Ancient History & Civilisation


Mathematics—Astronomy—The calendar—Geography—Medicine

Being merchants, the Babylonians were more likely to achieve successes in science than in art. Commerce created mathematics, and united with religion to beget astronomy. In their varied functions as judges, administrators, agricultural and industrial magnates, and soothsayers skilled in examining entrails and stars, the priests of Mesopotamia unconsciously laid the foundations of those sciences which, in the profane hands of the Greeks, were for a time to depose religion from its leadership of the world.

Babylonian mathematics rested on a division of the circle into 360 degrees, and of the year into 360 days; on this basis it developed a sexagesimal system of calculation by sixties, which became the parent of later duodecimal systems of reckoning by twelves. The numeration used only three figures: a sign for 1, repeated up to 9; a sign for 10, repeated up to 90; and a sign for 100. Computation was made easier by tables which showed not only multiplication and division, but the halves, quarters, thirds, squares and cubes of the basic numbers. Geometry advanced to the measurement of complex and irregular areas. The Babylonian figure for π (the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle) was 3—a very crude approximation for a nation of astronomers.

Astronomy was the special science of the Babylonians, for which they were famous throughout the ancient world. Here again magic was the mother of science: the Babylonians studied the stars not so much to chart the courses of caravans and ships, as to divine the future fates of men; they were astrologers first and astronomers afterward. Every planet was a god, interested and vital in the affairs of men: Jupiter was Marduk, Mercury was Nabu, Mars was Nergal, the sun was Shamash, the moon was Sin, Saturn was Ninib, Venus was Ishtar. Every movement of every star determined, or forecast, some terrestrial event: if, for example, the moon was low, a distant nation would submit to the king; if the moon was in crescent the king would overcome the enemy. Such efforts to wring the future out of the stars became a passion with the Babylonians; priests skilled in astrology reaped rich rewards from both people and king. Some of them were sincere students, poring zealously over astrologic tomes which, according to their traditions, had been composed in the days of Sargon of Akkad; they complained of the quacks who, without such study, went about reading horoscopes for a fee, or predicting the weather a year ahead, in the fashion of our modern almanacs.149

Astronomy developed slowly out of this astrologic observation and charting of the stars. As far back as 2000 B.C. the Babylonians had made accurate records of the heliacal rising and setting of the planet Venus; they had fixed the position of various stars, and were slowly mapping the sky.150 The Kassite conquest interrupted this development for a thousand years. Then, under Nebuchadrezzar, astronomic progress was resumed; the priest-scientists plotted the orbits of sun and moon, noted their conjunctions and eclipses, calculated the courses of the planets, and made the first clear distinction between a planet and a star;*151 they determined the dates of winter and summer solstices, of vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and, following the lead of the Sumerians, divided the ecliptic (i.e., the path of the earth around the sun) into the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Having divided the circle into 360 degrees, they divided the degree into sixty minutes, and the minute into sixty seconds.152 They measured time by a clepsydra or water-clock, and a sun-dial, and these seem to have been not merely developed but invented by them.153

They divided the year into twelve lunar months, six having thirty days, six twenty-nine; and as this made but 354 days in all, they added a thirteenth month occasionally to harmonize the calendar with the seasons. The month was divided into four weeks according to the four phases of; the moon. An attempt was made to establish a more convenient calendar by dividing the month into six weeks of five days; but the phases of the moon proved more effective than the conveniences of men. The day was reckoned not from midnight to midnight but from one rising of the moon to the next;154 it was divided into twelve hours, and each of these hours was divided into thirty minutes, so that the Babylonian minute had the feminine quality of being four times as long as its name might suggest. The division of our month into four weeks, of our clock into twelve hours (instead of twenty-four), of our hour into sixty minutes, and of our minute into sixty seconds, are unsuspected Babylonian vestiges in our contemporary world.*

The dependence of Babylonian science upon religion had a more stagnant effect in medicine than in astronomy. It was not so much the obscurantism of the priests that held the science back, as the superstition of the people. Already by the time of Hammurabi the art of healing had separated itself in some measure from the domain and domination of the clergy; a regular profession of physician had been established, with fees and penalties fixed by law. A patient who called in a doctor could know in advance just how much he would have to pay for such treatment or operation; and if he belonged to the poorer classes the fee was lowered accordingly.157 If the doctor bungled badly he had to pay damages to the patient; in extreme cases, as we have seen, his fingers were cut off so that he might not readily experiment again.158

But this almost secularized science found itself helpless before the demand of the people for supernatural diagnosis and magical cures. Sorcerers and necromancers were more popular than physicians, and enforced, by their influence with the populace, irrational methods of treatment. Disease was possession, and was due to sin; therefore it had to be treated mainly by incantations, magic and prayer; when drugs were used they were aimed not to cleanse the patient but to terrify and exorcise the demon. The favorite drug was a mixture deliberately compounded of disgusting elements, apparently on the theory that the sick man had a stronger stomach than the demon that possessed him; the usual ingredients were raw meat, snake-flesh and wood-shavings mixed with wine and oil; or rotten food, crushed bones, fat and dirt, mingled with animal or human urine or excrement.159 Occasionally this Dreckapothek was replaced by an effort to appease the demon with milk, honey, cream, and sweet-smelling herbs.160 If all treatment failed, the patient was in some cases carried into the market-place, so that his neighbors might indulge their ancient propensity for prescribing infallible cures.161

Perhaps the eight hundred medical tablets that survive to inform us of Babylonian medicine do it injustice. Reconstruction of the whole from a part is hazardous in history, and the writing of history is the reconstruction of the whole from a part. Quite possibly these magical cures were merely subtle uses of the power of suggestion; perhaps those evil concoctions were intended as emetics; and the Babylonian may have meant nothing more irrational by his theory of illness as due to invading demons and the patient’s sins than we do by interpreting it as due to invading bacteria invited by culpable negligence, uncleanliness, or greed. We must not be too sure of the ignorance of our ancestors.

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