By the first century AD the cuneiform writing system was nearing extinction. Babylon appears to have been one of the last centres in which the script survived, preserved in venerable temple institutions such as Esagila, but such isolated pockets of cuneiform scholarship were doomed to wither away. The latest dated cuneiform texts known today were written in the first century AD.1

The demise of cuneiform, and more particularly of the ability to read cuneiform documents, is of enormous significance to the nature of Babylon’s survival. For 2,000 years Babylon would be known only through foreign sources, and not until the mid-nineteenth century would the chronicles, literature, mythology and scholarship of ancient Mesopotamia become accessible once again. The content and character of the non-cuneiform ancient sources on Babylon is therefore of paramount importance to our story. The two principal groups of sources available after the extinction of cuneiform are biblical texts and the accounts of classical Greek authors. The two groups possess characteristics of language, subject matter and focus that distinguish them from one another in broad terms, but each also contains considerable internal variety. Their content includes mythology and folklore, ethnographic and geographical observations, detailed historical accounts, moral commentaries and more besides. The biblical and classical sources are the building blocks from which the entirety of European tradition on ancient Babylon is ultimately derived.

At one remove from the ancient Mesopotamian sources themselves, in considering the biblical and classical sources we repeatedly encounter questions not only of factual accuracy but also of perspective. There is a need to address problems of accuracy and the limitations of the ancient sources’ knowledge of the Babylonia they describe, but just as important are the perspectives which, if limited in terms of accurate description of the city, reveal much about Babylon’s place in the wider world. When dealing with glimpses of an enigma such as the Hanging Gardens, it is natural to become impatient for more reliable information, yet amid the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the legendary in these accounts we have material as precious as any native source: contemporary chroniclers of Babylon as seen from without.

Biblical sources

With the exception of the Book of Revelation, all the biblical sources on Babylon are to be found in the Old Testament and Apocrypha. Including Revelation, they form a corpus composed at different times over the course of a millennium and in several languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – as well as a variety of political and cultural settings. It is therefore all the more remarkable that to a great extent the biblical narratives concerning Babylon are actually focused on a very short period in the city’s history. Almost all references to Babylon in the Bible relate to the city of the sixth century BC under the rule of the Neo-Babylonian kings and their Persian successors. Many of these passages are individually the subject of voluminous scholarship, far beyond the scope of the present book. Here we simply give a summary account of the most influential themes in terms of Babylon's later reception.


If this claim to historical focus seems at first rather far-fetched, it is perhaps because of the timeless, mythic character of the best-known of all biblical stories surrounding Babylon: the Tower of Babel.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly’. They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.2

The story involves a play on words: Babel sounds like the Hebrew verb balal, to confuse.3 The narrative is intended to explain the origin of multiple languages, but the tale of a city whose great size and pride have led to hubris, decay, fragmentation and confusion has struck a chord with writers and artists through the ages. The narrative is set in a mythical past and at first sight appears wholly unconnected with the historical realities of sixth-century BC Babylon. Where then does it originate?

A Mesopotamian origin of some kind for the Tower is relatively easy to demonstrate, since the Tower of the Genesis text contains several elements that reflect the qualities of a Mesopotamian ziggurat: the building materials of baked brick and bitumen are referred to specifically. Particular reference to the ziggurat Etemenanki at Babylon itself is a slightly different matter (of which more below), but the image of a Babylonian city dominated by a ziggurat comes through unambiguously.

Mesopotamian influence is clear not only in the building described. Following the Tower of Babel narrative is one of the biblical passages most clearly paralleled in Mesopotamian literature: genealogies following the Flood,4 with lifespans considerably shorter than those that preceded it. These have parallels in the early part of the Sumerian King-List, in which a similar gradual reduction towards more plausibly mortal lifespans occurs. This correspondence is the more interesting because although the Tower of Babel story only makes sense as a foreign (Judaean) interpretation of the monuments,5 one aspect is strangely reminiscent of an ancient Mesopotamian explanation for death. In the myth known as Atra-hasis, humanity has been created to serve the gods, but humans in large numbers are found to be noisy.6 Angered, the great god Enlil sends cataclysmic floods, but soon enough population returns to an unacceptable level. Only by inventing death can numbers be regulated. The Tower seems to carry a similar implication that human affairs might be regulated based on the comfort of the gods rather than a system of moral punishment and reward, and for this and other reasons it has been suggested that the story might be a borrowing from Mesopotamia. No similar cuneiform text survives, however, the only possible reference being the case of a single omen stating that ‘If a city rises to the interior of heaven like a mountain peak, that city will be turned to rubble.’7 This correspondence is probably coincidental, however, and it should be noted that the Tower’s physical destruction (as opposed simply to the cessation of construction due to the confusion of tongues) is not part of the Genesis account at all, appearing instead in the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus,8 whose first-century AD elaboration and moral interpretation of the story has had an enormous impact on later representations. (He also makes Nimrod the Tower’s architect, following the implication of Genesis 10,9 and is responsible for introducing a prophecy from the Sibyl paralleling the Genesis account.10) Perhaps more significant are the Babylonian tradition of Babylon as the first city (as in the creation epic Enuma Elish) and the inscriptions of Neo-Babylonian kings that describe raising the top of Etemenanki to ‘to vie with the heavens’.11 It is another passage, however, that gives the clearest of all indicators of the influence of Babylonian literature on the Book of Genesis: the account of the Flood, whose Babylonian equivalent was discovered by George Smith to public astonishment in 1872.12 Part of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the narrative is so close to that of Genesis as to admit of no doubt that the two are directly related.

Nimrod is not mentioned in Genesis 11, but in Genesis 10 (originally a separate text) is described as the son of Cush, son of Ham, and as ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord’.13 Attempts have been made to link him to figures in Mesopotamian literature.14Whatever the name’s origin, he is clearly presented as the founder of Mesopotamian civilization: Genesis 10 describes him founding cities first in Babylonia (including Babylon and Akkad), then in Assyria (including Nineveh).15


There are widely divergent views on the date of the Yahwist Source, and thus that of the Tower of Babel and much other material in Genesis. Traditionally, the material has been regarded as the oldest in the Bible, dating to the tenth–ninth century BC; more recently, it has been argued that some or even all of the Yahwist Source should be dated much later, to the sixth century BC.16 This is a hugely complicated and multi-faceted question on which there is no scholarly consensus, but it is relevant here that from the narrower perspective of Near Eastern political history and Mesopotamian influence there is some reason for considering the sixth century BC as a natural candidate for the crucial period during which many legends drawn from or influenced by the Babylonian world entered Judaean religion and ultimately the Old Testament. In the sixth century BC, Babylon and Judah underwent a period of extremely close interaction – events, indeed, around which a substantial part of the Bible is structured – known variously as the Jewish Exile, Judaean Exile and Babylonian Captivity. We have already seen something of the Babylonian view of these events in Chapter 2. To recap, Nebuchadnezzar II, after successfully securing the borders of his empire against the Babylonians’ main western rival, Egypt, still had to deal with rebellions and dissent in the provinces. One rebellious vassal state was Judah, whose revolts in 597 and 587 BC required Nebuchadnezzar to besiege and recapture Jerusalem twice, on the second occasion sacking and looting the city and its temple. Large numbers of people, including the king and court, were deported from Jerusalem to Babylonia, where a majority of them stayed and became integrated into Babylonian society.

Though in agreement with the Babylonian sources on the basic facts of the case, the biblical perspective on these events is profoundly different. Above all else, the experience of exile is presented as a traumatic separation of a people from its beloved homeland. The best-known expression of this deep spiritual loss is Psalm 137, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon we Sat Down and Wept’:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
As we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there
We hung up our lyres,
For there those who had carried us captive
Asked us to sing them a song,
Our captors called on us to be joyful:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,
May my right hand wither away;
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

Remember, Lord, against the Edomites
The day when Jerusalem fell,
How they shouted, ‘Down with it, down with it,
Down to its very foundations!’
Babylon, Babylon the destroyer,
Happy is he who repays you
For what you did to us!
Happy is he who seizes your babes
And dashes them against a rock.17

No hint of this feeling is to be found in the matter-of-fact Babylonian sources, and indeed one might even question the universality of such strength of bitter feeling among the Judaeans themselves. The Assyriologist and historian of Mesopotamian archaeology Mögens Trolle Larsen offers a provocative counterpoint to the biblical perspective:

When the Jewish elite was sent from the provincial outpost of Jerusalem to Babylon, it was somewhat the same as sending the intellectuals of Poznań into exile in Paris – it is a wonder that any of them wanted to go back after sixty years, and of course relatively few did; but those who chose to return were full of the rage of injured pride, a feeling they poured into their dreams and prophecies.18

History has room for both these narratives, one current pushing toward the maintenance of a distinct identity, strengthened in exile, the other toward assimilation into Babylonian life.19 If the story of the exile is structured by opposition to Babylon, much of the content of the Old Testament is nonetheless steeped in Babylonian culture.

The three major biblical versions of the Exilic story are to be found in 2 Kings,20 2 Chronicles21 and (as prophecy) Jeremiah.22 This, on a par with the Exodus (whose Old Testament form seems itself to have been heavily influenced by the Babylonian Captivity),23 is a case of forced migration on which later Jewish and Christian traditions have focused as a touchstone for all righteous struggle against oppression. In both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles the siege of Jerusalem and Captivity are the subject of final chapters, although the two accounts end at different points. 2 Kings finishes with the release of Jehoiachin:

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month, King Evil-merodach Amel-Marduk of Babylon in the year of his accession showed favour to king Jehoiachin. He released him from prison, treated him kindly, and gave him a seat at table above the kings with him in Babylon. Jehoiachin, discarding his prison clothes, lived as a pensioner of the king for the rest of his life. For his maintenance as long as he lived a regular daily allowance was given him by the king.24

2 Chronicles, though only treating the period of the Captivity very briefly, extends to the rule of Cyrus and the Judaeans’ release. Specifically its final two passages, repeated at the beginning of Ezra (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, originally formed a single book),25 offer one of the Bible’s most famous links with archaeology, in that the text relates closely to that of the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the most important primary sources on the transition between the Babylonian and Achaemenid empires.26 The passage runs:

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, to fulfil his word spoken through Jeremiah, inspired the king to issue throughout his kingdom the following proclamation, which he also put in writing:

The decree of King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Whoever among you belongs to his people, may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.27

The proclamation is completed in Ezra:

Whoever among you belongs to his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and build the house of the Lord the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. Let every Jew left among us, wherever he is settled throughout the country, be helped by his neighbours with silver and gold, goods and livestock, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.28

A variant of the same text also appears in the Apocrypha, in 1 Esdras.29 The ‘house’ is the Second Temple, another major Old Testament theme. The Cyrus Cylinder, one of many written versions of a proclamation made by Cyrus, includes specific provisions for the return of gods and people to their home cities, and it is widely agreed that the biblical passage refers to the same proclamation. That the examples given are Mesopotamian and Elamite and do not include Jerusalem simply reflects the Babylonian context of the cylinder in particular. Nonetheless, it is clear enough that the passage in Ezra does not give the exact words of Cyrus, who was not himself a convert to Judaism. His place in the story as liberator, however, has accorded him a sympathetic portrait in the biblical accounts and, by extension, later histories. Babylon and its earlier kings, by contrast, are subject to some of the most fiery condemnations of Jeremiah and Isaiah. In one passage in Isaiah, an explicit link is made between the king of Babylon and Lucifer (Lucifer is the Latin Vulgate translation of Helel ben Shahar, rendered in English as Son of Dawn, Son of the Morning, Day Star or Shining One).30 The reference is contained in a song mocking the fallen king of Babylon:

How you have fallen from heaven,

 morning star, son of the dawn!

You have been cast down to the earth,

 you who once laid low the nations!

You said in your heart,

 ‘I will ascend the heavens;

I will raise my throne

 above the stars of God;

I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,

 on the utmost heights of the sacred mount.

I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

 I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,

 to the depths of the pit.

Those who see you stare at you,

 they ponder your fate:

 ‘Is this the man who shook the earth

 and made kingdoms tremble,

the man who made the world a wilderness,

 who overthrew its cities

 and would not let his captives go home?’31


In Isaiah, the ‘morning star’ is never named,32 and the identity of the last king of Babylon is a significant problem in other biblical accounts. Not all of the names of the Neo-Babylonian kings survive into the Old Testament, and from the biblical sources alone the chronology is not always clear. The problem of royal names and chronology is even more apparent in Daniel, yet in many ways it is here that we find the definitive biblical version of Babylon; a detailed image of the Babylonian court that has inspired and informed most other representations of the city since. The world represented is Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid, although the Aramaic text itself dates to several centuries after the time of Nebuchadnezzar. As with much apocalyptic literature, the accurate prediction of later events in the text, written as prophecy, gives us a relatively unproblematic guide to the earliest date of composition.33 This approach, placing it in the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), remains the best available guide to the dates of Chapters 7–12, although Chapters 1–6 are more problematic.34 In terms of composition, there is a break between Chapters 6 and 7. The cycle of Babylonian rule –Nebuchadnezzar II followed by Belshazzar followed by ‘Darius the Mede’ (whose identification has proven difficult)35 – in Chapters 1–6 is repeated in Chapters 7–9. The break coincides with two other changes: the onset of visions in the narrative and a markedly more negative attitude toward the Babylonian kings.

The narrative follows the career of the prophet Daniel, a Judaean interpreter of dreams in the courts of successive kings of Babylon. Such a career for a Judaean in Babylon is plausible,36 but the figure of Daniel in the Bible is likely to be a composite. Collins argues that the tradition of a great prophet of this name is older than the Babylonian Captivity:

[T]he figure of Daniel may be more akin to Enoch than to Ezra or Baruch. The Bible contains no reference to a prophet by this name outside the actual book of Daniel. In the book of Ezekiel (an actual prophet of the exile) we do, however, have two references to Daniel. Ezek. 14:14 says that when a land sins against God ‘even if these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they would deliver only their own lives.’ Ezekiel 28:3 taunts the king of Tyre: ‘Are you wiser than Daniel?’ It would appear from these references that Daniel was the name of a legendary wise and righteous man.37

Although it could be argued that Ezekiel refers to a revered prophet of his own day, likening Daniel to those of legend, this seems less probable than the explanation given above by Collins. If the origins of a Daniel tradition lie further in the past, however, the setting for the biblical text is clearly and specifically the Neo-Babylonian and Persian court of the sixth century BC. The main substance of the early part of the Book of Daniel is a series of dreams and omens that Daniel interprets. The main king whom Daniel serves is Nebuchadnezzar, but the narrative also features Belshazzar and Darius the Mede. The absence of the other Neo-Babylonian kings, and particularly Nabonidus as the last of the dynasty, reflects the later date of the source. Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, was never king of Babylon, but acted as regent at Babylon during his father’s absence in Arabia,38 and both the length of that absence and the fact that Belshazzar is remembered as king in the Book of Daniel suggest that his role as regent was more than token. In Daniel the regency becomes a reign as full king and Nabonidus is forgotten, although in reality the latter had returned from Arabia well before the Persian conquest. Perhaps the fact that Nabonidus was forgotten in this way reflects the final success of Cyrus, who had taken care to ensure that his predecessor’s name and memory were systematically erased.39

One Daniel story of particular importance in later tradition is that of the Fiery Furnace. Three Hebrews, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, refuse to worship a huge golden idol set up by Nebuchadnezzar, who has them thrown into the fire. Once in the furnace the three are unharmed. Worse, Nebuchadnezzar can see four men walking in the fire and, he observes, ‘the fourth looks like a god’.40 Nebuchadnezzar is struck both by the faith of the Jews and the power of their god and, if not going so far as to convert, issues a remarkable decree: ‘Anyone, whatever his people, nation, or language, if he speaks blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, is to be hacked limb from limb and his house is to be reduced to rubble; for there is no other god who can save in such a manner’.41 The story is a good example of the ambiguity of Nebuchadnezzar’s role in Daniel. Not only an oppressor, he acts in many ways as a sponsor to Daniel and other Jews, and is prepared to take Daniel’s advice and accept his interpretations of dreams.

Perhaps the most famous episode from Daniel is that of Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years in the wilderness.42 The story is thought to have arisen from cuneiform texts that actually concerned Nabonidus. The Cyrus Cylinder and Verse Account of Nabonidus in particular furnished details of Nabonidus’ supposedly heretical behaviour prior to the fall of Babylon.43 The king’s perceived neglect of the capital and its cults, combined with his apparent attempt to elevate the role of the moon-god Sin (and with it his mother Adda-Guppi’s temple to the same god at Harran) at the expense of Babylon’s Marduk priesthood provided great scope for Persian anti-Nabonidus propaganda. The Dead Sea Scroll text known as the Prayer of Nabonidus44 added another layer to what was already becoming more of a legend than a biography: in this version Nabonidus ‘lived apart from men’ for seven years while suffering from what may have been a disfiguring disease.45 In Daniel, the disease is transformed again, becoming seven years of madness and God’s punishment not for Nabonidus’ heresy but for Nebuchadnezzar’s pride,46 while the downfall of the city itself is associated with Belshazzar. Where the Babylon of Nabonidus now passed to the Persian Cyrus, that of Daniel’s Belshazzar is ruled by an aged Darius the Mede.47

This attribution of stories originally associated with Nabonidus to Nebuchadnezzar is not an isolated conflation of historical identities. The name of Nebuchadnezzar in Hebrew, Aramaic and later Arabic writings came to be associated with other figures, including two much more recent invaders of Jerusalem, the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. Al-Biruni (973–1048 AD), observing the attribution of Nebuchadnezzar’s identity to the Roman emperors, commented that ‘It seems that the people of Jerusalem call everybody who destroyed their town Nebuchadnezzar’.48 Although the Book of Daniel shows confusion in the identity of his successors, there is a reasonable argument for an intentional conflation of Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar in this case. If the authors drew directly on Babylonian sources, the conflation must have been conscious. If conflation occurred in a chain of intermediate written or oral sources it might still have been conscious and deliberate, because unless the story at some stage replaced the name Nabonidus with ‘king of Babylon’, someone in the chain must have read or heard Nabonidus but written or said Nebuchadnezzar. Clearly the substitution of one historical name for another is very different from the gradual corruption of a single name, e.g. our own Nebuchadnezzar (or the other Hebrew variant, Nebuchadrezzar) from the Babylonian Nabu-kudurri-usur. Most probably, stories involving any king of Babylon tended eventually to attach to the famous name of Nebuchadnezzar.

The problem of Nabonidus’ absence from the biblical accounts is exacerbated by equal confusion over the identity and place of his son, the crown prince Belshazzar. In his study of Nabonidus and Belshazzar, Dougherty summarizes 13 ancient non-cuneiform accounts of the succession, with considerable variation in the sequence of rulers given.49 By far the most famous role played by Belshazzar, however, is that given in the Book of Daniel, in which, as king of Babylon, he presides over a great feast, serving his nobles from gold and silver taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple in Jerusalem. In this moment of supreme blasphemy God’s punishment arrives, prefigured by the writing on the wall, a mysterious warning that only Daniel can read. He explains the portent to Belshazzar as follows:

‘You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

‘This is the inscription that was written:

 Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin

‘This is what these words mean:

 Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’50

Belshazzar honours Daniel for relaying this warning, making him the third highest officer in the empire, but to no avail. Mere hours later Babylon falls to the invading Persians.

The latter part of Daniel consists of apocalyptic visions. It is certainly significant from the standpoint of later portrayals that the only apocalyptic text in the Old Testament is set in Babylon, but a description of the destruction of the city is not itself part of the Daniel apocalypse. The visions are too abstract to belong to any geographical place, although they are used to couch specific history and geography in the vaguer terms of prophecy. Daniel’s vision of the ‘time of the end’51 begins with a war between the kingdoms of the north and the south. These are Hellenistic kingdoms. Daniel 11 alludes to the rise of Alexander and to the subsequent division of his empire among the generals:

‘Now then, I tell you the truth: Three more kings will appear in Persia, and then a fourth, who will be far richer than all the others. When he has gained power by his wealth, he will stir up everyone against the kingdom of Greece. Then a mighty king will appear, who will rule with great power and do as he pleases. After he has appeared, his empire will be broken up and parcelled out toward the four winds of heaven. It will not go to his descendants, nor will it have the power he exercised, because his empire will be uprooted and given to others.’52

The Babylonian Captivity is a defining experience in the Old Testament: beyond the accounts of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem, the deportation to Babylon and the return to Jerusalem granted by Cyrus themselves, much of the Old Testament was written and/or set in Babylonia. Beyond even this there is a further association apparent in the Mesopotamian literary traditions on which Old Testament narratives frequently draw, famous examples being Nahum and the Song of Songs. To later readers, of course, this interweaving of literary traditions was less visible than the presentation of the history of the Captivity itself. In this history the fate of sinful Babylon, if not strictly apocalyptic, took on a far more dramatic character than that suggested by the Cyrus Cylinder. The most vivid description is found in Jeremiah:

Therefore marmots and jackals will skulk in it, desert-owls will haunt it; never more will it be inhabited and age after age no one will dwell in it. It will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah along with their neighbours, says the Lord; no one will live in it, no human being will make a home there.53


The only New Testament apocalypse, and indeed the only New Testament source on Babylon,54 Revelation is much later than any of the other biblical accounts mentioned here, dating to the late first century AD.55 It is also very different in its composition and purpose from any of the Old Testament sources. Although it makes constant reference to the Old Testament, using references familiar to Christians to mask politically dangerous statements, the subject matter is contemporary, with Babylon a metaphor for the Roman world and for Rome itself. This symbolic role, of course, has not prevented Revelation from acting simulataneously as a source for ideas and imagery on the historical Babylon. The Whore of Babylon first appears here, embodying the corruption of Rome, Babylon and the pagan world:

One of the seven angels who held the seven bowls came and spoke to me; ‘Come,’ he said, ‘I will show you the verdict of the great whore, she who is enthroned over many waters. The kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and people of the world have made themselves drunk on the wine of her fornication.’ He carried me in spirit into the wilderness, and I saw a woman mounted on a scarlet beast which was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and decked out with gold and precious stones and pearls. In her hand she held a gold cup full of obscenities and the foulness of her fornication. Written on her forehead was a name with a secret meaning: ‘Babylon the great, the mother of whores and of every obscenity on earth.’ I saw the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s people, and with the blood of those who had borne their testimony to Jesus.56

Both the woman and the beast have been understood to represent Babylon,57 and the vivid apocalyptic imagery of Revelation has undoubtedly informed many later representations of the city. Alongside this imagery, the language and even the moral message of Revelation were to become part of the standard tool-kit for describing and representing Babylon in later ages. Of course, this is not a message first conceived here, nor is all the symbolism original. The passage above, for example, recalls Jeremiah:

Babylon has been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand,
To make all the earth drunk;
The nations have drunk of her wine,
And that has made them mad.58

Nonetheless, the anthropomorphic representation of Babylon in Revelation is a significant step even from the sinful King of Babylon of Isaiah. Once created, she is a figure whose identity infuses all the others. The historical fall of Babylon, the Persian conquest of 539 BC, now becomes permanently entwined with the violent, hallucinatory, apocalyptic visions of Revelation. Thus begins Babylon’s transformation from a real, physical location in Mesopotamia to a spiritual one in the providential narrative of Christian history. Babylon here was not only Rome, but all of human worldliness and wickedness, the site of crisis at which the great battle of the Apocalypse would take place and from whose destruction the New Jerusalem would finally emerge.

Classical sources

The two most sustained and detailed surviving ancient Greek descriptions of Babylon come from Herodotus59 and Ctesias of Cnidus, the latter via the later historian Diodorus Siculus.60 These accounts, along with the almost entirely lost description of Berossus, have proven highly influential, informing sources on Babylon from antiquity to the present. Of the three, the earliest and today the best known is that of Herodotus, and it is with this account that any consideration of the influence of classical sources on Babylon must begin.


The first feature that differentiates Herodotus’ description of Babylon from the biblical accounts is that a description is exactly what it is. It consists of an examination of the layout, architecture, population and customs of the city, and in this respect has no biblical counterpart. With the single grand exception of the Tower of Babel, almost no description is given of any of the city’s physical features in the Old Testament; by contrast, Herodotus offers a topographical survey complete with detailed accounts of the more remarkable buildings. It was here that Greek audiences could first encounter the walls of Babylon, later to be numbered among the seven wonders of the world. In Herodotus’ description, the city:

Is surrounded by a broad deep moat full of water, and within the moat there is a wall fifty royal cubits wide and two hundred high (the royal cubit is three inches longer than the ordinary cubit). And now I must describe how the soil dug out to make the moat was used, and the method of building the wall. While the digging was going on, the earth that was shovelled out was formed into bricks, which were baked in ovens as soon as a sufficient number were made; then using hot bitumen for mortar the workmen began by revetting with brick each side of the moat, and then went on to erect the actual wall. In both cases they laid rush-mats between every thirty courses of brick. On the top of the wall they constructed, along each edge, a row of one-roomed buildings facing inwards with enough space between for a four-horse chariot to pass. There are a hundred gates in the circuit of the wall, all of bronze with bronze uprights and lintels.61

This short passage alone has been the focus of much speculation on Herodotus and the veracity of his account. There are plenty of details to work with, from the impossible height of the wall and the 100 gates,62 to the accurate description of baked bricks, use of bitumen and layers of matting. Other details lie somewhere between: the thickest of Babylon’s inner city walls were indeed enormous, validating Herodotus’ claims, but whether chariots actually did run along them (or even in a protected roadway between the two main banks)63 is another matter.

Many inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the ancient descriptions of Babylon are not readily explained as mistakes, nor do they necessarily stem from ignorance. In the case of Herodotus, particular historical circumstance and the establishment of a new genre should be considered. Herodotus balanced a claim to authority based on personal observation and research with a concern for entertainment and giving pleasure to the listener or reader.64 The elements of narrative and entertainment were recognized in antiquity, and not always valued. Aristotle’s description of Herodotus as a mythologos, a teller of myths,65 was not intended as a complement. In an early but highly influential use of Assyriology to interrogate ancient Greek sources, the Assyriologist A. H. Sayce set out to question Herodotus’ claims about Babylon one by one.66 Working methodically through his account, Sayce’s 1883 study effectively – at the time it must have seemed fatally – demolished the authority of Herodotus’ description and undermined the belief that he had ever actually visited Babylon. Although he was despairing of Herodotus the historian, however, Sayce did have a clear view of what, if not accurate historical description, the value of Herodotus could be for the modern student:

The net result of Oriental research in its bearing upon Herodotos is to show that the greater part of what he professes to tell us of the history of Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia, is really a collection of ‘märchen,’ or popular stories, current among the Greek loungers and half-caste dragomen on the skirts of the Persian empire. For the student of folklore they are invaluable, as they constitute almost the only record we have of the folklore of the Mediterranean in the fifth century before our era […]. After all, it is these old stories that lend as great a charm to the pages of Herodotos as they do to those of Mediæval travellers like Mandeville or Marco Polo; and it may be questioned whether they are not of higher value for the history of the human mind than the most accurate descriptions of kings and generals, of war treaties and revolutions.67

Surviving fragments of ancient folklore and legend are indeed a precious resource. If the entirety of Herodotus’ account were proven false there would still be great value in its reading. It would surely still be included here, since stories and ideas can be significant from the point of view of representation long after they have been discredited as historical sources, or indeed without ever having seriously pretended to that status in the first place. There may be no clearer example of this than Babylon, but it is not a unique case. Perhaps the closest parallel is Venice, whose great cultural impact on the modern European imagination has little to do with historical particulars, save perhaps the life of Casanova. Tanner’s 1992 study of the city’s cultural identity is entitled Venice Desired:

As the greatest and richest and most splendid republic in the history of the world, now declined and fallen, Venice became an important, I would say central, site (a topos, a topic) for the European imagination. And more than any other city it is inextricably associated with desire. Desire of Venice, desire for Venice, desire in Venice – this is a crucial force and feature in European literature from Byron to Sartre.68

This seductive Venice of the imagination has something in common with many European images of Babylon. Such imagined cities have something to tell us about our own culture, our modes of thought and our organization and structuring of the world around us. For all this, however, the historical accuracy of ancient sources does matter, even when we focus on historiography and representation. We need to be able to distinguish between observation, hearsay and imagination in Herodotus if we are to understand just what it was about Babylon that he wanted to communicate, and to differentiate the city he describes from what we would be prepared to call the historical reality, however limited and imperfect our own knowledge of the latter. Assessing the veracity of Herodotus’ statements is not the primary work of this book, but disentangling the historiography that leads to more recent representations is, and it is worth noting that contemporary scholarship is currently undoing much of Sayce’s original argument. Herodotus’ description of Babylon has regained some of its lost credibility.69

Herodotus made no mention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a surprising omission with several possible explanations. Either Herodotus did not actually visit Babylon, or there were no such gardens there to describe, or he had no knowledge of or access to royal gardens – we would, after all, expect their use to be highly restricted. Following Sayce, but supported by separate references to the gardens in Berossus (via Josephus), Ctesias (via Diodorus Siculus) and Strabo, the consensus has been that Herodotus either did not visit Babylon himself, or more specifically did not visit the royal palace.70 Stephanie Dalley has argued that Herodotus did not mention the gardens because there were none, and that the gardens described by other authors were in fact those of Sennacherib at Nineveh.71 This is not the first analysis to locate the gardens elsewhere. E. A. Wallis Budge suggested the ‘palace of Cyrus’ at Ecbatana as another potential site based on the account given by Hyginus72 and on Pliny’s attribution of the gardens to Cyrus.73 Further, he argued, ‘It is possible that statements about the garden of Cyrus were transferred to the Hanging Garden, and, as a matter of fact, the accounts of it are so contradictory that they cannot all be referring to the same thing’.74

The debate on the gardens’ location continues. Julian Reade has suggested that the western outwork, a massive structure between Babylon’s Southern Palace and the Euphrates traditionally interpreted as a treasury or fort because of its unusually thick walls, might equally be the foundations for garden terraces, and that this location would tally with the descriptions of classical authors.75 Reade also stresses that Nineveh is not positively identified as the site in any textual source, and that ‘In fact the classical writers who describe the Hanging Gardens or are quoted by other writers as doing so, whatever the intricacies of textual transmission, are unanimous that what they are attempting to describe are gardens at Babylon’.76

The idea that Babylon and Nineveh could have been conflated in the relevant Greek sources has been taken up by Marc Van De Mieroop, who argues that a Mesopotamian literary construct existed that treated the fortunes and histories of the two cities as closely related and inversely proportional, and that the deliberate representation of parallels between them could have contributed to their conflation in foreign sources.77 There is no doubt that such conflation exists to some degree: accounts in which the Tigris runs through Babylon and the Euphrates through Nineveh are not unusual, nor a tendency to refer to the whole of Mesopotamia as Assyria and to treat the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods as a single, continuous empire (in which they may have had a point).78 Later sources also suggest the possibility that Nineveh was sometimes referred to as ‘Babylon’ or ‘Old Babylon’.79 The argument does have some problems, however. While the engineering works of Sennacherib to water his own spectacular gardens at Nineveh do support these as a candidate, and indeed much more evidence survives for royal gardens at Nineveh than Babylon,80 Herodotus may not have seen gardens for another reason. As Dalley notes, had there ever been Hanging Gardens at Babylon, they would have disappeared by the time of Herodotus, since the course of the Euphrates through the city changed early in the Persian period and made such a garden impossible. (Nor could he have seen first-hand the gardens of Nineveh, whose palaces and imperial architecture had long since been destroyed.)

The nature and extent of confusion between Babylon and Nineveh in the Greek sources in this case is still the subject of much debate. As well as drawing attention to this issue, however, Dalley’s analysis of the sources in terms of the Assyrian royal gardens at Nineveh has also brought to light many problems with Sayce’s original argument against Herodotus having visited Babylon.81 These include: the existence of a probable route for the royal road from Sardis to Susa consistent with Herodotus’ description; the conclusion that Xerxes did not completely destroy the temple and statue of Marduk in Babylon,82 making it plausible that Herodotus or a contemporary informant could have seen both this and the New Year akitu festival;83 late inscriptions contradicting Sayce’s assertion that Nineveh was completely deserted in the time of Herodotus, and therefore his informants for that city could not have been local; and that Herodotus’ claim that the Babylonian name for Aphrodite was Mylitta has some validity.84

Herodotus’ description covered far more than physical monuments. A large part of his account could be termed ethnographic, describing customs and beliefs the writer himself records as a detached observer. The customs he describes are frequently outlandish and certainly not literally true, but there are some links suggesting origins either in fact or in Mesopotamian myth and folklore. What is far less clear is Herodotus’ purpose in recording them. There is some ambiguity in his assessment of the traditions he describes, making it difficult at times to be sure whether his approval of them is genuine or satirical. Some critics argue for the latter,85 while others suggest that a negative approach is the essence of Herodotus’ ‘ethnographic’ writing: ‘Herodotus notes points which distinguish this people from others, and especially points which a Greek finds odd, and therefore repellently interesting. Oddity is an ethnocentric principle […]. Woman bites louse is news. Herodotus thus seems not so much the precursor of Malinowski and Boas, as of Strange as it Seems and Believe it or Not.’86

Herodotus describes as the ‘most ingenious’ of the Babylonian customs the marriage market, a system whereby bride-prices paid for the prettiest wives are used as dowries for the plainest, thus ensuring everyone can get married and at the same time redistributing wealth (because a rich man will pay a high bride price while a poor man will seek a high dowry). He comments that ‘This admirable practice has now fallen into disuse and they have of late years hit upon another scheme, namely the prostitution of all girls of the lower classes to provide some relief from the poverty which followed upon the conquest with its attendant hardship and general ruin’.87 Arieti sees Herodotus’ approval here as sarcastic:

The arrangement seems to make for a contented community. Yet several elements of humour in the description – the over-poetical term ‘grew ripe for marriage’ […] the unquestioned ranking by the auctioneer of the girls’ relative beauty (can there be no debate about who is more beautiful?), and again Herodotus’s breaking into direct quotation of the auctioneer’s speech – ‘Who will take the least money for this one?’ – suggest perhaps that Herodotus has his tongue in his cheek. Of course, he may be using a rhetorical device: if this is the best custom, how horrible must the other customs be!88

In a detailed analysis of the origins of the story, Richard McNeal thinks Herodotus sincere in his approval, but does perform the important task of teasing out plausible Greek origins for the idea. All the Babylonian evidence (primarily in the form of marriage contracts and law codes) weighs against any suggestion that the story might be rooted in observation or folk memory in Babylonia itself. McNeal argues that the involvement of the state in arranging marriage, the financial exchange and the basis of the system in contest are all more suggestive of a Greek context than a Mesopotamian one,89 reflecting specifically ‘the competitive world of the small city state, suspicious of outsiders, protective of its womenfolk, intent upon the accomplishment of a public social policy at the expense of individuals, a functioning oral society in which, at the same time, coined money is the means of facilitating commercial transactions’.90 The marriage market may also be a manifestation of a particularly Greek kind of philosophical experimentation with ideas of social justice, again following the assumption that the state can play an active role for the good of the community.

Another certainly inauthentic Babylonian custom described by Herodotus is that of bringing the sick out into the street, where they receive advice from passers-by. Herodotus asserts that there are no doctors in Babylonia, which would presumably have struck a Greek audience as quite backward. He is of course mistaken. Herodotus could not have known the extent of the debt, but in reality the Hippocratic corpus itself drew heavily on Babylonian medicine.91

The final Babylonian custom described by Herodotus is ritual prostitution in the temple of Aphrodite, something he claims every woman is obliged to perform once in her life.92 Whether he approves of the other traditions he describes or not, Herodotus leaves no room for ambiguity here, describing it as the ‘one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful’.93 The potential for later conflation with the biblical Whore of Babylon and image of the city of sin is obvious, but the two traditions developed independently and for different reasons. In the biblical case the root cause is Nebuchadnezzar’s behaviour toward Jerusalem; for Herodotus and other Greek authors, the spur is only partly political grudge; another very large factor is a fascination with the exotic, and the use of the distant east both as a site for fantasies and as a negative ‘other’ against which the merits of Greek culture could be defined. This was hardly an ideal starting point for cultural understanding, of course, but such interest was not always parochial or mean-spirited. We must not forget that at the very start of his description Herodotus offers his own straightforward judgement on Babylon: that ‘it surpasses in splendour any city in the known world’.94


The other lengthy Greek description of Babylon is that of Ctesias of Cnidus, a doctor in the Persian court. Although his Persica in 23 books has not survived, his work does appear in the epitomes of Diodorus Siculus and Photius.95 The former includes his description of Babylon. Diodorus cites Ctesias throughout this description, and is known elsewhere to have borrowed whole passages from Megasthenes and Agatharchides.96 His goal in writing the Bibliotheke Historica was a complete synthesis of available historical knowledge, not a personal or necessarily always original account. Although impossible to confirm, it seems that parts of Ctesias’ description of Babylon have been copied verbatim or near-verbatim in Diodorus. Current scholarship on Diodorus is in agreement that his account of Babylon uses Ctesias as its main source, with some elements probably drawn from the late fourth-century BC historian Cleitarchus, although in his introduction to Book 2 of the Bibliotheke Historica Murphy is keen to emphasize that Diodorus does not deserve the charge of ‘being an uncritical compiler and plagiariser of earlier works to which he himself added nothing of his own, no insights, no grand unifying themes’.97 References to the description of Ctesias largely match with the Diodorus account, although one important possible addition is the Hanging Gardens: Budge argued that Diodorus did not quote this part of his description from Ctesias,98 although it is unclear on what basis. References to Ctesias as the authority being used are dotted about the Diodorus text, apparently acting as occasional reminders that Ctesias is the source rather than specific citations.

Despite Ctesias’ apparent tendency to doubt Herodotus (as one commentator observes, ‘A marked feature of Ctesias’ account is a tendency to disagree with Herodotus […] whether or not he had better information (for example, in the case of Darius’s fellow conspirators against Pseudo-Smerdis, Herodotus has five names right out of six, while Ctesias has only one)’,99 much of the content of the description as known from Diodorus is fantastic, and came to be recognized as such even in antiquity.100 He claimed to have used Achaemenid royal archives to produce his Persica, though oral tradition and stories heard at the Persian court seem more probable sources for much of the account. Introducing their edition of his work, Llewellyn-Jones and Robson observe that ‘Ctesias was writing something different from Herodotus; the Persica is a very original work based on a combination of personal observation and the plentiful information he learned from the rich oral tradition embedded within the Iranian court, and a healthy dose of Greek inquisitiveness about their eastern neighbours wrapped up, undoubtedly, in some semi-mythology too’.101

Diodorus/Ctesias’ history begins with the life of Ninus, the first king of Asia and founder of the city of Ninus (Nineveh), who ‘set about the task of subduing the nations of Asia, and within a period of seventeen years he became master of them all except the Indians and Bactrians’.102 The account then lists Ninus’ conquests, from Egypt to Iran and Central Asia.103 Although much of the Ctesias account has the feel of a story of origin set in a distant and mythical past, this list suggests not a truly ancient kingdom but one of the great empires of the first millennium BC, and is more representative of the maximum extent of the vast Achaemenid Empire than of the work of an early conqueror, but even a greatly reduced form (such as that created by the Neo-Assyrian expansion) would describe an empire on a scale that had not been established before the ninth century BC. To take Ctesias’ description of the founding of Nineveh, occupied since the seventh millennium BC, or of the first empire in Asia, which an archaeologist might associate with the kings of Akkad in the third millennium BC, as references to great antiquity is an error encouraged by the mythological components in the narrative. Ctesias could not have realized the city’s true age, and could plausibly be referring to later imperial building works in any of the Assyrian capitals. He is probably attempting to describe the origins of the Assyrian Empire;104 that its provinces resemble those of the contemporary Persian Empire reflects the understanding that the empires succeeding one another in Asia inherited one another’s territory.

The city of Ninus (Nineveh), founded by the king Ninus, is described by Ctesias as being located on the Euphrates, and as the largest city not only of its own time, but of all time.105 Both these attributes would better fit Babylon, since Nineveh was actually located on the Tigris and Babylon exceeded it in size. Still, the city described is not Babylon, at least in the author’s mind, since the founding of the latter by Semiramis is subsequently related and later events set in Ninus show clearly that Nineveh is intended. It has been argued that the identification of Babylon in the account is also suspect, since some of the palace decoration described by Diodorus106 sounds very much like hunting scenes from Assyrian palace reliefs.107 However, although the scene described is reminiscent of an Assyrian relief, the rest of the description could only apply to Babylon, featuring glazed-brick reliefs unmistakeably of the kind used by Nebuchadnezzar, and with whose effect and technical mastery Ctesias was clearly impressed (‘all kinds of wild animals had been depicted on the bricks before they were fired and which faithfully mimicked reality in the ingenuity of their colouring’).108 The description thus involves at least some direct reference to Babylon, and it is not impossible that even the description of subject matter is roughly accurate and that we are missing images of the king hunting that did once exist in the city. Koldewey himself felt that he had identified a match for the hunting scene description in the Persian Building during his excavations at Babylon.109 Another possibility is that, just as Nineveh appears here on the Euphrates, the art of the two cities has been conflated; both, after all, were drawn on in the monumental imperial architecture of the Persia in which Ctesias lived.110

Ninus is important as a founder, but Ctesias (or at least Diodorus) devotes much more space to Semiramis. Her birth, life and marriage to Ninus, her succession to the throne upon the death of Ninus, the founding of Babylon, her achievements as sole sovereign, the decadence of her descendants and the fall of Nineveh, under Sardanapalus, to Arabaces the Mede are all covered at length. It is only in Ctesias’ account that we find the mythical life of Semiramis, daughter of Derceto, founder of Babylon and warrior queen. She is accorded no such achievements in Herodotus, who only describes her as ‘responsible for certain remarkable embankments in the plain outside the city [Babylon], built to control the river which until then used to flood the whole countryside’111 – a description that fits well with Strabo’s observation of a folk tradition identifying Semiramis as a great builder existing in many locations throughout Western Asia112 – and instead concentrates on the building works of Nitocris, a figure possibly based on a queen of Sennacherib known by the Assyrian name Zakutu and the Aramaic name Naqia, who as the mother of Esarhaddon rose to enormous power during the latter’s reign. This remarkable queen seems to have been directly involved with the religious and military affairs of the day, built palaces, and is even depicted on a relief behind the king. She has herself been suggested as a source for some aspects of Semiramis in later legends.113

After a birth and early childhood reminiscent of the Moses story, Ctesias’ account has Semiramis waging war disguised as a male soldier and proving herself a great military strategist. After succeeding her husband Ninus, she goes on to campaign in lands as distant as Ethiopia and India; in the latter, like Alexander, she is faced with the challenge of fighting against an army with terrifying war elephants. Ctesias also describes her as bloodthirsty, selecting soldiers from her army to sleep with before having them executed the following morning, to avoid the risk of having to share or cede her power to a husband. Finally, she is transformed into a dove. That the Semiramis biography is originally the work of Ctesias is confirmed by Athenagoras:

For if detestable and god-hated men had the reputation of being gods, and the daughter of Derceto, Semiramis, a lascivious and blood-stained woman, was esteemed a Syrian goddess; and if, on account of Derceto, the Syrians worship doves and Semiramis (for, a thing impossible, a woman was changed into a dove: the story is in Ctesias), what wonder if some should be called gods by their people on the ground of their rule and sovereignty […] and others for their strength, as Heracles and Perseus; and others for their art, as Asclepius?114

Semiramis’ transformation into a dove was a myth that had survived well enough to require only a casual allusion to be understood in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.115 (Curiously, this seemingly ideal tale of transformation is not recounted; Ovid’s main ‘Babylonian’ story is the tragic romance of Pyramus and Thisbe.)

If Semiramis’ deeds do relate to historical events in Mesopotamia, that relationship is tangled and convoluted in the extreme. The name Semiramis has long been thought to derive from that of the Assyrian queen Sammuramat,116 leaving us to reconcile a Neo-Assyrian queen with the builder of Babylon. Time and place are wildly out of line with the historical character of Sammuramat, but can be accounted for in part by phenomena already discussed, namely the conflation of Nineveh and Babylon and a lack of awareness of the distance in time between the foundation of either Nineveh or Babylon and the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Further, Sammuramat’s career was exceptional: she was a queen of Shamshi-Adad V (823–811 BC) but seems to have acted as vice-regent or co-regent during the reign of her son Adad-nirari III (810–783 BC)117 and even to have gone to war herself. Nonetheless, the etymological link between Sammuramat and Semiramis has been questioned and an alternative suggestion based on a Syrian deity has been suggested.118 Ctesias himself refers to an existing Syrian tradition of deifying Semiramis by worshipping the dove.119 The Semiramises of both Herodotus and Ctesias would thus become goddesses rendered as historical characters, rather than historical characters with divine or mythological embellishments.

Following the detailed biography of Semiramis, Diodorus presents the reader with the key classical account of the decadence, sloth and luxury of the kings of Assyria, exemplified in the characters of Semiramis’ son Ninyas and the last of her line, Sardanapalus himself.120 Other rulers are not recorded (save one Teutamos, said to have sent reinforcements to the Trojans under the command of Memnon). Diodorus/Ctesias comments, ‘There is no urgency to record all the names of the kings and the number of years each reigned since there was nothing done by them worthy of mention’.121

The description of Ninyas is intended as a typical example of Assyrian kingship:

After Semiramis’ death, her and Ninus’ son, Ninyas, succeeded to the throne and ruled peacefully, not emulating in any way his mother’s fondness for war and her adventurous spirit. For in the first place he spent all his time in the palace, seen by no one except his concubines and attendant eunuchs, and sought luxury and idleness and the total avoidance of suffering and anxiety, thinking that the goal of a happy reign was to enjoy every kind of pleasure without restraint.122

By Greek lights Semiramis appears heroic in comparison with her son; even ‘love of war’ is intended as a virtue. The faults of Ninyas are also to some extent those seen by Greek writers in Persian kings: decadence, luxury, softness and a retreat from contact with the world outside the palace, and especially from war. Clearly the palace culture of the ancient Middle East as a whole contributed to this impression among Greek writers, but it also served in its condemnation of oriental corruption to highlight the ‘Greek’ values of austerity and the public forum. Passages such as the description of Ninyas are criticisms not only of the character of individuals but also of a form of government, in the same vein as Aeschylus’ Persians.123 The environment, they suggest, engenders and reinforces the faults of individuals unfit to rule.

The description of Sardanapalus shows the result of many generations of such decadent hedonism. The following passage provided the inspiration for the Sardanapalus familiar in modernity from Byron’s famous 1821 play of the same name,124 and is a strong candidate for the original template for what was to become the modern literary and artistic trope of the oriental despot:

Sardanapallus, who was the thirtieth in succession after Ninus who founded the Empire and the last Assyrian King, surpassed all the others who came before him in luxury and idleness. For apart from the fact that he was never seen by anyone outside the palace, he lived the life of a woman, and spent his time with his concubines, spinning purple cloth and working the softest fleeces, and he took to wearing female clothing and made up his face and his whole body with white lead, and other things courtesans customarily use, more delicately than any luxury-loving woman. He purposely adopted a woman’s voice and during his drinking sessions not only did he continually enjoy such drinks and food as were capable of providing the most pleasure, but he also pursued the delights of sex with men as well as women; for he freely enjoyed intercourse with both, not worrying at all about the shame engendered by the deed.125

For quite different reasons, the fall of the Assyrians was given a moral dimension comparable to that of the Old Testament accounts of the punishment of Nineveh and Babylon. Sardanapalus’ defeat was not presented as inevitable, however, although the tendency to decadence is at one point his undoing. Following the successful defence of Ninus (Nineveh) against several attacks Sardanapalus, unaware of the defection to Arabaces of a Bactrian army on its way to support him, lets his guard down too soon. He gives a feast, distributing good food and wine to his soldiers, upon which ‘the whole army fell to carousing’.126 Arabaces’ army takes them by surprise in the night. Retreating into the city, Sardanapalus is powerless as the garrisons surrounding Nineveh, drawn from across the empire, defect one by one to the side of the rebels. Even now, however, the city walls and stores are sufficient to survive a siege for two years. ‘But in the third year great storms of rain fell without cease, with the result that the Euphrates became swollen, inundated part of the city, and overturned the wall for twenty stades’.127 At this point Sardanapalus, seeing all is lost, builds the famous pyre containing his wealth, his royal robes, his concubines and eunuchs, and consigns himself ‘to the flames along with all of them and the palace itself’.128

Although this is the primary account from which all later descriptions of Sardanapalus are derived, it seems that Ctesias was not the first to write about this character in Greek. A surviving fragment of Hellanicus of Lesbos gives a tantalizing hint of oral tradition on Sardanapalus, mentioning the existence of stories portraying him sometimes as a hero, sometimes as decadent and weak, and rationalizing the two by invoking two Assyrian kings of the same name.129 Was the same variety of stories available to Ctesias?

Who was Sardanapalus? The name itself seems to be a corruption of Ashurbanipal (Ashur-bani-apli). Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Assyriology took this to be the case and saw the Greek and Assyrian names and characters as synonymous. More recently it has been suggested that the name is a conflation of more than one Assyrian king’s name, combining elements of Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon.130 However, in the case of the fourth-century BC Aramaic papyrus preserving the story of the civil war between Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin (see Chapter 2) Ashurbanipal does indeed become Sardanapal.131 The story of the conflict between the brothers as related in the papyrus is in many ways a reversal of the story of Sardanapalus as told by Ctesias. Here, as in life, it is Shamash-shuma-ukin who finds himself under siege. Like Sardanapalus, he barricades himself in his palace (at Babylon, not Nineveh) and subsequently perishes – though not in flames, but in an accident while attempting to march on Nineveh. Given that the very existence of the Aramaic account suggests wide dissemination of the story, and that the parallels between the two are so pronounced, it seems plausible that the Sardanapalus of Ctesias is indeed an echo of the war between Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin, preserving the name of one king but the fate of the other.132 The story moves away from Babylon, and the last kings of Assyria after the great Ashurbanipal are forgotten, allowing the grisly end of Shamash-shuma-ukin at Babylon to be recycled as the fall of Nineveh.

What of language and translation? Ctesias could not have possessed the skills of a classically trained Babylonian scribe, i.e. mastery of Assyrian and Babylonian, the main Akkadian dialects, of Sumerian, and by implication of several enormous cuneiform sign-sets. He could not have read for himself the Verse Account of Nabonidus (a priestly account written in Babylonian emphasizing the king’s neglect of his city and people), though indirect access to Babylonian literary traditions is more plausible. Van De Mieroop highlights Babylonian elements in Ctesias’ account of the destruction of Nineveh, judging that ‘it seems probable that Ktesias used a Babylonian source relating the destruction of Nineveh’ and that, unbeknownst to Ctesias, this source in turn paralleled Assyrian accounts of Sennacherib’s sack of Babylon in 689 BC and was styled to emphasize retribution for that destruction.133 These links are convincing, but do not preclude transmission via intermediate oral sources. It seems that spoken Aramaic has been grossly underestimated as a source for Ctesias, since the classic early analyses of his account pre-dated the discovery that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Achaemenid Empire. This point brings a range of new possibilities into play, the implications of which are discussed by Dalley.134 Dalley focuses on wisdom literature in Aramaic and the recitation traditions of the Persian court, arguing that the flexibility of historical setting in Aramaic tales of kings is a strong candidate for much of the geographical and historical confusion in Ctesias’ account. Examples of similar, more securely documented processes of this kind of corruption are pertinent here, most importantly the story of Ahiqar the Sage.135 The papyrus describing the war between Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin is another case in point. In terms of transmission, and particularly of explaining the survival of names and fragments of history from the cuneiform world occurring in otherwise very distant sources, Aramaic written and oral sources probably form the missing connection in many more cases than we are able to prove. Such sources would surely give us a far better understanding of the information on Mesopotamian history that was available to the Hellenistic world. These, however, are not the only sources whose loss we must lament. What a different picture might appear if one text above all had survived. For the non-Babylonian wishing to know something of the land and its people, the guide most perfectly placed was surely Berossus.


Ctesias and Herodotus provide a wealth of information on Babylon, some of it accurate and all of it interesting. Both of these extended accounts were written by Greek visitors to Mesopotamia, however, while an equivalent account by a member of the society they purported to describe has not survived. A Babylonian priest, Berossus wrote a history of Babylonia in Greek, known either as Babyloniaca or Chaldaica, at a time when cuneiform texts were still known and understood, though Aramaic had long been the lingua franca in most of Western Asia. He was native to the society of which he wrote, and through cuneiform had direct access to far more information than any Greek writer could hope to. Josephus’ description of the Babyloniaca suggests that Berossus’ history went back even as far as the legendary world of Atra-hasis. Introducing his account of the Neo-Babylonian kings, he explains:

My witness here is Berossus, a Chaldaean by birth, but familiar in learned circles through his publication for Greek readers of works on Chaldaean astronomy and philosophy. This author, following the most ancient records, has, like Moses, described the flood and the destruction of mankind thereby, and told of the ark in which Noah, the founder of our race, was saved when it landed on the heights of the mountains of Armenia. Then he enumerates Noah’s descendents, appending dates, and so comes down to Nabopolassar, king of Babylon and Chaldaea.136

Sadly, almost nothing of the work has survived.137 It has been suggested that Berossus’ history was ultimately forgotten because it did not fit well with the existing dominant account of Mesopotamian history, that of Ctesias, omitting key figures such as Ninus and Semiramis.138 The account is now known only through the citations and quotations of later writers, principally Flavius Josephus and Eusebius of Caesarea. Even these fragments, however, contain a great deal of useful information, and it is clear that Berossus had access to an accurate record of the Neo-Babylonian succession, including the lengths of each king’s reign, that could only have come from Babylonian chronicles.

Where Berossus’ account is remembered at all in classical literature, it is commonly altered and mythologized. In what is probably an already quite garbled version of an original with some Babylonian root, Berossus is quoted as reporting a festival calledSakaia, five days during which slaves rule their masters.139 The idea resurfaces in Plutarch, whose Semiramis persuades Ninus to allow her to rule for five days before using her new power to imprison him.140 Diodorus does not mention an origin in Berossus, attributing the story to ‘Athenaeus and certain other historians’.141 The story is further embroidered in the fifth century AD by Paulus Orosius, whose History Against the Pagans was one of the most widely read and influential historical texts in medieval Europe.142 As well as elaborating the account of Semiramis’ depravity,143 Orosius makes the distinctively Christian addition of a mystical numerological link with Rome.144 This corruption of the source raises questions about the original content of Berossus, particularly with regard to chronology. It is safe to agree that ‘of all the lists of neo-Babylonian monarchs that have survived, the arrangement of Berossus most closely corresponds to that of the cuneiform documents,’145 but we know his arrangement only through those of Josephus and Eusebius,146 whose apparent quotations of the same passage in Berossus differ. Eusebius also preserves the list of Alexander Polyhistor, who also claimed to use Berossus as his source and again produced a different account.147

Claiming to quote Berossus directly, Josephus gives an account so strikingly accurate in those details that can be checked against the cuneiform sources as to make all the more tantalizing those that cannot. To the names and reigns of the Neo-Babylonian king, all quite accurately preserved, Berossus adds details of murder and conspiracy not mentioned in the terse Mesopotamian royal chronicles:

Nabuchodonosor [Nebuchadnezzar] fell sick and died, after a reign of forty-three years, and the realm passed to his son Evilmerodach [Amel-Marduk]. This prince, whose government was arbitrary and licentious, fell a victim to a plot, being assassinated by his sister’s husband Neriglissar, after a reign of two years. On his death Neriglissar, his murderer, succeeded to the throne and reigned four years. His son, Labarosoardoch [Labashi-Marduk], a mere boy, occupied it for nine months, when, owing to the depraved disposition which he showed, a conspiracy was formed against him, and he was beaten to death by his friends. After his murder the conspirators held a meeting, and by common consent conferred the kingdom upon Nabonnedus [Nabonidus], a Babylonian and one of their gang.148

Table 1 shows the accuracy of Berossus’ account.

To the known Babylonian historical texts Berossus adds human detail in the form of the plots against Amel-Marduk and Labashi-Marduk. That this information is absent from the cuneiform sources, however, should prompt a note of caution. Were the details of the murders handed down through oral tradition, through written sources, now lost (but necessarily of a very different kind to the official records from which the details of regnal years were obtained), or are they simply creative additions to suit the Greek style of historiography and a Greek audience (in which case the further question arises whether they necessarily originate with Berossus at all, or with a later redactor)? With the same caveat in mind, we should still take seriously Berossus’ account of Babylon’s conquest and the fate of Nabonidus, which again fleshes out the information given by the cuneiform sources:


In the seventeenth year of [Nabonidus’] reign Cyrus advanced from Persia with a large army and, after subjugating the rest of the kingdom, marched upon Babylonia. Apprised of his coming, Nabonnedus led his army to meet him, fought and was defeated, whereupon he fled with a few followers and shut himself up in the town of Borsippa. Cyrus took Babylon, and after giving orders to raze the outer walls of the city, because it presented a very redoubtable and formidable appearance, proceeded to Borsippa to besiege Nabonnedus. The latter surrendering, without waiting for investment, was humanely treated by Cyrus, who dismissed him from Babylonia, but gave him Carmania for his residence. There Nabonnedus spent the remainder of his life, and there he died.150

Berossus, Amyitis and the Hanging Gardens

Berossus is one of the key sources for the Hanging Gardens. He apparently attributes their construction to Nebuchadnezzar, and confusion in his account of Babylon and Nineveh is less likely than in those of Ctesias or Strabo.151 Some doubt is raised by the fact that we know Berossus through Jewish and Christian writers, since in later tradition Nebuchadnezzar became almost a generic ‘king of Babylon’, but the correspondence to what is known of Nebuchadnezzar’s life seems too good for such a coincidence. Berossus sets out to counter the Greek perception that Semiramis was, in general, responsible for Babylon’s architectural wonders,152 and it is in this context that he gives one of the clearest indications of his Babylonian source material: an account of Nebuchadnezzar’s construction work at Babylon that not only finds confirmation in the cuneiform sources but can be convincingly matched with a particular text. Robartus van der Spek has highlighted strong parallels between the East India House inscription of Nebuchadnezzar and Berossus’ description of the city, showing that Berossus describes the same works, and in the same order, as the monumental stone inscription now held in the British Museum.153 The correspondence between the two texts is remarkable, with one significant exception: the description of the Hanging Gardens. No cuneiform source mentions the gardens, yet Berossus’ description of them appears in what is otherwise a list directly modelled on a known Babylonian inscription. This is more than a minor idiosyncracy: given Berossus’ accuracy on other points, his mention of the gardens should have special importance. How might their inclusion be explained? The passage on the gardens itself is very brief:

within this palace [Nebuchadnezzar] erected lofty stone terraces, in which he closely reproduced mountain scenery, completing the resemblance by planting them with all manner of trees and constructing the so-called Hanging Garden; because his wife, having been brought up in Media, had a passion for mountain surroundings.154

By placing this description within a detailed account of Nebuchadnezzar’s building works, Berossus ties the gardens' construction not only to a specific king, but even to a particular place: Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace. This and details in other classical sources have prompted attempts to locate the gardens at or near the palace, including Robert Koldewey’s candidate, the so-called ‘vaulted building’, and the recent suggestion of the great western outwork between palace and river, previously interpreted as a fortified keep or treasury, as a possible location.155 Nonetheless, it is worth considering the possibility that the addition of the gardens to the account was made by another writer, again rendering Berossus more acceptable to a Greek audience.

A key to the story’s origin may be Nebuchadnezzar’s mountain-loving bride. Berossus is the first author to identify the king who built the gardens of Babylon as Nebuchadnezzar, and to give a name, Amyitis, to his queen. Little notice has been taken, however, of the fact that he makes these identifications in two quite different parts of his narrative. His mention of Amyitis comes in reference to her marriage for political reasons. Nebuchadnezzar, at this time the Babylonian crown prince, is married to Amyitis, daughter of Astyages (and granddaughter of Cyaxares) to cement a Babylonian–Median alliance.156 Berossus is thus the first to rationalize the Iranian origin of the queen in the story, but he does so in a separate and thoroughly unromantic description of the politics of the rising Neo-Babylonian dynasty. For this reason it seems highly unlikely that the marriage has been invented by Berossus (or a later editor) to dovetail with his description of the gardens, in which he neither names Amyitis nor refers to the other passage.157Dovetail it does, however, and perfectly. For Berossus the queen’s point of origin is Media and thus its capital Ecbatana, high in the Zagros mountains. All versions of the story rely on the king’s wife coming from a mountainous country – Persia in Diodorus, unnamed in Curtius158 – to a very flat one. The greatest such contrast in the entire region was that between mountainous Media (the site of Ecbatana, modern Hamadan, is 1,850 m above sea level, surrounded by peaks of over 3,000 m) and Babylonia, one of the flattest landscapes on earth.

Several conclusions can be drawn. First, that the good fit between a romantic Hanging Gardens story that seems to depend on its queen coming from Media and Berossus? far more matter-of-fact description of Nebuchadnezzar’s marriage is, at least, a remarkable coincidence, since the two appear in the text for different reasons and seem quite independent of one another. To introduce the two details, bearing in mind that neither appears in an earlier Greek source and that their use implies knowledge of both the landscape of Media and the political situation – hardly known to the Greeks – of the Babylonian-Median alliance against Assyria, would be quite a feat on the part of any later redactor. Second, that the identification is made by an author who elsewhere criticizes the tendency to confuse Nineveh with Babylon (as in the case of Semiramis) and who gives a highly credible political reason for the marriage. Certainly he does not confuse Nebuchadnezzar with an earlier Assyrian king. Third, that if a romantic story about Nebuchadnezzar and his Iranian bride underlies the tale, it follows that even the pre-Berossus version demonstrates some link to knowledge of Nebuchadnezzar.

Although Berossus is aware of the story, his treatment of it implies that it does not originate in the Babylonian official sources, as indeed we would not expect it to. Instead, the combination of a narrative that has the qualities of myth and storytelling with a demonstration of specific knowledge of political events in Babylon and a folkloric interest in the contrast between Iranian and Babylonian landscapes makes a Persian court origin for the story much more plausible than fourth-century Greek invention, and incidentally confirms that Ctesias, who had prolonged access to just such court stories, is more likely than Cleitarchus to have provided the basis for the Hanging Gardens account given by Diodorus. Having reached this conclusion, it seems more than coincidence that the (sadly very limited) evidence for Old Persian literature suggests an extremely good fit. Those tales thought to have an Old Persian origin in the Greek sources and the Shahnameh are noted for the innovation of stories centred on romantic love; they also involve journeys to distant lands.159 The physical descriptions of the gardens are a separate matter. The (spuriously) precise descriptions of their construction and engineering found in the classical sources are probably best explained as Greek embellishment, even allowing for the possibility that they preserve some echo of Sennacherib’s gardens at Nineveh. They are conspicuous by their absence from Berossus’ brief account.160

Taken together, the impression is of a Median or Persian oral tradition that originated at a time when Nebuchadnezzar’s marriage to a Median princess161 was still well known, survived in Persian court tradition – with the appropriate substitution of a Persian princess – and thus reached Ctesias, at which point the particular identities of king and queen might have been lost even if they had not been before, since Ctesias had no apparent knowledge of the Babylonian history that would have allowed him to place these individuals in context. Berossus knew both versions of the story.

Novels and romances

Apparently quite distinct from the histories described above, two fragmentary early novels feature Babylon. These are the Ninus romance and the Babyloniaca of Iamblichos.

The Ninus romance is an early first-century AD Greek novel, known today from four papyrus fragments. Its authorship is uncertain, two possibilities being Chariton, author of the novel known as Callirhoe and citizen of Aphrodisias, once known by the name of Ninoe (Ninus), and one Xenophon of Antioch, referred to in the Souda (a lexical/encyclopaedic volume dating to the tenth century AD) as the author of a Babyloniaca.162 The novel’s style and format do not draw on any Mesopotamian source,163 nor does the novel appear to involve any attempt to represent the difference of another culture per se. Although the plot is uncharacteristic of its genre and might therefore owe something to an origin as Hellenized and mythologized Mesopotamian history,164 McCall is right to describe the use of the names Ninus and Semiramis as ‘merely historical ciphers in a romantic plot which involved a shipwreck, warfare and love scenes’.165 The protagonists and their behaviour are not easily recognized as their namesakes in Greek histories, let alone as historical figures in ancient Iraq. Ninus does, however, provide us with an interesting case in the use of historical allegory. The two points of interest here are the apparent selection of some but not all available historical information on the topic and the role of barbarian ‘historical ciphers’ such as Ninus and Semiramis in this literary form.

Turning first to the question of available historical information, the probable source for Ninus is Ctesias’ Persica. Although Herodotus’ description of Babylon is older, and mentions the names Ninus and Semiramis,166 it does not connect the two characters, does not mention Derceto, Semiramis’ mother according to Ctesias/Diodorus and apparently in Ninus, and does not contain the description of Assyrian military campaigns, known through Diodorus to have been present in Ctesias and the likely inspiration of Ninus’ campaign in Armenia in the Ninus romance. To accept that the writer had knowledge of Ctesias’ narrative, however, is also to accept that they were prepared to disregard and contradict that history as readily as to borrow from it. Most interesting is the character of Ninus’ beloved, unnamed in the surviving fragments.167 As the bride-to-be of Ninus and daughter of Derceto,168 it is highly unlikely that the female protagonist of Ninus was not named Semiramis. If this is correct, however, we must next explain the metamorphosis apparently undergone by Semiramis between her incarnation in the Persica and that in Ninus. In the former she is a fearsome warrior, ruling alone, sleeping with and then executing her soldiers, and leading an ambitious military expedition to India. In other accounts Semiramis does not simply survive Ninus, but tricks him out of his sovereignty.169 If later legend is any guide, the author would not have needed Ctesias to tell him that Semiramis was a bold and warlike figure: this much was probably canonical and widely known. The character in the Ninus romance, by contrast, proves too shy to reveal her feelings for Ninus to his mother, while Ninus’ parallel speech to Derkeia is a stylistic highlight of the work.170 While the novel as we know it is fragmentary, and there is certainly the possibility of Semiramis performing more boldly in lost parts of the novel, this incident alone departs completely from the portrait available to the Ninus author from historical sources. We can conclude that the writer consciously decided to make this departure, considering the representation of an ideal character more important than historical veracity in this context.

The Babyloniaca of Iamblichos, surviving only through an epitome in the Bibliotheke of Photius, bears even less resemblance to any historical account. The plot is described in detail by Photius,171 and as Stephens and Winkler write:

If there was any suspicion that the patriarch was capable of pulling our leg, this would be the place to exercise it. According to him, the hero and heroine roam throughout the Near East pursued by two eunuchs whose noses and ears have been cut off. They encounter bees with poisoned honey, a lesbian princess of Egypt, a cannibalistic brigand, look-alike brothers named Tigris and Euphrates who happen to be exact doubles for the hero, and a rather dignified farmer’s daughter whom the heroine forces to sleep with an executioner who is really a priest of Aphrodite who helps his son Euphrates break jail by dressing in the farmer’s daughter’s clothes.172

Iamblichos’ identity itself seems to have been partially mythologized. The Souda claims he was born a slave,173 while Photius writes that he had a Babylonian slave for a tutor, and it was from him that Iamblichos originally heard the story of theBabyloniaca.174Whatever the truth of the matter, the effort in both cases is to give some extra interest to the story through its exotic origin.

The most famous classical romance set in Babylon, though today its original setting is largely forgotten, is the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The story appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:175

Pyramus, who was handsomest of men
and Thisbe, of a loveliness unrivalled
in all the East, lived next to one another
in Babylon, the city that Semiramis
surrounded with a wall made out of brick.176

Kept apart by their parents, the lovers are able to communicate through a small crack in the wall separating their two homes. Desperate but unable to kiss, they arrange to meet by a tall mulberry tree near the tomb of Ninus.177 Thisbe arrives first, but is scared away by a passing lion; fortunately for her the lion has just eaten. Pyramus arrives to see his beloved’s cloak – dropped during her escape – now chewed by the lion and stained with the blood of its earlier kill, and naturally despairs. Believing Thisbe dead, he impales himself upon his own sword. Returning to discover his body and wracked with grief, Thisbe uses Pyramus’ still-warm blade to take her own life. Her last words are a prayer that the two lovers be permitted to lie together in death, and that the mulberry will remember their deaths in the crimson colour of its berries, which until this day had been white.

Today, the story is best remembered as the play performed by Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its drama and tragedy, however, are of a higher order, and are far better preserved in another of Shakespeare’s works: Ovid’s Babylonian Pyramus and Thisbe find more than an echo in Romeo and Juliet.

A dual inheritance

There are sharp contrasts between the biblical and ancient Greek historical traditions with regard to Babylon, not only in specifics but also in the nature of their interest and attitudes towards Mesopotamia. The almost ethnographic passages on Babylonian culture found in the Greek historians' works have no substantial biblical parallel, while the Old Testament is richer in moral allegory, asserting a providential meaning for the history of Babylon that has defined the city’s place in culture ever since. This is a difference not primarily of the availability of information, but of purpose and of situation. The biblical texts incorporate a familiar land and culture into a history centred on divine judgement; the Greek accounts aim to describe a land and culture unfamiliar to their audience.

Detail outweighs moral judgement in the Greek sources, leading to a rich quasi-ethnographic resource for later historians to draw on and adapt. The reverse is true of the biblical descriptions: moral judgement is the point, description incidental. Further, morality for Jews and Christians is in any case primarily the province of scripture, to be sought in the Bible rather than in pagan histories or ancient Greek legends. In the longer term a clear distinction would emerge in the way the two categories of source were put to use, whereby classical sources can be seen to have greater influence on academic reconstructions of Babylon and cultural detail in visual representations, and biblical accounts on the moral representation of Babylon and the selection of subject matter in art and literature. At the same time, the two traditions would not be treated in isolation from one another, and indeed at times strenuous efforts would be made to reconcile and integrate the two.

With all their complications and contradictions, by Late Antiquity the biblical and classical accounts comprised all the information available on Babylon, and indeed all that would be available for many centuries to come. Babylon itself had vanished, as had its vast cuneiform literature and the expertise required to read it. How would medieval scholars deal with the accounts that survived? And how would those adventurous Europeans who actually visited Mesopotamia interpret the mysterious ruins of its ancient past? The great city they would find would henceforth be Baghdad. At Babylon they would meet only the huge, almost featureless mounds beneath which the city of Nebuchadnezzar lay concealed, and upon which layers of folklore and legend would continue to accumulate.

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