The civilization of ancient Mesopotamia reached its final stage in the Late Babylonian empire of the mid-first millennium BC.
Babylonia was the name by which southern Mesopotamia had become known after the time of Hammurabi, the great king who had reigned in the eighteenth century BC. The late Babylonian period, the subject of this article, falls in the sixth century BC, more than a thousand years after Hammurabi’s time.
The Babylonian empire of the mid-1st millennium is often labelled the “Neo-Babylonian” empire. This is to distinguish it from the earlier Babylonian empire of the early-middle 2nd millennium, of king Hammurabi’s time. However, the preferred term here is Late Babylonian, as it reflects the fact that the Mesopotamians of this period were true heirs to the great Mesopotamian civilization which had emerged some three thousand years before. In particular, the society and culture of the late Babylonians and the Assyrians share a common heritage and show marked similarities.
Preserving the Past
Indeed, one of the most notable features of Babylonian civilization of this period was that it consciously looked back to earlier times. Nebuchadnezzar, the king with whom this period is most associated, and his contemporaries cherished their cultural past and saw it as their duty to protect it, to restore it and to keep faith with it in their own art and architecture.
There were, however, significant differences between those times and this - how could there not be, when the world had changed so much. In this article we will acknowledge that many aspects of life and society were similar to those which had been operating at the time of Hammurabi, and indeed even under the Sumerians; but we will focus on the differences which affected the Mesopotamian civilization in the first millennium.
The Babylonian empire covered all of Mesopotamia and Syria, including Judaea, and stretched to the borders of Egypt, on the one had, and into Asia Minor, on the other. It covered what had been the heartlands of the Assyrian empire, and owed a huge debt to Assyria; the Babylonians adopted the governing machinery that had run that empire, with its provincial governors, native vassals and strategically placed garrisons, merely changing the personnel. How else could they have taken over such a huge territory so quickly? They even adopted the same imperialist policies, for example deporting conquered peoples to places far from their home (the most famous case being Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation of thousands of Jews from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon and other cities in Mesopotamia, but the city of Ascelon also suffered the same fate).
As with all previous Mesopotamian states, the Babylonian empire was a monarchy. The king was central to the governing system; an inadequate king soon led to weaknesses within the state. this was partly because the king’s role was not simply political, in the modern sense of the word; it was religious as well. He was believed to be critical to the wellbeing of his subjects in that he alone could perform certain religious rites which ensured divine blessings on the people. Under the Assyrians, whose roots lay in a northern Mesopotamian tradition, the king entered into a compact with the gods at the beginning of his reign, and this compact would endure until his death. In southern Mesopotamia, the compact had to be renewed each year, at the time of the New Year festival (this may reflect the greater anxiety which the climate of the south imposed on the people, with the fierce but life-giving waters of the Euphrates sometimes overflowing their banks in devastating floods). If the king did not perform this rite properly (one that involved some humiliation, even pain, for himself) then the year ahead would not go well for the people as a whole.
In the days when Mesopotamia had been divided into a multitude of city-states, or even when a realm was confined mostly to Mesopotamia, this was not a problem. Kings lived in their cities except during the campaigning season, and so would have found it easy to fulfil their religious obligations. When however the kings ruled a large empire, issues would have arisen which called them away from their capital (where the spring festival must take place). This became a major issua under the last king, Nabonidus, who spent ten years away from Babylon. During this time the New Year festival could not be performed properly, and this led to a widespread feeling of desertion, not just by the king but by the gods as well (and especially by the chief god, Marduk, the patron-god of Babylon). This would be a material cause for the downfall the state.
What made this situation worse was that the kings were not native Babylonians. Their ancestors had been chiefs of a nomadic tribe called the Kaldu (known to us as the Chaldeans). The Chaldeans had been the principle enemies of the Babylonians for generations before seizing Babylon and other cities in Mesopotamia, an even that had only come about very recently, as Assyria collapsed.
The first two Chaldean kings of Babylon, Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, had been very careful to fulfil all the duties of a traditional Babylonian monarch - restoring temples, ensuring the canals and dykes on which the irrigation systems depended were working properly, and above all performing their religious duties faithfully. Indeed, under them the temples, religious avenues and ceremonial became more impressive than ever before. This, plus the undoubted fact of their success, and the great inflow of wealth into Babylon and southern Mesopotamia that this brought, made them acceptable to the people. Nabonidus (and perhaps his two short-reigned predecessors), on the other hand, were not so punctilious, as we have seen. This made it all the easier for the people of Babylonia to turn to another foreigner, the Persian, Cyrus, as an alternative ruler who would treat their traditions with greater respect.
One of the notable features of the late Babylonian state and society was the increased prominence of the temples. Thousands of years before this time, temples had dominated Sumerian society, and had stood at the very heart of the early Mesopotamian city-states. As time went by, however, their importance had diminished, and their privileges curtailed. Their power had become overshadowed by that of kings such as Sargon of Akkad and Hammurabi of Babylon, and their economic power had been undermined by the growth of large estates in the hands of kings and nobles, and by the rise of private property and a private business sector.
The renewed importance of the major temples may well date to the period of anarchy which afflicted Babylonia (and many other parts of the Middle East) in the 11th and 10th centuries BC. During that troubled period, Mesopotamian people, especially the farmers, probably turned to the temples for refuge, putting themselves at the service of the only remaining authority, the local priests. The temples then became the centres of social, economic and cultural life of southern Mesopotamia. This position was confirmed under the Assyrian domination, who relied on the temples to maintain stability in the area. They treated them with great respect, and bestowed favours on them by exempting them for most taxes.
The Assyrians kept all their subjects under tight control and, favoured though they were, the temple priesthoods were no exception. On occasion the Assyrians levied forced loans on them. The collapse of their empire, however, freed the temples from this political control. The new Chaldean kings of Babylonia found themselves dependent upon the goodwill of the temple priesthoods to help them maintain power over their subjects. It is hardly surprising that Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt and adorned the great sanctuaries, and abstained from interfering with their organization, contenting themselves with a 20% share in their revenues.
Nabonidus, on the other hand, tried to bring the temples under closer control by appointing royal officials to supervise their financial and economic activities. This new policy was no doubt dictated by the difficulties he had in financing the powerful army he needed to face the new Persian threat: he needed to get control of the temples’ great wealth. The expenditure of his predecessors had been prodigious - their rebuilding projects in Babylon and elsewhere must have drained the royal treasury, and though tribute flowed in from Syria, the need to deal with repeated rebellions may well have made the costs of empire outweigh the revenues.
Narbonidus’ temple policies, probably more than anything, aroused the hostility of the priests, who turned the people against him.
One of the features which shows clearly that the late Babylonians were heirs and continuators of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization is that the laws of Hammurabi, embodied in his famous code but probably dating to much earlier, were still in force in Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Although no law code survives from the sixth century BC, and indeed may well not have been written, the ancient laws being deemed sufficient, the legal cases of which we have records show exactly the same principles in the way they are handled, with the same logic and judgements.
However, there had clearly been a measure of evolution from earlier times, such as there was a greater emphasis on logic and reason in deciding cases rather than on appeals to the gods through oath-taking or ordeal. Also, the law seems to reflect a higher status for women in society. They were able to act as witnesses, and to bring cases to court in their own right involving significant family disputes, for example concerning dowries, or when unmarried, to protect their business interests.
There were two sets of courts, public, handling secular cases, and temple, handling religious cases, including family matters. The public courts were the senior, in that appeals could pass from temple to public courts, and not vice versa. Courts sat as panels of public or temple officials, who acted as judges, assisted by assemblies of citizens (though how these were constituted is unclear). The task of the judges was to make enquiries into the case rather than judge between two arguments.
Economy and Society
The society and economy of Babylonia was recognizably similar to that of a thousand or two years previously. The land was still tilled by peasants, many of whom worked as tenants or labourers on temple estates; agriculture, as in all pre-modern societies, was by far the predominant economic activity. Craftsmen were still (or more accurately, again) largely employed by the temple priesthoods, who again had control of a huge part of Babylonia’s economy. However, it is likely that, under the late Babylonian kings, the economy of ancient Mesopotamia reached hitherto unmatched heights. Much new land was opened up to cultivation and irrigation systems were expanded and upgraded.
The countryside was covered by large estates, owned by kings, nobles, officials and, above all, temples. These were partly let out to tenants, free and, more often, unfree; serfdom seems to have been more widespread at this time than previously, probably a result of the age of chaos of the 11th and 10th centuries BC when farmers put themselves under the protection of priests and other powerful figures to escape marauding raiders. Partly the estates were farmed directly, with the aid of slaves and hired labour, under the management of land stewards.
The temples of the late Babylonian period formed social and economic units almost independent of the royal government. They owned large estates, carried out extensive trade, both within and outside Mesopotamia, and controlled many production units, ranging from numerous small craft workshops to major industrial workplaces such as shipyards and warehouses. Their economic activities were directed by senior temple employees who commanded the labour of thousands of workers, including officials, overseers, scribes, accountants, business agents, ship crews, artisans, builders, peasants, hired labourers and slaves. The major temples were enormously wealthy, enjoying the produce of their estates, the profits from their trade, the temple taxes levied on the wider community, and their share in the sacrifices offered in the sanctuaries.
Slaves were an important class within late Babylonian society, many of them working alongside free or semi-free labour in the fields. There was also a distinct class of temple slaves, people of both sexes who had been devoted to lifelong service to the temples by their parents (often for financial reasons). Their status was passed on from one generation to another, and they had a privileged status within temple society. they undertook all kinds of work, from menial to highly skilled. They had no independent wealth - they usually owned no property - but they were fed and housed by the temple in conditions much superior to those of other slaves.
Alongside the temple economy, there flourished what we today would call a “private sector”. How large this was it is impossible to say, but it was certainly significant. There are records of temples hiring ships from private merchants; and some business people grew very rich. The Eglibi family, for instance, made fortunes in property, commerce (including the slave trade) and banking. These were just the most successful of a prominent class of merchants, shippers, bankers and business agents; it is likely that many of them worked sometimes on their own account, and sometimes for temples (though the distinction was probably fairly blurred).
The late Babylonian period saw banking become a major feature of economic life. A minted metal coinage was not yet in circulation, but the Babylonians used pieces of silver of various standardized shapes and weights. These were based on a unit of silver - three-tenths of an ounce -called a shekel. Though the practice of using bits of metal to facilitate trade in Mesopotamia dated back at least to the 2nd millennium BC, the adoption of a silver standard was new, and had a number of benefits: it made accounting much simpler, facilitated transactions, and was easy to store and handle. This encouraged the development of credit, which oiled the wheels of commerce. The late Babylonian period saw commerce flourish as never before in Mesopotamia.
Money lending and other banking operations, such as holding clients’ money on deposit, arose; also, as well as businesses using debt to finance their activities, many farmers fell into chronic debt.
The bulk of trade within Mesopotamia was carried by ships. The records of the transactions of the temple of Uruk reveal this very clearly. This great temple had estates scattered throughout Mesopotamia, from which it drew different products. It was constantly transporting goods between its different centres, and also conducting trade, both short and long-distance. Within Mesopotamia itself, all the cities were located on the rivers Euphrates and Tigris or their branches, and all had quays for the loading of river craft. Long-distance trade could be conducted up the river Euphrates to jumping-off points (the city of Harran being the most important) into Syria - and thence to Egypt - and Asia Minor; and down the Euphrates to the ports on the Gulf (Ur, being the best known), where goods from or to southern Arabia and India could be bought and sold.
The case of the temple of Uruk shows how integrated southern Mesopotamia was at this time. Gone were the economically self-sufficient city-states of earlier periods; the busy river traffic now knit the region together into a single economic area. Most the great historic cities of ancient Mesopotamia, such as Uruk, Sippar, Nippur and Ur, still thrived, and all received lavish embellishment from the kings; but the economic unification of the region, and the royal munificence, benefitted Babylon most of all.
Resources on a vast scale were devoted to rebuilding and beautifying what was already one of the greatest cities of Antiquity. By the end of the late Babylonian period it was probably the most magnificent city on earth. It had over 100,000 inhabitants living in it (at a time when 20,000 was a substantial city), and its great ziggurat, temples, palaces, ceremonial way and city gates caused Herodotus, the widely-travelled Greek geographer and historian, to exclaim, “it surpasses any city in the known world”.
The city was roughly square shaped, bisected by the river Euphrates. It was surrounded by two sets of walls, an inner wall and an outer wall. Each of these was in fact a double wall, the first with the gap between filled with earth and rubble and a road built on top, on which chariots could ride; the second with a military road between the walls, along which troops could be quickly deployed. The inner wall was punctuated by eight great gates, one of which, the Ishtar gate, functioned as the ceremonial entrance to the city and led on to the wide royal avenue down which the great processions of the city were held.
At the centre of the city stood a colossal ziggurat, 90-metre high. A little distance from this was the temple of Marduk, the chief of the gods and patron-deity of Babylon, a massive complex of imposing buildings and spacious courtyards. Adjacent to this was the royal palace. In contrast to Assyrian palaces, the buildings here, though very large, aimed for beauty, not fear; the walls decorated with floral patterns and bright colours were designed to please the eye not to inspire awe.
The kings’ summer palace was located on the outskirts of the city, just inside the outer walls. Of the fabled “Hanging Gardens of Babylon’" there are as yet no signs in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, given that the Assyrians developed beautiful parks and gardens, it is likely that the Babylonian kings also paid considerable attention to creating beautiful artificial landscapes for their pleasure.
Culture and Religion
The culture of the late Babylonian era was marked by a pervasive reverence for the ancient Mesopotamian traditions, giving an almost antiquarian flavour to the period. The kings devoted huge resources to rebuilding historic temples and promoting age-old religious rituals. All the historic cities of southern Mesopotamia - by this time regarded as holy cities, and the land of Babylonia as a sacred land - witnessed works of temple reconstruction, sometimes on a huge scale.
Languages and scripts
The regime revived aspects of antiquity which had long been in disuse. Whereas the Assyrians had adopted Aramaic as the language of government, because it was in wide use for everyday purposes throughout their empire, the Babylonian monarchs reintroduced Akkadian, which was by their time known only to a few officials and priests, and which required the mastery of thousands of cuneiform symbols to write. The royal chronicles indeed used an ancient version of the Akkadian script which had not been used for over a thousand years. They even reintroduced words from the long dead Sumerian tongue. Ancient names for regions were used - Babylonia, for example, was called “Sumer and Akkad”, a label which had gone out of use a thousand years before - and archaic expressions were revived.
The late Babylonians had a passion for collecting statues and other works of art from previous ages. This confused the archaeologists who were first to uncover ancient Mesopotamian sites, as they found pieces which had clearly been made hundreds, even thousands of years, apart, which were located in the same place and on the same level (i.e. of the same time). They eventually realised that they had uncovered what can only be described as museums, where pieces from throughout Mesopotamia’s history had been collected, stored, and no doubt displayed.
Like the Assyrians before them, they also collected ancient texts, with a particular emphasis on ancient chronicles and king lists.
The tide of change
However, the wider world had experienced great transformations since the time of Sargon of Akkad and Hammurabi, and Mesopotamia was not immune from these changes. As we have seen above, the Akkadian tongue (or “Old Babylonian” as it is also known) had been replaced by Aramaic in popular use, and the cuneiform script had been replaced by alphabetic writing. These developments were echoed in the religious sphere. The worship of the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon was becoming more narrowly confined to the Babylonian urban elite, and that of the Aramaic moon god Sin was spreading through their empire.
It is important to note, however, that the late Babylonian period was not exclusively one of defending the past against encroachments from more recent developments. The late Babylonians preserved ancient Mesopotamian knowledge, but they also advanced it. This can be seen most clearly in the sciences, notably astronomy. Astronomical observations continued to be made, (even though recorded in a by-now archaic cuneiform script), a process which did not stop with the loss of independence under the Persians. In fact, Babylonian astronomical knowledge continued being refined under the Persians and then the Seleucids. It then merged with Greek scientific knowledge to provide the basis of the works of such great scholars as Ptolemy (c. AD 100-170).
Read a brief history:
Related articles on the society and culture of ancient Mesopotamia:
Related brief histories:
Further reading and sources: