BEROSSUS, Babylonian 4th-3rd-century priest-chronicler whose work has some bearing on Iranian history. The sources identify him (Berossus T 1-3) as a Babylonian, a Chaldean, a priest of Bel (i.e., of Marduk), and a contemporary of Alexander the Great (336-23 b.c.) who survived into the reign of Antiochus I Soter (281-61 b.c.). These facts suggest that Berossus was born ca. 350 b.c. and died sometime after 281 b.c. Except for his move, perhaps in the 270s b.c., from Babylon to the island of Cos where he taught astrology (Berossus T 5a), no further information concerning his life survives beyond what can be inferred from his writings, namely, that he had received a traditional Babylonian education that he supplemented after the Macedonian conquest of Babylon by acquiring a reading and writing knowledge of Greek, as well as familiarity with the Greek historical literature relating to Babylon.
Only one work by Berossus is attested, the Babyloniaca, a history of Babylon in three books intended to correct Greek misconceptions about Babylon, which was probably written in 281 b.c. and dedicated to Antiochus I. As the work was little read in antiquity, hardly any trace remains of it in its original form, but extensive fragments of an abridgment of it made by the first-century b.c. scholar Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor survive in the works of the first-century a.d. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the fourth-century a.d. Christian historian and chronographer Eusebius, who also preserves fragments of an adaptation of Polyhistor’s book by an author named Abydenus. From these sources a clear idea of the character and value of Berossus’ book can be obtained.
The Babyloniaca was a history of Babylon conceived and structured in accordance with traditional Babylonian views of man and his place in the world. Thus book 1 dealt with the origins of Babylonian culture via a revelation to the first men by the demigod Oannes, book 2 with the history of Babylon and its Chaldean priesthood from the appearance of Oannes 432,000 years before the flood to the reign of Nabu-Naṣir (747-34 b.c.), and book 3 continued the narrative to the reign of Alexander the Great. Berossus claimed that his history was based on cuneiform sources preserved in the temple of Bel at Babylon, and his claim is amply confirmed by the fragments of his book that reveal the use of Enuma Eliš (the Babylonian creation epic) in book 1, a flood story and a king list similar to the extant Sumerian King List in book 2, and texts similar to the Babylonian Chronicles in book 3.
Because Berossus’ work exists only in the form of fragments preserved by authors interested in their usefulness for Jewish or Christian apologetics, material dealing with Iranian affairs is poorly represented; but even were this not the case, the narrow focus of the book on Babylon would have sharply reduced its value as a source for Iranian history and chronology. As the fragments make clear, Berossus provided no connected account of Iranian affairs but only noted those episodes in which Iranian actions directly affected Babylon. Examples are his references to Nabopolassar’s alliance with the Medes (Berossus F 7; Abydenus F 5), Nebukadnezzar II’s building of the Hanging Gardens to please his Median wife (Berossus F 8), Cyrus I’s conquest of Babylon (Berossus F 9; Abydenus F 6), and Artaxerxes II’s (404-359 b.c.) introduction of the cult of Anāhitā into Babylon. Likewise, only those Achaemenid rulers were mentioned who were recognized at Babylon and then only in their capacity as kings of Babylon. Hence his omission of the brief reign of Bardiya (522 b.c.) and his crediting the other Achaemenid kings with only the years they ruled over Babylon (Berossus F 10). Thus Cambyses and Darius I are said to have ruled for eight and thirty-six years respectively, while Cyrus I is given a reign of only nine years, facts clearly to be explained by the former two rulers’ having assumed the title King of Babylon in the first year of their reigns while Cyrus’ possession of the title dated only from his conquest of the city in the seventeenth year of Nabonidus (539 b.c.). Finally, there is clear evidence that Berossus’ treatment of Irano-Babylonian relations was not only superficial but also marred by anachronism and bias, particularly with regard to the Medes, whose important role in the conquest of Nineveh in 612 b.c. he suppressed, while the beginnings of their contacts with Babylon were antedated to the third millennium b.c. and put in a negative light by the simple expedient of identifying them with the Gutians (Berossus F 5), the destroyers of the Sargonid empire and in Mesopotamian tradition the archetypal barbarians. In contrast, his treatment of the Achaemenids or, at least, of Cyrus I was favorable since he is said to have treated the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (555-39 b.c.), kindly and to have assigned to him Carmania to rule as a vassal king (Berossus F 9; Abydenus F 6). His reference to Darius I’s confiscating part of Nabonidus’ territory in Carmania (Abydenus F 6), however, suggests that his references to Cyrus’ successors may have been more critical. Thus the fragments of Berossus’ Babyloniaca are of considerable interest as evidence for the attitude of one influential Babylonian intellectual toward Iranians in the early Hellenistic period.
The standard edition of the fragments of Berossus and Abydenus is F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, vol. 3C, Leiden, 1958, pp. 364-410.
Still valuable, however, is the older edition by P. Schnabel, Berossus und die babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur, Leipzig, 1923.
For translation with commentary see Stanley Mayer Burstein, The Babyloniaca of Berossus, Sources from the Ancient Near East 1.5, Malibu, 1978.
Useful accounts of the historical and historiographical background of Berossus’ work are S. K. Eddy, The King Is Dead, Lincoln, 1961, pp. 101-32; R. Drews, “Assyria in Classical Universal Histories,” Historia 14, 1965, pp. 129-42; and The Greek Accounts of Eastern History, Cambridge, Mass., 1973.
For a convenient survey of chronological studies of Berossus’ fragments done prior to World War II, most of which have been rendered obsolete by advances in Assyriology, see F. Cornelius, “Berossus und die altorientalische Chronologie,” Klio 35, 1942, pp. 1-16.
Important recent studies are G. Komoróczy, “Berosos and the Mesopotamian Literature,” Acta Antiqua 21, 1973, pp. 125-52 and R. Drews, “The Babylonian Chronicles and Berossus,” Iraq 37, 1975, pp. 39-55.
(Stanley M. Burstein)
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 2, pp. 165-166