Who were the Babylonians?
From 2335 to 2154 BCE, Babylon was a minor Mesopotamian town just north of ancient Sumer, under the dominion of the Akkadian Empire – one of the first empires in history. The Akkadians had already conquered Sumer, which subsequently became a target for incursions by the Amorites, a Semitic people originating in the Arabian Peninsula. By 1900 BCE, the Amorites were in control of Sumer and soon pressed north, establishing a constellation of city-states in southern Mesopotamia that included Babylon. But these Amorite settlements were dwarfed in power by larger neighbors, especially Elam to their east.
That began to change in the early 18th century BCE, when Babylon burst onto the scene as a power player, led by the dynamic, ruthless King Hammurabi. Under his rule, which lasted from 1792 to 1750 BCE, he started a massive construction campaign that turned Babylon into a genuinely royal capital and launched military campaigns that expelled the Elamites from southern Mesopotamia. Having turned Babylon into a self-sufficient state, he then took it on the offensive, conquering all of ancient Sumer and pressing eastwards to take control of lands under the Elamites and other peoples in the western part of modern-day Iran. His empire creation didn’t stop there, because he pivoted west and north to conquer other Amorite lands. From this time on, southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia.
Hammurabi was a sharp-witted ruler – the perfect fit for a newly-minted multicultural empire, which had 3 different languages being used throughout its lands. The Babylonian monarch was known to raze entire cities to the ground for defying his authority, but the reward for obedience was a measure of civil accord. He achieved this by putting together a codified set of laws that applied to all subject peoples throughout the Babylonian Empire – otherwise known as the Code of Hammurabi.
Covering domestic disputes and crimes that reached into the public sphere, the code was biased towards the wealthier members of society and towards men over women. Commoners who caused bodily injury were to be killed or mutilated, whereas elites who harmed commoners merely had to pay fines. Similarly, a man who had cheated on his wife had the chance of getting off completely unscathed, but an adulterous wife received the death penalty. Despite these limitations, Hammurabi’s set of legal precedents nonetheless offered some degree of legal protection to every class of Babylonian society. A wife suffering abuse from her husband could sue for divorce, and a law ordering the death penalty for witnesses who were caught lying under oath applied to all defendants – elites, commoners, and slaves alike. The code effectively outlawed personal vendettas and established the laws, not the personal whims of judges, as the arbiters of justice.
By the early 16th century BCE, Babylon’s dominions were under serious threat by the Kassites and the Hittites. The Hittite King Mursili I sacked the ancient city in 1595, and after a short period of Hittite rule, the Kassites swooped down and took control. The Babylonians were ruled by foreign dynasties for several hundred years, but their cultural power was by then widely known: they had developed into brilliant mathematicians, and by 1900 BCE, before Hammurabi rose to power, had conceptualized what became known as the Pythagorean Theorem, over a thousand years before Pythagoras himself was born. Four hundred years later, they had estimated the square root of 2 and had developed an algorithm for estimating the square root of any number.
As the centuries went by, after periods of autonomous Mesopotamian rule of Babylonia, as well as foreign control, an independent Babylonian state re-emerged. But eventually all of Babylonia became part of the Assyrian Empire. It wasn’t until the late 600s BCE that Babylonia again emerged as an imperial power, helmed by Nabopolassar, the ruler of the Semitic-speaking southeastern corner of Mesopotamia known as Chaldea. Nabopolassar brought Babylonia into an international coalition that waged ferocious civil war against the dominance of Assyria. Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar II finally smashed that dominion in 605 at Carchemish, near the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire was on the rise. Under Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned from 605 to 562 BCE, Babylonian armies flexed their imperial muscle, conquering territory covering much of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. With these conquests came wealth, multiculturalism, and hence the means for powerful cultural advances. The Babylonians’ excellent traditions in math served them well in astronomy, in which they made enormous strides: their expert knowledge of pure geometry even allowed them to track the movements of Jupiter, using trapezoid-based calculations. From the Babylonian system of math, which continued to flower under the new empire, came the modern standards of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle. Nebuchadnezzar, meanwhile, oversaw a fantastic building program to restore and beautify Babylon, which had been sacked by the Assyrians in 689. His architectural program included restoration of the Etemenanki, a six-story pyramid with a shrine to Babylon’s patron god Marduk on top; construction of the Ishtar Gate, containing enameled tiles with reliefs of animals; and construction of an enormous system of irrigation canals.
Nebuchadnezzar punished the rebellious kingdom of Judah in 587, when he sacked Jerusalem and deported much of the Jewish population to his capital city. During a period of exile in Babylonia that lasted 70 years, the exiled Jews renewed their commitment to Judaism and clarified its religious rites, beginning worship in synagogues. They also wrote significant portions of the Old Testament and the Babylonian Talmud, one of the main texts of Jewish law and theology. These impressive written outputs of Jewish captives not only helped Judaism flourish, but they also would eventually become key pillars in Christianity and Islam. Though the Babylonians were held under Persian control in 539, their accomplishments had seismic effects. Along with their influential legacies of lawgiving, math, and sciences, the Babylonians’ military power also had far-reaching consequences: they dispersed the Jews from Judah but provided a culturally sophisticated environment in exile, out of which, ironically, one of the world’s major religions emerged with newfound energy.
Okay, now that we’ve talked about the Babylonians and their accomplishments, let’s look at a review question to see what you remember:
Which of the following was not an achievement of the ancient Babylonians?
- A theorem of calculating the speed of an astronomical body using trapezoids.
- A six-story pyramidal religious structure known as the Etemenanki.
- An empire-wide code of laws promulgated by Hammurabi that imposed standards of jurisprudence for domestic and public crimes.
- Enormous strides in medicine that led to some of the first surgeries.
- The military defeat of the Assyrian Empire’s remnants in 605 BCE at Carchemish.
The correct answer is D. Such strides in medicine were not taken until the Islamic Golden Age in 8th century CE.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!