12 The Neo-Babylonians and Persians

The Neo-Babylonians

Image of the tan stone tablet called the Nebuchadnezzar Inscription. The inscription has cuneiform writing on the front detailing the events of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Nebuchadnezzar II inscription by Hanay is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire, was a civilization in Mesopotamia that began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC.

During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of Assurbanipal, the last strong Assyrian ruler. The Neo-Babylonian period was a renaissance that witnessed a great flourishing of art, architecture, and science.

The Neo-Babylonian rulers were motivated by the antiquity of their heritage and followed a traditionalist cultural policy, based on the ancient Sumero-Akkadian culture. Ancient artworks from the Old-Babylonian period were painstakingly restored and preserved, and treated with a respect verging on religious reverence. Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604–562 BC and was a great patron of urban development, bent on rebuilding all of Babylonia’s cities to reflect their former glory.

It was Nebuchadnezzar II’s vision and sponsorship that turned Babylon into the immense and beautiful city of legend. The city spread over three square miles, surrounded by moats and ringed by a double circuit of walls. The river Euphrates, which flowed through the city, was spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. At the heart of the city lay the ziggurat Etemenanki, literally “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” Originally seven stories high, it is believed to have provided the inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

It was also during this period that Nebuchadnezzar supposedly built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although there is no definitive archeological evidence to establish their precise location. Ancient Greek and Roman writers describe the gardens in vivid detail. However, the lack of physical ruins has led many experts to speculate whether the Hanging Gardens existed at all. If this is the case, writers might have been describing ideal mythologized Eastern gardens or a famous garden built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) at Nineveh roughly a century earlier. If the Hanging Gardens did exist, they were likely destroyed around the first century CE.

Artists colorful illustration of Nebuchadnezzar's Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The illustration portrays a three-tiered ziggurat with lush green vegetation covering all three layers. In the background is another ziggurat and the mythical Tower of Babel.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maarten van Heemskerck is licensed under Public Domain
Artist's depiction of the Ishtar Gate that once granted entrance into the city of Babylon. The image is that of a red and tan roadway with bulwarks on either side. At the end of the roadway is the palace of Babylon with the blue Ishtar gate at its entrance.
Model of the Ishtar Gate by Gryffindor is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Picture of an ambulating tan lion from the Ishtar Gate. The background behind the lion is deep blue. The image is entirely made of glazed bricks.
Lion of Babylon by Jan van der Crabben is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. The material evidence itself is mostly fragmentary. Some of the most important fragments that survive are from the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in 575 BC by order of Nebuchadnezzar II, using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief dragons and aurochs. Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, it was a double gate, and its roofs and doors were made of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. Babylon’s Processional Way, which was lined with brilliantly colorful glazed brick walls decorated with lions, ran through the middle of the gate. Statues of the Babylonian gods were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way during New Year’s celebrations.(11)

The Persians

Cyrus the Persian or “Great”

A two-dimensional tan stone relief of Cyrus the Great making a pronouncement with his hands.
Cyrus II of Persia uploaded by Siamax is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Around 550 BCE, Cyrus II of Persia, who became known as Cyrus the Great, rose in rebellion against the Median Empire, eventually conquering the Medes to create the first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus utilized his tactical genius, as well as his understanding of the socio-political conditions governing his territories, to eventually assimilate the neighboring Lydian and Neo-Babylonian empires into the new Persian Empire.(12)

Cyrus, whose rule lasted between 29 and 31 years, until his death in battle in 530 BCE, controlled the vast Achaemenid Empire through the use of regional monarchs, called satrap, who each oversaw a territory called a satrapy. The basic rule of governance was based upon the loyalty and obedience of the satrapy to the central power, the king, and compliance with tax laws. Cyrus also connected the various regions of the empire through an innovative postal system that made use of an extensive roadway and relay stations.

Cyrus the Great was recognized for achievements in human rights and politics, having influenced both Eastern and Western Civilization. The ancient Babylonians called him “The Liberator,” while the modern nation of Iran calls Cyrus its “father.” (12)

The book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible remembers him as a savior or ‘messiah’. This is for good reason. Cyrus granted the descendants of the exiled kingdom of Judah to return home to Israel in 540 BCE following Babylonian captivity (c.f. Isa 45:1). The Cyrus Cylinder serves as a testament of the Persian king’s magnanimous treatment of captured persons.(12)(23)

The Cyrus Cylinder

Image of the Cyrus Cylinder. The tiny cylinder is in the shape of a stone tube sitting atop a platform in a museum.
Cyrus Cylinder Original image by kourosh e kabir. Uploaded by Antoine Simonin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay artifact, now broken into several fragments, that has been called the oldest-known charter of universal human rights and a symbol of his humanitarian rule. The cylinder dates from the 6th century BCE, and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in 1879. In addition to describing the genealogy of Cyrus, the declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script on the cylinder is considered by many Biblical scholars to be evidence of Cyrus’s policy of repatriation of the Jewish people following their captivity in Babylon.

The historical nature of the cylinder has been debated, with some scholars arguing that Cyrus did not make a specific decree, but rather that the cylinder articulated his general policy allowing exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples.(12)

Darius I

When Darius I (550–486 BCE), also known as Darius the Great, ascended the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 522 BCE, he established Aramaic as the official language and devised a codification of laws for Egypt. Darius also sponsored work on construction projects throughout the empire, focusing on improvement of the cities of Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Babylon, and various municipalities in Egypt.

When Darius moved his capital from Pasargadae to Persepolis, he revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage and introducing a regulated and sustainable tax system. This structure precisely tailored the taxes of each satrapy based on its projected productivity and economic potential. For example, Babylon was assessed for the highest amount of silver taxes, while Egypt owed grain in addition to silver taxes.(12)

Image of grey stone wall relief depicting two lines of two-dimensional Persian officials facing one another. The remains represent one of the few from the Persian capital of Persepolis.
Well preserved Achamenid reliefs from Persepolis by travelling runes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Behistun Inscription

Sometime after his coronation, Darius ordered an inscription to be carved on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in modern Iran. The Behistun Inscription, the text of which Darius wrote, came to have great linguistic significance as a crucial clue in deciphering cuneiform script.

The inscription begins by tracing the ancestry of Darius, followed by a description of a sequence of events following the deaths of the previous two Achaemenid emperors, Cyrus the Great and Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, in which Darius fought 19 battles in one year to put down numerous rebellions throughout the Persian lands.

The inscription, which is approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, includes three versions of the text in three different cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, which was a version of Akkadian. Researchers were able to compare the scripts and use it to help decipher ancient languages, in this way making the Behistun Inscription as valuable to cuneiform as the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs.12

Image of the Behistun Inscription. Here, a two-dimensional Darius stands taller than the other figures in the scene as he recounts his ancestry and triumphs. The speech can be seen above their heads, written in three different cuneiform scripts.
Bisotun Iran Relief Achamenid Period by Hara1603 is licensed under Public Domain

The Persian Empire After Darius I

Between c. 500–400 BCE, Darius the Great and his son, Xerxes I, ruled the Persian Plateau and all of the territories formerly held by the Assyrian Empire, including Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Cyprus. It eventually came to control Egypt, as well. This expansion continued even further afield with Anatolia and the Armenian Plateau, much of the Southern Caucasus, Macedonia, parts of Greece and Thrace, Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea, the Oxus and Jaxartes areas, the Hindu Kush and the western Indus basin, and parts of northern Arabia and northern Libya.

This unprecedented area of control under a single ruler stretched from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon on the northeastern border of Greece. At its height, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the world’s population, the highest such figure for any empire in history.(13)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century Copyright © by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book