Aleksandar instead of Alexandros in the Babylonian cuneiform tablets

AncientsAleksandar instead of Alexandros in the Babylonian cuneiform tablets

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“Alexandros is a Greek name”, this is inevitably one of the sentences you hear as a Macedonian when you argue with a Greek. From their point of view, everything about Alexander is Greek: his ancestry, his name, probably also his sputum. But, we Macedonians always doubt such “arguments”…

Well, this assertion is based mostly on innumerable inscriptions, mostly in the language we call Greek today, which Alexander of Macedonia call “Alexandros”. On the other hand, legacies directly from the Macedonian royal house are rare, so that one could compare whether the Macedonians also referred to their leader (or leaders, as there were several Macedonian kings with the name Alexander) themselves as “Alexandros”. As we know, the ancient Macedonians did not had their own alphabet for their own language; Attic was adopted as the court language.

About the name Alexandros – Alexander – Aleksandar

Today it is often claimed that the name Alexander is of Greek origin. However, these claims are doubtful. What is obvious, however, is that the name Alexander is derived from the Hellenized form Alexandros. However, it is questionable whether this Hellenized form is also the “original form” of the name. Because before there was ever a written Alexandros, historical figures already existed who bore the name Aleksandu. Like Alaksandu from Wilusa. Alaksandu was a ruler of the Hittite vassal state Wilusa who lived in the 13th century BC. Long before Greeks were even supposed to step on the historical stage.

The fact that the name Alexandros is used almost consistently in classical ancient literature as well as in later literature should not be overestimated or viewed as a fact. Many historical sources are written in ancient Greek or the Koine, and it was customary among Greek historians or writers to Hellenize foreign names – so that they “sound good”.

Example: the name of the mighty first king of the Persian Empire, Kuruš, which was transcribed in Greek as Kourous or Kouroux, but then mutated into Kyros just because it looked like a Greek word with a perfect etymology (“Lord Almighty”)!

The name Alexandros, which at first glance shows also “a perfect Greek etymology”, can therefore also represent something like Alaxandus derived from Alaksandu. And as you just learned, Alaksandu was far from beeing a Greek name.

This example and explanation is taken from Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian and author of books on antiquity, Dutch history and modern management. He has an MA in History from Leiden University and an MA in Mediterranean Culture from Amsterdam Free University. Lendering taught history at the Free University and worked as an archivist for the Dutch government before becoming one of the founders of the history school Livius Onderwijs.

The above examples of Kyros and Alexandros are taken from his website. And with Lendering as source, we continue in our text. Because, he made quite interesting discoveries while researching the mentioned cuneiform tablets from Babylonia.

Aleksandar or Alexandros? The Babylonian Astronomical Diaries could provide first hand information!

The astronomical observation texts from Babylonia could provide information on whether the Macedonians also addressed their leader with the Hellenized form of the name “Alexandros” or with another form such as Alaksandu or Aleksandar.

The Babylonian Astronomical Diaries (called GADEx Texts in science) are a collection of Babylonian cuneiform texts that contain systematic records of astronomical observations and political events, as well as predictions based on astronomical observations. They also contain other information such as commodity prices for specific dates and weather reports.

These tablets are authentic contemporary witnesses. Unlike most Greek or Roman sources, they were not written centuries later. They are currently kept in the British Museum in London. It is believed that the diaries were used as sources for the Babylonian Chronicles.

What is primary for us as a Macedonia blog, the Macedonians are also mentioned in these diaries – during the invasion of Persia under Alexander III of Macedon.

We had previously published a comprehensive article as an introduction about the tablets here: Alexander the Great in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries.

Seen in this way, you are now reading the second part of the story, where we deal directly with Alexander and his name on the famous clay tablets.

So far no tablet has been discovered that shows the Greek name Alexandros!

Although the cuneiform texts are “eyewitnesses” in the truest sense of the word, they are hardly considered in current (western) science. Rather even ignored as you are about to read. Western scholars and academics mainly prefer the sources from ancient Greece and Rome, so f.e. writings by Arrian, who lived and wrote his works 200 years after Alexander the Great passed away. Those later sources are preferred instead of the Babylonian texts that are contemporary witnesses written during the lifetime of the great Macedonian king!

A review by Jona Lendering of the book “Alexander the Great. Historical Sources in Translation. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History” by Waldemar Heckel and John C. Yardley, criticizes precisely the fact that the authors did not incorporate or at least took into account the Babylonian sources in their material.

Lendering also states that the Babylonian texts, i.e. the contemporary ones, directly contradict Arrian’s legacy! But, the Greek source by Arrian has so far been regarded as the “best accepted” among scholars.

Waldemar Heckel (German-born Canadian ancient historian) and John C. Yardley (Emeritus Professor of Classical History, including Oxford) are actually considered as experts in this field. So where did this ignorance of contemporary sources from Babylon come from?

We do not know it. Assumption: Philhellenism!

It is particularly interesting that Jonas Lendering specifically refers to the naming of “Alexandros” in the review! The Babylonian form of writing is unambiguous, and after the first deciphering of the cuneiform script, the servants are said to have addressed the Macedonian king at court by the name Aleksandar!

The name Aleksandar is left on the Babylonian tablets, and Lendering points out that to this day no other tablet has been found that shows the Greek equivalent of Alexandros in Babylonian cuneiform!

One can therefore assume that the form of the name “Alexandros” was only used in the Greek-speaking area. But not in Babylon and therefore not at the Macedonian court, and probably nor among the Macedonians!

Alexandros, Alaksandu or just Aleksandar?

This discovery would be a sensation, for the simple reason: The naming of Aleksandar is 100 percent identical to the current form of the name used by Slavic-speaking peoples.

The fact why Philhellenists are careful not to mention these cuneiform scripts should therefore be more than self-explanatory!

Below we take a look at excerpts from the mentioned review Lendering wrote. If you want to read the full review of Lendering, you will find the link, as always, at the bottom of the post.

Review: Alexander the Great. Historical Sources in Translation. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History.

Waldemar Heckel, John Yardley, Alexander the Great: historical sources in translation. Blackwell sourcebooks in ancient history. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. ISBN 0631228209.

Review by Jona Lendering.

A review has to answer one simple question: is it advisable to buy this book? This time, the answer is an unqualified yes. Heckel and Yardley (H & Y) have collected many sources on the reign of Alexander and offer admirable translations and fine explanations. Among the texts are long fragments from well-known authors like Arrian, Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch, but the reader will also find interesting, lesser-known sources, like the Itinerary of Alexander, the Metz Epitome, and several important inscriptions. …

… Consequently, I have only one single point of serious criticism: the book is incomplete. It wants to offer ‘the raw material of ancient history’ (page ii), but contains, as is indicated in the title, only written sources. Archaeological discoveries are virtually ignored, even though they have greatly improved our understanding of, for example, the sack of Persepolis. We now know that the Macedonians placed seats on the eastern platform wall to watch the destruction of the palaces. It is also to be regretted that H & Y barely use numismatic evidence (although their book contains three pictures of ancient coins).

Even accepting H & Y’s decision to restrict the raw material of ancient history to written sources, the book is incomplete, as it contains only Greek and Latin texts. Egyptian sources are absent. Somtutefnakht is not mentioned, although his autobiography, the Naples stela, illustrates the panic after the battle of Issus.

But the real weakness of the book is the fact that not a single Babylonian text has been included, even though the Astronomical Diaries, the Dynastic Prophecy and the Babylonian chronicles are contemporary sources that offer useful information.

Many scholars have already studied the Babylonian texts. In the remainder of this review I will try to show that H & Y should have included these sources in their book. They certainly could have done this, because all relevant Babylonian sources have been accessible in fine translations for at least a decade and a half. I will also offer some new interpretations. Some of them have, to the best of my knowledge, not been published before.

…The most interesting parts of the Astronomical Diaries were already known before their first edition in 1988. These cuneiform texts offer two kinds of information: astronomical observations during a certain month, and contemporary events in Babylonia. They are the data that the astrologers of Babylonia, the famous Chaldaeans, included in the handbooks they used to predict future events. According to these handbooks, the lunar eclipse of 20 September 331 BC (eleven nights before the battle of Gaugamela) indicated the death of a king. The section of the moon that was first darkened proved that Babylonia and Persia would suffer and the visibility of Saturn meant that the effects were intensified. If Jupiter had been visible, the omen might have been neutralized, but this planet had set at the beginning of the eclipse.

Picture: A Babylonian astronomical diary recording the death of Alexander the Great. Because of the cyclical nature of astronomical phenomena, historians were able to use the astronomical data recorded at the time to determine his death as between the evenings of June 10 and June 11, 323 BC.

Several people at Gaugamela must have felt that Darius was bound to be defeated, because Chaldaean science was no secret. The Diaries also describe what happened during the battle: ‘The army abandoned Darius and returned to the cities’ (AD -330; obv.17). After an evil omen, leaving a doomed king was a sensible thing to do.

There is a problem here. The Babylonian text contradicts the Greek source that is often accepted as the best, Arrian. He says that Darius was the first to turn and run, after which the other Persians followed suit (Anabasis 3.14.3). One way to harmonize these conflicting pieces of information is to render ‘The army abandoned Darius’ as ‘Darius abandoned his army’. Suspending the rules of grammar, however, will not solve the problem. We must accept that either Arrian or the Diary is wrong, and in this case we must prefer the Babylonian source, which was written two weeks after the battle. In my opinion, H & Y should have included the text of the Diary in their book and could have ignored Arrian, who misrepresented the crucial stage of the battle.

The same cuneiform tablet offers an interesting account of Alexander’s diplomatic moves before entering Babylon. We read about his offer to rebuild the temple of Marduk and learn how he announced that the houses of the Babylonians would not be looted. These negotiations are not mentioned by Curtius Rufus and Arrian, who state that the Macedonians prepared for battle when they approached Babylon (History of Alexander 5.1.19 and Anabasis 3.16.3). More intriguingly, the Diary makes it clear that Alexander did not send Macedonian envoys, but Greeks. Did he consider it unsafe to send the very soldiers who had recently fought against the Babylonian cavalry?

The Astronomical Diaries offer further useful information. They may help us find the hitherto unknown date of the battle near Issus. Diary -332 B rev.10 mentions a solar eclipse that was ‘omitted’, which means that a predicted evil omen did not occur, so that there was no reason to fear the future. In this case, the omitted dangerous period would have started with the eclipse of 27 October 333 and the portended disaster would have befallen Darius within 100 days. According to the astronomical advisers in the Persian army, the great king could safely set out from Sochi and attack the Macedonians in Cilicia. Assuming that Darius left immediately after he had received his astronomer’ s green light, and accepting normal marching distances for the next days, Darius must have reached Issus between 3 and 6 November. The battle took place on the next day. …

Finally, it is interesting to take a look at the spelling of Alexander’s name in the cuneiform texts. The correct rendering of Alexandros would have been A-lek-sa-an-dar-ru-su, but until now, no tablet has been discovered that uses this Greek name. Instead, after some first attempts to render the conqueror’s name, the Babylonian scribes settled upon A-lek-sa-an-dar. Probably, this only shows that the scribes found it difficult to render a foreign name. On the other hand, it can not be excluded that Alexandar is the Macedonian name by which the conqueror of Asia was known to his courtiers. Cuneiform renderings of Seleucus ( Si-lu-uk-ku) and other names may also offer clues for linguists studying the Macedonian language.

I am not claiming that the Babylonian sources are better than the classical texts, but I hope to have shown that they can offer useful information. Van der Spek’s edition of Chronicle 8 has probably shown the name of a hitherto unknown satrap, a possible reference to Bessus, and something that looks like the execution of the famous astronomer Kidinnu. There is a lot more to be expected from Babylonia and I hope to have convinced the readers of this review that a scholar studying Alexander can no longer ignore the cuneiform texts.

As I already pointed out, these sources have been accessible for more than a decade and a half, and I assume that H & Y, both excellent scholars, are aware of the importance of the sources they have left undiscussed. Yet, although I think H & Y’s selection of sources is old-fashioned, their book is to be recommended to anyone studying the reign of Alexander.

The full review you can read here at Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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