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Author of a three-volume history of Babylonia in Greek called Βαβυλωνιακά (in Latin, Babyloniaca ); b. Babylon, c. 340 b.c.; d. Cos (island off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor), c. 270 b.c. His name Βηρωσός probably represents the Akkadian name Bēl-rēušu (Bel is his shepherd). He was a priest of the god bel (marduk) in Babylon. At an advanced age he wrote his book and dedicated it to the Seleucid King Antiochus I Soter (281261 b.c.). There seems to be no reason to doubt the statement of Vitruvius (first century b.c.) that Berossus, some time after the completion of his work, went to the island of Cos, where he established a school of astrology. This move from the Seleucid to the Ptolemaic sphere of influence may have been due to a loss of Antiochus's favor. Probably the purpose of Berossus's history of Babylonia (then a part of the Seleucid kingdom) had been the glorification of the Seleucid dynasty, just as his contemporary Manetho had written a history of Egypt in Greek for the purpose of glorifying the Ptolemies.

Berossus's work is not extant, but fragments of it have been preserved in citations of later Greek historians, principally Flavius josephus, clement of alexandria, eusebius of caesarea, and george syncellus. None of these, however, was directly conversant with Berossus's work; they knew it only through other writers, of whom the most important was Alexander Polyhistor (first century b.c.). In the course of such citation and recitation, even those fragments of the original work that remain have inevitably been subject to corruption; nonetheless, they are of great importance in the study of Babylonian mythology and history.

The first book recounts in mythic form the origins of man and of human civilization. Beginning with the latter, Berossus tells of the emergence of the monster Oannes, half fish and half man, from the Red Sea, and of his arrival in Babylonia, where he taught men, as yet living like beasts, the elements of civilized life"literature and mathematics and all kinds of arts," including the construction of cities and temples, the use of legal institutions, and the practice of geometry and agriculture.

The story of the creation of world order and of mankind that follows was evidently placed in the mouth of Oannes. In the beginning the world was a chaos peopled by monstrous beings uniting the characteristics of men and animals, and ruled by a woman named "Sea." Into this chaos the god Bel introduced order, overcoming "Sea" and cleaving her body into two parts, from which he formed heaven and earth. He then created the first men, fashioning them from earth and the blood of the gods. As related by Berossus, this story is clearly derived from the Babylonian creation epic enuma elish. Elements of the myth, such as the use of the sea to represent a primeval chaos that was reduced to order by divine intervention, were a common possession of the ancient Near East.

The second book contains the history of Mesopotamia from the first kings to the period of Nabonassar (747-728 b.c.). Its form, according to Eusebius, was essentially a mere listing of kings' names with the duration of their reigns. Similar documents are well known from Babylonian cuneiform archives, and it was undoubtedly from cuneiform records that Berossus derived his material. Noteworthy is the list of ten antediluvian kings. Comparing this list to the corresponding section of the Sumerian King List [Pritchard Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (second edition), 26566; T. Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List (Chicago 1937)] of the early second millennium b.c., one finds that Berossus's list, though it has grown from eight to ten names, is similar to that of the earlier document. The mythical regnal periods assigned by the King List, averaging some 30,000 years for each king, have been further increased to an average 43,200 years. Berossus's list has often been compared to Genesis' list of ten antediluvian patriarchs, and it is possible that there is some historical connection between them; the life spans assigned to the biblical patriarchs, though exaggerated, are modest by comparison with the Babylonian tradition.

The Babylonian story of the Flood was evidently used in Berossus's second book. Berossus's account differs only in detail from the 11th Tablet of the gilgamesh epic; both compositions show a striking similarity to the parallel narrative in Genesis.

It is only in the third book of Berossus's work that one enters the realm of true history, with a detailed discussion of events and a realistic and generally accurate chronology. For this section of the work, Berossus evidently had access to a cuneiform chronicle source or sources reaching back to 747 b.c.; the information given agrees with Babylonian chronicles known from the cuneiform inscriptions and supplements them in several particulars.

Several fragments concerned with astrological lore have been attributed by Greek writers to Berossus. Though some modern scholars have been inclined to postulate a professedly astrological work as the source of these, there is no evidence of such a work, and it seems most probable that they were culled from the Babyloniaca. Interest in the subject was natural for a Babylonian scholar of Berossus's day, and undoubtedly his comments were welcomed by the Hellenistic readers for whom his book was intended.

Bibliography: c. mÜller, ed., Fragmenta historicorum graecorum, 5 v. (Paris 187885) 2:495510. e. schwartz, Griechische Geschichtschreiber (Leipzig 1957) 189197. c. f. lehmannhaupt, Reallexikon der Assyriologie 2:117. f. m. t. de liagre bÖhl, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (2d ed. Freiburg 195765) 2:26162. w. von soden, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 1:1069.

[r. i. caplice]

Berosus (fl. 290 B.C.E.)

views updated May 14 2018

Berosus (fl. 290 B.C.E.)

Berosus is the Babylonian priest most responsible for spreading Chaldean astrological ideas to Greece. Berosus was born and raised in Babylon (present-day Iraq). He was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, who died at Babylon when Berosus was still a child. As an adult he traveled to Greece and settled on the Island of Cos, where he founded a school of astrology. Around 280 B.C.E. he wrote a history of his homeland; only fragments of this document remain. His greater influence came from the number of students he trained who went on to teach astrology throughout Greece. The Babylonian astrologers were the first to carefully map the night sky and to calculate the length of the solar years (to within 26 minutes). They greatly improved methods of forecasting eclipses and recording time.


Brau, Jean-Louis, Helen Weaver, and Allan Edmands. Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology. New York: New American Library, 1977.

Burstein, Stanley Mayer. The Babyloniaca of Berosus. Malibu, Calif.: Undena Publications, 1978.


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Early third century b.c.e.



Royal Historian. Berossus (perhaps Bel-reushunu in Akkadian) was a Babylonian priest, who wrote the so-called Babylonian History or Babyloniaka in Greek about 281 b.c.e. Dedicated to the Seleucid king Antiochus I (281-261 b.c.e.), these three books covered the history of Babylonia. Unfortunately, they are known incompletely, only from quotations by later authors. Berossus began by telling how Oannes (a half-fish, half-man creature) came from the sea and taught humans the arts of civilization. He then described how Marduk became the supreme god. In the second book, Berossus described ten legendary kings who ruled before the Flood and included a version of the Flood story. The final book, which is “historical” in the modern sense of the word, describes several Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rulers. The last event mentioned appears to have been the death of Alexander in 323 b.c.e.


Stanley Mayer Burstein, ed. and trans., The Babyloniaca of Berossus, Sources and Monographs. Sources from the Ancient Near East 1/5 (Malibu: Undena Publications, 1978).


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Berossus a priest at Babylon in the 3rd century bc who wrote a history of Babylon which transmitted Babylonian history and astronomy to the Greek world.

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