Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon (that is, of the First Babylonian Dynasty) from 1792 BC to 1750 BC middle chronology (1728 BC – 1686 BC 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. It has been said that Hammurabi was Amraphel, the King of Shinar in the Book of Genesis 14:1.
Hammurabi 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. Owing to his reputation in modern times as an ancient law-giver, Hammurabi's portrait is in many government buildings throughout the world.
Reign and conquests
Hammurabi was an Amorite First Dynasty king of the city-state of Babylon, and inherited the power from his father, Sin-Muballit, in c. 1792 BC. Babylon was one of the many largely Amorite ruled ancient city-states that dotted the central and southern Mesopotamian plains 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 again among the literate classes throughout the Middle East under Hammurabi. The kings who came before Hammurabi had founded a relatively minor City State in 1894 BC which controlled little territory outside of the city itself. Babylon was overshadowed by older, larger and more powerful kingdoms such as Elam, Assyria, Isin, Eshnunna and Larsa for a century or so after its founding. However his father Sin-Muballit had begun to consolidate rule of a small area of south central Mesopotamia under Babylonian hegemony and, by the time of his reign, had conquered the minor 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 of Mesopotamia lay the powerful kingdom of Elam which regularly invaded and forced tribute upon the small states of southern Mesopotamia. In northern Mesopotamia, the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad I, who had already inherited centuries old Assyrian colonies in Asia Minor, had expanded his territory into the Levant and central Mesopotamia, although his untimely death would somewhat fragment his 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. 1801 BC, 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 kingdom 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 BC.
As Hammurabi was assisted during the war in the south by his allies from the north such as Yamhad and Mari, 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.
Hammurabi entered into a protracted war with Ishme-Dagan I of Assyria for control of Mesopotamia, with both kings making alliances with minor states in order to gain the upper hand. Eventually Hammurabi prevailed, ousting Ishme-Dagan I just before his own death. Mut-Ashkur the new king of Assyria was forced to pay tribute to Hammurabi, however Babylon did not rule Assyria directly.
In just a few years, Hammurabi had succeeded in uniting all of Mesopotamia under his rule. The Assyrian kingdom survived but was forced to pay tribute, and of the major city-states in the region, only Aleppo and Qatna to the west in the Levant 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 BC, under whose rule the Babylonian empire began to quickly unravel.
Code of laws
Hammurabi is best known for the promulgation of a new code of Babylonian law: the Code of Hammurabi. One of the first written laws in the world, the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed on a stele 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 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.
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. Parallels between this narrative and the giving of laws by God in Jewish tradition to Moses and similarities between the two legal codes suggest a common ancestor in the Semitic background of the two. Fragments of previous law codes have been found. David P. Wright argues that the Jewish law used Hammurabi's collection as a model, imitating both its structure and content.
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.
Significant laws in Hammurabi's code
- §59 - If a man cut down a tree in a man's orchard, without the consent of the owner of the orchard, he shall pay one-half mina of silver.
- §55 - If a man open his canal for irrigation and neglect it and the water carry away an adjacent field, he shall measure out grain on the basis of the adjacent fields.
- §168 - If a man set his face to disinherit his son and say to the judges: "I will disinherit my son," the judges shall inquire into his antecedents, and if the son have not committed a crime sufficiently grave to cut him off from sonship, the father may not cut off his son from sonship.
- §169 - If he have committed a crime against his father sufficiently grave to cut him off from sonship, they shall condone his first (offense). If he commit a crime a second time, the father may cut off his son from sonship.
- §8 - If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.
- §196-201 - If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth. If one knock out a tooth of a freeman, he shall pay one-third mana of silver.
- §218-219 - If a physician operate on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and cause that man's death; or open an abscess (in the eye) of a man with a bronze lancet and destroy the man's eye, they shall cut off his fingers. If a physician operate on a slave of a freeman for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and cause his death, he shall restore a slave of equal value.
- §229-232 - If a builder build a house for a man and do not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapse and cause the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it cause the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder. If it cause the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give the owner of the house a slave of equal value. If it destroy property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he built firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed from his own property (i.e., at his own expense).
- §21 - If a man make a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and they shall thrust him therein.
- §195 - If a son strike his father, they shall cut off his fingers.
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 BC (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. A frieze by Adolph Weinman depicting the "great lawgivers of history", including Hammurabi, is on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.