Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background
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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

It is notorious that few stories about Alexander the Great written during his lifetime survive. The embroidered narratives by Greek and Latin writers which form the basis of most modern accounts were written 300 to 500 years later. A few of Alexander’s coins and inscriptions have been preserved, but they naturally give his point of view. A few chance references in Greek literature give a sense of the shock which many contemporaries felt that the king of a land on the edge of civilization suddenly overthrew the greatest power which had ever existed and conquered places which were little more than legends. One of the few long stories about Alexander which does survive in a version written during his lifetime is a cuneiform text, the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela. This week I thought that I would write an introduction to the Diary and what is involved in reading such a text. Next week I will talk about two different ways of reading them as represented in articles by R.J. van der Spek (English: Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship) and by Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing (German: ‘Panik’ im Heer: Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 vor Christ). I hope that the second will be helpful for readers who are interested in ancient history but not comfortable reading German.

The astronomical diaries are a collection of significant events on earth and in heaven organized by date. In the first millennium BCE some of the temples in southern Mesopotamia paid scholars to observe and record these events. The Babylonians seem to have believed that by correlating events on earth with events in the heavens, scholars could better understand the messages which the gods were sending them and the interrelationships between events. By nature, these diaries needed to be a running account, and they often contain notes such as that the sky was hidden by clouds or that the scholar was unable to watch that night. This suggests that the scholars were concerned with accuracy and not willing to invent observations. Most historians of science are very impressed with these scholars’ ability to take careful observations of the heavens and generate mathematical rules to model them. The diaries survive on a series of broken tablets from roughly the seventh through the first centuries BCE. One pair of tablets devotes about twenty long lines to the events in 331 BCE which we call the battle of Gaugamela, the flight of Darius, and Alexander’s conquest of Babylonia. The left half of these lines is preserved, while the right is broken away. With luck some of the broken part will be found again amongst the tablet fragments in European museums, or another copy will be identified.

The most important thing to know about the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela is that it exists and can be read. Having a source contemporary with the battle and only a few days’ ride away is very important, because every time a story is retold it changes, and working back from the changed version to reconstruct the original is a slow and subjective process. Most of what can be known about the chronology of Alexander’s career comes from cuneiform sources, because the Babylonian calendar was very regular and Babylonian astronomers were more interested in recording precise dates than Greek historians were. In 1988 A.J. Sachs and H. Hunger printed a transcription and English translation which is widely available in academic libraries, and for some years now a text by two respected scholars has been available online, so scholars who want to tell the story of the battle have a duty to use it and not just rely on Greek and Latin stories. If you already know about this source, however, the question is how to interpret it.

Have a look at the transcription of some of the most controversial lines of the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela.

(14’) ITU BI U4 11.KAM hat-tu4 ina ma-dàk-tu4 ina qud-me LUGAL GAR-m[a .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..]
(15’) ana tar-ṣi LUGAL ŠUB-ú 24.KAM ina še-rì LUGAL ŠÚ za-qip-t[u4 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..]
(16’) GABA a-ha-meš im-ha-ṣu-ma BAD5.BAD5ERÍN.MEŠ kab-t[u4 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ]
(17’) LUGAL ERÍN.MEŠ-šú ú-maš-šìr-ú-ši-ma ana URU.MEŠ-šú-nu [.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..]
(18’) [ana K]UR Gu-ti-i ZÁH-it-u’ (blank)

The numbers in (brackets) count the lines of the tablet. The square brackets enclose sections of the text which are missing, with two dots representing approximately one missing sign. As in most editions of a cuneiform text, this one prints signs which the editors read as words or morphemes in CAPITAL LETTERS and signs which they interpret as syllables in lowercase letters. The accent aigu, accent grave, and numbers in subscript differentiate between the different signs which can be read the same way, so that a reader who knows cuneiform can imagine which signs lie behind the editor’s interpretation into Latin letters and consider other possibilities. As you can see, this text is written in quite a logographic style. The original editors sensibly compared a modern almanac or other concise reference work which presents repetitive, structured information in a small space. Because the text is so concise, scholars today have to think carefully about how to read it.

Line fourteen describes some events two weeks before the battle, just after an eclipse of the moon. As is my custom, I have coded this page so that an explanation of each word will pop up if you put your mouse over it.

ITU BI U4 11.KAM hat-tu4 ina ma-dàk-tu4 ina qud-me LUGAL GARm[a

At first glance, this line is easy to interpret: “same month, eleventh day, panic appeared in the camp in the presence of the king and …” In the Diary LUGAL is Darius III not his Macedonian rival.

The description of the battle was written on parts of lines 15 and 16 which have been lost. Line seventeen describes its end.

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

All the signs on the first half of this line are legible, and all the words are common ones. As I will discuss next week, however, turning this line into an Akkadian or English sentence is not so easy.

Edit 2019-09-18: Fixed a broken link ( is in disarray after converting from hand coding to a CMS)

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1 thought on “Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

  1. Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 2: van der Spek versus Rollinger and Ruffing | Book and Sword says:

    […] week I discussed how two cuneiform tablets in the British Museum preserve an account of Alexander’s invasion of Bab…. These tablets are very important, because they are contemporary (not written hundreds of years […]

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