Nebuchadnezzar Creates the First Neo-Babylonian State Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Neo-Babylonian state was the second of five great ancient empires—the Assyrian, the Medo-Persian, the Greek, and the Roman—that facilitated the spread of civilization in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

The Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 b.c.e.) arose in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), which had been a center of culture for more than thirty-five hundred years before the birth of Nebuchadnezzar II. Great societies had come and gone—the Sumerian, the Akkadian, and the Babylonian. All these cultures had been included in the first world empire of the Middle East, that of the Assyrians (722-612 b.c.e.), which united the entire Fertile Crescent from modern-day Iraq to Egypt. With its impressive capital at Nineveh and its seemingly invincible army, Assyria seemed unstoppable. Nabopolassar Nebuchadnezzar II

In 626 b.c.e., Nabopolassar, an Assyrian official, led a successful revolt and was crowned king in Babylon. Within ten years, Nabopolassar had expelled the Assyrians from Babylon, and in 612, Nineveh, its walls weakened by a flood on the Tigris River, fell. This freed Nabopolassar to found the Neo-Babylonian, or Chaldean, Empire.

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From an early age, Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar II assisted his father. Nebuchadnezzar was given the Akkadian name Nabu-Kudurri-User, which means “O Nabu, watch over my heir.” The crown prince claimed Naram-Sin, an Akkadian ruler of the third millennium, as an ancestor. Such pretentiousness was soon to be validated in war. In 607/606 b.c.e., crown prince Nebuchadnezzar led an army north of Assyria, and by 606/605, he was the commander in chief of his father’s forces, defeating the Egyptians at Carchemish and Hamath (now Hamāh) and gaining control of the Levantine coast.

After the death of his father in 605 b.c.e., Nebuchadnezzar returned home and ascended the throne. He suppressed opposition and, with a refurbished army, began the conquest of the west. Having pacified northwest Arabia, Nebuchadnezzar subdued the state of Judah. In 597, he deported the Jewish king Jehoiachin to Babylon, and in 587/586, he destroyed the city of Jerusalem, exiling its leading citizens to Mesopotamia and starting what became known among Jews as the Babylonian captivity. Nebuchadnezzar is featured prominently in the Jewish Bible in such books as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Concurrently, Nebuchadnezzar lay siege to the coastal city of Tyre (Jewish historian Flavius Josephus contends that conquest required thirteen years).

During his reign, Nebuchadnezzar was able to unite the entire Fertile Crescent, from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta. By war and by diplomacy, he confirmed his conquests as a universal ruler, claiming that he had “no opponent from the horizon to the sky.”

A builder as well as a warrior, Nebuchadnezzar was noted for the moat and fortifications that he had built around the city of Babylon. The Processional Way was paved with limestone, canals were dug, and the principal temples were refurbished. It was said that Nebuchadnezzar was “the one who set in the mouth of the people reverence for the great gods.”

Nebuchadnezzar II expels the Jews from Jerusalem.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

According to tradition, one of his wives was a Median princess who was homesick for the hills of her native country. To make her feel more at home, Nebuchadnezzar is said to have constructed a step pyramid, or ziggurat, known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the literature of the Jewish Bible, Nebuchadnezzar is—despite his anti-Jewish acts—regarded favorably as a protector of the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, as a divine defender against evildoers (in Ezekiel, Daniel, 1 Esdras), and as one miraculously cured after seven years of insanity (Daniel). Classical historians as varied as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Berossus were also fascinated by him. On his death, he was succeeded by his son Awil-Marduk (the evil Merodach of 2 Kings).

The last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was Nabonidus. While Nabonidus was absent from the capital, his regent Belshazzar allowed the Persians to seize Babylon in 539, ending the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Significance

The impact of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar for world history was sixfold:

Militarily, he demonstrated the possibility of creating a vast regional empire that stretched more than 1,000 miles (620 kilometers) from its eastern to its western frontiers. This example encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, including Cyrus the Great (r. c. 559-c. 530 b.c.e.) and Darius the Great (r. 522-486), who created the vast Persian Empire, a state of twenty-two provinces reaching from India to Macedonia. In turn, that commonwealth was surpassed by the vast empire created by Alexander the Great (r. 336-323); Alexander’s achievements were eclipsed by those of the Romans. It is not by chance that the Babylonians were called “the Romans of the ancient East” and that Rome was nicknamed “Babylon” by early Christian writers. Nebuchadnezzar is the first of a long line of world conquerors.

Administratively, Nebuchadnezzar showed that it was possible to rule a vast empire composed of people of many cultures, customs, creeds, languages, and traditions. This idea of a cosmopolitan world state would inspire many later attempts—Persian, Greek, and Roman—to create what the stoic philosophers later named “the single house of all humanity.”

Socially, Nebuchadnezzar set a pattern of the ruler as the benefactor of the people through the construction of vast public works. It is not surprising that the Greeks and Romans, who expected their leaders to enhance their cities, credited him with building one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Religiously, Nebuchadnezzar was important for the Judaeo-Christian tradition in many ways—the deportation of the Jews from Jerusalem in 587/586 b.c.e. began the vast Jewish diaspora, the exile of the Hebrew people, which caused Judaism to interact creatively with other cultures and to provide, in the diaspora, the nursery of early Christianity. Because of Nebuchadnezzar’s role in the Jewish Bible, he has become a figure of legendary proportions in Western literature. Perhaps this reflects the historical reality that the Babylonian conquest forced the Hebrew prophets to develop not just a national but also a global view of their God.

Economically, Nebuchadnezzar’s unification of the Middle East created a gigantic “common market” that was later expanded and enhanced by the Persians and the Greeks. This led to times of great prosperity and leisure, which facilitated the growth of the arts, sciences, and letters.

Intellectually, Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was the apex of thirty-five hundred years of cultural evolution in Mesopotamia. The results of that civilization—literacy, science, architecture, and astronomy—were disseminated widely in the region. It is not an exaggeration to state that the Neo-Babylonian Empire was a bridge over which ideas and inventions passed from the east to the west. It is hard to imagine the later splendor of Hellenistic times without the preliminary labors of the Babylonians.

Few figures of antiquity have captured the modern imagination more than Nebuchadnezzar. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puzzled over his meaning, and the king’s alleged madness inspired English artist William Blake’s picture “Nebuchadnezzar.” The Italian musician Giuseppi Verdi featured him in his 1842 opera Nabucco, and many historians have named him the “Napoleon of Ancient Iraq.” Behind the rich and contradictory images stands the reality of one of the greatest conquerors of antiquity, a warrior comparable to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henze, Matthias. The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar: The Ancient Near Eastern Origins and Early History of Interpretation of Daniel 4. Boston: Brill, 1999. Examines the portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar, particularly in regard to animalization, in Daniel 4.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Especially valuable for the military campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sack, Ronald Herbert. Images of Nebuchadnezzar: The Emergence of a Legend. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1991. Provides a look at the life of Nebuchadnezzar, using secondary classical and Hebrew sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skaggs, H. W. F. Babylonians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. A study of the Babylonians by a specialist. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiseman, D. J. Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A collection of lectures about the Babylonian ruler and the land in which he lived. Bibliography and indexes.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great; Nebuchadnezzar II; Sennacherib; Tiglath-pileser III. Neo-Babylonian Empire[NeoBabylonian Empire]

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