Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Babylonians

What name alone can summon such images of long-faded glory, wealth and decadence as that of Babylon?  Romanticism aside, Babylon in Achaemenid days was very much a living city.  The swift and total destruction at the hands of the Medes prophesied by Isaiah never came to pass; instead, it would slowly wither, under the heavy taxes imposed by the Achaemenids, rebellions, and many more centuries of war  But at the time of the Graeco-Persian wars, Babylon remained a prosperous and important land.

The city, which straddled the Euphrates in central Iraq, was first inhabited in the late 3rd millennium BC.  The so-called Weidner Chronicle of several centuries later states that Babylon was founded by Sargon himself, though the Akkadian name Bābili, "Gate of the Gods, is actually an adaptation of an earlier name, Babilla or Babillu, of unknown language and meaning.  This implies that Babylon was originally built by...

(cue creepy music)

...  someone else.

Babylon first became prominent under the Amorite dynasty in the 19th century BC.  Hammurabi ('Ammurāpi) expanded Babylonian rule in response to Elamite invasions, soon coming to include all of Mesopotamia.  It was up and down from then on, much like Assyria and other major powers of the area.  The expanding Akkadian populations of Babylonia and Assyria absorbed the Sumerians and led to the disappearance of ancient Sumer.  For four centuries in the later 2nd millennium a dynasty of Kassite origin seized power in Babylon.

The period from the Amorite dynasty onward is known as the Old Babylonian period, and ended with Neo-Assyrian domination in the 10th century.  At the same time, a people called the Chaldeans migrated to central Babylonia from the south.  In the late 8th century they allied with Elam and led Babylon in a failed revolt against Assyria, which ended in 689 with the demolition of the city's walls, temples and palaces at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib.  This was considered a sacrilege, and his successor Essarhaddon rebuilt Babylon and made a seasonal home there.

After Essarhaddon's death, his younger son Aššurbanipal became king of Assyria, while his elder, Šamaš-šuma-ukin, became prince of Babylonia.  Did somebody say civil war?  Šamaš-šuma-ukin's revolt (652-648) again ended in failure, and the prince allowed himself to burn with his palace as the city fell.

But Assyria itself did not last much longer; the aforementioned triple alliance of the Babylonians, Medes and Scythians finished what internecine struggles following Aššurbanipal's death had started, and left Babylon the uncontested ruler of Mesopotamia and the Levant.  The Chaldean monarch Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur, r. 605-562) repudiated the Scythian alliance and drove them out of Mesopotamia.  He also conquered the Levant, famously taking Judah in 587,destroying Solomon's Temple and taking the Judahite nobility captive.

The Chaldean dynasty too was brief.  The last king, Labashi-Marduk, was deposed in 556, the same year of his ascent, by an Assyrian, Nabonidus (Nabû-na'id), who nonetheless is regarded as a Babylonian ruler.

Then came Cyrus.  In 539, after a long period of empire-building and most recently having added Susa to his domain, he turned toward Babylon.  Two versions of his conquest of the city exist.  According to the Babylonian Nabonidus Chronicle, Nabonidus was aware of the Persians' movements and a large battle was fought near Opis north of Babylon.  Few details exist, but it is clear that the Babylonians lost badly and retreated to the capital.  The Cyrus Cylinder does not mention a battle, but claims that Cyrus entered the city peacefully.  According to later Greek accounts, he circumvented the city's massive walls by rerouting the Euphrates and entering through the river gates.  The actual occupation seems to have been peaceful at least in Cyrus' time.

As one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the empire, Babylon became capital of the satrapy of Babylonia (Bābiru in Persian) and Assyria.  The Persians were aware of Babylon's cultural importance in Mesopotamia.  Cyrus tried to present himself as the legitimate ruler, favored by its patron god, Marduk, in contrast to Nabonidus, who was not of royal lineage and whom the Cyrus Cylinder portrays as impious.

But Babylon was a rebellious country early in the Achaemenid period.  Among the empire-wide insurrections that followed Darius the Great's ascension, Nidintu-Bêl set himself up as King Nebuchadnezzar III in October of 522; after Darius crushed this rising in December, an Armenian named Arakha proclaimed himself Nebuchadnezzar IV from August to November of 521 before being defeated and captured by Intaphrenes.  Two more rebel leaders, Bêl-šimânni and Šamaš-eriba, arose some time during the reign of Xerxes, probably in 484.  Perhaps for this reason, Babylonians are not mentioned as taking part in the invasion of Greece.  The sequence of events in this rebellion is unclear, but Jona Lendering suggests that the partition of the satrapy of Babylon followed the end of the rebellion in October.  Herodotus states that Xerxes thereafter confiscated an idol from the temple of Babylon.  The mysterious "Daiva Inscription" of Xerxes, wherein he crushes a rebellion in an unnamed country and destroys the temple of daiva-worshippers, may refer to this incident.

There are hints that yet another rebellion occurred in 479; this would help explain the sudden departure of Xerxes from Greece in that year.  If so, it would have immense import for the course of the Graeco-Persian wars.

As an economic center with a huge population, Babylon was particularly heavily taxed - in Herodotus' time, the city paid a thousand silver talents yearly along with supporting the royal court and army for a third of a year.  The city began to economically decline over the course of the Achaemenid dynasty, but it remained relatively very wealthy even to the last years.

The Battle of Gaugamela, the last major battle of Darius III and Alexander the Great, took place near Babylon, but the Persian officials surrendered Babylon without a fight when Alexander arrived late in October of 331.  When his closest friend Hephaestion died in 324, his funeral was held here, and Alexander himself died the next year in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.

Most Greeks left Babylon in 275 for the new capital of the Seleucid empire, Seleucia, though the natives remained.  A new wave of Greek colonists arrived at the behest of Antiochus Epiphanes in the early 2nd century, but by the Parthian period the city's population was in decline.  The new year festival was still observed for many years and there is evidence that some of the city's facilities such as the Greek theater were still being kept up into the early centuries AD.  It is difficult to pin down when Babylon became entirely abandoned or when the Babylonians ceased to identify as such, but the process was certainly complete after the post-Islamic Arabization of Mesopotamia if not before.

As a dominant city in the 2nd millennium, Babylon became an important center of Mesopotamian religion.  Its patron god was Marduk, who in the Babylonian creation myth Enûma Eliš, replaces the earlier Sumerian god Enlil as supreme god and slayer of the primordial dragon Tiamat.  This elevation corroborated with Babylon's rise to prominence in the 18th century BC.  When ancient writers spoke of Bêl ("the Lord") in connection with Babylon, they refer to Marduk.  In art he was pictured in human form alongside a four-legged dragonlike creature called the muš-huššu .  Babylonian astronomers also associated him with the planet Jupiter.

Other major Akkadian gods were Anu, god of the heavens and father of the gods, Ea, god of water, Nabû, god of writing, and Ištar, goddess of fertility, from whom the Iranian yazata Anahita would acquire the aspects of war and association with Venus during the Achaemenid period.  The association of gods with stars/planets, and the resulting importance of astrology in Babylonian religion, compelled careful star observations that amounted to genuine astronomy.  In Greek, the term "Chaldean" came to refer to Asian priests who specialized in study of the stars and their portents.

Due to the dominance of Babylon in Mesopotamian politics and culture, it became a religious center as well.  In the middle of the city was the Ésagila, the main temple complex, wherein was the golden statue of Marduk and other deities.  On the new year holiday, Akitu, the statue of Nabû was transported from Borsippa to Babylon to commune with his father Marduk, and the Enûma Eliš was recited.  The king was supposed to receive his scepter in the temple of Nabû (part of the Nabonidus Chronicle seems to imply that Cambyses as Cyrus' regent of Babylon was refused this honor because of his Elamite robe).  The next day, the king would lay down his royal insignia and humble himself before the statue of Marduk.  Festivities lasted an entire week; the divine statues were taken to a series of stations, hymns were sung and good tidings proclaimed for the new year.

Of the Babylonian language, much the same can be said as of the Assyrian:  The native tongue was a dialect of Akkadian, but in the Achaemenid period it began to give way to Aramaic just as had happened in Assyria.

Clothing and arms
The usual two sources, Persepolis and Naqš-e Rostam, provide us with looks at Babylonian clothing around 500 BC.  They wear tunics coming down past the knee, which are probably similar to Neo-Assyrian ones, and an un-fringed shawl with one end visible hanging down the right front of the torso and gathered into a single large tassel.  Their hats are short, broad cones that are apparently soft and have long straps hanging down from their tops.

Their footwear appears to be low-quarter slip-on shoes with closed toes.  The tops of these shoes are low on the sides but rise in front and around the heel.  They resemble a style of slipper made from two pieces, a vamp and heel counter, along with the sole.

Babylonians do not seem to have served the Persian empire as soldiers very much.  They are not mentioned by Herodotus among Xerxes' invasion forces, though he pays much attention to the city itself; Achaemenid art doesn't show them with weapons - in fact, the Babylonian at Naqš-e Rostam is the only individual in the entire relief who is not armed.  Of course, they did have access to weapons; the fact that they were able to rebel repeatedly makes that a necessity.  From what little I can gather about the Neo-Babylonian military, it was modeled on the Assyrian one.  It also seems likely (though this is just a guess, and useless as far as showing anything unique) that Babylonians would also pick up some Medo-Persian weaponry, especially in the later uprisings.

UPDATE (May 1, 2013):  I seem to have been wrong about the above:   There were Babylonians in the Persian army, although I have yet to find out much about them.

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