The Political Success of Nebuchadnezzar II
Nebuchadnezzar II is renowned for his military achievements in numerous late biblical, Hellenistic, and Jewish sources (Sack 2004). Though some scholars have called this characterization into question (Eph’al 2003; Kahn 2008), the general consensus among historians is that Nebuchadnezzar’s 43 year reign was a time of remarkable political success for the burgeoning Neo-Babylonian empire.
Following Nabopolassar’s extended conflict with the Assyrian forces, in which he ultimately took Assur (615) and Nineveh (612) with the help of the Medes, a challenge to Babylonian imperial ambitions persisted with Egypt. To this point, Egypt appears to have established rule over Palestine (Na’aman 1991). Nevertheless, after his victory at Carchemish and extension of Babylonian control over Hamath (605), Nebuchadnezzar proceeded to curb Egyptian imperial ambitions by taking control of the Levant (cf. Fantalkin 2017). In the course of these events, Jerusalem is taken and its king, Jehoiachin, appears to be deported to Babylon and replaced by a vassal king (597). A profound window exists into the precarious position of smaller states in the Levant coping with this conflict by means of a fragmentary Aramaic letter found at Saqqara in Egypt:
“To lord of kings, Pharaoh, your servant Adon, king of […]. What…[the forces] of the king of Babylon have come; they have reached Aphek and (encamped)…they have taken…For lord of kings, Pharaoh, knows that your servant…to send an army to deliver me. Let him not abandon me…and your servant has kept in mind his kindness.” (Quoted in Kuhrt 1995: 591)
Though the petitioner remains unidentified due to the fragmentary nature of the letter, what is quite clear is that in light of Babylonian advance, a ruler has no other recourse but to appeal to Egypt for assistance. Indeed, Egypt does not go down easily. On the contrary, in his 4th year (601 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar failed in his attempt to conquer Egypt. Following this failure, it is quite possible that Egypt regained some control over the southern Levant (cf. Jer 47:1; 2 Kgs 24:1; Fantalkin 2017: 204). Nevertheless, by 598, Gaza again appears to be under Babylonian control as suggested by the Istanbul prism of Nebuchadnezzar II (quoted in Fantalkin 2017: 205).
In addition to his military successes, Nebuchadnezzar’s legacy is further cemented by his extensive building projects and especially his development of Babylon. Its scale (over 3 square miles) was impressive, its fortifications were imposing, and its architecture is renowned. Most famous are the central ziggurat known as Etemenanki as well as the Marduk temple known as Esagila. These grand structures were accessed by newly constructed roads, the most famous of which is the Processional Way leading to the Ishtar gate. Numerous royal inscriptions corroborate the extant material culture, which reflect highly upon the remarkable achievements of Nebuchadnezzar II.
Eph’al, Israel. “Nebuchadnezzar the Warrior: Remarks on his Military Achievements.” Israel Exploration Journal 53, no. 2 (2003): 178-191.
Fantalkin, Alexander. “In Defense of Nebuchadnezzar II the Warrior.” Altorientalische Forschungen 44, no. 2 (2017): 201-208.
Kahn, Dan’el. “Some Remarks on the Foreign Policy of Psammetichus II in the Levant.” Journal of Egyptian History 1 (2008): 139-57.
Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 BC: Volume II. London: Routledge, 1995.
Na’aman, Nadav. “The Kingdom of Judah under Josiah.” Tel Aviv 18 (1991): 1-69.
Sack, Ronald H. Images of Nebuchadnezzar: The Emergence of a Legend. London: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.
The Reign of Nabonidus
The most important literary sources attesting to the history of the reign of Nabonidus and the end of the Neo-Babylonian period include the Nabonidus Chronicle (Glassner 2004: 232-39), the Verse Account of Nabonidus (Schaudig 2001: 563-78), the Cyrus Cylinder, and accounts of the fall of Babylon in the Hebrew Bible and Greek historical texts. Regarding most of these sources, historians have recognized clear ideological agendas or substantial gaps between their composition and the events they describe. Therefore, the Nabonidus Chronicle has long been seen as the primary text providing reliable data to reconstruct the reign of the final independent Neo-Babylonian king as well as the transition of power to Cyrus king of Persia. Nevertheless, recent proposals also complicate the reliability of the Nabonidus Chronicle. Namely, it has been suggested that much of the Nabonidus Chronicle may have also been composed considerably later than the events described, perhaps in dependence upon several other sources that themselves offer a questionable historical framework (Waerzeggers 2015: 109-19). Nevertheless, a general outline of Nabonidus’s reign can be reconstructed by comparing the Nabonidus Chronicle with additional evidence that demonstrates its general reliability.
The Nabonidus Chronicle recounts Nabonidus’s ascension to the throne in 556 BCE followed by his 17-year reign until Cyrus king of Persia defeats Media, resulting in the peaceful surrender of Babylon in 539 BCE. Several details from these 17 years are certain, and two are discussed here. First, in line with the Nabonidus Chronicle, early in his reign Nabonidus spends time away from his capital in the north Arabian city of Tayma. Archaeological evidence corroborates the notion that Nabonidus imposed forced labor upon the people of Tayma to build him a replica of his palace there (Eichmann, Schaudig, and Hausleiter 2006: 163-76). Perhaps his decision to leave the capital had something to do with his apparent devotion to the moon-god Sîn, an important deity of Arabia. Regardless, Nabonidus’s stay in Tayma was troubling to the composers of the Verse Account and Nabonidus Chronicle, for both sources emphasize the problematic interruption of the Babylonian New Year’s Festival caused by his absence from Babylon. Second, dated Babylonian archival texts generally support the Nabonidus Chronicle’s chronology regarding the establishment of Persian rule in Babylon in 539 BCE with only a few exceptions that can be reasonably explained (See Waerzeggers 2015: 98-99, fn 9). Additionally, several archival sources confirm that in the months leading to the Persian incursion, Nabonidus collected divine statues in Babylon, apparently in an effort to prevent them from being captured and to have the presence of the gods in his proximity. The Nabonidus Chronicle reads:
In the month of […, Legal-Marada and the god]s of Marad, Zababa and the gods of Kis̆, Ninlil [and the gods of] Ḫursag-kalama entered Babylon. Until the end of the month of Elul, the gods of Akkad […], upstream and downstream from Isin (?), entered Babylon (Glassner 2004: 237; cf. Beaulieu 1993: 241-61; Zawadzki 2012: 47-52).
Therefore, the Nabonidus Chronicle remains an integral source for reconstructing the final years of the Neo-Babylonian Chronology, and it reinforces the dates reflected in the accompanying timeline.
Beaulieu, P.-A. “An Episode on the Fall of Babylon to the Persians.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1993): 241-61.
Eichmann, R., Schaudig, H., and Hausleiter, A. “Archaeology and Epigraphy at Tayma (Saudi Arabia).” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 17 (2006): 163-76.
Glassner, J.-J. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2004.
Schaudig, H. Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros’ des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld enstandenen Tendenzschriften. Textausgabe und Grammatik (AOAT 256; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2001), 563–78.
Waerzeggers, C. “Facts, Propaganda, or History? Shaping Political Memory in the Nabonidus Chronicle.” Pages 95-134 in Political Memory in and after the Persian Empire. Edited by J. M. Silverman and C. Waerzeggers. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015.
Zawadzki, S. “The End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire: New Data Concerning Nabonidus’ Order to Send the Statues of Gods to Babylon.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 71 (2012): 47-52.