Whereas a number of dynasties ruled Egypt, it was often completely different cultures to rule Mesopotamia. This lesson looks at four of those cultures that were able to build empires.

Akkadian Empire

The first empire that we will look at isn’t just the first empire in Mesopotamia, but is also the first empire in the entire world! However, the Akkadians are important for more than just being first. Their greatest king, Sargon of Akkad, who also established the empire, set the ideal for what a Mesopotamian king should be when it came to conquering ability.

In fact, when the Persians conquered Mesopotamia more than 2,000 years later, they would claim to be inspired by Sargon. However, one man, no matter how great, was not the biggest legacy of the Akkadians. Instead, the most enduring aspect of Akkadian rule is in language. Before the Akkadians, most people in Mesopotamia spoke Sumerian. The Akkadians introduced their language, Akkadian, which is closely related to other languages, such as Aramaic and Arabic, that would one day be spoken in this region. As it is always easier to switch to a language that shares a great deal with your first language, Sargon laid the groundwork that would enable other languages to replace Akkadian. In a way, we can thank Sargon of Akkad for the fact that modern Iraqis speak Arabic.

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Babylonian Empire

However, the Akkadian Empire not only united dozens of city-states, but also two very different Mesopotamian cultures. Northern Mesopotamia had mountains and rain, whereas the south was more desert. This difference in climate meant that the two regions developed different cultures, and these were in conflict with each other. As such, the Akkadian Empire effectively split into two spheres of influence, north and south.

The Babylonians were able to gain control of the southern sphere of influence and continued much of what the Akkadians had started. They are most well remembered for their greatest king, Hammurabi, who wrote the first code of laws. While his penalties, such as ‘eye for an eye,’ may sound particularly harsh to us, back then crimes were punished with years of feuds between families. Frankly, putting someone’s eye out was the fastest way to solve the problem. Also, the Babylonians went right on speaking Akkadian.

Assyrian Empire

To the north, however, a different group was gaining power, and the Assyrians would become one of the most feared civilizations in ancient history. Being near the northern mountains meant that when humanity figured out how to make iron tools, the Assyrians were among the first to capitalize on that knowledge. Combined with their expertise with chariots, warships, and siege warfare, the Assyrians were fierce in battle, and there weren’t that many civilizations that could stop them.

In fact, the Assyrians built the largest empire in the Near East until the Persians, even conquering Egypt. In addition to their fierceness in battle, the Assyrians also introduced their own dialect of Akkadian, known as Aramaic, which was much easier to speak and learn, and soon became the most popular language in the region. Even the Egyptians would write letters to other empires in Aramaic, because everyone spoke it.

Neo-Babylonian Empire

That said, the people in the south of Mesopotamia never got quite used to being ruled by those from the north. Babylon especially had always thought of itself as more civilized than the bloodthirsty Assyrians, and when weakness struck the Assyrians, it was the Babylonians who were able to take advantage of the situation. This new Babylonian Empire is called the Neo-Babylonian Empire by historians, and only survived a few decades before the Persians managed to conquer it.

While not nearly as large as the Assyrian Empire, it was still much bigger than the first Babylonian Empire and is most well remembered today for two very different actions. In the first, the King of Babylon ordered the Jews into captivity in Babylon, destroying their Temple in Jerusalem. Second, it was during this Babylonian Empire that the Hanging Gardens were supposedly built, as a gift to a royal wife who missed her Persian homeland.

Lesson Summary

This lesson looked at the four most prominent Empires of Mesopotamia, namely the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Neo-Babylonians. We discussed how Sargon of Akkad was the first person in history to establish an empire, becoming a role model for other conquerors in the region. Also, we saw how language progressed from Sumerian before the Akkadians, to Akkadian, and finally to Aramaic under the Assyrians.

The Akkadians soon split between northern and southern factions, led in the south by the Babylonians. The Babylonians were very similar to the Akkadians, although they did write the first code of law. However, the northern Assyrians were a completely different type of conqueror, and built the largest empire seen until then in the Near East, even conquering Egypt. Finally, it was the Neo-Babylonians, who followed the Assyrians, and their short-lived reign produced both the Hanging Gardens and the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

Learning Outcomes

When you’ve watched the final scene of the video lesson, you could be prepared to:

  • Examine the progression of language and law among the four empires of Mesopotamia: Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian
  • Indicate the things that the Babylonian Empire is most remembered for