Tag Archives: Egypt

Book Review: Berossos and Manetho.

berossos-and-manetho-introduced-and-translatedThis book collects all the fragments by and about Berossos and Manetho, two historians in the early Hellenistic age who wrote about their own cultures for a Greek audience.  I read this for my Hellenistic Age class, which is so far one of the most fascinating courses I’ve taken at university.

Berossos was a Babylonian priest who later moved to Egypt, perhaps to be a “fellow” at the library of Alexandria.  He wrote many works, all in Greek.  The most important one is his history of Babylonian culture, beginning with the start of the universe and incorporating Near Eastern king-lists and mythological tales.  He also texts on astrology.  Manetho, an Egyptian priest, also wrote a massive history of Egypt for Greek audiences.  His is the primary literary (e.g. not hieroglyphs on temple walls) source that we have about ancient Egypt.

Although coming from different cultures, it makes sense that their writings are collected in one volume.  Both wrote in Greek.  Both integrate Greek thought into their work, often giving Greek equivalents for whatever deities in their pantheon they were speaking of.  One wonders in both cases how much they had to interpret (perhaps distort) their history to be sensible and palatable to a Greek audience.

Also, both have their primary writings lost to history, coming down to us only in fragments and paraphrases from later authors that Christian scribes saw more fit to copy.  Early Jewish and Christian historians took interest in both of them, so much of what we have of Berossos and Manetho comes from Josephus and Eusebius.  Both of these men in turn used Berossos and Manetho to both bolster their account of the historicity of the Bible (sometimes stretching their sources a bit) and polemicize against the two men when their accounts didn’t match biblical chronology.

The editors speculate on why their texts did not survive – especially in the case of Berossos.  One reason they give is that their histories just weren’t as interesting to a Hellenistic audience.  Near Eastern king lists are not the best bedside reading.  But given that for many parts of Egyptian and Babylonian history this might have been all that was left, what more could they do?  From one perspective, it is better to be accurate than fascinating.  But if you want your text to survive and be copied, best to add titillation.

As a long-time sucker for anything of the ancient near east (really, anything ancient), I enjoyed this book immensely.  I can only fantasize what we might discover if we came upon complete manuscripts of either of these mens’ works.  Verbrugghe and Wickersham have done a great job introducing the fragments and speculating on how they relate to broader cultural changes in the Hellenistic world.