By The Rivers Of Babylon

Much of the eclipse and calendar knowledge spreading from the Middle East to Greece and Rome and thence the rest of Europe stemmed from understandings developed in Mesopotamia between 3000 and 500 B.C.

Mesopotamia is strictly the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In ancient times it was a bountiful shallow valley, the home of several distinct civilizations over the last three millennia B.C. Babylon itself was on the Euphrates, about 60 miles south of modern-day Baghdad. The establishment of the city predates 3000 B.C., and by 2500 B.C. the entire region was united under Babylonian rule.

The early peoples of that region are generally termed the Babylonians, but one should be aware that there were racial and cultural differences as power changed hands from one era to the next. Much of the learning of the melded culture that arose came from the Chaldeans, who originated on the western side of the Euphrates. Near where that river formerly emptied into the Persian Gulf was the city of Ur, the capital of the Sumerians, who lived along the northern fringe of that sea. From east of the Tigris came the Elamites, and from the north of Babylon arose the Akkadians. All these may be subsumed into the overall Babylonian Empire, the heights of which were reached between 2800 and 1700 B.C.

In the following thousand years their power ebbed, while the bellicose Assyrians from farther north became the dominant cul ture, conquering Babylonia in 689 B.C. and destroying much of the city. Thankfully the Assyrians did not obliterate the long-standing astronomical culture of Babylonia. They soon adopted various superstitious practices based upon the belief that celestial phenomena were harbingers of approaching events on Earth. The major developments that led to horoscopic astrology occurred in this era. Comets and vivid shooting stars were interpreted variously as being auspicious or dangerous omens, while eclipses were regarded as being highly significant. An example is the following prophecy from a court astrologer: "On the 14th an eclipse will take place; it is evil for Elam and Amurru, lucky for the king, my lord; let the king, my lord, rest happy. It will be seen without Venus. To the king, my lord, I say: there will be an eclipse. From Irasshi-ilu, the king's servant." Obviously the ruler could be put in a good temper by having an eclipse interpreted in advance as being beneficial (but heaven help the astrologer should, say, the king's favorite horse or dog fall sick that day). Such predictions could be made with an incomplete understanding of eclipse cycles. The astrologers might notice sequences of several lunar eclipses recorded six full moons apart, and once the first in a new series was seen the subsequent events might be calculated. This is a much simpler knowledge than that of the saronic and longer-term cycles. The problem for the astrologers was that they could not anticipate the first eclipse in a series, and that might incur regal displeasure.

Assyrian rule was only temporary. Weakened by various incursions around its periphery, the over-stretched Assyrian Empire succumbed by 606 B.C. to attacks from the resurgent Babylonians and the Medes (the kingdom of Media was to the northeast, towards the Caspian Sea, the northwestern part of modern Iran).

Under the famous king Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled from 604

until 561 B.C., the Babylonian Empire expanded. They rampaged to the west and destroyed the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, leading to the Exile (the captivity of the Jews in Babylonia, 597—538 B.C.). In this climate of astrological belief the Babylonian priesthood who read the signs of the sky became rich and powerful, the regents and generals making decisions based on advice interpreted from celestial phenomena, both of the past and anticipated in the future.

The Babylonian regime was overthrown for the last time, by the Persians, early in the fourth century B.C. When the Jews eventually returned to Judea, they took with them the astronomical knowledge on which the Hebrew calendar is based, with its strict rules for phasing various religious feasts against the Sun and the Moon. They had no time for the astrological deities of the Babylonians, but they did want to know about how the planets moved in the sky. In those days the term planets encompassed all regular moving objects: the Sun and the Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. That makes seven. Our seven-day week derives from the astrological planetary week of the era reinforced by the Jewish Sabbath cycle of seven days.

With their new Persian masters the astrological priesthood in Babylon needed to adapt to preserve their privileged place in society, and to do that they needed to develop a better understanding of how the celestial objects moved. Studies of past eclipse records intensified, and it seems likely that about this time the saros was discovered.

There is direct evidence of this discovery. A fragment of an eclipse list between 373 and 277 B.C. has survived, and it is split into columns covering 223 synodic months; this is the number in a saros. A saros, remember, contains 19 eclipse years, each contain ing two eclipse seasons, making 38 in all. Each of the columns mentioned consists of 38 horizontal lines. It seems that the Babylonian astronomers knew about the saros at least by the third century B.C., and so were able to predict eclipses into the distant future rather than merely short-term runs.

By then the Persian Empire had been overwhelmed by Alexander the Great, and from about 331 B.C. Babylonia was incorporated into the vast empire that had been conjoined through his conquering forays west through Egypt, and then east all the way to India.

Alexander was from Macedonia, the northern part of what we now call Greece, as opposed to Athens and the southern states. His dynasty ruled much of the eastern Mediterranean for some centuries, for example as the Ptolemies in Egypt. The last of them was Cleopatra. After Alexander's death—in Babylon in 323 B.C., at age 33—the lands he had conquered were consolidated into what became known as the Seleucid Empire.

Under Greek hegemony Babylonian astronomy continued to thrive, and the results of observations were relayed back to Greece, to men such as Hipparchus. It was the Babylonian records of eclipses, coupled with his own observations, that enabled Hipparchus to take such major steps forward in determining the cycles of the heavens.

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