For almost two millennia before the birth of Christ, the city of Babylon played a major role in world affairs. Situated in the centre of modern-day Iraq, roughly 50 miles from Baghdad, Babylon was, for a time in the first millennium BC, the largest city in the world. The city was famed as a place of learning and it was also the centre of a powerful empire, which controlled much of the surrounding area, stretching as far as the Mediterranean coast of Syria. But, in the middle of the sixth century BC, the primacy of Babylon was threatened by a new power in the East, the Persians. Under Cyrus II, known to us now as Cyrus the Great due to his prowess as a conqueror, the Persians gradually began to carve out a vast Empire. The great kingdoms of the time – first the Median, and then the Lydian – were conquered, and, in 539 BC, Cyrus turned his attention to Babylon. The four texts here are ancient accounts of the ensuing conflict and Cyrus’ victory. Be aware that each source will contain some unfamiliar words. The most important of these are explained in the glossary below, but don’t worry if you see a word you don’t understand – in the main the unusual words are simply names for various things (places, months, gods etc.) in Babylonian and won’t prevent you from understanding the text.
History is the study of the past – pretty simple, eh? But what does that actually mean? Historians examine a range of things, from determining when a specific event took place, to explaining why that event happened; ultimately we attempt to understand how historical societies worked. But before we can do any of this, we have to begin by assessing our sources. To what extent are they biased? How reliable are they? If a source contains mistakes does that make it completely useless? Perhaps even more importantly, we must recognise that all sources have limitations and that sometimes we don’t have enough information to discover everything that we want to about the past.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to Ancient History, since we often have much less information than we do for more recent periods of history. In the activities below, you will encounter four sources which deal with the same period of history. You will explore their strengths and weaknesses, assess their uses and their limitations; finally, you will discover how the questions that we ask have a significant impact on the answers that we find. Hopefully, by the end of the resource, you will have a more sophisticated understanding of what a ‘historical fact’ is and why we have to treat these ‘facts’ carefully.
The Nabonidus Chronicle
The Nabonidus Chronicle is a cuneiform tablet currently housed in the British Museum. Download this activity to find out more about this source.
The Cyrus Cylinder
The Cyrus Cylinder is a cuneiform cylinder, now housed in the British Museum, and reveals some of Cyrus’ methods. Who was Cyrus? Find out in this activity.
The Verse Account
The Verse Account is another Babylonian document which describes the reign of Nabonidus. How is it different to the Nabonidus Chronicle?
The Book of Daniel
The Book of Daniel is part of the Old Testament of the Bible. The Old Testament contains an awful lot of useful historical information because Judea was part of the Babylonian and then the Persian Empires. What would the Jewish people living in Babylon have known?
After completing the other activities, have a look at this answer sheet and compare your own answers to these model ones.
- Who was the last Babylonian king of Babylon? Support your answer with evidence from the ancient sources.
- In the model answer to Question 1, it is argued that the Book of Daniel is mistaken in arguing that Belshazzar was the last Babylonian king of Babylon - can you explain how this error arose?
- In this resource, the Babylonian word LUGAL has been translated as ‘king’. Think about how your answers to the questions may have differed if LUGAL had been translated as ‘ruler’ and the question had asked ‘who was the last Babylonian ruler of Babylon?’ What does this tell you about how historians should approach doing history?
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What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?
What are you struggling to understand?
What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?
What further questions has this resource raised for you?
What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?
Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?
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Belshazzar on Wikipedia
For an overview of Belshazzar’s life, including some further evidence that he could both be king and not be king simultaneously, see the Wikipedia page.
What's truth got to do with it?
For a discussion of this issue as a whole, and the role of facts within historical debate, see this blog post by Cambridge PhD student Stephen Harrison.
What are historical facts?
This article goes further in questioning the very nature of a historical fact.
Working with Records
This article talks specifically about archival research, but the principles can be applied to any sources.