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Last week I discussed how two cuneiform tablets in the British Museum preserve an account of Alexander’s invasion of Babylonia. These tablets are very important, because they are contemporary (not written hundreds of years later like the surviving Greek and Latin accounts) and by Babylonians (also unlike most of our written sources). Yet just like any ancient text, their contents must be interpreted, and scholars with different backgrounds can interpret them in different ways.

One well-known gloss on this text is by R.J. van der Spek (“Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship,” in W. Henkelman and A. Kuhrt eds., A Persian Perspective: Essays in Memory of Heleen Sancisci-Weerdenberg, Achaemenid History XIII (NINO: Leiden, 2003) pp. 289-346 link). van der Spek was interested in the astronomical diaries as a genre and how they could be used to understand events during Alexander’s lifetime. He began by pondering the total eclipse of the moon on 20 September 331 BCE which impressed the Greek and Latin writers.

For modern historians this is perhaps not an important event, worth mentioning, but for ancient man, and surely for the Babylonian historian, it was. I use the word ‘historian’ here with caution, because Babylonian historians in our meaning of the term did not exist, but there were people who made records of the past, and in this way they were ‘historians.’ The most impressive product of their scholarship is the so-called Neo-Babylonian Chronicle Series, which started in the first year of Nabonassar (747 BC) and continued into the Parthian period (after 141 BC). These chronicles are not examples of beautiful historical narrative; they are rather a database. Babylonian history writing was an exact science and part of the aggregate whole of Babylonian wisdom. The Babylonian scholars viewed the world as one complex whole, in which all phenomena were interconnected and influenced each other. Thus in the Babylonian worldview the configuration of the stars, the condition of the liver of a sacrificial animal, the direction of the wind, the birth of a monstrous creature, the level of the Euphrates, the prices of commodities, the death of kings and victories in war, were all interconnected.

The most remarkable feature of the chronicles is their detached treatment of historical facts. It is not historiography in the sense that it gives a coherent narrative of history and searches for deeper causes; rather it presents facts about kings, their lengths of reign, their successes and defeats in battle, and facts about the city of Babylon, its temple and cult. The style is terse and is in every respect different from the royal inscriptions with their biased accounts ad maiorem regis gloriam. The same detachment and factual treatment of history is found in the historical sections of the so-called astronomical diaries.

He translated the passages of the diary dealing with the battle as follows:

(14′) That month (VI = Elul), on the 11th (18 September 331 BC), panic occurred in the camp before the king. [The Hanaeans . . .]
(15′) encamped in front of the king. On the 24th (1 October 331 BC), in the morning, the king of the world [erected his] standard [. . .]
(16′) Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops [of the king he inflicted].
(17′) The king, his troops deserted him and to their cities [. . .]
(18′) [to the l]and of the Gutians they fled.

The main verb in line 17′ is umašširūšima, whose form determines that it has a plural subject and a singular object. Because “the king” and “his troops” are written with logograms, their role in the sentence must be understood from context. van der Spek reads the subject as “his troops” and the object as “the king” giving the sense “the king, his troops deserted him.” As van der Spek explains in a note to line 17′, this word order is not as eccentric as it sounds in English translation:

This word order, object – subject – verb, is typical for omens. This particular omen (“the king, his troops will abandon him”) is given in the Babylonian astrological calendar for lunar eclipses in months III, VIII, and X (Labat 1965, §72: 3; §73: 8, 10).

He suggests that panic appeared in the camp because Alexander and his army were approaching. Slightly later in his article, he glosses this passage further:

Outright value judgments are not attested, unless it is that Alexander is called “king of the world” and Darius only “king;” but this can also be seen as a ‘bare fact,’ since Alexander was hailed ‘king of Asia’ by his troops after Gaugamela (cf. Fredericksmeyer 2000) and Darius was indeed reduced to ‘a king’ among others. An interesting ‘fact’ mentioned by the diary is that it holds that Darius was deserted by his troops instead of the other way around, as is maintained by Arrian (Anab. III.13.3), but Curtius (IV.15.28-33) and Diodorus (XVII.60.3) present the same picture as the diary.

To van der Spek, the diaries are the product of neutral observers who were extremely concerned with recording what they saw so that later scholars would better understand the messages in the skies and on the earth. He also stresses that these observers were trained in using estoeric lore to interpret these observations, and tries to understand what the scholars would have expected given their training in divination and the signs which they observed around them. One does not have to believe in astrology to believe that people who believe in astrology make decisions based on it, and that sometimes what they predict and what comes to pass will agree (or agree well enough that they can tell themselves that they predicted it).

A few years ago, Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing published a different interpretation of this passage in German (“’Panik’ im Heer- Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 v. Chr.” Iranica Antiqua 47 (2012) pp. 101-116 link). They also pondered the significance of the Battle of Gaugamela, which most specialists tell as a story of Alexander’s genius and reckless charge terrifying Darius into flight and enabling the outnumbered Macedonians to defeat the superior numbers of the Persian army. They then summarize the history of the Astronomical Diary in modern research, and move on to the passage which deals with the battle. Rollinger and Ruffing gave a German translation of the key lines which goes something like this:

(14′) In the same month, on the eleventh day, ‘panic’ struck the camp (as well as) the king. […]
(15′) made their camp (immediately) in front of the king. On the twenty-fourth day, early in the morning the king of the world [erected his] standard […]
(16′) Standing opposite one another they fought. A heavy defeat of the troops [of the king …]
(17′) The king and his troops abandoned it (ie. the camp). Into their cities […]
(18′) [Into the la]nd of the Gutaeans they fled. […]

“The king and his troops abandoned it” not “the king, his troops abandoned him”? How can such different readings come about? Have a look at line 17′ again:

LUGAL ERÍN.MEŠšú ú-maš-šìr-ú-ši-ma ana URU.MEŠšú-nu

All scholars who have examined the tablet agree which signs are written on these lines, and since the edition by Sachs and Hunger they have agreed how to pronounce them. The key word is the verb which, for reasons which are unlikely to interest anyone but phonology nerds, appears in dictionaries under wašāru or uššuru. It has two suffixes, one which indicates the object, and one which binds its clause to a neighbouring one. But Sachs and Hunger, who translated the line as van der Spek later did, had noticed a problem, and in a footnote Rollinger and Ruffing spelled it out: the suffix to that verb which indicates the object is feminine singular -ši not masculine singular -šu. Sachs and Hunger had marked that character as a possible mistake in the tablet and noted that late Babylonian texts sometimes confuse these two forms, whether because pronunciation had changed since the stages of the language on which modern grammars of Akkadian are based, or because of a simple mistake pressing the signs into the tablet. But as the line is written, the object of the verb cannot be a masculine noun like “the king” but must be a feminine one such as the madaktu “camp” in line 14′. Again, every editor of the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela agrees what signs are written on the clay of line 17′. But either the scribe has made a spelling mistake on the order of an English speaker confusing ‘he’ and ‘she,’ or the object of the verb is not “the king” but some feminine singular thing referred to in an earlier line, perhaps in the missing part of line 16′.

Rollinger and Ruffing then summarize this passage: first panic appears in Darius’ camp, then Darius and the King of the World set up their camps opposite one another and fight, then Darius and his troops flee to Gutium, the traditional cuneiform name for the Zagros Mountains. As they note, the panic has usually been taken as a fact to be explained according to rational material principles, such as Alexander’s sudden appearance east of the Tigris. Yet they point out that according to the Greek and Latin authors, Darius wanted Alexander to cross the Tigris and fight him on a battlefield of Darius’ choosing where Darius’ large numbers of infantry and cavalry could deploy. Darius’ soldiers had no reason to be startled that Alexander was coming, because “the Argead [king Alexander] had simply done what one expected him to do.” Another theory links the panic to the eclipse of the moon which Babylonian scholars knew was about to take place. Rollinger and Ruffing agree with van der Spek that the eclipse was a bad omen, and that a bad omen could have caused the Babylonian soldiers to panic. But they see it as an omen which could be read with reference to either king, and note that there were accepted ways to deal with such a bad omen such as appointing a substitute king who would suffer the force of the bad omen and be removed from the throne and executed as soon as the danger had passed. Instead, they ask what the appearance of hattu “panic” suggests in the context of Babylonian literature.

The word hattu appears in medical, omen, and propaganda texts. It most often indicates the fear which the illegitimate feel as the gods or a rightful king approach them. For example, an inscription of Asarhaddon (r. 680-669 BCE in Assyria) contains the lines: “Bēl-iqīša, the son of Bunanu, the Gambulaen, who lived twelve double-hours away amidst water and reed-beds, was spontaneously struck with hattu. Of his own free will he gathered grown cattle and yokes of white mules from Elam as gifts and tribute and brought them to me in Nineveh. He kissed my feet.” The Akkadian language had other words for fear with less ideological weight. So Rollinger and Ruffing prefer to give the report of panic little weight as evidence for what happened on the eleventh day of Elulu, and to stress the Greek authors who show Darius and his army carrying out a rational plan on the day of the battle two weeks later. As they point out, the Diary calls Darius a mere šarru “king” and Alexander the šar kiššati “king of the world” before the battle, but according to Greek writers he only proclaimed himself king of Asia after he had won. This choice of titles reflects not the situation on the morning of the battle but the situation afterwards when the Babylonians had recognized Alexander’s authority and let him occupy their cities. The daily observations for the diaries may have been edited when they were written up in a good copy at the end of the month.

To van der Spek, panic appears in the narrative because the author of the diary saw it or heard about it. Alexander is called “king of the world” because he was acclaimed with that title after the battle. The passage about leaving or abandoning contains a spelling mistake but directly addresses one of the areas about which the Greek and Latin sources disagree, namely whether Darius was the first in his army to flee or fought bravely until his troops were running away. To Rollinger and Ruffing, panic appears in the narrative because upstarts and their followers always feel panic when approached by the rightful king in Akkadian literature. Alexander is called “king of the world” before the battle because the writer recognizes him as rightful king. As for the leaving or abandoning, they follow the natural meaning of the signs which are written, rather than appealing to similar passages in omens and assuming that the scribe was sloppy about writing vowels.

These are summaries of two carefully-written articles, and I urge those who can and are interested in Alexander to read them both. But I hope that these summaries and excerpts give people who do not have the opportunity to learn German or cuneiform something to think about. I can say that the sign ši does not look like any of the signs for šu, and that the Diaries very rarely say why an event occurred. So just like any other text, understanding why two events are juxtaposed requires careful reading and thinking about both the type of event described, and the goals of the author, whether one believes that those goals were neutral observation (van der Spek) or proclaiming the latest pravda (Rollinger and Raaflaub).