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Photo of a cloudy grey sky over dark hills with a perfectly square cloud in front of the others

A cloud like this would definitely belong in an astronomical diary (taken 11 October 2014 on the Universitätsbrucke in Innsbruck)

… thunder … The 5th, Mercury’s first appearance in the east in Pisces … towards the south … It rained slowly. The 12th, a halo … The river level rose … The troops of Babylonia fought against the troops of Assyria; the troops … The 13th, the river level rose a little. The 14th, a cloud bank lay to the right of the sun. Night of the 15th, overcast. Three ra[inbows], one in the west, one between north and west, and one in the north, were seen. Rain, lightning, thunder, … clouds. The 15th, one god was seen with the other. Gusty south wind, haze crossed the face of the sky. Night of the 16th, the moon was surrounded by a large halo. The 16th, the sun was surrounded by a halo. The 18th, the sun was surrounded by a … halo; the south wind blew. The 19th, Venus stood in the region of Aries, 10 fingers behind Mars; the moon was surrounded by a halo, and α Scorpii stood in it. The 20th, Mars was 1 finger to the left of the front of Aries; it came close. The moon was surrounded by a halo, Jupiter stood in it. The south wind blew. The 27th, a rainbow whose brightness was very great stretched in the east. … in Hiritu in the province of Sippar the troops of Babylonia and Assyria fou[ght with each] other, and the troops of Babylonia withdrew and were heavily defeated. … [The no]rth wind blew. The 28th, a little rain. In the afternoon, a very red rainbow stretched in the east.

Sachs and Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, Volume I (Vienna, 1988) No. -651. All lacunae marked with /…/ are gaps in the tablet; all square brackets indicate damaged signs which could be reconstructed from context.

In the first millennium BCE, some scholars at Babylon were paid to keep careful record of events in heaven and earth in order to improve the accuracy of their astrological predictions. Books on the Achaemenid empire often devote a few pages to them, because they are so impressive. Aristotle and his students don’t seem to have managed anything which was at once as empirical and as quantitative, and they started at least 300 years later; a number of discoveries which were formerly attributed to Greek astronomers seem to have been made first in Babylonia and taught to Greeks in Alexander’s army. Some diarists kept daily records of the price of six basic commodities, for the movements of prices seemed just as majestic and uncontrollable as the movements of the planets or the birth of three-headed snakes. Babylonian scholars in the first millennium BCE were not given to writing long treatises on clay, but they were very good at collecting data and finding patterns. Historians of science seem to think that the combination of empirical success with a far-from-naturalistic worldview used to be common.

The astronomical diaries give us some of our few narratives from Mesopotamia after the fall of the Assyrian empire, and some of them mention military events such as these battles between the Babylonians and Assyrians. Like the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, they usually limit themselves to date, place, antagonists, and outcome rather than trying to explain how the two armies fought; unlike the royal inscriptions, they avoid explicit comment on the meaning of battles. Nevertheless, even these brief notes often mention events which the Greek sources do not, and ignore the ones which they do.

Further Reading:: R.J. Van der Speck, “Commodity Prices in Babylonia, 385-61 BCE.”