When we read history, our sense of temporal distance can become distorted. Didn’t Julius Caesar have lunch with Hammurabi?
The Greeks and the Romans flourished over a series of centuries. One hinge of classical history is the morphing, around 27 BC, of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. The Greeks started getting attention when Homer wrote his two major works around 750 BC.
Just as we look back 2,000 years to see Roman history, the “ancients” - the Greeks and the Romans themselves - looked back equally far to see civilizations which predated them by the same amount of time.
Between 2334 and 2279 BC, a leader named Sargon united the regions of Akkad and Sumer and thereby founded an empire. The empire later became known as Babylonia, and its capital city was Babylon. In Sargon’s era, these names were probably not yet widely used.
The city of Babylon is mentioned already in the 23rd century BC, but only years later did it rise to prominence. As historians Joachim Marzahn and Klaudia Englund write,
When Athens flourished, Babylon was but a provincial town; the desire of Alexander the Great as ruler of Asia to make the city once more the capital of an empire was thwarted by his untimely death; when the Roman legions conquered Europe, its name was scarcely remembered. The tradition passed on derived for the most part from the Bible and was all but praiseworthy: “The Babylonian Whore”. The city became a symbol of vice and lechery. For a long time Europe only knew this image. Yet Babylon was once a thriving metropolis, situated on the navigable Euphrates, in the midst of abundant fields and palm gardens. It was the center of international trade and of specialized industries, the abode of the god Marduk and his powerful priesthood, as well as the seat of political power of an empire comparable to that of the Romans. Our knowledge of these facts only became available when, in the 19th century, excavations commenced in the Near East.
While Babylon represented a high degree of civilization, it also remained a human and therefore essentially flawed society. While assembling complex legal, economic, and scientific patterns, it also displayed, along with best of human efforts, the baser side of human nature, as John Noble Wilford writes:
A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say.
Thomas Cahill notes:
We do know that human sacrifice was not beyond the Sumerians.
To contextualize this data, however, it’s worth noting that human sacrifice was part of every known civilization at that time.
By the time the city of Rome was founded around 753 BC, Babylon was well over a thousand years old. By the time the Roman Republic was founded around 509 BC, it was almost two thousand years old - or possibly older; the data is unclear. By the time the Roman Empire began, Babylon was an insignificant town.