Old Persian: babirush
4. Economy and Culture
City walls of Nebuchadnezzar 2’s Babylon.
From the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest known law systems. 18th century BCE.
Ancient kingdom in Mesopotamia, lasting from approximately the 18th century until the 6th century BCE. The rulers of Babylonia were of the Amoritic people.
The Babylonian society was both an urban society and an agricultural one. The economy rested upon agriculture, but governance, industries and fine arts were carried out in the cities. In the entire kingdom there were no more than about 10-15 cities with 10,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. Apart from that, people lived in villages and hamlets.
The Babylonian heartland was between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, but at its largest the kingdom extended to the entire populated Middle East.
The society was governed by an absolute monarch, the king, who was active in all fields of life, both as a legislator, judge, administrator and warlord. He was directly in charge of governing the system below him, and appointed directly his closest coworkers, the governors. Local administration around the country was performed by mayors and councils of elders.
The courts of Babylonia were central for justice in Babylonia. Each court had between 1 and 4 judges, and appeals could only be directed towards the king. Punishment varied from capital punishment and mutilation to flogging, reduction to slavery, and banishment. Many of the rulings involved indemnities, in which the fine varied from 3 to 30 times the value of the object to be restored.
The Babylonian society was roughly divided into three classes: awilu (upper class), musheknu (free, but of little means) and wardu (slaves). All groups were protected by law, and enjoyed a minimum of rights. All groups (also the wardu, slaves) could engage in business and borrow money. However, there were differences between all classes in all fields, and many of the differences were fixed in the laws. All evidence tells us that the Babylonian society did not change much through its 1,200 years of existence.
Slaves were either life-time slaves or slaves for a limited period of time. In the situations where people were slaves for only a limited period of time, the reference is to free people. Free citizens could become slaves, either as a punishment for certain offences, or children or wives could be sold as slaves by their parents. Slaves were not protected by any laws in their relationship to their owners, but it is believed that they were treated well, since a healthy slave could work harder and better. Slaves could buy their own freedom, or they could get their freedom by marrying a free person. The average price for an adult male slave would correspond to about US$300-400 in today’s values.
The upper class, awilus, were officials, priests, wealthy landowners and the the more affluent traders. This group owned much of Babylonia’s land, the other great land-owning group being the temples.
The other group of free people, the musheknus were craftsmen, clerks and farmers.
One of the differences between the free classes of awilus and mushkenus were that the awilus could claim higher compensation for injuries inflicted upon them. But if one inflicted injuries upon others, a higher fine was then exacted.
Marriages were arranged by parents, and it was expected that the groom present a gift to the father of the bride. The marriage was concluded by a contract inscribed on a tablet. The woman had some rights in the marriage; she could have property and engage in business. But it was the man who enjoyed most rights in the marriage: he could easily divorce his wife, and marry a second if the first did not give him children.
Economy and Culture
The most important industry of Babylonia was agriculture, but other industries were fairly well developed too. Babylonia was involved in foreign trade, and exported manufactured goods, while the country had to import metal, wood and stone — materials that the country lacked.
Babylonian cities resemble to some extent the modern village in the Middle East. Most houses were only one-storey high, and built of mud bricks. They had no windows towards the street, and there were several rooms arranged around an inner courtyard. Inside the house, one of the rooms could be devoted to the gods. Family members were often buried in the ground of the house, together with items that were intended to help them in the afterlife.
The public and monumental architecture of the Babylonians, often involved the use of mud bricks as well, but in some respects their skills were more advanced. For example, they had a unique technique of making all straight lines slightly curved, so that hard lines would appear softer. In spite of it, the eye would not discover the curve.
The Babylonians inherited much of their technology from the Sumerians, mainly in irrigation and agriculture, the most important fields in the national economy. In order to govern agriculture, they had to be able to make maps, surveys, plans and do calculations. They used a fairly well developed mathematical system, which had 6 as the root number, not 10, as we now have. In order to be well prepared for different seasons, when there was a chance of flood, or little water, they needed almanacs. These were used in great detail, and relied upon a good calendar system developed by the Sumerians.
Other fields that saw some sort of development, were cosmetics, perfumery, medicine and pharmacology.
The oldest known scriptures from Babylonia used simple pictograms, from which no specific language can be identified. Around 2600 BCE, scripts in Sumerian language appear.
In the second millennium, Akkadian had replaced Sumerian. Babylonia had its distinctive form from the language of Assyria. Sumerian remained in use as by the elite for quite some time.
The earlier history of Babylonia is normally connected to that of Sumer, the land of city-states that covered the same part of Mesopotamia as Babylonia.
The rise of Babylonia must not be understood as the rise of a new region and people. It rather involved that old Sumer came under the effective control of a single city, Babylon. Hammurabi’s first year of reign is generally considered as the beginning of Babylonia’s history, but its exact dating is uncertain. There are 3 chronological systems for the ancient Middle East, and according to these, Hammurabi’s first year is either 1848 BCE, 1792 BCE or 1728 BCE. The middle of these is used by most publications.
Around 1900 BCE: The Semitic tribe, the Amorites, conquers most of Mesopotamia, and establishes its kings in Babylon.
1792 BCE: With Hammurabi’s accession to power as king of Babylonia, the kingdom starts to become an important force in the region.
1760s: Hammurabi wins important victories against Babylonia’s neighbours, principally Elam and Larsa. The kingdom rises to one of the regions most important powers.
Last half 18th century: Babylonian civilization continues its progress under king Samsu-iluna (1750- 1712 BCE), son of Hammurabi. His strongest opponents are the Kassites and the Sea-Land under the leadership of Iluma-ilum.
17th century: Babylonia declines in power and territory under less apt rulers.
Around 1595: The Hittites attack Babylonia, and loot the kingdom and remove king Samsuditana from power. Babylonia was so weakened that for a period comes under control of the country known as Sea-Land.
Around 1600: Babylon is sacked by the Kassites, who take control over the kingdom. From this followed a 400 year period of growth and prosperity for the region. This was also a period of great cultural achievement, and one of the most impressive literary works, the Enuma Elish, belongs to it.
Around 1350: The Assyrians start to exercise their politics towards Babylonia, but do not conquer the country.
Around 1160 The Elamites conquer Babylonia, and loot the cities.
Around 1120: With king Nebuchadnezzar 1, Babylonia is revived. Under him, the kingdom attacks both Elam and Assyria.
11th century: After Nebuchadnezzar 1’s death, Babylonia went into a period of political chaos, that would last for about 200 years.
9th century: The Chaldeans take control over Babylonia, and they revive Babylonia, making it into the dominant power in Mesopotamia.
8th century: Many bitter wars are fought against Assyria.
Around 625: The Chaldean king, Nabopolassar, makes Babylon his capital, and a new great era starts for Babylonia.
612: In an alliance with the Medes, the Babylonian king Nabopalassar (626- 605 BCE), defeats Assyria, and brings the kingdom to a final end.
605: King Nebuchadnezzar 2 wins a decisive victory against the Egyptians at Carchemish — Egypt had until then carried out many campaigns in the region after the fall of Assyria. During his reign, Babylonia becomes a new great power, politically and culturally.
562: Following the death of Nebuchadnezzar 2, there was a power struggle between several contenders for the throne. This resulted in a weaker Babylonia.
539: After capturing king Nabonidus of Babylonia, Persia is able to conquer Babylon without meeting resistance. Babylonia was annexed to Persia. This represent the end of what we call Babylonia, but much of the culture and most of the cities survived for some additional centuries.