Hammurabi was the 6th king of the empire known as Babylon, he inherited the throne in 1792 BC. Shamshi-Adad was ruler in the North of Babylon at that time and Rim-Sin had just unified the south. Hammurabi had even owed allegiance to Shamshi-Adad in the beginning of his reign but soon he started a period now called “the Old Babylonian Period”, the beginning of Babylon’s dominance over southern Mesopotamia for the next 1500 years.
In the early years of his reign his name is mentioned in conflicts against all his powerful neighbors but there was never a significant outcome. Most of his attention was directed inwards, towards the development of his state, mainly digging irrigation canals, fortifying cities, expanding temples and heightening city walls. Only after this was achieved did he turn his attention fully to a wider scale, his military activities were short but devastating. In the years 1766 – 1761 BC he established full dominance over southern Mesopotamia and he quickly defeated small city states left in the area. Only the north of Mesopotamia stayed relatively free of his early political campaigns, after two campaigns his grasp on the area was strained at best, Hammurabi was however, beyond a doubt, the most powerful king of Mesopotamia.He proclaimed himself to be “the king who made the four quarters of the earth obedient.”
The core of Hammurabi’s considerable state was Babylon, this city thrived under his rule as he was meticulous as a ruler. Unfortunately all our information about Babylon comes from records in other cities because there is virtually no archeological evidence of the city. Many of the primary sources are letter writer by Hammurabi to agents who were loyal in these other cities.
Hammurabi’s ideology was simple but strong, he considered himself to be a shepherd and a farmer. This ideology is expressed in one of the most famous monuments from ancient Mesopotamia; “the Hammurabi law code”. The monument is a 2 meter high diorite stele almost completely covered with texts. Between the prologue and the epilogue there are some 300 statements, all formulated in the “If…, then…”pattern and described various criminal offenses and their punishments. The first written laws in the world. The philosophy behind these codes appear to be based on the ideas of ‘an eye for an eye’ but also the presumed innocence of a person. The accuser has to provide evidence of guilt before judgment is given.
An important section in this code:
“I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose scepter is just.
My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap.”
The function of this monument seems straightforward but there has been much debate and general consensus now is that this monument is not meant as a code of law but as a monument presenting Hammurabi as an exemplary king of justice. In his own words:
“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 hear my precious words and may my stele clarify his case for him. May he examine has lawsuit and may he calm his (troubled) heart. May he say: “Hammurabi …. Provided just ways for the land”.”
The stele not only provided justice but it also provides us insights into Babylonian society at that time. The stele shows a stratified society in which three major groups occur. The first is the group of awilum, or free men, then the mushkenum, or the dependents, and lastly the wardum, the slaves. Punishments for the same crimes varied according to the criminals and victims status. Injuries to a free man were punishes harder then injuries to a slave. However, we have to keep in mind that these punishments and terms were not absolute.
On the stele at the top we see Hammurabi receiving these law from a god (perhaps Marduk) and in the text it is stated that Hammurabi was chosen to deliver these laws to man. It was found in Persia in 1901 and is now on display at the museum in Paris.
By the end of his reign Hammurabi had singlehandedly altered the political layout of Mesopotamia. Babylon was now the single most greatest power, surrounded by weaker remnants of once powerful city states, such as Elam, Eshnuma and Assur. However, this unification was short-lived, only ten years after Hammurabi’s son, Samsuiluna, had ascended the throne did he face a great rebellion in the south of Babylon.
Although Samsuiluna won the fight, he lost full control of the south of Babylon and this was never restored. In Samsuiluna’s 30th year on the throne many cities conquered by his father were no longer in his control. Strangely enough these cities were not just lost politically, according to archeological evidence these cities were completely abandoned. This was perhaps a result of the ferocious response of Samsuiluna to the rebellion and these areas were too damaged and destroyed to sustain any further occupation.
However, in the northern areas Hammurabi’s descendents ruled for another 100 years.