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Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State Univ. )


Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History,  Eleanor Robson, 2008, 441 pp, illustrations, tables, hardback, $49.50, ISBN 978-0-691-09182-2, Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, NJ 0840-5237.


Traditional texts on the history of mathematics usually contain little content on “Babylonian/Mesopotamian” mathematics.  They relate that the Babylonians employed a sexagesimal place value system and recorded their results on clay tablets in cuneiform writing. Two illustrations of these tablets may even be offered:  Plimpton 322 displays ‘Pythagorean triples’ and YBC 7289 whose calculation of the length of a square’s diagonal demonstrates a highly accurate estimate for the square root of 2.  These accomplishments are tantalizingly brief for such a dynamic people that dominated their region of the world for over three thousand years.

For a prolonged period, academic and political obstacles hindered research and publication on historical Babylonian mathematics.  But now academic interest and ability has refocused on this important topic.  The latest book to appear on this subject is Eleanor Robson’s Mathematics in Ancient Iraq. This is a scholarly and innovative work that surveys the content and form of three millennia (3200 BCE – 125) of cuneiform mathematical tablets and attempts to place their contents in sociological and mathematical contexts.  It is this latter perspective that truly distinguishes this work.  Robson attempts to tell the reader “how and why” this mathematics was used and how it reflects on the society it represents.  Employing her extensive knowledge and experience, she describes scribal exercises, legal documents, surveyors’ records and even household accounts and interprets their contents within the context of the people they represent. Extensive archaeological documentation is given. An Appendix lists all mathematical cuneiform tablets published in the research literature before 2007.  This is a groundbreaking study on the place of mathematics in society – a wonderful book!

Mathematics in Ancient Iraq is a mathematical and intellectual history that should find its way into every university library.  With over fifty illustrations and sixty reference tables and an extensive bibliography, this book will also serve as a classic research resource.  I most highly recommend it for acquisitions and personal reading.


Frank J. Swetz, Professor Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University

See also the MAA Review by Charles Ashbacher.



Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State Univ. ), "Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History," Convergence (February 2010), DOI:10.4169/loci003211