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Capture of Babylon (Herodotus)

Darius I (Old Persian Dârayavauš): king of ancient Persia, whose reign lasted from 522 to 486. He seized power after killing king Gaumâta, fought a civil war (described in the Behistun inscription), and was finally able to refound the Achaemenid empire, which had been very loosely organized until then. Darius fought several foreign wars, which brought him to India and Thrace. When he died, the Persian empire had reached its largest extent. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.

Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
In the following text, Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells a strange story about the capture of Babylon by the Persians. There is no contemporary evidence to corroborate this story, which is suspiciously closely modeled on Homer's description of Odysseus, who was able to spy in Troy after mutilating himself.note. The translation of Herodotus' Histories 3.150-160 was made by Aubrey de Selincourt.

Babylon revolted. The revolt had been long and carefully planned; indeed, preparations for withstanding a siege had been going quietly on all through the reign of the Magian and the disturbances which followed the rising of the seven against him, and for some reason or another the secret never leaked out. When the moment finally came to declare their purpose, the Babylonians, in order to reduce the consumption of food, herded together and strangled all the women in the city each man exempting only his mother, and one other woman whom he chose out of his household to bake his bread for him.note

Map of Babylon
Map of Babylon
When the news reached Darius, he marched against them with all the forces at his disposal, and laid siege to the city. The Babylonians, however, were unimpressed; they climbed gaily on to their battlements and hurled insulting jibes at Darius and his army, calling out: 'What are you sitting there for, men of Persia? Why don't you go away? Oh yes, you will capture our city - when mules have foals.'

Now whoever it was who made this last remark, naturally supposed that no mule would ever have a foal.

A year and seven months went by, and Darius and his army began to chafe at their inability to make any progress towards taking the city. Every trick of strategy, every possible device, had been tried; but to no purpose. The town could not be taken, not even when Darius, after all else had failed, attempted to repeat the method which Cyrus had previously used with success.note The Babylonians were always on the watch with extraordinary vigilance, and gave the enemy no chance.

At last in the twentieth month of the siege, a marvelous thing; happened to Zopyrus, son of the Megabyzus who was one of the seven conspirators who killed the Magus: one of his sumpter-mules foaled. When Zopyrus was told of this, he refused to believe it till he had seen the foal with his own eyes; then, forbidding the others who had seen it to say a word to anyone of what had occurred, he began to think hard, and came to the conclusion that the time had come when Babylon could be taken -for had not that Babylonian, at the beginning of the siege, said that the city would fall when mules foaled? That the man should have used the phrase, and that the miracle should actually have happened - surely that meant that the hand of God was in it.

Convinced, therefore, that Babylon was now doomed to destruction, he went to Darius and asked him if the capture of the city was really of supreme importance to him, and, on being told that it was, set himself to devise a way of bringing it about by his own sole act and initiative; for in Persia any special service to the king is very highly valued. Accordingly he passed in review every scheme he could think of, and finally decided that there was one way only in which he could bring the place under, namely by maiming himself and then going over to the enemy as a deserter. Taking this dreadful expedient as a mere matter of course, he at once put it into practice, and there were no half-measures in the way he set about it: he cut off his nose and ears,note shaved his hair like a criminal's, raised weals on his body with a whip, and in this condition presented himself to Darius.

Darius was shocked at the sight of a man of Zopyrus' eminence so fearfully mutilated, and springing from his chair with an exclamation of horror, asked who it was that had inflicted this punishment upon him, and what Zopyrus had done to deserve it. 'My lord,' Zopyrus answered, there is no one but yourself who has power enough to reduce me to this condition. The hands that disfigured me were none other than my own, for I could not bear to heat the Assyrians of Babylon laugh the Persians to scorn.'

'You speak like a madman;' said Darius; to say you did this horrible thing because of our enemies in the beleaguered city, is merely to cloak a shameful act in fine words. Are you fool enough to think that the mutilation of your body can hasten our victory?' When you did that to yourself; you must have taken leave of your senses.'

A royal procession. Water color by W. Anger. In front: the Procession Street; center: the Ištar Gate; on the horizon: the Etemenanki.
A royal procession. Water color by W. Anger. In front: the Procession Street; center: the Ištar Gate; on the horizon: the Etemenanki.
'Had I told you of my intention,' Zopyrus answered, 'you would not have allowed me to proceed. So I acted upon my own initiative. And now -if you too will play your part - we will capture Babylon. I will go as I am to the city walls, pretending to be a deserter, and I will tell them that it was you who caused my misery. They will believe me readily enough - and they will put their troops under my command. Now for your part: wait till the tenth day after I enter the town, and then station by the gates of Semiramis a detachment of a thousand men, whose loss will not worry you. Then, seven days later, send 2000 more to the Nineveh gates and, twenty days after that, another 4000 to the Chaldaean gates. None of these three detachments must be armed with anything but their daggers - let them carry daggers only. And then, after a further interval of twenty days, order a general assault upon the city walls from every direction, taking care that our own Persian troops have the sectors opposite the Belian and Cissian gates.note It is my belief that the Babylonians, when they see that I have done them good service, will increase my responsibility - even to trusting me with the keys of the gates. And after that - I and our Persians will see what must be done.'

Having given these directions to the king, Zopyrus fled towards the gates of Babylon, glancing over his shoulder as he ran, like a deserter in fear of pursuit. When the soldiers on watch saw him, they hurried down from the battlements, and opening one of the gates just a crack, asked him his name and business. Saying he was Zopyrus and had deserted from the Persian army, he was let in, and conducted by the sentries to the magistrates. Here he poured out his tale of woe, pretending that the injuries he had done to himself had been inflicted upon him by Darius, and all because he had advised him to abandon the siege, as there appeared to be no means of ever bringing it to a successful conclusion. 'And now,' he added, 'here I am, men of Babylon; and my coming will be gain to you, but loss - and that the severest - to Darius and his army. He little knows me if he thinks he can get away with the foul things he has done me - moreover, I know all the ins and outs of his plans,'

Two Babylonians. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
Two Babylonians. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
The Babylonians, seeing a Persian of high rank and distinction in such a state - his nose and ears cut off and his body a mess of blood from the lash of whips - were quick to believe that he spoke the truth and had really come to offer them his services, and in this belief were prepared to give him whatever he asked. At once he asked for the command of some troops, and, when the request was granted, proceeded to put into practice the plan he had arranged with Darius. The tenth day after his arrival he marched his force out of the city, and surrounded and killed the first detachment of a thousand men which he had instructed Darius to send. This was enough to show the Babylonians that his deeds were as good as his words; they were in high glee and ready to put themselves under his orders in anything he might propose. After waiting, therefore, the agreed number of days, he picked another party from the troops in the city, marched out, and made mincemeat of the two thousand Persians which Darius had posted by the Nineveh gates. As a result of this second service, the reputation of Zopyrus went up with a jump and his name was on everybody's lips. The same thing happened with the four thousand - once more after the agreed interval, he marched his men out through the Chaldaean gates, surrounded the Persians there, and cut them down to a man. This was his crowning success; Zopyrus was now the one and only soldier in Babylon, the city's hero, and was created General in Chief and Guardian of the Wall.

And now Darius did not fail to do his part: as had been agreed, he ordered a general assault upon the walls from every direction which was the signal for Zopyrus to reveal the full extent of his cunning. Waiting till the Babylonian forces had mounted the battlements to repel Darius' onslaught, he opened the Cissian and Belian gates and let the Persians in. Those of the Babylonians who were near enough to see what had happened, fled to the temple of Bêl;note the rest remained at their posts until they, too, realized that they had been betrayed.

Thus Babylon was captured for the second time, and Darius after his victory - unlike Cyrus, its previous conqueror - destroyed its defenses, pulled down all the city gates, and impaled the leading citizens to the number of about three thousand. The rest he allowed to remain in their homes. I mentioned at the beginning of my account how the Babylonians strangled their women to save food, and it was in consequence of this that Darius, in order to prevent the race from dying out, compelled the neighboring peoples each to send a certain stated number of women to Babylon. In all, as many as fifty thousand were collected there. It's from these that the present inhabitants descend.

In the judgment of Darius no Persian surpassed Zopyrus, either before his time or after, as a benefactor of his country, except only Cyrus - with whom nobody in Persia has ever dreamt of comparing himself. We are told that Darius often said that he would rather have Zopyrus without his frightful wounds than twenty more Babylons. He rewarded him with the highest honors, giving him every year the sort of gifts which are most prized amongst the Persians, and, amongst much else, the governorship of Babylon,note free from tax, for as long as he lived. 

This page was created in 1999; last modified on 23 March 2014.