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Ancient Near East - Babylon and King Hammurabi

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


The kings who came before Hammurabi had ruled a relatively minor city-state that was created in about 1854 B.C. Their kingdom controlled little territory outside the city itself. These kings managed to gradually create a state incorporating previously independent northern cities such as Sippar, Kish, Dilbat, and Marad. Babylonia was hemmed in by the more prominent states of Eshnunna, Larsa, and the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia. When Hammurabi became king in 1792 B.C., Rim-Sin had just unified the entirety of southern Babylonia while Shamshi-Adad reigned supreme in the north. Hammurabi may at first have even owed allegiance to Shamshi-Adad. But, Hammurabi would usher in the “Old Babylonian Period”, the beginning of Babylon's political dominance over southern Mesopotamia for the next 1500 years.

The first few decades of Hammurabi's reign were quite peaceful. He used his power to dig canals, expand temples, and fortify cities. When he decided to act militarily, his actions would be short but devastating; while using his considerable diplomatic skills.

In 1801 B.C., the powerful kingdom of Elam attacked and destroyed the kingdom of Eshnunna, destroying a number of cities and imposing its rule on portions of the fertile plain for the first time. In order to consolidate its position, Elam tried to start a war between Babylon and Larsa. Hammurabi and Rim-Sin discovered this manipulation and made an alliance with each other to attack Elam. They were able to successfully crush the Elamites, although Larsa did not contribute greatly to the military effort. Angered by Rim-Sin's failure to come to his aid, Hammurabi turned on his ally and gained control of the Lower Mesopotamian plain.

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. As a result, he turned to the north and defeated Eshnunna and Mari in quick succession. Eshnunna he left without a leader, while he blocked Elam's ability to exercise any influence over Mesopotamia, where he campaigned twice in later years without fully controlling the region. There is no doubt, however, that he was the strongest king in Mesopotamia. After these events, he could proclaim himself “The king who made the four quarters of the Earth obedient”.

The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi was not the earliest surviving law code, it was predated by the Code of Ur-Nammu, as mentioned earlier, but it was one of the first law codes to place restrictions on what a wronged person was allowed to do in retribution. Earlier Sumerian law codes focused on compensating the victim of a crime, but the Code of Hammurabi instead focused on physically punishing the perpetrator.

This code 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 in Iran, and is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The 2-meter high black diorite stele contains about 300 statements, all structured on the same pattern: “If..., Then...” For example, “If a man commits a robbery and is caught, that man will be killed.” While dealing with many areas of life, the entries do not, by far, cover all possible crimes, and there are even some contradictions. Moreover, the many legal documents of the period, including records of law cases, never make reference to the code.

The function of the law code itself has been debated, but consensus is growing that the modern designation of it is wrong: It is not a code of law, but a monument presenting Hammurabi as an exemplary king of justice. He says himself:

“May any wronged man who has a case come before my statue as king of

justice, and may he have my inscribed stele read aloud to him. May he examine

his lawsuit and may he calm his (troubled) heart. May he say: Hammurabi...

provided just ways for the land.”

During the reign of Hammurabi, Babylon usurped the position of “most holy city” in southern Mesopotamia from the city-state Nippur. By the end of his reign, Hammurabi had fundamentally altered the political layout of Mesopotamia. Babylonia was the single great power, surrounded by weak remnants of formerly great rivals: Elam, Eshnunna, and Assur. Only in Western Syria were states such as Yamhad unaffected by his actions. His unification was short-lived, however. Only ten years after his death, his son Samsu-iluna faced a major rebellion and the empire began to collapse.

Hammurabi's ineffectual successors eventually met with further defeats and loss of territory at the hands of the Assyrians, until the kingdom was reduced to the small and minor state it had once been upon its founding. Stability would return, and Babylon would be ruled by kings for the next 155 years until the rise of the Hittite Empire. They would sack the city in 1595 B.C. and turn over Babylon to their Kassite allies, a people from the Zagros Mountains.


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