Almost four thousand years ago, Hammurabi was the first Babylonian king of the first Babylonian Empire. At a time when most of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley was made up of little more than small city-states, Hammurabi created an empire from a previously insignificant city on the banks of the Euphrates.
While Sin-Muballit, Hammurabi’s father, had already begun to push the boundaries of Babylon a little outward, it was only after his abdication and Hammurabi's ascension to the throne that the flourishing Babylonian culture birthed ideas that have remained useful and vibrant to current day. For a millennium and a half—until the conquest of Alexander the Great—Babylon remained the cultural and religious center of Mesopotamia.
As king, Hammurabi's first project was a thirty year-long period of public works—something that today we would probably refer to as "investing in infrastructure". He reinforced the protective walls around the city, improved the city's temples, and built irrigation canals. (Sorry if this intro is a little long, but we historians tend to Babylon.)
Until Hammurabi became king, Mesopotamia had been a collection of city-states, with each jostling for power and wealth. When the nearby kingdom of Elam tried to start a war between Babylon and Larsa, Hammurabi was able to convince the Larsan king that the Elamites were playing both realms like a drum. (Evidently this was fairly standard behavior in ancient Mesopotamia, since the language used the same word for both diplomat and spy.)
Reluctant to start a war, Hammurabi went to his temples, where the priests consulted the entrails of sacrificial beasts. Confident that Shamash—the Sun God—was in favor, Hammurabi prepared for war.
Larsa and Babylon became allies and moved to attack Kish, a minor city-state within the Elamite kingdom. Surprisingly, Hammurabi did not destroy Kish, but laid siege to the city. After the defenders took refuge behind the city walls, the Babylonian army built a wooden dam across the Euphrates. Once sufficient water collected behind the dam, the wooden structure was pulled down, and the resulting flood destroyed the city’s irrigation canals and surrounding farms. Faced with starvation, Kish surrendered.
Since the usual method of warfare was to burn a defending town, this was—by comparison—a kinder and gentler form of war. Grateful to be spared, the defending soldiers of Kish willingly joined the army of Babylon. Almost immediately, Hammurabi turned his newly enlarged army against his ally, Larsa. Surviving letters indicate that Hammurabi was angry that Larsa had not fully contributed to the war, at least not to the satisfaction of Hammurabi.
Note: You are probably wondering how historians know so much about events that happened four millennia ago. Mesopotamia had a writing system, cuneiform impressions in a clay tablet. A surprising number of these survive, but we are especially indebted to the library of Mari, one of the city-states conquered by Hammurabi. Someone burned the library, turning all the clay tablets into hardened bricks. This is the only time in history that historians are happy a library burned. By far my favorite letter in the collection is from a king to his son, the acting governor of a province. The king tells his son to spend more time governing and less time in the harem.
The conflict against Kish set the pattern for most of the next decade. Hammurabi repeatedly used the resources and soldiers of a conquered territory to attack the next city-state—a pattern he continued until he had conquered or controlled most of the territory of Mesopotamia. Countries too remote to be occupied (such as Assyria) nevertheless were forced to pay annual tributes for peace. While neither the Pax Babylonia he imposed (nor his kingdom) would long endure after his death in 1750 B.C., the palace of Babylon would be envied by wanna-be kings for centuries.
Hammurabi left something else behind that is far more important than the ruins of Babylon: He left behind the first codified set of laws. The Code of Hammurabi is 282 legal precedents engraved onto a seven foot basalt stele, located today in the Louvre Museum in Paris. (And it is magnificent: If you go to the Louvre, spend your time with the Vermeers and the works of Velasquez and Goya and definitely see Hammurabi’s stele. Forget the Mona Lisa, however: it is only a very small painting hidden behind a vast sea of Japanese tourists with cameras.)
At the top of the stele, stands Hammurabi receiving the laws from a throned Shamash, the sun god. If this reminds you of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, scholars are still debating whether Hammurabi's Code was the basis of the commandments found in the book of Exodus (or whether both sets of laws were derived from even earlier legal codes).
The stele itself was originally probably located in front of the temple in Babylon. After Hammurabi’s death, the Elamites brought the monument to present day Iran, where a French archaeologist found it in 1901.
These laws cover every aspect of Babylonian life. They set payments/salaries and punishments for noblemen, freedmen, and slaves. Roughly a third of the laws deal with contracts, while other sections cover military service and household duties. Importantly, the laws include a presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to confront witnesses. One law specifies that bad judges should be fined and permanently removed from the bench. This is still a better legal code than you will find in half the civilized world (or even in France).
In the days of Hammurabi, there were multiple copies of the Code and they were available in every city. While most citizens were not literate, the copies were available to everyone—and that is what is important. Hammurabi was effectively saying, “Look! The laws are written in stone. Literally!"
This meant that the law was the same for everyone and it could not change just because some official wanted to administer the law for his own interpretation, or to give preference to his friends. Justice demanded uniform enforcement for everyone. As a human invention, that ranks right up there with fire and pockets on shirts.
One of the more difficult concepts I tried to teach my students was that peace was never the absence of fighting: it is the presence of justice. In a very real way, Hammurabi brought peace to Mesopotamia.
I was reminded of all this last month as I saw a candidate for the Supreme Court undergoing questioning in front of a Senate Committee. One of the senators asked the prospective judge if he would pledge to support the “little guy”. Obviously, the judicial candidate declined, saying instead, that he would support the law.
If Hammurabi were to remake that 4,000 year old legal document to be in line with today's penchant for politically correct thought, it would be written in chalk...On a rubber blackboard.