BELSHAZZAR (6th century B.C.), Babylonian general. Until the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions, he was known only from the book of Daniel (v. 2, 11, 13, 18) and its reproduction in Josephus, where he is represented as the son of Nebuchadrezzar and the last king of Babylon. As his name did not appear in the list of the successors of Nebuchadrezzar handed down by the Greek writers, various suggestions were put forward as to his identity. Niebuhr identified him with Evil-Merodach, Ewald with Nabonidos, others again with Neriglissor. The identification with Nabonidos, the last Babylonian king according to the native historian Berossus, goes back to Josephus. The decipherment of the cuneiform texts put an end to all such speculations. In 1854 Sir H.C. Rawlinson discovered the name of Bel-sarra-uzur - "O Bel, defend the king" - in an inscription belonging to the first year of Nabonidos which had been discovered in the ruins of the temple of the Moon-god at Muqayyar or Ur. Here Nabonidos calls him his "first-born son," and prays that "he may not give way to sin," but that "the fear of the great divinity" of the Moon-god may "dwell in his heart." In the contracts and similar documents there are frequent references to Belshazzar, who is sometimes entitled simply "the son of the king."
He was never king himself, nor was he son of Nebuchadrezzar. Indeed his father Nabonidos (Nabunaid), the son of Nabu-baladsu-iqbi, was not related to the family of Nebuchadrezzar and owed his accession to the throne to a palace revolution. Belshazzar, however, seems to have had more political and military energy than his father, whose tastes were antiquarian and religious; he took command of the army, living with it in the camp near Sippara, and whatever measures of defence were organized against the invasion of Cyrus appear to have been due to him. Hence Jewish tradition substituted him for his less-known father, and rightly concluded that his death marked the fall of the Babylonian monarchy. We learn from the Babylonian Chronicle that from the 7th year of Nabonidos (548 B.C.) onwards "the son of the king" was with the army in Akkad, that is in the close neighbourhood of Sippara. This, as Dr Th. G. Pinches has pointed out, doubtless accounts for the numerous gifts bestowed by him on the temple of the Sun-god at Sippara. So late as the 5th of Ab in the 17th year of Nabonidos - that is to say, about three weeks after the forces of Cyrus had entered Babylonia and only three months before his death - we find him paying 47 shekels of silver to the temple on behalf of his sister, this being the amount of "tithe" due from her at the time. At an earlier period there is frequent mention of his trading transactions which were carried out through his house-steward or agent. Thus in 545 B.C. he lent 20 manehs of silver to a private individual, a Persian by race, on the security of the property of the latter, and a year later his house-steward negotiated a loan of 16 shekels, taking as security the produce of a field of corn.
The legends of Belshazzar's feast and of the siege and capture of Babylon by Cyrus which have come down to us from the book of Daniel and the Cyropaedia of Xenophon have been shown by the contemporaneous inscriptions to have been a projection backwards of the re-conquest of the city by Darius Hystaspis. The actual facts were very different. Cyrus had invaded Babylonia from two directions, he himself marching towards the confluence of the Tigris and Diyaleh, while Gobryas, the satrap of Kurdistan, led another body of troops along the course of the Adhem. The portion of the Babylonian army to which the protection of the eastern frontier had been entrusted was defeated at Opis on the banks of the Nizallat, and the invaders poured across the Tigris into Babylonia. On the 14th of Tammuz (June), 538 B.C., Nabonidos fled from Sippara, where he had taken his son's place in the camp, and the city surrendered at once to the enemy. Meanwhile Gobryas had been despatched to Babylon, which opened its gates to the invader on the 16th of the month "without combat or battle," and a few days later Nabonidos was dragged from his hiding-place and made a prisoner. According to Berossus he was subsequently appointed governor of Karmania by his conqueror. Belshazzar, however, still held out, and it was probably on this account that Cyrus himself did not arrive at Babylon until nearly four months later, on the 3rd of Marchesvan. On the 11th of that month Gobryas was despatched to put an end to the last semblance of resistance in the country "and the son (?) of the king died." In accordance with the conciliatory policy of Cyrus, a general mourning was proclaimed on account of his death, and this lasted for six days, from the 27th of Adar to the 3rd of Nisan. Unfortunately the character representing the word "son" is indistinct on the tablet which contains the annals of Nabonidos, so that the reading is not absolutely certain. The only other reading possible, however, is "and the king died," and this reading is excluded partly by the fact that Nabonidos afterwards became a Persian satrap, partly by the silence which would otherwise be maintained by the "Annals" in regard to the fate of Belshazzar. Considering how important Belshazzar was politically, and what a prominent place he occupied in the history of the period, such a silence would be hard to explain. His death subsequently to the surrender of Babylon and the capture of Nabonidos, and with it the last native effort to resist the invader, would account for the position he assumed in later tradition and the substitution of his name for that of the actual king.
See Th. G. Pinches, P.S.B.A., May 1884; H. Winckler, Zetischrift für Assyriologie, ii. 2, 3 (1887); Records of the Past, new series, i. pp. 22-31 (1888); A.H. Sayce, The Higher Criticism, pp. 497-537 (1893).
(A. H. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)