Critical Analysis of a Babylonian Astronomical Diary, AD-273 – by James Rampton.

This week’s post features more student work from the module Beyond Mainland Greece. Below, James Rampton critically assesses a Babylonian Astronomical Diary. To introduce the piece Stephen Harrison (module co-ordinator) writes: The Astronomical Diaries are perhaps my favourite piece of evidence from the module because they are so unlike anything else that students have ever encountered. While these diaries were primarily concerned with accurately recording astrological observations, this examples from 274/3 shows that they also contain pertinent historical information.

A translation of the diary can be found in: Sachs, A.J. & Hunger, H. (eds.), Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia: Volume I Diaries from 652 B.C. to 262 B.C. (Wien, 1988).

James Rampton writes:

This extract of the Babylonian astronomical diary AD-273 was written in 274/3. The purpose of these diaries was to record significant events or changes that affected Babylon and through this they can provide historical insights[1]. AD-273 offers details on two main themes; the effects of conflict on the Babylonian people and how Seleucid rule changed Babylon.

The first of these themes relates to how the Syrian War, part of the Wars of the Successors between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies[2], affected the common people living in Babylon. AD-273 tells us that during this period there was a famine in Babylon that was so devastating “people sold their children”[3]. This line provides a chance to remind anyone using ancient evidence to think of the plausibility of the text. It is highly implausible that the Babylonians sold their children as a result of the Famine. What is more likely is that they were forced to agree that if they fell afoul of a debtor their children could be put to work to pay the debt. The text also states that there were outbreaks of “ekketu-disease” on multiple occasions[4]. The regularity that these outbreaks occur, suggest that they can at least in part be attributed to the war.

The second theme that we can withdraw from this text concerns how Satraps were involved in the governance of this region. The text shows us that some Satraps had an important role in the process of providing resources to the King’s war effort for example, the Satrap of Babylon sends resources including twenty elephants to the King after he had in turn received them from the satrap of Bactria[5]. This is useful as the usual portrayal of the satraps is within a military leadership role whereas here, we see one concerning more general governance[6]. This is observed by Sherwin-White and Kuhrt in their book From Samarkhand to Sardis, where they comment on how this shows that this was a role performed by all satraps[7]. However, the jump that they make here is a significant one as they argue this provide a “nuanced” view of the role of Satraps generally, without referring to any other sources, therefore leading to questions about the validity of their findings. The fact that the other Astronomical diaries from this period, such as AD-276 and AD-270, do not contain any mention of Satraps highlights the need to examine the wider context of these sources before applying them generally[8]. It should be noted that the setting of this particular extract is significantly unique, being during the major Syrian War. This means that this particular Astronomical Diary is likely to contain significantly different details to others. Therefore, it is a particularly useful source as it it provides unique details about Babylon during a time of war, but care must be taken when applying it to a wider context. In their use of this source Sherwin-White and Kuhrt fail to do this which leads to the issues with their work that have been outlined.


Ancient Evidence

Sachs, A.J. & Hunger, H. (eds.), Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia: Volume I Diaries from 652 B.C. to 262 B.C.(Wien, 1988).

Modern Sources

Lendering, J., ‘Astronomical diaries’, (2004-2019a). URL:

Lendering, J., ‘First Syrian War (274-272)’, (2004-2019b). URL:

Sherwin-White, S., & Kuhrt, A. (1993). From Samarkhand to Sardis. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

[1]Lendering, 2019a

[2]Lendering, 2019b

[3]AD-273, Upper Edge 1

[4]AD-273, Rev 33’

[5]AD-273, Rev 31’

[6]Sherwin-White & Kuhrt, 1993 46

[7]Sherwin-White & Kuhrt, 1993 46-47

[8] AD-276 & AD-270