King Nabonidus of Babylonia—A Madman, An Ill Man, Or Just A Scholar

The history of King Nabonidus is perplexingly difficult to tell—his reign was mentioned by numerous ancient sources, yet they each differ greatly in their portrayal of his life. Nabonidus, or his rule, was mentioned in accounts such as the Bible’s Book of Daniel (although there he is mistakenly referred to as Nebuchadnezzar), the tablets of the Babylonian Chronicles, the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Histories of Herodotus. These writings, produced from different times and cultures, portrayed Nabonidus from multiple perspectives, and each for their own separate motives. Despite their different outlooks, the ancient accounts did, thankfully, corroborate on some pieces of King Nabonidus’ vague history.

Based on archaeological and written evidence, historians can sketch a loose outline of Nabonidus’ reign. It is considered historical fact that Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, over which he ruled from around 556-539 BCE. Although he was a religious man, Nabonidus did not get along with the priests of Marduk, who served the most preeminent god of Babylonia. Instead, the king was especially devoted to the moon deity, Sîn, to whom Nabonidus’ mother is thought to have worked as a priestess. In terms of war, King Nabonidus may have launched a military campaign into southern Anatolia, but he generally had considerably less bloodlust than many of the other ancient kings, who often seemed to fall into perpetual warfare.

Eventually, King Nabonidus mysteriously withdrew from the capitol city of Babylon and lived at the Tamya oasis in Arabia for a period of time that lasted seven to ten years. While Nabonidus was in seclusion, his son, Belshazzar, led the administration of the empire from the city of Babylon, under the title of coregent.

The reason as to why King Nabonidus remained away from Babylon for nearly a decade is still a heavily debated issue. Some people think pressure from the priests of Marduk caused the king to leave. Other popular theories suggest that the king had a medical issue. The Prayer of Nabonidus in the Dead Sea Scrolls stated that the king suffered from a terrible ulcer, and went to the oasis at Temya for healing. The Biblical Book of Daniel stated that Belshazzar’s father was at Temya in efforts to recover from a mental illness that made the king behave like livestock, eating blades of grass from the ground. Other historians suggest that King Nabonidus was merely obsessed with archaeology and that his long period of absence was just a huge archaeological expedition to discover ancient ruins and relics.

Regardless of the cause of the king’s retreat to Tamya, Nabonidus was eventually forced to return to Babylon because of a growing threat from Persia that was truly great—in fact, it was none other than Cyrus the Great. In 539 BCE, the Persian Empire and the Neo-Babylonian Empire clashed. King Nabonidus tried to mobilize his forces to push back the Persians, but he was thoroughly outmatched. Ancient accounts of the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire vary significantly regarding how much or little fighting occurred, but the general consensus among modern historians is that the city of Babylon surrendered without a fight, and King Nabonidus was captured by the Persians. As for the fate of Nabonidus, Cyrus reportedly spared the Babylonian king’s life and let the man live out the remainder of his days in exile.

 

 

  (Basalt stela of Nabonidus, held by the British Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
(Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel, by Shigeru Aoki (1882–1911), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
(cropped Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake (1757–1827), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

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