Nature—the word itself—is a mess. Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the ancient Greek word physis, the root of our word “physics.” It is a word with a double reference: sometimes pointing to the cosmos, as in the laws of nature, and sometimes to the qualities of some isolated thing. It is in my nature to split hairs. Still further: a lack of governance is sometimes called the state of nature. And then there is the nature that picks out a mythical place to which people can return, perhaps by living in the country or going off the grid. Bruno Latour called nature in this sense a “blend of Greek politics, French Cartesianism, and American parks.”1 There are books with titles like Ecology without Nature, the next best thing to nature without ecology.2

Messy indeed. And somewhere in the muddle of those meanings is the nature of Francesca Rochberg’s title, Before Nature, a book about Mesopotamian science, and so a book about science before nature had acquired the shawl of so many meanings. Rochberg is a leading figure in the study of Mesopotamian science, having previously published widely on astronomy, astrology, astral divination, and cuneiform scribal culture. Before Nature is her boldest attempt to characterize how the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians thought about their world. Her book is an erudite meditation on what understanding the world might have meant to Mesopotamian scholars. It covers a span from about the third millennium BCE to the first century CE and offers a detailed picture of the cuneiform scribes and the world in which they lived.

Where many commentators have been impressed by the accuracy of Mesopotamian mathematical astronomy, Rochberg seeks to emphasize the importance to the Mesopotamians themselves of domains of inquiry that have no counterpart in the modern sciences, such as astrology, divination, and magic. The scribes thought it was important to know and to catalogue a great number of phenomena, and to mark connections between phenomena that we no longer think of as real.

My discussion focuses on Akkadian cuneiform texts that deal with a variety of phenomena (physical and nonphysical, that is, hypothetical, imagined, possible, and conceivable phenomena) as objects of inquiry, and which, among other things, concerned prediction from and prediction of those phenomena. Such texts include a broad spectrum of omens, both celestial and terrestrial, and together constitute the quintessential form and also the bulk of scholarly learning in cuneiform culture.3

There has been some debate among historians of science whether it is appropriate to describe the premodern understanding of the world as scientific. Ancient, medieval, and early modern approaches to the natural world were very different from our own. Thinking of them as scientific may cause us to miss important aspects of their thought. It might seem objectionable to some scholars that Rochberg eschews nature but embraces science as categories of thought. Some of the play in her title is at least partly directed at Roger French and Andrew Cunningham’s Before Science.4 In their book, French and Cunningham argued that science does not describe the premodern understanding of the world. The aims, methods, and content of premodern thought are simply too different.

Throughout her book, Rochberg demonstrates that she harbors no illusions that Mesopotamian science was scientific in the modern sense. Although the Mesopotamian scribes received an intense education in the use of cuneiform, there were no laboratories or peer-reviewed journals.5 Rochberg never tries to tame or modernize her sources by emphasizing rational practices at the expense of divination and astrology. Mesopotamian science is presented in all of its glory, including divinities, omens, and weird ideas. Rochberg makes clear how these practices are central to any history of Mesopotamian science.

The cynosure of Rochberg’s eye is not just Before Science. She also has in mind another book: Henri Frankfort et al.’s Before Philosophy.6 Rochberg has been thinking about this influential book for several years now. She collaborated with Kurt Raaflaub on The Adventure of the Human Intellect, a book that was conceived as a “modern version of [the] classic but outdated” Before Philosophy.7 As she says at the beginning of Before Nature:

The present study did not set out to be in dialogue with the Frankforts. … But I soon saw that engagement with the Frankforts would be especially useful as a point of departure for the present discussion of science and nature with respect to ancient Mesopotamia.8

The ghost of the Frankforts can be felt throughout her book. Frankfort et al. argued that ancient Near-Eastern cultures saw the world as animated and personal. The Frankforts thought the Mesopotamians incapable of proper reasoning, the ancient understanding of the world “tainted by fantasy.”9 The Mesopotamians, Hebrews, and Egyptians saw no clear distinction between the realm of the human and that of nature. Myth stood in for thinking, for investigation, for truth. This is not the sort of thing historians and anthropologists say anymore.

Before Nature is a broad-stroke attempt at a synthetic intellectual history of cuneiform scribal culture. The cuneiform scribes, Rochberg argues, had no concept of nature, but nevertheless made important contributions to the sciences. Mesopotamian science is defined discipline by discipline, and even text by text. What specific phenomenon was this scribe describing? How did he understand it? In place of a broad set of observational and textual practices, Rochberg offers the reader individual phenomena—the stations of Jupiter, eclipses, battles, royal deaths. These phenomena may be cyclic or otherwise predictable, and may be systemically related. They may be sent as messages by the gods.

From the perspective of an Assyriologist trying to come to terms with the meaning of cuneiform knowledge in relation to what we call science, science and nature are less a foundation for historical analysis and more an assumption needing qualification.10

A little later she continues:

For two thousand years, Babylonian knowledge of the heavens was not structured by a classification of the moon and the planets as phenomena of nature, nor were their cyclical appearances understood in terms of physical laws. Models of astronomical prediction were neither dependent upon a geometrical geocentric cosmos nor constructed to account for planetary motion as such [emphasis added].11

It is this last feature of Babylonian astronomy that seems strange in the context of historical astronomy. Ptolemy understood his theory as a general mathematical description of the heavens. He was interested in general laws. The Mesopotamians were interested in singularities—a particular moment in one planet’s motion. The obvious example is their determination to fix the moment approaching retrograde motion precisely. Thus we get tablets that calculate—and only calculate—a series of first stations of Jupiter. As Rochberg shows, they felt no further need for a larger discussion of why Jupiter moves the way it does.

The sense of nature that Rochberg wants to quarantine is quite specific: nature as a realm independent of human culture. She remarks at one point that it is “the epistemic goal of [modern] science … to understand, consciously, the workings of nature.”12 I am not sure how narrowly she means that. Substituting “the world” for “nature” in the same sentence comes to the same thing, and represents an analysis that might be reconcilable with Rochberg’s views about the epistemic goals of Mesopotamian science.

Not all sciences are sciences of nature. There are sciences of human behavior, culture, economies, and traffic flow. These do not study nature, but they do study phenomena. Even physicists and biologists very often have a very narrow focus—gene expression in one species of worm, for example. When a cosmologist talks about the first few microseconds after the big bang, are they saying anything about nature in Rochberg’s sense? They are expressing ideas about the makeup of the universe, but I am not sure they are really isolating nature as a realm apart.

That being said, nature was for a long time a presumed object of study for the sciences.13 Rochberg shows that this thing had no place in the Mesopotamian conception of the world. Cuneiform scribes, she argues, were working to understand the signs and judgments being passed down to them by the gods. These could be communicated through astronomical phenomena, through anomalous births, and through strange animal behaviors. Attempts to understand these judgments might take the form of remarkably accurate parameters for planetary phenomena, or long lists of omens. These omens are, perhaps, less obviously a direct contribution to the history of science. Within the Mesopotamian world, divination, medicine, law, glossaries, and mathematical astronomy all worked together.

Rochberg has given us a thoughtful and detailed overview of this world, and the ways in which cuneiform scholars systematized and understood the disparate phenomena they found there.

  1. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 5. 
  2. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 
  3. Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9. 
  4. Roger French and Andrew Cunningham, Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy (Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1996). 
  5. For her reflections on what science might mean in a Mesopotamian context, Rochberg’s 2014 essay is a good introduction. See Francesca Rochberg, “The History of Science and Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History 1 no. 1 (2014): 37. 
  6. Henri Frankfort et al., Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1949). Before Philosophy was the paperback revision of Henri Frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay of Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946). 
  7. Kurt Raaflaub, ed., The Adventure of the Human Intellect: Self, Society, the Divine in Ancient World Cultures (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), xiii. 
  8. Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9. 
  9. Henri Frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay of Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 3. 
  10. Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 274. 
  11. Ibid., 276. 
  12. Ibid., 7. 
  13. This was one of the main points of French and Cunningham’s Before Science: natural philosophy studied something, nature, that was conceptualized quite differently than the objects of study on which the modern sciences focus.