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Babylonian Astronomy

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« on: January 31, 2008, 10:44:57 am »

                                                 Babylonian Astronomy

Babylonian astronomy refers to the astronomy that developed in Mesopotamia, the "land
between the rivers" Tigris and Euphrates, corresponding to modern-day Iraq, where the
ancient kingdoms of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Babylonia and Chaldea were located.

Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of the astronomical traditions that later
developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanid,
Byzantine and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Western European

The origins of Western astronomy can be found in Mesopotamia.

A form of writing known as cuneiform emerged among the Sumerians around 3500-3000 BC.
The Sumerians only practiced a basic form of astronomy, but they had an important
influence on the sophisticated astronomy of the Babylonians.

Astral theology, which gave planetary gods an important role in Mesopotamian mythology
and religion, began with the Sumerians. They also used a sexagesimal (base 60) place-value
number system, which simplified the task of recording very large and very small numbers.

The modern practice of dividing a circle into 360 degrees, of 60 minutes each, began with the Sumerians. For more information, see the articles on Babylonian numerals and mathematics.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new empirical approach
to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe
and began employing an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an
important contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science, and some scholars have thus referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution.

This new approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Greek and Hellenistic

Classical Greek and Latin sources frequently use the term Chaldeans for the astronomers of Mesopotamia, who were, in reality, priest-scribes specializing in astrology and other forms of
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« Reply #1 on: January 31, 2008, 10:48:19 am »

                                               Old Babylonian Astronomy

Old Babylonian astronomy refers to the astronomy that was practiced during and after the First Babylonian Dynasty and before the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

The first evidence of recognition that astronomical phenomena are periodic and of the application
of mathematics to their prediction is Babylonian.

Tablets dating back to the Old Babylonian period document the application of mathematics to
the variation in the length of daylight over a solar year. Centuries of Babylonian observations of
celestial phenomena are recorded in the series of cuneiform tablets known as the Enūma Anu Enlil.
The oldest significant astronomical text that we possess is Tablet 63 of the Enūma Anu Enlil, the
Venus tablet of Ammi-saduqa, which lists the first and last visible risings of Venus over a period
of about 21 years and is the earliest evidence that the phenomena of a planet were recognized
as periodic.

The MUL.APIN, contains catalogues of stars and constellations as well as schemes for predicting
heliacal risings and the settings of the planets, lengths of daylight measured by a water clock,
gnomon, shadows, and intercalations. The Babylonian GU text arranges stars in 'strings' that lie
along declination circles and thus measure right-ascensions or time-intervals, and also employs
the stars of the zenith, which are also separated by given right-ascensional differences.

There are dozens of cuneiform Mesopotamian texts with real observations of eclipses, mainly
from Babylonia (see Wikipedia's relevant page, "Chronology of Babylonia and Assyria").
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« Reply #2 on: January 31, 2008, 10:51:28 am »

                                               Neo-Babylonian Astronomy

Neo-Babylonian Astronomy refers to the astronomy developed by Chaldean astronomers during
the Neo-Babylonian, Seleucid and Parthian periods of Mesopotamian history.

A significant increase in the quality and frequency of Babylonian observations appeared during
the reign of Nabonassar (747-733 BC), who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

The systematic records of ominous phenomena in astronomical diaries that began at this time
allowed for the discovery of a repeating 18-year cycle of lunar eclipses, for example.

The Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy later used Nabonassar's reign to fix the beginning of an era,
since he felt that the earliest usable observations began at this time.

The last stages in the development of Babylonian astronomy took place during the time of the
Seleucid Empire (323-60 BC).

In the third century BC, astronomers began to use "goal-year texts" to predict the motions of
the planets. These texts compiled records of past observations to find repeating occurrences
of ominous phenomena for each planet. About the same time, or shortly afterwards, astronomers created mathematical models that allowed them to predict these phenomena directly, without
consulting past records.
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« Reply #3 on: January 31, 2008, 10:54:33 am »

                                                        Empirical Astronomy

Most of the Chaldean astronomers were concerned exclusively with ephemerides, and not with
theory. The predictive Babylonian planetary models were usually strictly empirical and arithme-
tical, and usually did not involve geometry, cosmology or speculative philosophy like that of
the later Hellenistic models, though the Babylonian astronomers were concerned with philoso-
phy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe.

Contributions made by the Chaldean astronomers during this period include the discovery of
eclipse cycles and saros cycles, and many accurate astronomical observations.

Chaldean astronomers known to have followed this model include Naburimannu (fl. 6th-3rd
century BC), Kidinnu (d. 330 BC), Berossus (3rd century BC), and Sudines (fl. 240 BC).
They are known to have had a significant influence on the Greek astronomer Hipparchus and
the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, as well as other Hellenistic astronomers.
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« Reply #4 on: January 31, 2008, 10:58:10 am »

                                              Heliocentric Astronomy

The only Babylonian astronomer known to have supported a heliocentric model of planetary
motion was Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC).[7][8][9] Seleucus is known from the writings
of Plutarch. He supported the heliocentric theory where the Earth rotated around its own
axis which in turn revolved around the Sun.

According to Plutarch, Seleucus even proved the heliocentric system, but it is not known
what arguments he used.

According to Lucio Russo, his arguments were probably related to the phenomenon of tides.
Seleucus correctly theorized that tides were caused by the Moon, although he believed that
the interaction was mediated by the Earth's atmosphere. He noted that the tides varied in
time and strength in different parts of the world.

According to Strabo (1.1.9), Seleucus was the first to state that the tides are due to the
attraction of the Moon, and that the height of the tides depends on the Moon's position
relative to the Sun.

According to Bartel Leendert van der Waerden, Seleucus may have proved the heliocentric
theory by determining the constants of a geometric model for the heliocentric theory and
by developing methods to compute planetary positions using this model. He may have used trigonometric methods that were available in his time, as he was a contemporary of
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« Reply #5 on: January 31, 2008, 11:00:37 am »

                                    Babylonian influence on Hellenistic Astronomy

Many of the works of ancient Greek and Hellenistic writers (including mathematicians, astrono-
mers, and geographers) have been preserved up to the present time, or some aspects of their
work and thought are still known through later references. However, achievements in these
fields by earlier ancient Near Eastern civilizations, notably those in Babylonia, were forgotten
for a long time.

Since the discovery of key archaeological sites in the 19th century, many cuneiform writings
on clay tablets have been found, some of them related to astronomy. Most known astronomical
tablets have been described by Abraham Sachs and later published by Otto Neugebauer in the Astronomical Cuneiform Texts (ACT).

Since the rediscovery of the Babylonian civilization, it has become apparent that Hellenistic
Astronomy was strongly influenced by the Chaldeans. The best documented borrowings are
those of Hipparchus (2nd century BCE) and Claudius Ptolemy (2nd century CE).
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« Reply #6 on: January 31, 2008, 11:02:39 am »

                                                Early influence

Many scholars agree that the Metonic Cycle is likely to have been learned by the Greeks from
Babylonian scribes. Meton of Athens, a Greek astronomer of the 5th century BCE, developed
a lunisolar calendar based on the fact that 19 solar years is about equal to 235 lunar months,
a period relation already known to the Babylonians.

In the fourth century, Eudoxus of Cnidus wrote a book on the fixed stars. His descriptions of
many constellations, especially the twelve signs of the zodiac, are suspiciously similar to
Babylonian originals.

The following century Aristarchus of Samos used an eclipse cycle of Babylonian origin called
the Saros cycle to determine the year length. However, all these examples of early influence
must be inferred and the chain of transmission is not known.
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« Reply #7 on: January 31, 2008, 11:07:39 am »

                                          Influence on Hipparchus and Ptolemy

In 1900, Franz Xaver Kugler demonstrated that Ptolemy had stated in his Almagest IV.2 that
Hipparchus improved the values for the Moon's periods known to him from "even more ancient astronomers" by comparing eclipse observations made earlier by "the Chaldeans", and by himself.

However Kugler found that the periods that Ptolemy attributes to Hipparchus had already been
used in Babylonian ephemerides, specifically the collection of texts nowadays called "System B" (sometimes attributed to Kidinnu).

Apparently Hipparchus only confirmed the validity of the periods he learned from the Chaldeans
by his newer observations.

Later Greek knowledge of this specific Babylonian theory is confirmed by second-century papyrus,
which contains 32 lines of a single column of calculations for the Moon using this same "System B",
but written in Greek on papyrus rather than in cuneiform on clay tablets.

It is clear that Hipparchus (and Ptolemy after him) had an essentially complete list of eclipse observations covering many centuries. Most likely these had been compiled from the "diary"
tablets: these are clay tablets recording all relevant observations that the Chaldeans routinely

Preserved examples date from 652 BC to AD 130, but probably the records went back as far as
the reign of the Babylonian king Nabonassar: Ptolemy starts his chronology with the first day in
the Egyptian calendar of the first year of Nabonassar, i.e., 26 February, 747 BC.

This raw material by itself must have been hard to use, and no doubt the Chaldeans themselves compiled extracts of e.g., all observed eclipses (some tablets with a list of all eclipses in a period
of time covering a saros have been found). This allowed them to recognise periodic recurrences of events. Among others they used in System B (cf. Almagest IV.2):

223 (synodic) months = 239 returns in anomaly (anomalistic month) = 242 returns in latitude
(draconic month). This is now known as the saros period which is very useful for predicting

251 (synodic) months = 269 returns in anomaly

5458 (synodic) months = 5923 returns in latitude

1 synodic month = 29;31:50:08:20 days (sexagesimal; 29.53059413... days in decimals = 29 days
12 hours 44 min 3⅓ s)

The Babylonians expressed all periods in synodic months, probably because they used a lunisolar calendar. Various relations with yearly phenomena led to different values for the length of the

Similarly various relations between the periods of the planets were known. The relations that
Ptolemy attributes to Hipparchus in Almagest IX.3 had all already been used in predictions
found on Babylonian clay tablets.

Other traces of Babylonian practice in Hipparchus' work are:

first Greek known to divide the circle in 360 degrees of 60 arc minutes.

first consistent use of the sexagesimal number system.

the use of the unit pechus ("cubit") of about 2° or 2½°.

use of a short period of 248 days = 9 anomalistic months.
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« Reply #8 on: January 31, 2008, 11:14:37 am »

                                                  Means of Transmission

All this knowledge was transferred to the Greeks probably shortly after the conquest by
Alexander the Great (331 BC). According to the late classical philosopher Simplicius (early
6th century AD), Alexander ordered the translation of the historical astronomical records
under supervision of his chronicler Callisthenes of Olynthus, who sent it to his uncle Aristotle.

It is worth mentioning here that although Simplicius is a very late source, his account may be
reliable. He spent some time in exile at the Sassanid (Persian) court, and may have accessed
sources otherwise lost in the West. It is striking that he mentions the title tèresis (Greek: guard)
which is an odd name for a historical work, but is in fact an adequate translation of the Babylo-
nian title massartu meaning "guarding" but also "observing".

Anyway, Aristotle's pupil Callippus of Cyzicus introduced his 76-year cycle, which improved upon
the 19-year Metonic cycle, about that time. He had the first year of his first cycle start at the
summer solstice of 28 June 330 BC (Julian proleptic date), but later he seems to have counted
lunar months from the first month after Alexander's decisive battle at Gaugamela in fall 331 BC.

So Callippus may have obtained his data from Babylonian sources and his calendar may have been anticipated by Kidinnu.

Also it is known that the Babylonian priest known as Berossus wrote around 281 BC a book in
Greek on the (rather mythological) history of Babylonia, the Babyloniaca, for the new ruler
Antiochus I; it is said that later he founded a school of astrology on the Greek island of Kos.

Another candidate for teaching the Greeks about Babylonian astronomy/astrology was Sudines
who was at the court of Attalus I Soter late in the 3rd century BC.

In any case, the translation of the astronomical records required profound knowledge of the
cuneiform script, the language, and the procedures, so it seems likely that it was done by some unidentified Chaldeans.

Now, the Babylonians dated their observations in their lunisolar calendar, in which months and years have varying lengths (29 or 30 days; 12 or 13 months respectively). At the time they did not use a regular calendar (such as based on the Metonic cycle like they did later), but started a new month based on observations of the New Moon. This made it very tedious to compute the time interval between events.

What Hipparchus may have done is transform these records to the Egyptian calendar, which uses
a fixed year of always 365 days (consisting of 12 months of 30 days and 5 extra days): this makes computing time intervals much easier.

Ptolemy dated all observations in this calendar. He also writes that "All that he (=Hipparchus) did
was to make a compilation of the planetary observations arranged in a more useful way" (Almagest IX.2).

Pliny states (Naturalis Historia II.IX(53)) on eclipse predictions: "After their time (=Thales) the
courses of both stars (=Sun and Moon) for 600 years were prophesied by Hipparchus, ...". This
seems to imply that Hipparchus predicted eclipses for a period of 600 years, but considering the enormous amount of computation required, this is very unlikely. Rather, Hipparchus would have
made a list of all eclipses from Nabonasser's time to his own.
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« Reply #9 on: January 31, 2008, 11:18:00 am »

                                                Later Astronomy in Mesopotamia

Sassanid Astronomy

The capital of the Sassanid Empire, the city of Ctesiphon, was founded in Mesopotamia.

Astronomy was studied by Persians and Babylonians in Ctesiphon and in the Academy of Gundi-
shapur in Persia. Most of the astronomical texts during the Sassanid period were written in the
Middle Persian language.

The Zij al-Shah, a collection of astronomical tables compiled in Persia and Mesopotamia over
two centuries, was the most famous astronomical text from the Sassanid period, and was later translated into Arabic.

Islamic Astronomy

After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the province of Mesopotamia came to be known as Iraq
in the Arabic language.

During the Abbasid period of Mesopotamian history, Baghdad was the capital of the Arab Empire,
and for centuries, remained the centre of astronomical activity throughout the Islamic world.

Astronomy was also studied in Basra and other Iraqi cities. During the Islamic period, Arabic was adopted as the language of scholarship, and Iraq continued to make numerous contributions to
the field of astronomy, up until the sack of Baghdad in 1258.

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« Reply #10 on: January 31, 2008, 11:20:35 am »


Aaboe, Asger. Episodes from the Early History of Astronomy. New York: Springer, 2001. ISBN 0-387-95136-9

Jones, Alexander. "The Adaptation of Babylonian Methods in Greek Numerical Astronomy." Isis, 82(1991): 441-453; reprinted in Michael Shank, ed. The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000. ISBN 0-226-74951-7

Kugler, F. X. Die Babylonische Mondrechnung ("The Babylonian lunar computation.") Freiburg im Breisgau, 1900.

Neugebauer, Otto. Astronomical Cuneiform Texts. 3 volumes. London:1956; 2nd edition, New York: Springer, 1983. (Commonly abbreviated as ACT).

Toomer, G. J. "Hipparchus and Babylonian Astronomy." In A Scientific Humanist: Studies in Memory of Abraham Sachs, ed. Erle Leichty, Maria deJ. Ellis, and Pamela Gerardi, pp. 353-362. Philadelphia: Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund 9, 1988.

See also

Babylonian astrology

Babylonian calendar

Babylonian mathematics

History of astronomy (Section on Mesopotamia)

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« Reply #11 on: September 07, 2010, 06:11:19 am »

"In the middle of the city, she [Semiramis] built a temple to Jupiter, whom the Babylonians call Belus, (as we have before said), ... it is apparent that it was of an exceeding great height, and that by the advantage of it, the Chaldean astrologers exactly observed the setting and rising of the stars." -- Diodorus Siculus, The Library, Book II, 1st century B.C.

"And since they [Chaldeans] have observed the stars over a long period of time and have noted both the movements and the influences of each of them with greater precision than any other men, they foretell to mankind many things that will take place in the future. But above all importance, they say, is the study of the influence of the five stars known as planets, which they call 'Interpreters' when speaking of them as a group, but if referring to them singly, the one named Cronus [Saturn] by the Greeks, which is the most conspicuous and presages more events and such as are of greater importance than the others, they call the star of Helius, whereas the other four they designate as the stars of Ares [Mars], Aphrodite [Venus], Hermes [Mercury], and Zeus [Jupiter], as do our astrologers." -- Diodorus Siculus, historian, Library of History, Book II, 1st century B.C.

"It is not easy to understand the idea which was the basis for the identification of the Babylonian gods with the planets." -- Peter Jensen, author, Die Kosmologie der Babylonier, 1890

"The great temple [of Babylon] was the symbolization of Babylonian mythology. The seven platforms were dedicated to the seven planets." -- John C. Ridpath, historian, History of the World, 1894

"There is said to be distinct evidence that they [Babylonians] observed the four satellites of Jupiter, and strong reason to believe that they were acquainted likewise with the seven satellites of Saturn." -- George Rawlinson, historian, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Eastern World, Volume 4: Babylon, 1862-67

"... strange as it may seem to us ... the Babylonians possessed optical instruments of the nature of telescopes, since it is impossible, even in the clear and vapor-less sky of Chaldaea, to discern the faint moons of that distant planet [Saturn] without lenses. A lens, it must be remembered, with a fair magnifying power, has been discovered amongst the Mesopotamian ruins." -- George Rawlinson, historian, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Eastern World, Volume 4: Babylon, 1862-67

"The Babylonians were planet worshippers." -- Drusilla D. Houston, historian, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire, Chapter XIII: The Civilization of Babylonia, 1926

"The Chaldeans must have understood the manufacture of the telescope, for [Austen H.] Layard reported the discovery of a lens of power in the ruins of Babylon. Nero the emperor of Rome had optical glasses from the east." -- Drusilla D. Houston, historian, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire, Chapter XIII: The Civilization of Babylonia, 1926
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