The Code of Hammurabi

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The Code of Hammurabi relief

In the photo above, Hammurabi is depicted standing, receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash. (Babylonian sun god and god of law and justice) His hand is over his mouth as a sign of prayer. (note the similarity to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments) Hammurabi was the ruler who chiefly established the greatness of Babylon, the world’s first metropolis. Many relics of Hammurabi’s reign (1795-1750 BC) have been preserved, and today we can study this remarkable King as a wise (supreme) judge in his celebrated code. The small stele (8 feet tall pillar) is in the Louvre, one of the great treasures of the collection. In 1901, Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan, found the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi in what is now Kh?zest?n, Iran (ancient Susa, Elam), where it had been taken as plunder by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the 12th century BC. It was clearly meant to be a public monument and it shows some signs of wear although it is in remarkably good condition given its ancient age. The photo below is the first row of text below the carving in the intro picture, the words are separated by lines and read left to right.

The Code of Hammurabi prologue
The Code of Hammurabi stele

The text is written in cuneiform script and the Akkadian language. It is divided into three parts:
– a historical prologue relating the investiture of King Hammurabi in his role as “protector of the weak and oppressed,” and the formation of his empire and achievements;
– a lyrical epilogue summing up his legal work and preparing its perpetuation in the future;
– these two literary passages frame a text describing 282 laws and legal decisions governing daily life in the kingdom of Babylon. The legal part of the text uses everyday language and is here simplified, for the king wanted it to be understood by all. However, the legal decisions are all constructed in the same manner: a phrase in the conditional sets out a problem of law or social order; it is followed by a response in the future tense, in the form of the sanction for the guilty party or the settlement of a situation: “Should an individual do such and such a thing, such and such a thing will happen to him or her.” For practical purposes this was a public law library, citing precedents that had been decided by King Hammurabi and in the process showing how fair and impartial he was (and by inference what a great king he was). The last words are:

That the strong might not injure the weak
In order to protect the widows and orphans
I have in Babylon…
Set up these my precious words
Written upon my memorial stone…

Grouped together in chapters, the issues addressed cover criminal and civil laws. The principal subjects are family law, slavery, and professional, commercial, agricultural and administrative law. Economic measures set prices and salaries. The longest chapter concerns the family, which formed the basis of Babylonian society. It deals with engagement, marriage and divorce, adultery and incest, children, adoption and inheritance, and the duties of children’s nurses. Every aspect of each case is addressed, enabling the greatest number of observations to be made.

Several inferences can be made from from all of this. First the King is not capricious and has received divine authorization for his actions. Second, stele represents the establishment of a “common law” system in which precedent establishes the law for different situations with a common set of facts. The body of precedent (in this case the stele) is called “common law” and it binds future decisions. Even today, English law is based on the same principle. This was a pretty bold move for Hammurabi, since it implied he would have to defend his future actions based on what happened in the past. For the first time, people were presumed innocent until proven guilty and both accuser and accused had to give evidence. This was a very influential document and was copied by scribes for over one thousand years. Even the founding fathers of the United States must have read it since the Declaration of Independence reads a lot like the prologue of the Code of Hammurabi and statues of him are all over Washington DC.

Almost 200 years before the creation of Hammurabi’s Code, the Sumerian King Lipit-Ishtar around 1934 B.C. created a set of laws that Hammurabi’s Code may have drawn from. It is known that King Darius of Persia created a set of laws based on Hammurabi’s Code and the Greeks (possibly others) studied those laws.

Tigris and Euphrates

Because the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provide such fertile farmland, people have always wanted to live there. Ur, the city of Abraham and the capital of Sumer in the southern region of Mesopotamia was thriving by the year 2000 BC. About 200,000 people lived in Ur. Babylon, which is about 55 miles south of today’s Baghdad, was an even larger city by 1750 BC. When Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon (about the time Abraham left Ur for his journey to Uran in the north and then to Canaan), the people of the Fertile Crescent were not unified under a single government. The Tigris-Euphrates cities independently governed themselves. Alongside Babylonia there must also be a mention of Assyria, which bordered Babylonia on the north. Assyria’s development was often intertwined with the course of Babylonian history. About 1270 BC, the Assyrians overpowered Babylonia. For the next 700 years, Babylonia was a lesser power as the Assyrians dominated the ancient world.

Around 626 BC, Babylonian independence was finally won from Assyria by a leader named Nabopolassar. In 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II, the son of Nabopolassar, became ruler and reigned for 44 years. Under him the Babylonian Empire reached its greatest strength. Using the treasures which he took from other nations, Nebuchadnezzar built Babylon, the capital city of Babylonia, into one of the leading cities of the world. Babylonian influence is pervasive throughout the works of such Greek poets as Homer and Hesiod and in the geometry of Euclid and Pythagorus. Most of the Jews in the world today study from the Talmud which was written by Jewish Rabbis in ancient Babylon.

Pythagoras' Theorem

Pythagoras (570 B.C. – 500 B.C.) was the first Greek to become a disciple of Egyptian priests and decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphic. He was also captured in 525 B.C. by Cambyses (son of the King Cyrus of Persia) and sent to Babylon. What is perhaps most noteable, however, is that while in Babylon he was taught their mathematics and science, and the right-angle theory that history has attributed him as having discovered (Pythagoras’ Theorem) had, in reality, already been in use in the region of Babylon/Assyria for 1300 years.

Every builder (ancient or modern) knows this theorem by the “3-4-5 rule”. Take a 3 foot stick, a 4 foot stick and a 5 foot stick, put them together and you get a right angle (it doesn’t have to be feet…hands, fingers, whatever).

Behistun Inscription and Darius I

Babylon was again conquered as part of the empire built by King Darius I or Darius the the Great of Persia. He is best known for his defeat at the hands of the Spartans at Marathon. In October 486 BCE the body of Darius was embalmed and entombed in the rock-cut sepulcher which had been prepared for him several years earlier. As you can see in the photo Of Darius I to the left, he also left an inscription that begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy description of his reign, all written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian). He actulally removed the ledge that was used to create the inscription to prevent vandalism in the future. In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script. The script became known as the “Behistun Inscription”.

In 1835, Sir Henry Rawlinson, an officer of the British East India Company army assigned to the forces of the Shah of Iran, began studying the inscription in earnest. As the town of Bisutun’s name was anglicized as “Behistun” at this time, the monument became known as the “Behistun Inscription”. Despite its relative inaccessibility, Rawlinson was able to scale the cliff and copy the Old Persian inscription. The Elamite was across a chasm, and the Babylonian four meters above; both were beyond easy reach and were left for later. After a long process, the words above Darius’ tomb – referred to as the Behistun Inscription, were deciphered.

The Code of Hammurabi text fragment

Because Sir Henry Rawlinson and other scholars had solved the cuneiform mystery about fifty years before French archeologists found Hammurabi’s stele, Jean-Vincent Scheil was able to translate Hammurabi’s laws within six months. It was Scheil who organized the laws as we see them today. A close-up of the writing is shown in the photo above. Every square centimeter of the stone is covered with writing, who knows, maybe there were 300 laws and they only had room for 282, although there are clay tablets with the same laws.

I will include a few interesting facts about the Babylonians to finish up;

Sumerians created an efficient system of mathematics based on the number 60 (called sexagesimal). It enabled them easily to divide into tiny fractions and to multiply with equal ease into the millions and to calculate roots and raise numbers by any power. The 60-second minute and 60-minute hour are two vestiges remaining from the original system. So are the 360-degree circle, the 12-inch foot, and the dozen.

Both the Babylonians and Assyrians divided a full day into twelve double hours (based on the sexagesimal notational system) which we’ve come to know as the 12 hours of A.M. and 12 hours of P.M.. What is interesting is that even today we keep track of time in the same manner (such as with watches, clocks and time kept on computers).