Hammurabi and the rise of Babylon
Stele with law code of Hammurabi, ca. 1780 B.C.
For a brief period, Hammurabi, the King of the city-state of Babylon, was able to re-establish a centralized government in southern Mesopotamia. He is perhaps the most famous king of Mesopotamia. He was about 25 years old when he came to the throne. He remains famous today because he also established a written code of law.
The law was carved in basalt on a stele (or upright stone slab). It stands approximately 7 ft 4 in high — it is large piece. At the very top is a carved relief sculpture showing the sun god [Shamash] bestowing blessings to Hammurabi. The identity of the sun god indicated by flames at the shoulder. Symbols of divine power — the ring and the staff — are being given to Hammurabi. Hammurabi is gesturing respect; his hand is raised in prayer. Both figures have their head depicted in profile, while their body is partially turned. The god takes on a human form, but is larger than the king and is seated on a throne. This is an indication of relative power. Still the King and the god make direct eye contact, which suggests that Hammurabi is a worthy and respected King. Indeed, the King's head is actually a little higher than Shamash's, and this may be a little subversive! Still, the most important point is that the art shows that the law of the land was not created by man, but created by god and transmitted to the people by the King.
The Code of Hammurabi consists of approximately 280 clauses that cover three different types of crimes:
Criminal acts — manslaughter, theft, assault
Personal matters — slander, adoption, divorce
Economic transactions — land & labor contracts, irrigation rights, interest rates
Below are some examples from the Code of Hammurabi.
From: Linnea H. Wren, Perspectives on Western Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 10-12.
The Code of Hammurabi
The Laws of the King
If a man has taken up a field for cultivation and then has not raised corn on the field, they shall convict him of not having done the necessary work on the field, and he shall give corn corresponding to the crops raised by his neighbours to the owner of the field.
If he has not cultivated the field but leaves it waste, he shall give corn corresponding to the crops raised by his neighbours to the owner of the field and shall plough the field, which he has left waste and harrow it, and he shall render it to the owner of the field. . .
If a man incurs a debt and Adad [storm god] inundates his field or a flood has carried away the soil or else if corn is not raised on the field through lack of water, in that year he shall not render any corn to his creditor; he shall blot out the terms inscribed on his tablet and shall not pay interest for that year.
If a man has opened his trench for irrigation and has been slack and so has let the waters carry away the soil on his neighbour’s field, he shall pay corn corresponding to the amount of the crop which his neighbour has raised.
If a man has released the waters and so has let the waters carry away the works on his neighbour’s field, he shall pay 10 gur of corn for every bur (of land).
If a married lady is caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and cast them into the water; if her husband wishes to let his wife live, then the king shall let his servant live.
If a man wishes to divorce his first wife who 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 and so divorce her. . . .
If a married lady who is dwelling in a man’s house sets her face to go out of doors and persists in behaving herself foolishly wasting her house and belittling her husband, they shall convict her and, if her husband then states that he will divorce her, he may divorce her; nothing shall be given to her as her divorce-money on her journey. If her husband states that he will not divorce her, her husband may marry another woman; that woman shall dwell as a slave-girl in the house of her husband.
If a woman has hated her husband and states “Thou shalt not have the natural use of me,” the facts of her case shall be determined in her district and, if she has kept herself chaste and has no fault, while her husband is given to going about out of doors and so has greatly belittled her, that woman shall suffer no punishment; she may take her dowry and go to her father’s house.
If she has not kept herself chaste but is given to going about out of doors, will waste her house and so belittle her husband, they shall cast that woman into the water. . . .
If a man has put out the eye of a free man, they shall put out his eye.
If he breaks the bone of a free man, they shall break his bone.
If he puts out the eye of a villein or breaks the bone of a villein, he shall pay 1 maneh of silver.
If he puts out the eye of a free man’s slave or breaks the bone of a free man’s slave, he shall pay half his price.
If a man knocks out the tooth of a free man equal in rank to himself, they shall knock out his tooth.
If he knocks out the tooth of a villein, he shall pay ½ maneh of silver.
If a man strikes the cheek of a free man who is superior in rank to himself, he shall be beaten with sixty stripes with a whip of ox-hide in the assembly.
If the man strikes the cheek of a free man equal to himself in rank, he shall pay 1 maneh of silver.
If a villein strikes the cheek of a villein, he shall pay 10 she kels of silver.
If the slave of a free man strikes the cheek of a free man, they shall cut off his ear. . . .
These are the just laws which Hammurabi the able king has established and thereby has enabled the land to enjoy stable governance and good rule.
From the language of these laws, we can also see that the there were three major social classes in Babylon: