“About the Dating of the Neo-Assyrian Eponym List”

Editorial explanation:

The Neo-Assyrian period is traditionally dated to c. 934 – 609 B.C. An important basis for this chronology is the so-called “Eponym Canon”, a list of annually appointed officials, or limmus (eponyms). The Assyrian king, too, held the eponymate, usually in the second year of his reign, until Shalmaneser V (726-722 B.C.) broke the pattern.

Several lists of successive eponyms have been found from the Neo-Assyrian period, and a continuous list has been established for the period 910 – 649 B.C., that is, from the second year of king Adad-nerari II to the 20th year of Assurbanipal. The list for this period, therefore, is called the “Eponym Canon”. This period is astronomically fixed by a solar eclipse that according to the Canon took place in the month of Simanu (the 3rd month, covering parts of May and June) in the eponymy of Bur-Saggilê, who held the office in the 10th year of king Ashur-dan III. Modern astronomers have identified this eclipse with the one that took place on June 15, 763 B.C. (Julian Calendar).

Attempts have been made by some to change the absolute chronology of this period by looking for another solar eclipse to which the Eponym Canon chronology could be anchored. One reason for this is that, if 20 years are to be added to the Neo-Babylonian period as claimed by the Watchtower Society, the chronology of earlier periods, too, has to be moved backwards in time, including that of the Neo-Assyrian period. In the internet lexicon Wikipedia, for example, an anonymous author suggests that the eclipse may have been the partial solar eclipse that took place on June 24, 791 B.C. The arguments used in that article are remarkably similar to those used by Watchtower apologist Rolf Furuli in his book, Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian Chronology, 2nd edition (Oslo: Awatu Publishers, 2008).

The claim in the Wikipedia article has recently been discussed by Professor Hermann Hunger, a leading authority on the astronomical cuneiform tablets from Babylonia. His brief but convincing defence of the traditional date of the Eponym Canon solar eclipse, “Zur Datierung der neuassyrischen Eponymenliste,” is published in Altorientalische Forschungen, Vol. 35 (2008) 2, pp. 323-325. An English translation of the article, checked and corrected by Hunger, is published in Kristen Frihet with his permission.


About the Dating of the Neo-Assyrian Eponym List [1]


Recent studies on the Assyrian eponym-lists suggested a re-dating of the reference to a solar eclipse from the hitherto acknowledged year 763 B.C. to 791 B.C. Careful analysis of the available data leads the author to conclude that the former date 763 B.C. should be maintained.

Professor Karl Hecker has often dealt with chronological questions concerning the time of ancient Assyria and has given his attention to the eponyms in the old Assyrian texts. Therefore, a defence of the date of the Neo-Assyrian Eponym List may also be of interest.

The Neo-Assyrian Eponym List, preserved in several copies and versions, is usually dated by a solar eclipse recorded in the eponymy of Bur-Saggilê which corresponds to the one of June 15, 763 B.C.:

Ina li-me IBur-dSa-gal-e … ina itusimāni dšamaš attalû ištakanan 

“In the eponymy of Bur-Saggilê the sun became eclipsed in the month of Simanu.”

However, under the title “Assyrian eclipse” in the internet lexicon “Wikipedia”, one finds the supposition that the eclipse mentioned in the Eponym List could not be the total one of 763 B.C. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyrian_eclipse). Instead, a partial solar eclipse of June 24, 791 B.C. which would have been visible in all Assyria towards sunset is suggested. With a magnitude of 0.75, however, it was hardly conspicuous and could have been noticed only if it was observed close to sunset. The sunset coincided fairly precisely with the greatest phase of the eclipse.

The internet is undoubtedly a melting pot of errors; the administrators of “Wikipedia” evidently endeavour to have reliable material on their site as, for instance, can be seen in other articles about ancient Mesopotamia. Therefore it may be helpful to present independent astronomical evidence for the dating of Assyrian kings and thereby of the Eponym List.

1. In a collection of lunar eclipses,[2] an eclipse in Month I, Year 1 of Mukin-zeri is mentioned. By the structure of the text, the date of this eclipse (not visible in Babylon but calculated in advance) may unambiguously be established as April 9, 731 B.C.

However, it is known that Mukin-zeri fought against Tiglath-pileser III and that his first regnal year coincided with the 14th year of the Assyrian king. This evidence is provided from the Babylonian Chronicle.[3] Thus the 14th year of Tiglath-pileser III is identified as 731/730 B.C.

2. In the above-mentioned work,[2] a collection of observations of the planets Mars and Mercury is  also published (No. 52). Col. II´ of side A puts together meetings between Mars and Mercury. Such meetings (to avoid the specifically defined term conjunction) are, to be sure, not uncommon, but at a given date in the Assyrian calendar they are repeated only at intervals from decades up to centuries.

One date (II´ 2´) is the 16th of Simanu, 2nd year of Esarhaddon. According to the tables in Parpola, LAS II p. 382, this corresponds to June 3, 679 B.C. True, the wording is not preserved, but a conjunction of Mars and Mercury occurred a couple of days later. This is sufficient for fixing the year.

The text contains further relevant information. For the 19th Ajjaru of the 17th year of Šamaš-šum-ukin, a meeting of Mars and Mercury in the constellation “Old Man”, which corresponds to our Taurus, is reported (II´ 5´). Šamaš-šum-ukin was installed as king of Babylonia by Assurbanipal in his own 1st year. Šamaš-šum-ukin’s 1st full year was therefore the same as the 2nd year of his brother, and his 17th year corresponds to the 18th year of Assurbanipal. Parpola’s table (see above) gives the corresponding date in the Julian calendar as April 28, 651 B.C.: the planets stood close to each other at 47o longitude. Consequently, the 18th year of Assurbanipal can be fixed as 651/650 B.C. in the Julian calendar.

An additional observation (II´ 6´) of Mars and Mercury on the 4th of Tešritu in the 19th year of Šamaš-šum-ukin can be used in a similar way; this date corresponds to the 15th September, 649 B.C. The result of this is that the 20th year of Assurbanipal was 649/648 B.C., in agreement with the previous observation.

With the help of these documents it can be checked whether a solar eclipse occurred in the year that is given in the Eponym List. We now know that the 2nd year of Esarhaddon corresponds to year 679/678 in the Julian calendar. We calculate how many years there are in the Eponym List from Esarhaddon’s 2nd year to the year in which the eclipse was recorded, and find 84. If we now go back just as many years in the Julian calendar from 679, we find 763. The same result is given by Assurbanipal’s years. Similarly, we can look up the 14th year of Tiglath-pileser III in the Eponym List and count backwards: this difference comes to 32 years. In this case too the result in the Julian calendar becomes 731 + 32 = 763. And according to modern retro-calculations a total solar eclipse did take place in Assur this year on a date matching the Eponym List.

We are therefore justified in retaining the hitherto accepted dating of the Eponym List.

Prof. Dr. H. Hunger

Universität Wien – Institut für Orientalistik

Spitalgasse 2 Hof 4

1090 Wien, Austria


1 – Translation of Hermann Hunger’s article, “Zur Datierung der neuassyrischen Eponymenliste,” published in Altorientalische Forschungen, Vol. 35 (2008) 2, pp. 323-325.

2 – H. Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia [Wien 2001], Vol. V, No. 2 I 1´-3´.

3 – I 19-23, A. K. Grayson, ABC 72; see J. A. Brinkman, PHPKB 236.

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