Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
11. Egyptian Mathematics 13. The Scientific Chracter of the Early Greek Cosmology

From Burnet's Introduction

XII. Babylonian Astronomy
The other source from which the Ionians were supposed to have derived their science is Babylonian astronomy. It is certain, of course, that the Babylonians had observed the heavens from an early date. They had planned out the fixed stars, and especially those of the zodiac, in constellations.54 That is useful for purposes of observational astronomy, but in itself it belongs rather to mythology or folklore. They had distinguished and named the planets and noted their apparent motions. They were well aware of their stations and retrograde movements, and they were familiar with the solstices and equinoxes. They had also noted the occurrence of eclipses with a view to predicting their return for purposes of divination. But we must not exaggerate the antiquity or accuracy of these observations. It was long before the Babylonians had a satisfactory calendar, and they kept the year right only by intercalating a thirteenth month when it seemed desirable. That made a trustworthy chronology impossible, and therefore there were not and could not be any data available for astronomical purposes before the so-called era of Nabonassar (747 B.C.). The oldest astronomical document of a really scientific character which had come to light up to 1907 is dated 523 B.C., in the reign of Kambyses, when Pythagoras had already founded his school at Kroton. Moreover, the golden age of Babylonian observational astronomy is now assigned to the period after Alexander the Great, when Babylon was a Hellenistic city. Even then, though great accuracy of observation was attained, and data were accumulated which were of service to the Alexandrian astronomers, there is no evidence that Babylonian astronomy had passed beyond the empirical stage.55

We shall see that Thales probably knew the cycle by means of which the Babylonians tried to predict eclipses (§ 3); but it would be a mistake to suppose that the pioneers of Greek science had any detailed knowledge of Babylonian observations. The Babylonian names of the planets do not occur earlier than the writings of Plato's old age.56 We shall find, indeed, that the earliest cosmologists paid no attention to the planets, and it is hard to say what they thought about the fixed stars. That, in itself, shows that they started for themselves, and were quite independent of Babylonian observations, and the recorded observations were only made fully available in Alexandrian times.57 But, even if the Ionians had known them, their originality would remain. The Babylonians recorded celestial phenomena for astrological purposes, not from any scientific interest. There is no evidence that they attempted to account for what they saw in any but the crudest way. The Greeks, on the other hand, made at least three discoveries of capital importance in the course of two or three generations. In the first place, they discovered that the earth is a sphere and does not rest on anything.58 In the second place, they discovered the true theory of lunar and solar eclipses; and, in close connexion with that, they came to see, in the third place, that the earth is not the centre of our system, but revolves round the centre like the planets. Not much later, certain Greeks took, at least tentatively, the final step of identifying the centre round which the earth and planets revolve with the sun. These discoveries will be discussed in their proper place; they are only mentioned here to show the gulf between Greek astronomy and everything that had preceded it. On the other hand, the Greeks rejected astrology, and it was not till the third century B.C. that it was introduced among them.59

We may sum up all this by saying that the Greeks did not borrow either their philosophy or their science from the East. They did, however, get from Egypt certain rules of mensuration which, when generalised, gave birth to geometry; while from Babylon they learnt that the phenomena of the heavens recur in cycles. This piece of knowledge doubtless had a great deal to do with the rise of science; for to the Greek it suggested further questions such as no Babylonian ever dreamt of.60

Burnet's Notes


54. That is not quite the same thing as dividing the zodiac into twelve signs of 30° each. There is no evidence of this before the sixth century B.C. It is also to be noted that, while a certain number of names for constellations appear to have reached the Greeks from Babylon, most of them are derived from Greek mythology, and from its oldest stratum, which became localised in Crete, Arkadia, and Boiotia. That points to the conclusion that the constellations were already named in "Minoan" times. The disproportionate space occupied by Andromeda and her relatives points to the time when Crete and Philistia were in close contact. There is a clue here which has been obscured by the theory of "astral mythology."

55. All this has been placed beyond doubt by the researches of Father Kugler (Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel, 1907). There is a most interesting account and discussion of his results by Schiaparelli in Scientia, vol. iii. pp. 213 sqq., and vol. iv. pp. 24 sqq., the last work of the great astronomer. These discussions were not available when I published my second edition, and I made some quite unnecessary concessions as to Babylonian astronomy there. In particular, I was led by some remarks of Ginzel (Klio, i. p. 205) to admit that the Babylonians might have observed the precession of the equinoxes, but this is practically impossible in the light of our present knowledge. There is a good note on the subject in Schiaparelli's second article (Scientia, iv. p. 34). The chief reason why the Babylonians could have no records of astronomical records from an early date is that they had no method of keeping the lunar and the solar year together, nor was there any control such as is furnished by the Egyptian Sothis period. Neither the ὀκταετηρίς or the ἐννεακαιδεκατηρίς was known to them till the close of the sixth century B.C. They are purely Greek inventions.

56. In classical Greek literature, no planets but Ἕσπερος and Ἑωσφόρος are mentioned by name at all. Parmenides (or Pythagoras) first identified these as a single planet (§ 94). Mercury appears for the first time by name in Tim. 38 e, and the other divine names are given in Epin. 987 b sq., where they are said to be "Syrian." The Greek names Φαίνων, Φαέθων, Πυρόεις, Φωσφόρος, Στίλβων, are no doubt older, though they do not happen to occur earlier.

57. The earliest reference to them is in Plato's Epinomis, 987 a. They are also referred to by Aristotle, De caelo, B, 12. 292 a 8.

58. The view of Berger (Erdkunde, pp. 171 sqq.) that the sphericity of the earth was known in Egypt and Babylon is flatly contradicted by all the evidence known to me.

59. The earliest reference to astrology among the Greeks appears to be Plato, Tim. 40 c 9 (of conjunctions, oppositions, occultations, etc.), φόβους καὶ σημεῖα τῶν μετὰ ταῦτα γενησομένων τοῖς οὐ δυναμένοις λογίζεσθαι πέμπουσιν. That is quite general, but Theophrastos was more definite. Cf. the commentary of Proclus on the passage: θαυμασιωτάτην εἶναι φησιν ἐν τοῖς κατ' αὐτὸν χρόνοις τὴν τῶν Χαλδαίων θεωρίαν τά τε ἄλλα προλέγουσαν καὶ τοὺς βίους ἑκάστων καὶ τοὺς θανάτους καὶ οὐ τὰ κοινὰ μόνον. The Stoics, and especially Poseidonios, were responsible for the introduction of astrology into Greece, and it has recently been shown that the fully developed system known in later days was based on the Stoic doctrine of εἱμαρμένη. See the very important article by Boll in Neue Jahrb. xxi. (1908), p. 108.

60. The Platonic account of this matter is to be found in the Epinomis, 986 e 9 sqq., and is summed up by the words λάβωμεν δὲ ὡς ὅτιπερ ἂν Ἕλληνες βαρβάρων παραλάβωσι, κάλλιον τοῦτο εἰς τέλος ἀπεργάζονται (987 d 9). The point is well put by Theon (Adrastos), Exp. p. 177, 20 Hiller, who speaks of the Chaldaeans and Egyptians as ἄνευ φυσιολογίας ἀτελεῖς ποιούμενοι τὰς μεθόδους, δέον ἅμα καὶ φυσικῶς περὶ τούτων ἐπισκοπεῖν· ὅπερ οἱ παρὰ τοῖς Ἕλλησιν ἀστρολογήσαντες ἐπειρῶντο ποιεῖν, τὰς παρὰ τούτων λαβόντες ἀρχὰς καὶ τῶν φαινομένων τηρήσεις. This gives the view taken at Alexandria, where the facts were accurately known.

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