Part II: Hammurabi!

28 Feb

As part of “The Mesopotamians” band he is the lead singer with sharply side-swept hair, one visible eye, and a ring in his lower lip. They Might Be Giants (TMBG) made him out to look part hipster, part emo, and at least to me, made his personality reminiscent of that of Ralph from The Lord of the Flies (LOF).

He is Hammurabi.

Clearly the picture above shows that Hammurabi was nothing like the lead singer of The Mesopotamians, but perhaps if Hammurabi lived today, he might just be a guy named Ralph who’s a natural leader, maybe a lawyer or a judge or a law professor, maybe even the president of a very wise nation, who leads by doing right even in the face of a not-so-right society, with hipster hair and the face of an emo accented with a lip ring. Who knows?

(I mean, I don’t even know if Hammurabi’s hairstyle in the video was just a way to camouflage his other eye, which he might have had to give for an eye? Are TMBG trying to tell us that Hammurabi was so just that he did not exempt even himself from the Lex Talionis?)

What we do know is that there’s only one Hammurabi, and he was like the new sheriff in town, or Ralph in LOF. He was really into keeping everyone civilized and under control.

He was a great military leader who transformed a small city-state into one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. He was also one heck of an administrator. It is even said that he personally oversaw navigation, irrigation, agriculture, tax collection, and the erection of many temples and other buildings in Mesopotamia, which left him super busy, I’m sure.

He even wrote about all the stuff he did in some 55 letters that were discovered, and the letters give a glimpse into what he had to deal with as the king of an eventual empire; on the side, Hammurabi had to deal with floods, making changes to the Babylonian Calendar and taking care of livestock.

Hammurabi built only the second extensive empire in Mesopotamia, and ruled it justly by first allowing the leaders of the city-states he’d conquered to continue to rule over their city-states. He in turn ruled over them with laws that were fair enough to keep his reign as the first king of the Babylonian Empire relatively peaceful.

Hammurabi was a generally peaceful guy. No blood was shed for his acquirement of the throne. Hammurabi succeeded his father to the throne of Babylon when it was still just a city-state around what scholars believe to be 1792 BC. This made him the sixth king of the city-state of Babylon, and nothing too special.

But then, around 1786 BC, Hammurabi began working, or dictating to scribes scribing over tablets that measured eight feet in height and seven feet in width, rather, on what we know today as the Code of Hammurabi. Most people have heard of this big deal thing for humanity, or know of Hammurabi through it, and it is what made Hammurabi one of the most recognized leaders of the ancient world, and the lead singer of The Mesopotamians. Not to mention pretty special.

Hammurabi’s Code

The most recognizable ancient artifact the world over has got to be the Code of Hammurabi stele on which 282 laws, or judgments, are written in Akkadian Cuneiform script. The stele has a bas relief at the top that depicts Hammurabi standing before the throne on which it is believed the sun-god Shamash (also the god of justice), or as some have speculated, even Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon, sits. It is this illustration that tells the story of how Hammurabi came to be the authority on what were dubbed the dinat mesarim or “just verdicts”.

Hammurabi’s Code dealt with every aspect of Mesopotamian life, from trade to incest, and it is where the Lex Talionis or “Law of Retaliation,” or the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” deal first appeared. The Code of Hammurabi also introduced the idea of the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, which gave the accused and accuser the opportunity to present evidence.

Hammurabi introduces the purpose of his laws, which are really more like judgements, in this way:

“To promote the welfare of the people, I, Hammurabi, the devout, god-fearing prince, cause justice to prevail in the land by destroying the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak.”

No doubt when we look at certain offenses and the corresponding punishments, Hammurabi’s judgments may seem severe by our standards, seeing as how the punishments varied from disfigurement (he really meant eye for an eye, guys!) to just plain old death:

“If anyone steals the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.”

And although Hammurabi introduces his Code as a tool that stops the strong from oppressing the weak, it still maintained the social classes:

“If a man strikes the cheek of a freeman who is superior in rank to himself, he shall be beaten with 60 stripes with a whip of ox-hide in the assembly.”

(A side note) My favorite lyric in the song “The Mesopotamians” that drives home further the brand of justice, or logic, Hammurabi implemented throughout his Code is this:

This is my last stick of gum/

I’m going to cut it up so everybody else gets some/

Except for Ashurbanipal, who says my haircut makes me look like a Mohenjo-Daroan.

On the Job

Over a span of some 42 years after he took the job of king, Hammurabi did his daddy proud, as he went from being the sixth king of a mere city-state, to the king of an empire he himself established by conquering other Mesopotamian warring city-states, including Sumer, Akkad and others to the south of Babylon around 1760 BC. He did this by knowing when to move in on his opponent, and when to stand back and strengthen not only his offense, but also his defense; he spent a lot of time heightening walls and improving fortifications of his cities, and continued to do so until the very end of his reign.

As a result of his smart strategies, Hammurabi was even bring Assyria under his empire, a strong opponent he had to wait and build strength to acquire, and even northern Syria. He built and kept his empire with his military prowess first, and diplomatic justice wielding persona second.

Although his reign was relatively peaceful, Hammurabi still had to fight wars, particularly in the last 14 years of his rule. The wars ranged from acquiring more city-states to his empire, including the city of Larsa, which helped him acquire older Sumerian cities in the south. In 1763 he fought to protect his empire’s access to metal-producing areas in Iran.

An Innovator and Humanitarian

Hammurabi was also an innovator and all-around improver. He built temples, dug canals and improved the irrigation process by implementing perhaps the world’s first use of windmills.

“King Hammurabi of Babylon used wind powered scoops to irrigate Mesopotamia.” (Source)

No doubt the improvement in irrigation kept city-states happy, and mostly peaceful, considering they were fighting each other for fertile agricultural land to begin with.

Hammurabi also promoted astronomy, mathematics and literature. I’m guessing he probably also promoted literacy, and I surmise this from the fact that his code of laws was put on public display for everyone to read.

He was really a humanitarian

The Legacy of Hammurabi

When Hammurabi died an old and sick man around 1750 BC, he left his empire to his son, and for humanity an eternal legacy.

Although the dates of his reign are questioned, they do seem to coincide with biblical accounts that give him a possible place in the Bible as Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah. The Ten Commandments and the justice system as a whole are also linked to Hammurabi and his Code.

Under Hammurabi’s rule, Mesopotamians enjoyed a time during which all sorts of amenities flourished, marking the Babylonian Empire as one with strong influences still seen today. When he died, no one was able to do what he did as well as he did, but it was going to be okay, because we’re still talking about him today and living by many laws he set in stone that continue to define our humanity.

Hammurabi on Supreme Court Frieze. (Source)


That’s a pretty great king, and a pretty great lead singer of a band like The Mesopotamians.

Sources and Further Reading:


Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Babylon, Kings


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Part II: Hammurabi!

  1. Apollodorosh

    February 28, 2012 at 8:31 am

    The depiction on the stela does definitely show the God Šamaš, recognisable by the curly lines coming from his shoulders, which is the depiction of sun rays. Also, this stela was not taken from Babylon itself, but from Sippar (I believe the Elamite King who plundered it, Šuttruk-Naḫḫunte, wrote that in an inscription on this stela), where it had been placed in the Šamaš-temple (Šamaš being that city’s patron deity).

    Note also that in the depiction on the stela Ḫammurābi is shown as being of equal size as the God Šamaš, yet because the latter is sitting on a throne of mountains (those scales are the depiction of mountains in Mesopotamian canon), he is actually bigger if he would stand. This is a temptative way of expressing Ḫammurābi being a divine being. Narām-Sîn of the Old-Akkadian Empire had been less subtle about it and therefore blamed for impiety and bringing down the wrath of the Gods on his Empire, thus letting it be destoyed by Gūtî invaders (even though in reality at least two more kings ruled over the extensive Old-Akkadian Empire). For this reason, Ḫammurābi chose to be somewhat more subtle.

    Furthermore it is true that most people living in city’s would have had some ability to read cuneiform, unlike what many people often assume about such ancient periods. If only a few people could then there woudln’t be much point in erecting such beautiful stelae…

    Another interesting thing to note is that his “laws” aren’t really laws so much as they are examples. they all go “if this has occurred, then that will be the consequence”. It leaves little room for judges and magistrates to actually work with because not every situation they’d encounter would have a “law” to tell them what to do.

    He was also of Amorite descent, and indeed his name itself may be explained either by what little we know of Amoritic, or by Akkadian. Or perhaps this ambiguity was deliberately chosen.


      February 29, 2012 at 7:02 am

      As always, thank you for your input. I did make a few slight changes to reflect the information you provided. I feel I should point out that I do mention that the laws aren’t exactly laws, but are judgments. I have now provided a link in the piece that takes readers to the source that explains how it is so.

      Also, the caption under the stele explains that the stele was taken out of Babylon by a Persian king, I just neglected to put what city it was taken to, which I have now added.

      Thanks again for your input and feedback, it is something that can only help us improve and become a more solid knowledge base. Thank you for continuing to read our content and give us invaluable feedback!

      • Apollodorosh

        February 29, 2012 at 8:24 am

        I’m sorry, but the stela was taken by the Elamite King Šuttruk-Naḫḫunte, during the 12th century BCE. I thought it was most commonly assumed it was taken from Sippar, but that is not universally accepted so it could also have been taken from Babylon itself. But I’m absolutely positive on who took it, and there were no Persians yet when that happened.

      • Apollodorosh

        February 29, 2012 at 8:30 am

        And the stela was unearthed in Susa, Iran, the capital of the Elamite Kingdom.


        March 2, 2012 at 5:24 am

        Thank you for your help in ensuring the information we provide is accurate. I’ve said this to someone else who has caught an inaccuracy, and that is that it’s hard to know what’s accurate sometimes, because the information varies from one source to another. Sometimes it’s so vague, it’s hard to tell what’s even being conveyed.

        Again, I thank you for your help and input, and as always, thank you for reading our blog.

  2. Sam

    August 1, 2012 at 1:51 am

    I just found your blog and would like to thank you for this amazing blog. You are doing a great job by sharing and preserving Mesopotamia history.


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