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Climates of Conflict in Ancient Babylonia

Principal Investigator: Dr Francis Ludlow

Lion Relief in glazed tiles, one of 120 similarly depicted animals decorating the Processional Way, running from the main entrance of Babylon (at the Ishtar Gate) into the heart of the city, dated ca. 605-562 BCE, a period during which systematic daily measurements of weather and market prices were being compiled in the city (Yale University Art Gallery; photo by F. Ludlow).


The CLICAB project will examine to two central hypotheses: (1) That climatic changes, including drought, flooding and other extreme weather, are linked to patterns of violence and conflict in the Ancient Near East, with climate thus playing a key but presently little-considered role in the story of this major region and era of world history, marked by violent conflict, but also material and cultural achievement. (2) That any “climate-conflict linkages” will vary meaningfully through time according to the evolving socioeconomic, political and cultural background in which climatic changes and extreme weather occurred. The project will focus upon the Fertile Crescent kingdom of Babylonia (south-central Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq) during the first millennium BCE. Textual scholars, linguists and archaeologists of the period have generated a wealth of data that now allows the application of new expertise from environmental historians (including climate historians or historical climatologists).

To test the project’s hypotheses, the project aims to:

  • 1. Develop a new climatic reconstruction for Babylonia for the first millennium BCE using approaches that integrate the region’s rich written and natural archives.
  • 2. Establish if climatic changes are statistically associated with violence and conflict.
  • 3. Identify the “pathways” by which climatic changes may have catalysed violence and conflict, and how Babylonian society attempted to mitigate such violence and conflict.
  • 4. Examine how the changing historical context mediates any role for climate in violence and conflict through this long period.
  • Success will advance our understanding of climate’s role in this formative period of history, in the context of a pressing need to understand such a role in present conflicts. It will also facilitate the application of the methodologies developed here to the multiple millennia of documented history in the wider ancient and medieval worlds of Eurasia.

    Rhonda McGovern, the CLICAB PhD student, will undertake research that contributes to one or several of these aims, working closely with the project PI and the postdoctoral researcher Conor Kostick and external collaborators in the field of Babylonian documentary archives and economic history (Professor Bert van der Spek, Free University Amsterdam), Near Eastern palaeoclimatic archives (Professor Dominic Fleitmann, University of Reading) and environmental modelling (Dr Matthew Toohey, GEOMAR).