A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter III
Science of Babylonia and Assyria
Estimates of babylonian science
Before turning from the Oriental world it is perhaps worth while to attempt to estimate somewhat specifically the world-influence of the name, Babylonian science. Perhaps we cannot better gain an idea as to the estimate put upon that science by the classical world than through a somewhat extended quotation from a classical author. Diodorus Siculus, who, as already noted, lived at about the time of Augustus, and who, therefore, scanned in perspective the entire sweep of classical Greek history, has left us a striking summary which is doubly valuable because of its comparisons of Babylonian with Greek influence. Having viewed the science of Babylonia in the light of the interpretations made possible by the recent study of original documents, we are prepared to draw our own conclusions from the statements of the Greek historian. Here is his estimate in the words of the quaint translation made by Philemon Holland in the year 1700:[23]

 "They being the most ancient Babylonians, hold the same station and dignity in the Common-wealth as the Egyptian Priests do in Egypt: For being deputed to Divine Offices, they spend all their Time in the study of Philosophy, and are especially famous for the Art of Astrology. They are mightily given to Divination, and foretel future Events, and imploy themselves either by Purifications, Sacrifices, or other Inchantments to avert Evils, or procure good Fortune and Success. They are skilful likewise in the Art of Divination, by the flying of Birds, and interpreting of Dreams and Prodigies: And are reputed as true Oracles (in declaring what will come to pass) by their exact and diligent viewing the Intrals of the Sacrifices. But they attain not to this Knowledge in the same manner as the Grecians do; for the Chaldeans learn it by Tradition from their Ancestors, the Son from the Father, who are all in the mean time free from all other publick Offices and Attendances; and because their Parents are their Tutors, they both learn every thing without Envy, and rely with more confidence upon the truth of what is taught them; and being train'd up in this Learning, from their very Childhood, they become most famous Philosophers, (that Age being most capable of Learning, wherein they spend much of their time). But the Grecians for the most part come raw to this study, unfitted and unprepar'd, and are long before they attain to the Knowledge of this Philosophy: And after they have spent some small time in this Study, they are many times call'd off and forc'd to leave it, in order to get a Livelihood and Subsistence. And although some, few do industriously apply themselves to Philosophy, yet for the sake of Gain, these very Men are opinionative, and ever and anon starting new and high Points, and never fix in the steps of their Ancestors. But the Barbarians keeping constantly close to the same thing, attain to a perfect and distinct Knowledge in every particular.

"But the Grecians, cunningly catching at all Opportunities of Gain, make new Sects and Parties, and by their contrary Opinions wrangling and quarelling concerning the chiefest Points, lead their Scholars into a Maze; and being uncertain and doubtful what to pitch upon for certain truth, their Minds are fluctuating and in suspence all the days of their Lives, and unable to give a certain assent unto any thing. For if any Man will but examine the most eminent Sects of the Philosophers, he shall find them much differing among themselves, and even opposing one another in the most weighty parts of their Philosophy. But to return to the Chaldeans, they hold that the World is eternal, which had neither any certain Beginning, nor shall have any End; but all agree, that all things are order'd, and this beautiful Fabrick is supported by a Divine Providence, and that the Motions of the Heavens are not perform'd by chance and of their own accord, but by a certain and determinate Will and Appointment of the Gods.

"Therefore from a long observation of the Stars, and an exact Knowledge of the motions and influences of every one of them, wherein they excel all others, they fortel many things that are to come to pass.

"They say that the Five Stars which some call Planets, but they Interpreters, are most worthy of Consideration, both for their motions and their remarkable influences, especially that which the Grecians call Saturn. The brightest of them all, and which often portends many and great Events, they call Sol, the other Four they name Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter, with our own Country Astrologers. They give the Name of Interpreters to these Stars, because these only by a peculiar Motion do portend things to come, and instead of Jupiters, do declare to Men before-hand the good- will of the Gods; whereas the other Stars (not being of the number of the Planets) have a constant ordinary motion. Future Events (they say) are pointed at sometimes by their Rising, and sometimes by their Setting, and at other times by their Colour, as may be experienc'd by those that will diligently observe it; sometimes foreshewing Hurricanes, at other times Tempestuous Rains, and then again exceeding Droughts. By these, they say, are often portended the appearance of Comets, Eclipses of the Sun and Moon, Earthquakes and all other the various Changes and remarkable effects in the Air, boding good and bad, not only to Nations in general, but to Kings and Private Persons in particular. Under the course of these Planets, they say are Thirty Stars, which they call Counselling Gods, half of whom observe what is done under the Earth, and the other half take notice of the actions of Men upon the Earth, and what is transacted in the Heavens. Once every Ten Days space (they say) one of the highest Order of these Stars descends to them that are of the lowest, like a Messenger sent from them above; and then again another ascends from those below to them above, and that this is their constant natural motion to continue for ever. The chief of these Gods, they say, are Twelve in number, to each of which they attribute a Month, and one Sign of the Twelve in the Zodiack.

"Through these Twelve Signs the Sun, Moon, and the other Five Planets run their Course. The Sun in a Years time, and the Moon in the space of a Month. To every one of the Planets they assign their own proper Courses, which are perform'd variously in lesser or shorter time according as their several motions are quicker or slower. These Stars, they say, have a great influence both as to good and bad in Mens Nativities; and from the consideration of their several Natures, may be foreknown what will befal Men afterwards. As they foretold things to come to other Kings formerly, so they did to Alexander who conquer'd Darius, and to his Successors Antigonus and Seleucus Nicator; and accordingly things fell out as they declar'd; which we shall relate particularly hereafter in a more convenient time. They tell likewise private Men their Fortunes so certainly, that those who have found the thing true by Experience, have esteem'd it a Miracle, and above the reach of man to perform. Out of the Circle of the Zodiack they describe Four and Twenty Stars, Twelve towards the North Pole, and as many to the South.

"Those which we see, they assign to the living; and the other that do not appear, they conceive are Constellations for the Dead; and they term them Judges of all things. The Moon, they say, is in the lowest Orb; and being therefore next to the Earth (because she is so small), she finishes her Course in a little time, not through the swiftness of her Motion, but the shortness of her Sphear. In that which they affirm (that she has but a borrow'd light, and that when she is eclips'd, it's caus'd by the interposition of the shadow of the Earth) they agree with the Grecians.

"Their Rules and Notions concerning the Eclipses of the Sun are but weak and mean, which they dare not positively foretel, nor fix a certain time for them. They have likewise Opinions concerning the Earth peculiar to themselves, affirming it to resemble a Boat, and to be hollow, to prove which, and other things relating to the frame of the World, they abound in Arguments; but to give a particular Account of 'em, we conceive would be a thing foreign to our History. But this any Man may justly and truly say, That the Chaldeans far exceed all other Men in the Knowledge of Astrology, and have study'd it most of any other Art or Science: But the number of years during which the Chaldeans say, those of their Profession have given themselves to the study of this natural Philosophy, is incredible; for when Alexander was in Asia, they reckon'd up Four Hundred and Seventy Thousand Years since they first began to observe the Motions of the Stars."

 Let us now supplement this estimate of Babylonian influence with another estimate written in our own day, and quoted by one of the most recent historians of Babylonia and Assyria.[24] The estimate in question is that of Canon Rawlinson in his Great Oriental Monarchies.[25] Of Babylonia he says:

"Hers was apparently the genius which excogitated an alphabet; worked out the simpler problems of arithmetic; invented implements for measuring the lapse of time; conceived the idea of raising enormous structures with the poorest of all materials, clay; discovered the art of polishing, boring, and engraving gems; reproduced with truthfulness the outlines of human and animal forms; attained to high perfection in textile fabrics; studied with success the motions of the heavenly bodies; conceived of grammar as a science; elaborated a system of law; saw the value of an exact chronology - in almost every branch of science made a beginning, thus rendering it comparatively easy for other nations to proceed with the superstructure.... It was from the East, not from Egypt, that Greece derived her architecture, her sculpture, her science, her philosophy, her mathematical knowledge - in a word, her intellectual life. And Babylon was the source to which the entire stream of Eastern civilization may be traced. It is scarcely too much to say that, but for Babylon, real civilization might not yet have dawned upon the earth."

 Considering that a period of almost two thousand years separates the times of writing of these two estimates, the estimates themselves are singularly in unison. They show that the greatest of Oriental nations has not suffered in reputation at the hands of posterity. It is indeed almost impossible to contemplate the monuments of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization that are now preserved in the European and American museums without becoming enthusiastic. That certainly was a wonderful civilization which has left us the tablets on which are inscribed the laws of a Khamurabi on the one hand, and the art treasures of the palace of an Asshurbanipal on the other. Yet a candid consideration of the scientific attainments of the Babylonians and Assyrians can scarcely arouse us to a like enthusiasm. In considering the subject we have seen that, so far as pure science is concerned, the efforts of the Babylonians and Assyrians chiefly centred about the subjects of astrology and magic. With the records of their ghost-haunted science fresh in mind, one might be forgiven for a momentary desire to take issue with Canon Rawlinson's words. We are assured that the scientific attainments of Europe are almost solely to be credited to Babylonia and not to Egypt, but we should not forget that Plato, the greatest of the Greek thinkers, went to Egypt and not to Babylonia to pursue his studies when he wished to penetrate the secrets of Oriental science and philosophy. Clearly, then, classical Greece did not consider Babylonia as having a monopoly of scientific knowledge, and we of to-day, when we attempt to weigh the new evidence that has come to us in recent generations with the Babylonian records themselves, find that some, at least, of the heritages for which Babylonia has been praised are of more than doubtful value. Babylonia, for example, gave us our seven-day week and our system of computing by twelves. But surely the world could have got on as well without that magic number seven; and after some hundreds of generations we are coming to feel that the decimal system of the Egyptians has advantages over the duodecimal system of the Babylonians. Again, the Babylonians did not invent the alphabet; they did not even accept it when all the rest of the world had recognized its value. In grammar and arithmetic, as with astronomy, they seemed not to have advanced greatly, if at all, upon the Egyptians. One field in which they stand out in startling pre- eminence is the field of astrology; but this, in the estimate of modern thought, is the very negation of science. Babylonia impressed her superstitions on the Western world, and when we consider the baleful influence of these superstitions, we may almost question whether we might not reverse Canon Rawlinson's estimate and say that perhaps but for Babylonia real civilization, based on the application of true science, might have dawned upon the earth a score of centuries before it did. Yet, after all, perhaps this estimate is unjust. Society, like an individual organism, must creep before it can walk, and perhaps the Babylonian experiments in astrology and magic, which European civilization was destined to copy for some three or four thousand years, must have been made a part of the necessary evolution of our race in one place or in another. That thought, however, need not blind us to the essential fact, which the historian of science must needs admit, that for the Babylonian, despite his boasted culture, science spelled superstition.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.