Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon, is best known for the development of a code of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi, which was used to regulate Mesopotamian society.
Who Was Hammurabi?
Hammurabi was born circa 1810, BCE, in Babylon, now modern day Iraq. He transformed an unstable collection of city-states in to a strong empire that spanned ancient Mesopotamia. Hammurabi’s lasting contribution on western society was his set of laws written on twelve stones and displayed publicly for all to see, the most common being, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth." The laws are generally known as the Code of Hammurabi.
Code of Hammurabi Summary
In approximately 1771, BCE, Hammurabi, king of the Babylonian Empire, decreed a set of laws to every city-state in order to better govern his bourgeoning empire. Known today as the Code of Hammurabi, the 282 laws are one of the earliest and more complete written legal codes from ancient times. The codes have served as a model for establishing justice in other cultures and are believed to have influenced laws established by Hebrew scribes, including those in the Book of Exodus. The codes were originally carved into a massive monolith of black diorite, eight feet high. Lost for centuries after the fall of Babylon in 1595, BCE, the pillar was rediscovered in ruins of the Elamite city of Susa in 1901.
The Hammurabi Code is not a complete set of laws, but more a series of enactments addressing specific cases and subjects such as slavery, debt, commercial regulations, marriage and inheritance. There are many codes which prescribe varying degrees of punishment for crimes, compensation for specific injuries, fees for surgeons, barbers and veterinarians. Below are a few examples.
When Hammurabi ascended to the throne, circa 1792, BCE, his small kingdom was composed of the city-states of Babylon, Kish, Sippar, and Borsippa. By the end of his rule in 1750, BCE, he controlled all of ancient Mesopotamia. One of the major goals of his father and grandfather was to control the waters of the Euphrates River, running northwest to southeast in Mesopotamia. Civilizations built along the river were heavily engaged in agriculture and trade. The idea was to control the flow of the river from as far upstream as possible in order to control the communities downstream.
In the first few decades of his rule, Hammurabi focused his attention on internal development of the kingdom, these included the construction of temples, public buildings, and infrastructure projects. Written documents from Hammurabi to officials and provincial governors showed him to be an able administrator who personally supervised nearly all aspects of governing. To better administer his kingdom, he issued a set of codes or laws to standardize rules and regulations and administer a universal sense of justice.
During this time, a complex geopolitical situation emerged between several other nearby city-states, all vying for control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Oftentimes, alliances of convenience would emerge between states to fend off or raid other rival states. In 765, BCE, one of these city-states, Elam, secretly conspired to start a war between Babylon and Larsa, an empire on the Euphrates delta. When the plot was discovered, Hammurabi and the leader of Larsa, Rim-Sin, formed an alliance and crushed Elam. Then Hammurabi acted quickly. He broke off the alliance with Rim-Sin and swiftly moved south taking the Larsa cities of Uruk and Isin. He then shifted eastward and took Nippur and Laguash, thus surrounding Larsa, which fell soon after.
The Babylonian Empire
To complete his conquest of Mesopotamia, Hammurabi turned north and east. He first set his sights on Mari, an important and prosperous trade center on the upper Euphrates River.
He broke off his alliance with Mari’s king, Zimri-Lim, and in 1761, marched on the city. It’s not certain why Hammurabi chose to break this alliance. Some scholars believe it was a fight over water rights or Hammurabi wanted to gain control of Mari’s strategic location at the crossroads of major trade routes. What is certain is the Babylonian Empire gained great wealth and of course, control of the Euphrates River. In most cases, after the conquest of a city, Babylon repaired and absorbed it into the empire. Scholars debate the reason why Hammurabi ordered the destruction of Mari, but it might have simply been because the city’s wealth made it a rival to Babylon and Hammurabi wanted that city to be the greatest of all in Mesopotamia. Soon after the fall of Mari, Hammurabi conquered Ashur and Eshnunna, achieving the latter by damming up the waters and starving the city. By 1755, Hammurabi controlled most of ancient Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi’s Place in History – A Mixed Review
Because so many documents of governance contain trace elements of Hammurabi’s Code, he has often been considered a visionary sovereign. More recently, historians have reexamined his reign and determined that his empire was not as invincible as once believed. It’s true that he was an efficient ruler who stabilized a region after turbulent times. However, like many leaders, both past and present, Hammurabi personally engaged himself in his government’s operations. As a result, he didn’t establish an effective bureaucracy to run the vast empire. By 1750, Hammurabi was a sick, old man. He passed along the reins of power to his son, Samsu-Iluna and died in that year. The Babylon Empire soon began to unravel and its territory fell under attack and capture. Within 150 years, its city-states were invaded and the last holdout of Babylon was sacked in 1595, BCE, by the Hittites.