Ars Bellica

Battles In Brief

Battle of Opis

539 BC

The opponents

Cyrus II the Great

Ruler of the Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. Reigned between 558 and 528 BC. Son of Cambyses I, a vassal of the Medes, shortly after ascended the throne of Ansan, Cyrus rebelled (553) against Astyages, defeated him and captured Ecbatana (550), which became the royal residence. In 549 subdued his cousin Arsame, annexed the kingdom of Parsua then attacked the King Croesus of Lydia in 547, defeating his army at Pteria and chased him through Asia Minor to Sardis. The fall of the Lydian capital and the subsequent Persian conquest of much of Asia Minor (except the greeks Ionian colonies on the coast) marked the beginning of a new period of contact between the Greeks and Persians.

Between 545 and 539, he directed his action against the people of eastern Iran, conquered the Drangiana, the Aracosia, Sogdiana, the Khorezm, Bactria and extended the Persian eastern borders up to the Oxus and Iaxarte. Then resumed operations in the west; in 539 attacked Nabonidus and conquered Babylon. One of the first acts of his reign was the edict for authorizing the Jews in exile to return to Palestine. He died during another expedition to the eastern borders.

Soon after his death were formed, around the figure of Cyrus, a series of legends, according to which he was abandoned by the orders of his grandfather Astyages and was raised by a shepherd. The name of the wife of the pastor, Spako, which according to Herodotus means "dog," recalls the myth of Romulus and Remus raised by the wolf.

Founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus laid the foundations of its political and cultural development. He was responsible for the construction of Pasargadae, chosen as the new capital of the kingdom and built according to architectural elements inspired by a sumptuous monumentality and later became traditional Persian art. A fragmentary relief on a pillar of the gate of the city, depicting a winged genius and bearing the inscription, "I, Cyrus, the King, the Achaemenid (I did this)," is all that remains of the sculptural production of the era of reign of Cyrus.

Nabonidus (or Nabonido; Babylonian Nabu-na'id "Nabu is great")

Last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (555-538 BC.). Ascended the throne as a result of a revolution, led a military expedition to Palestine to strengthen the borders of the empire, and organized an alliance with Lydia and Egypt to balance the growing power of Persia. In domestic policy, he became famous for trying to restore, as a cohesive factor and power politics, the most ancient Mesopotamian religion, and in particular the worship of the moon god Sin. This alienated the sympathies of the priesthood of Marduk, particularly powerful in Babylon. When (539) Cyrus king of the Persians attacked and captured the capital of the empire, there was therefore welcomed as a liberator.

The campaigns of Cyrus

Sure of the fact that the reign of Nabonidus, would not create any trouble for him, Cyrus turned his arms against the powerful kingdom of Lydia, much more than Croesus, who succeeded Alyattes, concerned by the threatening advance of the Persian power, had somehow taken the initiative, invading Cappadocia. Croesus had the help of the Egyptians and Babylonians, but Cyrus prevented the coalition of forces, bursting with an army in Cappadocia (546). After an initial undecided clash at Pteria, Cyrus, with all its forces moved against Sardis as Croesus was forced to accept that a pitched battle in which he was completely defeated. After that, Croesus retired in Sardis, abandoned by the Babylonians who had made a separate peace with the Persians, was still waiting for the help of his allies of Sparta and Egypt. The Spartans had in fact prepared a fleet, but when they were about to take to the sea, to them came the news that Sardis had fallen, according to Herodotus, for the accidental discovery of a hidden path. Croesus with his men fell into the hands of the Cyrus.

According to the Babylonians chronicles, Cyrus would kill Croesus, but the Greek sources attest unanimously that he showed mercy with the former king of Lydia. The legend, which already has a first echo is found in Herodotus, according to which Croesus, who was sentenced to die by Cyrus on fire, was saved because, already at the stake, had uttered three times the name of Solon, thereby attracting the curiosity Cyrus, of course, is probably a Greek creation on oriental elements. As in the Eastern world meekness towards the defeated was a very rare thing, historians wanted to assign a special intervention measure the one used by Cyrus to his strong opponent.

Upon hearing the fall of Sardis, the Greek cities of Asia Minor had sent ambassadors to Cyrus that declare to accept his supremacy under the same conditions they had with Croesus. But Cyrus demanded complete submission, with the exception of Miletus, who granted a treaty to keep in front of the Persian empire the position he had in front of the Lydian kingdom, and gave to his generals the task of forcing the Ions to obedience that task, due the ability of the Persians in sieges, it was soon discharged, and later also Caria and Lycia were subdued.

Cyrus then turned eastward, extending its dominion over the eastern provinces of Iran, subjugating the Margiana and Sogdiana and Iaxarte reaching the river, near which he built fortresses that were standing still in the time of Alexander. His action, which endured from 546 until 540, secured to the Persian empire the eastern provinces that are listed in the cuneiform inscriptions as being part of it, when to the throne acended Darius, and these were Parthiana, Drangiana, Ariana Khorasm, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, the Sakas, the Sattagidi, Arachosia and Maka.

Following the western conquests, the Persian empire now bordered by the Arabian Gulf until the Cilicia with the kingdom of Babylon. The clash with this latter was inevitable.

The Babylonian situation

At that time, Babylon was in a unpromising geopolitical situation. The Persian empire as pressed from the north, east and west, even serious economic problems, exacerbated by plague and famine, made Nabonidus unpopular among many of his subjects. According to Mary Joan Winn Leith, "The success is due to the acumen of Cyrus military, Babylonian corruption, and a vigorous propaganda conducted through Babylon, who described Cyrus as a gentleman, religiously tolerant and forgiving". Thanks to these feared qualities, Cyrus convinced a provincial Babylonian governor, called Gobryas, to defect to side next to him. Along with himself, Godria brought a gift to the Persian king, the territory of Gutium, a border region of considerable size and strategic importance, which Cyrus used as a starting point for his invasion.

Regarding the invasion itself, the sources are not entirely clear. The Nabonidus Chronicle says that the conflict might already began in the winter of 540 BC, while in a fragmentary section of the same report which is supposed to cover the years 540-539 BC, there are possible reference to some fighting, a specific mention of Ishtar of Uruk and a reference to Persia. The Battle of Opis was therefore probably only the final stage of an ongoing series of clashes between the two empires.

The battle

The Nabonidus Chronicle notes that the battle took place in the month of Tashritu (September 27-October 27) "in Opis on the bank of the Tigris". Very little is known about the events of the battle, the chronicle does not provide any details of the course of the battle, the forces on both sides or the losses inflicted. Sources report that the Persian army under Cyrus fought "the army of Akkad" (ie the Babylonians). The identity of the Babylonian commander is not recorded in the chronicles, but it has traditionally been assumed that Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus, was in command. His fate is not clear and it seems he may have been killed in battle.

But just considering the sources, permanence, not for a very short time of Cyrus the area around the city of Opis, his campaign of "propaganda" and the probable Persian victories at Ishtar and Uruk, we can figure that the Babylonian moral and, consequently, the capacity of resistance on the field were at the minimum. Probably, at the first impact, the army of Belshazzar, whose leadership qualities are completely unknown and which are not granted any kind of military victories before the battle of Opis, it quickly disjointed and has therefore suffered a clear defeat, perhaps due to a sudden retreat.

Most of the translations of the Nabonidus Chronicle refer to a "massacre" of "the people of Akkad", even if the translators disagree on who it was massacred: if the population of Opis or the Babylonian army in retreat.

Pierre Briant says: "This victory was followed by an immense booty and the slaughter of those who tried to resist". Maria Brosius interprets the massacre as a punitive action of Cyrus "to give the example of a city that tried to resist the Persian army". Cuyler Young comments: "This reference in the Chronicle suggests that the Persians captured intact the main army of Nabonidus and that, as often happens, the real massacre of warriors began after the Babylonians had fallen prey to fear and panic and had withdrawn from the field".

Whether or not there was a massacre, inside or outside of the walls of the city of Opis, the only provision of the Babylonian army against the Persian Cyrus shows that in Babylon existed a regime that attempted a resistance against the same Persian invasion.

The aftermath

With the defeat at Opis had ended the Babylonian resistance to the Persian invasion. The Nabonidus Chronicle states that in fact after the Battle of Opis, "the fourteenth day [October 6], Sippar was taken without a fight. Nabonidus fled, and the sixteenth day [October 12] Ug / Gubaru, governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered in Babylon without even fighting". Nabonidus himself was captured shortly after, when he tried to return to Babylon. His ultimate fate is not entirely clear, but according to the Babylonian historian of the third century BC, Berosus, Nabonidus was spared and went into exile in Carmania, where he died years later. Once in Babylon, Cyrus was proclaimed king, appointed new governors in the newly conquered kingdom and began a very enlightened policy towards the conquered people. The temples were protected; the individual gods that Nabonidus had carried to Babylon just before the invasion returned to their city and Cyrus even allowed to return to Palestine the Jews deported in the same city.

In this way, with a series of successful achievements, not only military, Cyrus was able to throw firmly the foundations of one of the largest empires in history.