Floods and Kings: Reconciling Herodotus' Babylonian Logos with Near Eastern Accounts of the Fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great

It is well known that Herodotus' account of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus differs from Near Eastern accounts. Herodotus claims that Cyrus diverted the Euphrates so that his troops could surreptitiously enter the city. However, both the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle claim that Babylon surrendered without a fight. In this paper I will argue that Herodotus conflated accounts of the Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib's razing of Babylon with Cyrus' conquest. After Sennacherib conquered Babylon, he dug canals through the city and boasts in his inscriptions that he dumped the temples' bricks into the Euphrates, which his successors considered impious. Furthermore, he reappropriated Enuma elish for his new Bit-akiti, on which he depicted Assur defeating Tiamat with the Flood. The memory of the flooding of Babylon lived on long after he died. In addition to several references by Esarhaddon, Jeremiah prophesies that Babylon will slide into the ocean. When the Medes and Babylonians sacked Nineveh, they also flooded the city in reprisal for Sennacherib's actions, an act of divine retribution against the Assyrians according to Nabonidus. Nahum, Xenophon, and Diodorus Siculus also describe Nineveh succumbing to divine reprisals. I will argue that Herodotus purposefully grafted this flood-reprisal narrative into the Babylonian logos in order to present Cyrus' conquest of Babylon as the beginning of the Persians' moral downfall. Herodotus' account shares the important strands of the Near Eastern narrative: manipulation of water to sack Babylon, desecration of temples and holy places, and moral stain. The digging of canals and diversion of water fits into a larger scheme of actions that Herodotus considers impious and despotic, most famously Xerxes' lashing and chaining of the Hellespont. As an oracle says to Greeks trying to change their peninsula into an island, “Zeus would have made it into an island, if he wanted.”