Biblical tradition

Although the tale of the tower of Babel in Genesis (11: 1–9) largely contributed to Babylon’s fame, the historical and prophetic books of the Bible basically focus on the history of the deportation of the Hebrews to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabû-kudurri-usur) after the fall and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 597 and 587 BC. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion,” says Psalm 137, the song of exile, describing the Hebrews’ captivity. The second book of Kings, like the book of Chronicles, was composed during this exile, and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were written in the goal of making the chosen people realize that Babylon was a symbol of God’s anger at his unfaithful people.

The curse uttered by Jeremiah expresses the attraction felt even by enemies of the great city. “Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine, therefore the nations went mad (Jer. 51: 7)…. At the sound of the capture of Babylon the earth shall tremble, and her cry shall be heard among the nations” (Jer. 50: 46). Jeremiah lucidly analyzed the political situation and the relations between Babylon and the kingdom of Judah. Ezekiel, a priest from the Temple of Jerusalem, also lived in Babylon, and in addition to historical recollections discernible through his prophecies and anathemas against the king of Babylonia, he conveyed some real information about the refined level of Babylonian society. Isaiah, meanwhile, preached between 550 and 520 BC, during the reign of Nabonidus (Nabu-na’id, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty) and the concomitant rise of the Persian empire; he predicted the fall of Babylon, the return of the exiles, and the restoration of Jerusalem.

Less ancient accounts were historically less specific due not only to the time gap, but also to deliberate policy: they tended to turn the age-old adversary into an archetype of extravagant excess and the enemy of the elect. The start of the Book of Daniel recounts the edifying life of Daniel, a soothsayer in Babylon during the exile, yet attributes the actions of Nabonidus to Nebuchadnezzar. The book can probably be dated to the second century BC but the author borrows from older traditions, notably providing information on the soothsayers who interpreted the king of Babylon’s dream. Nebuchadnezzar thereby became a mythical figure, a symbol of the historical enemy.

In the first century AD, a link was made between Babylon and Rome, the latter having destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. John’s Book of Revelation predicts the fall of this new Babylon, and the metaphor of Babylon as the cursed city became a one of the leitmotifs of the Babylonian legend.

Classical tradition

Classical Greek and Latin writers, all posterior to the heyday of Babylon during the Neo-Babylonian empire and the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, described a legendary Babylon. Although their historical information was therefore distorted, their writings helped German archaeologists in the early twentieth century to orient themselves in the immense, difficult site, thanks to information on the layout of the city.

Herodotus (c. 485–420 BC), in his History (I: 178–186), described the city less than one hundred years after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, during Persian domination. People were still writing Akkadian in cuneiform, and Babylonian learning—sustained by so-called “Chaldean” scholars—was at its height. Herodotus mentioned the city walls as well as the religious complex dedicated to Marduk and the rites held there. He described the course of the Euphrates, the network of streets, and the water system. He delivered information on Babylonian geography, habits, institutions, and daily life. Herodotus may never have visited Babylonia, but he based his account on information from ancient travelers and Babylonians who knew the city in its days of splendor, prior to the ravages caused by Xerxes I in 482 BC. Although Herodotus provided some reliable historical data, he also introduced the first elements of the legends to come, notably the characters of Sardanapalus (a blend of the historical figures of Ashurbanipal of Assyria and his brother Shamas-shum-ukin, who reigned over Babylon), Semiramis, and Nitocris (alias Nebuchadnezzar II).

The Babylon legend was handed down from generation to generation, based on second- or third-hand sources. In the Hellenistic period there arose the tradition of the “wonders of the world,” in which Babylon featured significantly thanks to its walls, its bridge over the Euphrates, and its hanging gardens. Although acclaim for the city’s defenses was initially greater than its gardens, it was the latter that tradition consecrated in the canonical list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As Babylon continued to decline, only the hanging gardens, draped over the walls, survived.

More recent authors reported even more ancient traditions, especially Ctesias of Cnidos, who was physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes II in the early fourth century BC and whose original text (Persicha) is now lost. In the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus, in his Bibliotheca Historica (II: 7–11), took his information on Babylon from Ctesias. Some of the major buildings he described were still those built by Nebuchadnezzar II in the early sixth century BC. Diodorus referred in particular to the fortress walls and the palace with its decoration of glazed bricks and hanging gardens. Strabo (c. 58 BC – 20 AD), described Babylon with its fortress and hanging gardens as one of the Seven Wonders in his Geography (16, I: 5). Quintus Curtius Rufus, in the first century AD, wrote a Life of Alexander in which he notably mentioned the bridge over the Euphrates and the hanging gardens (V: 1). Other writers included Pliny the Elder (Natural History, VI), the Greek historian Arrian (Anabasis, VII: 17), and the Roman historian Justin (Epitome, I). Ammianus Marcellinus, who accompanied the emperor Julian on his expedition against the Persians in 363 AD, recounted the legend of the building of great Babylon in his Rerum Gestarum Libri (XXIII: 6).

In the early third century BC, Berosus, a priest of Marduk in Babylon, established a link between Babylonian sources and classical sources. He wrote, in Greek, a history of his country titled Babyloniaka, dedicated to Antiochos I; only “fragments” or “accounts” of it exist, notably recorded by Flavius Josephus (first century AD), Abydenus (second century), Eusebius of Caesarea, and Clement of Alexandria (fourth century) based on a compilation by Alexander Polyhistor (fourth century). Berosus’s book three, discussed by Eusebius in his Chronicle, provided a chronology of the kings who reigned over Babylon from Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria (late eighth century BC), to Alexander the Great. Berosus translated “the archives that had been kept with great care by the priests of Babylon for a very long time […] and these archives contain the history of the heaven and earth, including the original creation and the kings, plus the deeds accomplished during their reigns” (Fragments, I: 1). When these features are compared with Babylonian chronicles, they indeed reveal the latter to be their source.

In the early second century AD, Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) drew up a list of the kings of Babylon, called Ptolemy’s Canon, beginning with the reign of Nabonassar in the eighth century BC. This royal list was based on Berosus, as was Ptolemy’s history of Babylonian astronomical observations. Ptolemy’s work was the dominant source of medieval and Renaissance learning.