Nabonidus, d. 538? B.C., last king of the Chaldaean dynasty of Babylonia. He was not of Nebuchadnezzar's family, and it is possible that he usurped the throne. He was absorbed in antiquarian and religious speculations, and he built temples while the state was left undefended. He was unpopular with both the priests and the people. When the Persian threat of Cyrus the Great grew strong, Nabonidus allied himself with Croesus of Lydia and Amasis II of Egypt, but to no avail. In 538? B.C. the kingdom fell to Cyrus with no resistance. Nabonidus' scholars preserved information valuable to modern archaeologists. Cuneiform records indicate that Belshazzar was Nabonidus' son and his coregent during the last years of Babylon.

Nabonidus (Akkadian Nabû-nāʾid) was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigning from 556-539 BCE.

Historiography on Nabonidus

More than with others, our perception of Nabonidus' reign has been heavily coloured by later accounts, notably by the Persians and the Greeks, as well as in the Hebrew Bible. As a result of this, Nabonidus was often described in very negative terms in modern and contemporary scholarship. However, an accumulation of evidence and a reassassment of existing material has caused opinions on Nabonidus and the events that happened during his reign to have altered significantly in recent decades.

Coming to power

Nabonidus' background is not clear. He says himself in his inscriptions that he is of unimportant origins. Similarly, his mother, who lived to high age and may have been connected to the temple of the moongod Sîn in Harran, in her inscriptions does not mention her descent. On the basis of repeated references to Ashurbanipal, the last great Neo-Assyrian king, in Nabonidus' royal propaganda and imagery, as well as his special interest in Harran, the last stronghold of the Neo-Assyrians after the fall of Nineveh, it has been proposed that he was an Assyrian. But it has also been pointed out that Nabonidus' royal propaganda was hardly different from his predecessors, while his Persian successor, Cyrus the Great, equally referred to Ashurbanipal in the Cyrus cylinder. One way or another, he certainly did not belong to the previous ruling dynasty, the Chaldeans, of whom Nebuchadnezzar II was the most famous member. He came to the throne in 556 BC by overthrowing the youthful king Labashi-Marduk.


In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is being depicted as a royal anomaly. He is supposed to have worshiped the moongod Sîn beyond all the other gods, to have paid special devotion to Sîn's temple in Harran, where his mother was a priestess, and to have neglected the Babylonian main god, Marduk. Because of the tensions that these religious reforms generated, he had to leave the capital for the rich desert oasis of Tayma in Arabia early in his reign, from which he only returned after many years. In the meantime, his son Belshazzar ruled from Babylon, supposedly in the typical fashion of an oriental despot.

Religious policy

Although Nabonidus' personal preference for Sîn is clear, the degree of this divides scholars. While some claim that it is obvious from his inscriptions that he became almost henotheistic, others consider Nabonidus to have been a regular ruler, who properly respected the other cults in his kingdom, including the traditional construction works to their temples. His negative image is then to be blamed on the Marduk priesthood, that resented Nabonidus' long absence from Babylon during his stay in Tayma, during which the important, Marduk-related New Year (Akītu-)Festival could not take place, and his emphasis on Sîn. In any case, there is no sign of the civil unrest that would have been indicative of trouble, not even during his absence: Nabonidus could return to his throne without a problem.

Part of the propaganda issued by both the Marduk priesthood and Cyrus is the story of Nabonidus taking the most important cultic statues from southern Mesopotamia hostage in Babylon. This is not a lie: a great number of contemporary inscriptions shows that these statues and their cultic personnel were indeed brought to Babylon just before the Persian attack:

However, modern scholarship has managed to explain for this in a more rational way. In Mesopotamia, gods were supposed to house inside their statues, from where they took care of their cities. But only if they received the right kind of attention, the combination of which explains why Nabonidus cared so much about these statues, as well as why their cultic personnel had to come along. This was a long-standing tradition, too:

But this exposed him to the criticism of his enemies, notably Cyrus, who was trying to show why he was a better king than Nabonidus had been, and took this as an example of Nabonidus unfitness to rule. In the words of, again, Beaulieu:

And in the words of Cyrus himself, as recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder, found in Babylon in 1879:

This is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles:

Nabonidus' stay in Tayma

It is not clear yet why Nabonidus stayed in Tayma for so long. His reason for going there is unproblematic enough: Tayma was an important oasis, from where lucrative Arabian trade routes could be controlled. The Neo-Assyrians before him had already attempted the same. However, why Nabonidus stayed for so long (probably about ten years, perhaps from 553-543) and why he returned just then remains a question. It has been proposed that this was because he did not feel at home in Babylon, which was opposed to his emphasis on Sîn. Regarding his return, this may have had to do with the mounting threat of Cyrus and growing disagreements with Belshazzar, who was relieved of his command directly after Nabonidus had come back, along with a number of administrators. During his stay, Nabonidus adorned Tayma with a full royal complex, most of which has come to light during recent excavations.

The Persian conquest of Babylonia

Different accounts of the fall of Babylon survive. According to the Cyrus Cylinder, the people opened their gates for Cyrus and greeted him as their liberator. Isaiah 40-55 prophecies that the Persians will carry off Babylonian women and cultic statues. Herodotus says that Cyrus beat the Babylonian outside the city, after which a siege began. When this took too long, he diverted the Euphrates, so that his troops could march into the city through the river bed. Xenophon thinks so too, but he does not mention the battle. Finally, Berossus again claims that Cyrus beat the Babylonian army, but this time, Nabonidus is supposed to have fled to nearby Borsippa. There he hid, while Cyrus took Babylon and demolished its outer walls. When he turned towards Borsippa, Nabonidus soon surrendered himself.

As these accounts contradict each other, due to their backgrounds in propaganda (the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah; for the later, see Cyrus in the Judeo-Christian tradition), oral traditions (Herodotus and Xenophon) and conflicting records (Berossus), they are quite confusing. More helpful is the Nabonidus Chronicle. This is a part of the Babylonian Chronicles, which are terse, factual accounts of historical events, and are therefore considered to be very reliable, although not very informative. This text has the following to say on the taking of Babylon by Cyrus:

Additionally, a building inscription has been found that mentions the restoration of the Enlil Gate of Babylon shortly after its capture. Through these data, the following reconstruction has been proposed: When Cyrus attempted to march into southern Mesopotamia, he was met by the Babylonians near Opis. In the ensuing battle, the Persians were victorious. This in turn caused the nearby city of Sippar to surrender. Meanwhile, the Babylonians had withdrawn south to establish a line of defense near the Euphrates that should prevent Cyrus from advancing too far. However, Cyrus did not try the Babylonian army, but sent a small division south along the Tigris to try to take the capital by surprise. This plan worked: the division could reach Babylon undetected and caught it unawares, meeting only minor resistance near one of its gates. Thus, they were not only able to capture Babylon, but also King Nabonidus, who briefly afterwards left his army to return to Babylon, not knowing that the city had already been taken.

This left the Babylonian army in a precarious position, and it soon surrendered. In the meantime, Ugbaru, the commander of the division that had captured Babylon, had taken good care that his men would not plunder or otherwise harm the city; he had even made sure that the temple rites continued to be observed. Nonetheless, it still took Cyrus almost a month before he proceeded towards the city. As many Babylonian officials as well as the Babylonian administrative system stayed in place after the transition of power, it has been surmised that this time was spent on negotiations with representatives from the city; this is similar to what happened when the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II and later Alexander the Great took the city. Finally then, Cyrus went to Babylon, where he could now have his triumphant entry to the cheers of the people.

The death of Nabonidus?

The subsequent fate of Nabonidus is uncertain. Cyrus has been known for sparing the lives of the kings whom he had defeated, an idea that is based on his treatment of King Croesus of Lydia, who was allowed to live after his defeat at King Cyrus's court as an advisor. But that is only what Herodotus says; Bacchylides tells us that Apollo snatched up Croesus just before the flames of his pyre would burn him, and took him to the Hyperboreans. Also unhelpful is the reference in the Nabonidus Chronicle to a campaign by Cyrus in 547 BCE, during which a country was taken and its king killed, as the name of the country is lost. So we can only rely on the accounts by Berossus and the retrospective Hellenistic Babylonian Dynastic Prophecies, which mention that Nabonidus' life was spared, and that he was allowed to retire in Carmania.

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