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Born c. 1792 BC ( middle)
Died c. 1686 BC ( middle)
Occupation Monarch
Title King of Babylon
Successor Samsu-Iluna

Hammurabi ( Akkadian from Amorite ˤAmmurāpi, "the kinsman is a healer," from ˤAmmu, "paternal kinsman," and Rāpi, "healer"; (ca. 1792 – 1686 BC middle chronology) was the sixth king of Babylon. He became the first king of the Babylonian Empire, extending Babylon's control over Mesopotamia by winning a series of wars against neighboring kingdoms. Although his empire controlled all of Mesopotamia at the time of his death, his successors were unable to maintain his empire.

Hammurabi is known for the set of laws called Hammurabi's Code, one of the first written codes of law in recorded history. These laws were written on a stone tablet standing over eight feet tall (2.4 meters) that was found in 1901. Owing to his reputation in modern times as an ancient law-giver, Hammurabi's portrait is in many government buildings throughout the world.


Map showing the Babylonian territory upon Hammurabi's ascension in c. 1728 BC and upon his death in c. 1686 B.C.

Hammurabi was a First Dynasty king of the city-state of Babylon, and inherited the power from his father, Sin-muballit, in ca. 1728 B.C.. Babylon was one of the many ancient city-states that dotted the Mesopotamian plain and waged war on each other for control of fertile agricultural land. Though many cultures co-existed in Mesopotamia, Babylonian culture gained a degree of prominence among the literate classes throughout the Middle East. The kings who came before Hammurabi had begun to consolidate rule of central Mesopotamia under Babylonian hegemony and, by the time of his reign, had conquered the city-states of Borsippa, Kish, and Sippar. Thus Hammurabi ascended to the throne as the king of a minor kingdom in the midst of a complex geopolitical situation. The powerful kingdom of Eshnunna controlled the upper Tigris River while Larsa controlled the river delta. To the east lay the kingdom of Elam. To the north, Shamshi-Adad I was undertaking expansionistic wars, although his untimely death would fragment his newly conquered Semitic empire.

The first few decades of Hammurabi's reign were relatively peaceful. Hammurabi used his power to undertake a series of public works, including heightening the city walls for defensive purposes, and expanding the temples. In ca. 1702 B.C., the powerful kingdom of Elam, which straddled important trade routes across the Zagros Mountains, invaded the Mesopotamian plain. With allies among the plain states, Elam attacked and destroyed the empire of Eshnunna, destroying a number of cities and imposing its rule on portions of the plain for the first time. In order to consolidate its position, Elam tried to start a war between Hammurabi's Babylonian kingdom and the kingdom of Larsa. Hammurabi and the king of Larsa made an alliance when they discovered this duplicity and were able to crush the Elamites, although Larsa did not contribute greatly to the military effort. Angered by Larsa's failure to come to his aid, Hammurabi turned on that southern power, thus gaining control of the entirety of the lower Mesopotamian plain by ca. 1699 B.C.

As Hammurabi was assisted during the war in the south by his allies from the north, the absence of soldiers in the north led to unrest. Continuing his expansion, Hammurabi turned his attention northward, quelling the unrest and soon after crushing Eshnunna. Next the Babylonian armies conquered the remaining northern states, including Babylon's former ally Mari, although it is possible that the 'conquest' of Mari was a surrender without any actual conflict. In just a few years, Hammurabi had succeeded in uniting all of Mesopotamia under his rule. Of the major city-states in the region, only Aleppo and Qatna to the west in Syria maintained their independence. However, one stele of Hammurabi has been found as far north as Diyarbekir, where he claims the title "King of the Amorites".

Vast numbers of contract tablets, dated to the reigns of Hammurabi and his successors, have been discovered, as well as 55 of his own letters. These letters give a glimpse into the daily trials of ruling an empire, from dealing with floods and mandating changes to a flawed calendar, to taking care of Babylon's massive herds of livestock. Hammurabi died and passed the reins of the empire on to his son Samsu-Iluna in ca. 1686 B.C.

Code of laws

The upper part of the stele of Hammurabi's code of laws

Hammurabi is best known for the promulgation of a new code of Babylonian law: the Code of Hammurabi. This was written on a stele, a large stone monument, and placed in a public place so that all could see it, although it is thought that few were literate. The stele was later plundered by the Elamites and removed to their capital, Susa; it was rediscovered there in 1901 and is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The code of Hammurabi contained 252 laws, written by scribes on 12 tablets. Unlike earlier laws, it was written in Akkadian, the daily language of Babylon, and could therefore be read by any literate person in the city.

An inscription of the Code of Hammurabi

The structure of the code is very specific, with each offense receiving a specified punishment. The punishments tended to be harsh by modern standards, with many offenses resulting in death, disfigurement, or the use of the " Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" ( Lex Talionis "Law of Retaliation") philosophy. Putting the laws into writing was important in itself because it suggested that the laws were immutable and above the power of any earthly king to change. The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence. However, there is no provision for extenuating circumstances to alter the prescribed punishment.

A carving at the top of the stele portrays Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash, and the preface states that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods of his people to bring the laws to them. Parallels to this divine inspiration for laws can be seen in the laws given to Moses for the ancient Hebrews. Similar codes of law were created in several nearby civilizations, including the earlier neo-Sumerian example of Ur-Nammu's code, and the later Hittite code of laws.

Legacy and depictions

Under the rules of Hammurabi's successors, the Babylonian Empire was weakened by military pressure from the Hittites, who sacked Babylon around 1531 BC. However it was the Kassites who eventually conquered Babylon and ruled Mesopotamia for 400 years, adopting parts of the Babylonian culture, including Hammurabi's code of laws.

Because of Hammurabi's reputation as a lawgiver, his depiction can be found in several U.S. government buildings. Hammurabi is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. An image of Hammurabi receiving the Code of Hammurabi from the Babylonian sun god (probably Shamash) is depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

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