Document #8: Herodotus, ‘The Histories’ (On Babylon, c.440 BC)

Book One

While the lower parts of Asia were in this way brought under by Harpagus, Cyrus in person subjected the upper regions, conquering every nation, and not suffering one to escape. Of these conquests I shall pass by the greater portion, and give an account of those only which gave him the most trouble, and are the worthiest of mention. When he had brought all the rest of the continent under his sway, he made war on the Assyrians. Assyria possesses a vast number of great cities, whereof the most renowned and strongest at this time was Babylon, which, after the fall of Nineveh, became the primary seat of government.

There are many ways to illustrate the potency of Babylon’s resources. When Cyrus the Great [after he conquered Babylon] divided his empire into regions, he not only regulated the supply of tribute to his government, but also the provisioning of his household and army. For four months out of twelve, the royal table was furnished by the lands around Babylon, and for the remaining eight by the rest of Asia. Such is the wealth of Assyria, in other words, that its territory supplied an entire third of the resources of all of Asia. Also, the governorship (or satrapy, as the Persian call it) of the land is the richest foreign posting there is in the Persian government… When the son of Artabazus ruled it, he kept so many Indian hunting dogs that the taxes of four large villiages in th eplain had to be devoted exclusively to keeping htem all fed. Such is the measure of wealth of the governor of Babylon.

The following is a description of the place: The city stands on a broad plain, and is an exact square, a hundred and twenty furlongs in length each way, so that the entire circuit is four hundred and eighty furlongs. It is not only sheer size that renders Babylon unique, however, but its design as well: the city is like no other of which we know. It is surrounded by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width, and two hundred in height. (The royal cubit is longer by three fingers’ breadth than the common cubit.).

And here I should tell how the Babylonians used the mud that was dug out of the great moat and how the walls were constructed. As fast as they dug the moat the soil which they got from the cutting was made into bricks, and when a sufficient number were completed they baked the bricks in kilns. Then they began building and bricking the borders of the moat, after which they proceeded to construct the wall itself, using for their cement hot bitumen, and interposing a layer of woven reeds at every thirtieth course of the bricks. On the top, along the edges of the wall, they constructed buildings of a single chamber, facing one another, leaving between them room for a four-horse chariot to turn. In the circuit of the wall are a hundred gates, all of bronze, with brazen lintels and side-posts. The bitumen used in the work was brought to Babylon from the River Is, a small stream which flows into the Euphrates at the point where the city of the same name stands, eight days’ journey from Babylon. Lumps of bitumen are found in great abundance in this river.


The city is divided into two portions by the river which runs through the midst of it. This river is the Euphrates, a broad, deep, swift stream, which rises in Armenia, and empties itself into the Erythraean sea [now called the Persian Gulf]. The city wall is brought down on both sides to the edge of the stream: thence, from the corners of the wall, there is carried along each bank of the river a fence of burnt bricks. The houses inside the city are mostly three and four stories high; the streets all run in straight lines, not only those parallel to the river, but also the cross streets which lead down to the water-side. At the river end of these cross streets are low gates in the wall that skirts the stream, which are, like the great gates in the outer wall, covered in bronze, and open onto the water. The outer wall is the main defense of the city. There is, however, a second inner wall, of less thickness than the first, but not inferior to it in strength. The centre of each division of the town is occupied by a fortress. In the one stands the palace of the kings, surrounded by a wall of great strength and size: in the other is the sacred precinct of Zeus Belus [Marduk], a square enclosure two furlongs each way, with gates of solid bronze. This still existed in my time. In the middle of the precinct there is a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which is raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons are wont to sit some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied at night by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Babylonians, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land. They also declare, but I for my part do not believe it, that the god comes down in person into this chamber, and sleeps upon the couch. This is like the story told by the Egyptians of what takes place in their city of Thebes, where a woman always passes the night in the temple of the Theban Jupiter. In each case the woman is said to be prohibited in all intercourse with men.


Below, in the same precinct, there is a second temple, in which there is a sitting figure of Zeus [Marduk], all of gold. Before the figure stands a large golden table, and the throne whereon it sits, and the base on which the throne is placed, are likewise of gold. The Babylonians told me that all the gold together was eight hundred talents’ weight. Outside the temple are two altars, one of solid gold, on which it is only lawful to sacrifice new-born animals; the other a common altar, but of great size, on which the full-grown animals are sacrificed. It is also on the great altar that the Babylonians burn the frankincense, which is offered to the amount of a thousand talents’ weight, every year at the festival of the god Marduk. In the time of Cyrus there was likewise in this temple a figure of a man, twelve cubits high, entirely of solid gold. I myself did not see this figure, but I relate what the Babylonians report concerning it. The Persian Emperor Darius, the successor to Emperor Cambyses, plotted to carry the statue off, but had not the boldness to lay his hands upon it. Emperor Xerxes, however, the son of Darius, killed the priest who forbade him to move the statue, and took it away. Besides the ornaments which I have mentioned, there are a large number of private offerings in this holy precinct.


Many sovereigns have ruled over this city of Babylon and lent their aid to the building of its walls and the adornment of its temples. Among them two were women. Of these, the earlier queen held the throne five generations before the later princess. She raised certain embankments well worthy of inspection, in the plain near Babylon, to control the river, which, till then, used to overflow, and flood the whole country round about. The later and more important of the two queens, whose name was Nitocris, a wiser princess than her predecessor, not only left behind her as memorials of her rule the works which I shall presently describe, but also kept a close watch on the mighty restless empire of the Medes, marking how many other cities — even Assyrian Nineveh itself! — had fallen to it. She readied her on city of Babylon as best as she possibly could and made all possible exertions to increase the defenses of her empire. And first, whereas the river Euphrates, which traverses the city, ran formerly with a straight course to Babylon, she, by certain excavations which she made at some distance up the stream, rendered it so winding that it comes three several times in sight of the same Assyrian village called Ardericea. To this day, they who would go from our sea [the Mediterranean] to Babylon, traveling down the river will touch three times, and on three different days, at this very place. She also made an embankment along each side of the Euphrates, wonderful both for breadth and height, and dug a basin for a lake a great way above Babylon, close alongside of the stream and was of such breadth that the whole circuit measured four hundred and twenty furlongs. The soil dug out of this basin was made use of in the embankments along the waterside. When the excavation was finished, she had stones brought, and bordered with them the entire margin of the reservoir. These two things were done, the river made to wind, and the lake excavated, that the Euphrates might be slacker by reason of the number of curves, and the voyage be rendered circuitous, and that at the end of the voyage it might be necessary to skirt the lake and so make a long trip around its edges. All these works were on that side of Babylon where the passes lay, and the roads into Media [Persia] were the straightest. The aim of the queen in making them was to prevent the Medes [Persians] from having communication with the Babylonians, and so to keep them in ignorance of her affairs.

While the soil from the excavation was being thus used for the defense of the city, Queen Nitocris engaged also in another undertaking, a small engineering job compared with those we have already mentioned. The city of Babylon, as I said, is divided by the river into two distinct portions. Under the former kings, if a man wanted to pass from one of these divisions to the other, he had to cross in a boat, which must, it seems to me, have been very troublesome. Accordingly, while she was digging the lake, Queen Nitocris thought of turning it to a use which should at once remove this inconvenience and enable her to leave another monument of her reign over Babylon. She gave orders for the hewing of immense blocks of stone, and when they were ready and the basin was excavated, she turned the entire stream of the Euphrates into the dug-out reservoir, and thus for a time, while the basin was filling, the natural channel of the river was left dry. Forthwith she set to work, and in the first place lined the banks of the stream within the city with quays of burnt brick, and also bricked the landing-places opposite the river-gates, adopting throughout the same fashion of brickwork which had been used in the town wall. Then she built, as near the middle of the town as possible, a stone bridge, the blocks bound together with iron and lead. In the daytime square wooden platforms were laid along from pier to pier, on which the inhabitants crossed the stream. But at night they were withdrawn to prevent people passing from side to side in the dark to commit robberies. When the river had filled the reservoir and the bridge was finished, the Euphrates was turned back again into its ancient bed; and thus the reservoir, transformed suddenly into a lake, was complete, and the inhabitants obtained the advantage of a bridge.

It was this same queen who planned a remarkable deception. She had her tomb constructed in the upper part of one of the main gateways of the city, high above the heads of the passers by, with this inscription cut upon it: “If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb, and take as much as he chooses, not, however, unless he be truly in want, for it will not be for his good.” This tomb remained untouched until the Persian Emperor Darius came to the kingdom. To him it seemed An affront that he should be unable to use one of the gates of Babylon, and that a sum of money should be lying idle. Now he could not use the gate, because, as he drove through, the dead body would have been over his head. Accordingly he opened the tomb, but instead of money, found only the dead body, and a writing which said: “Had you not been greedy for cash, and careless how you got it, you would not have broken open the sepulchers of the dead.”

The expedition of the Persian Emperor Cyrus to conquer northern Mesopotamia was undertaken against the son of this same queen, who bore the same name as his father Labynetus, and was king of the Assyrians. The Great King [Cyrus], when he goes to the wars, is always supplied with provisions carefully prepared at home, and takes with him his own cattle. Water too from the river Choaspes [now the Karkheh River in Iran], which flows by Susa, is taken with him for his drink, as that is the only water which the kings of Persia taste. Wherever Cyrus travels, he is attended by a number of four-wheeled chariots drawn by mules, in which the Choaspes water, ready boiled for use, and stored in flagons of silver, is moved with him from place to place.

Cyrus on his way to Babylon came to the banks of the Gyndes [now the Diyala River], a stream which, rising in the Matienian mountains [in what is now Kurdistan], runs through the country of the Dardanians [now the region around Mosul, Iraq], and empties itself into the river Tigris. When Cyrus reached this stream, which could only be passed in boats, one of the sacred white horses accompanying his march, full of spirit and high mettle, walked into the water, and tried to cross. The current seized the horse, swept it away and drowned it in its depths. Cyrus, enraged at the insolence of the river, threatened so to break its strength that in future even women should cross it easily without wetting their knees. Accordingly he put off for a time his attack on Babylon and dividing his army into two parts. He marked out by ropes one hundred and eighty trenches on each side of the Gyndes River, leading off from it in all directions, and setting his army to dig, some on one side of the river, some on the other, he accomplished his threat by the aid of so great a number of hands, but not without losing thereby the whole summer season.


Having, however, thus wreaked his vengeance on the Gyndes, by dispersing it through three hundred and sixty channels, Cyrus, with the first approach of the ensuing spring [of 539 BC], marched forward against Babylon. The Babylonians, encamped outside their walls, awaited his coming. A battle was fought at a short distance from the city, in which the Babylonians were defeated by the Persian king, whereupon they withdrew within Babylon’s defenses. They shut themselves up within the great city and made light of his siege, since they had gathered a store of provisions for many years in preparation against this attack; for when they saw Cyrus conquering nation after nation, they were convinced that he would never stop, and that their turn would eventually come.


Cyrus was now reduced to great perplexity, as time went on and he made no progress against the place. In this distress either some one made the suggestion to him, or he devised his own plan, which he proceeded to put in execution. He placed a portion of his army at the point where the river enters the city and another body of troops at the back of the place where it issues forth, with orders to march into the town by the bed of the stream as soon as the water became shallow enough. He then withdrew northward with his engineers and made for the place where Nitocris had dug the basin for the river, where he did exactly what she had done formerly: he turned the Euphrates by a canal into the basin, which was then a marsh. The river sank to such an extent that the natural bed of the stream became fordable. Thereupon the Persians who had been left at Babylon by the river-side entered the stream, which had now sunk so as to reach about midway up a man’s thigh, and thus got into the city. Had the Babylonians been aware of what Cyrus was doing, or had they noticed the danger, they would never have allowed the Persians to enter the city, and might have destroyed them utterly; for surely they would have made fast all the street-gates which faced the river and mounting troops upon the walls along both sides of the river, would so have caught the enemy in a trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and so took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts of the city, then engaged in a festival, continued dancing and reveling and knew nothing of what had happened until long after the outer portions of the town were taken. Such, then, were the circumstances of the first taking of Babylon by the Persians. The whole country is now under the dominion of the Persians and besides paying a fixed tribute is parceled out into divisions, which have to supply food to the Great King [the Persian emperor] and his army during different portions of the year.


But little rain falls in Babylonia, enough, however, to make the grain begin to sprout, after which the plant is nourished by means of irrigation from the river. For the river does not, as the Nile in Egypt, overflow the grain-lands of its own accord, but is spread over them by the hand, or by the help of engines. The whole of Babylonia is intersected with canals, the largest of them runs towards the winter sun and is impassable except in boats; it connects the Euphrates into another stream, called the Tigris, the river upon which the town of Nineveh formerly stood. Of all the countries that we know there is none so fruitful in grain. It makes no pretension indeed of

growing the fig, the olive, the vine, or any other tree of the kind; but in grain it is so fruitful as to yield commonly two-hundred-fold, and when the production is the greatest, even three-hundred-fold. The blade of the wheat-plant and barley-plant is often four fingers in breadth. I am not ignorant that what I have already written concerning the fruitfulness of Babylonia must seem incredible to those who have never visited the country. The only oil they use is made from

the sesame-plant. Palm-trees grow in great numbers over the whole of the flat country, mostly of the kind which bears fruit, and this fruit supplies them with bread, wine, and honey. They are cultivated like the fig-tree in all respects except that the Babylonians tie the fruit of the male-palms, as they are called by the Greeks, to the branches of the date-bearing palm, to let the gall-fly enter the dates and ripen them, and to prevent the fruit from falling off. The male-palms, like the wild fig-trees, have usually the gall-fly in their fruit.

I will now describe that which surprises me most in the land, after the city itself. The boats which come down the river to Babylon are circular and made of skins. The frames, which are of willow, are cut in the country of the Armenians above Assyria, and on these, which serve for hulls, a covering of skins is stretched outside, and thus the boats are made without either stem or stern, quite round like a shield. They are then entirely filled with straw and their cargo is put on board, after which they are allowed to float down the stream. Their chief freight is wine, stored in casks made of the wood of the palm-tree. The boats are managed by two men who stand upright in them, each plying an oar, one pulling and the other pushing. The boats are of various sizes, some larger, some smaller; the biggest reach as high as five thousand talents’ burthen [about 187 tons]. Each vessel has a live ass on board; those of larger size have more than one. When they reach Babylon, the cargo is landed and offered for sale, after which the men break up their boats, sell the straw and the frames, and loading their asses with the skins, set off on their way back to Armenia. The current of the Euphrates is too strong to allow a boat to return upstream, for which reason they make their boats of skins rather than wood. On their return to Armenia they build fresh boats for the next voyage.


The dress of the Babylonians is a linen tunic reaching to the feet, and above it another tunic made in wool, besides which they have a short white cloak thrown round them, and shoes of a peculiar fashion, not unlike those worn by some Greeks. They have long hair, wear turbans on their heads, and anoint their whole body with perfumes. Every one carries a seal and a walking-stick, carved at the top into the form of an apple, a rose, a lily, an eagle, or something similar, for it is not their habit to use a stick without an ornament.


I shall now proceed to give an account of their customs, whereof the following is the wisest in my judgment. Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected altogether into one place while the men stood round them in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small sum of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely women with marriage-portions. For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful women, he should then call up the ugliest, perhaps a cripple if there chanced to be one, and offer her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest marriage-portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him. The marriage-portions were furnished by the money paid for the beautiful women, and thus the sale of the good-looking maidens paid for the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might any one carry away a woman whom he had purchased without finding bail really and truly to make her his wife; if, however, it turned out that they did not agree, the money might be paid back. All who liked might come even from distant villages and bid for the women. This was the best of all their customs, but it has now fallen into disuse.


The following custom seems to me the next wisest of their customs. They have no physicians, but when a man is ill they lay him in the public square and the passers-by come up to him. If they have ever had his disease themselves or have known any one who has suffered from it they give him advice, recommending him to do whatever they found good in their own case, or in the case known to them; and no one is allowed to pass the sick man in silence without asking him what his ailment is. They bury their dead in honey and have funeral lamentations like the Egyptians.


The Babylonians have one most shameful custom. Every woman born in the country must once in her life go and sit down in the precinct of Aphrodite, and there consort with a stranger. Many of the wealthier sort, who are too proud to mix with the others, drive in covered carriages to the precinct, followed by a goodly train of attendants, and there take their station. But most seat themselves within the holy enclosure with wreaths of string about their heads.

There is always a great crowd, some coming and others Going. Lines of cord mark out paths in all directions to the women and the strangers pass along them to make their choice. A woman who has once taken her seat is not allowed to return home till one of the strangers throws a silver coin into her lap and takes her with him beyond the holy ground. When he throws the coin he says these words- “The goddess Mylitta prosper thee.” [Herodotus, a Greek, equates the Babylonian goddess Mylitta with Aphrodite.] The silver coin may be of any size; it cannot be refused, for that is forbidden by the law, since once thrown it is sacred. The woman goes with the first man who throws her money and rejects no one. When she has gone with him and so satisfied the goddess she returns home. Such of the women as are tall and beautiful are soon released, but others who are ugly have to stay a long time before they can fulfill the law. Some have waited three or four years in the precinct. A custom very much like this is found also in certain parts of the island of Cyprus.

Such are the customs of the Babylonians generally. There are likewise three tribes among them who eat nothing but fish. These are caught and dried in the sun, after which they are shredded in a mortar and strained through a linen sieve. Some prefer to make cakes of this material, while others bake it into a kind of bread.



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