There are many points of similarity between Mesopotamia and Egypt, and a few of them will be indicated presently, because this will help the reader to understand both cultures more clearly. To begin with, the background of Egyptian history was relatively simple, the Delta and the narrow Nile valley. Yet that simplicity should not be exaggerated.

There was but one river in Egypt as against two in Mesopotamia, but in both cases there were two seas. In the case of Egypt, there are the Mediterranean in the north and the Red Sea in the east, both seas playing a tremendous part in her history. In the case of Mesopotamia, there are the Persian Gulf in the southeast and the Mediterranean in the west. Most of the historical events happened in the two valleys and the plain stretching between them,¹²² the plain of Shinar often mentioned in the Bible; yet in order to grasp the sequence of those events one must take into account the mountainous country east of the Tigris and the country extending along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline. The two Mesopotamian seas are connected by a semicircular area of fertile land which Breasted has very aptly called the “Fertile Crescent.” As the map (Fig. 15) shows, that Crescent, which unites the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, faces and surrounds the Syrian desert, which might be likened to another sea, albeit a dry one. One does not settle in the desert but one may cross it in various directions.

For a complete recital of ancient Mesopotamia history one needs the whole Crescent as the geographical background, but for the earliest times it suffices to consider the region bordering on the Persian Gulf and the lower courses of the Euphrates and the Tigris, chiefly the former. In those days the Gulf was somewhat longer than it is now and the two rivers reached it separately; since that time it has been gradually shortened by sedimentation. The main difference between the two countries is that Mesopotamia has two rivers for one in Egypt; the courses of those two rivers are very capricious; between them they embrace the Mesopotamian plain, but the Euphrates faces the Syrian desert, while the Tigris valley is dominated in the east by the Persian mountains; both rivers originate from the highlands of Cappadocia and Armenia.

Aside from the dissymmetry of the rivers, there is a curious symmetry between the two countries. Both extend between two seas, and those seas are the same seas, the Mediterranean and the Arabian ones; the two countries are separated by the Syrian desert, or perhaps we should say they are united by the intermediate desert as well as by their common seas.

Fig. 15. Sketch map of the Near and Middle East in ancient times. What Breasted called the Fertile Crescent is the zone following the Mediterranean coast of Phoenicia (Lebanon and Syria), rejoining the middle course of the Euphrates, sweeping all along Mesopotamia (the country between the Two Rivers) to the Persian Gulf. It lies south of the highland zone of Anatolia and surrounds the Syrian desert. It has the general shape of a crescent and includes all the fertile lands of that territory. The main point is that the Fertile Crescent connected the Arabian Sea with the Mediterranean; it joined Mesopotamia (Persia, India, etc.) on the one hand with Egypt, the Phoenician and Aegean worlds on the other. (Drawn by Erwin Raisz.)

The earliest records of Mesopotamian civilization come from the country of Sumer between the two rivers close to the Gulf’s head, but it must have involved other people than those who were settled in that plain. One can never be sure of how and where a civilization began because the earliest documents available to us never represent the beginning, but a stage which is somewhat later and may be considerably later. Did the Mesopotamian culture begin in Sumer? or was it brought there from higher lands up the rivers or to the east of them?

When a new culture develops in a geographical background like the Mesopotamian one, we must fully expect a three-cornered conflict between the bearers of that culture settled in towns, the nomadic people moving across the desert and along the edge of cultivated lands, and finally the mountaineers, who are used to a harder life than the people living in the plains and never cease to covet the latter’s ease and chattels. The relations of the Sumerians to the two other groups are but imperfectly known to us. In some of the earliest texts they speak with contempt of the nomads as “the people who do not know houses and who do not cultivate wheat.”¹²³ It is clear that those early Sumerians did not view themselves as cultural upstarts but were already reminiscent of a past too deep to be fathomed. Long before 3000 B.C. they had already reclaimed the marshes in the lowlands near the Gulf and along the lower Euphrates. They had learned to drain the land and at the same time to irrigate it by means of canals, the traces of which can still be seen from airplanes. They cultivated barley and spelt (as the Egyptians did) and had domesticated cattle, goats, and sheep; they used oxen or donkeys to draw wheeled chariots. No stones being available to them, they built houses of mud bricks dried in the sun (adobe).

The Sumerians were very different from the Semitic people,¹²⁴ living higher up between the rivers; at any rate their language was not a Semitic language; neither was it Aryan. It is possible that they originated in the Elamite plateau east of the Tigris. Their origin in higher lands is inferred from the fact that they used the same word for mountain and country, and from similar facts equally suggestive yet unconvincing. We need not concern ourselves with the origins of the Sumerians and with their culture prior to their settlement in Sumer. As soon as we hear of them we find them flourishing in a Copper-Age pattern, and, as we shall see presently, they were astonishingly advanced in many respects.

They were conscious of the great antiquity of their culture, and like other nations (for example, the Chinese and the Japanese) they had rationalized their beliefs by the fabrication of a long mythological history (this was done by them as early as 2000 B.C. if not earlier). One of their sacred legends relates to a flood, which may have been a real flood or tidal wave in the Gulf region and may be identical with the Biblical flood. They postulated the existence of a number of antediluvian kings, each of whom ruled for many thousands of years. With the dynasties that held sway after the flood we are on surer ground, and archaeological discoveries have substantiated the reality of one after another. Sir Charles Leonard Woolley’s excavation of Ur, the Biblical “Ur of the Chaldees,” birthplace of Abraham, aroused the world’s attention. The first dynasty of Ur became tangible. Sumerian cities had time to develop not only in Ur, but also in Kish, Erech, Nippur, Larsa, Eridu, Lagash, Umma, Tello, and elsewhere. Our knowledge of those cities is not legendary or fanciful, but is based on scientific excavations; each of those places is now known with a fair amount of detail. The archaeological discoveries harmonize with the information culled from Sumerian or later texts.

In the meanwhile Semitic people had developed their own culture higher up between the rivers, in the region called Accad. Led by their king Sharrukin (Sargon, 2637–2582), the Accadians subjugated the Sumerians and created the united kingdom of Sumer and Accad. The Sumerian culture was far superior to the Accadian and continued to be for millennia the dominating one; the Sumerians conquered their conquerors.¹²⁵

Sargon’s followers lacked his strength and the southern country soon regained its independence from the northern one, yet Sumer and Accad remained united. The Accadian dynasty was followed by many others, and the kings styling themselves “Kings of Sumer and Accad” were drawn from both races.

A new climax occurred when the sixth king of the Amurru¹²⁶ dynasty, Hammurabi (1728–1686) became the supreme ruler of Mesopotamia. His capital was Babylon and he gave so much luster to it that the whole country was later called Babylonia and the name of Sumer was almost forgotten. When one speaks of Babylonian culture one thinks primarily of the time of Hammurabi, which was its golden age. Moreover, we know that illustrious ruler very well, not only because of his code but also because of other inscriptions and of his correspondence; fifty-five of his own letters have come down to us.¹²⁷ The Babylonians used the Accadian or Babylonian, a Semitic, language, but had not forgotten the Sumerian. Indeed, Sumerian was to them a kind of sacred language, which educated people must know, just as we must know Greek and Latin (or rather much more, for alas! we have ceased to feel that obligation).

The Babylonian peace established by Hammurabi did not last very long, for the fight between the peoples of the plains and those of the mountains continued. His power was broken by Easterners who brought horses with them. There follows a period of chaos and stagnation which lasted until the consolidation of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century. The name of Assyria then replaced that of Babylonia. Because of the accident that Assyrian documents were the first to be investigated, the scholars engaged in the study of Mesopotamian antiquities are called to this day “Assyriologists,” in spite of the fact that many of them restrict themselves to pre-Assyrian times and that the dominating culture remained the Sumerian one.

To be sure, the original Sumerian culture was modified in many ways by the Babylonian and later by the Assyrian invaders. Not only that, but during the second millennium, if not before, Egyptian influences spread to Mesopotamia through the western side of the Fertile Crescent; that cultural invasion was especially vigorous during the period when the Egyptians dominated the Near East (sixteenth to twelfth centuries). As far as we, modern onlookers, are concerned, the Egyptian pattern was long more obvious and more familiar than the Mesopotamian one, so much so that for a long time we thought only or chiefly of ancient Egypt. The immense stone monuments of Egypt could never be overlooked, while the adobe cities of Mesopotamia disappeared one after another almost completely (dust unto dust) leaving underground ruins that could not be interpreted without difficult research. Moreover, Egyptian archaeology began half a century earlier than the Mesopotamian one.

The Tell al-‘Am rna tablets — cuneiform tablets in the Babylonian language discovered in the Nile valley — revealed in detail the relations established about the middle of the second millennium between Egypt and the nations of Western Asia. They prove that the Babylonian language had become at that time the language of international diplomacy. This was not due to power, for the Egyptians were then stronger than the Babylonians, but to tradition (much as the French language continued to be the language of diplomacy long after French hegemony had ceased to be a reality).

The kings of Mesopotamia were also involved in many dealings and struggles with their northwestern neighbors, inhabiting the mountain lands of Anatolia and Armenia — the Hurrians who had moved westward from the Lake Van region and had eventually come together with the Hittites under the kings of Mitanni. The Hurrians overran the territory of the Hittites, even the latter’s capital, Bo-gh zköy (90 miles east of Ankara), and they moved southward along the Syrian coast as far as the land of Edom, south of the Dead Sea. Traces of their settlements have been found in Ras Shamr , Jerusalem, and farther south. They were possibly involved with the mysterious Hycsos, who invaded Egypt in the period 1788-1580. The kings of Mitanni had Indo-Iranian origins and swore by Indra, Mithra, and other such gods. The Hittites, as far as we can judge from their language, had also some Indo-Iranian connections. The main Hurrian achievement was the introduction of horse-drawn war chariots, possibly from India.

The story which we have been obliged to tell so rapidly is tantalizing, for it evokes all kinds of cultural contacts between the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and many other nations of Western Asia on the one hand and the nations of Iran and India on the other. On account of their position at the head of the Persian Gulf it is highly probable that the early Sumerians were in touch with India. Further study of the prehistoric civilization of the Indus valley (Mohenjo-daro, Harappa) and decipherment of their writing may substantiate that claim, which at present rests only on similarities between Sumerian and Hindu seals.¹²⁸

In spite of all those outside influences, of which the Egyptian was the greatest, the Mesopotamian culture preserved its high originality for a very long period of time, say three millennia. That civilization, let me repeat once more, had been so deeply marked by the Sumerian pioneers that it remained until the end Sumerian, as our civilization is Greco-Latin, or as the Japanese one is Chinese.

For general reference, see Leonard William King, History of Sumer and Akkad from prehistoric times to the foundation of the Babylonian monarchy (404 pp., 34 pls., 69 figs., 12 maps; London, 1910); History of Babylon from the foundation of the monarchy to the Persian conquest (364 pp., 32 pls., 72 figs., 18 maps; London, 1915); Bruno Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien (2 vols.; Heidelberg, 1920–1925) (Isis 8, 195–198 (1926)]; Georges Contenau, Manuel d’archéologie orientale (3 vols., Paris, 1927–1931) [Isis20, 474–478 (1933–34)].


It has already been observed that two essentially different languages were used in Mesopotamia — the Sumerian and later the Accadian. Sumerian is neither Semitic nor Aryan, but an agglutinative language inviting comparison with Mongolian, Japanese, or Chinese ¹²⁹ yet distinct from them and from any other Asiatic language. Accadian, on the contrary, is definitely a Semitic language, coming close to Hebrew — so close, indeed, that Accadian readings have enabled us to understand Biblical words more clearly. It is known in various dialectal forms which are called Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldean, but this is the affair of philologists. We are primarily concerned with the fact that there was in Mesopotamia as well as in Egypt a conflict between two languages one of which was Semitic. This comparison — like every comparison with Egypt — does not go very far. The linguistic situation was very different in the two countries. In Egypt the conflict was soon ended by assimilation, the earliest records already revealing the existence of a single language, partly Hamitic, partly Semitic. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian language was commonly used until the end of the third millennium, then displaced gradually by various Eastern Semitic languages, closely related, Accadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldean. The Sumerian language was completely free from Semitic features, but the Semitic dialects preserved many Sumerian elements.

Now all those languages were written in a special script which was called cuneiform because it is composed of wedge-shaped signs (cuneus = wedge). That script was invented by the Sumerians. Was that invention independent of the Egyptian one? Before trying to answer the question, it should be made clear that the transmission of an invention can be understood in two very different ways, according to whether one thinks of the invention in general or of its technical aspect. The general idea in this case is that the spoken language can be exactly represented, standardized, and perpetuated by means of written signs. That idea has occurred independently to many nations. In its earliest stage it is natural and simple enough. Pictographic symbols may easily serve as reminders of ideas or facts. Such symbols have been used by American Indians, Hindus, Chinese, Sumerians, Egyptians, and others. We still use some; the skull and bones of our drug bottles requires no interpretation. However, intelligent people must have realized sooner or later that that method was seldom free from ambiguity, and that its scope was narrowly limited. It does not permit the graphical representation of abstractions, or feelings, or proper names (the names of individuals or of places). As to the technical implementation of the idea, the Egyptian and Sumerian methods are so different that we may be certain neither nation influenced the other.

Fig. 16. Development of cuneiform. [From Leonard William King, The Assyrian language (London, 1901), p. 4.] Note that the resemblance of signs to things is greater when the characters are looked at from the right (for example, No. 3).

The Sumerians (or some unknown predecessors of theirs) did not start their experiments with cuneiform symbols. Like the Chinese and the Egyptians they began with pictographs, some of which have been preserved (Fig. 16). Later they used the so-called line characters derived from the early pictures. That was natural enough as long as writing remained an exceptional performance, and the characters might be inscribed, let us say, on hard rocky surfaces. When writing became more popular and more frequent, the problem necessarily arose of finding a suitable material to write upon. The Egyptians, we may recall, found an admirable one — papyrus. The Sumerians, taking advantage of an inexhaustible supply of clay in Lower Mesopotamia, invented the use of clay tablets for writing purposes. They found that it was possible to make quickly long series of marks on soft fresh clay with a reed, and that the marks were fixed as soon as the clay was dry and remained clearly visible for an indefinite length of time; the process could be improved by baking the tablets. However, the scribe writing on clay had not by any means the same freedom as his Egyptian colleague writing on glossy papyrus. The latter was like a painter or draftsman; the former could only make two or three kinds of signs or wedges. The cuneiform script was an unavoidable consequence of the choice of clay as writing material.

The Sumerian script was based on the use of some 350 syllabic signs; it never reached a truly alphabetic stage, even in a limited way, as was the case for Egyptian. The Semitic followers of the Sumerians used the same script, adapting it to their own language, and sometimes preserving Sumerian words as ideograms. The evolution of cuneiform is comparable to that of Chinese and Egyptian in two ways. In the first place, the same needs introduced the addition of phonetic complements (suggesting the pronunciation) and of determinatives never pronounced (suggesting the meaning, the “class”) . In the second place, as the speed of writing increased, the characters were necessarily simplified; various forms of cursive or shorthand changed the appearance of the script profoundly.¹³⁰

To the uninitiated, cuneiform writing seems very clumsy and very hard to read, yet it must have merits of its own, for in spite of many political vicissitudes it remained the standard script in Mesopotamia, almost until the time of Christ, that is, for a period of more than three millennia. It was used by different nations, and for the expression of languages as unrelated as Sumerian on the one hand and the Eastern Semitic dialects on the other. Nor was it restricted to the peoples of Mesopotamia. It spread to the countries east of the Tigris and to those north and west of the two rivers.

Let us quote a few examples. The largest of the Am rna tablets is a letter written by one Tushratta, King of Mitanni, to Amenhotep III (1411–1375); that letter is not written in Babylonian but in Hurrian; incidentally, it is the longest Hurrian text thus far known to us. Many thousands of cuneiform tablets have been found in Bogh zköy and other Anatolian sites. The most ancient of those tablets were written in Accadian (or Babylonian), but later ones (say by 1400) were written by those Anatolians in their own language, Hittite. From Bogh zköy have come syllabaries or dictionaries, giving in parallel columns equivalent words in Hittite, Sumerian, and Accadian; some tablets (relatively few) contain Hurrian texts, but the majority are Hittite. The Hittite influence was recognized as far as Egypt; witness a treaty made between one of their kings and Ramses II (1292–1225). Two tablets have come down to us, one bearing the original Babylonian text of that treaty, the other a translation of it in hieroglyphics. The most interesting Hittite text thus far discovered is a treatise on horse training of the fourteenth century; we shall come back to that presently.¹³¹

The outstanding merit of cuneiform writing was its peculiar adaptation to clay; hence, wherever clay tablets were used cuneiform went with them. Such was the case in Anatolia, and also in Elam east of the lower Tigris, where cuneiform was the standard script from very early times on. The inertia of tradition preserved the use of cuneiform script, even in the relatively exceptional cases when writing was done on other materials than clay, for example, in monumental rock inscriptions or on standard weights. The Achaimenian inscriptions, thanks to which the cuneiform enigma was penetrated, were written in three columns and represented three separate languages — Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite — but a single script.¹³²

To return to earlier times and to conclude, before the end of the fifteenth century Babylonian had become the language, and cuneiform the script, of diplomacy. The language was popular but the script much more so. It was used to transcribe not only the Babylonian language of the day, but the old Sumerian, and the dialects of a number of foreign nations, Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, Phoenician, and others. Cuneiform tablets bearing texts in one or the other of those languages were scattered over Western Asia.

Any one remembering that that part of the world was the cradle of some of the most precious features of our own civilization, our cradle, cannot help being deeply moved when he observes the intense miscegenation that had already taken place there before the year 1000 B.C. (indeed long before that date), the multiplicity of languages together with the unity of script.


Cuneiform inscriptions on stone or other materials than clay are relatively rare; the great mass of the cuneiform texts were preserved on clay tablets. We have already indicated that the popularity of that writing material, clay, determined the popularity of the cuneiform script. It is worth while to consider the tablets themselves a little more carefully. Clay was abundant and cheap, the making of tablets exceedingly simple, much more so than that of papyrus. Moreover, the clay tablets left to themselves were practically indestructible even when unbaked. The inviolability of certain documents was secured by placing them in clay envelopes; clay shrinks considerably in drying and the document could not be extracted from the envelope without breaking the latter; nor could a fresh envelope be placed on a preshrunk tablet.¹³³ Note that the durability of papyrus was due not so much to the material itself as to the dry climate of Egypt; if papyrus had been employed in Mesopotamia, nothing would have remained of it. Large numbers of tablets were used for the preservation of documents of every kind, public and private. Many thousands of them prior to c. 1500 are available in our museums, and the number of later ones that have been rescued is so large that a long time will elapse before they are all interpreted.

Clay did not lend itself to calligraphy as papyrus did, and cuneiform script never became a definite branch of art as did the writing of hieroglyphics. What is worse, clay dries out quickly and a tablet had to be written all at one time;¹³⁴ the majority of tablets were relatively small. Longer texts, such as annals, might be written on the outside surfaces of hollow polyhedra of clay (cylinders or prisms with hexagonal, heptagonal, or octogonal bases), but the usual method was to write them on many tablets.

Both the Egyptians and the Sumerians invented writing and they developed their invention and utilized it on a large scale. The former, being favored by a more convenient material, made an additional invention, the roll or the book, thanks to which a text, however long, could be preserved in its entirety. The Sumerians were not so fortunate. A few long texts they wrote on large polyhedra or on a huge block of stone (like the code of Hammurabi), but it is clear that even in those cases they did not provide the equivalent of a book. In the majority of cases, a long text was written on as many independent tablets as were needed. In order to insure their proper sequence the scribes would write at the bottom of each tablet “table x of series y” and add the opening line of the following tablet, yet that did not suffice to preserve the integrity of the text. Papyrus rolls have generally been found complete,¹³⁵ but the tablets constituting a text have almost never reached us in due order. The tablets have been shuffled and reshuffled, some have been lost or widely separated from the others;¹³⁶ and the reconstruction of the text is like the solving of a jigsaw puzzle of fantastic complexity.

Their failure to invent the book may have caused Sumerians to develop more rapidly the creation of archives and libraries. We must assume that there existed collections of papyrus rolls in Egyptian temples and palaces, but the keeping of tablets in good order was even more urgent than the collection of whole books; hence it is highly probable that archives and libraries existed very early in Mesopotamia. To put it briefly (too briefly), we might say that the Egyptians invented books, while the Sumerians invented record office!

An enormous “library” was excavated by American archaeologists at Nippur, and many thousands of tablets found there are now in the museums of Constantinople and Philadelphia. The majority of the tablets were unbaked and therefore less well preserved than baked ones would be and more difficult to decipher, yet they have finally revealed to us a number of literary and scientific texts which, because of their great antiquity, are of unsurpassed interest. Nippur was one of the most famous centers of Sumerian religion and its temple dedicated. to the great god Enlil¹³⁷ was a conservatory of early traditions. The tablets of the library seem to have been generally arranged on shelves made of clay and about 18 in. wide. Connected with the temple was not only that library or record office, but also a school,¹³⁸ and many model texts prepared by the teachers and exercises written by the students have been discovered among its ruins. This enables us to understand how the cuneiform script and Sumerian formulas were taught to the young. An actual schoolhouse of Hammurabi’s time has been unearthed which was claimed to be the earliest in existence. This may be true if we take “schoolhouse” in a technical sense, a house definitely meant for teaching purposes, but we may be certain that there were already schools before Hammurabi (in Egypt as well as in Sumer), though even if they were excavated there might be nothing to prove their reality. Any room might be used for a schoolroom and the children might even be taught in the open air; all that was needed was a few tablets illustrating the signs, words, or formulas to be copied and memorized, a lump of fresh clay, and a bundle of reeds.

The evocation of schools and libraries suggests that the invention of writing had another purpose than the preservation of records, a deeper purpose, which escaped the attention of the average scribe but must have exercised the minds of the early “philologists,” That purpose was the preservation, correction, and standardization of the language itself. As long as the language remains unwritten, it is bound to fluctuate rather rapidly, and perhaps too rapidly. Writing helps to fix it. The invention of writing must be conceived as a very long process. The fundamental idea is simple enough, but, however great the intelligence of the early “philologists” who tried to realize it, they could not possibly imagine at once all the difficulties nor the means of overcoming them. The very process of reducing a language to writing introduces philological problems and may awaken a kind of philological consciousness in the mind of a few men of genius. Those early grammarians, who may have been also the early schoolmasters (for teaching a subject has always been one of the best ways of mastering it), compiled lists of classified words which are the prototypes of our dictionaries. Such lists have been found in the Sumerian site of Erech (Warka), dating from before 3000 B.C. The Semitic invaders compiled more elaborate lists containing the Sumerian words and their Accadian equivalents, and made investigations on the morphology and syntax of those languages. We have already referred to Hittite glossaries, which continued the same tendencies in a neighboring country, The fact that the Accadian, Babylonian, or Hittite grammarians were using simultaneously two or more languages, the structure of which was absolutely different, must have quickened their philologic sensitiveness.¹³⁹

In spite of many statements to the contrary, we must say that philology is not one of the latest sciences, but rather one of the earliest. How else could it be? No scientific work of any kind could ever be published without a linguistic tool of sufficient exactitude; the common people created the language, but philologists were needed almost from the beginning in order to standardize it, to refine it, and to increase its precision. It is possible that one of the differences between the peoples who gradually developed a high civilization and those who did not lies in the fact that the first were not satisfied very long with a traditional and unconscious language, but were eager to analyze it and to use it deliberately and exactly. Philologic consciousness was a part, an essential part, of scientific curiosity; in some nations this curiosity and that consciousness were more highly developed than in others. Those nations were our spiritual ancestors.


Having obtained some idea of the instruments, physical (tablets) and mental (philology), let us see how they were applied to the understanding of the world and the enrichment of knowledge. Everything considered, the best expression to designate that body of knowledge is “Babylonian science,” for fhe bulk of our information comes from Babylonian tablets. These tablets reflect Sumerian knowledge as explained and transformed by Accadian (Babylonian) scribes. We might call that science Mesopotamian, or speak of the science of Sumer and Accad, but that would be cumbrous and on the whole less evocative than to call it “Babylonian.” The essential point is to bear always in mind the Sumerian origin and coloring of that science.

The scientific tablets are generally undated and undatable, except when their exact provenance is known, as when they were found by scientific excavators at a definite level. Unfortunately, a great many of the tablets available to scholars have been obtained through clandestine diggings. In the case of astronomical tablets the dating of the original text (not necessarily of the tablet) may sometimes be determined from internal evidence. With regard to mathematics, there is only a little fragment of a Sumerian text; the majority of the problems are Old Babylonian,¹⁴⁰ the rest are Seleucid (that is, of the last three centuries B.C.).

Many misunderstandings have been caused by careless scholars¹⁴¹ dealing in the same chapters or even in the same paragraphs, with Old Babylonian texts, definitely pre-Hellenic, and with Seleucid ones, post-Hellenic. Let us repeat once more that the whole of Greek science (as opposed to Hellenistic and Roman science) was developed in a period of time that was not only preceded but followed by Mesopotamian (and Egyptian) activities. If we replaced time by space, we might visualize Greek science as a small island surrounded by an Oriental sea. Our readers will be protected against such grave misunderstandings, for the Seleucid tablets, belonging to the Hellenistic age, will not be discussed at all, not only in this chapter, but not even in this volume. With the exception of occasional brief references to later tablets, all the documents examined in this chapter represent the old Sumerian-Babylonian culture, considerably older than the beginning of Greek science.


The number of mathematical clay tablets that have thus far been deciphered is not very large — some sixty — to which must be added some two hundred containing tables. Moreover, the majority (say two-thirds) of those tablets are of very late date (Seleucid). Hence, we have less than a hundred tablets to represent ancient Babylonian mathematics. Almost all these tablets, having come to us from clandestine excavations, are undatable except in a very indirect and imperfect manner. Moreover, we have no treatise or textbook comparable to the Rhind papyrus. This may be due to the fact, already explained, that publication on clay tablets discour. aged the composition of long texts, while the papyrus roll tended to encourage them. Or, if textbooks were written,¹⁴³ they have not come to us. Not only were tablets forming a series dispersed but even single tablets were sometimes broken into fragments. The student of Babylonian mathematics is thus much less fortunate than his colleague investigating Egyptian mathematics.

Sumerian numeration was at first a strange mixture of decimal and sexagesimal ideas. It would seem that their earliest mathematicians started with a decimal base but soon afterwards realized that a sexagesimal base would be bitter.¹⁴⁴ That change of mind, which must have been deliberate, is in itself very remarkable. The sexagesimal system was not pure, the successive orders being obtained by the alternate use of the factors 10 and 6, thus: 1, 10, 60, 600, 3600, 36000, etc. (Fig. 17). The variety of numerical symbols being restricted by the cuneiform script, they had only two separate elementary signs for numerals: ∇ for 1 and for 10, but the first sign was used not only for 1 but also for 60 and for every power of 60, and the second was used not only for 10 but also for ten times any power of 60. Thus we may write ∇ = 60” and = 10 × 60”, where n is any positive or negative integer or zero. The system of numeration was thus mainly sexagesimal, for the symbol for 10 was subordinate and there was no symbol for 100, 1000, . . . One hundred would be written 1,40; one thousand, 16,40.¹⁴⁵

The absolute value of a number could be determined only from the context. The Sumerians had discoverer the principle of position and hence, if in a given number the absolute value of one place was known, the value of other places could be deduced. However, they had no medial zero until late (Seleucid) times; the absence of units of a certain order was indicated by an empty space and this was unclear and precarious. Those ambiguities increase materially the difficulty of deciphering mathematical tablets.

A number like abcdef (without empty spaces) is to be interpreted as a (60)n + b (60) n−1 + c(60)n−2 + d(60)n−3 + e(60)n−4 + f(60)n−5, wherein n may be null or have any positive or negative integral value. In general, the questions dealt with, or the sequence of operations, would suppress or reduce the ambiguities. The large size of the base 60 also helped to restrict the reader’s choice, for there would be such a tremendous difference between, let us say, a length of 7 cubits and one of 420 cubits or 25,200 cubits that one or the other was indubitably meant.

Fig. 17. Sumerian numerals. [From H. V. Hilprecht, The Babylonian expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A, Cuneiform texts (Philadelphia, 1906), vol. 20, part 1, p. 26.]

Imperfect as it was, the Sumerian system implied a degree of arithmetical abstraction that is astounding. It is impossible to reconstruct the genesis of their discovery. Were they calculators of genius who devised such a system out of long experience, or did the system stimulate their efforts in the direction of computations of increasing complexity and of algebraic experiments? Perhaps it worked both ways, as it always does in the development of science: new abstractions suggest new experiments, and vice versa.

The oldest Sumerian tablets contain all kinds of numerical tables: tables of multiplication, tables of squares and cubes which being inverted gave tables of square roots and cube roots, tables of reciprocals. If one reads such a table consecutively there is little room for ambiguity. For example,

The square of 1 is 1,

The square of 2 is 4,

The square of 3 is 9,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The square of 8 is 1, 4 (meaning 60+4),

The square of 60 is 60 (meaning 60²).

That is easy enough. But what happened to the computers who consulted a single item of the table? They had to be careful, that is all, and not consider one item without the neighboring ones. They might read “The square of 59 is 58,1”; this must mean (60×58) + 1, for the square of 59 must be just a little smaller than the square of 60. ”The cube of 59 is 57,2,59”; this cannot but mean (60²×57) + (60×2) +59.

The table of reciprocals, which are numerous and extensive, are specially interesting. Having discovered the use of fractions built on the same pattern as the integers, they had thus by a precocious stroke of genius suppressed most of the fractions. Sexagesimal fractions, they had realized, were only a kind of sexagesimal integers not essentially different from them (just as decimal fractions are simply a kind of decimal integers, though there are educated and intelligent people now living who cannot yet see that!). However, sexagesimals did not suppress every fraction. What about such fractions as ½, , , not to speak of more complex ones? The circumstances of life would unavoidably introduce nonsexagesimal fractions. What was one to do with them? One might reduce them to sexagesimals but that was not always possible. Giving us another proof of their genius for arithmetical creation, the Sumerians replaced the consideration of fractions by that of reciprocals; or, to put it otherwise, reciprocals enabled them to replace every division by a multiplication. The third of sixty is twenty; they said the reciprocal of 3 is 20; to divide by three (to take one-third) can be replaced by multiplication by twenty. The base 60, having an extraordinarily large number of factors (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30), lent itself so well to reciprocal calculation that one cannot help wondering once more whether the Sumerians did not use that base for the very reason that it has so large a number of factors. Their use of reciprocals was so habitual to them that they sometimes complicated their reckoning needlessly because of it. The third of 6 cubits they would say is 6×20 = 120 = 2 cubits. Or, having to find the square of 12, they took the reciprocal of 12, which is 5; squared 5, which is 25, and took the reciprocal of 25, which is 2,24; the final result is correct but might have been obtained more easily. This is a well-known mathematical foible; its existence gives us an additional proof that the Sumerians were real mathematicians; they were carried away by their abstractions to such an extent that they sometimes forgot simpler methods.

The example just quoted ¹⁴⁶ involved very small numbers, but the Sumerians extended their tables of reciprocals to very large ones, up to the order of 60¹⁹.

Among the powers of 60, one occurs very frequently in the old tables, namely, 60’ = 12,960,000. Now this is the geometric number of Plato,¹⁴⁷ and 12,960,000 days = 36,000 years of 360 days, the “great Platonic year” (the duration of a Babylonian cycle). A man’s life of 100 years¹⁴⁸ contains 36,000 days, as many days as there are years in the “great year.” The “geometric number,” that is, a number measuring or governing the earth and life on earth, was thus clearly of Babylonian origin.¹⁴⁹

Not only did the Sumerians use a positional notation (though without zero) and extend it to submultiples of the base as well as to multiples, but their number system was closely connected with the subdivision of weights and measures. That is, they had devised a complete sexagesimal system before 2000 B.C.; in order to appreciate their genius it will suffice to recall that the extension of the same ideas to the decimal system was only conceived in 1585 (by the Fleming Simon Stevin),¹⁵⁰ that its implementation was begun only during the French Revolution and is not yet completed today. The old Sumerians were more consistent than are many of our own contemporaries who persist in defending English metrology in a decimal world. Having realized that, it becomes a little difficult to consider the former as primitives or the latter as truly civilized.

How can one account for the sexagesimal basis and Sumerian precocity? One way of explaining the matter, as far as it can be explained at all, is to say that the Sumerian metrology and the Sumerian number system harmonize so well because they grew together. It is hard to believe that the Sumerians would have selected the base 60 on purely mathematical grounds; it is easier to assume that their metrological practice suggested that base. Indeed, when one measures things one cannot help coming across many parts of the chosen standard; fractions come in willy-nilly and one may be thus led to take as standard (of length, weight, and number) a unit accommodating as many fractions as possible. The natural relation between fractions and metrology is illustrated by the Roman system; the as or libra divided into twelve unciae suggested the fractions most commonly used by the Romans. That was very neat, the only trouble being that the as introduced a duodecimal system in a decimal numeration. The Sumerians’ natural genius precluded that fundamental blunder; they used sexagesimal fractions and a sexagesimal metrology together with a sexagesimal system of integers.

The sexagesimal base was strangely reinforced in the course of time by the occurrence of another unit six times as large. The Sumerians thought at first (like the earliest Egyptians) that there were 360 days in the year.¹⁵¹ They began by dividing the days into six watches (three day watches and three night ones, which were naturally of varying length),¹⁵² but they soon realized the impracticality of unequal time periods for astronomical work and divided the whole day (day and night, nychth meron) into 12 equal hours of 30 gesh each.¹⁵³ That is, their astronomical day was divided into 360 equal parts. There were thus 360 days in the year and 360 gesh in the day; the same division into 360 parts was applied later to parallels, and later still (in Achaemenian times, c. 558–330) to the ecliptic (zodiac, dodec-atemories). ¹⁵⁴ We divide the circle into 360 degrees to this day, and subdivide the degrees on a sexagesimal basis, because of the Sumerian mathematicians who flourished more than two millennia before Christ.¹⁵⁵

The reader has already observed that there are three confluent sources of Babylonian mathematics — arithmetic, metrology, and astronomy. We shall come back to the last-named one presently. Metrology is the daughter of business; selling and buying imply the existence of unit prices and the practice of measuring and weighing. Innumerable tablets are simply business documents, the mathematical structure of which is sometimes very instructive. In a Louvre tablet (AO 6770) of c. 2000 B.C. there is a problem ¹⁵⁶ to find how long it would take for a sum of money to double itself at compound interest, interest being computed at 20 percent. The problem as we would put it is to find x in the equation (1 + 0;12)x = 2. The correct result, 3;48 (3 years and 4/5), was duly obtained by the Sumerian computer! If he thus succeeded in solving an exponential equation, we shall not be surprised to hear that he was able to solve other equations. He certainly did solve linear equations, simultaneous linear equations with many unknown quantities, and quadratic and cubic equations. For the quadratic he seems to have known a formula comparable to our own. Neugebauer has suggested that even some cubics were reduced to a normal form, and that a table ¹⁵⁷ gave the values of n² + n³ for such a purpose. This may be going a little too far. From the examples that have come to us, we can only conclude that the Sumerian computer was able to solve some cubic equations. But even if he had done nothing but solve quadratic equations as generally as he did, as well as systems of two quadratics with two unknowns, we would already have sufficient reason for admiring him.

In spite of the fact that he had no equations and no symbolism of any kind ¹⁵⁸ (not even a symbol for the unknown quantity), his algebraic ingenuity was such that he was able to do the equivalent of many processes familiar to us, such as reduction of similar terms, elimination of one unknown quantity by substitution, introduction of an auxiliary unknown quantity. Moreover, in spite of the complete absence of algebraic symbolism he was aware of the identity which we express (a + b)² = a² + 2ab + b² and he had an algebraic means of finding successive approximations of the square root of a number.¹⁵⁹ These achievements are almost uncanny, and the only (very incomplete) explanation that I can offer is that his abstract reckonings and tables had given his mind a kind of algebraic coloring and motivation.

Finally, it is clear that the Sumerians were not afraid of handling negative numbers;¹⁶⁰ this may seem a small matter, yet the concept of negative quantity did not penetrate Western minds until the time of Leonardo of Pisa (XIII–1) and its proper development required many more centuries.

It is not necessary to continue this enumeration; the algebraic achievements of the Sumerian people of 4,000 years ago are more than sufficient to daze the youthful mathematicians of today. The average philologist would be utterly unable to understand Sumerian mathematics, yet he will complacently repeat that there was no real mathematics before the Greeks! It is quite clear to us that the old Sumerians had as much natural genius for algebra as the Greeks for geometry.

The Babylonians of the period 2200-2000 knew how to measure the area of rectangles and of right and isosceles triangles; they had some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem,¹⁶¹ and were aware that the angle in a semicircle is a right angle; they could measure the volume of a rectangular parallelepiped, of a right circular cylinder, of the frustum of a cone or of a square pyramid. Their solution of the last-named problem (volume of the frustum of a square pyramid) was a little different from the Egyptian solution. It might be represented by the formula

The Egyptian solution given above (p. 40) is simpler, but the two solutions are equivalent. It is interesting to note that when the Hellenistic mathematician, Heron of Alexandria, tackled the same problem almost two millennia later his solution was like the Babylonian one.¹⁶²

With regard to circular measurements the Babylonian mathematicians were definitely inferior to their Egyptian contemporaries. The best way to compare the two methods is to calculate the value of π corresponding to each. While the Egyptian method was equivalent to taking π = 3.16 (real value, 3.14), the Babylonian one was equivalent to taking π = 3¹⁶³

How did the Babylonian achievements affect other nations? Their algebraic ingenuity was largely forgotten but it reappeared in Archimedes (III-2 B.C.), Heron (1–2), and more completely in Diophantos (111–2), then disappeared again for many centuries until the Arabic speaking people resurrected it (the name of the science algebra is of Arabic origin). The Arabic invention was not appreciated in the West except by a very few men, and the use of symbols continued to be small and erratic until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The history of algebra is very puzzling, because much of its development was underground and secret. It was only with the beginning of its symbolic phase that progress could become steady and rapid. That final progress is easy enough to understand, but the achievements of the mathematicians who were groping in the darkness of the presymbolic age are astounding.

The Sumerians and their Babylonian successors left three legacies the importance of which cannot be exaggerated.

(1) The position concept in numeration. This was imperfect because of the absence of zero (until Seleucid times) and because the absolute value of the numbers quoted was often ambiguous. That concept was lost until its very slow revival in connection with the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals.

(2) The extension of the numerical scale to submultiples of the unit as well as to multiples. This was lost, and was not revived until 1585 with reference to decimal numbers.

(3) The use of the same base for numbers and for metrology. This was lost and not revived until the foundation of the metric system in 1795.

These three gifts were perhaps too great to be appreciated by posterity except after an interval of many millennia. Strangely enough, another gift, far less precious — the sexagesimal idea — was accepted far more readily and its acceptance delayed for centuries the reception and development of the decimal system. It is still weighing upon us today. Of course, that is not the Babylonian’s fault; the tradition was capricious and defective, as it often is.


In spite of the fact that their astronomical achievements were far inferior to their mathematical ones, the ancient Babylonians have been more often praised for the former than for the latter. That false evaluation was due to two circumstances. First, the confusion between ancient Babylonian astronomy and the late Chaldean or Seleucid ones (the main discoveries were made by Chaldeans); second, the mathematical genius of the ancients was revealed to us only very recently by Neugebauer and Thureau-Dangin.¹⁶⁴

However, the Babylonians built the mathematical foundations, without which there can be no scientific astronomy, and they began the long series of observations, without which later generalizations would have been impossible. They created the art of astronomical observations. A kind of transit instrument was used by the early Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1260–1232) for the rebuilding of the Ashur palace; ¹⁶⁵ by that time they were already familiar with a simple form of sundial ( gnomon ) and with a kind of clepsydra.¹⁶⁶

Fig. 18. Ideal reconstruction of the ziggurat of Ur. [From Sir Leonard Woolley, Ur excavations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939). With kind permission of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.]

Moreover, the Sumerians had invented the building of brick towers (ziggurat) for religious purposes (Fig. 18). The earliest tower was built in Nippur for the cult of the great god Enlil. As it was impossible then to build a narrow tower like a medieval belfry, the towers were in the shape of a succession of edifices of decreasing size placed on top of one another (somewhat like some of our latest skyscrapers), with a broad stairway or inclined plane turning around like a helix and enabling the priests and votaries to reach the very top. The general effect was pyramidal, but the building was very different in every respect from the Egyptian pyramids. That invention is immortalized by the existence of ziggurat ruins¹⁶⁷ and also by the tradition concerning the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). As the tower dominated the Mesopotamian plains, the priest sacrificing at its top was able to observe the whole sky without hindrance, if he were minded to do so. Some of them did and accumulated valuable observations, but the main astronomical work was not begun until much later.

The growth of astrology was as slow as that of astronomy proper, and the methods of divination favored by the early Babylonians were derived from the particularities of the liver and other terrestrial omina rather than from the observation of the stars. The sophisticated astrology that affected so deeply the Roman and medieval world was very largely a Chaldean (that is, a late) creation.

A civilization as complex as the Sumerian one implied the establishment of calendric rules. We have already spoken of the Babylonian year of 360 days and of the nychth meron divided into 360 equal parts; that was a very neat mathematical conception. Their calendar, however, was primarily based on the moon. They recognized months of 29 and 30 days, which succeeded one another with some regularity.¹⁶⁸ The average length of twelve lunar months (354 days) is too short for a solar year, while that of thirteen months (384 days) is too long. In order to harmonize the lunar and solar cycles the Babylonians used twelve months but intercalated a thirteenth one when necessary. This must have been done very early, for during the third dynasty of Ur (2294–2187) it had already been recognized that the insertions reoccurred in a cycle of eight years.¹⁶⁹ In one of the letters of Hammurabi to all his governors he orders the insertion of such a month. This Babylonian calendar was the model for the Jewish ones, as well as the Greek and Roman before the introduction of the Julian one (45 B.C.). Not only that, but it still influences the ecclesiastical calendar of our own days.¹⁷⁰

On the other hand, an initiative often ascribed to the Babylonians is certainly of a much later date; I am referring to the invention of the week. Of course, a lunar month invites subdivision into shorter periods, punctuated by the phases of the moon. The Babylonians attached a special importance to the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th days of the month; for example, on those days certain things were forbidden to the king. Thus, they had subdivided the month into periods of seven days, but those Babylonian weeks were not continuous like ours and the first day of each month was the first day of a week. The invention of our seven-day continuous week (the weeks following each other independently of month and year) and of the astral names given to each day (curiously preserved by the Catholic Church in the Western European languages) was not completed until the last centuries preceding Christ’s birth; it was due to a combination of the Jewish sabbath and the story of the creation of the world (Exodus 20:11) with Egyptian hours and Chaldean astrology. That is a very complex and interesting bit of folklore, rather than science, which we shall tell in the next volume.¹⁷¹

It is typical of the Babylonian spirit that they did not think of equal continuous weeks, which are superfluous for astronomical purposes, but introduced the fundamental idea of equal hours, without which astronomic computations become hopeless. Our own hours are derived from the Babylonian nychth meron for their equality and from the Egyptian calendar for their number.

The most remarkable observations of the Babylonians concern Venus. Some Venus tables compiled during the rule of Ammisaduga (the tenth king of the Amurru dynasty, Hammurabi being the sixth king of the same dynasty) have come down to us and have exercised the ingenuity of many scholars.¹⁷² The Babylonian astronomers of Ammisaduga’s time (c. 1921–1901) noted the first and last appearance of Venus at sunset and sunrise and the length of its disappearance, adding predictions suitable to each case. For example (Fig. 19),

If on the 21st of Ab Venus disappeared in the east, remaining absent in the sky for two months and 11 days, and in the month Arakhsamna on the 2nd day Venus was seen in the west, there will be rains in the land; desolation will be wrought. [7th year]

If on the 25th of Tammuz Venus disappeared in the west, for 7 days remaining absent in the sky, and on the 2nd of Ab Venus was seen in the east, there will be rains in the land; desolation will be wrought. [8th year]

If in the month Adar on the 25th day, Venus disappeared in the east, ... [8th+ 9th year]

In those tables the months during which Venus is invisible are counted as of 30 days each. The Babylonian astronomers knew the synodic period of Venus (584 days) and were aware of the period of eight years during which Venus reappears five times in the same places (as seen from the earth). ¹⁷³

The early Babylonians made many other observations. They knew that the moon and planets do not move far away in latitude from the Sun’s path (the ecliptic) and they observed the relative positions of planets and stars in that narrow zone (the zodiac); they had estimated the synodic period of Mercury with an error of only 5 days.¹⁷⁴ However, their main contribution was of a more general nature. They were really the founders of scientific astronomy; the admirable results obtained later by Chaldean and Greek astronomers were made possible because of the Babylonian foundation. It is probable that they influenced other oriental people — Iranian, Hindu, Chinese — but these are very moot questions, which are still too far from any convincing solution to be discussed here.¹⁷⁵

Fig. 19. One of the Venus tablets of Ammi aduga (British Museum, No. K 160; obverse, upper half). [From Stephen Langdon and John Knight Fotheringham, The Venus tablets of Ammizaduga (London: Oxford University Press, 1928).] For a translation, see the text.


The Sumerian culture was from its beginnings, as far as known to us, typical of the Copper Age. In the course of time pure copper was replaced by harder alloys with lead and antimony,¹⁷⁶ also with tin, that is, by various bronzes. In Hammurabi’s time iron was still a rarity and it did not come into common use until a thousand years later; the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705) stored away in his place of Khorsabad lumps of wrought iron (a mass of c. 160,000 kg of excellent iron was excavated there!) — but we must not anticipate. The Sumerian goldsmiths handled gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ivory, etc. with astounding virtuosity.¹⁷⁷

The plains of Mesopotamia are fertile only if properly irrigated. The greatest technical achievement of the Sumerians was the digging of a network of canals, which served to irrigate the land and were also used as means of communication and transportation between the different parts of the country. As political integration was gradually improved, the scope of these undertakings was increased. The burden of them was assumed by the state; the early rulers of Lagash were as proud of their irrigation projects as they were of their conquests. Traces of those early canals can be seen from the air, but it is not always easy or possible to distinguish them from those left by the capricious Euphrates when it changed its course. Therefore, archaeologists disagree on the details of the map, though they all recognize the vastness of those undertakings. Documentary evidence concerning them is found in many letters addressed by Hammurabi to provincial governors. Indeed, it was not enough to dig the canals, it was necessary to keep them in a proper state of repair and to clean them out at regular intervals. The silt dug out from the canal bed was piled up upon the banks, which rose higher every year; when the banks grew too high it became simpler to cut a new canal. Travelers in lower Mesopotamia often come across the remains of such embankments. In many cases water had to be raised from the canals to the higher level of the land; that was done by means of a shadoof such as is still used in Egypt today or some other contrivance. A discussion of this and of other agricultural tools, such as the plow, and of ships and chariots would take too much space, for the history of each tool would easily extend to a separate chapter.

The Sumerians and their Semitic collaborators and successors were great business men. It took business minds, if not to understand the need of irrigation, at least to organize it on a national scale. The main products of the country were agricultural — plants such as grain and dates, herds of domesticated animals producing meat, leather, and wool. The commercial methods are illustrated by a very large number of clay tablets — which are contracts duly sealed by both parties, pay rolls, inventories, accounts — and by a number of special regulations in the Code of Hammurabi, to which we shall return presently. In spite of their commercial sophistication, neither the Sumerians nor their successors invented the use of currency; the idea did not occur to them. They used pieces of precious metals for barter against other commodities; the earliest coins were made only in the seventh century in Assyria or in Lydia, and the Greek cities of Western Asia were quick to see the value of the invention and developed it splendidly.¹⁷⁸ It is not correct to say that the Greeks developed it because of their commercial needs or to imply that such needs did not exist before, for Babylonian trade was extensive and complex enough to justify the innovation. The Sumerians and Babylonians did not think of it, that is all. It is rather amusing to think that there were so-called moneylenders among them, advancing “money” (or rather pieces of metal or other goods) at a high rate of interest, but there was no money stricto sensu. Needs are not always necessary and are never sufficient conditions for the creation of inventions.

On the other hand, the Sumerians’ masterly solution of the problem of weights and measures has already been mentioned. In this field they surpassed all the other peoples of antiquity and in some respects they were not themselves surpassed until modern times. This is one of the most astounding anticipations in the whole history of the human mind.

Many actual weights have been discovered, though the earliest datable ones are by no means as early as one might expect from the cuneiform documents. Some weights were in the form of lions and ducks. The earliest duck weights are inscribed to Nab -shum-libur (1047–1039) and Eriba-Marduk (802–763); the earliest lion weights are Assyrian ones of the eleventh century. Though the use of weights implies that of scales, no Mesopotamian scales, or representations of scales, have yet come down to us.¹⁷⁹

We would expect the early people of Mesopotamia to engage in a variety of industries which more sophisticated ages would call “chemical industries,” and which were that indeed, except for the lack of chemical consciousness. The most important of those industries would be the manufacture of pottery, glazes, and glass; then one might add the tincture of metals and the making of paints or dyes, drugs and remedies, soaps and cosmetics, perfumes and incense, beer and other fermented beverages. Such industries, or at least some of them, would naturally develop in any country, as soon as enough stability made them possible; the development would be natural and inarticulate. Artisans engaged in them have little time to become literate, and none to write; there is no reason why they should reveal their successful tricks and publish their secrets, even if they were able to do so and had time to spare.

However, there has come down to us an extraordinary chemical text dating from the rule of Gulkishar (1690–1636), sixth king of the first dynasty of the Sea-Land. That document, originating in Lower Mesopotamia in the seventeenth century, is in the form of a small cuneiform tablet preserved in the British Museum (Fig. 20).¹⁸⁰ Not only is it the earliest known record of actual recipes for the making of glazes but the next ones appeared only a thousand years later. It describes the making of a glaze with copper and lead for pots, and the making of a green body with clay mixed with verdigris. Apparently, the author was torn between the desire of publishing his inventions and of protecting his own interests, between pride and jealousy. He solved the dilemma by describing his results in cryptic language. In this he was very different from his Assyrian successors of a thousand years later, but he was a forerunner of the medieval (and later) alchemists, who camouflaged their ideas or their lack of ideas with the most obscure jargon they could think of. On account of the singularity of that text we reproduce Gadd and Thompson’s translation of it. We quote it completely though without the long annotations which are indispensable for a full appreciation of it but would not interest our readers.

To a mina of zukû-glass (thou shalt add) 10 shekels of lead, 15 shekels of copper, half (a shekel) of saltpetre, half (a shekel) of lime: thou shalt put (it) down into the kiln, (and) shalt take out “copper of lead.”

To a mina of zukû-glass (thou shalt add) (mina=10 shekels) of lead, 14 (shekels) of copper, 2 shekels of lime, a shekel of saltpetre: thou shalt put (it) down into the kiln, (and) shalt take out “Akkadian copper.”

(Thou shalt) green the clay (??) and (?) in vinegar and copper thou shalt keep it. At the third (day) of thy keeping it will deposit a “bloom,” and thou shalt take (it) out. Thou shalt continually pour (it) off and it will dry and thou shalt make it. If it is (like) marble, be not troubled. “Akkadian” (copper) and (that of) lead thou shalt take in equal parts, and triturate it together. After thou hast melted it together, into a mina of the melt a shekel and and a half of zukû-glass, 7½ grains of saltpetre, 7½ grains of copper, 7½ grains of lead thou shalt triturate together and thou shalt melt and keep it (so) (for) one (day?) and shalt take it out and cool (it) ...

[Not translated.]

Thou shalt pour, and shalt lay him in a stone sarcophagus (?).

[Not translated.]

Thou shalt dip and lift it up, and bake (?) it (?), (and) cool (it). Thou shalt look (at it) and if the glaze (is like) marble be not troubled: thou shalt again put (?) it back into the kiln ( and ) take out . . . (?)

Fig. 20. A Babylonian text of the seventeenth century, explaining the making of glazes (British Museum tablet No. 120960, obverse and reverse). [Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the British Museum and of Iraq 3, pl. 4, 1936.]

If thou takest out . . . (?) thou shalt again put (?) it back into the kiln: the “copper-clay” will become “copper-gum.” Into a mina and 2 shekels of zukû-glass (put) 15 grains of copper, 15 grain of lead, 15 grains of saltpetre; lime thou shalt not bring near. First examine it (and then ) in a winepourer of old skin thou shalt put (it) and shalt keep it.

Property of Liballit(?)-Marduk son of Uššur-an-Marduk, priest of Marduk, a man of Babylon. Month of Tebet, 24th day, year after Gulkishar the king.


A good many geographic documents have come down to us, most of which concern what we call today “historical geography.” They may be enumerations of countries, as in the list of Sargon’s conquests, or geographical glossaries (Sumerian, Accadian) for the use of scribes, or itineraries, or documents for administrative purposes, like the list of places with which the temple of Lagash had dealings. As soon as a ruler governs a country of sufficient size, he needs various geographical tools to direct the work of his officers.

Another kind of geographic knowledge springs out of cosmography. The Babylonians (or let us say, some of them, very few) were anxious to know where their land was located with reference to other lands, or to the whole earth, or even to the universe: heaven and earth. A few tablets answer such intellectual needs. The Babylonians conceived the earth as an overturned gufa ¹⁸¹ floating on the ocean. The earth has seven floors and the whole of it is divided into four sectors, which in an early document are named after the four nearest countries, Elam in the south, Accad in the north, Subartu (later Assyria) in the east, and Amurru (Syria) in the west. In the course of time the business of war and peace acquainted the Babylonians with more distant countries, in particular Arabia and Egypt. The earth to their minds is the counterpart or image of heaven. Their gods dwell on the top of a mountain, the departed spirits in a kind of underworld (like the Egyptian uat, the Hebrew Sheol, and the Greek Hades).

To come back from dreams to reality, the best proof of their geographic ability is given by various maps. We reproduce two of them. The first (Fig. 21) is a map of the Sumerian city of Nippur, which is so faithful that it helped the archaeologists to conduct their excavations. The other (Fig. 22) is a map of the world with a descriptive commentary. Babylonia, Assyria, and neighboring districts are represented as a circular plain surrounded by the Persian Gulf. Near the center of this plain is marked the city of Babylon (every nation conceived its capital city as the hub or navel of the world) and to one side of it is the land of Assyria. The positions of other cities are indicated by little circles. The triangles resting on the circular zone and outside of it refer to foreign countries. This is very vague, to be sure, but not much more so than some Arabic maps or Christianmappae mundi.


Familiarity of the Babylonians with a relatively large number of plants and animals is proved by various documents. Father Scheil, investigating tablets of the time of Samsuiluna, last ruler (1912–1901) of the dynasty of Larsa, was able to write a paper enumerating the fish sold at the market of Larsa. Some thirty kinds were sold, twelve kinds by the piece, the others by the basketful. The prices quoted for the first are difficult to compare; those relative to the latter can be divided into six groups, the cheapest costing one-tenth as much as the dearest. The people who flourished in Larsa at the end of the twentieth century knew their fish! ¹⁸² The main source of names which may interest the naturalist is provided by the glossaries. For example, some tablets enumerate hundreds of animals; the names are written in cuneiform script in two columns, the first giving the Sumerian term and the other its Accadian equivalent.¹⁸³ Similar tablets enumerate various plants and medical tablets refer to many others. Some 250 plants have been distinguished, but relatively few identified with any certainty. That is, Assyriologists know that a certain name in Sumerian and its Accadian counterpart represent a definite plant, but they cannot be sure which plant is meant. Some of the names that we use today are derived from Sumerian names, but even in such cases it does not follow that the same plant was meant by the Sumerians, the Assyrians, and ourselves. Here are a few such names (the cuneiform word being quoted in parentheses): cassia (kas ), chicory (kukru), cumin (kam nu), crocus (kurk nu), hyssop (z pu), myrrh (murru), nard (lardu).¹⁸⁴

Fig. 21. Fragment of a Sumerian tablet containing a plan of Nippur. Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. [From H. V. Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible lands during the nineteenth century (Philadelphia, 1903), p. 518.]

Some of the lists evidence a kind of crude classification. For example, the animals are divided into fish (and other animals living in the water), articulata, serpents, birds, and quadrupeds. The larger groups are sometimes subdivided into smaller ones, the dogs, hyenas (?), and lions on one hand, the asses, horses, and camels on the other. The plants are divided into trees, potherbs, spices and drugs, cereals, etc. The plants bearing fruits that look somewhat alike, such as the fig, the apple, and the pomegranate, were put together.

Fig. 22. Babylonian map of the world, explained in the text. [From Cuneiform texts from Babylonian tablets, part XXII (London, 1906), pl. 48. Reproduced with permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.]

It is probable that the early Babylonians had already recognized the sexuality of date palms. Such knowledge seems confirmed by Assyrian monuments of the ninth century B.C. but is presumably much older.¹⁸⁵ The events leading to that discovery may be reconstructed as follows. Date palms drink a great deal; as the Arabs put it, in order to thrive the palms must have their heads in the fire and their feet in water. When the supply of water was limited it was necessary to restrict the number of trees. Some farmer may have had the bright idea of pulling out all the “sterile” date palms (that is, the male ones), and if he did that thoroughly enough he had a painful awakening; for now no dates whatever were available. The “sterile” trees were necessary after all; without them the other trees would not bear any fruit. Later it was discovered that in order to insure fructification it was advisable to climb up the “sterile” tree, take its flowers and carry them up close to the flowers of the “fertile” trees — in fact, attach them to the latter. That very laborious procedure has been observed not only in Mesopotamia but in every country where dates are cultivated. Its discovery is immemorial, and in a country sophisticated as early as Mesopotamia we may assume that it goes back to the earliest times. The chain of experiments that we have outlined may have taken many centuries, or many millennia, but it was already completed in Babylonia, if not in Sumer. Of course, this does not mean that the sexuality of date palms was understood as such, though there is no reason why intelligent men should not have made comparisons between the bringing together of (what we would call) male and female flowers on one hand, and the congress of animals or of men on the other. This assumption is encouraged (though not proved) by the ascription of sexual terms to various plants; the Assyrians applied the term male to cypresses and mandrakes and the terms male and female to liquid amber.¹⁸⁶ It is highly probable that the Babylonians did not speak of the sexuality of date trees except perhaps as a poetic metaphor, but they fully realized the necessity of bringing together the flowers of the sterile and the fertile trees in order to secure the fertilization of the latter. This is the outstanding example of application preceding theory; in this case the application was already completed by 2000 B.C., if not much earlier, the theory formulated only in A.D. 1694!

Frequent references have been made to two kings, Hammurabi and Ammisaduga, who were respectively the 6th and the 10th of the first dynasty of Babylon (or the Amorite dynasty). We often think of that age as the golden age of Babylonia, but though it lasted three centuries, that was only a beginning. It was followed by the first dynasty of the Sea-Land, which lasted 368 years, and then by the Kashsh (or Kassite) dynasty, which lasted nearly six centuries (1746–1171) and reestablished the capital in Babylon. That dynasty came probably from the north and was connected with the Mitanni kings of Upper Mesopotamia. The ruling caste of Mitanni was apparently of Indo-Iranian origin, and it used horses.

It is true that individual horses were already known to Hammurabi but the “asses of the mountain,” as they were known to the early Babylonians, were still a great rarity in his time. Under the Kassite dynasty they were introduced in larger numbers and were even exported to Egypt. Indeed, we learn from some of the ‘Am rna letters that a Kassite king gave to the Pharaoh a present of lapis lazuli, five yokes of horses, and five wooden chariots. The craftsmen of Babylonia needed gold, and her more valuable exports, exchanged for Nubian gold, were lapis lazuli and horses.

The most astonishing of the Hittite documents discovered in the royal archives of Bogh zköy is a treatise on the training of horses written c. 1360 by a man called Kikkulish (or Kikkuli). It is written in cuneiform script but in the Hittite language, and its philological interest is increased by the presence in it of many Indian terms. ¹⁸⁷ This text is so curious that a brief analysis of it may not be out of place.

The training, extending to six months, is described day by day and almost hour by hour. The best horses are selected after a trial run. Then they are made to fast and sweat under blankets in order to be rid of excess weight. They are trained to walk and to run for longer and longer distances, galloping or ambling. Special precautions are taken for the feeding and watering at regular times in prescribed quantities. Chopped straw should be mixed with the feed, probably to induce better chewing. Just imagine a treatise of that practical kind composed in the fourteenth century and remember that the earliest Greek hippiatrica did not appear until seventeen centuries later! ¹⁸⁸ The Hittite book could not have been composed in Anatolia much earlier than it was, for it almost coincides with the beginning of horse culture in Western Asia; yet we may be sure that it embodies a very old Indo-European tradition. It was destined to fall into oblivion together with the Hittite language and the kingdom of Mitanni; the latter vanished in the first half of the thirteenth century B.C. However, the Hittite methods of training horses were probably imitated by the Assyrians, later by the Medes and the Persians, and thus transmitted to the Western world.


In 1901–02 the French archaeological mission sent to Persia under the direction of Jacques de Morgan discovered on the acropolis of Susa one of the most impressive monuments of antiquity. It is a block of black diorite, somewhat regularized and very well polished, 2.45 m high, now preserved in the Louvre Museum.¹⁸⁹ At the top of the front part is a low relief representing the Sun God (Shamash) offering a code of laws to King Hammurabi (Fig. 23). The code itself is engraved below the bas-relief and also on the reverse. The monument had been originally erected in Sippar (Babylonia) but taken away as war booty by an Elamite conqueror, perhaps Shutruk-Nakhunte (c. 1200–1100 B.C.) and reërected by him in his own capital. Parts of the code had been erased, probably in order to make room for an inscription glorifying the conqueror, but it has been possible to reconstruct most of the lacunae, because there existed copies of the code on clay tablets and perhaps on other stones.¹⁹⁰

Fig. 23. The code of Hammurabi. The code was written on both sides of a diorite stela 245 cm high. We reproduce only the top of it, a bas-relief, which shows Hammurabi being charged by the god of justice, the Sun-God Shamash, to write his code, or else offering his code to the Sun-God. [Louvre.]

This is the earliest code of laws that has come down to us in sufficiently complete shape, but it is far from primitive. It implies an already long evolution of legal thought.¹⁹¹ It illustrates splendidly the legal aspect of the human genius, an aspect of it of such indispensability for the building up of any civilization, that the historian of science, no matter how much he tries to restrict his own field, is obliged to devote some attention to it.

Assyriologists are not yet agreed as to the date of Hammurabi, the crucial date of Babylonian history. It was first believed to be before 2000 and even as early as 2225; Meissner placed it at 1955 (the rule extending from 1955 to 1913). The present tendency is to reduce that number, but whether Hammurabi ruled in the twentieth century or at the end of the eighteenth century,¹⁹² his code remains a monument of prodigious antiquity.

The code proper includes 282 articles. It is preceded by an invocation in which the king explains his greatness and his excellent purpose. He codified the existing laws in order “to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the Sun over the black headed (people) and to light up the land.” After having set forth all of his virtues and glory and enumerated his military and peaceful achievements, he concludes “When Marduk commissioned me to guide the people aright, to direct the land, I established law and justice in the language of the land, thereby promoting the welfare of the people.” At the end of the code an epilogue restates similar ideas — “I, Hammurabi, the perfect king, was not careless or neglectful of the black-headed people . . .” — and calls down a rich variety of curses upon the people who would be reckless enough to alter or disobey his laws. It is clear that the great king did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel; it is equally clear that he did not consider himself an innovator but rather the guardian and fulfiller of old traditions.

The laws might be roughly divided into six groups, concerning movable property, landed property, business, family, injuries, labor. The Babylonians were capitalists and businessmen; their society might be theocratic and their minds chockfull of magical fancies, but when material interests were at stake they looked at things in a very concrete and hard way. The code is on the whole very rational. We are not competent to discuss the details of it; it must suffice to sketch out rapidly some its contents. It deals with larceny, which is punished differently according to the place where it occurred — temple, palace, or private house; with abduction of minors or slaves, robbery with armed forces, arson; leased estates, estates without owners, damages to fields and gardens; torts and business conflicts; debts and deposits; regulations concerning taverns; marriage, adultery, abandonment, divorce, rights of widows, relations with concubines and slave girls; rights of children, adoption. The last part of the code deals with professional duties and crimes.

Though written in Accadian the code was partly derived from Sumerian usage which it sometimes abrogated and sometimes continued. The differences can be appreciated, because Sumerian laws have come down to us in the form of tablets, preserved in Philadelphia. On the other hand the Babylonian code was imitated and partly followed by the Hittites (fourteenth or thirteenth centuries), by the Assyrians (before the ninth century), and by the Hebrews. Comparison of these Oriental codes is very instructive because of the light it throws on the psychology of the nations involved, but it would require considerable space and is not our present task.

It is obvious that the qualities which we ascribe to the Romans because of their juridical achievements were already shared by the Babylonians some two millennia before them. In particular, the Babylonians had already imagined a series of fictions without which the law cannot be properly formulated. On the other hand, it must be admitted that much in the Babylonian code (and in other codes of the Ancient East) was hard and cruel, especially the lex talionis (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” Exodus 21:24), which was the general guide in the reparation for injuries. Some contradictions are due to the fact that Hammurabi was legislating for a nation which, unified though it was on the surface, was extremely complex; he was obliged to combine and harmonize divergent traditions. Taking everything into account — even the primitive wish for exact retribution and the idea that injuries vary in gravity with the social rank of the victims — the king (or his legal adviser) did the work remarkably well. The code of Hammurabi is one of the outstanding landmarks in the history of mankind.


The study of Babylonian medicine is far more difficult than that of Egyptian medicine and the results are less certain. In the case of Egypt we have a series of large papyri datable within a few centuries, and an analysis of the two longest ones, the Smith and Ebers papyri, would suffice to teach the essentials. In the case of Babylonia we have to depend very largely upon documents of later date, chiefly those found in the library of Ashshurb nipal (now in the British Museum). That Assyrian king ruled in the seventh century (688–626), yet there can be no doubt that the knowledge compiled by his Accadian scribes is very largely of Babylonian and even Sumerian origin, and that the essence of it may be traced back to the third millennium.¹⁹⁴ That does not make their knowledge older than the Egyptian, which can also be traced back to much earlier times than those of the papyri that have come down to us.

We may assume that in both cases, Babylonia and Egypt, the bulk of the medical knowledge transmitted to us dates back to the third millennium, but there is the great difference that the actual texts were written in Egypt about the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries and in Assyria a thousand years later.

The Sumerian origin of most of the Assyrian documents is obvious enough. They are actually written in Sumerian, even in old Sumerian, with a maximum of pictographic signs.¹⁹⁵ The Assyrian physicians of the seventh century B.C. used Sumerian formulas, even as the French physicians of the seventeenth century used Latin ones, and for the same reason — tradition. Sumerian (or Latin) was a nobler language and it had the advantage of being restricted to an elite; the canaille could not understand it and admired the physicians more because of that very fact (omne ignotum pro magnifico); the physicians were aware of the prestige that accrued to them on account of the obscurity of their jargon and hence continued to use it. (Some people are still playing that game today.) Not only are the medical tablets written in Sumerian but they are generally very brief, bare statements without explanations. This suggests that the medical teaching was largely oral; the physician’s knowledge was transmitted from master to disciple, perhaps from father to son. The tablets were used not so much for study as for recapitulation and remembrance, like cribs or ponies.

Moreover, while the main papyri give us large collections of facts, comparable to our textbooks, the tablets are disjecta membra. There are a few exceptions to this rule, the most notable being the so-called “tablet of Constantinople,” which comes a little closer than most tablets to being a complete medical text, though it is very short.¹⁹⁶ It deals with the troubles caused by scorpion stings and the means — purely external ones — of curing them; the remedies combine drugs with incantations.

The most impressive document concerning Babylonian medicine is the code of Hammurabi described in the previous section. The code does not speak of physicians proper, but only of surgeons. It is possible that the physician, using Sumerian formulas, was a sacred personage not amenable to ordinary law; the surgeon, however, was a kind of artisan who was well rewarded if he did well, but punished if he failed. Various articles of the code explain that. It is worth while to quote them, not only because they are the earliest medical laws in existence, but also because they throw a revealing light on Babylonian culture in general.

215: If a physician performed a major operation on a seignior with a bronze lancet and has saved the seignior’s life, or he opened up the eye-socket of a seignior with a bronze lancet and has saved the seignior’s eye, he shall receive ten shekels of silver.

216: If it was a member of the commonalty, he shall receive five shekels.

217: If it was a seignior’s slave, the owner of the slave shall give two shekels of silver to the physician.

218: If a physician performed a major operation on a seignior with a bronze lancet and has caused the seignior’s death, or he opened up the eye-socket of a seignior and has destroyed the seignior’s eye, they shall cut off his hand.

219: If a physician performed a major operation on a commoner’s slave with a bronze lancet and has caused (his) death, he shall make good slave for slave.

220: If he opened up his eye-socket with a bronze lancet and has destroyed his eye, he shall pay one-half his value in silver.

221: If a physician has set a seignior’s broken bone, or has healed a sprained tendon, the patient shall give five shekels of silver to the physician.

222: If it was a member of the commonalty, he shall give three shekels of silver.

223: If it was a seignior’s slave, the owner of the slave shall give two shekels of silver to the physician.

The two following articles concern veterinary medicine:

224: If a veterinary surgeon performed a major operation on either an ox or an ass and has saved (its) life, the owner of the ox or ass shall give to the surgeon one-sixth (shekel) of silver as his fee.

225: If he performed a major operation on an ox or an ass and has caused (its) death, he shall give to the owner of the ox or ass one-fourth its value.

Babylonian medicine is full of incantations and imprecations. The code itself ends with extravagant praise of the righteous king, adjurations to his subjects to obey the perfect code he has given them, and terrible maledictions upon the man wicked and foolish enough to disobey it. Some of those imprecations are medical.

May Ninkarrak, the daughter of Anum, who commands favors for me in Ekur, cause to come upon his members until it overcomes his life, a grievous malady, an evil disease, a dangerous sore, which cannot be cured, which the physician cannot diagnose, which he cannot allay with bandages, and which, like the bite of death, cannot be removed! May he lament the loss of his vigor!

One would not be far from the truth if one called Babylonian medicine theocratic. The gods are the creators of everything good and of everything evil. Diseases are the marks of their inscrutable displeasure. Remedies may serve as palliatives, but the only sure way of curing a sickness is to appease the god who caused it. Hence the physician is a kind of priest. He seems to have been separate from the priest proper but they probably worked together, the priest physician and the physician priest, in order to obtain the patient’s return to health. Certain gods were especially concerned with healing and were appealed to more frequently than others. Disease, impurity, sin, were confused in the patient’s and the physician’s minds. Babylonian medicine was in some respects comparable to Christian Science. Disease was caused by gods, but it might be caused also by demons, or by “the evil eye” ¹⁹⁷ or the “animal magnetism” of other men. The power ascribed to demons or witches may seem incompatible with divine power, yet religious beliefs so close to superstition are necessarily inconsistent — and it is not our business here to unravel them.

Granted the divine or demoniac origin of diseases, we cannot expect diagnosis and prognosis to be based on physiological grounds. It is more logical to base them on divination, and in this the Babylonians were extremely consistent — not only they, but also their most distant Sumerian ancestors. One of the antediluvian kings, Emmeduranki, was credited with the discovery of the principles of divination (that is, the means of deducing the gods’ intentions from various observations). By the twenty-eighth century Urukagina, king of Lagash, was obliged to punish diviners who were taking unjust fees; this shows that divination was already well established in that early period.¹⁹⁸

The methods of divination were many, for every aspect of nature, every happening, is susceptible of mantic interpretation. The diviners whom we have just mentioned were practicing divination by oil. When oil was poured upon water, the shapes it assumed in spreading itself indicated the shapes of things to come. One might also observe the flight of birds, or interpret dreams. The circumstances of births were keenly noted, especially those that were exceptional or monstrous. Popular curiosity in dreams and in monsters (calves with six legs and two heads, etc.) is a witness of that immemorial interest, and modern chapbooks on dreams perpetuate methods of hoary antiquity.¹⁹⁹ Babylonian soothsayers also observed the stars, but the astrology transmitted to us by the Romans was a relatively late creation, as is suggested by the common appellation “Chaldean.” The favorite method of Babylonian divination and the most interesting to historians of science was the examination of the liver, hepatoscopy; we shall come back to it presently.

The methods of divination dominated Babylonian life; we may assume that they were Babylonian (or rather Sumerian) inventions, but the general divinatory point of view was not exclusive to them. We find it all over the ancient world. As far as the Greco-Roman world is concerned, the reader may consult the monumental work of Auguste Bouché-Leclercq (1842–1923): Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquité (4 vols., Paris, 1879–1882), or more simply read Cicero’s De divinatione.²⁰⁰ That spirit is still very much alive in the underworld ²⁰¹ of our time. If the premises of divination are accepted, the methods could not differ essentially from one nation to another. Hence comparisons that have been made between, let us say, Babylonian and Chinese omina do not necessarily prove, even if sundry details agree, that the latter borrowed from the former.²⁰²

Before considering the extispicium (inspection of entrails), or more particularly hepatoscopy, let us ask ourselves how much anatomy the Babylonians knew. Our impression is that their knowledge was rudimentary, even more so than that of the Egyptians. It was derived from the cutting up of the animals, used either to appease the gods or to feed the people, and as far as human anatomy was concerned, from the accidents of war and peace. Lists of names in the glossaries are the only clear indications of detailed knowledge, and those lists are not very long.e²⁰³ The most fatidic organs (exta) from the Roman point of view were six, to wit, the spleen, the stomach, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs, and above all, the liver. The liver may have been given that supreme importance because of nonanatomic traditions, but that is doubtful; a purely anatomic explanation is far more plausible. The Romans were as deeply impressed by the liver as the Babylonians, and for the same obvious reasons. When a man loses blood he faints, and if the outflow is not stopped he soon dies. Blood is thus easily recognizable as the fluid of life. When a carcass is opened, the liver is by far the most conspicuous organ; it is also the bloody organ par excellence; one sixth of the blood in the human body is to be found in it. Hence it was natural enough to consider it as the essential instrument of life. The Babylonians also recognized the importance of the heart, and gradually they reached the point of considering the heart as the seat of intellect, and the liver as the seat of the emotions and of life itself. Moreover, the shape of the liver, its division by fissures into five lobes, gave ample opportunities for divinatory distinctions. The livers that they examined, or rather interrogated for soothsaying, were generally those of sheep or goats. They gave special names to various parts of the liver, but, assuming that the Assyriologists are sure of the exact meaning of each name, there is no point in discussing the details of those hepatoscopic fancies. Their haruspices or extispices may have become very familiar with the peculiarities of livers, but even that did not make anatomists out of them.

Fig. 24. Babylonian liver model in clay in the British Museum (Bu. 89–4–28.238 ). From the plate in Cuneiform texts from Babylonian tablets, part VI (London, 1898), pl. 1. For the deciphering of the inscriptions, by Theophilus Goldridge Pinches, see that publication, pl. 2–3.

Fig. 25. Hittite liver model in clay in Berlin Museum (VAT 8320). [After Alfred Boissier, Mantique babylonienne et mantique hittite (82 pp., 5 pls.; Paris: Geuthner, 1935).]

Babylonian hepatoscopy is represented by a large number of texts (some 640 were already published in 1938) and, what is more remarkable, by many clay models. Two such models are in the British Museum, one of which is particularly clear and is covered with inscriptions (Fig. 24). Other models,²⁰⁴ found in Bogh z-koy, include inscriptions in Hittite as well as Accadian (Fig. 25). Finally, a bronze model (126 mm long) was discovered in the Etruscan site of Piacenza (Fig. 26). It is possible that the mysterious Etruscans brought Babylonian hepatoscopy with them from Western Asia, and later transmitted it to the Romans. These three liver models are good symbols of the transmission of science to very distant places; it is a pity that the science which they symbolized was on such a low intellectual level, but that fact undoubtedly facilitated their transmission. Superstitions deemed useful, and not only useful but supremely useful, are more agile than pure knowledge, which few people are able to appreciate at any time.

The Babylonians did not restrict their attention to the liver, but examined the entrails surrounding that organ, chiefly the intestines.²⁰⁵

The main purpose of the Babylonian physician was to appease or circumvent the gods and to drive the devils out of a suffering body; this was done by means of prayers — supplications, imprecations, deprecations — sacrifices, magical rites, and so on. When divination had revealed the nature of the ailment, some magical or antidemoniac drugs might be applied, or else trouble might be averted by the wearing of amulets and talismans. However, when all the documents of that nature have been rejected, there remain not a few that may be said to represent more rational tendencies. Assyriologists (chiefly the late R. Campbell Thompson, 1876–1941) have been able to recognize a number of ailments — of the head (including mental troubles and baldness!), of the eyes, of the ears, of the respiratory and digestive organs, of the muscles, of the anus, for example, a description of hemorrhoids. They have deciphered tablets dealing with pregnancy and childbirth, and with genital troubles, or describing treatments — the remedy being laid upon the suffering part, or introduced into the mouth or the anus. Some definite herbs and other drugs have been tentatively identified. The “scientific” prescription is generally followed by an incantation, but this may have been done, at least by the more advanced physician, simply to honor the tradition and satisfy the patient. It did no harm and increased the drug’s efficacy. As most of the texts are seventh-century recensions, it is difficult to say how much of the more scientific aspect of the prescriptions is old and how much is new. A novelty might be cloaked in a Sumerian garb to make it appear less novel, less disturbing, more acceptable.

Fig. 26. Etruscan liver model in bronze. It represents a sheep’s liver; greatest length, 126 cm. It was found in 1877 in a field near Settina and is kept in the Civico Museo of Piacenza. [Reproduced from G. Körte, “Die Bronzeleber von Piacenza,” Mitt. kgl. deut. arch. Inst., Rom 20, 348 ( 1906), pl. xii.]

The Babylonians suffered not only from personal diseases but also, no doubt, from general ones, affecting at the same time many people. Fevers then as now were common in the low lands of Iraq, and some of those fevers passed from one person to another, as a forest fire passes from one tree to the neighboring ones. Some texts, speaking of the “devouring activity of the God,” refer probably to epidemics.²⁰⁶ Did the Babylonians realize the existence of contagious diseases? Their dark minds were probably familiar with the magical transference of a disease from the patient to an animal (a primitive notion of vast currency), but were they aware of the possibility of a physical contagion? I am afraid I cannot be as positive as I was a few years ago ²⁰⁷ when I alluded to their understanding or intuition of the transmissibility of leprosy. Was the contagious disease with which they were acquainted really leprosy? ²⁰⁸ Was it the same disease as the one referred to in the Old Testament? And was that Hebrew disease leprosy?

In addition to prophylaxis with talismans, did they originate the prophylaxis by segregation of the patients and their objects that we find described in the Bible? It is tempting to answer those questions in the affirmative, yet it is not possible to substantiate one’s answers with unambiguous texts.


It is impossible to say whether culture began earlier in the country of the Two Rivers than in that of the Nile, for we would have to know what is meant by “the beginning of culture.”When does culture begin? Where does the rainbow begin? What is certain is that the Sumerian culture was the dominant one in the Near East from, say, 3500 to 2000; the ”Egyptian empire” culminated only at the end of the sixteenth century.

It is equally certain that Mesopotamian “literature” anticipated the Egyptian, was indeed the earliest whose records have come down to us. According to Kramer,

We are amply justified in stating that although practically all our available Sumerian literary tablets actually date from approximately 2000 B.C., a large part of the written literature of the Sumerians was created and developed in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. The fact that so little literary material from these earlier periods has been excavated to date is in large part a matter of archaeological accident. Had it not been, for example, for the Nippur expedition, we would have very little Sumerian literary material from the early post-Sumerian period.

Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present. In Egypt, for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a well-developed written literature in the third millennium B.C. Unfortunately, it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period. Then, too, there is the hitherto unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria. These tablets, relatively few in number, indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated approximately 1400 B.C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian literary tablets. As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the “Epic of Creation,” the “Epic of Cilgamesh,” etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but also includes much that is borrowed directly from it.

We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews; the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran. None of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first millennium B.C. Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B.C., therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference. The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig veda and Avesta, as we have them, have been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of view. Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified by later compilers and commentators. ²⁰⁹

The Nippur expedition alluded to above is the one conducted by the University of Pennsylvania from 1889 to 1900. The American archaeologists succeeded in excavating an exceedingly large number of tablets, some 50,000 being now preserved in the Museum of that university in Philadelphia.²¹⁰ Some 3,000 tablets (more than two-thirds of them in Philadelphia), written in Sumerian, date from c. 2000 but represent earlier times. Those tablets are not yet completely deciphered, because the Sumerian language, being unrelated to any other known to us, resisted the efforts of philologists much longer than, say, Accadian or Egyptian. However, a sufficient number have been read or explained to justify Kramer’s proud conclusion. They contain chiefly mythological texts, hymns to the gods, lamentations, proverbs and “wisdom,” and cosmology.

The early Sumerians did not think of themselves as upstarts, but rather as late recipients of a glorious tradition. They originated the tale of man’s golden age.

In those days there was no snake, there was no scorpion, there was no hyena,

There was no lion, there was no wild dog, no wolf,

There was no fear, no terror, Man had no rival.

In those days the land Shubur (East), the place of plenty, of righteous decrees, Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the “decrees of prince-ship,”

Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,

The land Martu (West), resting in security,

The whole universe, the people in unison, To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.²¹¹

In those days of long, long ago evoked in that tablet, there was universal peace and no “confusion of tongues,” and all the people were happy and praised God. This strange idea that human society was perfect in the beginning and then degenerated (the very opposite of the idea of “progress”) was immensely popular. Not only did the writers of antiquity, with few exceptions, share it, but it continued to obtain some currency until the seventeenth century and later.²¹² The idea of progress did not have much chance of asserting itself until modern times and did not triumph until the nineteenth century.²¹³ Even today there are people who cannot accept it, because the evils of the world are so cruel and blatant that the goodness thereof is hidden from their eyes.

Though the Sumerian corpus that has come down to us is not much anterior in its actual state to 2000, internal evidence enables us to carry it back many centuries. A literary revival began under the first king of the Accadian dynasty, Sargon (2637–2582; or 2450–2350?). By the time of Hammurabi the period of creation was already over, but its prestige was so great that Sumerian was accepted as a classical language, the language of religion and the humanities. The Babylonian scribes and their followers did their best to preserve the Sumerian masterpieces and to interpret them. We have noticed an analogous situation in Egypt but with a conspicuous difference — the Egyptian script changed, but however much the language evolved it remained essentially the same language, while the Babylonians used a language radically different from Sumerian.

Two of the Nippur tablets, one in Paris, the other in Philadelphia,²¹⁴ testify strongly in favor of the Sumerians’ humanism and of their literary consciousness. These two tablets bear lists of writings, or perhaps catalogues of libraries, being the oldest documents of their kind. The Philadelphia tablet lists 62 titles, the Louvre 68; 43 titles are common to both lists; hence the two tablets give us 87 titles of literary compositions, 28 of which are thus far identified.

The early Sumerian tablets, it must be admitted, are of greater interest to the historian of literature and religion than to the historian of science. Nevertheless, we find in them many short texts that are equivalent to the (later) Egyptian ones discussed in the previous chapter under the heading “The dawn of conscience.” Not only did the human conscience wake up in Mesopotamia as brilliantly as in Egypt, but it made itself heard.

As the Sumerians did not imagine that their gods were perfect, they could eschew the problem of evil, but they tried to find out what was man’s place in the universe — somewhere below the gods and above the animals. How did civilization begin? Many of their myths are meant to explain the development of culture, the shape of the things that they observed among themselves or the shape of the things to come, their own dreams and wishes. There is nothing at all that is very deep, but here and there a phrase already reveals the anxiety and the piety of human hearts, and this lifting of the veil is extremely moving.

Attempts have been made to decipher musical notations on early tablets, and it has been claimed that one of those tablets represented the harp accompaniment to the Sumerian hymn of the creation of man.²¹⁵ This may be farfetched, but it is certain that the Sumerians and their successors enjoyed music and were acquainted with a good variety of musical instruments, such as drums, rattles and bells, flutes, horns and trumpets, harps and lutes.

Cuneiform script being very difficult, only very few people (priests and scribes) were able to write. The great majority could neither write nor read, and yet many written communications passed between them. Public and private scriveners did whatever writing (and reading) had to be done. Even as a man dictates a letter to his secretary and then signs it, so did a Sumerian officer, landowner, or merchant dictate to his private scribe or to a public one, or in many cases he let the scribe redact the documents in the proper form, and then he impressed upon the fresh clay the seal (a cylinder seal) that he always carried with him. As every man of substance needed a personal seal, there was a great demand for such seals and large numbers of them have come down to us. Thanks to those thousands of cylinders — each of which when rolled upon the clay leaves a picture of some complexity — one is able to study the evolution of Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian art from, say, 3000 to within a few centuries before the birth of Christ. The engraving of these seals on stones (the best of them on hard stones such as lapis lazuli, serpentine, jasper, agate) called for great dexterity, and the technical difficulties put the artisans on their mettle. Some of these seals, especially the early ones, say of Sargon’s time, are works of art of considerable merit. They may be studied from the purely artistic point of view or they may be considered as documents illustrating many aspects of Babylonian life. For example, some of them are clearly the seals of physicians, whose names can be read on them. One such seal, in the Louvre, belonged to a physician called Ur-lugal-edina; it is of unusually large size (60 mm high, 33 mm in diameter) and bears an inscription in archaic style,²¹⁶ it may date from the middle of the third millennium (Fig. 27).

Fig. 27. Seal of the physician Ur-lugal-edina (Louvre). [After the drawing in W. H. Ward, Seal cylinders of Western Asia (Washington, 1910), Fig. 772, p. 255; courtesy of the Carnegie Institution.]

Most of the buildings have vanished, but much sculpture remains which can be admired in the great museums of the world. To speak only of the most ancient monuments, think of the fragments of the Stela of the Vultures dedicated to King Enannatum of Lagash (in the Louvre), the Stela of Naram-Sin (Louvre), a great grandson of Sargon, the many statues of Gudea.²¹⁷ The creations of Sumerian craftsmen are equally interesting and many of them are astounding. Consider the silver vase of Entemena of Lagash (Louvre), bearing inlaid on its surface a spread eagle which is the prototype of all the heraldic eagles down to the one adorning the blazon of the United States of America; the “Ram caught in a thicket”; the bull’s head of gold and lapis lazuli (Philadelphia); the gold helmet of Mes-kalam-dug (Baghd d); the golden vessels from the royal cemetery of the first dynasty of Ur. I do not know what to admire most, the mathematical abstractions of the early Sumerians, their sexagesimal order, or the restrained shape of those vessels. If they happened to be Greek, one would fall into raptures with their purity of style and their refined discretion, but they were created by Sumerian goldsmiths who flourished almost three millennia before the Periclean age.

The Mesopotamian culture of which we have tried to outline the main aspects continued so long under different regimes — Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldaean — that it is difficult to explain its influence upon other peoples with precision. At any rate, the accounts written by non-Assyriologists are full of ambiguities. One must think of that culture as a center of spiritual energy moving ahead for three or four millennia and starting radiations around itself all the time. Those radiations reached Syria, Egypt, the islands and perhaps the mainlands of the Eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, Armenia, Persia, perhaps India and China. It is very important to know when each wave started.

In my own account I have tried hard to speak only of ancient achievements prior to 1000, most of them prior to 2000, some of them prior to 3000, all of them, even the latest, very much prior to Homer.

What kind of phenomena or reactions did those Babylonian waves excite in other lands? There are many traces of them in the Old Testament — the tower of Babel, the flood, much history and wisdom, perhaps also some poetry. Many other traces can be detected in other cultures, even that of our own day — sexagesimal fractions, sexagesimal division of the hours, degrees, and minutes, division of the whole day into equal hours, idea of a complete system of numbers with an infinity of multiples and submultiples, metrical system, position concept in the writing of numbers, astronomic tables. We owe them the beginnings of algebra, of cartography, and of chemistry. The training and use of horses came to us from India (?) and Cappadocia across Mesopotamia. The concepts of purity and prophylaxis set forth in Leviticus are perhaps of Babylonian origin. This hasty enumeration is more than sufficient to illustrate the magnitude of our debt to our Sumerian and Babylonian ancestors.

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