Tag: Hammurabi

An Introduction To Sumerian History

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During the 5th millennium BC a people known as the Ubaidians established settlements in the region known later as Sumer; these settlements gradually developed into the chief Sumerian cities, namely Adab, Eridu, Isin, Kish, Kullab, Lagash, Larsa, Nippur, and Ur. Several centuries later, as the Ubaidian settlers prospered, Semites from Syrian and Arabian deserts began to infiltrate, both as peaceful immigrants and as raiders in quest of booty. After about 3250 BC, another people migrated from its homeland, located probably northeast of Mesopotamia, and began to intermarry with the native population. The newcomers, who became known as Sumerians, spoke an agglutinative language unrelated apparently to any other known language.

In the centuries that followed the immigration of the Sumerians, the country grew rich and powerful. Art and architecture, crafts, and religious and ethical thought flourished. The Sumerian language became the prevailing speech of the land, and the people here developed the cuneiform script, a system of writing on clay. This script was to become the basic means of written communication throughout the Middle East for about 2000 years.

The first Sumerian ruler of historical record, Etana, king of Kish (flourished about 2800 BC), was described in a document written centuries later as the “man who stabilized all the lands.” Shortly after his reign ended, a king named Meskiaggasher founded a rival dynasty at Erech (Uruk), far to the south of Kish. Meskiaggasher, who won control of the region extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Zagros Mountains, was succeeded by his son Enmerkar (flourished about 2750 BC). The latter’s reign was notable for an expedition against Aratta, a city-state far to the northeast of Mesopotamia. Enmerkar was succeeded by Lugalbanda, one of his military leaders. The exploits and conquests of Enmerkar and Lugalbanda form the subject of a cycle of epic tales constituting the most important source of information on early Sumerian history.

At the end of Lugalbanda’s reign, Enmebaragesi (flourished about 2700 BC), a king of the Etana dynasty at Kish, became the leading ruler of Sumer. His outstanding achievements included a victory over the country of Elam and the construction at Nippur of the Temple of Enlil, the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon. Nippur gradually became the spiritual and cultural center of Sumer.

Enmebaragesi’s son Agga (probably died before 2650 BC), the last ruler of the Etana dynasty, was defeated by Mesanepada, king of Ur (fl. about 2670 BC), who founded the so-called 1st Dynasty of Ur and made Ur the capital of Sumer. Soon after the death of Mesanepada, the city of Erech achieved a position of political prominence under the leadership of Gilgamesh (flourished about 2700-2650 BC), whose deeds are celebrated in stories and legends.

Painting of Sumerian people bringing a gilded statue to their temple.

Sometime before the 25th century bc the Sumerian Empire, under the leadership of Lugalanemundu of Adab (flourished about 2525-2500 BC), was extended from the Zagros to the Taurus mountains and from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequently the empire was ruled by Mesilim (fl. about 2500 BC), king of Kish. By the end of his reign, Sumer had begun to decline. The Sumerian city-states engaged in constant internecine struggle, exhausting their military resources. Eannatum (fl. about 2425 BC), one of the rulers of Lagash, succeeded in extending his rule throughout Sumer and some of the neighboring lands. His success, however, was short-lived. The last of his successors, Uruinimgina (fl. about 2365 BC), who was noteworthy for instituting many social reforms, was defeated by Lugalzagesi (reigned about 2370-2347 BC), the governor of the neighboring city-state of Umma. Thereafter, for about 20 years, Lugalzagesi was the most powerful ruler in the Middle East.

By the 23rd century bc the power of the Sumerians had declined to such an extent that they could no longer defend themselves against foreign invasion. The Semitic ruler Sargon I (reigned about 2335-2279 BC), called The Great, succeeded in conquering the entire country. Sargon founded a new capital, called Agade, in the far north of Sumer and made it the richest and most powerful city in the world. The people of northern Sumer and the conquering invaders, fusing gradually, became known ethnically and linguistically as Akkadians. The land of Sumer acquired the composite name Sumer and Akkad.

The Akkadian dynasty lasted about a century. During the reign of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin (r. about 2255-2218 BC), the Gutians, a belligerent people from the Zagros Mountains, sacked and destroyed the city of Agade. They then subjugated and laid waste the whole of Sumer. After several generations the Sumerians threw off the Gutian yoke. The city of Lagash again achieved prominence, particularly during the reign of Gudea (circa 2144-2124 BC), an extraordinarily pious and capable governor. Because numerous statues of Gudea have been recovered, he has become the Sumerian best known to the modern world. The Sumerians achieved complete independence from the Gutians when Utuhegal, king of Erech (reigned about 2120-2112 BC), won a decisive victory later celebrated in Sumerian literature.

One of Utuhegal’s generals, Ur-Nammu (r. 2113-2095 BC), founded the 3rd Dynasty of Ur. In addition to being a successful military leader, he was also a social reformer and the originator of a law code that antedates that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi by about three centuries (see Hammurabi, Code of). Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi (r. 2095-2047 BC) was a successful soldier, a skillful diplomat, and a patron of literature. During his reign the schools and academies of the kingdom flourished.

Before the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC the Amorites, Semitic nomads from the desert to the west of Sumer and Akkad, invaded the kingdom. They gradually became masters of such important cities as Isin and Larsa. The resultant widespread political disorder and confusion encouraged the Elamites to attack (circa 2004 BC) Ur and to take into captivity its last ruler, Ibbi-Sin (r. 2029-2004 BC).

During the centuries following the fall of Ur bitter intercity struggle for the control of Sumer and Akkad occurred, first between Isin and Larsa and later between Larsa and Babylon. Hammurabi of Babylon defeated Rim-Sin of Larsa (r. about 1823-1763 BC) and became the sole ruler of Sumer and Akkad. This date probably marks the end of the Sumerian state. Sumerian civilization, however, was adopted almost in its entirety by Babylonia.

The code of Hammurabi

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Hammurabi standing infront of Shamash

The Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (reign 1792-1750 B.C.). The code governed the people living in his fast-growing empire. By the time of Hammurabi’s death, his empire included much of modern-day Iraq, extending up from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There are as many as 300 lows that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices, and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer.

The code is best known from a stele made of black diorite, more than seven feet (2.25 meters) tall, that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran, by excavators who were led by Jacques de Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century. Scholars believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century B.C. by an Elamite ruler who subsequently erased a portion of it in preparation for creating an inscription of his own.

Originally, Hammurabi would have displayed the stele at the site of Sippar, in modern-day Iraq, likely in a prominent temple. In ancient times, Sippar was the home of the sun god Shamash, and the top of the stele shows an image of Hammurabi before this god, with rays coming from Shamash’s shoulders. Scholars widely believe that other, now lost, steles would have existed in other cities in Babylon that were controlled by Hammurabi.

After Hammurabi’s death, his system of laws became something of a classic in the ancient world, and scholars have found examples of them written on tablets, which were copied as late as the 5th century B.C., more than a millennium after Hammurabi’s death.

The term “Code” of Hammurabi is a modern one, so named after the 19th-century “Code Napoleon.” Scholars today debate the meaning behind the stele that is now in the Louvre and whether the rules Hammurabi enacted truly represent a full law code.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Hammurabi himself states in the prologue to his laws that his right to make them was one given by the gods themselves.

“Anu and Enlil ordained Hammurabi, a devout prince who fears the gods, to demonstrate justice within the land, to destroy evil and wickedness, to stop the mighty exploiting the weak, to rise like Shamash over the mass of humanity, illuminating the land …” (Translation from “The New Complete Code of Hammurabi,” by H. Dieter Viel, University Press of America, 2012)

Each law consists of a potential case followed by a prescribed verdict. The verdicts could be very harsh indeed, and Columbia University professor Marc van de Mieroop notes in his book “King Hammurabi of Babylon” (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) that the death penalty is listed as punishment no fewer than 30 times. It was the punishment given even for “the theft of temple or palace property or when a runaway slave is given refuge,” van de Mieroop writes.

Furthermore, the punishments ordered were by no means uniform but rather depended on the social status of the accused and the accuser. The punishments were only “eye for an eye” if the two individuals involved were socially equal.

For instance, van de Mieroop notes that if a member of the elite blinded a commoner or broke the commoner’s bone, that elite person had to pay one pound of silver as penalty. On the other hand, if a person struck someone who was of a higher social status, then that person can expect severe punishment:

“If a member of the elite strike the cheek of a member of the elite who is of a higher social status than him, he shall be flogged in public with 60 strikes of an ox-whip,” reads one law (translation from van de Mieroop’s book).

Women could not necessarily expect equal treatment either. One law reads, “if a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of some male but she has not been caught copulating with another male, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband,” (translation by H. Dieter Viel).

On the other hand a woman could, depending on the circumstances, get an inheritance. There were laws protecting a woman in the event that her husband was taken captive in war and had to live with another man when her food ran out. There were also laws that governed the support a temple-woman should receive from her brothers after her father had died.

In the laws, it is clear that not only is there a burden on the accused but also on the accuser should they be unable to prove their case.

For instance, the penalty for homicide states that “if a man has made allegations against another man, and he has laid a charge of homicide against him but is unable to substantiate his guilt, the one who made the allegations against him shall be killed.” (Translation by H. Dieter Viel)

Judges were also held to a certain standard in the laws. Hammurabi ruled a vast empire and would not have been able to rule on every case himself. Van de Mieroop notes that in the king’s absence, a committee of men from the communities involved could act as a judge in Hammurabi’s place.

The penalties for a judge trying to change a sealed verdict was severe, “he shall pay 12 times the amount of the loss which had occasioned the trial,” reads the law in question.

Hammurabi was not the first ruler in the Middle East to write down laws. Dominique Charpin, a professor at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, writes in his book “Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia” (University of Chicago Press, 2010) that scholars know of the existence of three law codes, set down by kings, that preceded Hammurabi.

The oldest was written by Ur-Nammu, a king of Ur, who reigned 2111-2094 B.C., about three centuries before Hammurabi. “These older codes obviously inspired that of Hammurabi,” Charpin writes.

In addition, Hammurabi would probably have drawn on his own personal experiences in putting together his laws, basing them in part on past cases that he had ruled on.

Scholars have noted problems in reading Hammurabi’s laws as a full law code in the modern sense. For instance, van de Mieroop notes that the code does not cover every dispute that could have arisen and contains inconsistencies.

“One law demands the death penalty when something is accepted for safekeeping without a proper document, because the recipient is a thief,” van de Mieroop writes. On the other hand, a related law simply states that “if a man gives goods for safekeeping without witnesses or a contract and they deny that he gave it, that case has no basis for a claim.”

Van de Mieroop also notes that “in the extensive documentation of court cases judged in Hammurabi’s reign and afterwards there is no reference to a collection of laws that was the basis for a decision.”

Another problem that researchers face is what was the purpose of the stele, now in the Louvre, that originally would have been displayed at Sippar? Charpin notes that, even if one could read, the stele would be difficult to use as a reference to look up a law.

Van de Mieroop writes that the answer to this mystery appears to lie in the stele’s epilogue, a section of writing after the laws were given. In it Hammurabi makes two main points, one is that anyone in his kingdom could come to the statue, see (or hear) the words on it and “understand his problem, and may he be content in his heart.” In other words it was a monument to the king’s sense of justice and a way to make his subjects feel better when they felt they had been wronged.

The second point the epilogue makes is that the kings who succeed Hammurabi should not change or disregard these laws or try to alter the identity of the person who made them.

If any future ruler does try this Hammurabi puts a lengthy curse on them. “Anu, the father of the gods, the one who designated me to rule, will surely remove from him the splendour of sovereignty, whether that man is a king or a lord or a governor or a person appointed to some other function, and he will smash his staff and curse his destiny…” part of Hammurabi’s curse reads (translation by H. Dieter Viel). In other words the stele was also a monument stating that Hammurabi’s sense of justice should rule over the land forever.