Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Fifty-Eight

A Brief Empire

Between 605 and 580 BC, Egypt builds an army, Babylon destroys Jerusalem, and Nebuchadnezzar II goes mad

BACK IN BABYLON, the crown prince Nebuchadnezzar took the throne as Nebuchadnezzar II151 and set out to take over the world which had once been Assyrian.

For several years, he had no serious opponents. Necho II, weakened by his defeat at Carchemish, had been driven back behind his own borders. The Lydians of Asia Minor were too small to be a threat; the wandering, belligerent Scythians were disorganized; the Greek cities were occupied with their own internal convulsions. The strongest possible challenger to Babylonian power was the Medes, who commanded the Persian army as well as their own. But Cyarxes, king of the Medes, was also Nebuchadnezzar’s father-in-law; his daughter Amytis (whose husband had been on constant campaign since the match was made outside the walls of Nineveh) now lived in the palace at Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests began in the Western Semitic lands. He posted a garrison outside the walls of Jerusalem, upon which Jehoiakim of Israel swapped alliances, away from Necho II (who had placed him on the throne), to Babylon. “For three years,” says 2 Kings 24:1, “Jehoiakim became the vassal of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.” And Josephus adds, “The king of Babylon passed over the Euphrates and took all of Syria, except for Judea…and Jehoiakim, affrighted at his threatening, bought his peace with money.”1

Jehoiakim’s payment was merely a stalling tactic until he could reestablish an alliance with some other king. Despite the conquest at Carchemish, Babylon was still not regarded as a world power. But his court prophet Jeremiah warned him that Nebuchadnezzar’s takeover was not only inevitable, but divinely ordained: “The king of Babylon will certainly come and destroy this land, and cut off both men and animals from it.”

It was the same kind of warning that Isaiah had delivered about Sennacherib of Assyria, a hundred years earlier. Jehoiakim didn’t want to hear it; when the scroll containing Jeremiah’s warning was read to him, he chopped it up bit by bit with his knife and pitched it into the firepot that burned next to his throne.2 He had begun to carry on plans for revolt with his old master, Necho II, behind Nebuchadnezzar’s back. This didn’t please Jeremiah either: “The pharaoh and his people will drink of the same cup of destruction,” he promised, and added that Jehoiakim’s body would be “thrown out and exposed to the heat by day and the frost by night.”152

Unimpressed by this dire warning, Jehoiakim formally rebelled against Babylon as soon as Necho II was ready to attack. He stopped sending tribute to Babylon; Necho marched out of Egypt; and Nebuchadnezzar headed down to meet the threat.

In 602, Necho II and Nebuchadnezzar met in battle—and the two armies fought each other to a draw. The Babylonian Chronicle (which is in bits for this part of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign) tells us that another battle was fought the following year, in 601: “They fought one another in the battlefield,” reads the 601 entry, “and both sides suffered severe losses….[Nebuchadnezzar] and his army turned and [went back] to Babylon.”3

But Nebuchadnezzar was not the only loser. Necho II had spent too many men to keep hold of his Western Semitic lands. “The king of Egypt did not march out from his own country again,” 2 Kings 24 says, “because the king of Babylon had taken all his territory, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River.”

Instead, Necho II turned back to his own country. He worked on his canal until it ran from the eastern Nile river through to the Red Sea. It was an enormous undertaking: “The length of the canal is such that it takes four days to sail it,” Herodotus writes, “and it has been dug wide enough for two triremes to be rowed abreast.”4 A trireme was only fifteen feet wide, but a thirty-foot canal extending all the way to the Red Sea was nevertheless an enormous undertaking.153 To guard its entrance to the Nile, he built a fortress: Pelusium.


58.1 The Babylonian Empire

He had hired two sets of mercenaries to come down and help him train a navy: Greek sailors from the Ionian cities around the Aegean Sea,5 and also, according to Herodotus, Phoenician seamen, probably from one of the Phoenician cities (Tyre or Sidon, or perhaps the Phoenician-built city of Carthage on the North African coast, founded by Jezebel’s great-niece Elissa, and rapidly growing). These helped him to build a fleet, which consisted largely of a primitive kind of trireme: a galley warship constructed so that it could ram other boats. These were anchored along the coast of the Red Sea.6 Herodotus even insists that one crew of Phoenician sailors, told off to explore the Red Sea by Necho II, sailed down south and kept on sailing. Much to everyone’s surprise, they showed up at the Pillars of Hercules—the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea—three years later, and sailed through the Mediterranean all the way back to the Nile Delta. They had, in fact, gone all the way around Africa.7 All of this was an enormous break with tradition for the sea-hating Egyptians, but Necho II, forwards looking, could see that commerce was a better bet than warfare if he wanted to build an empire.

While all this exciting exploration was going on in Egypt, Judah was cut off. Jehoiakim had counted on Egyptian support; now he was alone. “He was disappointed of his hope,” Josephus remarks, “for Egypt dared not fight at this time.”8

But Jehoiakim, poised uneasily for Babylon’s retaliation, had to wait four more years while Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt his army and then dealt with other business (fighting nomads in the northern deserts of Arabia, according to the Babylonian Chronicle).9 What was going on in the city at this time, we do not know. But possibly some of Jerusalem’s officials agreed with Jeremiah about the folly of opposing Babylon; Jehoiakim died in 597, at the relatively young age of thirty-six, and at once Nebuchadnezzar headed towards the city.

In Jerusalem, Jehoiakim’s teenage son Jehoiachin was set on the throne. But as soon as Nebuchadnezzar reached Jerusalem’s walls—mere weeks after Jehoiakim’s death—the king, his mother, his court, the noblemen, and all the officials surrendered. Perhaps they had been offered some sort of immunity, in exchange for services rendered. Although they were taken into captivity, they were treated well; Babylonian records show that Jehoiachin spent the next forty years living in Babylon at the king’s expense, provided for from the Babylonian treasury.10

The army was taken away into Babylon, but not scattered; the treasury and the Temple of Solomon were raided for gold, but the buildings were not razed or burned. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t even take away all of the royal family. He assigned Jehoachin’s uncle Mattaniah, brother of the dead king, the new, subject-name of Zedekiah, and put him on the throne; Josephus gives this arrangement the pleasant name “league of mutual assistance,”11 but in fact Zedekiah was no more than a Babylonian governor. Nevertheless, Jerusalem had gotten off relatively easily.

Nebuchadnezzar did have concerns other than the control of a third-rate power to his west. He had his own position as great king to establish and maintain, and he set out to do this as Mesopotamian kings had done for two thousand years: he started to build. His own inscriptions record the restoration and addition of temple after temple in Babylon itself. Babylon was the home of the god Marduk, and Nebuchadnezzar’s devotion to Marduk was also a celebration of Babylonian triumph. “O Marduk, my lord,” reads one of Nebuchadnezzar’s inscriptions, commemorating an effective campaign to put down rebellion to his west, “may I remain always your legitimate governor; may I pull your yoke until I am sated with progeny…may my offspring rule forever.”12

His piety as a devotee of Marduk survives in almost every ancient account of his projects: “He most zealously decorated the temple of Bel and the rest of the holy places,” writes Berossus.13 He built a ceremonial road for the festival of Marduk, a seventy-foot-wide path from the central temple complex to the ceremonial Ishtar Gate, on the north side of the city, so that the god could progress along it in the New Year’s festival. Walls on either side were glazed blue, decorated with carved lions.14 Remnants of the Ishtar Gate and the path that led to it have become one of the most recognizable images of ancient Babylon, even though they come from the very end of Babylon’s life.

Nebuchadnezzar also built himself at least three palaces, gilded with glazing, gold, and silver. And at one of these palaces, he built a garden.


58.1. Ishtar Gate. A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, the main gate of Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo credit Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

The remains of this garden have not been identified with certainty (a huge arrangement of walls and chambers with vaulted ceilings, uncovered at the primary royal complex on the banks of the Euphrates, remains a possibility), but their fame lingers in the accounts of various writers from later times. Diodorus of Siculus gives the best-known description of them in the third book of his Bibliotheca Historica:

There was of old time a king who, for his lady’s sake, prepared this garden, as you shall hear. This mistress, whom he so tenderly loved, was Persian-born, and as the nature of that country is, she had a great desire to stand upon high hills and see the country around her. So she entreated her sovereign lord to make her a ground, or an arbour of pleasure, artificially devised by curious workmanship.

The entrance into it was in a hill, with building upon building made to a wondrous height, so that a man could see out of it far and wide. There were vaults made under the ground that bore up all the weight of this garden; one vault was set upon another, and the higher that the building proceeded, the bigger was the vault. On the uppermost vaults, the walls of this garden were founded and set, twenty-two feet thick…. There were cisterns of water in the pavement. And in this garden were all manner of trees, delectable to see, and fresh green meadows. Moreover, there was a conduit, that by craft conveyed water for the irrigation of the soil.15

The “Persian-born lady” is most likely not Persian at all, but Median: none other than Amytis, the daughter of Cyarxes, the Median high king.

These gardens—which acquired the name of the “Hanging Gardens” from this description of an upside-down ziggurat formation, each level overhanging the one below—became famous not only through time, but through space. Almost every ancient historian who describes Babylon mentions them, and from these snapshots we can build a picture of these most famous gardens of ancient times: the Eden of a warlord. “He had high stone terraces built that gave the appearance of being mountains planted with all kinds of trees,” writes Berossus. “He had constructed and prepared what are called the Hanging Gardens for his wife, who had a love of the mountains since she had grown up in Media.”15416

These were peaceful buildings. But Nebuchadnezzar had more serious issues in mind as well. He set his men to work on the double walls of Babylon, reinforcing them until the inner wall stood twenty-one feet thick and the outer wall was punctuated with watchtowers every sixty feet. A partly dug moat protected one side of the city already; Nebuchadnezzar had it dug the rest of the way around the city, until Babylon was surrounded by a forty-foot belt of water.17 And then on the city’s east side, he built yet another wall. This, later described by the Greek soldier Xenophon as the “Medean Wall,” stretched from the Euphrates to the Tigris, reminiscent of the wall built long ago by the Sumerian king Shu-Sin to keep invading Amorites away.155 But this wall had another purpose: “He fixed the walls,” Berossus writes, “so that those who intended to besiege the city could no longer divert the river’s course.”18 The recent destruction of Nineveh had left him wary of water.

Under Nebuchadnezzar, the city of Babylon had grown immense: Aristotle remarks, “It is said that when Babylon was captured, a considerable part of the city was not aware of it until three days later,” thanks to the city’s size.19 But despite all of this building, it is possible that Nebuchadnezzar was not as strong as he looked. In 595, he was forced to put down a rebellion in his own capital city; it took him two months to defeat the insurgents, which suggests that the army (perhaps tired of its endless fighting) was involved.20

And then there is the evidence from Egypt to consider.

Necho II, who had twice come up against Nebuchadnezzar without success, was now dead. He had died in 595, two years after the fight outside the Delta, and had been succeeded on the throne of Egypt by his son Psammetichus II.

Psammetichus II inherited an Egyptian military complex that now included a navy. He used it not for commerce, but for a return to an older style of Egyptian power. He made an expedition down into Nubia, long out of the grasp of the Egyptian pharaohs, bringing with him two divisions: an Egyptian division led by the Egyptian general Amasis, and a Greek division commanded by a separate officer. He stayed himself at Aswan, but his two divisions fought their way south.21 This army is memorialized by graffiti which the Greeks, who had no particular awe of the Egyptian past, scribbled on the leg of the huge statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel: “This was written by those who sailed with Psammeticus,” it reads, “…[who] came beyond Kerkis as far as the river permits. Those who spoke foreign tongues were led by Potasimto, the Egyptians by Amasis.”22

Napata was put to the torch, and 4,200 Nubians died or were taken captive.23 Zedekiah, hearing of these conquests, sent word to Psammetichus II; if Egypt wanted to attack Nebuchadnezzar, Jerusalem would join him. He “revolted to the Egyptians,” writes Josephus, “in hopes, by their assistance, of overcoming the Babylonians.”24

Nebuchadnezzar must have looked vulnerable, because Psammetichus II agreed to come. He marched his army out of the Delta, a combined force of Egyptians and Greek mercenaries, travelling to battle over land in the traditional way. In response, the Babylonian army, which had already arrived at Jerusalem’s walls to find out why Zedekiah’s tribute was late, pulled away and headed down to meet the threat.

The prophet Jeremiah, still forecasting doom, warned Zedekiah that the worst was yet to come. “Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land,” he announced. “Then the Babylonians will return…. Do not deceive yourselves, thinking, ‘The Babylonians will surely leave us.’ They will not! Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army, and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn the city down.”25

This was a massive vote of no confidence, but Zedekiah didn’t listen and Jeremiah ended up in a dungeon where no one else could hear him. (“He is discouraging the soldiers!” complained one of the officers, with some justification.) Meanwhile Nebuchadnezzar “met the Egyptians, and joined battle with them, and beat them; and when he had put them to flight, he pursued them, and drove them out of all Syria.”26 Psammetichus II went back home. Just weeks later, in February of 589, he died, and was succeeded by his son Apries. If Zedekiah sent south again for help from Egypt (as passages written later by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel suggest), the messages were ignored. Apries had learned from his father’s mistake and did not intend to defy the great king.156

Nebuchadnezzar then fought his way back towards the walls of Jerusalem. Zedekiah’s army controlled the fortress cities of Azekah and Lachish, which were in the forefront of the defense against the Babylonian invasion; but these cities fell, one at a time. The agonizing and slow defeat is recorded on bits of pottery found at Lachish, sent there as messages by soldiers who were on the outer edges of the territory’s defense, and who were bracing themselves for the onslaught. The attack would reach Azekah first.

“Let my lord know,” one fragment reads, “that we can no longer see the signals of Azekah.”27 Azekah had fallen. Its lights had been quenched, and not long afterwards the dark Babylonian wave swallowed Lachish as well, and then washed up against the walls of Jerusalem.

The siege lasted two years. It was accompanied, according to Josephus, by “a famine and a pestilential distemper,” and it was the famine that finally brought an end to the siege. In 587, Zedekiah had had enough. He tried to escape, apparently without thought for the rest of the people, left behind to face Babylonian wrath. “The famine had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat,” writes the historian of 2 Kings. “Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army fled at night through the gate between the two walls near the king’s garden, although the Babylonians were surrounding the city. They fled towards the Jordan Valley, but the Babylonian army pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho. All his soldiers were separated from him and scattered, and he was captured.”28

Nebuchadnezzar, normally free from the gratuitous cruelty that had characterized the kings of Assyria, had been exasperated into vengeance. When Zedekiah was hauled in front of him in his army camp, he ordered the king’s sons—still children—killed in front of his eyes, and then had Zedekiah’s eyes put out, so that the last sight he ever witnessed was the execution of his family.

Zedekiah was taken back to Babylon in chains; all of his chief officials and the chief priests were executed just outside the army camp; and Nebuchadnezzar ordered his commander to set Jerusalem on fire. The walls were broken down; the city’s people were marched off into exile; the palace of the king, the houses, the treasury, and the Temple of Solomon were all in flames. The Jews were resettled all over Babylon, and some fled down to Egypt as well. It was the beginning of a diaspora which lasted for two millennia. “And after this manner have the kings of David’s race ended their lives,” Josephus concludes.29

MEANWHILE, Nebuchadnezzar’s allies the Medes, under his father-in-law Cyarxes, had been steadily fighting their way towards Asia Minor. By the time Jerusalem fell, the Medes had reached the Lydian border.

Lydia, which had been invaded by the Cimmerians a hundred years earlier, had been regathering its strength. Some Lydians had migrated across to Thrace, and perhaps from there farther west; but others had remained, and Gyges’s great-grandson Alyattes was now their king. Under his leadership, the Lydian army came out to meet the Medes and fought them to a standstill.

From 590 to 585, the two armies faced each other across the Halys river, neither able to gain an advantage. Herodotus remarks that during this five years, “although plenty of battles went the Medes’ way, just as many went the Lydians’ way too.”30 So in 585, Nebuchadnezzar took a hand to resolve the stalemate. He sent up a Babylonian army officer named Nabonidus to help arrange a cease-fire between the two armies. Nabonidus seems to have done his job well; the two kings agreed to a peace, which was sealed by the marriage of Alyattes’s daughter, Aryenis, to Cyarxes’s son, the Median prince Astyages.31

It might have made more sense for Nebuchadnezzar to send an army to help the Medes conquer the Lydians, rather than messing about with a peace treaty. But Cyarxes had now been king of the Medes and Persians for forty years. He was an old man, and ill, and ready to stop fighting. Just after the swearing of the treaty and the royal marriage, he took to his bed, and died not long after. Astyages became king of the Medes and Persians in his place, but he did not pick the war back up; he took his wife and went back home.

Possibly Nebuchadnezzar did not send a Babylonian army because he too was suffering from illness.

Nebuchadnezzar’s reign—particularly the end of it—is haunted by mysterious hints of something very wrong indeed. The most complete account of these difficult days is found in the book of Daniel, which describes the lives of four of the Jewish captives hauled off to Babylon and retrained, by Nebuchadnezzar’s officials, to be Babylonians. One of these captives, Daniel himself, is called to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s troubling dream; the king has seen, in the night, a huge tree with beautiful leaves, filled with fruit, giving shelter to animals beneath it and birds in its branches; and then he has seen the tree cut down, stripped and broken off, the stump bound with bronze.


Given that both Assyrian and Babylonian kings had shared a devotion to a sacred tree as the source of their power, this strikes Nebuchadnezzar as ominous. Daniel, asked to interpret, confirms the negative nature of the dream: he predicts that the king will be struck by madness and lose his power for a time. Sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar loses his wits: “He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird,” a condition that lasts for seven years.32

This story, naturally, was much amplified by later Jewish commentary on the biblical books, attempting to make sense of this transformation; it is not common, in the biblical literature, to see men transformed into animals as punishment. A much later composition, the Lives of the Prophets—an anonymous account of the lives of various Jewish prophets, probably written around AD 100—sees the transformation as a symbol of Nebuchadnezzar’s tyranny. The Lives of the Prophets describes Nebuchadnezzar as sane, but as part animal nonetheless:

For his head and foreparts were those of an ox, his legs and hinder parts those of a lion…. It is in the manner of tyrants, that…in their latter years they become wild beasts.33

This is a reversal of the Gilgamesh epic, in which the wild man Enkidu looks human but roams through the fields, eating grass like an animal. In the Gilgamesh epic, Enkidu is the tyrannical, uncivilized, power-grasping, shadow side of the king, one who must be wrestled with and tamed before kingship can prosper. In the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a man becomes a good king (and his shadow side more human) when he resists the temptation to exercise his power without restraint. But Nebuchadnezzar goes the other way, increasingly autocratic and sinking from great king to animal existence.34

Despite the place it occupied in the imaginations of its neighbors, Babylon was the center of an empire for a very brief time. Hammurabi had been its first great king; the first Nebuchadnezzar its second; Nebuchadnezzar II was only its third great king, and its last. Babylon was not accustomed to emperors.

And so that ancient Sumerian unease with kingship is resurrected in the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. Nebuchadnezzar too is conquered by the beast within him. Daniel, born into a nation which had chosen its kings against the will of its own God centuries before, provides a theological commentary to wrap the story up: men are frightened by kingship because every man desires power, and, desiring, is ruined by it.

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