Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Babylonians. An Introduction. By Gwendolyn Leick.

The Babylonians is a bland informative book. It’s the kind of book one would find in a college survey course on ancient Mesopotamian history. But it does fit the requirement if one is seeking a basic introduction to Babylonian civilization. Those who will read this book are primarily undergrads forced to choose an introductory history course, and non-fiction bibliophiles who desire unvarnished knowledge.

The straightforward content is arranged in five chapters. Chapter One presents the natural environment of lower Mesopotamia at the time that it was settled, locating the Babylonians in time and place. There is an important section describing the many thousands of clay tablets discovered by archaeologists. Though this section is out of step with the previous content in Chapter One, it is necessary that the author introduce this element early, given its immense importance to our understanding of this culture. Chapter Two is an overview of Babylonian history in the area from pre-Babylonian times to the end of that civilization (roughly 6000 BC to 323 BC when Alexander the Great dies). Chapter Three delves into the society and economy. Chapter Four is on religion. Chapter Five presents the material culture excavated by archaeologists.

All of the information herein is based upon artifacts and reading the numerous cuneiform tablets discovered at the dig sites. We are immensely fortunate to have such a rich collection of writing to draw upon for our understanding. Content of these tablets range from simple invoices of trade goods, to Hammurabi’s laws, to poetry. Granted, these tablets limit our understanding to the priorities of the wealthy in this culture, and those few who were literate. But having an insight into the thoughts of people who existed 4,000 years ago is invaluable.

Still, as with any ancient civilization, some modern interpretation, theory and guesswork, are necessary. In spite of the record presented by the tablets, there are holes in our picture. Gwendolyn Leick must fill those holes with some conjecture, but she is careful in her efforts. There is very little that one who is not a professional scholar of this period would find controversial in her conclusions. This does not mean that certain individuals will not find reasons to be outraged at various turns. One cannot read about an ancient culture without encountering war, slavery, economic inequality, sexism, divine hierarchy, religious superstition, ethnocentrism and the occasional massacre. It’s all part of our rocky development. There is even a section on a class of transgender priests that will inflame those to the right of the political spectrum (Leick, p. 113). Not to mention the fact that Babylon is presented in the Bible as the epitome of sin; and by current Fundamentalist Christians as an example of neo-pagan excess. But, if one is so thin-skinned as to become upset about a 4,000 year-old transgression of one’s personal values, then one richly deserves the outrage she feels. The original residents of Mesopotamia are long past caring.

The Babylonians is a dry, factual, evidenced-based read. But it provides both a window through which to view an ancient civilization and a foundation for further reading. The investment of time is only 160 pages, after which one may be satisfied that she has gained an understanding that provides enough information to round-out her knowledge, or that she wishes to delve deeper. Given that the subject is a culture with an extensive and varied written record, the opportunities for discovery are legion.


The Babylonians. An Introduction. Leick, Gwendolyn. New York: Routledge, 2003.