Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Living in the Past

That little bit in my last post about the Persians of 300 being the "chest and arms of silver" of Nebuchadnezzar's dream got me thinking. We don't think of 300 and the Bible as belonging in the same bucket, but we should, partly because it's deeply embedded in the neo-con fantasy life, and partly because for a brief moment it's the greatest gift you can give a historian – the same story told from a different perspective. Darius and Xerxes, the evil kings of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, ruled an empire that shows up in the Bible: the histories of Xenophon and Thucydides and the apocalypse of Daniel are actually the same story.

So I did a little digging, and found some interesting stuff. Nebuchadnezzar II, the dream-haver from Daniel Ch.2, was the most famous king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which kicked off when his father rebelled against the Assyrians (a people who are up there with the British as the cruellest imperial overlords of all time) and Babylon became a independent city for the first time in centuries. More recently he got a ship named after him in The Matrix, though that's the only connection with the greenest movies ever made: the "neo" in "Neo-Babylonian" doesn't refer to The One, it just means "new" – which, in its own way, leads you to the most important detail you need to know about the Neo-Babylonians.

Which is... they were living in the past. Big time. They were so intensely conscious of their splendid history that they pursued an arch-traditionalist policy that ended up becoming the final flowering of oldschool Mesopotamian culture, an echo of a time 1,500 years earlier. They changed the official language from Aramaic to Akkadian; they altered their cuneiform writing style so that it looked more ancient; they revived the practice of appointing a royal daughter to serve as priestess of the moon god Sin; they built massive temples, even more massive ziggurats and, if Herodotus is to be believed, the Hanging Gardens as well. They did everything they could to wind the clock back 1,500 years so they could indulge in a little LARPing about a time before the Assyrians came and ruined everything.

None of this is as ridiculous as it sounds, because we've seen a similar thing almost within our own lifetimes: Mussolini. He never made any bones about his ultimate goal of restoring the Roman Empire, a regime that had last been front page news about, hmm, where'd I leave my calculator... about 1,500 years earlier. Imagine a Mussolini with the ability to match his ambitions: imagine him rebuilding the Imperial Palace in white marble, holding gladiator matches in the Colosseum, forcing his beloved Alfa Romeo racecars to turn laps of the Circus Maximus and changing the official language to Latin. Now take that idea, adjust for culture and turn it up to eleven: that's the Neo-Babylonians.

They took it so far that when artworks from the good ol' days were dug up, they were treated with almost religious awe. Here's where it gets intriguing: at one point they found an "image" of Sargon the Great. We don't know whether this "image" was a free-standing statue or just a wall carving, because they used the same word for both, but it doesn't matter: it was of Sargon the Great. Who was Sargon the Great? An Akkadian king who was ancient even to the ancients, the once-ruler of Babylon who created the first multi-ethnic empire in world history.

Also, handsome.

Having found an image of this ancient patriarch, this figure of legend, do you know what the Neo-Babylonians did? They placed it in a temple, made offerings and worshipped it. Gosh, why does that sound so familiar?
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. Then the herald loudly proclaimed, "Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. (Daniel 3:1-4)
The Bible makes it sound like the king was just in a weird mood and issued a random decree; with a little history, it becomes the story of a people longing for a return to their own glorious past so much that it became a religious obsession – one the Jewish captives couldn't help but see as heinous idolatry. I don't see the stories of Daniel as something that actually happened, but it's still intriguing to know things like this really were happening in that part of the world at the time of the story. It's also amusing to see how it all turns out: the verse above is of course the start of the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace, and Jim Macdonald already wrote a blog comparing the evolution of the Bible to fanfic. So how does the story progress? With Rack, Shack and Benny like, totally not taking part in all the icky statue-worship and being saved by a deus ex machina like the Mary Sues that they are.

It's comforting to know that, for better or worse, people never change.

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