Ancient History & Civilisation



The victory over four powerful princes and the unification of Mesopotamia are in themselves remarkable achievements sufficient to single out Hammurabi* as one of the greatest Mesopotamian monarchs. But the King of Babylon was not merely a successful war leader: his handling of his opponents reveals the qualities of a skilful diplomat; his Code of Law displays a passion for justice which, to a great extent, balances the repulsive cruelty of punishments; his inscriptions show a genuine concern for the welfare of his subjects and a deep respect for the traditions of a country which was, after all, foreign to his race; his letters prove that the descendant of an Amorite sheikh could administer a vast kingdom with the same care and attention to detail as the ruler of a Sumerian city-state. Hammurabi raised Babylon to the rank of a major capital-city and made its god Marduk one of the greatest deities.

Moreover, his forty-three years’ long reign (1792 – 1750 B.C.) marked the peak of a series of cultural changes which had started in the previous century and were to last until the abrupt fall of the First Dynasty of Babylon, 155 years after his death. These changes deeply affected the art, language, literature and philosophy of the Mesopotamians. The official sculpture, directly derived from that of the Akkad and Ur III period, remained frozen in a sober and powerful beauty,1 but a ‘popular’ art had emerged which was characterized by its realism and its love of movement. It was expressed in some bronze statuettes (such as an unnamed, four-headed god from Ischali who was astonishingly shown walking), in certain steles and sculptures in the round (a roaring lion's head, a goddess smelling a flower), in parts of the beautiful frescoes in the royal palace of Mari (a date-gatherer climbing a palm-tree, a bird about to fly away) and above all, in a large number of terracotta plaques depicting scenes of daily life, such as a carpenter at work, a peasant on his zebu, a bitch feeding her puppies and even couples making love).2 In no other period has the art of Mesopotamia been so lively and free.

Hammurabi's reign was also the time when the Akkadian language reached perfection, not only in its grammar – the Code of Hammurabi is the classic model for students of Assyriology – but also in its clear and elegant cuneiform signs. From then on used alone in royal inscriptions, letters and all administrative and legal documents, ‘Old Babylonian’, as it is called, became a literary language, a language whose ‘vigour and freshness was never matched later’.3 The scribes continued to copy the major Sumerian texts, but they adapted them freely, giving them a Semitic flavour, and also wrote original works. This resulted in admirable pieces of literature, such as the legends of Etana and Anzu – the storm-god who robbed Enlil's tablets of destiny – the Atrahasis myth and the Gilgamesh epic.

Finally, this was the time when personal religion flourished, as witnessed by innumerable clay figurines or votive plaques representing gods and demons and by moving prayers, ‘letters to the gods’ and street corner chapels. But although they were told that ‘God cares about Man personally and deeply’,4 the Mesopotamians began to wonder, to doubt and to ponder on the great mysteries of Life and Death or Good versus Evil. Prompted by an extraordinary curiosity for the world around them, they refined and classified the knowledge acquired by their predecessors and by themselves, exercised their intelligence and tried to predict their own personal future. Hence the first rough drafts of a sapiential literature5 which reached its full development during the Kassite period, and the multiplication of scientific texts of all kinds, including divination and magic.

All these changes contribute to make the first half of the eighteenth century B.C. a decisive period in the history of ancient Iraq, and without any doubt the figure of Hammurabi, the statesman and the lawgiver deserves special attention.6

The Statesman

When Hammurabi ascended the throne he inherited from his father Sin-muballit a comparatively small kingdom, some one hundred and fifty kilometres long and sixty kilometres wide, extending from Sippar to Marad or, in terms of modern topography, from Fallujah to Diwaniyah. All around were larger states and more powerful kings: the south was entirely dominated by Rim-Sin of Larsa who two years before had taken Isin and put an end to the rival dynasty (1794 B.C.); to the north the horizon was barred by the great Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia; and to the east, just across the Tigris, Dadusha, allied to the Elamites, still reigned in Eshnunna. The new King of Babylon was no less determined than his ancestors to enlarge his domain, but he patiently waited for five years before making the first move. Then, when he felt secure enough on the throne, he attacked in three directions: he snatched Isin from the King of Larsa and advanced along the Euphrates as far south as Uruk (sixth year), campaigned in Emutbal, between the Tigris and the Zagros range and occupied the key to that district, Malgum (tenth year), and finally took Rapiqum, upstream of Sippar (eleventh year). Thereafter, it would seem from his date-formulae that for twenty successive years he devoted his time solely to the embellishment of temples and the fortification of towns.7

This short series of military operations infringed on the territories of Larsa and Eshnunna and no doubt aroused considerable hostility from Rim-Sin and from Ibal-pi-El II, who in 1779 B.C. had succeeded Dadusha, but we have no means of knowing if and how they retaliated. As for the Assyrians, they would have rejoiced at the humiliation of ‘the man of Eshnunna’ had they not been occupied with more serious problems.

It has very recently been established that both Samsi-Addu and Iasmah-Adad died, probably in a battle, in 1776 B.C. (about five years later than in previous estimates),8 leaving Mari wide open to Zimri-Lim*, a son (or perhaps only a close relative) of Iahdun-Lim.9 Ishme-Dagan, however, remained in possession of Ekallâtum and Assyria. The most urgent task of Zimri-Lim was to assert his authority over a kingdom smaller than before and that was beginning to disintegrate, and for this he used either force or astute diplomacy: he crushed a rebellion of Iaminites in the lower Khabur valley and summoned the princes of Idamaras and the Sinjar region to a meeting where he convinced them to recognize him as their ‘lord and father’. Moreover, he gave several of his numerous daughters in marriage to some of his vassals.10 Zimri-Lim's foreign policy was aimed at securing peace wherever possible, while discouraging all aggressions. Early in his reign, he made an alliance with the King of Iamhad and later on married his daughter Shibtu. He also dedicated a statue to Adad, the patron-god of Aleppo, and travelled as far as Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, for some unknown but pacific purposes. Against Eshnunna, the traditional enemy in the east, he tried to use the Elamites as a shield. Helped by troops from Mari and Babylon, the Elamites succeeded in capturing the strongly fortified city of Eshnunna. Unfortunately, this success whetted the appetite of the ruler (sukkal) of Elam who, in the following year, sent two armies into Mesopotamia: one marching on Babylon, the other on Ekallâtum. Hammurabi defeated the first army at Hiritum (an as yet unidentified site), but Ekallâtum, Shubat-Enlil and other towns of north-eastern Jazirah were occupied, which stirred up disturbances and unrest among these small kingdoms. In 1771 B.C., Ibal-pî-El of Eshnunna, the energetic successor of Dadusha, retaliated with the same two-pronged strategy: one army in the Tigris valley, another along the Euphrates. Ekallâtum was occupied once more, but Mari was spared. Following an inconclusive battle in the Sinjar region, Ibal-pi-El preferred to negotiate and in the end forced Zimri-Lim to sign a treaty recognizing his supremacy. However, no sooner had the Eshnunaeans gone than the vassals of the King of Mari renewed their submission to him.

The movements of the rulers of Eshnunna and Elam were watched with equal anxiety by Zimri-Lim's best friend, Hammu-rabi. Since Babylon and Mari commanded the entire course of the Euphrates, the two rulers had everything to gain in joining hands together. Zimri-Lim's ambassador at the court of Babylon kept him fully posted on ‘all the important affairs’ of that kingdom, and reciprocally Babylonian messengers reported to Hammurabi all the news they heard in Mari, this bilateral ‘intelligence service’ functioning, it seems, with the full knowledge and approbation of the two sovereigns. The two kings lent each other troops – Zimri-Lim's soldiers helped Hammurabi when he destroyed the rival kingdom of Larsa – and rendered each other the minor or major services expected of good neighbours. But in the light of later events the attitude of Hammurabi was perhaps less disinterested than it appears, and he may have used his ally merely to consolidate his power. Piece by piece emerges from these archives the figure of a patient and cunning politician who observes more than he acts and waits for the right time to strike with the certainty of winning.

At long last, in the twenty-ninth year of his reign this time arrived – sooner perhaps than Hammurabi had expected, since, according to his own version of the events, Babylon was attacked by a coalition of Elamites, Guti, ‘Subarians’ (Assyrians) and people from Eshnunna:

The leader beloved of Marduk, after having defeated the army which Elam… Subartu, Gutium, Eshnunna and Malgum had raised in masses, through the mighty power of the great gods consolidated the foundations of Sumer and Akkad. (Year-formula 30.)

The following year (1763 B.C.) Hammurabi took the offensive and, ‘encouraged by an oracle’, attacked Larsa. Rîm-Sin – whom he contemptuously calls ‘the King of Emutbal’, Emutbal being the homeland of Rim-Sin's family – was overthrown after a reign of sixty years, the longest in Mesopotamian annals.

In the thirty-first year a new coalition comprising the same enemies as before was formed. The ‘hero’ not only ‘overthrew their army’ but advanced ‘along the bank of the Tigris’ as far as ‘the frontier of Subartu’. Implicitly, this was the end of Eshnunna.

Now the master of southern and central Mesopotamia, Hammurabi was not a man to stop there. The great empires of Akkad and Ur must have been in his mind when he decided to attack his old friend Zimri-Lim; accused of not having taken Hammurabi's side in his war against Eshnunna.

Mari and Malgum he overthrew in battle and made Mari and… also several other cities of Subartu by a friendly agreement (listen) to his orders. (Year-formula 32.)

These last words seem to indicate that Zimri-Lim did not lose his throne but was made a vassal of Hammurabi. Two years later, however, the Babylonian troops were again sent to Mari, perhaps to quell a rebellion. This time the city wall was dismantled, the beautiful palace of Zimri-Lim was sacked and burnt down, and the great metropolis of the Middle Euphrates was turned into ruins (1761 B.C.).

Finally, in the thirty-sixth and thirty-eighth years of his reign Hammurabi ‘overthrew the army of the country Subartu (Assyria)’ and ‘defeated all his enemies as far as the country of Subartu’. What treatment was reserved for Assur we do not know. Somehow the Assyrian dynasty managed to survive, but the Assyrian domination in northern Iraq had come to an end.

Thus in ten years all but one of the five Mesopotamian kingdoms had successively disappeared, and Mesopotamia now formed one single nation under Babylonian rule. How far Hammurabi's power extended is difficult to say. A stele with his inscription is said to have been found near Diarbakr, in south-eastern Turkey,11 but Elam and Syria remained independent. In those days they were stronger countries and to subdue them would have required more time and forces than were at Hammu-rabi's disposal. The Babylonian monarch called himself ‘mighty King, King of Babylon, King of the whole country of Amurru, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters of the World’ but, wisely no doubt, he did not attempt to gain effective control over ‘the Universe’.

The Lawgiver

While achieving by arms the unity of Mesopotamia, Hammu-rabi carried out a series of administrative, social and religious measures which aimed at concentrating in his hands and in those of his successors the government of a nation made up of several ethnic groups and conspicuous for the multiplicity of its laws and customs, the complexity of its pantheon and the persistence of local traditions and particularism. Domestic affairs were handled by the king with the same mixture of ruthless energy and astute moderation as he so successfully used in his foreign policy. A corpus of letters exchanged between Hammu-rabi and two high officials residing in Larsa shows that they were subjected to a very strict royal control.12 On the other hand, the Babylonians may have had an illusion of self-government since in each city the administration that judged petty court cases, collected taxes and handled purely local affairs was composed of the mayor (rabiânum), the Elders, the assembly of wealthy and influential citizens and the ‘chamber of commerce’ (kârum). But the more important tasks (managing the royal estates, seeing to it that that the regional resources were exploited properly) were performed by officials appointed by the monarch and occasionally inspected by royal inspectors. Soldiers were garrisoned in the main towns where they acted as police force, army reserve and guards of labourers engaged in public works; these troops were placed under a high-ranking officer called ‘inspector of the Amorites’ (wâkil amurri). An ‘inspector of the merchants’ (wâkil tamkari) represented the king at the meetings of the kârum. Towards the middle of his reign, the monarch went a step further in his dictatorship: he extended his control over the judges of the temples who from then on called themselves on their seal ‘servant of Hammurabi’ instead of the traditional ‘servant or such or such god’.13 In order to legalize his dynasty and to curtail any future claim to the kingship over Sumer and Akkad, Hammurabi gave the god of Babylon, Marduk – hitherto a third-rank deity – a high rank in the pantheon; but he tactfully proclaimed that this rank had been conferred to Marduk by Anu and Enlil and that he, Hammu-rabi, had been ‘called’ by the same great gods ‘to promote the welfare of the people’.14Docile to royal instructions, the priests rearranged divine genealogies, endowed Marduk with the qualities of other gods. Yet the old Sumero-Akkadian beliefs were not fundamentally altered. Everywhere, including Nippur, the temples were rebuilt, repaired or embellished in the true Mesopotamian royal tradition, and any steps that might have hurt the religious feelings of the population were carefully avoided.

The famous Code of Law issued by Hammurabi15

To cause justice to prevail in the country

To destroy the wicked and the evil,

That the strong may not oppress the weak,

can no longer be considered as ‘the most ancient in the world’ – we now possess similar documents from the reigns of Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar and Bilalama, not counting the ‘reforms’ of Urukagina – but it is still the most complete and as such deserves more than a few words. It should be stressed, however, that the word ‘Code’ is somewhat misleading, since we are not confronted here with a thorough legislative reform, nor with an exhaustive corpus of logically arranged legal dispositions, such as Justinian'sInstitutes or Napoleon's Code Civil. Indeed, the Mesopotamians were never ruled by any other system than a ‘common law’, handed down from reign to reign and occasionally modified to fit the social and economic conditions prevalent at a given period. One of the first acts of every ruler, at least since Urukagina, was to ‘ordain mêsharum’, a word which can be translated by ‘justice’, but which in this context covered a number of other things, such as remitting certain debts and obligations and fixing the prices of certain commodities – an efficient way of regulating the economy of the country. This is what is meant, for instance, by the formula of the second year of Hammurabi: ‘he established justice in the country‘, and a good example of a mêsharum-act has survived in the ‘edict’ of King Ammisaduqa, one of Hammurabi's successors, published in the late fifties (see Chapter 15). In all other matters the new king simply applied the laws of his predecessors, thereby ensuring a continuity in tradition which, in this domain as in others, was one of the main features of the Mesopotamian civilization.16 In the course of the reign, however, social and economic changes occurred which required the laws to be adjusted, and the king pronounced sentences on a number of isolated cases for which no precedent could be found. These royal decisions (dînat sharrim), duly recorded and eventually collected together to be used for reference by the judges of future generations, formed the so-called ‘Codes of Law’, and we possess several such copies of the Code of Hammurabi on clay tablets, ranging from the Old Babylonian period to the time of the Chaldean dynasty (sixth century B.C.).

Towards the end of his reign Hammurabi ordered his royal decisions to be carved on steles which were placed in temples, bearing witness that the king had performed his important function of ‘king of justice’ satisfactorily and had acted according to the gods' hearts. One of these steles, found in an excellent state of preservation, is in itself a remarkable work of art. Erected originally in the temple of Shamash at Sippar, it was taken to Susa as war booty by the Elamites in the twelfth century B.C., discovered there by the French in 1901 and transported to the Louvre Museum. It is an eight-foot-high stele of polished basalt, roughly conical in shape. On its upper part is carved a scene representing Hammurabi in the attitude of prayer facing a god – either Marduk or Shamash, the sun-god and god of justice – seated on his throne. The rest of the stele, front and back, is covered with vertical columns of text beautifully engraved and written in the purest Babylonian language. After a long prologue enumerating the religious deeds of the king, come at least 282 laws17 dealing with various offences, with trade and commerce, marriage, family and property, the fees and responsibilities of professional men, legal problems connected with agriculture, wages and rates of hire, and the sale and purchase of slaves. Finally, a long epilogue calls for divine punishments against whoever would deface the monument or alter ‘the just laws which Hammurabi, the efficient king, set up’.

It appears from the Code and various other documents that the Babylonian society was divided into three classes: free men (awêlu), mushkênu and slaves (wardu). The term mushkênum, here left untranslated, has been rendered by ‘plebeian’, ‘commoner’, ‘villein’ or ‘poor’ (cf. Arabic meskîn), but it seems to indicate, in fact, some kind of military or civilian ‘state dependant’ who submitted to certain obligations and restrictions in return for certain privileges.18 The slaves were recruited partly among prisoners of war and their descendants, partly among impoverished free men who sold themselves or their children to their creditors. Shaven and branded with a distinctive mark, they were considered as belonging to their masters, and severe penalties were pronounced against those who assisted or harboured fugitive slaves. Yet their condition was not as hopeless as one would imagine: they could be set free or adopted by their masters, and, as under the Third Dynasty of Ur, at least some of them could acquire property or even marry the daughters of free men (§§ 175 – 6). Fees and punishments varied according to the social condition. For instance, the cost of a life-saving operation was fixed at ten shekels of silver for an awêlum, five shekels for a mushkênum and two shekels for a slave (§§ 215 – 17). Similarly, ‘if a man has pierced the eye of an awêlum, they shall pierce his eye’, but ‘if he has pierced the eye or broken the bone of a mushkênum, he shall pay one mina of silver’, and in the case of a slave, one half of his value (§§ 196, 198, 199). Compensation in kind or money, which formed the basis of the Sumerian penal system, was now partly replaced by death, mutilation or corporal punishment, and when the victim or plaintiff was a free man the terrible Law of Retaliation was usually applied, even if the offence was unintentional. Thus:

If a surgeon performed a major operation on an awêlum with a bronze lancet and has caused the death of this man… they shall cut off his hand (§ 218).

If an architect built a house for an awêlum but did not make his work strong, and if the house that he built collapsed and has caused the death of its owner, that architect shall be put to death (§ 229).

If it has caused the death of a slave of the owner, he shall give slave for slave to the owner of the house (§ 231).

Cruel as it sometimes appears to civilized minds, the Code of Hammurabi, in many of its laws is surprisingly close to our modern ideas of justice. The laws concerned with family and property, in particular, represent a remarkable effort to protect women and children from arbitrary treatment, poverty and neglect, and if penalties, in this section also, are exceedingly severe, their application is mitigated by the admission of forgiveness and extenuating circumstances. The wife's adultery is punished by death, but the husband may pardon his spouse and the king her lover, thus saving them from being ‘bound together and thrown into the river’ (§ 129). The prisoner's wife who, in her husband's absence, has ‘entered the house of another man’ incurs no punishment if she has done so because ‘there was nothing to eat in her house’ (§ 134). A man may divorce his wife without giving her anything if she misbehaved (§ 141), but if he divorces her because she has not borne him sons, ‘he shall give her money to the value of her bridal gift and shall make good to her the dowry which she has brought from her father's house’19 (§ 138). The husband of a diseased woman may marry another woman, but he must keep his wife in his house and maintain her ‘so long as she lives’ (§ 148). When a man dies his property is divided between his sons, but his widow has the usufruct of this property (§ 171) and may dispose freely of any ‘field, plantation, house or chattel’ he may have given her (§ 150). When a woman dies her dowry does not return to her father, but goes to her sons (§ 162). Similar dispositions protect the sons of the ‘first wife’ against those of the ‘slave-girl’ or concubine and guarantee the children's rights against undeserved disherison (§ 168).

Another point of general interest in the Code is the frequent reference to the institution called ilkum (§§ 26 – 41). Apparently, persons of certain professions, such as the rêdum (gendarme), the ba'irum (sailor) or the nash biltim (literally ‘tribute-bearer’) received from the king corn, land, sheep and cattle in return for certain duties, the most explicit of which is military service. The fief (ilkum) thus acquired remained the personal property of the fief-holder throughout his life and was divided between his heirs after his death. It could not be sold nor assigned by the holder to his wife or daughters, though it could be used to pay his ransom if he was captured in the service of the king, or forfeited to a substitute if he refused to fulfil his military duties or deserted. Clearly then, the granting of an ilkum was not a simple reward for services rendered to the crown, but a measure probably introduced by Hammurabi himself20 to tie firmly to the land a number of his subjects and to create between them and the king a bond comparable to the feudal bond which, in medieval Europe, attached lord and liegeman.

Such are, very briefly, some of the main features of this famous Code. Less original perhaps than it was thought, it remains unique by its length, by the elegance and precision of its style and by the light it throws on the rough, yet highly civilized society of the period. Written in the last years of Hammurabi, it crowns his long and successful reign. Looking at this achievement, the King of Babylon could proudly proclaim:

I rooted out the enemy above and below;

I made an end of war;

I promoted the welfare of the land;

I made the people rest in friendly habitations;

I did not let them have anyone to terrorize them.

The great gods called me,

So I became the beneficent shepherd whose sceptre is righteous;

My benign shadow is spread over my city.

In my bosom I carried the people of the land of Sumer and Akkad;

They prospered under my protection;

I have governed them in peace;

I have sheltered them in my strength.21

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