Nabonidus: Wikis


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Nabonidus in relief showing him praying to the moon, sun and Venus
Terracotta cylinder by Nabonidus concerning repairs on the temple of Sîn, British Museum

Nabonidus (Akkadian Nabû-naʾid, "Nabu is praised") was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigning from 556-539 BCE.


Historiography on Nabonidus

More than with others, our perception of Nabonidus' reign has been heavily coloured by later accounts, notably by the Persians and the Greeks, as well as in the Hebrew Bible. As a result of this, Nabonidus was often described in very negative terms in 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 have altered significantly in recent decades.[1]

Coming to power

Nabonidus' background is not clear. He says himself in his inscriptions that he is of unimportant origins.[2] Similarly, his mother, who lived to high age and may have been connected to the temple of the moongod Sîn in Harran, in her inscriptions does not mention her descent. There are two arguments for an Assyrian background: repeated references in Nabonidus' royal propaganda and imagery to Ashurbanipal, 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, their main capital.[3] However, it has been pointed out that Nabonidus' royal propaganda was hardly different from his predecessors, while his Persian successor, Cyrus the Great, equally referred to Ashurbanipal in the Cyrus cylinder.[4] But the link with the Assyrian city of Harran is uncontested, and it thus remains likely that Nabonidus was Assyrian in origin. One way or another, he certainly did not belong to the previous ruling dynasty, the Chaldeans, of whom Nebuchadnezzar II was the most famous member. He came to the throne in 556 BC by overthrowing the youthful king Labashi-Marduk.


In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is being 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 main god, Marduk. Because of the tensions that these religious reforms generated, he had to leave the capital for the rich desert oasis of Tayma in Arabia early in his reign, from which he only returned after many years. In the meantime, his son Belshazzar ruled from Babylon, supposedly in the typical fashion of an oriental despot.


Religious policy

Although Nabonidus' personal preference for Sîn is clear, the degree of this divides scholars. While some claim that it is obvious from his inscriptions that he became almost henotheistic,[5] others consider Nabonidus to have been a regular ruler, who properly respected the other cults in his kingdom, including the traditional construction works to their temples.[6] His negative image is then to 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 could not take place, and his emphasis on Sîn. In any case, there is no sign of the civil unrest that would have been indicative of trouble, not even during his absence: Nabonidus could return to his throne without a problem.

Part of the propaganda issued by both the Marduk priesthood and Cyrus is the story of Nabonidus taking the most important cultic statues from southern Mesopotamia hostage in Babylon. This is not a lie: a great number of contemporary inscriptions shows that these statues and their cultic personnel were indeed brought to Babylon just before the Persian attack:

"In the month of [Âbu?] Lugal-Marada and the other gods of the town Marad, Zabada and the other gods of Kish, the goddess Ninlil and the other gods of Hursagkalama visited Babylon. Till the end of the month Ulûlu all the gods of Akkad -those from above and those from below- entered Babylon. The gods of Borsippa, Cutha, and Sippar did not enter."

However, modern scholarship has managed to explain for this in a more rational way. In Mesopotamia, gods were supposed to house inside their statues, from where they took care of their cities. But only if they received the right kind of attention, the combination of which explains why Nabonidus cared so much about these statues, as well as why their cultic personnel had to come along.[7] This was a long-standing tradition, too:

"One of the most powerful illustrations of the strength and conviction of image worship in ancient Mesopotamia is probably the treatment of cult statues in times of war. Assyrian and Babylonian sources of the first millennium frequently allude to the removal of divine statues from the temples as the result of a city being conquered. Spoliated statues were usually carried off to the land of the victorious power (Assyria in most known cases) where they remained in captivity until a turn of events would allow them to be restored to their shrines. (...) Rather than incur the capture of their gods and the resulting implications of such capture, namely, that the gods were abandoning the city and calling for its destruction, cities often tried to prevent the transfer of the statues to enemy territory, since continued possession of them in the face of adversity proved that the gods were still protecting and supporting their people and native land. (...) [D]uring the months which preceded the invasion and conquest of Babylonia by the Persians in 539 B.C., King Nabonidus ordered a massive gathering of the gods of Sumer and Akkad into the capital. Unlike previous attempts, the gathering ordered by Nabonidus is documented by a number of historical and archival sources." [after this, Beaulieu goes on to discuss these sources in detail]
P.-A. Beaulieu 1993:241-2

But this exposed him to the criticism of 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 unfitness to rule.[8] In the words of, again, Beaulieu:

"The returning of the statues to their sanctuaries provided Cyrus with one of his many propagandistic anti-Nabonidus themes. Not content with re-establishing the gods in their residence, he charged the deposed king with having brought them to the capital against their will."
P.-A. Beaulieu 1993:243

And in the words of Cyrus himself, as recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder, found in Babylon in 1879:

"As for the gods of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus, to the wrath of the lord of the gods, brought to Babylon, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I (Cyrus) caused them to dwell in peace in their sanctuaries, (in) pleasing dwellings. May all the gods I brought (back) to their sanctuaries plead daily before Bel and Nabu for the lengthening of my days, may they intercede favorably on my behalf."
Cyrus Cylinder, 30-34

This is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles:

"From the month of Kislîmu to the month of Addaru, the gods of Akkad which Nabonidus had made come down to Babylon, were returned to their sacred cities."

Nabonidus' stay in Tayma

It is not clear yet why Nabonidus stayed in Tayma for so long. His reason for going there is unproblematic enough: Tayma was an important oasis, from where lucrative Arabian trade routes could be controlled. The Neo-Assyrians before him had already attempted the same.[9] However, why Nabonidus stayed for so long (probably about ten years, perhaps from 553-543) and why he returned just then remains a question. 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.[10] During his stay, Nabonidus adorned Tayma with a full royal complex, most of which has come to light during recent excavations.[11]

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 40-55 prophecies that the Persians will carry off Babylonian women and cultic statues. Herodotus says that Cyrus beat the Babylonian outside the city, after which a siege began. When this took too long, he diverted the Euphrates, so that his troops could march into the city through the river bed.[12] Xenophon thinks so too, but he does not mention the battle.[13] Finally, Berossus again claims that Cyrus beat the Babylonian army, but this time, Nabonidus is supposed to have fled to nearby Borsippa. There he hid, while Cyrus took Babylon and demolished its outer walls. When he turned towards Borsippa, Nabonidus soon surrendered himself.[14]

As these accounts contradict each other, due to their backgrounds in propaganda (the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah; for the later, see Cyrus in the Judeo-Christian tradition), oral traditions (Herodotus and Xenophon) and conflicting records (Berossus), they are quite confusing. More helpful is the Nabonidus Chronicle. This is a part of the Babylonian Chronicles, which are terse, factual accounts of historical events, and are therefore considered to be very reliable, although not very informative.[15] This text has the following to say on the taking of Babylon by Cyrus:

"In the month of Tašrîtu, when Cyrus attacked the army of Akkad in Opis [i.e., Baghdad] on the Tigris, the inhabitants of Akkad revolted, but he [Cyrus or Nabonidus?] massacred the confused inhabitants. The fifteenth day [12 October], Sippar was seized without battle. Nabonidus fled. The sixteenth day, Gobryas [litt: Ugbaru], the governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterwards, Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned there. Till the end of the month, the shield carrying Gutians were staying within Esagila but nobody carried arms in Esagila and its buildings. The correct time for a ceremony was not missed.

In the month of Arahsamna, the third day [29 October], Cyrus entered Babylon, green twigs were spread in front of him - the state of peace was imposed upon the city. Cyrus sent greetings to all Babylon. Gobryas, his governor, installed subgovernors in Babylon."

Additionally, a building inscription has been found that mentions the restoration of the Enlil Gate of Babylon shortly after its capture. Through these data, the following reconstruction has been proposed:[16] When Cyrus attempted to march into southern Mesopotamia, he was met by the Babylonians near Opis. In the ensuing battle, the Persians were victorious. This in turn caused the nearby city of Sippar to surrender. Meanwhile, the Babylonians had withdrawn south to establish a line of defense near the Euphrates that should prevent Cyrus from advancing too far. However, Cyrus did not try the Babylonian army, but sent a small division south along the Tigris to try to take the capital by surprise. This plan worked: the division could reach 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, who briefly afterwards left his army to return to Babylon, not knowing that the city had already been taken.

This left the Babylonian army in a precarious position, and it soon surrendered. In the meantime, Ugbaru, the commander of the division 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;[17] this is similar to what happened when the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II and later Alexander the Great took the city.[18] Finally then, Cyrus went to Babylon, where he could now have his triumphant entry to the cheers of the people.

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 of Lydia, who was allowed to live after his defeat at King Cyrus's court as an advisor. But that is only what Herodotus says, and Herodotus also admits that Croesus was first sentenced to death by burning, and was only allowed to live after showing his wisdom.[19] Bacchylides tells us that Apollo snatched up Croesus just before the flames of his pyre 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.[20] 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 in Carmania.

See also


  1. ^ See for example in W. von Soden, “Kyros und Nabonid: Propaganda und Gegenpropaganda”, in H. Koch and D.N. MacKenzie (eds.), Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte der Achämenidenzeit und ihr Fortleben (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer 1983), 61-8; P.-A. Beaulieu, The reign of Nabonidus king of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (New Haven CT: Yale University Press 1989); A. Kuhrt, “Nabonidus and the Babylonian priesthood”, in M. Beard and J. North (eds.), Pagan priests: Religion and power in the ancient world (London: Duckworth), 117-55; F. Grant, “Nabonidus, Nabû-šarra-uṣur, and the Eanna temple”, in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 81 (1991:37-86); T.G. Lee, “The jasper cylinder seal of Aššurbanipal and Nabonidus’ making of Sîn’s statue”, in Revue d’Assyriologie 87 (1993:131-6); P. Machinist and H. Tadmor, “Heavenly wisdom”, in M.E. Cohen, D.C. Snell and D.B. Weisberg (eds.), The tablet and the scroll: Near Eastern studies in honour of William W. Hallo (Bethesda MD: CDL Press 1993), 146-51; H. Schaudig, Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros’ des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld entstandenen Tendezschriften: Textausgabe und Grammatik (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2001); P.-A. Beaulieu, “Nabonidus the mad king: A reconsideration of his steles from Harran and Babylon”, in M. Heinz and M.H. Feldman (eds.), Representations of political power: Case histories from times of change and dissolving order in the ancient Near East (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns 2007), 137-66.
  2. ^ Collected in Beaulieu 1989.
  3. ^ W. Mayer, "Nabonidus Herkunft", in M. Dietrich and O. Loretz (eds.), Dubsar anta-men: Studien zur Altorientalistik (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 1998), 245-61; Parpola, Simo (2004). "National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times" (PDF). Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (JAAS) 18 (2): pp. 19. "The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, who was of Assyrian extraction, reverted to Assyrian royal titulature and style in his inscriptions and openly promoted Assyrian religion and culture, evidently as a chauvinistic reaction against the Chaldean dynasty from which he had usurped power. No wonder the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon remembered him as an Assyrian king.".  Similarly: Parpola, Simo. "Assyrians after Assyria". University of Helsinki, The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (State Archives of Assyria). "The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who reigned sixty years after the fall of Nineveh and actually originated from an Assyrian city, Harran, refers to Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon as his "royal forefathers." 
  4. ^ A. Kuhrt, "'Ex oriente lux': How we may widen our perspectives on ancient history", in R. Rollinger, A. Luther and J. Wiesehöfer (eds.), Getrennte Wege? Kommunikation, Raum und Wahrnehmung in der alten Welt (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Antike 2007), 617-32.
  5. ^ Beaulieu 1989:46-65; Machinist/Tadmor 1993.
  6. ^ Kuhrt 1990.
  7. ^ P.-A. Beaulieu, "An episode in the fall of Babylon to the Persians", Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1993:241-61)
  8. ^ Beaulieu 1993; A. Kuhrt, "The Cyrus cylinder and Achaemenid imperial policy", Journal of the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983:83-97).
  9. ^ Beaulieu 1989:149-205. On Tayma's importance for trade: C. Edens and G. Bawden, "History of Tayma' and Hejazi trade during the first millennium B.C.", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 32 (1989:48-103).
  10. ^ Beaulieu 1989:149-205.
  11. ^ An overview of the history of Tayma, current archaeological work, as well as bibliographical references, are given in "Deutsches Archäologisches Institut: Tayma". Retrieved 2007-10-16.  Also: H. Hayajneh, "First evidence of Nabonidus in the Ancient North Arabian inscriptions from the region of Tayma", Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 31 (2001:81-95).
  12. ^ Herodotus, Histories 1.188-191
  13. ^ Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.5.1-36
  14. ^ From the Babyloniaca: Fragmente der griechischen Historiker 680F9a = Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 1.149-153.
  15. ^ R.J. van der Spek, ""Review of J.-J. Glassner, Mesopotamian chronicles (ed. B. Foster) (Leiden: Brill 2004)". ", Review of Biblical Literature (2005/09).
  16. ^ P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A history of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns 2002), 50-5, 80-7; G. Tolini, ""Quelques éléments concernant la prise de Babylon par Cyrus (octobre 539 av. J.-C.)". ", Arta (2005/03); A. Kuhrt, ""Ancient Near Eastern history: The case of Cyrus the Great of Persia". ", in H.G.M. Williamson (ed.), "Understanding the history of ancient Israel".  (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007), 107-27.
  17. ^ J. Wiesehöfer, "Kontinuität oder Zäsur? Babylon under den Achaimeniden", in J. Renger (ed.), Babylon: Focus Mesopotamischer Geschichte, Wiege früher Gelehrsamheit, Mythos in der Moderne (Saarbrücken: SDV 1999), 167-88; M. Jursa, "The transition of Babylonia from the Neo-Babylonian empire to Achaemenid rule", in H. Crawford (ed.), Regime change in the ancient Near East and Egypt: From Sargon of Agade to Saddam Hussein (New York: Oxford University Press 2007), 73-94.
  18. ^ Kuhrt 2007 ("'Ex oriente lux'...").
  19. ^ 1.86-88
  20. ^ This passage is treated in detail in the article on Croesus.

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Preceded by
King of Babylon
556–539 BC
Succeeded by
Nebuchadnezzar IV (Self-proclaimed)

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