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The Code of Hammurabi

hammurabi.jpg (7560 bytes)During the first two decades of his forty-two year reign (1792-1750B.C.), Hammurabi fortified several cities in northern Babylonia. In 1764, Babylon defeated the coalition of Elam, Subartu and Eshnunna. By 1762, Hammurabi claimed to have "established the foundations of Sumer and Akkad, a phrase borrowed from Sumerian royal hymns to express the ideal of pan-Babylonian rule. With the conquest of Mari in 1759, virtually all of Mesopotamia had come under Babylonian rule.

Hammurabi's rigidly centralized system prospered from tribute and taxes, both used to compensate state dependents and to finance extensive state irrigation and building projects. However, these projects placed a heavy fiscal load on subject territories and created a mood of disenchantment with the state. Following Hammurabi's death, distant provinces broke away immediately and the continued loss of revenues weakened the crown. In an attempt to slow down the tendency toward disintegration, the bureaucracy was expanded. In the end, Hammurabi's successors became figureheads dependent on locally controlled goods and resources. The outcome was somewhat predictable: centralized institutions collapsed, autonomous local groups reasserted control, and the city-state pattern once again prevailed.

The Code of Hammurabi is the longest surviving text from the Old Babylonian period. Almost completely preserved, the code is far more significant in legal history than any of its forerunners, such as that of Ur-Nammu. 282 laws, carved in forty-nine columns on a basalt stele, address a variety of topics in civil, criminal, and commercial law. Like other Near Eastern codes. Hammurabi's does not attempt to cover all possible legal situations. In its epilogue, Hammurabi describes the code as "laws of Justice" intended to clarify the rights of any "oppressed man."

You will find complete versions of the Code of Hammurabi online at: The Avalon Project (Yale University Law School) and Exploring Ancient World Cultures (Evansville).

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copyright 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- August 03, 2009
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