Lord Byron, Ancient Babylon and The Bible

 

George Gordon Lord Byron (1788 - 1824)

George Gordon Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

Today, we have for our enjoyment a wonderful poem from one, many would with good cause argue, the very best, Romantic poet of all, Lord Byron. Those who have kindly provided annotations, footnotes, historical and biblical explanations of the poem and its applicable context are thanked directly in the appropriate portions of this note to our group.  And now, our poem:

THE DESTRUCTION OF SENNACHERIB

The Hebrew Melodies, 1815

By

George Gordon, Lord Byron

 

               1 The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

              2 And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

              3 And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

              4 When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

 

              5 Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

              6 That host with their banners at sunset were seen:

              7 Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

              8 That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

 

            9 For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,

            10 And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;

            11 And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,

            12 And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

 

            13 And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,

            14 But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;

            15 And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,

            16 And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

 

            17 And there lay the rider distorted and pale,

            18 With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:

            19 And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,

            20 The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

 

            21 And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,

            22 And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;

            23 And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,

            24 Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

 

 THE DESTRUCTION OF SENNACHERIB; Hebrew Melodies, 1815

 

We are much indebted, for both sending us this poem and the follow analysis, today provided us, by:

http://englishhistory.net/byron/poems/destruct.htm

 

Lord Byron’s poem describes a battle in which King Sennacherib unsuccessfully attempts to capture Jerusalem, that Holy City saved from Sennacherib by the Angel Of Death, sent by God Himself, to protect Jerusalem. The poem is divided in six stanzas with four lines in each one. The rhyme is aabb.

The first stanza presents us not a usual Asyrian but a special one, as we can read in the very first words in the poem: “the Asyrian”, where this character is emphasized by the article “the”. The presentation of that man comes highlighted by shining adjectives as gleaming (line 2), gold (l. 2), sheen (l. 3) and stars (l. 3), which evokes the nobility and richness of that man and the clothes used by his soldiers. All these lines tell the reader that the soldiers are prepared for the battle, and the author prepares the reader psychologically for the battle too. The Asyrian is surrounded by his cohorts because he is the principal character in which this stanza is focused. The wolf in the first verse indicates the personality or the present state of the Asyrian, who comes furious to the setting. This is also a metaphor which tells the reader that the devastation was quick and very destructive.

In the second stanza Byron makes, from my point of view, a comparison between how we find the landscape before and after the passing of the Asyrian. Before he comes we find a land full of enemies as trees full of leaves at Summer, and after he has passed through the enemies we find a land as trees are in Autumn, without leaves. That is to say, without enemies. This is a great metaphor used by Byron: leaves are the soldiers. We can constantly find nature in these two stanzas, we can see some examples in: wolf (l. 1), stars (l. 3), sea (l. 3), wave (l. 4), leaves (l. 5), forest (l. 5), Summer (l. 5), Autumn (l. 7). From my point of view Byron uses nature to explain feelings and uses it also to make things more understandable.

In lines 9 and 10 he describes how the Asyrian fights. He is a brilliant soldier and he kills everyone who passes by his side, as if he were an “angel of death” (l. 9). He also is described as spreading his wings on the blast in line 9, so he is a beast, a monster for the enemies to fight him and he has no mercy. The eyes of the people he kills are waxed, so the eyes and the faces of the dead are white or uncolored. Lines 11 and 12 describes the fear felt by the enemies when the Asyrian was fighting.

In the fourth stanza Byron describes the defeat of the enemies’ horses and how the animals lay as the riders do, as a sign of defeat and humiliation in front of the victorious people. With this horse laid in the field Byron represents the image of the defeat of the enemies. It is the description of the landscape after the cruel battle. In line 16 the poet uses again a natural phenomenon to compare what he is describing: “cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf”.

All of the fifth stanza evokes defeat’s symbols as the oxide in the mails of the riders, the empty tents, the silence and the lances in the ground, clear signs of death and suffered damages. Also the rider of the dead horse mentioned before he appears, and he is also dead: “distorted and pale”. With all these images we, as readers, can imagine how the field is after the battle and the desolate ground that battle leaves when it is finished.

The last stanza also makes reference to the defeated people. Now it is the widows who are shouting because of the death of their husbands. Last line, where the poet again uses a natural phenomenon, snow, it means that everybody follows the same path: death.

As a conclusion we might say that Byron uses an adequate language to provide the reader with all the adjectives that describe the passing of battles. In the end nothing remains but silence and death.

Ibidem: http://englishhistory.net/byron/poems/destruct.htm

As for King Sennacherib himself, whose cohorts were destroyed by God Himself, through the breath of His Angel of Death, we thank The British Museum for this brief synopsis of his life and times:

Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704-681 BC)

Sennacherib, whose name (Sin-ahhe-criba) means ‘the god Sin has replaced the brothers’, came to the throne of Assyria in 704 BC. The new king shifted the capital from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) to the ancient city of Nineveh, which he rebuilt in unparalleled splendour. This great palace, which Sennacherib describes in his inscriptions as ‘without rival’, is known today as the South-West Palace. Many rooms were decorated with alabaster wall reliefs.

Sennacherib was mainly preoccupied with trying to resolve the political situation in Babylonia, a region that had only recently been retaken by his father Sargon II. Sennacherib’s main opponent was a local leader called Marduk-apla-iddina II (the biblical Merodach-baladan) who was supported by Elam. From 703-689 BC Sennacherib fought to control south Mesopotamia until finally, after a fifteen-month siege, the city of Babylon was captured and sacked. In 701 BC Sennacherib sacked the city of Lachish in Judah but failed to take the capital Jerusalem. His other campaigns in the southern Levant, Anatolia, and in the Syrian desert against the Arabs, were concerned with frontier security. In 681 BC Sennacherib was assassinated by two of his sons while he prayed in a temple. He was succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon.

With our thanks here to: The British Museum

It is simply not possible to understand the Empires of our modern-day, without some modicum of understanding of the Empires that came before our own.  An Imperial seat of supreme significance in antiquity was Babylon.

Hammurabi's_Babylonia_1.svg

Ancient Babylon was a vastly important Middle Eastern city in both a world historical and biblical context. The city’s ruins are located about 55 mi (89 km) south of Baghdad, near the modern city of Al-Hillah, Iraq. Babylon was one of the most famous cities in antiquity. Probably first settled in the 3rd millennium BC, it came under the rule of the Amorite kings around 2000 BC. It became the capital of Babylonia and was the chief commercial city of the Tigris and Euphrates river system. Destroyed by Sennacherib in 689 BC, it was later rebuilt. It attained its greatest glory as capital of the Neo-Babylonian empire under Nebuchadrezzar II (r. 605–c. 561 BC). Alexander the Great, who took the city in 331 BC, died there. Evidence of its topography comes from excavations, cuneiform texts, and descriptions by the Greek historian Herodotus. Most of the ruins are from the city built by Nebuchadrezzar. The largest city in the world at the time, it contained many temples, including the great temple of Marduk with its associated ziggurat, which was apparently the basis for the story of the Tower of Babel. The Hanging Gardens, a simulated hill of vegetation-clad terracing, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Babylon was the most famous city of ancient Mesopotamia. Until today the city is a symbol for wealth, power, and likewise sin and idleness largely due to its treatment in the Bible, which describes the city as depraved beyond all measure. The name Babylon is the Greek form of Babel of Babili, which means “the gate of the god” in Semitic, which again is the translation of the original Sumerian name Ka-dimirra. The god was probably Marduk, the divine patron of the city. Like the other great Sanctuaries of Babylonia, the temple of Marduk had been founded in pre-Semitic times and the future Babylon grew around it. As Marduk was the son of Ea, the patron god of Eridu, it is possible that Babylon was a colony of Eridu.

The earliest mention of Babylon is in a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (3800 BC), who is stated to have built sanctuaries there. Babylon remained a provincial town until it became the capital of the first dynasty of Babylon and then Hammurabi‘s empire, around 2250 BC. From this time onward it continued to be the capital of Babylonia and the holy city of western Asia. The claim to supremacy in Mesopotamia was not fulfilled de jure until the claimant had “taken the hands” of Marduk at Babylon. It was this which made Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 745-727 BC) and other Assyrian kings so anxious to possess themselves of Babylon and to thus legitimize their power.

Only Sennacherib of Assyria (reigned 704-681 BC) failed to secure the support of the Babylonian priesthood, and subsequently razed the city in 689 BC. This act shocked the religious conscience of western Asia, and Sennacherib was subsequently assassinated. His successor hastened to rebuild the city.

With the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nabopolassar (reigned the Neo-Babylonian Empire 625-605 BC) a new era of architectural activity set in, and his son Nebuchadrezzar II (reign 605-562 BC) made Babylon one of the wonders of the Ancient World. It surrendered without a struggle to Cyrus I of Persia (reign c. 600-580 BC), but the monotheistic rule of Persia allowed the temples to fall into decay. Indeed part of the temple of E-Saggila, which like other ancient temples served as a fortress, was intentionally pulled down and the holy statue of Marduk was destroyed by Xerxes I after his capture of the city (484 BC).

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) was murdered in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, which must therefore have been still standing, and cuneiform texts show that even under the Seleucids, E-Saggila was not wholly a ruin. With the death of Alexander the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, as the newly founded city of Ctesiphon became the most prominent city in Mesopotamia.

For Biblical purposes, a larger view of the area under study here is helpful as well:

Assyrian

The Biblical account of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem begins with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria. According to the Hebrew Bible, the ten northern tribes came to be known as the Ten Lost Tribes, because as recorded in II Kings 17, they were carried off and settled with other peoples as was the Assyrian policy. II Kings 18-19 (and parallel passage II Chronicles 32:1-23) details Sennacherib’s attack on Judah and capital Jerusalem. Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrians, so they had captured all of the towns in Judah. Hezekiah realized his error and sent great tribute to Sennacherib. But the Assyrians nevertheless marched toward Jerusalem. Sennacherib sent his supreme commander with an army to besiege Jerusalem while he himself went to fight with the Egyptians. The supreme commander met with Hezekiah’s officials and threatened them to surrender; while hailing insults so the people of the city could hear, blaspheming Judah and particularly Jehovah. When the King Hezekiah heard of this, he tore his clothes (as was the custom of the day for displaying deep anguish) and prayed to Jehovah in the TempleIsaiah the prophet told the king that Jehovah would take care of the whole matter and that he would return to his own lands. That night, the Angel of Jehovah killed 185,000 Assyrian troops. Jewish tradition maintains that the angel Gabriel (along with Michael in the Targum‘s version) was the angel sent to destroy the Assyrian troops, and that the destruction occurred on Passover night. Sennacherib soon returned to Nineveh in disgrace. Some years later, while Sennacherib was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, two of his sons killed him and fled to Armenia. Psalm 46 was composed as a Song of Deliverance that was led by the Korahite Levitical singers and accompanied by the Alamoth, maidens with tambourines, and sung by the inhabitants of Jerusalem after their successful defense of the city from the siege.

All of this background overview, from history and the Holy Scriptures, is a necessary building block to understand how we came to be what we are today.  Moreover, for our purposes directly here today, it demonstrates to us how a simple, dramatic and enduring poem such as Lord Byron’s, THE DESTRUCTION OF SENNACHERIB, was inspired.

Enjoy our great poem.  In our pleasure, we are likewise mindful of the colorful history that made it possible.

 

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10 thoughts on “Lord Byron, Ancient Babylon and The Bible

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