1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Babylonia and Assyria/Assyro-Babylonian Culture

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VII. Assyro-Babylonian Culture.—Assyrian culture came from Babylonia, but even here there was a difference between the two countries. There was little in Assyrian literature that was original, and education, which was general in Babylonia, was in the northern kingdom confined for the most part to a single class. In Babylonia it was of very old standing. There were libraries in most of the towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and in Semitic times this involved a knowledge of the extinct Sumerian as well as of a most complicated and extensive syllabary. A considerable amount of Semitic Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Chaldaea. Vocabularies, grammars and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up. The literature was for the most part inscribed with a metal stylus on tablets of clay, called laterculae coctiles by Pliny; the papyrus which seems to have been also employed has perished. Under the second Assyrian empire, when Nineveh had become a great centre of trade, Aramaic—the language of commerce and diplomacy—was added to the number of subjects which the educated class was required to learn. Under the Seleucids Greek was introduced into Babylon, and fragments of tablets have been found with Sumerian and Assyrian (i.e. Semitic Babylonian) words transcribed in Greek letters.

Babylonian Literature and Science.—There were many literary works the titles of which have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, composed by a certain Sin-liqi-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is possible that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure. (See Gilgamesh, Epic of.)

Another epic was that of the Creation, the object of which was to glorify Bel-Merodach by describing his contest with Tiamat, the dragon of chaos. In the first book an account is given of the creation of the world out of the primeval deep and the birth of the gods of light. Then comes the story of the struggle between the gods of light and the powers of darkness, and the final victory of Merodach, who clove Tiamat asunder, forming the heaven out of one half of her body and the earth out of the other. Merodach next arranged the stars in order, along with the sun and moon, and gave them laws which they were never to transgress. After this the plants and animals were created, and finally man. Merodach here takes the place of Ea, who appears as the creator in the older legends, and is said to have fashioned man out of the clay.

The legend of Adapa, the first man, a portion of which was found in the record-office of the Egyptian king Amenophis IV. (Akhenaton) at Tell-el-Amarna, explains the origin of death. Adapa while fishing had broken the wings of the south wind, and was accordingly summoned before the tribunal of Anu in heaven. Ea counselled him not to eat or drink there. He followed the advice, and thus refused the food which would have made him and his descendants immortal.

Among the other legends of Babylonia may be mentioned those of Namtar, the plague-demon, of Urra, the pestilence, of Etanna and of Zu. Hades, the abode of Nin-erisgal or Allat, had been entered by Nergal, who, angered by a message sent to her by the gods of the upper world, ordered Namtar to strike off her head. She, however, declared that she would submit to any conditions imposed on her and would give Nergal the sovereignty of the earth. Nergal accordingly relented, and Allatu became the queen of the infernal world. Etanna conspired with the eagle to fly to the highest heaven. The first gate, that of Anu, was successfully reached; but in ascending still farther to the gate of Ishtar the strength of the eagle gave way, and Etanna was dashed to the ground. As for the storm-god Zu, we are told that he stole the tablets of destiny, and therewith the prerogatives of Bel. God after god was ordered to pursue him and recover them, but it would seem that it was only by a stratagem that they were finally regained.

Besides the purely literary works there were others of the most varied nature, including collections of letters, partly official, partly private. Among them the most interesting are the letters of Khammurabi, which have been edited by L. W. King. Astronomy and astrology, moreover, occupy a conspicuous place. Astronomy was of old standing in Babylonia, and the standard work on the subject, written from an astrological point of view, which was translated into Greek by Berossus, was believed to go back to the age of Sargon of Akkad. The zodiac was a Babylonian invention of great antiquity; and eclipses of the sun as well as of the moon could be foretold. Observatories were attached to the temples, and reports were regularly sent by the astronomers to the king. The stars had been numbered and named at an early date, and we possess tables of lunar longitudes and observations of the phases of Venus. In Seleucid and Parthian times the astronomical reports were of a thoroughly scientific character; how far the advanced knowledge and method they display may reach back we do not yet know. Great attention was naturally paid to the calendar, and we find a week of seven and another of five days in use. The development of astronomy implies considerable progress in mathematics; it is not surprising, therefore, that the Babylonians should have invented an extremely simple method of ciphering or have discovered the convenience of the duodecimal system. The ner of 600 and the sar of 3600 were formed from the soss or unit of 60, which corresponded with a degree of the equator. Tablets of squares and cubes, calculated from 1 to 60, have been found at Senkera, and a people who were acquainted with the sun-dial, the clepsydra, the lever and the pulley, must have had no mean knowledge of mechanics. A crystal lens, turned on the lathe, was discovered by Layard at Nimrud along with glass vases bearing the name of Sargon; this will explain the excessive minuteness of some of the writing on the Assyrian tablets, and a lens may also have been used in the observation of the heavens.

Art and Architecture.—The culture of Assyria, and still more of Babylonia, was essentially literary; we miss in it the artistic spirit of Egypt or Greece. In Babylonia the abundance of clay and want of stone led to the employment of brick; the Babylonian temples are massive but shapeless structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains, one of which at Ur was of lead. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, as well as of frescoes and enamelled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with bronze or gold as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones were also embedded in the plaster. Assyria in this, as in other matters, the servile pupil of Babylonia, built its palaces and temples of brick, though stone was the natural building material of the country, even preserving the brick platform, so necessary in the marshy soil of Babylonia, but little needed in the north. As time went on, however, the later Assyrian architect began to shake himself free from Babylonian influences and to employ stone as well as brick. The walls of the Assyrian palaces were lined with sculptured and coloured slabs of stone, instead of being painted as in Chaldaea. We can. trace three periods in the art of these bas-reliefs; it is vigorous but simple under Assur-nazir-pal III., careful and realistic under Sargon, refined but wanting in boldness under Assur-bani-pal. In Babylonia, in place of the bas-relief we have the figure in the round, the earliest examples being the statues from Tello which are realistic but somewhat clumsy. The want of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting. Nothing can be better than two seal-cylinders that have come down to us from the age of Sargon of Akkad. No remarkable specimens of the metallurgic art of an early period have been found, apart perhaps from the silver vase of Entemena, but at a later epoch great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as ear-rings and bracelets of gold. Copper, too, was worked with skill; indeed, it is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working, which spread westward with the civilization to which it belonged. At any rate the people were famous from an early date for their embroideries and rugs. The ceramic history of Babylonia and Assyria has unfortunately not yet been traced; at Susa alone has the care demanded by the modern methods of archaeology been as yet expended on examining and separating the pottery found in the excavations, and Susa is not Babylonia. We do not even know the date of the spirited terra-cotta reliefs discovered by Loftus and Rawlinson. The forms of Assyrian pottery, however, are graceful; the porcelain, like the glass discovered in the palaces of Nineveh, was derived from Egyptian originals. Transparent glass seems to have been first introduced in the reign of Sargon. Stone as well as clay and glass were employed in the manufacture of vases, and vases of hard stone have been disinterred at Tello similar to those of the early dynastic period of Egypt.

Social Life.—Castes were unknown in both Babylonia and Assyria, but the priesthood of Babylonia found its counterpart in the military aristocracy of Assyria. The priesthood was divided into a great number of classes, among which that of the doctors may be reckoned. The army was raised, at all events in part, by conscription; a standing army seems to have been first organized in Assyria. Successive improvements were introduced into it by the kings of the second Assyrian empire; chariots were superseded by cavalry; Tiglath-pileser III. gave the riders saddles and high boots, and Sennacherib created a corps of slingers. Tents, baggage-carts and battering-rams were carried on the march, and the tartan or commander-in-chief ranked next to the king. In both countries there was a large body of slaves; above them came the agriculturists and commercial classes, who were, however, comparatively little numerous in Assyria. The scribes, on the other hand, formed a more important class in Assyria than in Babylonia. Both countries had their artisans, money-lenders, poets and musicians.

The houses of the people contained but little furniture; chairs, tables and couches, however, were used, and Assur-bani-pal is represented as reclining on his couch at a meal while his wife sits on a chair beside him. After death the body was usually partially cremated along with the objects that had been buried with it. The cemetery adjoined the city of the living and was laid out in streets through which ran rivulets of "pure" water. Many of the tombs, which were built of crude brick, were provided with gardens, and there were shelves or altars on which were placed the offerings to the dead. As the older tombs decayed a fresh city of tombs arose on their ruins. It is remarkable that thus far no cemetery older than the Seleucid or Parthian period has been found in Assyria.


  • See A. H. Layard, Nineveh and Babylon (1853).
  • E. de Sarzec and L. Heuzey, Découvertes en Chaldée (1884 foll.).
  • H. V. Hilprecht, The Babylonian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania (1893 foll.).
  • J. P. Peters, Nippur (1897).
  • E. Schrader, Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek (1889-1900).
  • Records of the Past (new series, 1888-1892).
  • Th. G. Pinches, "The Babylonian Chronicle," in Journ. R. A. S. (1887).
  • H. Winckler, Altorientalische Forschungen (1893 foll.), and The Tell-el-Amarna, Letters (1896).
  • G. Maspero, Dawn of Civilization (1896), Struggle of the Nations (1897), and Passing of the Empires (1900).
  • L. W. King, Letters of Khammurabi (1898-1900).
  • H. Radau, Early Babylonian History (1900).
  • R. W. Rogers, History of Babylonia and Assyria (1900).
  • F. Hommel, Grundriss der Geographie und Geschichte des alten Orients (1904).
  • Mitteilungen der deutschen Orientgesellschaft (1899).