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

Book 1, chapter III
Science of Babylonia and Assyria
Throughout classical antiquity Egyptian science was famous. We know that Plato spent some years in Egypt in the hope of penetrating the alleged mysteries of its fabled learning; and the story of the Egyptian priest who patronizingly assured Solon that the Greeks were but babes was quoted everywhere without disapproval. Even so late as the time of Augustus, we find Diodorus, the Sicilian, looking back with veneration upon the Oriental learning, to which Pliny also refers with unbounded respect. From what we have seen of Egyptian science, all this furnishes us with a somewhat striking commentary upon the attainments of the Greeks and Romans themselves. To refer at length to this would be to anticipate our purpose; what now concerns us is to recall that all along there was another nation, or group of nations, that disputed the palm for scientific attainments. This group of nations found a home in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. Their land was named Mesopotamia by the Greeks, because a large part of it lay between the two rivers just mentioned. The peoples themselves are familiar to every one as the Babylonians and the Assyrians. These peoples were of Semitic stock - allied, therefore, to the ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians and of the same racial stem with the Arameans and Arabs.

The great capital of the Babylonians during the later period of their history was the famed city of Babylon itself; the most famous capital of the Assyrians was Nineveh, that city to which, as every Bible- student will recall, the prophet Jonah was journeying when he had a much-exploited experience, the record of which forms no part of scientific annals. It was the kings of Assyria, issuing from their palaces in Nineveh, who dominated the civilization of Western Asia during the heyday of Hebrew history, and whose deeds are so frequently mentioned in the Hebrew chronicles. Later on, in the year 606 B.C., Nineveh was overthrown by the Medes[1] and Babylonians. The famous city was completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Babylon, however, though conquered subsequently by Cyrus and held in subjection by Darius,[2] the Persian kings, continued to hold sway as a great world-capital for some centuries. The last great historical event that occurred within its walls was the death of Alexander the Great, which took place there in the year 322 B.C.

In the time of Herodotus the fame of Babylon was at its height, and the father of history has left us a most entertaining account of what he saw when he visited the wonderful capital. Unfortunately, Herodotus was not a scholar in the proper acceptance of the term. He probably had no inkling of the Babylonian language, so the voluminous records of its literature were entirely shut off from his observation. He therefore enlightens us but little regarding the science of the Babylonians, though his observations on their practical civilization give us incidental references of no small importance. Somewhat more detailed references to the scientific attainments of the Babylonians are found in the fragments that have come down to us of the writings of the great Babylonian historian, Berosus,[3] who was born in Babylon about 330 B.C., and who was, therefore, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. But the writings of Berosus also, or at least such parts of them as have come down to us, leave very much to be desired in point of explicitness. They give some glimpses of Babylonian history, and they detail at some length the strange mythical tales of creation that entered into the Babylonian conception of cosmogony - details which find their counterpart in the allied recitals of the Hebrews. But taken all in all, the glimpses of the actual state of Chaldean[4] learning, as it was commonly called, amounted to scarcely more than vague wonder-tales. No one really knew just what interpretation to put upon these tales until the explorers of the nineteenth century had excavated the ruins of the Babylonian and Assyrian cities, bringing to light the relics of their wonderful civilization. But these relics fortunately included vast numbers of written documents, inscribed on tablets, prisms, and cylinders of terra-cotta. When nineteenth-century scholarship had penetrated the mysteries of the strange script, and ferreted out the secrets of an unknown tongue, the world at last was in possession of authentic records by which the traditions regarding the Babylonians and Assyrians could be tested. Thanks to these materials, a new science commonly spoken of as Assyriology came into being, and a most important chapter of human history was brought to light. It became apparent that the Greek ideas concerning Mesopotamia, though vague in the extreme, were founded on fact. No one any longer questions that the Mesopotamian civilization was fully on a par with that of Egypt; indeed, it is rather held that superiority lay with the Asiatics. Certainly, in point of purely scientific attainments, the Babylonians passed somewhat beyond their Egyptian competitors. All the evidence seems to suggest also that the Babylonian civilization was even more ancient than that of Egypt. The precise dates are here in dispute; nor for our present purpose need they greatly concern us. But the Assyrio-Babylonian records have much greater historical accuracy as regards matters of chronology than have the Egyptian, and it is believed that our knowledge of the early Babylonian history is carried back, with some certainty, to King Sargon of Agade,[5] for whom the date 3800 B.C. is generally accepted; while somewhat vaguer records give us glimpses of periods as remote as the sixth, perhaps even the seventh or eighth millenniums before our era.

At a very early period Babylon itself was not a capital and Nineveh had not come into existence. The important cities, such as Nippur and Shirpurla, were situated farther to the south. It is on the site of these cities that the recent excavations have been made, such as those of the University of Pennsylvania expeditions at Nippur,[6] which are giving us glimpses into remoter recesses of the historical period.

Even if we disregard the more problematical early dates, we are still concerned with the records of a civilization extending unbroken throughout a period of about four thousand years; the actual period is in all probability twice or thrice that. Naturally enough, the current of history is not an unbroken stream throughout this long epoch. It appears that at least two utterly different ethnic elements are involved. A preponderance of evidence seems to show that the earliest civilized inhabitants of Mesopotamia were not Semitic, but an alien race, which is now commonly spoken of as Sumerian. This people, of whom we catch glimpses chiefly through the records of its successors, appears to have been subjugated or overthrown by Semitic invaders, who, coming perhaps from Arabia (their origin is in dispute), took possession of the region of the Tigris and Euphrates, learned from the Sumerians many of the useful arts, and, partly perhaps because of their mixed lineage, were enabled to develop the most wonderful civilization of antiquity. Could we analyze the details of this civilization from its earliest to its latest period we should of course find the same changes which always attend racial progress and decay. We should then be able, no doubt, to speak of certain golden epochs and their periods of decline. To a certain meagre extent we are able to do this now. We know, for example, that King Khammurabi, who lived about 2200 B.C., was a great law-giver, the ancient prototype of Justinian; and the epochs of such Assyrian kings as Sargon II., Asshurnazirpal, Sennacherib, and Asshurbanapal stand out with much distinctness. Yet, as a whole, the record does not enable us to trace with clearness the progress of scientific thought. At best we can gain fewer glimpses in this direction than in almost any other, for it is the record of war and conquest rather than of the peaceful arts that commanded the attention of the ancient scribe. So in dealing with the scientific achievements of these peoples, we shall perforce consider their varied civilizations as a unity, and attempt, as best we may, to summarize their achievements as a whole. For the most part, we shall not attempt to discriminate as to what share in the final product was due to Sumerian, what to Babylonian, and what to Assyrian. We shall speak of Babylonian science as including all these elements; and drawing our information chiefly from the relatively late Assyrian and Babylonian sources, which, therefore, represent the culminating achievements of all these ages of effort, we shall attempt to discover what was the actual status of Mesopotamian science at its climax. In so far as we succeed, we shall be able to judge what scientific heritage Europe received from the Orient; for in the records of Babylonian science we have to do with the Eastern mind at its best. Let us turn to the specific inquiry as to the achievements of the Chaldean scientist whose fame so dazzled the eyes of his contemporaries of the classic world.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.