Foresight in Ancient Mesopotamia

11 years 6.9K Views
Images uncovered from splendid palaces at Nineveh and Nimrud, coupled with vivid accounts in the Bible where Assyria was reviled by the prophet Isaiah, give us something of the face Assyria presented to the outside world. A more behind the scenes look at the internal workings of this first of all empires, however, takes us to the systematic institutional implementation of foresight by Assyrian kings. State sponsored divination by the stars and by the liver of a sacrificial sheep were the techniques employed by kings to know the future and gauge their chances of success.

Ancient Assyrian kings were invested in the art of anticipating the future in the realms of politics and economics, much as we ourselves are invested in projecting and preparing for the future in our modern realms of business, government, and science. From cuneiform tablets produced by the diviners of the 7th century BC Assyrian court, we are afforded an intimate look at the Assyrian Empire, and gain insight into the context, practice, and purpose of Assyro-Babylonian divination and its role in the earliest and most fully documented cultivation of foresight.


Francesca Rochberg is Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Office for the History of Science and Technology, and the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. She was Research Professor at the Institut für Assyriologie und Hethitologie, Ludwig-Maximilian Universität, München in 2010, and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU . She has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Visiting Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. In 1982 she was the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2008 was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society

She has published and lectured widely on Babylonian celestial sciences and produced editions of cuneiform texts that set Babylonian science in various contexts, from cultural to cognitive history. Her research on ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman traditions in astronomy and astrology has introduced the evidence of ancient cuneiform science into the philosophy of science through investigations of empiricism, prediction, logic, and reasoning.

She is the author of Aspects of Babylonian Celestial Divination: The Lunar Eclipse Tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil, Archiv für Orientforschung Beiheft 22 (Ferdinand Berger und Söhne, 1988), Babylonian Horoscopes, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol.88, Pt.1 (American Philosophical Society, 1998), The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2004 and 2007), and In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy, Studies in Ancient Magic and Divination (E.J. Brill, 2010). Babylonian Horoscopes won the 1999 John Frederick Lewis Award from the American Philosophical Society.