Hammurabi (Akkadian from Amorite ʻAmmurāpi, "the kinsman is a healer", from ʻAmmu, "paternal kinsman", and Rāpi, "healer"; died c. 1750 BCE middle chronology) was the sixth king of Babylon of the First Babylonian Dynasty from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE middle chronology (1728 BCE – 1686 BCE short chronology). He became the first king of the Babylonian Empire following the abdication of his father, Sin-Muballit, extending Babylon's control over Mesopotamia by winning a series of wars against neighboring kingdoms. Although his empire controlled all of Mesopotamia at the time of his death, his successors were unable to maintain his empire.
He is known for the set of laws called Hammurabi's Code, one of the first written codes of law in recorded history. These laws were inscribed on stone tablets (stelae) standing over eight feet tall (2.4 meters), of unknown provenance, found in Persia in 1901 CE. Owing to his reputation in modern times as an ancient law-giver, Hammurabi's portrait is in many government buildings throughout the world.
Hammurabi was a First Dynasty king of the city-state of Babylon, and inherited the power from his father, Sin-Muballit, in c. 1792 BCE. Babylon was one of the many ancient city-states that dotted the Mesopotamian plain and waged war on each other for control of fertile agricultural land. Though many cultures co-existed in Mesopotamia, Babylonian culture gained a degree of prominence among the literate classes throughout the Middle East. The kings who came before Hammurabi had begun to consolidate rule of central Mesopotamia under Babylonian hegemony and, by the time of his reign, had conquered the city-states of Borsippa, Kish, and Sippar. Thus Hammurabi ascended to the throne as the king of a minor kingdom in the midst of a complex geopolitical situation. The powerful kingdom of Eshnunna controlled the upper Tigris River while Larsa controlled the river delta. To the east lay the kingdom of Elam. To the north, Shamshi-Adad I was undertaking expansionistic wars, although his untimely death would fragment his newly conquered Semitic empire.
The first few decades of Hammurabi's reign were quite peaceful. Hammurabi used his power to undertake a series of public works, including heightening the city walls for defensive purposes, and expanding the temples. In c. 1701 BCE, the powerful kingdom of Elam, which straddled important trade routes across the Zagros Mountains, invaded the Mesopotamian plain. With allies among the plain states, Elam attacked and destroyed the empire of Eshnunna, destroying a number of cities and imposing its rule on portions of the plain for the first time. In order to consolidate its position, Elam tried to start a war between Hammurabi's Babylonian kingdom and the kingdom of Larsa.
Hammurabi and the king of Larsa made an alliance when they discovered this duplicity and were able to crush the Elamites, although Larsa did not contribute greatly to the military effort. Angered by Larsa's failure to come to his aid, Hammurabi turned on that southern power, thus gaining control of the entirety of the lower Mesopotamian plain by c. 1763 BCE.
As Hammurabi was assisted during the war in the south by his allies from the north, the absence of soldiers in the north led to unrest. Continuing his expansion, Hammurabi turned his attention northward, quelling the unrest and soon after crushing Eshnunna. Next the Babylonian armies conquered the remaining northern states, including Babylon's former ally Mari, although it is possible that the 'conquest' of Mari was a surrender without any actual conflict. In just a few years, Hammurabi had succeeded in uniting all of Mesopotamia under his rule. Of the major city-states in the region, only Aleppo and Qatna to the west in Syria maintained their independence. However, one stele of Hammurabi has been found as far north as Diyarbekir, where he claims the title "King of the Amorites".
Vast numbers of contract tablets, dated to the reigns of Hammurabi and his successors, have been discovered, as well as 55 of his own letters. These letters give a glimpse into the daily trials of ruling an empire, from dealing with floods and mandating changes to a flawed calendar, to taking care of Babylon's massive herds of livestock. Hammurabi died and passed the reins of the empire on to his son Samsu-iluna in c. 1750 BCE.
Code of Laws
Hammurabi is best known for the promulgation of a new code of Babylonian law: the Code of Hammurabi.This Law was written before the Mosaic Code and was one of the first written laws in the world. The Code of Hammurabi was written on a stele, a large stone monument, and placed in a public place so that all could see it, although it is thought that few were literate. The stele was later plundered by the Elamites and removed to their capital, Susa; it was rediscovered there in 1901 CE and is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The code of Hammurabi contained 282 laws, written by scribes on 12 tablets. Unlike earlier laws, it was written in Akkadian, the daily language of Babylon, and could therefore be read by any literate person in the city.
An inscription of the Code of Hammurabi.
The structure of the code is very specific, with each offense receiving a specified punishment. The punishments tended to be very harsh by modern standards, with many offenses resulting in death, disfigurement, or the use of the "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Lex Talionis "Law of Retaliation") philosophy. The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence. However, there is no provision for extenuating circumstances to alter the prescribed punishment.
A carving at the top of the stele portrays Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash or possibly Marduk, and the preface states that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods of his people to bring the laws to them. Certain parallels have been drawn between this narrative and the laws given to Moses for the ancient Hebrews - marked differences between these two sets of law codes (as well as their methods of delivery) have also been pointed out by various authors over the years.
Similar codes of law were created in several nearby civilizations, including the earlier Mesopotamian examples of Ur-Nammu's code, Laws of Eshnunna, and Code of Lipit-Ishtar, and the later Hittite code of laws.
Legacy and Depictions
Under the rules of Hammurabi's successors, the Babylonian Empire was weakened by military pressure from the Hittites, who sacked Babylon around 1531 BCE (short). However it was the Kassites who eventually conquered Babylon and ruled Mesopotamia for 400 years, adopting parts of the Babylonian culture, including Hammurabi's code of laws.
Because of Hammurabi's reputation as a lawgiver, his depiction can be found in several U.S. government buildings. Hammurabi is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. There is also a frieze by Adolph Weinman depicting the "great lawgivers of history", including Hammurabi, on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
- Bill T. Arnold. Who Were the Babylonians?. Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.
- DeBlois, Lukas. An Introduction to the Ancient World. Routledge, 1997.
- James Henry Breasted. Ancient times, a history of the early world;. Ginn, 2011.
- Marc Van De Mieroop. King Hammurabi of Babylon. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
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