Astronomical Diaries

Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 2: van der Spek versus Rollinger and Ruffing

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.
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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.
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A Weather Report from 651 BCE

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.
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