Nitocris (fl. 6th c. BCE)

views updated

Nitocris (fl. 6th c. bce)

Legendary Babylonian queen. Said to have flourished in the early 6th century bce; said to have married Labynetus; children: Labynetus.

Nitocris is said to have been the wife of Labynetus and mother of Labynetus. However, she represents a legendary composite of a queen alleged to have had an Assyrian background, mistakenly thought by Herodotus to have been responsible for major works in northern Mesopotamia and Babylon in the early 6th century bce. Called a woman of great intelligence, Nitocris was credited with planning a strategic defence of Babylonia against the encroachment of her enemy, the Medes (from modern Iran). Chief among her works is said to have been the engineering of the Euphrates River so as to redirect its straight channel into a meandering one, supposedly both to lessen the force of the river's flow and to create obstacles which would limit the river's usefulness as a military highway. Associated with this project was the construction of major reservoirs, intended to trap significant amounts of water from the swiftly flowing stream for local use (in fact, such projects were known on the Euphrates). Also attributed to Nitocris was the construction of the first bridge across the Euphrates which linked the two halves of the city of Babylon split by the river (a bridge with removable planking, which could be taken up at night to limit illicit traffic). A third anecdote associated with Nitocris concerns her tomb, supposedly placed in the fortifications above one of Babylon's most important gates. Herodotus writes that an inscription attached to this tomb read: "If any lord of Babylon is hereafter bereft of funds, he may open this tomb and replenish from its contents as much as he likes. However, he can only do this if he is in dire need. Otherwise, no good will come from violating my rest." It is said that when the Persian king Darius opened the tomb, he was assaulted by another inscription which admonished: "If you had not been excessively greedy and eager to get money by the vilest of means, you would never have violated my tomb."

It is clear that in Herodotus' mind this Nitocris represented the archetype of a worthy monarch, who both served her subjects and represented a moral example with the power to chastise those who did not. However, no such queen is known from Near Eastern records, and the name Nitocris is Egyptian in origin. It is likely that Herodotus misunderstood his sources for Nitocris and probably attributed to this fictitious monarch achievements which should be credited to Nebuchadnezzar II and to Amyntis (his wife from Media), who was probably the inspiration behind the famous "Hanging Gardens of Babylon"—itself a prodigious user of available water.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California