A Concise History of Mesopotamia (7): Old Babylonian period (1800-1600 BC)

From the political turmoil that marked the first two centuries of the second millennium BC emerged a strong dynasty, which managed to conquer a vast empire. The most prominent figure of this time was Hammurabi, who would be remembered throughout Babylonian history. Yet, the dynasty’s sudden rise to power under this ruler resulted in an as quick decline, and 150 years after Hammurabi, peoples from the west put an end to the famous First Dynasty of Babylon.

The First Dynasty of Babylon

dynastyAs in many other Mesopotamian cities at the time, Babylon came to be ruled by Amorites some time at the beginning of the second millennium BC. The early phase of Amorite rule remains in the dark, still we do know from later Babylonian tradition that Sumu-abum was considered to be the founding father of the dynasty. He did not, though, engender the rest of the dynasty’s rulers: his successor Sumu-la-El was not his son and is thus sometimes seen as the ‘real’ founding father.

It is only with the reign of Hammurabi that some clarity is provided by the sources. Unfortunately, barely any contemporary material from Babylon is available, because of the state of the archaeological site: the high level of ground water prevents any deep digging. Luckily, other sites have provided abundant material, for example Sippar, but also Mari on the northern Euphrates.

map hammu

When Hammurabi came to power, he reigned over a small state in northern Babylonia, including the cities of Borsippa, Sippar, Kish and Dilbat. At this instance, the ruler of Babylon was but a vazal of the much greater powers of Larsa (ruled by Rim-Sîn) and Assyria (under Shamshi-Addu I). However, around Hammurabi’s 30th regnal year, power relations shifted when he joined forces with Mari and defeated Rim-Sîn of Larsa. He now ruled the whole south of Mesopotamia and converted Babylon into the new political and religious capital of a growing empire, ideologically building on the tradition from Nippur. (This is very clear in for example cultic texts from which we have multiple versions, where a section about Babylon is added after the city became the capital of a large empire)

When this was accomplished, the Babylonian empire grew quickly with the seize of Eshnunna in the Diyala-region, after which Hammurabi turned against his former allies and conquered Assyria and Mari and took control of important northern trade routes in the Jezireh. Hammurabi’s persona proved to be a crucial factor for keeping the empire together. Already under his son Samsu-iluna the outer regions had to be given up and it seems that that was the trend during the rest of the dynasty’s rule: little by little the empire shrunk and grew weaker.

Samsu-ditana was the last ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. He stood powerless against the threat from the west in the form of Mursili I, king of Hatti. Mursili sacked Babylon in 1595 and retreated afterwards, creating a power vacuum that would be filled by yet another non-native people: the Kassites.

The Codex Hammurabi

hmmu.jpgPerhaps the most famous object of Mesopotamian civilization is the Codex Hammurabi stele, today to be found in the Louvre. The stele was excavated in Susa, a site in modern Iran, which might perhaps raise eyebrows. As I illustrated here, ancient objects can travel a long way before they end up in a specialist’s hands and the same is true for the Codex. Its original place was likely the temple of Shamash in Sippar, which was plundered in 1155 BC by Shutruk-nahhunte of Elam who brought the Codex and other objects back with him to his capital. But that episode of Mesopotamian history will have to wait for another time.

hammu2As its name states, the Codex Hammurabi is a collection of lawas, which was inscribed on multiple steles and placed in sanctuaries and/or public places throughout the empire. Aside from those, there are as well copies on cuneiform tablets from as late as the second half of the first millennium BC. The debate about the Codex’s function is still ongoing today. Some claim it was simply used to practice law, even though that would not have been very practical, since the laws are presented in a casuistic form. That means that instead of providing general rules to follow, the Codex gives very specific cases with very specific outcomes:

9. If a man, who has lost anything, find that which was lost in the possession of (another) man; and the man in whose possession the lost property is found say: “It was sold to me. I purchased it in the presence of witnesses:” and the owner of the lost property say: “I will bring witnesses to identify my lost property”: if the purchaser produce the seller who has sold it to him and the witnesses in whose presence he purchased it, and the owner of the lost property produce witnesses to identify his lost property, the judges shall consider their evidence. The witnesses in whose presence the purchase was made and the witnesses to identify the lost property shall give their testimony in the presence of god. The seller shall be put to death as a thief; the owner of the lost property shall recover his loss; the purchaser shall recover from the estate of the seller the money which he paid out.

The way in which the laws are phrased, is furthermore similar to that of other genres, most importantly of omina. Omina are collections of predictions based on certain phenomena that could be very real (the birth of a malformed child) or rather unrealistic (the birth of a lamb with multiple heads). The connection between law-giving and predicting the future remains controversial.

Then there are also those researchers who wish to consider the Codex as a piece of royal propaganda. For in the prologue and epilogue to the corpus of laws, the Codex portrays Hammurabi in a very favourable way.

Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared god, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak, so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.


Hammurabi in worshipper position before the sun god, Shamash. Top of the Stele.

Nonetheless, even though the Codex Hammurabi cannot serve straightforwardly as a source for jurisdiction in the Old Babylonian period, it does provide a lot of information about Babylonian society at that time. For example, the laws differentiate between three social groups: the awilu or free men, the wardum or slave (defined physically by a tattoo and/or hairstyle) and the mushkenu, an in-between class that is difficult to define in modern terms. Issues handled in the Codex concern family law (marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance), economic regulations (land tenure, medicine, prices and salaries, professions), possesions (theft and slaves) and criminal law (penalties).

In total there are 282 cases described, each of them giving a certain insight in social issues as we still know them today.

Further reading

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