Babylon

“Though thy streets be a hundred, thy gates be all brass,
Yet thy proud ones of war shall be wither’d like grass;
Thy gates shall be broken, thy strength be laid low,
And thy streets shall resound to the shouts of the foe!

Though thy chariots of power on thy battlements bound,
And the grandeur of waters encompass thee round;
Yet thy walls shall be shaken, thy waters shall fail,
Thy matrons shall shriek, and thy king shall be pale.” – Tennyson, Babylon

Not Alexander, but Cyrus the Great, the conquering Mede who founded the Persian Empire is invoked in this poem (and in Isaiah, quoted in its epigraph) as the hand of a God who will not rest until the Babylon of sensuous paganism is reduced to dust. The same Israelites would celebrate Alexander’s destruction of Tyre (prophesied in Ezekiel), a Persian ship-building city with a bitter economic and cultural rivalry with Jerusalem, and they honored Alexander for leaving their own holy city unscathed. But for generations the Persians governed Israel, and though reduced by Cyrus, Babylon would thrive in economic importance again under their rule, bringing them to represent its excesses in the Western imagination. Babylon knew how to earn her autonomy under foreign rule, welcoming many conquerors like Alexander with open arms.

True, you entered Babylon perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.
Inside, you accepted this, its cost, though power corrupts.
You had the nobility to move beyond dangerous success.
You could want everything and still give away the great wealth you
achieved, even to Persians. You saw their dignity, knowledge,
beauty in perfect strangeness, and you meant to reconcile
Greek and Eastern ways, not penance for bloodshed but duty
toward mankind. This at all costs. No Macedonian king could
dare so much except by blood. First your general’s son, then himself.
Phillip had trusted him most. There was scant evidence. It shook you, cold.
You made yourself more completely alone than a king dare
be, Hephaistion the only one, and you could never survive
without him. I do not know how your dream of him ended, but you reached
for death with this, his gift, in your hand: the great ring, love the last thought.

Who were the Persians? An origin story for the long-running wars between Persia and Greece adds a little color to the archaeological record:

Histiaios, a Persian commander under Darius whose service fighting over a bridge on the Danube had been rewarded with land on the lower Strymon at Myrkinos, founded a city there and settled down. “According to Herodotus the warning that Megabazos gave about the potentialities of the place in timber for ships, silver mining, and the human resources available had caused Darius to change his mind and take Histiaios back to Susa as his advisor; and the story continues that, yearning to get back home, Histiaios sent a message tattooed on a slave’s scalp urging [his son-in-law] Aristagoras to revolt, for he knew that in that case Darius would send him down to the coast to put matters to rights.” The tattoo would allow the message to pass down Persian roads with military checkpoints along their length where travelers were searched for intelligence, to guard against the ever-present threat of intrigue. “Aristagoras was aware that the fleet commanders would not revolt because they depended on Darius for their rule in their cities. So he had them arrested while the fleet was lying in a lagoon near Miletus, proclaimed democracy, and then sailed to Greece hoping to gain support.” – J. M. Cook. Sparta demurred, perhaps because Persia often employed Spartan mercenaries and represented an important source of gold. Athens promised twenty ships and was adeptly drawn into a staged revolt that would inspire a vendetta against the city in the court of Darius, carried out over generations in expeditions of conquest, and fomenting the epic Peloponnesian War between Persia’s Spartan allies and the Athenian Greeks. Herodotus may have drawn liberally on hero stories and legends in his histories of the ancient world, but he was a great traveler and is said to have climbed the tower of Babel himself, and so is an eminent source.

Another Cyrus attracted a Spartan expedition into Persia in an unsuccessful attempt to usurp the Persian throne, chronicled in Xenophon’s Anabasis with admiration for the ambitious younger brother of the king. Xenophon wrote an account of The Education of Cyrus as a model of preparation for leadership. But this expedition was to seal the Persians’ reputation for dishonor with the Greeks, for the Greek commanders were assassinated under a flag of truce when they sought to negotiate safe passage home after Cyrus was killed in battle. Alexander would study Xenophon’s Anabasis for knowledge of the great roads his own army could take, and recited the routes to Persian emissaries with relish as a precocious child.

Alexander, too, would favor Babylon as a city of economic and cultural eminence, and the wars among his successors left Babylonian civilization intact. Only when the Euphrates changed its course and the waterworks irrigating Mesopotamia fell into disrepair would Babylon truly be ruined.

“There the wandering Arab shall ne’er pitch his tent,
But the beasts of the desert shall wail and lament;
In their desolate houses the dragons shall lie,
And the satyrs shall dance, and the bittern shall cry!” – Tennyson, Babylon

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