Chaldean scholar Berossus (c. 350–c. 280 BCE) was a Babylonian priest and astrologer who served at the court of the Greek-Macedonian king Antiochus I. Antiochus was young when he became ruler of the conquered people of ancient Babylon, and Berossus undertook to write a history of his people, called the Babyloniaca, to enlighten this young king. A three-part work, the Babyloniaca is the oldest history of its kind and was extensively quoted in the writings of subsequent historians of the ancient world.
Little is known about the life of Babylonian priest Berossus, and his original writings have been lost over time. Some ancient authors included significant portions of his work in their writings, however, identifying him as an important historian and astrologer of the Hellenistic (later Greek) era. Berossus identified himself as a contemporary of Alexander the Great, which places him as a young man during Alexander's final years in Babylon, 330–323 BCE. Berossus also described himself as a priest of Bel Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, as well as a Chaldean, descended from the civilization occupying the region prior to the time it became Babylon. So he was an educated man of the conquered Babylonian society, serving Antiochus I when he succeeded Alexander the Great. Berossus wrote his history in Greek to educate this young Greek royal, who supported the grand old Babylonian temples and rituals. As an old man, having finished his work for the king, Berossus left Babylon for the Egyptian island of Cos, where he taught the Greek population astronomy and astrology.
The fertile land in the Near East known as Mesopotamia (which means “between rivers”) lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and has been occupied since the dawn of written history, about 3100 BCE. Early written records—inscribed in a script called cuneiform and pressed into clay tablets—tell of many ancient dynasties and civilizations occupying the area. In its south-central region grew the city of Babylon, which was the seat of power for many of these peoples. As the years passed, control of the city passed among warring societies that coveted Babylon for its location, beauty, sophistication, and culture.
Traditional Babylonian culture and religion survived to the time of Berossus, including the old Akkadian language used in administration and ritual, and the worship of Bel Marduk, patron deity of the city. The last independent Babylonian kingdom (626–539 BCE) had fallen two centuries earlier. At its height, that kingdom was ruled by Nebuchadnezzar II, who expanded the elegant city of Babylon to 2,000 acres (making it, in modern times, the largest archeological site in the Middle East). Berossus revered the memory of Nebuchadnezzar and viewed his rule as the last golden age of Babylon. Outside conquerors followed Nebuchadnezzar, including Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was tolerant of many religions and of the Babylonian temples in particular. In 330 BCE, during Berossus's youth, Alexander the Great conquered Babylon for the Greeks. From that point on, the Babylonian empire was a memory kept alive through ritual and custom, especially by such educated priests as Berossus would become.
Although Alexander the Great planned to settle in Babylon and rule his vast empire from the city for many years to come, such was not to be. At age 32, seven years after occupying the city, the conqueror died, according to historians succumbing to either a fever such as typhoid or a long-acting poison. The rule of Babylon passed to one of Alexander's successors, Seleucus, and then to his son, Antiochus I, who was half-Persian, half-Greek, and a Greek speaker. The young king apparently viewed Babylon favorably and appreciated the grandeur of its history and temple customs. In any case, it was soon after Antiochus ascended the throne that Berossus began writing his history of Babylonia in Greek.
Perhaps Antiochus ordered the history of Babylon written as a way to better understand his Babylonian subjects. Or perhaps the priests of the temple of Bel Marduk wanted to ensure that their culture and manner of worship would survive for future generations. In any event, the task fell to Berossus, who belonged to the court of Antiochus. He was certainly fit for the task: he spoke and wrote Greek and his education as a priest enabled him to understand the oldest Babylonian writings, distilling them into a form understandable to the Greeks.
Berossus had access to a vast library of ancient Babylonian tablets, none of which survived into modernity. He was a fluent reader of the cuneiform script and, as a priest and astrologer, he had a deep understanding of their contents. A point made clear by most scholars is that he was not trying to write a factual, balanced history, but rather an introduction to Babylonian culture and identity. After working for many years, he produced a lengthy, three-volume work called the Babyloniaca. It included, Berossus wrote, “the history of the heavens (and of earth) and sea and the first birth and the kings and their deeds.”
The first volume of the Babyloniaca relates the Babylonian creation story as well as its interpretation. In this story, the time at creation is one of chaos and darkness, with the region of Babylonia populated by early humans living like wild animals. A being named Oannes arises out of the sea, half-man and half-fish, and helps to civilize the earthbound humans by teaching them their place in the created universe and sharing principles for living in peace. The second volume covers a history of the ten kings who ruled the city over a period of 432,000 years, during the time before the great flood that has been chronicled in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Scholars suspect that Berossus had fewer ancient materials to draw from for this volume, thus he attributed unbelievable life spans to these ten Babylonian monarchs. The third volume of the Babyloniaca has more detail and a historical basis, and here he set forth factual information about the actual kings and dynasties that ruled the region after the flood, up to the time of Alexander the Great.
Berossus, who was ethnically Chaldean, made a point of identifying the ten kings who ruled before the flood, as well as the ten after, as Chaldeans. In doing so, he underscored the importance of the Chaldean people as the ones who both built and rebuilt their civilization. He also illuminates his role as trusted heir to the most ancient mysteries of his people. As a guide to the dynasties that would follow, Berossus highlighted the best and worst of the city's kings, perhaps as a warning to Antiochus by posing the question: Would he suffer the grisly fate of an evil king, or be revered as a great one?
When Berossus finished his Babyloniaca in service to Antiochus I, he was said to have moved to Cos, an island then under the dominion of Egypt. Cos was home to a large Greek population, and the priest and scholar spent the later part of his life teaching these islanders what he knew of Chaldean astronomy and astrology. It is not known when he died.
Despite the time Berossus spent to produce it, his Babyloniaca apparently had little impact on contemporary culture. Although he wrote it in Greek for a Greek readership, it received scant attention. Hellenistic Greeks prided themselves on their rationality and held a human-centered view of history. They were unimpressed by creation myths involving gods instructing humans on the ineffable principles of existence, and they had little use for fabulous accounts of near-immortal kings. Besides, they preferred to read fluent Greek, and Berossus's command of written Greek was poor.
Berossus's masterwork went unappreciated in his own time, collecting dust on a library shelf until the first century CE, when a Greco-Roman historian named Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor found it. Viewing it as part of a longer work, Polyhistor emphasized the historical aspect of the Babyloniaca but ignored Berossus's interpretations and astrological ruminations. In the manner of history, subsequent historians referenced only Polyhistor's views of the work, as did new generations of historians, until the understanding of Berossus's original Babyloniaca was almost nonexistent.
Apart from the Babyloniaca, subsequent historians attributed various written works and inventions to Berossus, none of which have been proven by the historical record. That the Greeks erected a statue of Berossus in Athens confirms his status as a revered figure.
Arnold, Bill T., Who Were the Babylonians?, Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.
Burstein, Stanley Mayer, The Babyloniaca of Berossus, Undena Publications, 1978.
Weekly Standard, November 21, 2016, Richard Tada, “Alternate Exodus: The Clash of Civilizations, Antiquity-Style,” p. 37.
Jason Colavito website, http://www.jasoncolavito.com/berossus.html (July 17, 2017), “The Fragments of Berossus.”□