Assessing the Historical Record.
A master at gathering, ordering and synthesizing information, Herodotus undoubtedly had access to, and amassed, a wealth of data on an empire the likes of which the ancient world had not seen. …
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In Book 1, chapters 188-191, Herodotus describes the Persians’ assault on Babylon, an event commemorated by the inscription on the “Cyrus cylinder,” discovered in 1879. The inscription speaks of the Babylonian god Marduk, who caused Cyrus to act on behalf of the Babylonian people who, it says, suffered cruelly under the godless tyranny of their king, Nabonidus. After briefly describing the conquest of Babylon, the inscription offers an account in the voice of Cyrus, casting him in the role of liberator. It is a self-legitimizing bit of public relations, with Cyrus portrayed as an enlightened conqueror who paid homage to the Babylonian god Marduk (referred to significantly as “the supreme God”) for his victory before declaring himself king of Babylon (Eduljee, 2007). Regardless of its purpose, the cylinder clearly makes reference to a conquest of Babylon by the Persians. And while one may question the veracity of a source ostensibly put forth as propaganda, the cylinder does confirm Persian expansion, as do the Books of Ezra and Isaiah.
After conquering Babylon, Cyrus freed thousands of Jews who had been enslaved when Nebuchadnezzar sacked and looted Jerusalem in 597 BCE. Isaiah and Ezra lauded Cyrus as an agent of God, the restorer of the Temple and liberator of the Jews, who could resume their worship of Yahweh (a Zoroastrian, Cyrus may well have felt a certain kinship to practitioners of a monotheistic religion).
The Book of Ezra speaks of Cyrus restoring the “House of God” in Jerusalem, going so far as to describe its dimensions and physical characteristics (Ezra 6:3). Cyrus is regarded as a messiah figure in the Old Testament, one who fulfilled prophecy against the backdrop of the Persian subjugation of Babylon, though the native bias that colors biblical commentary about Cyrus should not be overlooked. Both Herodotus and the Old Testament speak of Cyrus utilizing innovative engineering strategies to overcome the gates protecting the city, though Herodotus identifies the gates as spanning the Gyndes, a tributary along the approach to the city, rather than the Euphrates itself, a much larger stream and presumably more difficult to manage (Herodotus, Histories 1.190). The prophet Isaiah makes reference to the “two-leaved gate” blocking the Euphrates entrance to the city, an obstruction that the Persians were obliged to overcome before Babylon could be taken (Isaiah 45:1-13). Such discrepancy of detail is not uncommon, but both the Bible and Herodotus describe a 6th century act of military aggression by Cyrus against the Babylonians, an early yet significant imposition of Persian power in the Middle East. The panegyric language of Isaiah and Ezra is echoed in the language of the Cyrus cylinder, which refers to the Persian king as a divinely inspired crusader, a favorite of God and a humane ruler. The evident accuracy of the cylinder inscription, as reflected in the Old Testament, concerning Cyrus’ actions in Babylon may be extended to that part of the inscription 3 that addresses his genealogy. A seal, discovered at Persepolis, corroborates the claims of Cyrus’ royal ancestry made by the writer of the cylinder i
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