VI

ASSYRIAN INTERMEZZO

We have already denounced the utter confusion that is caused by historians who deal with Mesopotamian science as if it were one single entity prior to Greek science. Matters are far more complex, and one should recognize at leasi three very different “groups” (not units): first, the “Babylonian” science which we have briefly described in Chapter III; second, “Assyrian” science to which this chapter is devoted; third, “Chaldean” science which was developed in Hellenistic, Seleucid, times.

“Babylonian” science is prior to the first millennium, that is, it is completely prior to Greek “historic” times, prior to Homer and Hesiod, not to mention the Ionian philosophers.

“Assyrian” science is chiefly a matter of the seventh century. It is contemporary with the beginning of Hellenic science, just a little ahead of it. Hellenic science was and remained independent of it.

“Chaldean” science is definitely post-Hellenic. It influenced late Hellenistic (or Roman) science and medieval science.

These three groups are separated by two intervals which lasted many centuries each; each group influenced its successor, yet the three groups are as different from one another as their chronological distance would suggest. To mix them up is just as silly as if one spoke of Bede, the two Bacons, Newton, and Rutherford, as if they all belonged to the same lot.

In our account of Babylonian science (Chapter III) we spoke of three kings; these were Sharrukin (or Sargon), founder of the Accad dynasty (ruled 2637–2582), and two kings of the Amurru (or Amorite) dynasty, the sixth, the great lawgiver Hammurabi (1955–1913)³⁸⁹ and the tenth, Ammi aduga (1921–1901). These names are mentioned simply to refresh the reader’s memory, and emphasize once more the enormous temporal distance between Babylonian and Assyrian science.

Assyrian culture is Mesopotamian, but while the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures were centered upon the lower Euphrates, the Assyrian originated in the region of the upper Tigris. It was indebted not only to Sumerian and Babylonian examples but also to Hittite and Hurrian influences. It was often inferior to its models; for example, the Assyrian codes that have come to us are decidedly on a lower level than the code of Hammurabi.³⁹⁰ We need not bother here about the beginnings of Assyrian history; the city of Ashshur ³⁹¹ was already flourishing c. 2600. The first ruler of the Assyrian empire was Ashur-nasir-pal II (884–859), who extended his dominion to the Mediterranean Sea and obliged the Phoenician cities of the coast to pay tribute to him. His capital was Nimrüd (Kalakh, Biblical Calah), south of Mawsul.

Let me name a few other rulers with whom the reader is already familiar because of Greek or Biblical reminiscences.

Shammu-ramat (810–806), widow of one king and mother of another, is famous under the Greek name of Semiramis. Indeed, to the Greeks Semiramis was a kind of goddess; she and Ninos were taken to be the mythical founders of the Assyrian empire (the empire of Ninos or Nineveh). Many wonderful achievements were credited to her³⁹²

Sharrukïn II (722–705), or Sargon II,³⁹³ took Samaria, Carchemish, raided Urartu, reconquered Babylonia, and built a new capital near Nineveh, Dür-Sharrukïn (Khors b d).

Sin-ah -erba (705–681), son and successor of the preceding, is the Biblical Sennacherib; he invaded Palestine but failed to take Jerusalem; in 689 he destroyed Babylon.

Ashur-bani-pal (668–625), called in Greek Sardanapalos, was a great ruler of a large part of the Near East, but not of Egypt. According to his enemies, he was a degenerate and a monster of cruelty, but it must be said to his credit that he was a patron of arts and letters and the preservation of what we call “Assyrian science” is largely due to his efforts. His capital was Nineveh (Quyunjiq, opposite Mawsul). He was the last ruler of the Assyrian empire, but he helped more than any other man to immortalize its memory. His crimes have left no trace, but his Babylonian library will endure for ever. It is because of him that we think of Assyrian learning, somewhat unjustly, as a creation of the end of the seventh century.

It has been worth while, I think, to weave our memories of Greek and Biblical traditions with those that the historian of science is bound to evoke, however briefly.

Assyrian art was made known to the world about the middle of the last century. In 1807, Claudius James Rich, British consul at Baghdad, was the first to refer to an Assyrian bas-relief and to indicate the archaeological possibilities of Quyunjiq, but excavations were not begun until 1843, by Paul Emile Botta (in Khors b d), and soon afterward by Austen Henry Layard, Hormuzd Rassam, and others. The fruits of the French excavations are in the Louvre, the treasures dug up by the English archaeologists in the British Museum. Together they reveal a new art comparable to the best of Egyptian art, to Greek art, and to the early Persian art which continued to some extent the Assyrian tradition. In a history of art one would have to describe and discuss those masterpieces at considerable length, but in a history of science we cannot give much space to them. They help us to evoke the prodigious artistic background of Assyrian culture. Most of the Assyrian bas-reliefs were cut in a kind of soft limestone, and were originally colored in black, white, blue, red, and green. They concern the archaeologist as well as the artist, for they provide a large amount of information on the manners and customs, arts and crafts, religious and scientific ideas of the Assyrian people.³⁹⁴

The most fascinating of all those monuments for the historian of science are some mythological scenes from the time of Ashur-nasir-pal (884–859) which have been interpreted as representing the artificial fertilization of date palms. There are many such bas-reliefs in the British Museum, the Louvre, and other museums. It is probable that artificial fertilization had been practiced long before that time, perhaps in prehistoric days; it was old enough in the time of Ashur-nasir-pal to be an intrinsic part, not of science, but of mythology. If our interpretation is correct, it does not prove, of course, that the Assyrians knew the sexuality of plants; I would say that they did not know it; yet, they acted as if they knew it. This is an excellent example of an important application preceding by more than twenty-five centuries the scientific knowledge from which it might have been derived.³⁹⁵

The region of Mawsul on the upper Tigris where the Assyrian capital was located was too far north for the cultivation of date palms, but the Assyrian empire extended almost to the Persian gulf and the Assyrians had inherited the whole of Sumerian lore.

The excavations made at Nimrüd revealed many other monuments of the age of Ashur-na ir-pal, such as colossal lions, winged and human-headed, bas-reliefs of apes, and two statues of himself (one now in the Louvre, the other in the British Museum).

The development of Assyrian art can be followed from the ninth century down to the end of the seventh, a period of almost three centuries, because of the monuments due to other kings: Shalmaneser III (859–824), black obelisk and bronze bands decorating the gates of his palace; Tiglath-pileser III (745–727); Sargon II (722–705), the colossal winged and human-headed bulls found in his palace of Khors b d; Sennacherib (705–681); and finally Ashur-bani-pal (668–625), of whom we must say a little more.

To begin with the art, the most famous Assyrian bas-reliefs were created during his rule and were excavated from the ruins of Nineveh (Quyunjiq). Those basreliefs, which are one of the glories of the British Museum, represent hunting scenes and other animal scenes which suggest that the king’s palace included a kind of zoological garden. The sculptures prove a familiarity with the anatomy of animals, such as lions, that could hardly have been obtained during the brief excitement of the hunt. It is probable that wild animals were kept in cages, then released to provide the king and his familiars with easy sport. These amazing bas-reliefs show that the artists had observed lions and other animals in their full strength, also when wounded, bleeding, vomiting blood, and dying. One of them gives us an unforgettable vision of a lioness who has been wounded in the middle of her spine; she drags the lower part of her body which is paralyzed. Such representations remained almost unique in the history of art until the Renaissance and modern times.

These hunting scenes would be sufficient to immortalize the name of Ashur-bani-pal and the memory of the unknown artists whom he employed, but he has other and greater titles to the gratitude of scholars. In addition to the bas-reliefs, the ruins of Quyunjiq hid a large number of clay tablets, which constituted the king’s library. It is a very fortunate circumstance that the library was found in situ at the very beginning of Assyriological investigations.³⁹⁶

It is probable that there were other royal libraries in Assyria prior to this one,³⁹⁷ but the library of Ashur-bani-pal is the only one available to us, and hence all the knowledge that it has brought to us must be credited to his age.

This does not mean that that knowledge was new knowledge, obtained by his own contemporaries. Far from it; it was new knowledge only in the sense that philological knowledge can be new. When one of our contemporaries discovers in a papyrus or in ancient codex an unknown text of Aristotle or Archimedes, that is a novelty, a great novelty, in spite of the fact that the text itself is very old. Let us put it this way: the discovery is new and startling, but the object discovered is old, and so is the knowledge that has suddenly been revealed.

That is exactly the situation for the tablets excavated in Quyunjiq. They show that the Assyrians of the seventh century, if not before, had realized the scientific value of the texts preserved in Sumerian and had made immense efforts to collect Sumerian tablets, to investigate and teach the Sumerian language, to edit Sumerian texts, and to translate them into Assyrian with necessary commentaries. The Assyrians did for the Sumerian texts what Chinese Buddhists did for Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, Japanese for Chinese texts, or our own Hellenists for Greek classics. It would be more correct to say the early Renaissance Hellenists were revealing those classics; very few Hellenists of our own day are privileged to do that; most of them must be satisfied to reëdit well-known texts for the hundredth time.

The Ashur-bani-pal library contained books on grammar, dictionaries, historical archives, Sumerian texts with interlinear Assyrian translations; many of those texts were scientific — astronomic, astrologic, chemical, medical, and so on. The king was anxious to enrich his collection; we read in a letter, probably written by himself:

Word of the king to Shadunu: It is well with me; mayest thou be happy. When thou receivest this letter, take with thee these three men [names given] and the learned men of the city of Borsippa, and seek out all the tablets, all those that are in their houses, and all those that are deposited in the temple of Ezida ...

The king continues with a list of the important works that he especially wants and then concludes:

Hunt for the valuable tablets which are in your archives and which do not exist in Assyria and send them to me. I have written to the officials and overseers . . . and no one shall withhold a tablet from thee, and when thou seest any tablet or ritual about which I have not written to thee, but which thou perceivest may be profitable for my palace, seek it out, pick it up, and send it to me.³⁹⁸

The tablets are so abundant that a good many scholars and scribes must have been enlisted to compose and write them. During the last half-century of its existence, Nineveh was the seat of a school of translators and philologists, what might be called a Sumerian Academy. The many bilingual texts that have come down to us have made it possible for our own Assyriologists to study and to master the Sumerian language. The Sumerian scholars of today are the pupils of the Assyrian philologists of the seventh century.

A great many of the scientific tablets have been edited by modern scholars, and some of them translated into European languages. The following list is exemplary rather than complete.

Magic. Leonard W. King, Babylontan magic and sorcery, being the prayers of the lifting of the hand (230 pp., 76 pls.; London, 1896). This is as far remote from science as possible but is mentioned to illustrate the superstitious background.

Medicine. Reginald Campbell Thompson, Assyrian medical texts from the originals in the British Museum (114 pp., folio; Oxford, 1923) [Isis 7, 256 (1925)]; Assyrian prescriptions for diseases of the feet (j. Roy. Asiatic Soc. (1937), 265–286 [Isis 28, 226 (1938)].

Botany. R. C. Thompson, The Assyrian herbal, a monograph on the Assyrian vegetable drugs (322 pp.; London, 1924) [Isis 8, 506–508 (1926)]; some 250 plants are dealt with and Assyrian ideas on plant sexuality discussed; Dictionary of Assyrian botany (420 pp.; London: British Academy, 1949) [Isis 43].

Chemistry and geology. R. C. Thompson, Dictionary of Assyrian chemistry and geology (314 pp.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938) uses 26, 477–480 (1936)].

This short list may serve as a starter. The details of Sumerian-Assyrian knowledge cannot be discussed here, because they would take us away from the main stream of ancient science. Assyrian science does not really belong to that stream; it is exotic.

The works of Thompson are all in the analytical stage, of great value to Assyriologists, of little value to historians of science. It is not yet possible to determine whether Assyrian science was exclusively Sumerian, or whether the Assyrian scholars added new knowledge to the old that they were preserving and interpreting.

This chapter is called an “intermezzo” because that knowledge, whether purely Sumerian or Assyrianized, did not influence Hellenic science. The Oriental influences to which Hellenic culture was submitted were real enough, but general, religious, philosophical, nontechnical. Astronomical information might be transmitted, but not much else. There is no evidence that any Greek author ³⁹⁹ was ever able to read cuneiform.

Though “Chaldean science” is outside the field of this chapter, a few words may be added concerning it, in order to guide the reader.

The Chaldean dynasty was the last Babylonian dynasty; its six kings ruled for 87 years, from 625 to 538. The founder, Nabopolassar (625–605) and his ally Cyaxares, king of Media, destroyed Nineveh in 612 and divided the Assyrian empire between them. From then on, Assyrian traditions were continued partly by the Chaldeans, partly by the Medes and Persians; for example, Achaimenid art reveals strong Assyrian influences. The second king Nebuchadrezzar⁴⁰⁰ (605–561) conquered Judea and destroyed Jerusalem in 586; the Babylon admired by Greek historians is the new one built by him. In 538, Babylon was taken by Gobryas, a general of Cyros the Great and for two centuries (536–332) Babylonia was under Persian rule. The earliest Babylonian mathematicians and astronomers known by name to the Greeks belong to this Persian period, to wit, Nabu-rimanni (son of Balatu) who flourished in Babylon in 491, and Kidinnu who flourished a century later, c. 379.⁴⁰¹ Persian Babylonia was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 and remained in his power until his death in the city of Babylon in 323. Babylonia was then governed by one group of his successors, the Seleucid dynasty (312–171).⁴⁰²

The term Chaldean science might refer to events occurring during the Chaldean dynasty, for example, to astronomic observations of the time of Nebuchadrezzar.⁴⁰³ In general, the term Chaldean or Babylonian (neo-Babylonian) is used rather vaguely and confusedly for events of later, Seleucid, times, which are entirely outside the scope of this volume.⁴⁰⁴ Many astounding results of “Babylonian” astronomy and mathematics are really Seleucid, Hellenistic. When Babylonian discoveries are described by historians of science (many of whom are entirely unfamiliar with the complexities of ancient chronologies), it is thus essential to ascertain their approximate date before any further discussion of their merit and of the influences that have led to them or proceeded from them. The significance of a discovery made c. 2000 B.C. is obviously very different from one made c. 200 B.C.

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