The Assyrians and Babylonians

That large extent of level country situated between and on the banks of the two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, was in the earliest antiquity, the seat of a Semitic population living under an organized government. Of the cities, the most important ultimately were Babylon, built, by Nimrod, (B.C. 2217); and Nineveh (called Ninos by the Greeks), built either by Asshur or Nimrod about the same time, but afterwards rebuilt and enlarged, according to ancient tradition, by a great king, Ninus, (B.C. 1230). With these two cities as capitals, the country divided itself into two corresponding parts or kingdoms - the kingdom of Assyria proper, including, besides part of Mesopotamia, the country to the right of the Tigris as far as Mount Zagros; and the kingdom of Babylonia, including the western part of Mesopotamia, together with the country to the left of the Euphrates as far as Syria proper. The two kingdoms, however, are often included under the joint name of Assyria; a word which, as well as the shorter form Syria, was often employed by the ancient Greek writers to designate the whole region lying along the courses of the two great rivers from the Black Sea to the northern angle of the Persian Gulf.

Although Babylon was according to Scripture, the earlier of the two powers, yet the Assyrians of Nineveh attained such strength under their hero Ninus, as to reduce the Babylonians to a species of dependence. Under Ninus, and his wife and successor the great conqueress Semiramis, says ancient mythical history, the city of the Tigris extended its dominions far and wide, from Egypt to the border of India. This empire, known in the common chronologies by the name of 'The Assyrian Empire,' lasted, according to the usual accounts, five or six centuries, during which it was governed, in the absolute Oriental manner, by the successors of Ninus and Semiramis. Of these several are mentioned in Scripture - Phul, the contemporary of Menahem, king of Israel (B.C. 761), Tiglath Pileser (B. C . 730), both of whom were mixed up with the affairs of Israel and Judah; Salmanassar, contemporary with Hezekiah, king of Judah, and Hoseah, king of Israel, by whom it was that Samaria was taken (B.C. 722), and the Israelites led into captivity (B.C. 722); and Sennacherib, or Sanherib (B.C. 714), who attacked Egypt, and whose fruitless invasion of Judah forms the subject of the striking narrative in the 18th and 19th chapters of the second book of Kings. The last of the great line of the Assyrian kings of Nineveh was the luxurious Sardanapalus, in whose reign the empire was dissolved, through the instrumentality of its revolted subjects the Medes (B.C. 626).

After Nineveh, the greatest city in the Assyrian dominion was Babylon. Even while under the dominion of the kings of Nineveh, Babylon appears to have possessed a special organization under its own chiefs, several of whose names - such as Beldesis (B.C. 888), and Nabonassar (B.C. 747) - have been preserved; and, together with the whole province of which it was the capital, to have pursued a special career. The peculiar element in the Babylonian society which distinguished it from that of Assyria proper, was its Chaldaean priesthood. 'The Chaldaean order of priests,' says Mr. Grote. 'appear to have been peculiar to Babylon and other towns in its territory, especially between that city and the Persian Gulf; the vast, rich, and lofty temple of Belus in that city served them at once as a place of worship and an astronomical observatory; and it was the paramount ascendancy of this order which seems to have caused the Babylonian people generally to be spoken of as Chaklieans, though some writers have supposed, without any good proof, a conquest of Assyrian Babylon by barbarians called Chaldaeans from the mountains near the Euxine. There were exaggerated statements respecting the antiquity of their astronomical observations*, which cannot be traced, as of definite and recorded date, higher than the era of Nabonassar (B.C. 747), as well as respecting the extent of their acquired knowledge, so largely blended with astrological fancies and occult influences of the heavenly bodies on human affairs. But however incomplete their knowledge may appear when judged by the standard of after-times, there can be no doubt that, compared with any of their contemporaries of the sixth century B.C. either Egyptians, Greeks, or Asiatics they stood preeminent, and had much to teach, not only to Thales and Pythagoras, but even to later inquirers, such as Eudoxus and Aristotle. The conception of the revolving celestial sphere, the gnomon, and the division of the day into twelve parts, are affirmed by Herodotus to have been first taught to the Greeks by the Babylonians.' This learned Chaldae an class seems to have pervaded the general mass of Babylonian society, as the corresponding priest-caste in Egypt pervaded Egyptian society, with this difference, that Babylonian society does not appear to have been parceled out like the Egyptian into a rigorous system of castes.