Ashurbanipal's Assyrian warriors take control of an Elamite city, whose fortified walls and towers failed to protect the inhabitants.
The history of the great city of Babylon is a long and complicated one. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited in the fifth century B.C., it was already about 2,000 years old. During that enormous length of time, its fortunes changed many times. Therefore, it is probably more accurate to speak of the city's "rise" or "fall," since again and again the citizens of Babylon showed remarkable strength in their ability to recover from political and military disaster.
Of Babylon's many kings, two--Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar II--are especially noteworthy. Hammurabi ruled first, and then, more than 1,000 years later, Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. Neither one, however, was the first or last king of Babylon, nor was either the founder of a dynasty. Rather, Hammurabi was the sixth king of a dynasty established by the Amorites around 1900 B.C. The Amorites were a tribe from the west that had overrun the Tigris and Euphrates region. The Amorite dynasty, often known as the First Dynasty, held the throne in Babylon for nearly 300 years. For 42 of those years, from 1792-1750 B.C., Hammurabi was king.
Today we associate Hammurabi's name primarily with the code of law he established. Yet, it is important to remember that his achievements in other areas were no less important to the daily lives of his subjects. Under his rule, for example, Babylon's economic and political influence grew rapidly, and the city came to dominate many of its neighbors. Hammurabi guided this expansion, using alliances instead of military force whenever possible.
Although a talented military leader, he knew that attacking a rival city would cause its surviving citizens to resent Babylon and perhaps even hate it deeply. Since Hammurabi wanted loyal subjects, not unhappy ones who might revolt at any time, he tried to convince his neighbors that an alliance with prosperous, attractive Babylon would bring benefits to both sides.
Again and again this argument succeeded, for there was a great deal of truth in it. Babylon was growing, and growing cities can be attractive places. Throughout his reign, Hammurabi took care to see that walls and wharves were in good repair, that taxes were bearable, and that lectures by famous teachers, scientists, and astrologers were open to the (male) public.
Under Hammurabi, the forces of immigration and economic growth reinforced each other. A merchant attracted by Babylon's wealth or by the protection of its massive walls would move to the city. The shop he opened would, in turn, attract both customers and more merchants. Others came to Babylon for the city's educational opportunities and religious festivals.
Despite Hammurabi's good example, his successors were generally careless and weak. Envious neighbors, sensing the lack of leadership in Babylon, were quick to take advantage of the city. Soon, the invasions began. First it was the Hittites, who attacked and destroyed the city in 1595 B.C., bringing an end to the First Dynasty. In the aftermath of this disaster, Kassite invaders had little trouble seizing control. Unlike the Hittites, who were far from their homeland (the modern nation of Turkey), the Kassites lived close to Babylon, in the Zagros Mountains east of the city. This difference may explain why the Kassites remained as rulers in Babylon, while the Hittites disappeared almost as quickly as they had come. As the new rulers rebuilt the city under the guidelines established by Hammurabi, stability returned. Under Kassite rule, Babylon enjoyed more than 400 years of peace and prosperity.
Eventually, however, disorder returned.
In 1234 B.C., the powerful kingdom to the north, Assyria, sacked Babylon. Still, the city's Kassite rulers were able to maintain control for some time afterward. Then, in 1158 B.C., the Elamites gained control, but their power was short-lived. After a number of bloody battles, the throne belonged to a new dynasty of Babylonian kings. The most capable of these rulers, Nebuchadnezzar I, ruled from 1124 to 1103 B.C. Under his command, the armies of Babylon campaigned successfully against a number of the city's enemies, including the Elamites and the Assyrians. Yet, even Nebuchadnezzar I could not stop Assyria's growing dominance in the region.
For hundreds of years to come, political life in Babylon would be marked by pressure from the Assyrians. Although a few kings of this period did take a stand against Assyria, most did not, for it was clear that a king unacceptable to Assyria would not remain in power for long.
In its relations with the Assyrians, Babylon was hampered by the existence of other powerful enemies. These were the Arameans, who came originally from northern Syria, and the Chaldeans, from southern Mesopotamia. For Babylon, resisting one of these three groups generally meant ignoring the other two, and that was a policy too dangerous to consider. Thus, the city did what it could to survive, often playing one hostile people against the other. Bribery was another useful tactic--a few gold pieces could ruin even the most brilliant plan of attack.
By the 800s B.C, however, Assyrian control of the city was complete. Babylon's throne belonged to Assyria's king, who either managed the city himself or appointed a trusted advisor to do so in his name. It was a spectacular betrayal of that trust that brought Assyrian rule to an end in Babylon.
An Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, had placed his twin brother Shamash-shum-ukin in charge of the city. Shamash-shum-ukin resented his brother's supremacy and revolted. The civil war that resulted devastated Babylon.
It is worth remembering here that ancient war was no less bloody than the modern variety. Prisoners were rarely taken. Instead, the victor slaughtered every male who had fought, or might have fought, for the other side. Women and children were sold into slavery. With such terrible consequences of defeat in mind, soldiers fought ferociously in hand-to-hand combat. Thus, ancient battles had an intensity modern warfare often lacks. When Babylonian soldiers looked into the eyes of their dying opponents, they knew their own deaths would probably be just as painful, and just as sudden.
While Ashurbanipal fought his brother, the Chaldeans eagerly gathered their
forces. In the chaos that followed the war, a Chaldean named Nabopolassar easily seized the throne. The dynasty he established, known as the Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian dynasty, marks the high point of Babylonian power and civilization. Nabopolassar's famous son, Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605-562 B.C.), rebuilt the city and renovated the ziggurat of Marduk. As he revitalized his own city, however, he was destroying others.
Under his command, Babylonian armies marched to the Mediterranean Sea, capturing Jerusalem in 587 and sending the rebellious Jewish people back to Babylon in captivity. Today, thanks to the Bible's striking descriptions, we see the "Babylonian Captivity" for what it was: a time of great sorrow and suffering for a persecuted people. In the eyes of the Babylonians, however, it was merely a sign of Nebuchadnezzar's strength and of the enduring greatness of their city.
R. Anthony Kugler received his Ph.D. in classics from Brown University. His other interests include social and literary history, folklore, and ecology.