History Of A Nation: Babylon (Part 1 – First Dynasty/Hammurabi)

c. 1894 BC – c. 1595 BC

The first part of the history of the city of Babylon covers a character who is possibly the most important historical character we have covered up to now, even more influential than Sargon of Akkad, Yu the Great, even Pharoah Cheops of the Great Pyramid. Possibly. At the very least Hammurabi was the man who built an empire out of a small city, even if his descendants could not hold on to what he had created. It’s the last of the ancient ‘old’ periods, even though the Middle Kingdom is older, most of the ancient empires have now been in existence for centuries.



Babylon is a city situated between the incredibly important Tigris and Euphrates rivers, originally a small Akkadian city built during that empire but once that fell, growing in importance until it dominated the local region. For much of the time period that I’m going over today, it was probably the largest city in the world. Based on rough estimates. Until Hammurabi, the realm of Babylon only consisted of Babylon as well as a few nearby cities, Sippur and Kish, after his reign, it consisted of all the major Sumerian cities, Isin, Larsa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk, and all the way out to Mari, Eshnunna, not quite as far as Assyria, whose Old Assyrian Empire was also at its height under Shamshi Adad I at the time of Hammurabi.


One thing I’d like to talk about with Babylon is something that’s relevant for nearly all of my posts up until now but is specifically relevant here as it’s based around Babylon, the chronology dates I have been using aren’t entirely certain, even when specific years are given, which is why I’ve put ‘c.’ wherever I can. We have narrowed each date down to a small number of possibilities through king lists, the small number of inscriptions and in later periods, more accurately, finding astronomical phenomena in the inscriptions that astronomers can track to a specific year.

This is often helped by indicating which kings were contemporaneous with others, but the options for these possibilities are very different, due to different interpretations. The two most often encountered sets of dates are called the ‘middle chronology’ and the ‘short chronology’, the former being about 64 years out of sync with the latter (so take off 64 years from any middle chronology year, e.g. the start date here of 1894 BC to get the short chronology year, in this case 1830 BC). I have tried to use middle chronology wherever I have noticed that the set of dates I’ve using is part of one chronology or another but I know I haven’t been completely consistent and the absolute dates, to whatever audience that may read these, it isn’t so fundamentally important, if this were a more academic writing, it would be absolutely important to have nailed down my chronology from the start of this project. Historians still debate each other over which is the better one (and some even prefer a long chronology or an ultra-short one). But the long and short of it is I try to use the middle chronology. This has the sack of Babylon in 1595 BC. Rather than 1531. So, let’s go into the first days of Babylon.

Very little of the sites of the early Babylonian period have been recovered due to the huge rebuilding of the Neo-Babylonian Empire a millennium later (and that much of the old city is now below the river).

There’s all sorts of claims for how Babylon got founded. Genesis gives Nimrod the hunter (*insert epic classical piece encompassing all of humanity*) as the founder, some tablets that could have been about Sargon of Akkad claim that he founded it, but regardless of who actually founded it, it was a small unimportant city in Mesopotamia for a few hundred years until a power vacuum arose and Amorite cultural influence, the Amorites being nomads, possibly from the Canaan region, who had been recently been integrating with the Sumerians and Akkadians, grew strong. It started with states like Isin and Larsa gaining prominence under Amorite chieftains, but Babylon was not far behind.

Sumu-Abum, one of these chieftains, was the first king of an independent Babylon, making that city the important player in its immediate region over the neighbouring city of Kazallu, which faded into history swiftly as Babylon eclipsed it. The next kings have very little to say for themselves in the historical record, most of them not even making claim to the kingship of Babylon, suggesting it was still small. At this time, Isin and Larsa and Eshnunna were far more powerful cities and Babylon was just one among many. Sin-Muballit, the father of Hammurabi, did declare himself king though, and won a victory against Ur, conquering Kish and Sippar and making Babylon at least a minor power in the region, primed and ready for a good conquering son to take the throne.


And take the throne he did. Hammurabi, ascending in 1792 BC (middle chronology), was by far the ruler from the first dynasty of Babylon that the most has been recorded about, and the king who single-handedly, with the help of his army no doubt, filled the power gap in Mesopotamia and, like all the best kings in the Bronze Age, created his own law code. Which I’ll talk about in the culture section.

Hammurabi came to the throne at a fairly young age, his father abdicated due to his health failing as he got older, we’re way past the outlandish claims that kings lived for centuries that dominate the sparse records of the Early Bronze Age and instead we have a far more familiar and sensible approach. With Babylon controlling nearby cities, he faced Eshnunna and Larsa, Isin having fallen under the control of Larsa. Elam and Assyria were more powerful regional powers and could have crushed Babylon fairly easily had they put their mind to it, most likely. Based on territory controlled. So Hammurabi took a look at that and spent the first part of his reign being a very peaceful upstanding king, doing things like building walls (purely for safety), and temples.

It was fortune of another state making the first move that led Hammurabi to power. Elam attacked and destroyed Eshnunna, both leading other plain cities to unite against this new threat and removing one of Hammurabi’s major threats. As I said in my Elam episode, Hammurabi drove out the Elamites eventually but this was a result of uniting Babylon with Larsa against them… at least that’s how the Larsans put it. They didn’t do much at all and Babylon was able to, after Hammurabi had dealt with the Elamites, netting him Eshnunna, as well as Nippur, the holy city of Sumer. He was then able to attack the Larsans for the reason that they had been useless in aiding him. Therefore by 1763, the entirety of the lower part of the Tigris and Euphrates valley was owned by Babylon. This meant that the northern and upper part of Mesopotamia began to be called Assyria, the lower, Babylonia.

Hammurabi wasn’t quite done yet though. He had Yamhad allied and Mari at one point, although he also conquered Mari later (it’s possibly Mari surrendered peacefully), so he went after the big one. Assyria. Beating Assyria handily, he didn’t get to control Assyria directly but forced a lot of tribute out of them, completing his dominance of the area. This left only Elam, Assyria (in a weakened state) and Yamhad and Qatna in Syria independent around him, he had conquered a huge amount.

After Hammurabi

Unfortunately this wouldn’t last, Hammurabi’s son, faced with the lack of his genius father and the fact that Hammurabi hadn’t properly integrated the areas he had conquered into his empire, meant that uprisings, cities breaking free of Babylon’s sphere of influence were all common (hence why that map is not really accurate as with all of them, as far as territory controlled goes). Rim Sim II of Larsa rebelled, was crushed but this was only the first of several rebellions as pretenders from Isin rose, founding the First Dynasty of Sealand, unfortunately not named after a future oil rig micronation but rather the southern area of Babylonian control. That dynasty would be a rival one to the Babylonian dynasty for the rest of Old Babylonia’s lifetime. Essentially the realm was now split in two. Elam and Assyria broke free of any control that Hammurabi had put over them, Hammurabi had put a ruler on the throne of Assyria who was ejected by Puzur-Sin, I believe I mentioned him in the Assyria post. By the end of poor Samsu-Iluna (the son’s) reign he only had the Euphrates left, Babylon and Mari, a fraction of the legacy that Hammurabi had left him.

The next kings are known only for building works and peace, indicating they did not try or were unable to recapture the land that returned to its old independence, partly ruled by the Sealand Dynasty but not all of it. Two hundred years after Hammurabi had united Southern Mesopotamia into Babylonia, it was under the rule of Samsu-Ditana. He apparently was fearful of an attack but his power waned from his illustrious ancestor was powerless to prevent any. His fears proved founded, the Hittites came along and sacked Babylon, formally ending the first Babylonian Empire, and letting Kassites from Iran come in and begin their rule in Babylon, which will be where I next pick up the story. The Sealand Dynasty survived for a few more kings but eventually too faded into history.


The Code Of Hammurabi, the original code, is on display in the Louvre right now, I need to visit there someday. So we know a lot about it, this code of law, one of the key indicators of a civilised society is the laws they have and Babylon had no shortage of laws. It’s not short either, the tablet we have of it contained 282 laws, so I’m definitely not going to be able to go through all of them. And half of that is about contract and proper pricing to be paid for services which would be terribly boring. Rules on divorce show it was permitted in circumstances, theft was punishable by death, slaves were different in status from a free man and could not be taken outside the city. It, like many of these laws contained so many circumstances that would rarely come about so half of it was probably put together for prestige. Nevertheless, it’s one of the first law codes to give both sides an opportunity to present evidence for their case and is most famous for its depiction of ‘an eye for an eye’ rules, a common ruling most likely in Babylonian society during this period.

See also in History Of A Nation: Iraq

SumerMariAkkadNeo-Sumeria, Old AssyriaIsin

See also in History Of A Nation: Kuwait




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