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The Alexander Chronicle (BCHP 1): Commentary

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Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre.
The Babylonian Alexander Chronicle (BCHP 1; a.k.a. ABC 8, Chronicle 8) is one of the historiographical texts from ancient Babylonia. It deals with events from the reigns of the Persian king Darius III Codomannus and his Macedonian successor Alexander the Great.

The cuneiform tablet (BM 36304) is in the British Museum and was first published by A.K. Grayson in 1975 in a book called Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. On this website, a new reading is proposed by Bert van der Spek of the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). The official publication can be found in Achaemenid History XIII (2003). An alternative reading, not by Van der Spek, is proposed here.

Babylonian Chronicles
Text and translation
Alternative reading


BCHP 1, the Alexander Chronicle, obverse. Photo Bert van der Spek.
BCHP 1: Alexander Chronicle (obverse; **)

Commentary (obverse)

mbi-/e\-[... . Grayson read: ana bi-x[... . In view of line 4 I assume that a personal name is at issue. The name Bessus (mbi-e-su?) would fit the year 330 BCE. (The name Bi-e-su is attested in the Murašu archive.)

MU = nab, “to name”. nab is in this kind of constructions usually rendered by SA4, but cf. Prophecy A, First side, II: 14: MAN-ma š MU-š NU MU (Grayson/Lambert 1964, 12). If Bessus is intended, š mAr-tak-šat-su] MU-š MU-u’ , “[whom Artaxerxes] as his name they named]” is to be expected at the beginning of line 4', since Bessus took that name when he deposed Darius III Codomannus as king. My calculation of the length of the missing left parts of the other lines is based on this reconstruction. See also below.

a-lik-sa. The reading poses no doubts. It can only refer to the royal name Alexander in abbreviated form. Abbreviations of royal names occur more often in chronicles and diaries. The name of Alexander may have been written in full in the previous paragraph, which may have described the battle of Gaugamela.

idduk means either "he defeated" or "he killed". It may refer to the death of Darius III at the hands of Bessus or to a defeat of Bessus’ troops by Alexander (see below).

At the beginning of line 7' traces of DINGIR (certainly) and RA (possibly) are discernible, which could point to K.DINGIR.RA.KI = Babylon. It is a little disturbing that Babylon is written as E.KI in line 11' of this chronicle, and it hardly fits the context.

m/da-ri\-ia-a-muš: Grayson assumed that Darius I was at issue, but we can now be certain that Darius III was meant (so Glassner 1993, 206). 

Grayson and Glassner read šr šarr[nimeš], i.e. LUGAL LUG[AL.MEŠ], "king of kings". The second LUGAL, however, appears to be DU or GIN = alku, "to go".

Kidinnu must have been a man of some importance. He is mentioned without any familial or professional designation. It is tempting to see the famous astronomer Kidenas who was familiar enough to the scribes of Babylon and probably lived in the fourth century (Lendering 2004, 218).

Although the line is written after a thin dividing line, it hardly can introduce a new year, or even a month, since the line must be a continuation of line 8'. Grayson’s reading URU Ia-a-nu does not fit the traces. A reading zu instead of URU is practically certain. KUR seems fairly clear, though the sign is at the beginning of the break. My reading is not quite unequivocal. Two vertical wedges are clear (which would point to si, but very close study of the sign reveals two more thin vertical wedges, which makes the sign an ). That the signs KUR ('land') and URU ('city') are used interchangeable may be surprising, but occurs more often in the chronicles and the diaries:

  • ABC 3:2 KUR Hi-in-da-na-a, 3:9 URU Hi-in-da-nu;
  • ABC 5: rev. 12 URU Ia-a-hu-du for Juda;
  • ABC 6:4 URU Hu-me-e for Cilicia
  • ABC 7, year 6: 'the country Ecbatana'
  • Diary AD III No. -95 A 10’ and rev. 6’ URU Ar-mi-ni(-i) for Armenia
  • AD I p. 60 No. -440 (= -381c): 'Rev. 4' KUR Sa-mi-n-e URU SIG- š KUR Ku-up-ru, ‘the land of Salamis, a famous city of the land of Cyprus’.
I cannot find an interpretation of a geographical name uzuianu, which was in the land of Gutium, i.e. any land east of the Tigris. In August-September 330 Alexander was in Hyrcania, Parthia and Aria.

These lines may deal with Alexander's next regnal year, i.e. 329. The central point is that goods are taken from the palace apparently to be used for the temple cult. There may be an echo of this message in the astronomical diary of month VIII of year 8 of Alexander in which it is stated that in November 329 something "[from] the king’s palace they took to that house (or: temple)" (AD I, 191, No -328: ‘Rev. 26’).

If after this clear dividing line again a new year was introduced, we are now in 328/327 BCE. It is the year that the satrap of Babylonia, Mazaeus, died (winter 328/327; Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis 4.18.3; Quintus Curtius Rufus 8.3.17; Berve 1926 #484). If so, the person named [...]-Bel, who was appointed satrap, might be a son of Mazaeus. Classical authors report that Mazaeus had several sons, three (or two) of which are mentioned by name, viz. Artiboles (Berve #154), Antibelus or Brochubelus (Berve #82). All three names are Babylonian: Ardi-Bel, Iddin-Bel(? or also Ardi-Bel?) and Buraqu-Bel. Brochubelus was "at one time" praetor of Syria (Syriae quondam praetor, Curtius Rufus 5.11.13). Quondam does not necessarily refer to the past [note 1], which would mean that he could have been appointed governor of Syria at a later date by Alexander, possibly as successor to Asclepiodorus, who left the satrapy in 329 (cf. Berve 1926, I: 258 and II: 88). According to Plutarch, Alexander 39, Alexander wished to give an unnamed son of Mazaeus a second satrapy. 

It is very difficult to interpret and to date this chronicle, although it is now certain that the Darius in line obv. 7' is Darius III, not Darius I. The events which seem easiest to date are those described in 3'-7'. There are several elements in this section, which seem to refer to events of the summer of 330, the year after the battle of Gaugamela.

The dethronement (line 3') of someone may offer the clue. The only dethronements I can imagine are those of Arses in 336, which seems too early, since Alexander was not at the stage in Asia at that moment, and the inprisonment of Darius III by Bessus, satrap of Bactria and Sogdia, Nabarzanes, chiliarch of Darius, and Barsaentes, satrap of Arachosia and Drangiana, in Choara (Arrian, Anabasis 3.21.1 and Curtius Rufus, 5.12.4, 15). Alexander is reported this, when he just has passed the Caspian Gate (July 330 BCE). Darius III was killed shortly after, in July, near Hecatompylos, by Satibarzanes and Barsaentes at the order of Bessus (Arrian, Anabasis 3.21.9-10; Diodorus, Library, 17.73.2; Curtius Rufus 5.13.13; Plutarch, Alexander 42; Itiner. 69; Ps.-Callisthenes 2.20; Jul. Val. II 31). Bessus returned to Bactria and prepared for war against Alexander. He took the royal tiara and declared himself successor to Darius under the throne name Artaxerxes (Arrian, Anabasis 3.25.3; Diodorus 17.74.2; 83.7; Curtius Rufus 6.6.13) 

The "few troops" of line 5' may refer to the small army with which Alexander pursued Bessus (Arrian, Anabasis 3.21.2, 7). According to Arrian, Satibarzanes and Barsaentes wounded Darius when Alexander was right upon them, left him where he was and escaped. "Darius died of his wound soon after, before Alexander had seen him" (Arrian, Anabasis 3.21.10). Curtius Rufus (5.13.24f), Plutarch, Alexander 43 and Justin (11.15) add that Darius was still alive when found by the Macedonians.

In his recent book on Alexander, Lendering observes that, if the Alexander Chronicle deals with the dethronement of Darius and the accession of Bessus, it contradicts the European sources (Lendering 2004, 214). Arrian and the other Alexander historians state that Bessus accepted the royal title in the autumn of 330, after Alexander's conquest of Hyrcania; the Alexander Chronicle states that this happened immediately. The latter is the more likely chronology, because the satrap of Bactria was the mathišta, the designed successor to the throne (Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1980). Once Darius was dead, Bessus, an Achaemenid, would have become king anyhow.

I have also tried the hypothesis that in line 8'-10' the battle of Gaugamela was mentioned, which took place on 24 Ullu. That would mean that in line 3' no reference to Bessus is made, that the second name of  line 4' would refer to "[Artašata, whom Darius] as his name they named," line 7' would then refer to the departure of Darius in the direction of Gaugamela, Kidinnu may have been executed for giving a negative prediction on the basis of the lunar eclipse of 13 Ullu, the battle may have been mentioned in the same line as having taken place on "Ullu, day [24]", after which Darius fled to "the land Uzuianu, a city of the land of Gutium", which would fit nicely the information of the diary, though one would expect Ecbatana, rather than Uzuianu. Lines 11'-13' would then refer to Alexander's arrival in Babylon. This would also explain why Darius is called king in line 7', while Alexander is not in line 4'.

Attractive though this reconstruction may be, some puzzles remain. Who was removed from the throne before Gaugamela? Was it perhaps the enigmatic Nidin-Bl from the Uruk King List? [note 2] Who was Bi-e-[…]? Or do we have to read ana bi-x-[…]? Who was defeated or killed in line 6? 

to part four (commentary)

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