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This article is about the Neo-Babylonian prince Belshazzar. For the Biblical figure, see Belshazzar's feast.
Not to be confused with Belteshazzar.
"Royal Prince" (crown prince)
Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast - WGA19123.jpg
Rembrandt's depiction of the biblical account of Belshazzar seeing "the writing on the wall"
Father Nabonidus
Died 539 BCE

Belshazzar (/bɛlˈʃæzər/; Biblical Hebrew בלשאצר; Akkadian: Bēl-šarra-uṣur, meaning "Bel Protect the King"; Greek: Balthazar /ˈbælθəˌzɑr/) was the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (r.556-539 BCE).[1] (The Book of Daniel states wrongly that he was the son of Nebuchadnezzar–three kings ruled between Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus).[2] His father named him as crown prince (literally "son of the king"), but not co-regent, and he is not included in the Babylonian king lists.[3] He was active in all aspects of the administration, and was in charge of Babylon during his father's long absence from the city.[4][5] Belshazzar's fate is unknown: he may have died in a Babylonian defensive action at Opis, north of Babylon.[6]


Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, king of Babylon 555-539 BCE. Nabonidus, who was not of royal descent, became king in unclear circumstances following the assassination of the designated Crown Prince.[4] No longer young even at his accession, he spent the first years of his reign campaigning in Anatolia and Syria to enforce his authority, and then established his headquarters in the oasis of Teima in northern Arabia where he established control over the lucrative incense trade.[4] Belshazzar was his mar sarri, literally "the king's son," or crown prince; one Babylonian record reports that on one occasion Nabonidus "entrusted the kingship" to Belshazzar, but it is clear that this did not involve a co-regency, since he was never referred to as king and is not included in the Babylonian kingship lists.[7] As "royal prince" he was active in all aspects of the administration,[4] and was in charge of Babylon during his father's extended absence in Arabia.[7]

By 547 BCE all the lands to the east and north of Nabonidus' empire were in the hands of the Persians, and in 543 he returned to Babylon to prepare for the coming war. His position was weak: he had no allies (Egypt, the only power capable of lending real assistance, was staying neutral), and he had alienated the Babylonian priests and merchants, who may have been secretly conspiring with the Persians. When Cyrus, the Persian king, finally attacked in 539 BCE, he was welcomed by many as a liberator.[8]

The Persians took Babylon on 12 October 539 with minimal resistance.[9] Nabonidus was captured and, according to one account, made governor of Carmania, a Persian province in southern Iran. Belshazzar's fate is unknown: he may have died in a Babylonian defensive action at Opis, north of Babylon.[6]


Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel tells how Belshazzar uses the vessels from the Temple for his feast; a supernatural hand appears and writes a mysterious message on the wall, which only Daniel can interpret, telling Belshazzar that his kingdom will be given to the Medes and Persians.[1] The story was probably composed in the 3rd or early 2nd centuries BCE, and most scholars take for granted that the Book of Daniel is not history[10] but Daniel's account of the death of Belshazzar is echoed by the Greek historian Xenophon, who, in his Cyropaedia (a history of Cyrus), relates how the Persians entered the city at night while the inhabitants were celebrating a festival, made their way to the palace where a banquet was in progress, and killed the (unnamed) Babylonian king.[11]

A second Greek source, Herodotus, agrees that the Persians diverted the river and attacked during a festival and while the inhabitants were making merry, although he makes no mention of the fate of the king. Both are contradicted by the Babylonian and Persian cuneiform records, which are the most authoritative source. These state that the Persians entered without a battle and arrested Nabonidus; there is no mention of a festival or feast, or of Belshazzar.[12]

Berossus, in his history of Babylon written around 290-278 BCE and drawn from cuneiform sources, correctly described Nabonidus as the last king of Babylon. The Jewish historian Josephus, in the 1st century CE, was puzzled by the contrast between this and what he read in Daniel 5, where Belshazzar is the last king; attempting to reconcile the two, he wrote in his Antiquities of the Jews that Belshazzar was the last king, but that he was called Nabonidus by the Babylonians.[13]

Jewish tradition[edit]

Belshazzar appears in many works of classical Jewish rabbinic literature. The chronology of the three Babylonian kings is given in the Talmud (Megillah 11a-b) as follows: Nebuchadnezzar reigned forty-five years, Evil-merodach twenty-three, and Belshazzar was monarch of Babylonia for two years, being killed at the beginning of the third year on the fatal night of the fall of Babylon (Meg. 11b).

The references in the Talmud and the Midrash to Belshazzar emphasize his tyrannous oppression of his Jewish subjects. Several passages in the Prophets are interpreted as though referring to him and his predecessors. For instance, the passage, "As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him" (Amos v. 19), the lion is said to represent Nebuchadnezzar, and the bear, equally ferocious if not equally courageous, is Belshazzar. (The book of Amos., nevertheless, is pre-exilic.)

The three Babylonian kings are often mentioned together as forming a succession of impious and tyrannical monarchs who oppressed Israel and were therefore foredoomed to disgrace and destruction. The verse in Isaiah xiv. 22, And I will rise up against them, saith the Lord of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant and son and grandchild, saith the Lord, is applied by these interpretations to the trio: "Name" to Nebuchadnezzar, "remnant" to Evil-merodach, "son" to Belshazzar, and "grandchild" Vashti (ib.). The command given to Abraham to cut in pieces three heifers (Genesis 15:9) as a part of the covenant established between him and his God, was thus elucidated by readers of Daniel as symbolizing Babylonia, which gave rise to three kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, and Belshazzar, whose doom is prefigured by this act of "cutting to pieces" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xliv.).

The Midrash literature enters into the details of Belshazzar's death. Thus the later tradition states that Cyrus and Darius were employed as doorkeepers of the royal palace. Belshazzar, being greatly alarmed at the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and apprehending that someone in disguise might enter the palace with murderous intent, ordered his doorkeepers to behead anyone who attempted to force an entrance that night, even though such person should claim to be the king himself. Belshazzar, overcome by sickness, left the palace unobserved during the night through a rear exit. On his return the doorkeepers refused to admit him. In vain did he plead that he was the king. They said, "Has not the king ordered us to put to death any one who attempts to enter the palace, though he claim to be the king himself?" Suiting the action to the word, Cyrus and Darius grasped a heavy ornament forming part of a candelabrum, and with it shattered the skull of their royal master (Cant. R. iii. 4).

Art and popular culture[edit]

  • Oratorio Il convito di Baldassarro by Pirro Albergati, composed in 1691.
  • Oratorio Belshazzar by George Frideric Handel, composed in the late summer of 1744.
  • Incidental music Belshazzar's Feast by Jean Sibelius, op. 51, composed in 1906.
  • Cantata Belshazzar's Feast by Sir William Walton, composed in 1930-1.
  • Singer/Songwriter Johnny Cash wrote a song titled "Belshazar", based on the Biblical story. It was recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee in 1957. It was covered by Bob Dylan and The Band as "Belchezaar", on sessions for The Basement Tapes recorded in Woodstock, NY.
  • The Jewish songwriter Harold Rome wrote, for the musical "Pins and Needles" in 1937, a gospel song, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin," which made the analogy between Belshazzar and Hitler, saying the former "didn't pay no income taxes:/The big shot of the Babylon-Jerusalem Axis." Interpreting the writing on the wall, Daniel sums it up tersely: "King, stop your fightin' and your flauntin'./You been weighed, and you're found wantin'."
  • The Austin, Texas band Sound Team references Belshazzar with the lyric: "But I don't have to sleep at Belshazzar's house anymore / Gave up the center line" on the track "No More Birthdays" off their Movie Monster LP.
  • The Norwegian singer/songwriter Eth Eonel wrote a song titled "Belsassar", which was released in 2011 on the album "Drawing Lines (1989)". The song lays out an aquatic version of Belshazzar's feast, in which Belshazzar is a fish, and "the writing on the wall" becomes "the writing in the sand".
  • The fourteenth-century poem Cleanness by the Pearl Poet recounts the feast and subsequent events as a warning against spiritual impurity.
  • "Vision of Belshazzar" by the poet Lord Byron chronicles both the feast and Daniel's pronunciation.
  • Robert Frost's poem, "The Bearer of Evil Tidings", is about a messenger headed to Belshazzar's court to deliver the news of the king's imminent overthrow. Remembering that evil tidings were a "dangerous thing to bear," the messenger flees to the Himalayas rather than facing the monarch's wrath.
  • Emily Dickinson's poem "Belshazzar had a letter," #1459 from the Poems of Emily Dickinson is about Belshazzar's immortal correspondence. Her poem was written in 1879.
  • Herman Melville's book "Moby Dick" at chapter 99 has the first mate Starbuck murmer to himself "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing" as he spies Ahab speaking to the doubloon he had nailed to the mast of the Pequod.
  • In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser entitles a chapter "The Feast of Belshazar - A Seer to Translate" in which the gluttony of turn-of-the-century New York City is highlighted.
  • Belshazzar was the title of a 1930 novel by H. Rider Haggard.
  • Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, liked to incorporate historical names into his pseudo-historical stories. He wrote a (non-Conan) adventure story, "Blood of Belshazzar" which Roy Thomas adapted into a Conan story in Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian #27 as "The Blood of Bel-Hissar". Howard also used the name of 'Nabonidus' (father of Belshazzar) in the Conan tale "Rogues in the House" which appeared in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #11.

In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as Balthazar in Act IV, scene i.

Paintings, drawings
Film, television
  • Belshazzar is a main character in one of the four stories presented in D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance (1916).
  • Belshazzar is played by Michael Ansara in the 1953 William Castle film, Slaves of Babylon.
  • Belshazzar was featured in the Season one, Episode two of the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple, entitled "The Golden Cup of Belshazzar."

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b McKenzie 1995, p. 87.
  2. ^ Johnson 2005, p. 23.
  3. ^ Hughes 1991, p. 104.
  4. ^ a b c d Leick 2009, p. 122.
  5. ^ Cline & Graham 2011, p. 84.
  6. ^ a b McIntosh 2005, p. 113.
  7. ^ a b Hughes 1990, p. 104.
  8. ^ Dandamaev 1989, p. 41-42.
  9. ^ Dandamaev 1989, p. 47.
  10. ^ Collins 1984, p. 34,41.
  11. ^ Dandamaev 1989, p. 48.
  12. ^ Gera 1993, p. 260-261.
  13. ^ Newsom 2013, p. 271.
  14. ^ Kortländer, Bernd (Hrsg.), Heine, Heinrich - Sämtliche Gedichte. Kommentierte Ausgabe, Stuttgart 1997. Reclam.