Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire
Neo-Babylonian Empire
The Neo-Babylonian Empire or Second Babylonian Empire was a period of Mesopotamian history which began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC. During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by their fellow Akkadian speakers and northern neighbours, Assyria. Throughout that time Babylonia...

, reigning from 556-539 BCE.

Historiography on Nabonidus

Modern perceptions of Nabonidus' reign has been heavily coloured by accounts written well after his reign as king of Babylonia, notably by the Persians
Achaemenid Empire
The Achaemenid Empire , sometimes known as First Persian Empire and/or Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus the Great who overthrew the Median confederation...

 and the Greeks
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

, as well as in the Hebrew Bible
Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible is a term used by biblical scholars outside of Judaism to refer to the Tanakh , a canonical collection of Jewish texts, and the common textual antecedent of the several canonical editions of the Christian Old Testament...

. As a result, Nabonidus has often been described in very negative terms in both modern and contemporary scholarship. However, an accumulation of evidence and a reassessment of existing material has caused opinions on Nabonidus and the events that happened during his reign to alter significantly in recent decades.

Coming to power

Nabonidus' background is not clear. He said in his inscriptions that he was of unimportant origins. Similarly, his mother, who lived to an old age and may have been connected to the temple
A temple is a structure reserved for religious or spiritual activities, such as prayer and sacrifice, or analogous rites. A templum constituted a sacred precinct as defined by a priest, or augur. It has the same root as the word "template," a plan in preparation of the building that was marked out...

 of the moongod
Lunar deity
In mythology, a lunar deity is a god or goddess associated with or symbolizing the moon. These deities can have a variety of functions and traditions depending upon the culture, but they are often related to or an enemy of the solar deity. Even though they may be related, they are distinct from the...

Sin (mythology)
Sin or Nanna was the god of the moon in Mesopotamian mythology. Nanna is a Sumerian deity, the son of Enlil and Ninlil, and became identified with Semitic Sin. The two chief seats of Nanna's/Sin's worship were Ur in the south of Mesopotamia and Harran in the north.- Name :The original meaning of...

 in Harran
Harran was a major ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia whose site is near the modern village of Altınbaşak, Turkey, 24 miles southeast of Şanlıurfa...

, does not mention her family background in her inscriptions. There are two arguments for an Assyria
Assyria was a Semitic Akkadian kingdom, extant as a nation state from the mid–23rd century BC to 608 BC centred on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia , that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur...

n background: repeated references in Nabonidus' royal propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 and imagery
Imagery is used in literature to refer to descriptive language that evokes emotional responses. It is useful as it allows an author to add depth and understanding to his work, like a sculptor adding layer and layer to his statue, building it up into a beautiful work of art.-Forms of imagery :Visual...

 to Ashurbanipal
Ashurbanipal |Ashur]] is creator of an heir"; 685 BC – c. 627 BC), also spelled Assurbanipal or Ashshurbanipal, was an Assyrian king, the son of Esarhaddon and the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire...

, the last great Neo-Assyrian king; and Nabonidus' originating from, and his special interest in Harran, an Assyrian city and the last stronghold of the Neo-Assyrians after the fall of Nineveh
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and capital of the Neo Assyrian Empire. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul, in the Ninawa Governorate of Iraq....

, their main capital
Capital City
Capital City was a television show produced by Euston Films which focused on the lives of investment bankers in London living and working on the corporate trading floor for the fictional international bank Shane-Longman....

. However, it has been pointed out that Nabonidus' royal propaganda was hardly different from his predecessors, while his Persian successor, Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus II of Persia , commonly known as Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much...

, also referred to Ashurbanipal in the Cyrus cylinder
Cyrus cylinder
The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script in the name of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. It dates from the 6th century BC and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia in 1879...

. He certainly did not belong to the previous ruling dynasty, the Chaldea
Chaldea or Chaldaea , from Greek , Chaldaia; Akkadian ; Hebrew כשדים, Kaśdim; Aramaic: ܟܐܠܕܘ, Kaldo) was a marshy land located in modern-day southern Iraq which came to briefly rule Babylon...

ns, of whom Nebuchadnezzar II was the most famous member. He came to the throne in 556 BCE by overthrowing the young king Labashi-Marduk
Labashi-Marduk, was king of Babylon , and son of Neriglissar. Labashi-Marduk succeeded his father when still only a boy, after the latter's four-year reign. Most likely due to his very young age, he was unfit to rule, and was murdered in a conspiracy only nine months after his inauguration...



In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is depicted as a royal anomaly. He is supposed to have worshiped the moongod Sîn beyond all the other gods, to have paid special devotion to Sîn's temple in Harran, where his mother was a priestess, and to have neglected the Babylonian primary god, Marduk
Marduk was the Babylonian name of a late-generation god from ancient Mesopotamia and patron deity of the city of Babylon, who, when Babylon became the political center of the Euphrates valley in the time of Hammurabi , started to...

. Because of the tensions that these religious reforms generated, he had to leave the capital for the desert oasis of Tayma
Tayma is a large oasis with a long history of settlement, located in northwestern Saudi Arabia at the point where the trade route between Yathrib and Dumah begins to cross the Nefud desert...

 in Arabia early in his reign, from which he only returned after many years. In the meantime, his son Belshazzar
Belshazzar, or Balthazar , was a 6th century BC prince of Babylon, the son of Nabonidus and the last king of Babylon according to the Book of Daniel . Like his father, it is believed by many scholars that he was an Assyrian. In Daniel Belshazzar, or Balthazar , was a 6th century BC prince of...

 ruled from Babylon, supposedly in the manner of an oriental despot
Oriental despotism
Oriental despotism is a term used to describe a despotic form of government that opposes the western tradition. Historically, the term's meaning has varied and today it is hardly ever used at all, largely because of all the issues surrounding the concept of orientalism.- Origins in Ancient Greece...


Religious policy

Although Nabonidus' personal preference for Sîn is clear, the strength of this preference divides scholars. While some claim that it is obvious from his inscriptions that he became almost henotheistic
Henotheism is the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities...

, others consider Nabonidus to have been similar to other Babylonian rulers, in that he respected the other cults and religions in his kingdom. His negative image could then be blamed on the Marduk priesthood, that resented Nabonidus' long absence from Babylon during his stay in Tayma, during which the important, Marduk-related New Year (Akītu-)Festival
Akitu was a spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia....

 could not take place, and his emphasis on Sîn. In any case, there is no sign of the civil unrest during his reign that would have been indicative of trouble.

Part of the propaganda issued by both the Marduk priesthood and Cyrus is the story of Nabonidus taking the most important cult
The word cult in current popular usage usually refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre. The word originally denoted a system of ritual practices...

ic statue
A statue is a sculpture in the round representing a person or persons, an animal, an idea or an event, normally full-length, as opposed to a bust, and at least close to life-size, or larger...

s from southern Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

A hostage is a person or entity which is held by a captor. The original definition meant that this was handed over by one of two belligerent parties to the other or seized as security for the carrying out of an agreement, or as a preventive measure against certain acts of war...

 in Babylon. This seems to be correct: a great number of contemporary inscriptions shows that these statues and their cultic personnel were indeed brought to Babylon just before the Persian attack:
However, modern scholarship
A scholarship is an award of financial aid for a student to further education. Scholarships are awarded on various criteria usually reflecting the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award.-Types:...

 has provided an explanation for this action. In Mesopotamia, gods
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

 were supposed to be housed inside their statues, from where they took care of their cities. But this only happened if they received the right kind of attention. So Nabonidus took special care of these statues and made sure that their cultic personnel had to come along with him. This was a long-standing tradition, too:
But this exposed him to criticism by his enemies, notably Cyrus, who was trying to show why he was a better king than Nabonidus had been, and took this as an example of Nabonidus lack of fitness to rule. In the words of, again, Beaulieu:
And in the words of Cyrus himself, as recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder, found in Babylon in 1879:
This is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles
Babylonian Chronicles
The Babylonian Chronicles are many series of tablets recording major events in Babylonian history. They are thus one of the first steps in the development of ancient historiography...


Nabonidus' stay in Tayma

It is not clear yet why Nabonidus stayed in Tayma for so long. His reason for going there seems clear: Tayma was an important oasis, from where lucrative Arabian
Arabian Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula is a land mass situated north-east of Africa. Also known as Arabia or the Arabian subcontinent, it is the world's largest peninsula and covers 3,237,500 km2...

 trade route
Trade route
A trade route is a logistical network identified as a series of pathways and stoppages used for the commercial transport of cargo. Allowing goods to reach distant markets, a single trade route contains long distance arteries which may further be connected to several smaller networks of commercial...

s could be controlled. The Assyrians before him had already attempted to do the same. However, why Nabonidus stayed for so long (probably about ten years, perhaps from 553-543 BC) and why he returned when he did remain unresolved questions. It has been proposed that this was because he did not feel at home in Babylon, which was opposed to his emphasis on Sîn. Regarding his return, this may have had to do with the mounting threat of Cyrus and growing disagreements with Belshazzar, who was relieved of his command directly after Nabonidus had come back, along with a number of administrators. During his stay, Nabonidus adorned Tayma with a complex of royal buildings, most of which have come to light during recent excavations.

The Persian conquest of Babylonia

Different accounts of the fall of Babylon survive. According to the Cyrus Cylinder, the people opened their gates for Cyrus and greeted him as their liberator. Isaiah
Book of Isaiah
The Book of Isaiah is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, preceding the books of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the Book of the Twelve...

 40-55 prophesied that the Persians would carry off Babylonian women and cultic statues. Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

 said that Cyrus defeated the Babylonians outside their city, after which a siege
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition or assault. The term derives from sedere, Latin for "to sit". Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of constant, low intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static...

 began. When this took too long, Cyrus diverted the Euphrates
The Euphrates is the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia. Together with the Tigris, it is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia...

, so that his troops could march into the city through the river bed. Xenophon
Xenophon , son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates...

 had a similar view, but he did not mention the battle. Finally, Berossus
Berossus was a Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer, a priest of Bel Marduk and astronomer writing in Greek, who was active at the beginning of the 3rd century BC...

 claimed that Cyrus beat the Babylonian army, but this time, Nabonidus was supposed to have fled to nearby Borsippa
Borsippa was an important ancient city of Sumer, built on both sides of a lake about southwest of Babylon on the east bank of the Euphrates. The site of Borsippa is in Babil Governorate, Iraq and now called Birs Nimrud, identifying the site with Nimrod...

. There he hid, while Cyrus took Babylon and demolished its outer walls. When Cyrus turned towards Borsippa, Nabonidus soon surrendered.

As these accounts contradict each other, due to their roles as propaganda (the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah; for the latter, see Cyrus in the Judeo-Christian tradition), oral tradition
Oral tradition
Oral tradition and oral lore is cultural material and traditions transmitted orally from one generation to another. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants...

s (Herodotus and Xenophon) and conflicting records (Berossus), they are quite confusing. More helpful is the Nabonidus Chronicle
Nabonidus Chronicle
The Nabonidus Chronicle is an ancient Babylonian text, part of a larger series of Babylonian Chronicles incribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets...

. This is a part of the Babylonian Chronicles, which are concise, factual accounts of historical events, and are therefore considered to be very reliable, although not very informative. Regarding the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, this text says:
Additionally, a building inscription has been found which mentions the restoration of the Enlil
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband, Robert Browning, shortly after her death.-Early life:Members...

A gate is a point of entry to a space enclosed by walls, or a moderately sized opening in a fence. Gates may prevent or control entry or exit, or they may be merely decorative. Other terms for gate include yett and port...

 of Babylon shortly after its capture. Based on this information, the following reconstruction has been proposed: When Cyrus attempted to march into southern Mesopotamia, he was met by the Babylonians near Opis
Opis was an ancient Babylonian city on the Tigris, not far from modern Baghdad. The precise location of Opis has not been established, but from the Akkadian and Greek texts, it was located on the east bank of the Tigris, near the Diyala River.-History:Opis is mentioned for the first time at the...

. In the ensuing battle, the Persians were victorious. This in turn led to the nearby city of Sippar
Sippar was an ancient Near Eastern city on the east bank of the Euphrates river, located at the site of modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq's Babil Governorate, some 60 km north of Babylon and 30 km southeast of Baghdad....

 surrendering. Meanwhile, the Babylonians had withdrawn south to establish a line of defence near the Euphrates that was intended to prevent Cyrus from advancing too far. However, Cyrus' forces did not challenge the Babylonian army. Rather, he sent a small force south along the Tigris
The Tigris River is the eastern member of the two great rivers that define Mesopotamia, the other being the Euphrates. The river flows south from the mountains of southeastern Turkey through Iraq.-Geography:...

 to try to take the capital by surprise. This plan worked: the Persian troops reached Babylon undetected and caught it unawares, meeting only minor resistance near one of its gates. Thus, they were not only able to capture Babylon, but also King Nabonidus.

This left the Babylonian army in an untenable position and it soon surrendered. In the meantime, Ugbaru
Gobryas was a common name of several Persian noblemen. The English form Gobryas is derived from the Greek rendering of this name.- Gobryas :...

, the commander of the Persian forces that had captured Babylon, had taken good care that his men would not plunder or otherwise harm the city. He had even made sure that the temple rites continued to be observed. Nonetheless, it still took Cyrus almost a month before he proceeded towards the city. As many Babylonian officials as well as the Babylonian administrative system stayed in place after the transition of power, it has been surmised that this time was spent on negotiations with representatives from the city; this is similar to what happened when the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II
Sargon II
Sargon II was an Assyrian king. Sargon II became co-regent with Shalmaneser V in 722 BC, and became the sole ruler of the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BC after the death of Shalmaneser V. It is not clear whether he was the son of Tiglath-Pileser III or a usurper unrelated to the royal family...

 and later Alexander the Great took the city.

The death of Nabonidus

The subsequent fate of Nabonidus is uncertain. Cyrus has been known for sparing the lives of the kings whom he had defeated, an idea that is based on his treatment of King Croesus
Croesus was the king of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC until his defeat by the Persians. The fall of Croesus made a profound impact on the Hellenes, providing a fixed point in their calendar. "By the fifth century at least," J.A.S...

 of Lydia
Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern Turkish provinces of Manisa and inland İzmir. Its population spoke an Anatolian language known as Lydian....

, who was allowed to live after his defeat at King Cyrus's court as an advisor. But that is only what Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

 says, and Herodotus also admits that Croesus was first sentenced to death by burning, and was only allowed to live after showing his wisdom. Bacchylides
Bacchylides was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Later Greeks included him in the canonical list of nine lyric poets which included his uncle Simonides. The elegance and polished style of his lyrics have been a commonplace of Bacchylidean scholarship since at least Longinus...

 tells us that Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...

 snatched up Croesus just before the flames of his pyre
A pyre , also known as a funeral pyre, is a structure, usually made of wood, for burning a body as part of a funeral rite...

 would burn him, and took him to the Hyperboreans. Also unhelpful is the reference in the Nabonidus Chronicle to a campaign by Cyrus in 547 BCE, during which a country was taken and its king killed, as the name of the country is lost. So we can only rely on the accounts by Berossus and the retrospective Hellenistic Babylonian dynastic prophecies, which mention that Nabonidus' life was spared, and that he was allowed to retire to live in Carmania.

See also

  • Babylonia
    Babylonia was an ancient cultural region in central-southern Mesopotamia , with Babylon as its capital. Babylonia emerged as a major power when Hammurabi Babylonia was an ancient cultural region in central-southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), with Babylon as its capital. Babylonia emerged as...

  • Cylinder of Nabonidus
    Cylinder of Nabonidus
    The Nabonidus Cylinder from Sippar is a long text in which king Nabonidus of Babylonia describes how he repaired three temples: the sanctuary of the moon god Sin in Harran, the sanctuary of the warrior goddess Anunitu in Sippar, and the temple of Šamaš in Sippar...

  • Ennigaldi ("Ennigaldi-Nanna"), daughter
  • Biblical archaeology
    Biblical archaeology
    For the movement associated with William F. Albright and also known as biblical archaeology, see Biblical archaeology school. For the interpretation of biblical archaeology in relation to biblical historicity, see The Bible and history....

     (reference to Nabonidus cylinder)
  • Nabonidus Chronicle
    Nabonidus Chronicle
    The Nabonidus Chronicle is an ancient Babylonian text, part of a larger series of Babylonian Chronicles incribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets...

External links

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