The Babylonian Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Babylonian Empire

The Babylonian Empire came into being after the fall of Ur, perhaps as early as 2000 BC. It lasted until the 1500s BC, when the Kassites destroyed it.

Like other early civilizations, Babylon boasted vast public buildings, including the palace at Mari. The builders of this 350-room palace dug 30 feet deep to lay pipes for drainage of waste. The grand scale of the building and the care lavished on its construction demonstrate how important the ruler had become in society.


Many written records of the Babylonian civilization have survived, including the version of Gilgamesh that has come down to us. Gilgamesh was king of Uruk in about 2800 BC. The people told, retold, and collected legends about Gilgamesh; these stories date back to the earliest Sumerian civilization. The Babylonians wrote down the epic in the form we know it today. Gilgamesh is the oldest example of a classic literary genre, the epic—a book-length narrative poem about an epic hero.

The epic hero is a leader of his people and is thus a national symbol. He undergoes adventures that test his moral and physical strength. The epic is considered to be something between fiction and nonfiction: people of the ancient world knew or believed that the hero existed and that his adventures were true, although they accepted that the tales told by poets were exaggerated versions of what really happened.


Hammurabi became the king of Babylon about the year 1792 BC. He is famous in history as the author of one of the earliest codes of laws, which was carved on a stele (a stone pillar) in a public area of Mari, where all citizens could see and read it. Hammurabi’s Code is similar to other law codes of its time, of which fragments have been discovered. It sets forth the proper punishments for various offenses, dealing with crimes against persons and property. The most famous rule is “an eye for an eye”—in other words, retribution in kind. The existence of such codes of laws, and their public display, shows that in this era, people understood and valued the concept of abstract justice and the importance of punishing aggressors.


The Babylonian culture was highly advanced in mathematics and astronomy. Babylonian scholars could plot the fixed stars, accurately follow the course of the sun and some of the planets, and predict lunar eclipses. The Babylonians perfected the Sumerian system of measuring circles, spheres, and time using 60 as a base; we use this system to this day. Their mathematicians were the first to use multiplication and square-root tables and understand algebraic geometry. The Babylonians also invented the sundial, the first artificial means of measuring time.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Civilization Practice Test

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