A look at the life, laws and legacy of the great Babylonian king Hammurabi.
In 1901, a French archaeologist named Jacques de Morgan stumbled upon a seven foot, black basalt stele while excavating the ancient Elamite city of Susa, today in southwest Iran. However, the massive object that he and his team found was not part of the Elamite civilization that he was digging up. In fact, it had come from Babylon, another ancient city a few hundred miles to the west. Created in 1750 BCE, the tall black stele contained 282 laws decreed by a Babylonian king known as Hammurabi. Little did de Morgan know that he had discovered one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.
This begs the question, “who was Hammurabi and why is he so important?” You’re in luck! That’s what this totally awesome article will cover.
Mesopotamia before Hammurabi
Hammurabi was one of the greatest kings of both Mesopotamia and the ancient world. The time during which he lived, 1810-1750 BCE, was an eventful one. For over a millennium before his birth, ancient Mesopotamia was already an area of high civilization and culture. Archaeological evidence seems to indicate that this area was the first region where agriculture, masonry, writing, mathematics, complex engineering, hydraulics, astronomy and other ancient sciences were first developed. Due to their location around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the city-states of Mesopotamia profited greatly from trade, making many, if not most of them extremely wealthy.
From the fourth to the second millennium BCE, Mesopotamian civilization was made up of competing city-states and kingdoms. Among the greatest of these were Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Ur and Larsa. There would soon be another: Babylon.
The people that historians call the Amorites were not natives of Mesopotamia. Though they eventually came to rule larges parts of Mesopotamia, the origins of the Amorites were actually farther to the west. They were a Semitic people originally from what is today Syria and the areas of Palestine and parts of modern Israel. Being a simple and nomadic people, the Amorites were considered to be uncivilized by the more established city dwellers of Mesopotamian society, specifically the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians.
Why tribes of Amorites came to the outskirts of Mesopotamia around 2200 BCE is not known for certain. It’s probable though that they were escaping from years of drought in their native land as well searching for new pastures for their flocks. As then migrated further east, they encountered the various city-states of southern Mesopotamia. Eventually hostilities ensued and over the span of a few decades, the Amorites were able to capture the cities of Isin, Larsa, Eshnunna. They also built several cities of their own. One of these, Babylon was founded in 1894 BCE.
The Amorites dominated Mesopotamia roughly from 2000–1595 BCE. During this time, several Amorite dynasties arose including those centered around the cities of Mari, Yamhad, Qatna, Isin and Larsa. Babylon however remained a relatively minor city until the reign of the Amorite king, Hammurabi.
The Babylonians Expand
In the 1800s BCE, Babylon was a relatively insignificant city-state within the Amorite-confederacy of kings. In fact, it controlled little territory outside its own city walls. That began to change when a king named Sin-Muballit took the throne. Under his reign, the power of Babylon expanded as Sin-Muballit took over neighboring cities and fortresses. Though Sin-Muballit was an ambitious ruler, his kingdom was still very small in comparison to that of his neighbors. The task of expanding Babylonian lands fell to his son and successor, Hammurabi.
When Hammurabi ascended to the throne in 1792 BCE, Babylon was surrounded by powerful adversaries. In the north was the mighty kingdom of Eshnunna while to the south was Larsa. Far to the east was the ancient and powerful kingdom of Elam.
Hammurabi’s Rule as King
The first decade or so of Hammurabi’s reign was relatively calm. He used this time to fortify the city’s walls, build temples and construct various public works projects. However in 1801 BCE, Elam invaded Mesopotamia and destroyed Eshnunna. Using a divide and rule strategy, the Elamites tried to create divisions between Larsa and Babylon. Instead, the latter two kingdoms formed an alliance to defeat the Elamites, which technically they did. However during the campaign against the Elamites, the Babylonians had actually contributed the lion’s share of soldiers and had done most of the fighting. Angered by Larsa’s failure to substantially contribute to the war effort, Hammurabi invaded and conquered his former ally. This started a series of conquests and by 1763 BCE, Hammurabi had taken over nearly all of southern Mesopotamia including the fabled cities of Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Ur.
After consolidating his gains in the south, Hammurabi then turned his attention to the northern borders of his realm. He took over what remained of Eshnunna and then forced the wealthy city-state of Mari to submit. He also opened up hostilities with the Assyrians, eventually defeating but not occupying their land. In the end though the Babylonians were able to force them to pay tribute. By his death in 1750 BCE, Hammurabi had ruled for 42 years and had converted his relatively insignificant kingdom into Mesopotamia’s mightiest empire. Babylon’s glory though was short-lived. His son Samsu-iluna didn’t seem to have the same charisma or political acumen as his father. It was during his reign that the Babylonian empire began to unravel and eventually collapse.
Hammurabi’s Code of Laws
Along with being a great military leader, Hammurabi was also a good administrator. From tablets and other written records that have survived, we know that he was active in the administration of both the city of Babylon and his empire. He seems to have dealt personally with everything from reorganizing the Babylonian calendar to dealing with floods and making sure that farmers had enough supplies to grow their crops.
Hammurabi though is most remembered for his Code of Laws, the first written code that we know about. Originally based on Sumerian legal precedents and compiled around 1790 BCE, the code consisted of 282 laws that stipulated specific rules for business conduct and harsh punishments for certain crimes.
The code starts with a prologue or introduction describing the divine origin of the laws and shows the Babylonian god Shamash giving them to Hammurabi. Following these are the actual laws. These were divided up in to several groups with different entitlements or punishments for each. For example, laws with respect to trade were grouped together while laws pertaining to slaves were put in another section. Others dealt with commerce and the amount of wages workers should be paid for certain tasks.
While their stated goal was to promote order and justice, many if not most of Hammurabi’s laws would not be considered to extremely inhumane by modern standards. For example, if a man struck another who held higher status, that individual was punished with 60 lashes on the receiving end of an ox-whip. If a son struck his father, his hand was to be cut off. Another law stipulated that if a house collapsed and killed the inhabitants, the builder was blame. His punishment? To be put to death. The most famous of these laws though was if a man took out the eye of another, then his eye was to be removed as well. This is where the common phrase “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is believed to have originated from.
There were some laws though that made sense and actually benefited the common individual. For example, if a judge incorrectly fined someone, they would not only have to pay 12 times the amount of the fine, but also would be removed from office. Another positive aspect of the law was that they were written in the vernacular of the day, the Akkadian language. This ensured that those who could read would be able to understand the law. Thus, ignorance of the law would not be tolerated as an excuse.
The interesting thing is that Hammurabi’s Code of Law was discovered not among the ruins of Babylon, but in Susa, the ancient capital of the Elamites. It was probably taken during their brief occupation of Babylon in the 11th century BCE. Today, this stele rests in Louvre Museum in Paris. Since the discovery of the original in 1901, multiple copies of the code have been found in other parts of Mesopotamia and the Near East. Some of them are written on steles like those found at Susa. Others are on simple clay tablets. The point was not to present the law in a fancy way, but to propagate it throughout the realm.
While most of the laws contained in Hammurabi’s code would seem outdated if not outright harsh for today’s world, many of them have actually influenced our modern society. Scholars believe that Hammurabi’s code influenced Biblical and Mosaic law as well as Roman law. These were later passed down to our own societies, especially in the West.
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