Few ancient civilizations are as famous as Babylon for doing so little.
OK, that’s an oversimplification, but that’s really the problem with writing about Babylon as a faction in strategy games. Who are they, really? The Hammurabic Code is certainly important for understanding the evolution of law and society in the Middle and Near East. That was in the first Babylonian Empire. After a thousand year hiatus, they returned as what is now called the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and under Nebuchadnezzar, this local bully sacked Jerusalem and held the elite of Judah captive for a generation, transforming the Jewish faith – and thereby all Abrahamic religions – in dramatic ways. The same king also built a famous garden to please a sad wife, and his city was famous for its impregnable walls.
But when you think about it, the Assyrians who interrupted the Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian Empires or the Persians who succeeded them are much stronger characters. The former is the first society built entirely on war, the latter the first true multicultural empire. Sure, Babylon’s wealth and luxury made the city synonymous with vice and debauchery but that’s not the kind of mechanic that you can easily stick in a strategy game. Babylon is no more special than the Sumerians or the Hittites or the Kassites except for the fact they had a couple of leaders whose names are known by most semi-educated people, and one of those names only because he is a big star in the Bible.
Babylon is an unusual choice if you want to make a faction with a personality.
Of course, when Sid Meier made the Civ list I am drawing from, he wasn’t interested in making the factions personalities – he wanted cultures people had heard of, and most high school students would have run into Hammurabi somewhere along the line, so there were have it. The Babylonians become a core civilization in the franchise, or more accurately, Hammurabi is a core leader. Still, he doesn’t get introduced in Civ 4 until the final expansion and in Civ 5 he gets tossed for Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon is sold as DLC. It’s almost as if people decided Babylon was kind of an odd core nation. Persia becomes the new default for that region, as it always should have been.
As amazing as the Hanging Gardens were (and they live on as both a perennial wonder and the unique building for Babylon in Civ 4), it was the walls that give Babylon interpreters something to work with. Historically, they were considered an invincible defense against invasion; Civ 5 gives Babylonian walls a major city defense bonus and Age of Empires doubles the hit points of Babylonian walls and towers plus a stone mining bonus. Babylon is a “come and get me” nation.
As a culture, Babylon was famous for its astronomy and math so the science bonuses in Civs 3 and 5 makes some sense. Age of Empires makes Babylonian priests regain their mojo faster, which I suppose is a tribute to their religious sensibilities but is more likely an acknowledgment that some nation needed this power and so it went to the sky watching Babylonians.
This “somebody has to do it” mentality also seems to apply to the Babylonian unique unit in the Civ games. Someone needs a super archer, so why not these guys? Babylonian archers were important, of course, but like the Assyrians before them, they were a cavalry and siege army – their archers were no more awesome or amazing than most other local powers. Many footmen in their armies would carry bows, and in field battles the cavalry (including cavalry archers) would do the heavy work. (Assyria rose at a time just when the man on horseback was beginning to overtake the charioteer.)
Considering how Civ portrayed the famous Persian Immortals as, in succession, swordsmen (wrong), horsemen (wrong) and spearmen (right), Firaxis has shown a remarkable consistency in giving Babylon a unit that really wasn’t all that special to begin with. This problem isn’t unique to Babylon, but in a millennium when legions and hoplite phalanxes and war chariots and Immortals can be immediately given a place in the mind’s eye, Babylon and its armies become synonymous with “Early Mesopotamian Empire That Had Famous Leaders.”
In fact, Babylon is so non-descript that it doesn’t make many appearances at all outside the Civ games. In Age of Empires, it is one of a handful of poorly distinguished regional powers. In Chariot Wars, almost every nation was the same up to a certain point. The brilliant computer board game Bronze has the Babylonians but they are represented as vaguely as the other “nations”.
Historically, they are not as vague as Sumeria, not as unappealing as Assyria, not as full of incomprehensible names as the Hittites, not as puny as Israel/Judah – Babylon is the last major culture left standing between the glories of Egypt and the empire of Persia. It is fortunate that it interceded in Judeo-Christian history (though unfortunate that it is now a byword for a city of the damned) because it gave centuries of Europeans a reason to hang on to its memory long after the walls were breached and the mosaics destroyed.
But Hammurabi has that code, so he represents the birth of law – an important thing for a 4x game about the growth of civilization. And over a short century, the Neo-Babylonians did topple the Assyrians, humble Egypt, sack Jerusalem and build some cool buildings. Babylon is impressive less because it is unique than because it is so generic; there were laws before Hammurabi but his surviving code reminds us of the universality of that rule. The quick burning flame of later Babylon shows how glory quickly comes and goes.
Next up, another nation that is hard to capture, but this time because it is too big and too amazing – China.