The Chaldeans were a group of tribes first clearly attested in the ninth century BCE in southern Mesopotamia. The name Chaldeans comes from the Greek chaldaioi (cf. Hebrew kaśdîm) and goes back to the term kaldu in Mesopotamian cuneiform sources. The Mesopotamians used the latter term to refer to both a people and a land.

Outside of a possible mention in an administrative document from the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 BCE), the Chaldeans appear first in an inscription of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) which refers to the land of Chaldea in connection with the king's military campaign into southern Mesopotamia In 878 BCE. The Chaldeans are best attested from the second half of the ninth century through to the middle of the seventh century BCE, but continue to be mentioned into the Persian period. The latest reference to a Chaldean tribe in cuneiform sources probably comes from the time of the Persian ruler Darius II (423–405 BCE). In biblical and classical sources the term Chaldeans came to refer to Babylonians in general and priests, magicians, astrologers, diviners, and other such scholars in particular.

When the Chaldeans first appear in the ninth century BCE, they are already well settled in southern Babylonia. Their origin and the manner in which they moved into southern Mesopotamia are not known, although it has sometimes been proposed that they came from eastern Arabia. Nothing is known of their language beyond a few names which appear to be West Semitic in origin. All the Chaldean kings of Babylonia bore traditional Babylonian names, as did most Chaldeans whose names are known. It has often been stated that the Chaldeans were a subgroup of the Arameans, but there is insufficient evidence to decide on this matter. The Mesopotamian sources clearly distinguished between the two groups, while frequently mentioning them next to one another. The Arameans first appear in southern Babylonia about a century after the Chaldeans; they were split into many more smaller tribes and were less inclined to adopt Babylonian customs and manners than Chaldeans. At times the two groups acted in alliance (generally against Assyria) and at other times were at enmity with one another. Aramaic was likely the predominant language in Mesopotamia from about the middle of the first millennium BCE and Chaldeans appear to have spoken either this or a dialect of it. This language came to be associated with them and was even on occasion called Chaldee. The Chaldeans spoke in Aramaic in Daniel 2:4, and Daniel 1:4 presumably intends to indicate Aramaic when referring to the “writings and language of the Chaldeans.” [See Arameans; Aramaic Language and Literature.]

The Chaldeans were located primarily in southern and eastern Babylonia, and rarely appear outside of Babylonia. The Sealand, an area of swamps and marshes around the head of the Persian Gulf, and likely corresponding to the modern Ḥor el-Ḥammar marshes, came to be particularly identified with the Chaldean tribe of Bit-Yakin, and its rulers were sometimes called “king of the Sealand” in Assyrian sources. Because Elam bordered on the Sealand to the east, the Bit-Yakin were in frequent contact with that country and often turned to it for military support against the Assyrians and for refuge in time of flight from Assyrian punishment. [See Assyrians.]

Most Chaldeans probably lived a nomadic or seminomadic existence dependent upon animal husbandry, hunting, and small-scale agriculture. From the earliest times, at least some lived a settled existence. They are found dwelling in the major urban centers of Babylonia (Cutha, Ḫursagkalama, Kish, Nippur, Sippar, Uruk), and are said to have had numerous settlements. Sennacherib claims to have conquered 88 walled towns and 820 villages belonging to them, but some of these may simply have been settlements located in the general areas inhabited by the individual Chaldean tribes because several old Babylonian cult centers are included among the towns named by Sennacherib. [See Kish; Nippur; Uruk-Warka.]

Five Chaldean tribes are known: Bit-Amukani, Bit-Dak(k)uri, Bit-Yakin(i), Bit-Ša'alli, and Bit-Šilani. The latter two, however, are only attested from the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 BCE) through to that of Sennacherib (704–681 BCE). Many Chaldeans seem to have become “babylonianized,” taking traditional Babylonian names, becoming involved in Babylonian political life, and turning to agriculture for their livelihood. Nevertheless, they maintained their tribal structure and distinct identity. Tribes were referred to as the “House of PN,” with PN standing for the personal name of the eponymous ancestor of the tribe (e.g., Bit-Amukani, “house of Amukani”). Each tribe was headed by one individual, whose power and authority was such that Assyrian royal inscriptions sometimes referred to him as a “king.” Led by their own sheikhs and less settled in particular locations than most Babylonians, the Chaldean tribes remained semi-independent of the central government. They often play a disruptive role in events and frequently led the opposition to Assyrian control of Babylonia. [See Babylon; Babylonians.]

The first quarter of the first millennium BCE was a time of political instability and economic weakness in Babylonia and the Chaldeans made use of this situation. Several tribal leaders gained control of the throne and came to be included in the canonical lists of Babylonian rulers. None of these individuals, however, succeeded in establishing a lasting dynasty. Each of the three major tribes provided at least one ruler who was recognized as king of Babylonia: Mardukapla-uṣur (end of the ninth or early eighth century BCE); Eriba-Marduk of Bit-Yakin (at least nine years, ending no later than 760 BCE); Nabu-šuma-iškun of Bit-Dakkuri (c. 760–748 BCE); (Nabû)-mukin-zeri of Bit-Amukani (731–729 BCE); Marduk-apla-iddina II of Bit-Yakin (721–710 and 703 BCE), the Merodach-Baladan of the Hebrew scriptures; and Mušezib-Marduk of Bit-Dakkuri (692–689 BCE).

In addition to these individuals, the tribes provided several important rebel leaders in the fight against Assyria, in particular Nabu-zer-kitti-lišir (c. 680 BCE), Nabu-ušallim (c. 680–675 BCE), and Nabu-bel-šumati (during the Šamaššuma-ukin Revolt, 652–648 BCE); all three were descendents of Marduk-apla-iddina II, who was himself a descendent of the earlier ruler Eriba-Marduk. Although the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (625–539 BCE) has often been called the Chaldean period, there is in fact no evidence that the rulers of that time were Chaldeans or that Chaldeans played a major role in affairs of the period. It is unlikely, however, that their influence just disappeared after the installation of the new ruling dynasty.

The Chaldean tribes are frequently found in opposition to the central Babylonian administration and in particular in opposition to Assyrian forces who were trying either to gain or maintain control of Babylonia. The Chaldean tribes were thus targeted for punishment by Assyrian rulers. Assyrian royal inscriptions often mention the destruction of Chaldean settlements. They claim that almost a quarter of a million Chaldeans were deported from Babylonia during the reigns of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II, and these deportations are known to have continued under Sennacherib. The deportees were resettled in Assyria proper and in other parts of the Assyrian Empire. The tribes of Bit-Ša'alli, Bit-Šilani, and Bit-Yakin were particularly hurt by deportations in the eighth century BCE. The various Chaldean tribes did not as a rule act in unison with other groups in Babylonia against Assyria, and this facilitated Assyrian domination. The Chaldeans were not always in opposition to Assyria; at times some served in the Assyrian army.

No archaeological remains have been discovered which can be assigned to the Chaldeans with any degree of certainty. Assyrian reliefs depict them engaged in animal husbandry (horses and cattle), and Assyrian inscriptions state that Chaldean leaders provided a wealth of goods as tribute to the Assyrian rulers (e.g., gold, silver, tin, bronze, precious stones, ivory, elephant hides, valuable woods, colored garments, and aromatic plants). Undoubtedly, the tribal leaders had profited handsomely from the trade routes which ran through the territories controlled by them, and in particular from the sea trade up the Persian Gulf.

Very little is known of Chaldean religious matters. Those rulers of Babylonia who were of Chaldean ancestry referred to the old, traditional gods of Babylonia in their inscriptions and built or restored temples for them. An unusual inscription vilifying the Chaldean ruler Nabu-šuma-iškun states that he despoiled Esagila, the temple of Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon, at Babylon, and then installed in that temple the gods of the Sealand, the Chaldeans, and the Arameans. Nothing more is known specifically as to who these Chaldean gods were. Chaldeans appear to have honored their ancestors and were concerned for their remains. Marduk-apla-iddina II, for example, took the bones of his deceased ancestors with him when he fled to Elam from Assyrian forces In 700 BCE.

(There is no evidence of a connection between the modern people in Iraq known as Chaldeans, who speak a Neo-Aramaic dialect sometimes referred to as “Chaldean,” and their ancient namesakes [see Solomon I. Sara, A Description of Modern Chaldean, Janua Linguarum, Series Practica, vol. 213, The Hague, 1974].)

Bibliography

  • Brinkman, John A. “Merodach-Baladan II.” In Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim, June 7, 1964, edited by Robert D. Biggs and John A. Brinkman, pp. 6–53. Chicago, 1964. Detailed study of the career of the most fascinating of all Chaldean leaders.
  • Brinkman, John A. A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia, 1158–722 B.C. Analecta Orientalia, vol. 43. Rome, 1968. Definitive study of Babylonia during the twelfth through eighth centuries which includes a discussion of the various tribal groups in that country.
  • Brinkman, John A. “Babylonia, c. 1000–764 B.C.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 3.1, edited by John Boardman et al, pp. 282–313. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1982.
  • Brinkman, John A. Prelude to Empire: Babylonian Society and Politics, 747–626 B.C. Occasional Publications of the Babylonian Fund, vol. 7. Philadelphia, 1984. Separately printed version of the author's chapter “Babylonia in the Shadow of Assyria, 747–626 B.C.” in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 3.2, pp. 1–70, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1991), with expanded notes and references.
  • Edzard, D. O. “Kaldu.” In Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, vol. 5, pp. 291–297. Berlin and New York, 1977. Concise overview of the Chaldeans written by a noted German scholar in the standard reference work for Mesopotamian studies.
  • Frame, Grant. Babylonia, 689–627 B.C.: A Political History. Uitgaven van het Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul, vol. 69. Istanbul and Leiden, 1992.
  • Leemans, W. F. “Marduk-apal-iddina II, zijn tijd en zijn geslacht.” Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap “Ex Oriente Lux” 10 (1945–1948): 432–455. Deals mainly with the Chaldean leader Marduk-apla-iddina II but also presents a useful summary of the history of the Chaldeans and a bibliography of earlier studies.
  • Zadok, Ran. “Zur Geographie Babyloniens während des sargonidischen, chaldäischen, achämenidischen und hellenistischen Zeitalters.” Die Welt des Orients 16 (1985): 19–79. Presents details about the areas and settlements inhabited by the Chaldean tribes (pp. 49–63).

Grant Frame