Babylonia (băbĭlōˈnēə) [key], ancient empire of Mesopotamia. The name is sometimes given to the whole civilization of S Mesopotamia, including the states established by the city rulers of Lagash, Akkad (or Agade), Uruk, and Ur in the 3d millennium B.C. Historically it is limited to the first dynasty of Babylon established by Hammurabi (c.1750 B.C.), and to the Neo-Babylonian period after the fall of the Assyrian Empire. Hammurabi, who had his capital at Babylon, issued the code of laws for the management of his large empire—for he was in control of most of the Tigris and Euphrates region even before he defeated the Elamites. Babylonian cuneiform writing was derived from the Sumerians. The quasifeudal society was divided into classes—the wealthy landowners and merchants and the priests; the less wealthy merchants, peasants, and artisans; and the slaves. The Babylonian religion (see Middle Eastern religions) was inherited from the older Sumerian culture. All these Babylonian institutions influenced the civilization of Assyria and so contributed to the later history of the Middle East and of Western Europe.
The wealth of Babylonia tempted nomadic and seminomadic neighbors; even under Hammurabi's successor Babylonia was having to stave off assaults. Early in the 18th cent. B.C. the Hittites sacked Babylon and held it briefly. The nomadic Kassites (Cassites), a tribe from Elam, took the city shortly thereafter and held it precariously for centuries. Babylonia degenerated into anarchy c.1180 B.C. with the fall of the Kassites. As a subsidiary state of the Assyrian Empire (after the 9th cent. B.C.), Babylonia flourished once more. It was the key area in the attempted uprising against the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, and Babylon was sacked (c.689 B.C.) in his reign.
After the death of Assurbanipal, the last great Assyrian monarch, Nabopolassar, the ruler of Babylonia, established (625 B.C.) his independence. He allied himself with the Medes and Persians and helped to bring about the capture of Nineveh (612 B.C.) and the fall of the Assyrian Empire. He established what is generally known as the Chaldaean or New Babylonian Empire. Under his son, Nebuchadnezzar, the new empire reached its height (see Babylon). The recalcitrant Hebrews were defeated and punished with the Babylonian captivity. Egypt had already been defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in the great battle of Carchemish (605) while Nabopolassar was still alive. The empire seemed secure, but it was actually transitory. The steady growth of Persian power spelled the end of Babylonia, and in 538 B.C. the last of the Babylonian rulers surrendered to Cyrus the Great (see also Belshazzar). Babylonia became an important region of the Persian Empire.
See R. W. Rogers, A History of Babylonia and Assyria (6th ed. 1915); D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (1926–27); G. R. Driver et al., The Babylonian Laws (1952–55); H. W. F. Saggs, Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria (1965, repr. 1987); J. Wellard, Babylon (1972).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient History, Middle East