Babylonian History

At the request of a few people, I've written a brief sketch of the history of ancient Babylonia. I've written this article because JMS has mentioned that there may be many parallels between Babylon 5 and ancient Babylon; however, for the same reason, I have to be extensively careful not to turn this article into a bunch of what some people may consider "story ideas." In other words, I'm going to do my best to describe Babylonian history while not adding my ideas about how the history might relate to Babylon 5--these conclusions are up to you, as the reader, although I'll gladly discuss the topic anywhere but in (which JMS currently reads).

Note that this is not to serve as a complete history of Babylon (nor, in fact, anything even remotely close to a complete history). If anything, this is merely supposed to be a back- ground--an outline according to which Babylonian history actually developed. There are many historically important points which are not included here for reasons of space and clarity.

Most scholars mark the beginning of Babylonian history with the rise of Hammurabi. However, I'm going to go back a little further and describe the setting upon which Hammurabi rose to power.

At the end of the 2000's B.C. (2050-2000), the great kingdom of Sumer was disintegrating at the hands of external invaders. Sumer had been a powerful kingdom in the western part of Asia, and it had roughly occupied the land that was one day to become Babylonia. After the ruling dynasty of Sumer fell, the cities of Larsa and Isin moved in to conquer. After hundreds of years, Larsa eventually defeated Isin.

However, just as Larsa defeated Isin, Hammurabi came to power in the city of Babylon. Hammurabi went on to defeat Larsa and establish a vast kingdom in the region formerly occupied by Sumer. However, as Sabatino Moscati explains in his famous book, The Face of the Ancient Orient (meaning the Near East),

The relationship between the Akkadins [the Babylonians and Assyrians] and the Sumerians is growing more and more like that which exists between the Romans and the Greeks ... the newer people is permeated with the older and superior culture ... and makes a cultural capitula- tion at the very moment of its political victory.

Hammurabi, needless to say, was a very capable military and political leader; further, that the Hammurabi Code ("An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.") is still quoted today attests to its importance. Hammurabi's dynasty, otherwise referred to as the First Dynasty of Babylon, ruled for about 200 years, until 1530 B.C. Under the reign of this dynasty, Babylonia entered into a period of extreme prosperity and relative peace. As H.W.F. Saggs points out, however, in his book, Everyday Life in Babylonia & Assyria, "It would be a mistake to think of Babylon as the only city-state of significance at this period." Saggs goes on to quote a letter that was written around this period, which reads:

There is no king who of himself alone is strongest. Ten or fifteen kings follow Hammurabi of Babylon, the same number follow [Larsa], the same number follow [Eshnunna], the same number follow [Qatanum] [...]
Five kingdoms are listed, all of which are considered to be just about as powerful, except for one, which has twenty kings following it (rather than fifteen). Saggs also mentions another important city-state, the Mari. It was an outpost of Sumer, and "in the early second millennium B.C. was the capital of a kingdom extending over 200 miles along the river. In 1796 B.C., it experienced ... a change of dynasty [when Assyria took over]".

Also, importantly, as Moscati points out, in his book which I referred to before, "Under Hammurabi the two cultures which compose Mesopotamian civilization [the Assyrians and the Babylonians] achieve complete and harmonious fusion."

In the meantime, however, a tribe known as the Cassites (Kassites) began to attack Babylonia as early as the period when Hammurabi's son ruled the empire. Over the centuries, Babylonia was weakened by the Cassites. Finally, around 1530 B.C. (given in some sources as 1570 or 1595 B.C.), a Cassite Dynasty was set up in Babylonia. Saggs describes what seems to be a common trend--that the Cassites adopted many of their predecessors' customs.

The Mitanni, another culture, were meanwhile building their own powerful empire. Saggs refers to the Mitanni as having a "considerable, if temporary importance"--they were very powerful but were around for only about 150 years. Still, the Mitanni were one of the major empires of this area in this time period, and they came to almost completely control and subjugate the Assyrians (who were located directly to the east of Mitanni and to the northwest of Cassite Babylonia). I mention this because the Assyrians, after they finally broke free of the Mitanni (who were having political troubles of their own), were the next major power to assert themselves on Babylonia. Saggs again writes a very relevant line:

We have already seen that Assyria was for a time actually a vassal of Mitanni [and was under pressure from other peoples]. The human response to this continual pressure was the development of a sturdy warlike people prepared to fight ruthlessly for their existence.

After defeating and virtually annexing Mitanni, the Assyrians, as I said, reasserted themselves on Babylonia. They weakened Babylonia so much that the Cassite Dynasty fell from power; the Assyrians virtually came to control Babylonia, until revolts in turn deposed them and set up a new dynasty, known as the Second Dynasty of Isin. Nebuchadnezzar the First, of this Dynasty, added a good deal of land to Babylonia and eventually came to attack Assyria. However, because of the influx of many nomadic tribes, Babylonia was eventually plunged into virtual anarchy. It stayed this way for more than 150 years.

Eventually, during the 800's B.C., one of the most powerful tribes outside Babylon, the Chaldeans (Latin Chaldaeus, Greek Khaldaios, Assyrian Kaldu), entered the scene. The Chaldeans rose to power in Babylonia and, by doing so, seem to have increased the stability and power of Babylonia. They fought off many revolts and aggressors. Chaldean influence was so strong that, during this period, Babylonia came to be known as Chaldea.

In 626 B.C., the Chaldeans helped Nabopolassar to take power in Babylonia. At that time, Assyria was under considerable pressure from an Iranian people, the Medes (from Media). Nabo- polassar allied Babylonia with the Medes. Assyria could not withstand this added pressure, and in 612 B.C., Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, fell. The entire city, once a great capital of a great empire, was burned and sacked.

Later, Nebuchadnezzar the Second (Nabopolassar's son) inherited the empire of Babylonia. He added quite a bit of territory to Babylonia and rebuilt Babylon, still the capital of Babylonia.

However, Babylonia did not hold together much after Nebuchad- nezzar died; Nabonidus, the new king, could not seem to unite the various elements of Babylonian civilization. To quote Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia,

A somewhat enigmatic figure, he [Nabonidus] in some way antagonized the influential priestly class of Babylon.

Shortly after the end of Nabonidus's reign, the Persians moved in to conquer. Babylon fell, never to rise again. "And then the history of the ancient Mesopotamian empires in ended for ever" [Moscati].

For further reference: H.W.F. Saggs has written a wonderful description of Babylonian and Assyrian culture and history entitled Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria.

Sabatino Moscati's classic book, The Face of the Ancient Orient (again, "Orient" refers here to the Middle/Near-East), is always helpful. His chapter on "The Babylonians and Assyrians" was particularly useful.

Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1983, Volume 3 (ASSIS-BERKS), provides nice, albeit brief, outlines of both Assyrian and Babylonian histories. [Further, you only have to take out one volume. :) ]

These sources were used in the preparation of this document.

Copyright 1994, Shawn Bayern. Permission granted to distribute noncommercially as long as this document (and this notice) is not changed in any way.

Shawn Bayern