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Alexander and Artaxerxes fragment (BCHP 4)

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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 Fragment referring to Alexander the Great and an Artaxerxes is one of the historiographical texts from ancient Babylonia. It is highly enigmatic, but clearly refers to events after the Macedonian conquest. For a very brief introduction to the literary genre of chronicles, go here.

The cuneiform tablet (BM 36613 = 80-6-17, 343) is in the British Museum. On this website, a reading is proposed by Bert van der Spek of the Free University of Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Please note that this is a preliminary edition. This web publication is therefore intended to invite suggestions for better readings, comments and interpretations (go here to contact Van der Spek).

General commentary

Unfortunately this text is very enigmatic. In the first place, it is unclear what kind of text it is. It may be a chronicle or part of an Astronomical Diary. In that case a quotation from a letter or address is preserved, which contents may be in lines 8'-10'. It is also possible that the entire text is a proclamation or letter to the Babylonians ("you Babylonians" (l. 8'), in which mention is made of some facts of history of the days of an Arses and of Alexander the Great regarding temples and houses.

The document may have been written at the time of the march of Alexander the Great towards Babylon after the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC or refer to his return in 323 BC.

The tablet can also date to a later period. One option is that it was written at the time of the restorations of Esagila and Ezida by Seleucus I Nicator and Antiochus I Soter (Kuhrt, Sherwin-White 1991), and that earlier work by the great Alexander was remembered: the fact that the troops of Alexander had removed the rubble of Esagila, that he had promised to return houses to the possessions of the temple and the Babylonians (cf. the astronomical diary, AD I, p. 178, no. -330A; note that in this diary mention is made of three messages of Alexander to the Babylonians, lines 3'-5' concerning Esagila, 7', the promise not to enter houses, 14'-15', unknown content). The crown prince Antiochus, son of Seleucus I, figures in the Ruin of Esagila Chronicle (BCHP 6), a chronicle which describes the offerings made by the crown prince on the ruin of Esagila and his effort to remove the rubble of Esagila with the help of troops, wagons and elephants.

All earlier editors (including Van der Spek 2003) of this text have assumed that the "Arses, son of Ochos, who is called Artaxerxes", mentioned in line 6', is the Achaemenid king Arses, son of Artaxerxes III Ochus (338-336 BCE). As we shall see below, it cannot be excluded that it refers to Arses - Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358 BCE).

Comments on details

 lKR (nakru, “enemy”). One oblique and one horizontal wedge are preserved, which may be the end of KR. Other signs are possible as well, like DUR (cf. l. 8’).
Babylonian Chronicles
Text and translation


AN.BA]R. One vertical and one horizontal wedge crossing each other are visible, which may represent the sign BAR, as Sachs suggested. He translated: “....... with?] an iron? [spade?] of his own hands, [he .....]the debris from ...[...” 

š ŠUII-š, “of/which his hand”. Note that “his hand” may mean: “he personally”. Cf. CAD Q s.v. qtu, “hand”, p. 188 4) “self, person”.

d[ur. The sign looks like the beginning of DUR (cf. line 8’). A syllabic writing of dru, “wall” (instead of ideographical BD), however, is unusual. Glassner’s reading [.SAG.GIL does not fit the traces.

“year x]th of Arses, son of Ochos, who [is called] Artaxerxes.” In BiOr 50 (1993) 96 Van der Spek interpreted this line as proof that the throne name of Arses was Artaxerxes IV. This theory was first proposed by Ernst Badian (1977) on the basis of the trilingual inscription from Xanthus, dated to the first year of an Artaxerxes, which best fits the first year of Arses. The theory is generally accepted now and may be conformed by an Idumaean ostracon which can be dated to the first year of Arses-Artaxerxes IV (Lemaire 1996: 13 n. 11). Cf. Briant 1998.

As a matter of fact, this Babylonian document cannot be used as evidence, since the phrase “who is called Artaxerxes” can equally refer to Umakuš (Ochos), in which case the sentence proves nothing. In view of the terminology used in Hellenistic Uruk for Urukeans who have double names (mostly a Babylonian and a Greek name) we would expect a formula “Arses, who is called king Artaxerxes, son of Ochos,” if king Arses – Artaxerxes IV were intended. 

The interpretation of this name, however, might be altogether wrong. It is also possible that the king in question is not king Arses – Artaxerxes IV Arses, but Arses – Artaxerxes II Mnemon. Artaxerxes II was son of Darius II Nothus, whose original name was Ochos. If so, we have to translate: “Arses, son of Ochos (Darius II), whose second name is king Artaxerxes (II).” An attack on Sippar in the 42th year of Artaxerxes II is mentioned in a recently published astronomical diary (Hunger & Van der Spek 2006). Perhaps our document contains a reminiscence to this event.

Unfortunately comparison with the dating formulae of the Astronomical Diaries does not help very much. In these formulae the name of the father of the reigning king is never mentioned. The formula used here is: PN ša PN2 (LUGAL) MU-š na-bu-, “PN, who is called king PN2.” See for example AD I, p. 152, no. -346, left edge: MU 12.KAM m-ma-kuš š mr-tak-šat-su LUGAL MU-š na-bu-, “year 12 of Ochos, who is called king Artaxerxes (III)”; MU 38.KAM mr-š LUGAL š mr-tak-šat-su LUGAL MU-š [na-bu-], “year 38 of king Arses, who is called king Artaxerxes (II)” (AD I, p. 136, no. -366 B lower edge; on tablet A left edge the title LUGAL, “king,” added to both names, has been omitted in both cases); m-ma-kuš š mDa-a-ri-muš MU-š SA4, “Ochos, who is called Darius (II)” (AD I, p. 66, no. -391 B obv. 1). 

Grammatically the appositional clause “who is called Artaxerxes” in our text can either refer to Arš (Arses) or to Umakuš (Ochos). If it refers to Ochos, the Arses must be the son of Ochos/ Artaxerxes III. If it refers to Arses, this Arses can be both Artaxerxes II, son of Ochos/Darius and Arses (Artaxerxes IV), son of Ochos/Artaxerxes III. Due to the lack of context it is difficult to decide.

UR[U UD.KIB.NUN.KI, ‘the cit[y of Sippar ...’]. In Van der Spek 2003 another reading had been suggested: ER[I-DU10.KI (?), ‘(the district of) Er[idu (in Babylon)’]. The temple of Anunitu was situated in Babylon in the district of Eridu, i.e. the temple district (George 1992, 59, Tablet IV: 14: -SAG-G-ŠR-RA dA-nu-ni-tum lb-ba ERI-DU10.KI). Arrian of Nicomedia (Anabasis, 3.16.4) does indeed claim that Alexander ordered to rebuild more temples (ta hiera) apart from the temple of Bl. 

The reading lb-bi UR[U UD.KIB.NUN.KI], “within the cit[y of Sippar]” is also possible (URU and ERI are different readings of the same cuneiform sign). A temple of Anunitu was situated in Sippar (.UL.MAŠ, reconstructed by Nabonidus (George, House Most High, 1993, no. 1169). From Diary AD I, p. 178, no. -330 A: r. 6’ we know that Alexander was in Sippar before he came to Babylon (18 October 331 BC), from where he issued a message: “I shall not enter your houses.” This text is also about messages, possibly messages from Sippar.

...  mA-lek-sa-a]n-/dar\-ri-is LUGAL šu-dur-'. Sachs read this line as follows: . . . . . Ia-lek-sa-an]dar-ri-is LUGAL GAL-u D-u’. He assumed that u and D were written over an erasure. Collation did not confirm this reading. In the fist place is u never used as phonetic complement, hence GAL-u cannot be rab, “great”. In addition, Finkel observed that the sign is not GAL but ŠU and that there is no question of an erasure. The correct reading must be either šu-dur-’ or šu-#ur-’. If it is šu-dur-’, the word is to be interpreted as stative Š of  adru “to be worried” (CAD A, p. 103, s.v. adru A; cf. 5. šu’duru (šduru) with references). If so one might translate: “they were perturbed [upon the advance of Alexa]nder, the king, (but) you Babylonians [...”

Another possible translation is: “they were mourning.” We find this expression in the Nabonidus Chronicle where mention is made of the death of Nabonidus’ mother: DUMU LUGAL u ERN.MEŠ-š 3 u4-mu šu-du-ru, “the prince and his army were in mourning for three days” (ABC 7: ii 14). If so, our document may refer to the death of Alexander or the death of Hephaestion. Hephaestion was Alexander’s most intimate friend and his death at Ecbatana (October 324) into a paroxysm of grief. Alexander. Alexander spent a huge amount of money on the funeral pyre of Hephaestion and ordered to tore down the city wall to a distance of ten stadia (2 km.) (Diodorus of Sicily, Library, 17.115.1; cf. Justin 12.12.12; Plutarch of Chaeronea, Alexander, 72; Arrian, Anabasis, VII 14). Alexander “commanded mourning throughout the whole barbarian country.” (Arrian, Anabasis VII 14,9)

The other form, derived from the verb ša#ru, “to write”, also fits the context, but the grammatical form is not immediately clear. One option is a stative plural of the D-stem. The D-stem, however, requires a double teth (#): šu##uru. Cf. CAD ŠII, p. 238 s.v. ša#ru 5) šu##uru, “to write, to copy, to list, to record” mentioning ARM I 11:49 #uppatim ša ana PN . . . šu-u#-#u-ru, “the tablets which have been written to PN”. Another problem is that we would expect um-ma, “as follows,” as introduction to the direct speech, or š, “that,” introducing the indirect speech.

The other option is the plural imperative of the G stem, but this requires the form šu#r or šu#urr (cf. GAG 87 e, f). See, however, YOS VII 69: 10 attunu ina mi-<gi>-ir libbikunu ahmeš šu-#u-ru-a-ma, “you must write to each other with full and voluntary consent.” Due to the lack of context it is very difficult to decide what the correct reading is.

The passage may be a reference to the letters as mentioned in Astronomical Diary AD I, p. 178, no. -330A r. 4’-5’ or 7’ or 14’ at Alexander’s first entrance into Babylon (331 BC). It is also noteworthy that this diary -330A has the same ductus and shape as the piece under review here. It may well be the same hand. The fragment was entered into the inventory of the British Museum on the same day as the diary in question, 17 June 1880 (AD I, p. 176, no. -330 A (BM 36761 = 80-6-17, 496) and B (BM 36390 = 80-6-17, 116)).

However, the document may equally relate events of Alexander’s final stay in Babylon in 323 BC, when Alexander (again) ordered the rebuilding of Esagila. The troops mentioned in lines 10’ and 11’ may then be the troops Alexander used for the removal of the debris of the temple tower (Strabo of Amasia 16.1.5). The mourning may refer then to the mourning for Hephaestion or Alexander himself. See for a discussion Alexander’s stay in Babylon see Van der Spek 2003. 

GU[R.MEŠ ... . This ideographical writing gives no information on the conjugation of the verb. 

D-uš-u’ may render: ipuš, “they made”, ippuš, “they will make”. The verb epšu has many meanings, among which “to build or rebuild (a house, temple or palace or part of it)” (CAD E s.v. epšu, p. 197-8, 2b3’) or “to make (an offering), to sacrifice” (ibid. p. 214).

Bert van der Spek 2005
Latest revision: 28 August 2006

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