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Babylonian Life and History Review


Old historical books are oft a fascinating contrast between being incredibly modern, reasonable, and comparable to modern thinking on a subject, and what pass to our eyes as racist diatribes and pseudoscience. You might think, judging that Babylonian Life and History by E.A. Wallis Budge, was written in 1925, that it would be more on the side of the latter: books from just a few decades before, such as A Literary History of India, present positions that are starkly racist to our eyes, and you can also refer to other historical works from the era such as Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius . But History and Life of Babylon reads much more like a modern book, and in fact, compared to even works such as the 1980s book Babylon by John Oates it manages to hit many modern and contemporary concerns.

Comparing it to Babylon, a book from 1986, you can see many more of its strengths. There have been some changes in our understanding where the second book gives us an updated vision – where the two do not coincide, with the passage of 60 years, the claims of the latter are more valid than from the former. These idea include errors such as that of Babylon being founded early in the period of Mesopotamian civilization, an idea upheld by History and Life of Babylon, while we currently know that Babylon itself was a relatively late founder, from around the turn of the 3rd to the 2nd millennia. Another is the universal ascription of God-kingship to the early kings of Sumeria, when contemporary understanding views this as a later development, while early on Sumerian governance happened more in the city-state, assembly, council, etc. style. They shouldn't be dismissed: as far as dating and precise details there's no doubt that the book is very old and so has a lot of inaccuracies.

But in contrast to the aforementioned Babylon, it manages a much better depiction of social, religious, and cultural history in Babylon and among ancient Mesopotamian civilization in general. It discusses the myths and legends of the Mesopotamians in the form of their mythological literature, which was effectively the only extant Mesopotamian literature, and how this was perceived by the Babylonians, such as the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu used as a parable that no one could escape from death. These are integrated brilliantly into a broader discussion of their meaning to the Mesopotamians, such as their, to our eyes, universal superstition, with gods, spirits, omens, etc. all around them, and how they perceived their own mortality and their relationship to death and the afterlife as defined by their mythology.

It also has an excellent coverage of the secular culture of ancient Babylon, marriage structures, legal affairs, clothing, educational institutions, etc. Of course, the Babylonians did not greatly differentiate between religious and secular affairs, and so for example there were significant aspects of trading or commerce that were handled by the temples, when to our eyes they are completely different subjects, and education was also handled entirely by the priestly class, but it does its best to look at the rest of society and how it was structured and to give its best look at how life was lived in Babylon. Given the age of the period, and the era in which the book was written, it does an extraordinary job in its portrayal of the time. This extends even to giving an appreciation for the frontiers of scholarship at the time of its writing, in the form of the archeological digs being carried out on Babylonian sites, and mentioning key figures involved in Babylonian research in historiographical senses.

The central piece of history recorded by the Babylonians themselves, the kings and the political history, in the form of the different empires, their conquests, the kings, their succession, the wars and fighting: this receives duly its chapter, but it isn’t of much note. It provides a useful summary, but the real focus of the book is on the social history, which it does with such great panache. It still provides for a decent overview of political life and the chronological successions of the period (although lacking some more famous elements that have been perhaps emphasized to greater extent more recently, such as the 1250 BC apocalypse), but it is the cultural and life style that makes Babylonian Life and History such a continuingly valuable book. Despite a century having passed since its writing, which was itself an update on a piece from decades before, it is still an excellent history book on the Babylonians and Mesopotamian civilization, one well illustrated by its writings and pictures.

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