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Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi ruled the kingdom of Babylon, a part of Mesopotamia. He gave the world one of its oldest sets of laws. Archaeologists found the Code (collection of laws) of Hammuraabi carved on a black stone slab. “An eye for an eye” was the rule of the day. People who hurt others could expect the same fate or worse. The code also dealt with business and civilization issues. An example of Hammurabi’s code: If a builder builds a house for someone and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
The collection of rules was compiled toward the end of the forty-three year reign of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 B.C.E.), sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon, the king who directed the great political expansion of the empire and organized a complex and sophisticated government and military bureaucracy to administer it. He defeated powerful rival kingdoms and extended his political and diplomatic influence throughout the ancient Near East.
The code of Hammurabi is the longest and best organized of the law collections from Mesopotamia. It draws on the traditions of earlier law collections and doubtless influenced those that came later. The composition consists of a lengthy prologue, between 275 and 300 law provisions, and an epilogue. The prologue stresses the gods’ appointment of Hammurabi as ruler of his people, his role as guardian and protector of the weak and powerless, and his care and attention to the cultic needs of the patron deities of the many cities incorporated into his realm. The laws of this composition, inscribed on imposing black stone stelas, stand as evidence of Hammurabi’s worthiness to rule.
The complex first provision of the Laws of Hammurabi (LH) involve homicide and serve to establish immediately the state’s right to impose the death penalty on a subject: LH 1 If a man accuses another man and charges him with homicide but then cannot bring proof against him, his accuser shall be killed. In formulating LH 1 in this manner, a number of pieces of information about the legal system are revealed: that a private individual (and not necessarily only an official body or officer) may bring charges against another person; that such charges must be substantiated in some way; and that a false accuser suffers the penalty he sought for his intended victim.
The epilogue emphasizes the king as military leader who brings peace to his subjects. It explicitly states that these laws were inscribed on a stela and publicly displayed in order to testify to Hammurabi’s righteous and just rule, to bring consolation to anyone seeking justice, and to serve as an example for future rulers. It seeks blessings for Hammurabi from his successors and the beneficiaries of his legacy; it blesses them if they treat his Stella and laws with respect; and it brings down the terrible curses of the great gods against any who would violate the path Hammurabi opened or who would mutilate or desecrate his monument.
The LH is known from numerous manuscripts, copied and recopied over the centuries in the scribal centers of Mesopotamia. The most complete and famous exemplar is the black stone stela, now housed in the Musee du Louvre, Paris, excavated in 1901-1902 by archaeological teams working in the ancient Elamite capital Susa. The stela, one of several that were erected in Babylonian cities, was taken as booty to Susa in the twelfth century B.C.E. by the Elamite ruler Shutruk-Nahhunte I, probably from Sippar, from which he also plundered monuments of other Mesopotamian rulers. The Louvre stela, which forms the basis of every edition of the Laws, is a pillar of diorite almost seven and a half feet tall. On the top, covering almost one-third of the stela, is an imposing scene of the sun-god Shamash, god of justice, seated on his throne, and standing before him the king Hammurabi.
The precise interpretation of this scene-that the god is dictating the laws to the king, or that the king is offering the laws to the god, or that the king is accepting the rod and ring that are the emblems of temple-building and sovereignty-is debated, but the iconographic message it communicated to even the illiterate must have been clear: King Hammurabi and the god of justice Shamash together protect the people of Babylonia.
The physically imposing Louvre stela, like other monumental inscriptions of its time, is inscribed in an archaic ductus and in the direction employed earlier, before the script was turned ninety degrees counterclockwise; the visual impact of the script and the orientation, along with the archaizing, literary language used in the prologue and epilogue that frame the collection of rules, magnify the authority of the composition. The columns of the text inscribed on the stela are written in bands across the front and then the back of the circumference, beginning immediately below the throne of the god Shamash; the prologue and epilogue each occupy about five columns, and the series of legal provisions occupies about forty-one columns.
The changes during Old Babylonian period involved agriculture and landscapes, relevant old Babylonian records, socio-economic trends, local notables and officials and also notable women. The Tigris and Euphrates continued to be, the most actively shaping forces in ongoing, incessant processes of landscape formation and alteration. During late spring, floods, course avulsions were common through breaches in the river banks. Canal construction, whether for irrigation or for boat and barge bulk transport, has always been a significant contributing factor. Shifting overall pattern of canalized water withdrawals also contribute to second-order instabilities far downstream of particular instances of human intervention. Maps illustrating current, still evolving understandings of Tigris-Euphrates courses for the upper alluvium in Ur III – Old Babylonian times can be found for the northern alluvium. At around the end of Ur III, there is good evidence of major westward movements of some Euphrates courses, and also of apparently substantial reductions in the ancient Idigna branch of the Tigris.
The extension of much of the entire field of communications from state-controlled circles to wider, more heterogeneous, unofficial and private ones introduces the issue of ‘agency’. The agency probably does also induces a less narrowly focused interest in the products of routinized bureaucracy and opens the way to pursue ancient life-histories and to map their interactions systematically.
Several major socioeconomic features characterize the Old Babylonian period. The first and most ominous, mainly in the northern alluvium, was the onset of a growing impoverishment of the general population of agriculturalists. Land was at first widely for sale there, but as disparities grew a stratum of relatively wealthy creditors made its appearance. As holdings became even more concentrated in the hands of large organizations throughout Babylonia, and as palace and temple interconnections with these private bodies were forcefully supported by the king,the trends seem to have converged. Van de Mieroop is surely right to caution us
that “a constant interaction between rural and urban populations must have existed, and an antagonism between the two should not be assumed” An informal and unattested, as well as a formal flow of goods and acts of reciprocity was vital to both. Meanwhile, the convenience and flexibility of transactions conducted in silver led to a withering of royal interest in active economic intervention. The palace no longer generally accepted payments in kind.
A council of elders (Å¡Ï€botum) and popular assemblages (alum, karum, puIrum) became strong enough to have survived later even under Hammurabi’s overbearing control as “community organs of self-government that coexisted with the state”. Judges (who acted not individually but collectively) played a part, as sometimes did royal representatives with consensual dicisions on peace and war.
While men were the most active in business, some women collaborated with their husbands in real estate, slave and adoption transactions, and in jointly obtaining loans. Widows maintained some control of joint property after their husband’s death, and sons were obliged to support them during their lifetime.
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