Babylonian Empires From Hammurabi to Nebuchadnezzar II
The wealth and splendor of Mesopotamia made it an irresistible target for nomadic groups living at its margins, including Elamites to the east and Amorites to the west. By 1800 b.c., Amorites from the Syrian desert had infiltrated much of Mesopotamia, including Akkad and the fast-rising city-state of Babylon, located on the Euphrates River near Kish. Amorites spoke a Semitic language related to Akkadian and were quick to embrace Akkadian and Sumerian culture. The Amorite ruler Hammurabi, crowned king of Babylon in 1792, was both an avid warrior and a shrewd administrator who honored the traditions of Sumer, Akkad, and other lands he brought under his authority.
Like Sargon, Hammurabi first moved south and conquered Sumer before seizing control of northern Mesopotamia. He could be merciless to enemies, destroying cities that defied him. But he also provided unity and stability to his newly founded empire by compiling a code of laws, or legal precedents, that applied to all his subjects. Inscribed in stone on a monument showing Hammurabi being blessed by the sun god Shamash, the code governed domestic disputes as well as crimes committed outside the home. Its purpose, he declared, was to cause justice “to rise like the sun over the people, and to light up the land.”
Hammurabi’s Code was based partly on Sumerian laws but prescribed harsher penalties than were customary in Sumer for some offenses, including death or mutilation for crimes by commoners resulting in bodily injury. Like the ancient Israelites, who traced their origins to Mesopotamia, the desert-dwelling Amorites may once have applied the principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” to all those who harmed others. By Hammurabi’s time, however, the law favored people of wealth and rank, who were required only to pay a fine if they injured commoners.
Hammurabi’s Code also favored men over women. Adultery by a husband might go unpunished, but an unfaithful wife would be sentenced to execution by drowning.
Despite such inequities, the laws promulgated by Hammurabi offered some protection to women, commoners, and slaves. For example, wives abused by their husbands could sue for divorce, and all defendants were at least somewhat shielded from false testimony by a law prescribing the death penalty for witnesses who committed perjury. Setting laws down in writing discouraged judges from ruling arbitrarily and promoted the idea of justice as universal and enduring. Many emperors throughout history, from Hammurabi to Napoleon Bonaparte, issued law codes in an effort to unite realms that contained people of many different customs and conceptions of justice, and to discourage them from taking the law into their own hands. Hammurabi’s Code did not allow for personal acts of vengeance, and that alone was a significant contribution to law and order.
However accomplished they were as lawgivers, Hammurabi and other ancient conquerors lived by the sword and often died by the sword. They were not bound by any concept of international law, and there were no rules restraining kings or emperors from attacking each other, even when they had formed alliances and pledged eternal friendship. For instance, Hammurabi turned against his ally the king of Mari, a flourishing city on the upper Euphrates River, and destroyed his palace and a temple to Shamash, which was inscribed with curses on anyone who desecrated the shrine, asking the gods to cut the offender’s throat and annihilate his offspring. In strife-torn Mesopotamia, such curses were often fulfilled. Hammurabi’s dynasty lasted only a few generations before it was undermined by rebels and toppled by conquerors as ruthless as he had been.
In 1595 b.c., Babylon was sacked by Hittites who swept down from Asia Minor, the area known in ancient times as Anatolia and in recent times as Turkey. The Hittites were one of many groups of Indo-Europeans who spoke related languages and migrated in waves from the Eurasian steppes above the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, where they domesticated horses and harnessed them to war chariots. Another branch of Indo-Europeans called Aryans gave their name to Iran, where many settled while others advanced into Afghanistan and India. The Hittites who stormed Babylon soon withdrew to Asia Minor with their booty, leaving Mesopotamia prey to other invaders.
Babylonian power revived briefly around 1100 b.c. under King Nebuchadnezzar I and his successors. In centuries to come, however, the region was dominated by their northern rivals, the Assyrians—a warlike people who embarked on far-ranging conquests. By the seventh century b.c., their domain extended all the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt, but Assyrian rulers such as King Sennacherib were unable to maintain so vast an empire for long. To compel obedience, they relied mainly on intimidation, which cowed some subjects but drove others to rebel. That included the resurgent Babylonians, who rebuilt their city after it was destroyed by Sennacherib in 689 b.c. and toppled their Assyrian masters in 612. They, too, faced rebellions such as that mounted in Judah, which was all that remained of the former kingdom of Israel after earlier Assyrian conquests. Troops sent by King Nebuchadnezzar II to put down that uprising stormed Jerusalem and carried captives to Babylon, characterized in the Bible as a land of oppression: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!” (Psalms 137:8).
Neither the Babylonians nor the Assyrians were as barbaric as their victims made them out to be. They were creators and builders as well as destroyers, drawing on the cultural and artistic traditions of Mesopotamia to promote literature and learning and embellish their cities with monuments and gardens. Some Jewish exiles who settled in Babylon found it to their liking and chose to remain there even after they were allowed to return to their homeland. Beyond Mesopotamia, however, few subjects of the Assyrians or Babylonians relished living under their punishing regimes or regretted their downfall. To control diverse lands and peoples without resorting repeatedly to armed force required a ruler as skilled at governing as he was at waging war. Such was the king who founded the Persian Empire and surpassed the Babylonians.
Excerpted from Great Empires by National Geographic. Copyright © 2012 by National Geographic. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.