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DISCovering Biography. 2003. Lexile Measure: 1080L.
Died: c. 1750 BC
Other Names: Hammurabi; Hammurabi, King of Babylon; Hammurapi, King of Babylon
Nationality: Babylonian
Occupation: King
Full Text: 

"If a man has put out the eye of another man, they shall put out his eye. " Code of Hammurabi

  • 1792 b.c. Hammurabi came to throne of Babylon
  • 1791 b.c. "Established justice in the country"
  • 1790 b.c. Constructed a throne for the main dais of the god Nanna in Babylon
  • 1789 b.c. Built the wall of the sacred precinct Gagia
  • 1785 b.c. Conquered Uruk and Isin
  • 1784 b.c. Conquered the country Emutbal
  • 1782 b.c. Conquered city and inhabitants of Malgia
  • 1764 b.c. Attacked by, and defeated, a coalition of Elam, Subartu, Gutium, and Eshnunna; thereby "made firm the foundations of Sumer and Akkad"
  • 1763 b.c. Attacked and overthrew Rim-Sin, last king of the dynasty of Larsa
  • 1762 b.c. Defeated another coalition of Eshnunna, Subartu, and Gutium; advanced along the Tigris as far as the frontier of Subartu; established his supremacy in all of southern and central Mesopotamia
  • 1761 b.c. Overthrew Mari and Malgi; dug canal providing "permanent water of plenty" for Nippur, Eridu, Ur, Larsa, Uruk, and Isin; reorganized Sumer and Akkad from "state of confusion"
  • 1759 b.c. Returned and destroyed the walls of both Mari and Malgi
  • 1757-55 b.c. Vanquished the army of Subartu; destroyed Eshnunna with a flood; conquered all enemies "up to the land Subartu"
  • 1750 b.c. Rule ended; son Samsuiluna succeeded in 1749 b.c.

The Life and Times of Hammurabi (c. 1792 B.C.-1750 B.C.)

At the time of Hammurabi's birth:

  • Egypt's 12th (Theban) Dynasty ended with the death of Amenemhet IV after 208 years and the power of the Egyptian king declines
At the time of Hammurabi's death:
  • The great Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa collapsed as the soil of the region becomes too saline to support extensive crop growth after centuries of crude irrigation
The times:
  • 2000 B.C.-1375 B.C.: Minoan civilization of Greece
  • 1994 B.C.-1523 B.C.: Xia Dynasty of China

King of Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, whose "Law Code" encompassed a variety of reforms and rulings, ranging from the death penalty to regulation of wages.

Contributed by Eric H. Cline, Lecturer, California State University, Fresno, California

Name variations: occasionally spelled Hammurapi. Sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon, ruled c. 1792-1750 b.c.; son of Sin-muballit; married; children: Samsuiluna and others; Descendants: Abieshuh, Ammiditana, Ammisaduqa, Samsuditana. Predecessor: Sin-muballit. Successor: Samsuiluna.

One of the most famous rulers of the ancient world, Hammurabi is thought to have ruled during the first half of the 18th century b.c. for 43 years (c. 1792-50 b.c.). This dynasty of Amorite rulers formally began with King Sumuabum in c. 1894 b.c. and ended with the Hittite sack of Babylon in 1595 b.c., during the reign of King Samsuditana.

Under the leadership and aggressive policies of Hammurabi, Babylon rose to preeminence in Mesopotamia. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near the head of the modern Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia in Greek literally means "between the rivers." During the course of his reign, Hammurabi centralized the government, formed a standing army, implemented a legal system, and acquired much territory and needed raw materials. The empire was based upon political and military alliances, however, which were constantly shifting, and it did not last long past Hammurabi's death. Although short-lived, Hammurabi's Babylon left a lasting legacy, for later texts still called the region "the Land of Babylon," and refer to the Akkadian language as Babylonian.

When Hammurabi came to the throne of Babylon as the sixth king of the First Dynasty, he inherited from his father a fairly small kingdom, only 80 miles long and 20 miles wide, which was surrounded by larger states and powerful kings: Rim-Sin of Larsa to the south; the kingdoms of Mari, Ekallatum, and Assyria to the north; and the kingdom of Eshnunna to the east. For the first seven years of his rule, Hammurabi began slowly, shoring up things at home and putting his affairs in order. It was not until 1785 b.c. that he started to expand his kingdom, by conquering the neighboring cities of Uruk and Isin. The following year, 1784 b.c., Hammurabi conquered the small country of Emutbal and, in 1782 b.c., he crushed the city of Malgia. An 18-year period of relative peace followed, while Hammurabi fortified his cities and built and restored numerous temples. In 1764 b.c., however, Hammurabi was attacked by a coalition of neighboring cities and areas: Elam, Subartu (the north, including Assyria), Gutium, and Eshnunna. Defeating them handily, he also overthrew Rim-Sin, last king of the dynasty of Larsa, the following year. In 1762 b.c., Hammurabi faced, and defeated, another coalition of Eshnunna, Subartu, and Gutium. By the end of the year, he had advanced along the Tigris River as far as the frontier of Subartu, establishing his supremacy in all of southern and central Mesopotamia. Borrowing a phrase from earlier hymns to signify his rule over all (or most) of Mesopotamia, Hammurabi wrote that he "made firm the foundations of Sumer and Akkad."

Babylonians Control Mesopotamia

In 1761 and 1759 b.c., Hammurabi attacked his old friend and former ally Zimri-Lim of Mari, a city located on the Euphrates and a major stop on the caravan routes to the Mediterranean; now he did indeed have virtual control of all Mesopotamia. Campaigns during 1757-55 b.c., once again against Subartu and Eshnunna, marked the last major battles of Hammurabi's career. It is important to note that the major campaigns which established Babylonian supremacy over Mesopotamia took place during a period of less than ten years, but not until after Hammurabi had been ruled in Babylon for almost 30 years. The final days of his rule, until 1750 b.c., proceeded peacefully apparently, and Hammurabi was able to enjoy his self-described role as:

the powerful king, the sun of Babylon, who caused light to go forth over the lands of Sumer and Akkad; the king who caused the four quarters of the world to render obedience.

It is obvious, from his numerous campaigns against powerful neighboring cities and areas, that Hammurabi did not rule in a power vacuum. Recorded text indicates that he was not only a contemporary of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, but that Shamshi-Adad I, king of Assyria (c. 1813 b.c.-1781 b.c.), was also still on the throne during the time of Hammurabi. This evidence has important chronological implications, and helps to provide a skeletal frame for the relative dating of people, places, and events during the second millennium b.c. in the ancient Near East.

It must be noted, however, that the dates given above for Hammurabi's reign are not etched in stone and may be subject to change. Modern scholars have concocted three separate dating schemes for Babylonia at this time: the high, middle, and low chronologies. These are based on the so-called "Venus tablets" of Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi in Babylon. These tablets, written in the Babylonian dialect of the Akkadian language, are astronomical texts recording the movements of the planet Venus. Such observations are possible only once every 64 years, but there are three such cycles to which the tablets might be referring. Thus, Hammurabi's accession to the throne of Babylon might date to 1856, 1792, or 1728 b.c., depending upon which is used. Hammurabi's reign dates cited above (1792-50 b.c.) represent the middle, which is the most commonly accepted. It must be remembered, however, that this is merely a compromise in a very complex situation. The dates of Hammurabi are very important, since they are used as a keystone in dating other events in the ancient Near East during the period between 3000 and 1000 b.c. Any raising or lowering of Hammurabi's dates will have important ramifications for numerous other events which are dated only in terms of their relationship to his reign.

Hammurabi Devises Code of Laws

Above all, Hammurabi is probably best known for his "Code of Laws." The publication of this document was meant to depict him as a good "shepherd" of his people and as a model of a just king.

Anu and Entil named me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, the worshipper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to go forth like the sun over the black-headed people [the Babylonians], to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people.

Hammurabi's Code is the longest surviving text from this period of history in Mesopotamia, known as the Old Babylonian period. It is almost completely preserved, carved onto a seven-foot high stele (pillar) of black basalt that was found at the site of Susa in southwestern Iran by French archaeologists excavating in 1901-02. Now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, the stele had been carried off to Susa by Elamites who sacked the city of Babylon around 1200 b.c. At the top of the stele is a scene depicting Hammurabi in an attitude of prayer before Shamash, the sun-god and god of justice. Beneath this scene is an inscribed Prologue written by Hammurabi describing his intentions in causing this stele to be erected. The laws themselves are carved beneath the Prologue and take up most of the rest of the stele's surface, both front and back. Concerned with a variety of topics—including civil, criminal, and commercial law—there are fully 282 laws inscribed in 49 separate columns. The Code apparently does not attempt to cover all possible legal situations and may not have even been legally binding, for the "laws" seem to be royal decisions, rather than decisions by the law courts. It is not clear whether the laws represent customary laws, legal innovations, amendments to existing laws, or a combination of the above. H.W. Saggs divides the laws into topics as follows:

Administration of justice (5 sections). Offenses against property (20 sections). Land tenure (ca. 50 sections). Trade and commercial transactions (ca. 40 sections). The family as a social institution (68 sections). These laws cover such matters as adultery, marriage, concubinage, desertion, divorce, incest, adoption, and inheritance. Penalties for assault (20 sections). Professional services (16 sections). These concern rates of payment and penalties for unsatisfactory performance of services. Draught-oxen (16 sections). Agriculture (11 sections). Wages and rates of hire (10 sections). Ownership of slaves (5 sections).

Hammurabi's laws and edicts were not the first such "code" created in the ancient Near East (the Lawcode of Ur-Nammu, for instance, dates to c. 2100 b.c.), but they marked a considerable advance over previous attempts, containing two major changes from earlier codes. The first innovation is the so-called Principle of Talion (Lex Talionis), in which the punishment meted out was equal to the offense committed.

196. If a man has put out the eye of another man, they shall put out his eye. 197. If he breaks another man's bone, they shall break his bone.

The second change is the extreme harshness of the punishments, which included drowning, burning, impaling, and other mutilations. Previous law codes generally limited punishments to payments of silver or in kind. We should note, however, that the Code of Hammurabi does reflect (and provides detailed data about) Babylonian society, which at that time was primarily based upon ownership of agricultural land and the use of hired labor or slaves. The Code of Hammurabi specifies three basic social classes: free men (awilum), state dependents (mushkenum), and slaves (wardum). The punishments were allotted according to the social status of the participants. For instance, the law concerning the piercing of an eye was punishable with the loss of an eye only if the victim was a free man (awilum) or the son of a free man. If the victim was a state dependent (mushkenum), the aggressor did not lose an eye but instead paid the victim a fee in silver; he paid even less if the victim was a slave (wardum).

198. If he destroys the eye of a state dependent or breaks the bone of a state dependent, he shall pay one mina of silver. 199. If he destroys the eye of a man's slave or breaks a bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of his price.

The laws in the Code of Hammurabi, written in a conditional form, taking the form "If . . ., then . . .," later became standard for all Near Eastern precedent law (also known as case law or casuistic law). As mentioned, some of these laws may well have been actual royal judgments, but most were probably examples of what a royal decision should be. Hammurabi notes in his Prologue that his laws are aimed at helping the oppressed, poor, and weak. The proper administration of justice was apparently of some concern, as illustrated by the very first law of the Code:

1. If a man brings an accusation against another man, charging him with murder, but cannot prove it, the accuser shall be put to death.

The laws dealing with family and property are especially concerned with protecting women and children from arbitrary treatment, poverty, and neglect.

117. If a man is in debt and sells his wife, son, or daughter, or binds them over to service, for three years they shall work in the house of their purchaser or master; in the fourth year they shall be given their freedom.

Satisfactory performance of services by professionals were rewarded by standard fees, as demonstrated by the following examples.

215. If a physician operates on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and saves the man's life, or if he opens an abscess (in the eye) of a man with a bronze lancet and saves that man's eye, he shall receive ten shekels of silver. 228. If a builder builds a house for a man and completes it, he shall give him two shekels of silver per "sar" of house as his fee.

Unsatisfactory performance of services by professionals, however, could be met with severe punishment.

218. If a physician operates on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and causes the man's death, or opens an abscess (in the eye) of a man with a bronze lancet and destroys the man's eye, they shall cut off his hand. 229. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make his construction sound, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, the builder shall be put to death.

Hammurabi apparently meant for the stele containing the Code, and identical copies in either stone or clay, to be erected in public places where the general populace could read them. The Epilogue, which takes up the final paragraphs of the Code below the 282 laws, reads:

Let any oppressed man who has a cause come before my image as king of justice! Let him read the inscription on my monument! Let him give heed to my weighty words! And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause and may he understand his case! May he set his heart at ease!

Within the Epilogue, Hammurabi also instructs future kings to pay attention to his Code, but we cannot measure its actual influence for we have no later references to its use. However, Hammurabi's stated attempt to preserve a record of his reign and of his just rule was more successful than he could possibly have imagined, for numerous copies of the Code were found in the library of the seventh century b.c. Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, and his laws now serve as the introductory text for modern-day students learning the Akkadian language.

Parts of the subject matter of Hammurabi's Code coincide with the subject matter of the laws of Moses in the Bible, both the Ten Commandments and the following Covenant Code. In the Ten Commandments, for instance, we find: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" and in the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), we find: "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death" and "[Y]ou shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

It is generally agreed that the later inhabitants of Israel were undoubtedly influenced by those living in the region before them, namely the Canaanites, who in turn had been influenced by Babylonian cultural influences, including law. The similarities which exist between the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments/Covenant Code are likely the result of a combination of the above cultural influences and a common need to deal with similar social and economic problems according to customs which were widespread in the ancient Near East.


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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Hammurabi." DISCovering Biography, Gale, 2003. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2102100765