Cyrus the Great and the Conquest of Babylon

The marvelous ancient of Babylon
The marvelous ancient of Babylon

“There are many ways by which I can show the power of Babylon, how great it is… Rule over this country … is of all the satrapies far the greatest.”
– Herodotus 1

Conquering Lydia had turned Cyrus from a king of the Iranian peoples of the Persians and the Medes into an emperor and the most dominant power in the ancient near east up until that time. Though it was arguably the most splendid and most famous cities the ancient world had ever known, Babylon and the Babylonians had their share of problems. In fact one might say that the city was ripe for the taking.

The Babylonian ruler of that time, Nabonidus (ruled from 556–539 BCE), had ticked off a great many people in Babylon, most notably the Babylonian priesthood. His crime was that he had supposedly turned away from the city’s patron deity, Marduk, and in his stead was honoring a new and foreign one, the moon god Sin. In fact, Nabonidus was said to have been living for 11 years outside of Babylon, ostensibly due to some military campaign to control the trade routes around the Persian Gulf and was increasingly becoming alienated from his people. He entrusted his son Belshazzar, the same personage as found in the Bible, with ruling the city until his return. It is this particular Belshazzar who’s end was foretold by the “writing on the wall” in the Old Testament book of Daniel. 2

Belshazzar seeing the "writing on the wall."
Belshazzar seeing the “writing on the wall.”

Ancient Babylonia had no fury greater than a Babylonian priest scorn. When news of Cyrus’ imminent attack reached the city, the Babylonian stewards of Marduk promised to support Cyrus against Nabonidus.


Their willingness to comply with and even welcome the Persians seems a bit strange, especially given that the Babylonians were a proud people with millenniums of history versus the Persians and their relatively short years of glory. Were the Babylonians really that annoyed with Nabonidus that they would just abandon him and turn their city over to a foreign conqueror, especially one whose civilization they deemed as inferior to their own? Perhaps. However it is more likely that seeing how Cyrus took out Lydia, Babylonia’s chief ally and also had routed several thousand Babylonian troops along the Tigris river at the nearby citadel of Opis on the way to Babylon, that the remaining leaders of the city decided to surrender peacefully rather than risk destruction and put all of their lives in jeopardy. Besides, Cyrus had also subdued the surrounding towns and territories and for the most part, their citizens had been left unharmed and free to carry out their business as before. Cyrus, with the exception of at Opis, seemed to be a nice guy compared to their current deadbeat ruler. Why take chances?

Cyrus restoring the vessels to the temple
Cyrus restoring the vessels to the temple

By this time Nabonidus had figured out that Cyrus and his army were on their way and returned to Babylon, both to seek refuge and also to oversee the city’s defenses against the impending Persian attack. However, he again upset the priesthood of Babylon by bringing with him the images of other deities from various cities across Babylonia. Such a move only angered his people even more. After all, Marduk was their god, and he wouldn’t take kindly to a bunch of other gods coming to his city and overcrowding his house. At least this is what Marduk’s priests believed.

According to the the Babylonian Chronicles, in 539 BCE after defeating a Babylonian army at Opis, Cyrus advanced on the city of Sippar where Nabonidus had apparently taken up refuge. According to the Babylonian Chronicles,

“The 15th day, Sippar was seized without battle. Nabonidus fled. The 16th day, Gobryas [Ugbaru], the governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterwards, Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned there.” 3

Gobryas, who earlier had defected to Cyrus’ side, led his own troops into Babylon along with a contingent of Persians to secure the city. They guarded the temple of Marduk and made sure that all of the rites dedicated to the god were properly carried out. Probably more importantly, the troops made sure that looting was prevented and that life and commerce in the city continued uninterrupted as usual.

The transcript of the Cyrus cylinder
The transcript of the Cyrus cylinder

Along with help from Gobryas, Cyrus also succeeded in taking over the city of Babylon relatively easily because of his use of psychological warfare. Paul Kriwaczek in his throughly researched book on Babylon writes that

Cyrus had devoted great effort to psychological warfare. Months before his invasion – perhaps even years – his representatives had been busily spreading the word that the Babylonian king had proved himself a menace to his neighbours and an oppressor of his own people; that he must be deposed to restore freedom and justice to Babylonia. They proclaimed the Shahanshah’s (Persian term meaning “King of Kings”) generosity and concern for basic rights. They sent secret letters … reassuring … of Cyrus’s firm intention to uphold the worship of Marduk and all the other deities sacred to the cities of Mesopotamia. To the leaders of the displaced peoples deported by Nebuchadnezzar they confirmed that it was Cyrus’s intention to permit their return. To those in the court of the town called Nehardea, who served the sons of Jehoiakin, the last legitimate King of Judah, and to the major religious agitator and propagandist who would become known to posterity as the Second Isaiah, they promised Cyrus’s revenge against the city that had humbled Jerusalem. Agents were dispatched to loiter in the bars and taverns to encourage the disaffected citizenry to abandon their loyalty to Nabonidus a new ruler who would restore all the ancient traditions so neglected by the usurper of Nebuchadnezzar’s throne, and deliver fairness and mercy to all.4

True to his word, when Cyrus entered the city, he did all that he was promised and more. Life in Babylon went on as usual because Cyrus was a most unusual ancient Near Eastern conquerer. In fact, he wasn’t deemed a conquerer at all but more of a liberator, both for the people of Babylon as well as the peoples that they had subjugated and enslaved, most famous of these being the Jews. Brought over since the time of Nebuchadnezzar II in the late 500s BCE, the Jews were allowed to not only return to their homeland in today’s Israel, but according to the Bible, they also were given funds to rebuild their temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Such actions were unheard of amongst ancient near eastern despots. All citizens were allowed to worship as they pleased. Most of the Babylonian officials were allowed to keep their posts and supervised by a satrap, or viceroy, who answered directly to the king.

Captive Jews led into Babylonia

By conquering Babylonia, Cyrus was also able to annex their territories of Syria, Palestine, and Phoenicia along the Mediterranean Sea. The seafaring Phoenicians especially were important because it was through them that the Persians acquired their first navy and trade fleets, connecting the new empire with the lands far out along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Release of the Jews from Babylon
Release of the Jews from Babylon

With Babylon secured, Cyrus turned his attention to the eastern periphery of his empire as well as Central Asia. The tribes there were giving him trouble and he needed to secure the border. Though he had plans to conquer fabled Egypt, these would for the time being have to wait.

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