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King of Babylon and Codifier of Laws

Hammurabi (standing) receiving his royal insignia from Marduk
Hammurabi (standing) receiving his royal insignia from Marduk

Hammurabi became King of Babylon upon the abdication of his father, Sin-Muballit, in 1792 B.C. The first few decades of his reign were quite peaceful, and Hammurabi used spent that period on a series of public works, including heightening the city walls for defensive purposes, and expanding the temples. In the 30th year of his reign Hammurabi began to expand his kingdom up and down the Euphrates, overthrowing Larsa, Eshunna, Assyria, and Mari until all of Mesopotamia was under his control.

A very efficient administrator, Hammurabi planned his every move with great care, often years in advance. All of his provincial governors reported to him directly, and in detail. He combined his military and political advances with irrigation projects and the construction of fortifications and temples celebrating Babylon's patron deity Marduk, and those projects undoubetdly helped keep his subjects both employed and content and, therefore, willing to remain under his rule. Hammurabi's popularity was further enhanced by his establishment of one of the most fair, flexible, and efficient systems of taxation ever seen in ancient Mesopotamia.

The Code of Hammurabi for which Hammurabi is best known began as a revision of older collections of Sumerian and Akkadian laws, including one collection that was already 300 years old. The 228 provisions of Hammurabi's code that are immortalized on the stela seen at left covered virtually every facet of life and law: false accusation, witchcraft, military service, land and business regulations, family laws, tariffs, wages, trade, loans, debts, and much more. All of the edicts are written in "if-then" form. For example, if a man steals an ox, then he must pay back 30 times its value. They also reflect the very clear distinctions between social classes. For example, a doctor's fee for curing a severe wound was set at 10 silver shekels for a gentleman, 5 shekels for a freedman and 2 shekels for a slave. Penalties for malpractice followed the same scheme: a doctor who killed a rich patient would have his hands cut off, while only financial restitution was required if the victim was a slave. This was not the first time laws had ever been put into writing, nor was it the first system of laws to include specific punishments for specific crimes, but it was the first to clearly define the doctrines of "innocent until proven guilty" and "an eye for an eye."

the pillar on which the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed
the pillar on which the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed

When Hammurabi established his code of laws is unknown, but the black stela seen at left was carved and installed in Babylon near the end of his reign, which came with his death in 1750 B.C. Hammurabi's successors were unable to maintain his empire, and the stela was carried off by the Elamites sometime in the mid-12th century B.C. In 1901 Jacques de Morgan, a French mining engineer, led an archaeological expedition to Persia to excavate the Elamite capital of Susa, more than 250 miles from the center of Hammurabi's kingdom. There they uncovered the stela, which by then had been broken into three pieces. The stela was subsequently shipped to the Louvre, where it remains on display to this day.

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The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Asia >> Iraq

This page was last updated on 09/26/2017.