Gilgamesh is the title character of one of the oldest known literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from approximately 2150 BCE. The most complete surviving version of the Epic was recorded on twelve clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal, a later Mesopotamian king.
Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, an early Sumerian realm that encompassed what is now Kuwait and southern Iraq. His parentage was partially divine – he was two thirds god and one third man. As a result of this, he was abnormally strong and long-lived – some sources describe him as immortal. He seems to have been based on actual historical figure, and several details in the Epic appear to derive from historical figures who were his contemporaries. However, despite his reality, it is unlikely that he reigned for the 126 years attributed to him by Sumerian historians.
Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk for many years, but was not well-loved by his subjects, as he was an oppressive ruler, who insisted of the privilege of sleeping with the young women of the city on their wedding nights. The goddess Arura, seeking to humble Gilgamesh, created a man named Enkidu, who was his opposite in all ways: wild where he was civilised.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu became fast friends, and the two journeyed together from Uruk to the Cedar Forest, where they faced and slew Humbaba. Later, after the gods slew Enkidu, Gilgamesh pleaded for his return, and later journeyed to the underworld to rescue him. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to restore Enkidu’s life, and moved by his humility, they accede.
Sargon the Great became the king of Akkad by murdering his predecessor. As king, he led a military conquest of Mesopotamia and neighbouring regions, covering modern Iraq and Kuwait, as well of parts of Iran, Arabia and even Anatolia and Syria, reaching all the way to the Mediterranean coast of the latter. This was the first centrally-controlled multi-ethnic empire in world history.
Sargon’s origin, much like that of Julius Caesar, has been mythologised. In particular, there is a portion of it that describes him as being set adrift upon a river in a basket woven of rushes – a tale strikingly similar to that of Moses (as described in Exodus), and predating the Book of Exodus by around two centuries.
The first ruler of the Akkadian empire, which covered most of Mesopotamia by the time he was done, Sargon was also the builder of Babylon (which is probably his most lasting mark on history). Sargon’s reign lasted for 56 years, an impressively long figure by the standards of his era.
In Sargon’s later years, much of the conquered territories rose in rebellion, seeing his old age as weakness. Sargon proved them decisively wrong, restoring his rule with considerable bloodshed and brutality. Sargon’s death led to another round of rebellions, naturally, but the Akkadian Empire lived on for nearly another century.
Hammurabi is perhaps the best-remembered king of Babylon’s first dynasty. Although he was the sixth of that house, he was the first one to actually be called a king, largely as a result of his military victories, Aside from the simple fact of his kingship, his greatest claim to fame is the Code of Hammurabi.
One of the oldest known written codes of law in the world, it predates Mosaic law (i.e. the Bible) by centuries, and was a direct influence on that code. The code consists of 282 individual laws, and states the punishments for each infraction. The law was revolutionary in three aspects:
- It was written in the common tongue (Akkadian, in this case) so that any literate citizen could read it.
- It standardised punishments, ensuring that the law was consistent (albeit rather harsh by modern standards – it is also one of the earliest known examples of the “eye for an eye” principle, which appears to have been intended to limit vengeance to an equitable level.).
- It is one of the earliest known examples of the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our modern legal system today, and required that both sides provide evidence to substantiate their claims.
As a result of Hammurabi’s pivotal role in the history of the law, his likeness is often found in courts and parliaments, as a famed law-giver. In many such depictions, he is the earliest historical figure shown.
Hammurabi was born in 1792 BCE and became the sixth king of Babylon that same year when his father abdicated. He ruled for his entire life (presumably with a regency at first), and despite the war town nature of Mesopotamia in that era, he is best known for the relative peace of his reign, his public works programs and, of course, his legal code, which is the earliest known one.
When he died, at the ripe old age of 42, he had also expanded the borders of his kingdom enormously, leaving his own son a realm that was more than six times the size of the city state he had inherited, one that stretched from the shores of the Persian Gulf to Mari, hundreds of miles up the Euphrates.
When Ashurbanipal inherited the throne of Assyria from his father, Esarhaddon, he also inherited the war between Assyria and the alliance of Egypt and Nubia. Ashurbanipal was a etter general and king than his father, and defeated the Egyptians handily in a series of battles. By 660 BCE, he ruled almost all of the Middle East with the exception of southern Arabia.
Ashurbanipal was renowned for his cruelty to his defeated enemies. It was not enough to take their lands and sell them into slavery (although he did that too), Ashurbanipal was notorious for the sadism and brutality of his tortures – and this in an age where torture was considered more or less normal. Perhaps because of this, he was the last strong ruler of Assyria.
Legend says that he was the only king of Assyria who ever learned to read or write. Be that as it may, it is known that Ashurbanipal gathered one of the world’s greatest libraries of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. However, although he was apparently unusually literate, Ashurbanipal was also an unusually cruel king (which is saying something, since Assyria was noted as an unusually cruel realm even in its barbarous day).
When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE, strife was already rising in Assyria, and outright civil war soon broke out – in less than two decades after his death, the Neo-Assyrian Empire over which he had ruled – and which had lasted three centuries by that time – was gone, never to returned, subsumed into the Persian Empire and its successor states.