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Herodotus' third logos: Babylonian and Persian affairs

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The ancient near East. Design Jona Lendering. The ancient Near East

Affairs in Babylonia and Persia (1.141-216)

Herodotus goes on to tell about Cyrus' adventures after his conquest of Media and Lydia. After his capture of Sardes (above), the cities of the Ionian Greeks, which were subject to Croesus, send embassies to prevent war, and the Spartans announce that they will support the Ionians. (At this point, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on the towns of these Greek settlers in Asia.) Cyrus ignores these embassies and returns to Media to defend the eastern provinces of his empire against the Scythians (below); Cyrus' friend Harpagus (above) makes quick work of  the Ionian Greeks and the Lydians, who have revolted.

This Lydian revolt causes a short discussion between Cyrus and Croesus. Cyrus asks the former ruler of Lydia what to do. Croesus advises the great king to make sure that the Lydians forget how to fight and learn more peaceful arts. Soon, they will succumb to luxury and no longer be a threat. Cyrus recognizes that this is a sound advice. 

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus takes Babylon
Two Babylonians. Eastern stairs of the apadana at Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
Two Babylonians. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (more).

Cyrus now rules a large kingdom, stretching from the Greek towns on the shores of the Aegean Sea to the Persian Gulf in the south. Now he prepares to attack his former ally, king Labynetus of Babylonia. Herodotus gives a long description of its capital Babylon. Cyrus defeats the Babylonian troops and lays siege to their city; he is able to take it by directing the river Euphrates in another direction - when the water is shallow enough, his soldiers enter the city through the former water course. The Babylonians are surprised and surrender. (Go here for a translation of the story of Cyrus' campaign against Babylon.)

After a digression on Babylonian customs, Herodotus describes Cyrus' campaign against the Massagetes, a nomadic tribe in modern Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. Although Cyrus' adviser Croesus tries to dissuade the Persian king from attacking his enemy, his advise is ignored, and the Massagetian queen Tomyris defeats and kills Cyrus. This logos ends with a short appendix in which Herodotus informs us about the customs of the Massagetes.

Ištar gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Babylon's Ištar Gate (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin)


King Labynetus is identical with Nabonidus, but that is about all we can say for Herodotus' credibility. Contemporary cuneiform texts inform us about the Babylonian side of the story: Nabonidus was afraid of the growing Persian power and spent much time finding allies in Arabia. Meanwhile, he was absent from Babylon, an absence that its inhabitants did not appreciate. The Chronicle of Nabonidus (year seventeen) informs us that Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army in the neighborhood of modern Baghdad on 10 October 539 BCE. Two days later, his commander-in-chief "Ugbaru" entered Babylon and had Nabonidus captured. (His Persian name was Gaubaruva, a name that is usually translated into Greek as Gobryas.) Cyrus entered the city a few days later; his own story is told in the Cyrus Cylinder. The event is well known from the Bible, because Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to return home (see Ezra 1 and Isaiah 44-45). 
Cyrus' cylinder. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Cyrus' cylinder (British Museum)

Herodotus' description of the city is nonsensical (go here for a better description). For example, he wants us to believe that the walls of Babylon are 100 meters high and 22 kilometers long; hundred bronze gates give access to the city. The famous English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was one of the first to remark that Herodotus never set foot in the old city - causing a bitter polemic among the believers and skeptics which lasts until the present day. Probably, Gibbon was right and Herodotus had no access to Babylonian information (more...).

Cuneiform texts enable us to date Cyrus' violent death in December 530. He was succeeded by his son Cambyses.

Nabonidus' chronicle. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Nabonidus Chronicle, reverse (British Museum)


  • Pierre Briant, 'Hérodote et la société Perse' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 69-113
  • Walter Burkert, 'Herodot als Historiker fremder Religionen' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 1-39
  • Andrew R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c.546-478 B.C. (1962 London) pages 49-62
  • Max Mallowan, 'Cyrus the Great' in: Ilya Gershevitch (ed.): The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. II: The Median and Achaemenian Periods, 1985 Cambridge, pages 392-419
  •  R. Rollinger, Herodots babylonischer Logos. Eine kritische Untersuchung der glaubwürdigkeitsdiskussion, 1993, Innsbruck

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