After the Sumerians and the Akkadians, another group of Semitic people from the deserts of Arabia arrived in Mesopotamia around 1900 BC and built the first Babylonian empire.
The new arrivals built upon the prevailing culture in the area, which was Sumerian. Led by Hammurabi, the Babylonians made the first collection of laws in history, the famous ‘Code of Hammurabi.”
|The "Code"on a clay tablet|
The code had a stern sense of justice, and the principle of “eye for an eye” was advocated here. Punishment for criminals was usually death.
Hammurabi consolidated and united the Babylonians in building a mighty empire. He improved irrigation, and organized a well-trained army. Temples were repaired, and he promoted the chief Babylonian god Marduk over older Sumerian gods. The Babylonians also added to the knowledge of astronomy, advanced the knowledge of mathematics, and built the first great capital city, Babylon.
|Marduk, the Babylonian sun god.|
Hammurabi established a strong central government in ancient Babylonia, and with its written laws, was deemed fair to its citizens. The government was so effective that the Romans copied it centuries later, with the same form of central government.
Economy was controlled solely by the government, and there were no privately owned businesses. The king appointed priests, who were answerable to him, to control the economy. Hammurabi also built roads, which made it easier for citizens to travel and trade. In addition, the roads made it easier for the king’s soldiers to enforce the laws. While the Sumerians had city-states and were often at war with each other, the Babylonians had one central government, with cities united under one strong king. The Code of Hammurabi was the one unifying factor in ancient Babylonia.
|Hammurabi (standing) depicted here receiving his royal insignia from Shamash|
The code also provided for the protection of traders and buyers (especially the buyers). We can say that Hammurabi also enacted the first consumer protection laws; responsibility on both sides (buyer and seller) was required by law. If either of them was dissatisfied with the result, the government could be called in to settle the dispute.
Taxation was handled by the Grand Vizier, who was the most important of the official dignitaries. Taxes in ancient Babylon were not as high as taxes in Egypt under the Pharaohs. In Egypt, they used taxes to build enormous buildings like the Pyramids. Babylonian taxes were used mostly to support their own citizens, and to pay for government workers.
Three classes represented Babylonian society: the awilu, a free person of the upper class, the wardu, or slave, and the mushkenu, a free person of low estate, who was legally placed between the awilu and the wardu. Slaves were mostly prisoners of war, but a number were recruited from the citizenry as well.
The basic unit of the Babylonian society was the family. Women had important legal rights; she could own properties and engage in business. The husband could divorce his wife for any reason, especially if she had not borne him any children. Children were under the authority of their parents, and could inherit property. However, a man can sometimes sell his own children as slaves if things got a little tight at home. Generally, Babylonian children were well loved by their parents.
Much of the Babylonians’ technology was inherited from the Sumerians, particularly in irrigation and agriculture. Considerable engineering skills were needed to maintain the various canals, dikes, and reservoirs left behind by the Sumerians. They had to use maps, surveys, plans, and do calculations to govern agriculture effectively. They used the mathematical system devised by the Sumerians, which was based on the number 6, not 10. They used almanacs and a reliable calendar, all of which were first developed by the Sumerians.
Babylonians were also skilled in metallurgy, in preparation of paints, dyes, cosmetics, and perfumes. There were also provisions in the Code about surgeons, suggesting that they also made progress in the field of medicine.
The Sumerian system of education was also adopted by the Babylonians, with schools serving as the empire’s cultural centers. Students had to learn cuneiform, and they had to do a lot of copying and memorizing textbooks and Sumero-Babylonian dictionaries, which were composed primarily of lists of words and phrases and names of trees, animals, birds, insects, countries, cities, villages, and minerals. Students then also had to learn mathematics and literature. Literature for the Babylonians meant the Mesopotamian myths, epics, hymn, proverbs, and essays.
Cities in ancient Babylonia resemble today’s villages in Middle East. Many houses were built of mud bricks, and stood only one-storey high. No windows faced the street, and rooms were arranged around an inner courtyard. One of the rooms could be devoted to the gods.
The Babylonian civilization lasted from the 18th century BC until the 6th century BC. The city and its culture remained intact despite being conquered by various kingdoms. It continued to be regarded as a center for learning and culture even by its conquerors.