.
3’, 5’ and 6’
broken. The text has he-pi written in a kind of cuneiform superscript. It means that this tablet is a copy of an older tablet, which was damaged. Copyists duly recorded this.
DUL must represent a verb related to rain. It is unknown what it is. Cf. Hunger, AD I, p. 30.
Exchange value. The text has KI.LAM, Akk. mahîru. Hunger translates “equivalent”. The astronomers recorded the value at the shekel at the end of each month, i.e. what could be bought for one shekel (=8.33 gr.) of silver of 6 commodities: barley, dates, cuscuta or mustard, cress, sesame and wool. The astronomical diaries contain a exceptionally detailed database for commodity prices in Babylonia. The data are collected on the website of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam (more...). Prices had been high in the late Achaemenid period, but in the decades preceding the invasion Alexander they had fallen.180 litres of dates for 1 shekel of silver is a fair price. The prices however would rise sharply after Alexander’s invasion and even more after his death when the Wars of the Successors broke out.
The king of the world. The text has LUGAL ŠÚ, Akk. šar kiššati. Technically it is also possible to read: LUGAL-šú, “its king” i.e. king of the land of Hani (Macedonia). So in the Nabû-Nasir to Šamaš-šuma-ukin Chronicle (ABC 1, IV 27) where mention is made of the city of Memphis and “its king”. In view of the context, esp. in rev. 11’, and in view of the fact that the expression LUGAL ŠÚ occurs in many omens, I opt for the translation “king of the world” (as Hunger did). It must be the translation of Alexander's title "king of Asia", because "Asia" was no recognizable concept for a Babylonian scientist (cf. Van de Spek 2003, 299).
Note that the text says that Darius was deserted by his troops instead of the other way around, as is maintained by Arrian (Anabasis 3.13.3), but Curtius Rufus (4.15.28-33) and Diodorus of Sicily (Library of World History, 17.60.3) present the same picture as the diary. Cf. the chapter on Gaugamela in Lendering 2004 (translation online).