Hammurabi of Babylon

August 16, 2012

Today, Hammurabi is renowned for his Law Code inscribed on the Louvre stele recovered by French archaeologists at Susa in southwestern Iran in 1901-02. Originally set up in a Babylonian temple, the stele was taken to Susa as booty some 600 years after Hammurabi's reign by an Elamite invader. But as Dominique Charpin reminds us, although Hammurabi's Code was copied by scribes for over a millennium after his death, in antiquity his fame was eclipsed by that of other rulers, and he finds no mention in Herodotus.

Charpin's book was originally published in French in 2003. This translation is not the only recent English book on the subject: Marc Van De Mieroop's King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography appeared in the Blackwell Ancient Lives series in 2005. But there is room for both, and Charpin, a leading Assyriologist, is uniquely well placed thanks to his extensive experience of editing and interpreting the vast archives - about 20,000 cuneiform letters and documents - excavated in the royal palace at Mari by French archaeologists during the 1930s. Mari, a town on the River Euphrates in Syria, has produced numerous tablets bearing on the reign of Hammurabi (unlike his own capital, Babylon). The letters shed vital light on the political history of Hammurabi's era, especially the ever-shifting relations between rival polities.

The first section of the book charts the major political events of Hammurabi's long reign (1792-1750BC). His conquest and destruction of Mari (1761-1759BC) brought its palace archives to an abrupt end, and thus Hammurabi's last decade is rather poorly documented. For the non-specialist reader, this section will be the most challenging, thanks to the plethora of unfamiliar names of people and places, although the necessary aids - maps, a time chart and glossary - are provided. However, the book rewards perseverance, and the next two sections, on politics and administration, place Hammurabi's achievements in context by presenting a fascinating, lucid account of Old Babylonian society.

In the code's lengthy prologue, Hammurabi professed "to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak" - a kind of champion of the Babylonian 99 per cent. In this he was no innovator, but followed a long-standing ideological tradition that saw the Mesopotamian ruler as shepherd of his people. Kingship required dynastic affiliation, but was granted legitimacy by the gods. The challenge for the historian is to determine how far the written laws corresponded to the exercise of justice in daily life, and here Charpin excels. The "laws" are actually specific cases with prescribed outcomes, probably intended as a guide for local officials when adjudicating disputes. There was a clear burden of proof, and false allegations were severely punished. A letter written by Hammurabi's successor shows that the king, when ruling on specific lawsuits, formulated his verdicts in a generalising, anonymous manner that may reflect how the code itself came to be formed. Social justice entailed the setting of fair wages and prices: to consult a surgeon cost a rich man more than an ordinary citizen, who in turn paid more than a slave (whose owner footed the bill anyway). The remission of debts was one of the first acts of a new ruler, putting the brakes on increasing social inequality. A lesson for our times?

Hammurabi of Babylon

By Dominique Charpin. I.B. Tauris, 264pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781848857520. Published 30 April 2012

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