Herodotus' Description of Babylon and the Babylonians

[The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885), bk 1, ch. 178-200]

178. Assyria possesses a vast number of great cities,[1] whereof the most renowned and strongest at this time was Babylon, whither, after the fall of Nineveh, the seat of government had been removed. 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.[2] While such is its size, in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. It is surrounded, in the first place, by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width, and two hundred in height.[3] (The royal cubit[4] is longer by three fingers' breadth than the common cubit.)[5]

179. And here I may not omit to tell the use to which the mould dug out of the great moat was turned, nor the manner wherein the wall was wrought. 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 set to building, and began with bricking the borders of the moat, after which they proceeded to construct the wall itself, using throughout for their cement hot bitumen, and interposing a layer of wattled reeds at every thirtieth course of the bricks.[6] 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 brass, with brazen lintels and side-posts. The bitumen used in the work was brought to Babylon from the 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.

180. 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. 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 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 fence that skirts the stream, which are, like the great gates in the outer wall, of brass, and open on the water.

181. The outer wall is the main defence of the city. There is, however, a second inner wall, of less thickness than the first, but very little inferior to it in strength.[7] The centre of each division of the town was occupied by a fortress. In the one stood the palace of the kings,[8] surrounded by a wall of great strength and size: in the other was the sacred precinct of Jupiter Belus,[9] a square enclosure two furlongs each way, with gates of solid brass; which was also remaining in my time. In the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was 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 of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldaeans, the priests of this god,[10] affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land.

182. They also declare- but I for my part do not credit 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,[11] where a woman always passes the night in the temple of the Theban Jupiter.[12] In each case the woman is said to be debarred all intercourse with men. It is also like the custom of Patara, in Lycia, where the priestess who delivers the oracles, during the time that she is so employed- for at Patara there is not always an oracle[13] - is shut up in the temple every night.

183. Below, in the same precinct, there is a second temple, in which is a sitting figure of Jupiter, 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 Chaldaeans 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 offer sucklings; 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 Chaldaeans burn the frankincense, which is offered to the amount of a thousand talents' weight, every year, at the festival of the God. 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 Chaldaeans report concerning it. Darius, the son of Hystaspes, plotted to carry the statue off, but had not the hardihood to lay his hands upon it. Xerxes, however, the son of Darius, killed the priest who forbade him to move the statue, and took it away.[14] Besides the ornaments which I have mentioned, there are a large number of private offerings in this holy precinct.[15]

184. 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, of whom I shall make mention in my Assyrian history. Among them two were women. Of these, the earlier, called Semiramis, 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.

185. The later of the two queens, whose name was Nitocris, a wiser princess than her predecessor, not only left behind her, as memorials of her occupancy of the throne, the works which I shall presently describe, but also, observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, who had taken so large a number of cities, and among them Nineveh, and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences 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 village, a village in Assyria, which is called Ardericea; and to this day, they who would go from our sea to Babylon, on descending to the river 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, which was sunk everywhere to the point where they came to water, 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 stream 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 round. All these works were on that side of Babylon where the passes lay, and the roads into Media were the straightest, and the aim of the queen in making them was to prevent the Medes from holding intercourse with the Babylonians, and so to keep them in ignorance of her affairs.

186. While the soil from the excavation was being thus used for the defence of the city, Nitocris engaged also in another undertaking, a mere by-work compared with those we have already mentioned. The city, as I said, was 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, Nitocris be. thought herself 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 cutting, 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; after which, with the materials which had been prepared, she built, as near the middle of the town as possible, a stone bridge, the blocks whereof were 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 cutting, and the bridge was finished, the Euphrates was turned back again into its ancient bed; and thus the basin, transformed suddenly into a lake, was seen to answer the purpose for which it was made, and the inhabitants, by help of the basin, obtained the advantage of a bridge.

187. It was this same princess by whom a remarkable deception was planned. She had her tomb constructed in the upper part of one of the principal 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 continued untouched until Darius came to the kingdom. To him it seemed a monstrous thing that he should be unable to use one of the gates of the town, and that a sum of money should be lying idle, and moreover inviting his grasp, and he not seize upon it. 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- "Hadst thou not been insatiate of pelf, and careless how thou gottest it, thou wouldst not have broken open the sepulchres of the dead."

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193. But little rain falls in Assyria,[16] enough, however, to make the corn begin to sprout, after which the plant is nourished and the ears formed by means of irrigation from the river.[17] For the river does not, as in Egypt, overflow the corn-lands of its own accord, but is spread over them by the hand, or by the help of engines.[18] The whole of Babylonia is, like Egypt, intersected with canals. The largest of them all, which runs towards the winter sun, and is impassable except in boats, is carried from 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 which is 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. As for the millet and the sesame, I shall not say to what height they grow, though within my own knowledge; for 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.[19] The only oil they use is made from the sesame-plant.[20] Palm-trees grow in great numbers over the whole of the flat country,[21] 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, among others in this. The natives 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.

194. But that which surprises me most in the land, after the city itself, I will now proceed to mention. 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 suffered to float down the stream. Their chief freight is wine, stored in casks made of the wood of the palm-tree. They are managed by two men who stand upright in them, each plying an oar, one pulling and the other pushing.[22] The boats are of various sizes, some larger, some smaller; the biggest reach as high as five thousand talents' burthen. 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 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.

195. 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 the Boeotians. They have long hair, wear turbans on their heads, and anoint their whole body with perfumes.[23] Every one carries a seal,[24] and a walking-stick, carved at the top into the form of an apple, a rose, a lily, an eagle, or something similar;[25] for it is not their habit to use a stick without an ornament.

196. Of their customs, whereof I shall now proceed to give an account, the following (which I understand belongs to them in common with the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti[26]) is the wisest in my judgment. Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together 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 damsels with marriage-portions. For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful damsels, he should then call up the ugliest- 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 damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might any one carry away the damsel 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.[27] They have lately hit upon a very different plan to save their maidens from violence, and prevent their being torn from them and carried to distant cities, which is to bring up their daughters to be courtesans. This is now done by all the poorer of the common people, who since the conquest have been maltreated by their lords, and have had ruin brought upon their families.

197. The following custom seems to me the wisest of their institutions next to the one lately praised. 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, and 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.

198. They bury their dead in honey,[28] and have funeral lamentations like the Egyptians. When a Babylonian has consorted with his wife, he sits down before a censer of burning incense, and the woman sits opposite to him. At dawn of day they wash; for till they are washed they will not touch any of their common vessels. This practice is observed also by the Arabians.

199. 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 Venus, 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 the larger number seat themselves within the holy enclosure with wreaths of string about their heads- and here there is always a great crowd, some coming and others going; lines of cord mark out paths in all directions 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." (Venus is called Mylitta by the Assyrians.) 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, and from that time forth no gift however great will prevail with her. 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 fulfil the law. Some have waited three or four years in the precinct.[29] A custom very much like this is found also in certain parts of the island of Cyprus.

200. 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 brayed 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.


1. The large number of important cities in Assyria, especially if we include in it Babylonia, is one of the most remarkable features of Assyrian greatness.

2. The vast space enclosed within the walls of Babylon is noticed by Aristotle. (Polit. iii. I, sub fin.).

3. The great width and height of the walls are noticed in Scripture (Jerem. li. 53, 58). There can be no doubt that the Babylonians and Assyrians surrounded their cities with walls of a height which, to us, is astounding.

4. The Greek metrical system was closely connected with the Babylonia.

5. Assuming at present that the Babylonian foot nearly equalled the English, the common cubit would have been 1 foot 8 inches, and the Royal cubit 1 foot 10.4 inches.

6. Layers of reeds are found in some of the remains of brick buildings at present existing in Babylonia, but usually at much smaller intervals than here indicated.

7. The "inner wall" here mentioned may have been the wall of Nebuchadnezzar's new city, which lay entirely within the ancient circuit.

8. This is the mass or mound still called the Kasr or Palace, "a square of 700 yards in length and breadth." (Rich, First Memoir, p. 22.) It is an immense pile of brickwork, chiefly of the finest kind.

9. The Babylonian worship of Bel is well known to us from Scripture (Isaiah xlvi. 1; Jerem. l. 2; Apoc. Dan. xii. 16). There is little doubt that he was (at least in the later times), the recognised head of the Babylonian Pantheon, and therefore properly identified by the Greeks with their Zeus or Jupiter.

10. The Chaldaeans then appear to have been a branch of the great Hamite race of Akkad, which inhabited Babylonia from the earliest times. With this race originated the art of writing, the building of cities, the institution of a religious system, and the cultivation of all science, and of astronomy in particular.

11. This fable of the god coming personally into his temple was contrary to the Egyptian belief in the nature of the gods. It was only a figurative expression, similar to that of the Jews, who speak of God visiting and dwelling in his holy hill, and was not intended to be taken literally.

12. The Theban Jupiter, or god worshipped as the Supreme Being in the city of Thebes, was Ammon (Amun). Herodotus says the Theban rather than the Egyptian Jupiter, because various gods were worshipped in various parts of Egypt as supreme.

13. Patara lay on the shore, a little to the east of the Xanthus.

14. There can be little doubt that this was done by Xerxes after the revolt of Babylon. Arrian relates that Xerxes not only plundered but destroyed the temple on his return from Greece.

15. The great temple of Babylon, regarding which the Greeks have left so many notices, is beyond all doubt to be identified with the enormous mound to which the Arabs universally apply the title of Babil. [For later information on the subject of this great temple, see Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands, p. 19 sqq. (E.H.B.).

16. Rain is very rare in Babylonia during the summer months, and productiveness depends entirely on irrigation. During the spring there are constant showers, and at other times of the year rain falls frequently, but irregularly, and never in great quantities. The heaviest is in December. In ancient times, when irrigation was carried to a far greater extend than it is present, the meteorology of the country may probably have been different.

17. At the present day it is not usual to trust even the first sprouting of the corn to nature. The lands are laid under water for a few days before the corn is sown; the water is then withdrawn,and the seed scattered upon the moistened soil.

18. The engine intended by Herodotus seems to have been the common hand-swipe. The ordinary method of irrigation at the present day is by the help of oxen, which draw the water from the river to the top of the bank by means of ropes passed over a roller working between two upright posts.

19. The fertility of Babylonia is celebrated by a number of ancient writers.

20. This is still the case with respect to the people of the plains. The olive is cultivated on the flanks of Mount Zagros, but Babylonia did not extend so far.

21. There is reason to believe that anciently the country was very much more thickly wooded than it is at present. The palm will grow wherever water is brought. In ancient times the whole country between the rivers, and the greater portion of the tract intervening between the Tigris and the mountains, was artificially irrigated.

22. Boats of this kind, closely resembling coracles, are represented in the Nineveh sculptures, and still ply on the Euphrates.

23. The dress of the Babylonians appears on the cylinders to be a species of flounced robe, reaching from their neck to their feet. In some representations there is an appearance of a division into two garments; the upper one being a sort of short jacket or tippet, flounced like the under-robe or petticoat. The long hair of the Babylonians is very conspicuous on thecylinders. It either depends in lengthy tresses which fall over the back and shoulders, or is gathered into what seems a club behind. There are several varieties of head-dress; the most usual are a low cap or turban, from which two curved horns branch out, and a high crown or mitre, the appearance of which is very remarkable.

24. The Babylonian cylinders are undoubtedly the "seals" of Herodotus. Many impressions of them have been found upon clay-tablets.

25. Upon the cylinders the Babylonians are frequently, but not invariably, represented with sticks. In the Assyrian sculptures the officers of the court have always sticks, used apparently as staves of office.

26. The Eneti or Heneti are the same with the Venetians of later times (Liv. i. 1).

27. Writers of the Augustan age mention this custom as still existing in their day.

28. Modern researches show two modes of burial to have prevailed in ancient Babylonia. Ordinarily the bodies seem to have been compressed into urns and baked, or burnt. Thousands of funeral urns are found on the sites of the ancient cities. Coffins are also found, but rarely.

29. This unhallowed custom is mentioned among the abominations of thereligion of the Babylonians in the book of Baruch (vi. 43).