12 Major Achievements of Ancient Babylonia

The popular English phrase “to reinvent the wheel” is often used to refer to a situation where time and effort is put into coming out with something that has already been invented. Kind courtesy to the ancient Babylonians the ancient civilizations that followed the Babylonians did not have to go through the painful process of literally creating the wheel. Instead they occupied themselves with perfecting the wheel, turning it into chariots for example. What other major achievements were the ancient Babylonians most known for?

World History explores the major inventions and accomplishments of ancient Babylonia, one of the oldest civilizations in world history.

The world’s first ever positional number system

Having inherited large part of its culture and technology from the Sumerians and other minorities in the region, the Babylonians were responsible for refining the base 60 number system (also known as the sexagesimal number system). As modern humans we owe our 60-second and 60-minute measurement to this system.

The Babylonians took the base 60 number system a step further by developing what historians like to call the positional numeral system. The value of digits in this system relies on the digit and the position, hence its name. In so many ways, the positional system allows for arithmetic to be done in an easy manner. It has also been stated that a good number of Greek and Greco-Roman mathematicians were inspired by the Babylonian positional number system.

Advancement of cuneiform

Cuneiform – the world’s oldest writing system | The ancient Sumerians were the first people to develop the cuneiform system of writing. This writing was later picked up and advanced by all the mighty civilizations of Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians. It was replaced with an alphabetic script around 100 BCE.

Historians state that cuneiform, the world’s first known form of writing, was invented by the ancient Sumerians around 3400 BCE (Before the Common Era). However, the actual advancement of cuneiform  writing, which was made up of about 1,000 characters, was carried about by successor civilizations in the region, particularly ancient Babylonia.

Cuneiform proved very useful in recording transactions between traders. It was also used by the Babylonian rulers for record keeping in terms of tax collection for example. Scholars also used it to record astrological happenings of the time.

As papers or papyrus sheets weren’t invented by then, the Babylonians chiseled the cuneiform characters into clay tablets and slabs. They spoke Akkadian and wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets. For several centuries, perhaps a millennium,  Akkadian and cuneiform thrived under the Assyrians and the later the neo Babylonians. It was not until around 100 BCE that the Aramaean alphabet gradually started replacing cuneiform.

The Hammurabi Code

Ancient Babylonian achievements

Law Code of Hammurabi | Image: Hammurabi (standing), is shown here receiving his royal insignia from the Mesopotamian deity Shamash (or possibly Marduk) | Relief on the upper part of the stele of Hammurabi’s code of laws

There is a popular pacifist saying that “a tit for tat makes the whole world blind”. If one were to go back to the era of the ancient Babylonians, such a saying would have been considered contradictory to the legal codes of that era. The ancient Babylonians were one of the first people to canonize the “eye for an eye” rule. The brain behind the enactment was none other than King Hammurabi.

The Hammurabi Code refers to a set of legal codes that were written on clay tablets. Hammurabi introduced the over 280 codes to guide not just social relationships, but business transactions as well. Those codes were purposely enacted to impose capital punishments on offenders.

Read more: Hammurabi Code of Laws – Meaning, Examples, & Significance

Mathematical tables for the calculation of squares and cubes

Based on archaeological findings from unearthed tablets in the Mesopotamian region, ancient Babylonia came to be known as the first known people to have a mathematical table for the calculation of squares and cubes. The unearthed tablets show that they could calculate cubes way up to 32. They could calculate squares up to 59. This was pretty impressive for a civilization that dates back to more than 4,000 years.

Some historians and archaeologist state that the Babylonians were the first known people to solve quadratic equations.

The study of astronomy

It has also been stated (based on findings from ancient Babylonian tablets) that advances made in Babylonian geometry allowed them to make close to accurate studies in astronomy. What this means is that the Babylonians discovered astronomical geometry tens of centuries before civilizations in Europe did.

By applying mathematical principles they could observe the movements of planets in the night sky. This allowed them to predict

Using astronomical geometry, they could track the movement and position of those heavenly bodies. Although not so accurate as what modern gadgets can do, ancient Babylonians could also predict where those bodies would be in the near or distant future. Neo-Babylonian astronomers rank as perhaps the first people to discover eclipse cycles.

Their methods in this field formed the pillars upon which ancient Greek astronomers and mathematicians built their studies.  And because there would be no modern astronomy without ancient Greek input, we could safely say that Western astronomy owes its existence to the works of the ancient Babylonians.

Achievements of ancient Babylonia | A Babylonian tablet showing the path of Jupiter

Architectural marvels

The ancient Babylonians were known for building magnificent buildings and temples in honor of their gods and kings. There was one particular tower that always held the imagination of people from nearby towns and cities. That tower was called a ziggurat, a very imposing structure which on some occasions reached a staggering height of 300 feet. Primarily built with stone, the ziggurats were shaped like a typical tower, however, they had successively receding stories.

Perhaps the most well-known ziggurat of the ancient Babylonian era was Etemenanki, a very imposing tower that was said to measure up to 90 meters. Historians state that Etemanki was built (around the 7th century BCE) by the famous Babylonian ruler Nabopolassar.

Such was the fame of this particular Babylonian ziggurat that stories about the Tower of Babel came to huge prominence in the region. In that story, it was stated that Tower of Babel stretched so high that it could even touch heaven.

Ancient Babylonia was home to the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The structure, which was said to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, contained in an increasing level of tiered gardens. The garden was the king’s way of mitigating the home sickness his wife felt.

Babylonian astrology

Astrology is a dwindling field in our modern era; however, there was a time when renowned scholars and scientist looked to the stars and other celestial objects to interpret the will of the divine concerning humanity. Unbeknownst to some people, the ancient Mesopotamians, particularly the ancient Babylonians, were the pioneers of astrology. The kind of astrology that the Babylonians studied posited that the all celestial bodies in the cosmos danced around the earth and the heavens. Ancient as those ideas sound, western astrology was in fact based on Babylonian astrology.

And if you ever wondered were the Zodiac signs came from, look no further than to the 1st millennium BCE in ancient Babylonia. Babylonian astronomers of the 5th century BCE are credited with dividing the ecliptic (the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun) into 12 equal “signs”. To the Babylonians, the Zodiac sign Cancer marks the beginning compared to modern astronomers who use Aries.

Achievements and contributions of ancient Babylonia | Historians have long maintained that the origins of the Zodiac signs can be traced to ancient Babylonia | Image: The zodiac signs in a 16th-century woodcut

Pioneers of Geometry

Long before the ancient Greek mathematicians and geometers (such as Pythagoras and Euclid), ancient Babylonians were familiar with geometry. Around 3000 BCE, Babylonians had general rules for measuring lengths, angles, areas and volumes. They could calculate the areas of rectangles, triangles and trapezoids. They even knew how to measure obtuse triangles. Much of those geometric rules came very handy when surveying and constructing buildings. Especially in the making of cylinders and bricks, those rules proved very useful.

Another very interesting point worth noting is that some historians and archeologists state that the Pythagorean theorem was used in ancient Babylonia (around 1900 BCE) more than a millennium before the birth of the famed Greek mathematician Pythagoras (570 BCE – 490 BCE).

Ancient Babylonian mathematicians calculated the circumference of circle as three times the diameter of the circle. What this means is that they took the value of pi (π) as 3, which is not far off from the modern day estimate of 22/7 (or 3.142…)

Ancient Babylon was the largest city of its era

The ancient Babylonians were the successors of two very great civilizations – the Sumer people in the south and the Akkadians in the north. Building upon the advances of those civilizations, ancient Babylonian kings were able to build bustling city-states that thrived as important trading hubs in the region.

All of that success coincided with the reign of a group of industrious, nomadic people called the Amorites. For example, the city-state of Babylon is believed to have reached its zenith during the reign of the sixth Amorite ruler, King Hammurabi. Babylon, which could boast of more than 150,000 inhabitants, was undoubtedly the greatest and most populous city in the world at the time.

The Stone Plow

Often times, agriculture acted as a catalyst for the development of ancient civilizations. With abundant food supply, some inhabitants had the luxury of pursuing other disciplines in sculpting and the invention of farm tools that in turn allowed the society to increase its yield. One such farm equipment that the ancient Babylonians introduced to this world was the stone plow. The plow enabled farmers to break hardened soil for planting. The plow was perhaps an improvement upon the stone hoe that was used for centuries in ancient Mesopotamia.

The stone plow was definitely a game changer as it more than doubled the crop yield of the ancient Babylonians. This in turn led to an increase in population, which in turn, led to further multiplier effect.

The Wheel

As stated in the introduction section, the first people to invent the wheel were the ancient Mesopotamians. During the ancient Babylonian era, the wheels were produced from clay and sometimes rock. However, as time passed, artisans started to make wheels out of wood.

It has been stated that the first-known wheel appeared around 3,500 BCE. Such wheel was probably used by pottery makers. The technology was then transferred to transportation, where an axle was attached to wheels, turning them into a cart. It is likely that such a means of transportation was used entirely by the affluent Babylonians.

The Chariot

The invention of the cart was a natural process that followed after the invention of wheel. Ancient Babylonians realized that by adapting the wheels and then adding a frame and a rim to entire setup, a cart could made, which would then be pulled by an animal, say a cow. It was only a matter of time before chariot was moved from domestic settings and the transportation of goods into the military settings.

Facts about ancient Babylonia and its achievements

Ancient Babylonia – The Walls of Babylon and the Temple of Bel (Or Babel), by 19th-century illustrator William Simpson – influenced by early archaeological investigations.

The region that hosted the ancient Babylonian civilization was known as Mesopotamia. This vast region was home to not just the Babylonians but other civilizations like the Sumerians, the Akkadians and the Persians. This region benefited tremendously from the fact that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers went through the heart of the land. This allowed for the burst of agriculture and other ancient technological marvels – a necessary requirement for any human civilization.

The ancient Babylonians had some very famous and mighty rulers; however, the most famous ancient Babylonian king was Hammurabi (r. 1792 BCE – 1750 BCE), the god-king who introduced the Hammurabi code to the people.

Ancient Babylonians had perhaps the most famous epic poems of the Mesopotamian region: the Epic of Gilgamesh. The poem narrates the heroic exploits of the legendary king of Babylon, King Gilgamesh, who many believed was a demigod. Even to this day, the Epic of Gilgamesh ranks up there as one of the greatest epic poems of all time.

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