Lost Works of Berosus
Berosus (also spelled Berossus) was a 3rd century BC Chaldean priest who wrote three books in Greek about the creation and the early history of the world. His books are now lost, but fragments have been preserved in citations by other authors. However, it is necessary to distinguish between the authenticated fragments and the so-called "pseudo-Berosus" fragments that are attributed to his name but thought to be fraudulent.
Berosus, the Bablylonian Priest
Berosus was a Chaldean priest of Bel at Babylon who was aquainted with both astronomy and the history of the ancient world. He left Babylon when it was conquered by Alexander the Great and established himself in Asia Minor, on the island of Cos near Rhodes, where he set up an observatory and a school of astronomy. He also spent some time in Athens where he was held in such high esteem that they erected a copper statue in his honour.
As the Greek language spread through Asia, during the Macedonian conquests, there was public interest in the histories that had been preserved by the Babylonians. Berosus, as a Babylonian priest who could speak Greek, was surrounded by an enquiring public who no doubt encouraged him to write his histories.
He wrote his three books, about 290BC, and although they are lost, their contents are known, from the authentic fragments, to have been as follows:
Authentic Citations of Berosus
Berosus is quoted by a number of sources, including the following:
Note: It's possible that Syncellus might have been quoting from Eusebius on some occasions, rather than directly from Abydenus and Polyhistor, but generally there are three generations of documents. The first generation is the work of Berosus himself, the second is Abydenus and Polyhistor, and the third is Josephus, Athenaeus, Clement, Eusebius and Syncellus.
The three books of Berosus, together with the early citations, have disappeared through the ravages of time. The precise circumstances of their loss is not known, but historians are well aware of the processes by which books can become lost. These include war, fire, flood, failure to make copies, failure to preserve the existing copies, and worst of all, lending them out and never getting them back.
The political circumstances surrounding the loss of these books are as follows:
In 290 BC, when Berosus wrote his books, the province of Attica, with Athens as its capital, was a city state according to the Macedonian model. This type of political system had been imposed in 338 BC by King Fillipe II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. Athens had lost some of its former glory, but was nevertheless an important centre of learning and trade, and was a good place for Berosus to write his books (if indeed he wrote them while he was there).
Athens was invaded by the Romans, in 146 BC, together with the rest of Greece. However, this was unlikely to have involved the destruction of books and libraries, because the Romans, although they were conquerors, showed respect for the Greek culture.
In 88 BC, Mithradates VI, king of Pontus, was at war against the Roman territory in the east. The Greeks also rebelled against Rome, with Athens taking the lead. Sulla, the Roman consul, laid siege to Athens, and the city fell in 86 BC. These were the circumstances in which Alexander Polyhistor was taken to Rome as a prisoner. Presumably, he was in Rome when he wrote his citations of Berosus. He may have been allowed to take copies of the books of Berosus with him, or they may have been there already.
In 293 AD, the emperor Diocletian divided the empire into two parts, East and West. Each part was governed by a senior emperor called an "Augustus" and a junior emperor called a "Caesar", making four emperors altogether and the arrangement was called the "Tetrarchy". When an Augustus died or otherwise vacated his office, he would be succeeded by his Caesar, who would become the new Augustus and would appoint another Caesar.
When Constantine was the Augustus of the Western Empire, his Caesar Bassianus rebelled against him. Constantine discovered that the rebellion had been instigated by Licinius, the Augustus of the Eastern Empire and went to war against him. After some indecisive battles and a truce, Constantine finally defeated Licinus in 324 and became the sole ruler of the Empire, hence he was called "Constantine the Great". After a while, he became dissatisfied with Rome as his seat of government and sought another capital city elsewhere. After going to a number of different places, he finally settled on the ancient city of Byzantium and called it Constantinople. This turned out to be a good move, because in 476 the Western Empire collapsed, but the Eastern Empire continued for almost another thousand years and became known as the Byzantine Empire.
The city of Constantinople became very prosperous. It was an important centre of trade, capable of supporting a large population, and there were many churches and places of learning. If there were Greek copies of the works of Berosus in the Eastern Empire at the time of Constantine, they must certainly have been preserved in Constantinople, and they would have been used by Syncellus.
In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Muslims and they called it "Istanbul". Unlike the Romans, they had no regard for the preservation of the literature and the history of other cultures, and many books were burnt. Presumably, some copies of Berosus might have been destroyed at this time. The fall of Constantinople is still a sore point with the Greek people today, and they continue to call it "Constantinopolis".
After the fall of Constantinople, many Greek-speaking intellectuals went to Italy and contributed to the Renaissance, although it is not certain whether they brought with them any useful knowledge of Berosus.
In addition to the authenticated fragments of Berosus, there is another collection of fragments that are less certain and are sometimes called "pseudo-Berosus". They were published in 1498 by a Dominican Friar called Giovanni Nanni, who lived in the town of Viterbo, sometimes called "Viterbe", about 65 miles north of Rome. He is more commonly known as Annius of Viterbo. He also published some fragments of Manetho, an Egyptian historian who was a contemporary of Berosus, but these are equally uncertain and are called "pseudo-Manetho". The two sets of fragments were published together with a commentary and the complete work was called the Antiquities.
The fragments of pseudo-Berosus describe a history of the ancient world, from the Flood to the time of Dardanus, the founder of Troy. These were received with enthusiasm in Italy, because they knew the story of Aeneas who had fled the burning city of Troy and re-established his kingdom in Italy, and they knew the Trojan royal line back to Dardanus, but they could not get back any further. The appearance of these missing fragments of Berosus filled an important gap in their history, and also the history of other nations of Europe who believed that their royal line was somehow descended from Troy.
In 1502, only four years after publishing his antiquities, Annius died, and then in 1504 he was criticised by Petrus Crinitus, who claimed that his work was fraudulent, that it never came from either Berosus or Manetho, and he made it all up. This was followed by similar claims from other people, but Annius was unable to answer any of them because he was already dead. The problem was that the source documents that he was supposed to have used could never be found. For a discussion of the entire affair, together with some fragments of pseudo-Berosus, see Asher (3).
The surprising thing about this story is, not so much the absence of the manuscripts, but the failure on the part of his critics to even ask for them until six years later. If somebody today published a book, claiming that he was in possession of some very ancient manuscripts, the press pack would immediately assemble outside his front door asking to see them. The curators of local and national museums would appear, demanding that the manuscripts should be put on display for everybody to see. Perhaps, in medieval Italy, instead of making the documents available, something different might have happened. The Pope sent a delegation from Rome to Viterbo, which is not very far away, asking to see the manuscripts. Then they bundled them all together and took them to Rome, so they would never see the light of day again. After all, the Vatican prevented people from seeing the Bible for centuries, so why should they not do the same with other important books?
Putting aside the conspiracy theory, the most likely probability is that Annius was indeed a fraudster, and he got away with it because the people around him were far too careless. Having said that, it's not fair to put a dead man on trial, so it has to be an open verdict. His work is called "pseudo-Berosus" because it's attributed to Berosus but nobody knows where it came from.
The next question is, if it's fraudulent, is it worth reading? For the answer to that question, we have to ask the police. They talk to people who are fraudulent all the time, in the hope that they might discover some small but important details that might lead them to the truth. There is one such detail in the "pseudo-Berosus" that needs to be noted. It says that one of the names of Noah was Arsa, and cities were named after him. Now it just happens that there is a city called Urfa, in south-east Turkey, where the inhabitants claim that the ark landed on a nearby hill known as the Cudi Dagh. There is another mountain, further east near Cizre, also called Cudi Dagh, which is more likely to be the ark site, but that doesn't matter. The important thing is that Annius knew something that wasn't in the authenticated fragments of Berosus, so where did he get it from?
Perhaps, after the fall of Constantinople, some of the migrant Greek intellectuals might have told Annius something that they knew from the lost works of Berosus. Perhaps they might have added to it something from the local traditions of the fallen Byzantine Empire. There might have been all sorts of fragments that fell into the hands of Annius, but instead of just telling what he knew, he added to it an elaborate set of fables, giving a complete history from Noah to the foundation of Troy.
The fragmentary citations of Berosus give us much valuable information about the beginning of the world, from the Babylonian point of view, although it is important to distinguish between the authentic citations and the questionable fragments known as "pseudo-Berosus". It is also important to recognise that history is not a science. There is a distinction between truth and falsehood, in the sense that either an event happened or else it didn't happen, but unlike science, we do not have the opportunity to perform repeat experiments. History happens only once, and we have to accept it as it is. We have truth and error, but they both come packaged in varying degrees of mischief.
Some of the material I have discussed here is difficult to obtain through public libraries and bookshops in the UK, and the same is probably true of most other countries. Anyone coming across it by chance would have difficulty finding any other related material, and would require the assistance of academic departments with their specialised libraries. A small amount of knowledge can be a bad thing, especially in a subject like this where half the books are genuine and the other half are fraudulent. The solution is to bring them all up front, out of the dusty old place called "archive", so that we can more easily distinguish between truth and error.
1. Cory, I.P., The Ancient Fragments; containing what remains of the writings of Sanchoniatho, Berossus, Abydenus, Megasthenes, and Manetho; William Pickering, London, 1828. Facsimile reprints from Ballantrae, Ontario, Canada.
2. Hodges, E.R., Cory's Ancient Fragments, A New and Enlarged Edition, Reeves & Turner, London, 1876. Facsimile reprints from Ballantrae, Ontario, Canada.
3. Asher, R.E., National Myths in Renaissance France; Francus, Samothes and the Druids, Edinburgh University Press, 22 George Square, Edinburgh, 1993, ISBN 0-7486-0407-3. Note: It might sound as if this is easy to get in the UK, but it isn't available in the high-street bookshops, even by special order, and it doesn't appear in the public library catalogues (the ones where they order things from other libraries).
Updated March 2002
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