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Hammurabi, Sixth King of Babylon

November 16, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Famous for the Code of Hammurabi, a symbol of the Mesopotamian civilization, Hammurabi was a Babylonian king and the sixth ruler of the Amorite dynasty. He is revered today as one of the great rulers and lawgivers of ancient times.

Hammurabi’s Early Life

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Hammurabi (also spelled Hammurapi) was a member of the Amorite tribe, a Semitic group of people who lived in Mesopotamia, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Very little information exists about his early life and immediate family. His father was named Sin-muballit, his sister was Iltani and his firstborn son was Samsuiluna.

The origin of Hammurabi’s name isn’t distinctly Babylonian and remains a bit of a mystery, the Catholic Encyclopedia explains. Some scribes have translated it as “Kimta-rapaashtum,” meaning “great family” in the South Arabian dialect. Many scholars agree that Hammurabi’s dynasty was of Arabic or Aramean origin, originating in the “land of Amurru.”

Hammurabi as King of Babylon

In 1792 B.C., Hammurabi succeeded his father and became ruler of Babylon, about 55 miles south of present-day Baghdad. At this time, the various cities in the area were independently governed. The young king spent the first years of his reign unifying the city-states of Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

He forged an alliance with Rim-Sin, king of Larsa, and defeated the Elamites in the east. Later, he turned against Rim-Sin and took control of the south. Next, he conquered the kingdom of Mari; Eshnunna and Assyria soon followed. He controlled trade routes in the west and became “the leading power in western Asia.”

But Hammurabi’s military exploits weren’t the only successes that marked his reign. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “what has won for him a well-deserved prominent place among the rulers of kingdoms is that to his military achievements he joined the wisdom of a consummate statesman in the government of his vast domains.”

Hammurabi made great improvements to the city of Babylon: He built and repaired temples and public buildings, constructed roads on an efficient grid system and built a canal between Kish, a city south of Babylon, and the Persian Gulf. “It is difficult to believe that all of these engineering feats took place 3700 years ago!” Awesome Stories reports.

Letters he wrote to his officials reveal that Hammurabi was a hands-on leader who chose to supervise all aspects of his government himself. In order to unify all people under his reign, he issued the Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws that applied to everyone in the Babylonian Empire.

The code, carved into a black diorite column or stele, contained more than 3,500 lines of cuneiform, an ancient script. Originally outlining 282 laws, the Code dealt with debt, trading, marriage, slavery, punishments and wages. The Avalon Project of Yale Law School offers a translation of the Code of Hammurabi with commentary.

Hammurabi died in 1750 B.C. He had failed to establish a strong bureaucracy that could rule without him, and his empire became weak. As a result, Babylon was ransacked by the Elamites in the 12th century. According to Awesome Stories, the Elamites took the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi to Susa, their capital.

Hammurabi’s Legacy

In 1901, an archeology team lead by Jean-Vincent Scheil found the stele in Susa (present-day Shush, Iran). The stele was broken in three pieces. Scheil had the stele taken to Paris where it was restored and added to the Louvre Museum’s collection. According to the Louvre, the stele “is a work of art, history and literature, and the most complete legal compendium of Antiquity, dating back to earlier than the Biblical laws.”

Hammurabi also inspired a work of art. Over the gallery doors of the U.S. House of Representatives Chamber, a marble disc bearing his likeness is on display. The disc is among 23 marble relief portraits that “depict historical figures noted for their work in establishing the principles that underlie American law.” Hammurabi was chosen because the Code of Hammurabi “is recognized in legal literature as one of the earliest surviving legal codes.”

Hammurabi also inspired a computer game. According to its Web site, the game is a “classic game of strategy and resource allocation,” and one of the earliest computer games. Play the game for free online, and figure out how to govern ancient Sumeria.
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